Migration and Overwintering
The annual migration of North America’s monarch butterfly is a unique and amazing phenomenon. The monarch is the only butterfly known to make a two-way migration as birds do. Unlike other butterflies that can overwinter as larvae, pupae, or even as adults in some species, monarchs cannot survive the cold winters of northern climates. Using environmental cues, the monarchs know when it is time to travel south for the winter. Monarchs use a combination of air currents and thermals to travel long distances. Some fly as far as 3,000 miles to reach their winter home!
Where Do Monarchs Go?
Monarchs in Eastern North America have a second home in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico. Monarchs in Western North America overwinter in California.
Eastern North American Population
Overwintering in Mexico
The eastern population of North America’s monarchs overwinters in the same 11 to 12 mountain areas in the States of Mexico and Michoacan from October to late March.
Monarchs roost for the winter in oyamel fir forests at an elevation of 2,400 to 3,600 meters (nearly 2 miles above sea level). The mountain hillsides of oyamel forest provide an ideal microclimate for the butterflies. Here temperatures range from 0 to 15 degrees Celsius. If the temperature is lower, the monarchs will be forced to use their fat reserves. The humidity in the oyamel forest assures the monarchs won’t dry out allowing them to conserve their energy.
Researchers are still investigating what directional aids monarchs use to find their overwintering location. It appears to be a combination of directional aids such as the magnetic pull of the earth and the position of the sun among others, not one in particular.
Clustering in Colonies
Monarchs cluster together to stay warm. Tens of thousands of monarchs can cluster on a single tree. Although monarchs alone weigh less than a gram, tens of thousands of them weigh a lot. Oyamel trees are generally able to support the clustering butterflies, but sometimes branches break.
Protection of Oyamel Forest
Conservation of overwintering habitat is very important to the survival of monarchs. The Mexican Government recognized the importance of oyamel forests to monarch butterflies and created the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in 1986.
Monarchs can travel between 50-100 miles a day; it can take up to two months to complete their journey. The farthest ranging monarch butterfly recorded traveled 265 miles in one day.
Monarch butterflies are called Mariposa monarca in Mexico.
Western North American Population
Monarchs living west of the Rocky Mountain range in North America overwinter in California along the Pacific coast near Santa Cruz and San Diego. Here microclimatic conditions are very similar to that in central Mexico. Monarchs roost in eucalyptus, Monterey pines, and Monterey cypresses in California.
Stories of Biodiversity on the Move, Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus)
A Google Earth Tour is posted on YouTube describing the migration of monarch butterflies, and the people that help them out along the way. It was produced by Atlantic Public Media in cooperation with the Encyclopedia of Life. Producers: Eduardo Garcia-Milagros and Ari Daniel Shapiro.
Eastern North American monarchs fly south using several flyways then merge into a single flyway in Central Texas. It is truly amazing that these monarchs know the way to the overwintering sites even though this migrating generation has never before been to Mexico!
Monarchs only travel during the day and need to find a roost at night. Monarchs gather close together during the cool autumn evenings. Roost sites are important to the monarch migration. Many of these locations are used year after year. Often pine, fir and cedar trees are chosen for roosting. These trees have thick canopies that moderate the temperature and humidity at the roost site. In the mornings, monarchs bask in the sunlight to warm themselves.
Use of Peninsulas
Monarchs traveling south congregate on peninsulas. The shape of the peninsula funnels the migrating butterflies. At its tip, the monarchs find the shortest distance across open water. They congregate along the shore to wait for a gentle breeze to help them across.
As warm temperatures and lengthening days arrive, the migratory generation of monarchs finishes the development they halted prior to their migration. They become reproductive, breed and lay the eggs of the new generation. This starts the northern journey back to North America. Unlike the generation before them, who made a one-generation journey south, successive generations make the journey north.
Generation 1 monarchs are the offspring of the monarchs who overwintered in Mexico. Each successive generation travels farther north. It will take 3-4 generations to reach the northern United States and Canada.
For More Information
The northern migration is tracked by an organization called Journey North. You can help track the migration of the monarch butterfly by visiting this site.
The Western Monarch Milkweed Mapper project is part of a collaborative effort to map and better understand monarch butterflies and their host plants across the Western U.S. Data compiled through this project will improve our understanding of the distribution and phenology of monarchs and milkweeds, identify important breeding areas, and help us better understand monarch conservation needs.
You can learn more about a project to track the southern migration at Papalotzin, The Journey of the Monarch Butterfly.
The Monarch Highway Poster
The landscape that parallels roadways, like the I-35 corridor, can provide natural habitat to support the annual migration of the monarch butterfly. The Pollinator Partnership, including a number of state, local and federal government agencies, corporations, and organizations collaborating and supporting pollinators and conservation of their habitat developed this poster to celebrate the monarch butterfly.
The I-35 corridor follows Interstate 35 through six states from Minnesota south to Texas, following the central flyway of monarch migration. In 2016, these states signed a memorandum of understanding that informally named I-35 the “Monarch Highway” and agreed to implement coordinated management practices along the corridor that benefit monarchs and other pollinators.