There are only two populations of monarch butterflies in the world. With their distinct orange, black, and white wings, monarchs are easy to identify. Their wings act as a warning to other animals, reminding them that the butterfly is foul tasting and poisonous. The poison protects monarchs from predators like lizards, birds, and frogs.
To find out the gender of a monarch, look for a black spot at the center of its hind wing. Males have the spot while females do not. The butterflies communicate with scents and colors. Monarchs have an excellent perception of colors and can even see UV light that humans can’t.
Monarchs are well known for their long, 3,000 mile migrations from Canada to Mexico. Historically, billions of monarchs have made this trip by travelling 50-100 miles a day and it can take up to 2 months to complete their journey. Monarchs have always played an important role in pollination along the way. When finally arriving in Mexico, tens of thousands of monarchs roost in a single tree.
Monarchs act as a strong indicator species due to their wide range. If they are unable to survive their journey across the continent, it is likely a sign of poor environmental health that affects all pollinators. Monarchs have value as pollinators and as a pleasant insect, but their greatest value is as an indication of health and habitat. Their widespread range and public awareness helps them serve as a rallying point for pollinator conservation efforts.
However, monarch numbers have fallen dramatically in recent years. One threat is the loss of the butterflies' primary food source during the larval stage, milkweed. Monarchs exclusively lay their eggs on milkweed, and it is the only food source for monarch larvae. People commonly cut down or use pesticides on milkweed because they do not realize its value. It is crucial that people recognize the significant role milkweed plays in monarch’s survival.
Climate change has also affected monarch butterflies in a negative way. Wetter and colder winters are predicted for the future. When a similarly wet and cold winter occurred in 2002, 70-80% of the monarchs in the two largest overwintering sites died. Monarchs can survive below freezing temperatures if dry, but when wet, the butterflies' body temperatures drop rapidly, causing them to freeze to death. A body temperature below 86 degrees Farenheit prohibits the butterflies from flying to warmer climates.
Variations in climate patterns haved created additional obstacles for monarchs by altering when and where nectar-producing plants bloom. Monarchs rely on the availability of food sources during their long migration to Mexico as well as during their breeding season in the U.S. and Canada. Periods of drought, extremely cold winters, unusually cool springs/summers, etc., all contribute to bloom times that are out of sync with the butterflies' arrival.
Another threat is the degradation of overwintering sites. Illegal logging in Mexico has caused monarchs to look for new habitats after their 3,000 mile journey. Overwintering sites are limited to just 12 mountains in Mexico, and between 1986 and 2006, over 25,000 acres of forest were lost. The Mexican government has since monitored illegal logging more closely, and deforestation has decreased significantly in recent years. Housing developments in California have also reduced monarch overwintering sites.
Encourage your mayor to sign the Mayor's Monarch Pledge. Currently, IWF has garnered the support of 12 cities and municipalities for the Mayor's Monarch Pledge. This pledge commits these areas to supporting monarch habitat and health, in support of all pollinators. Through theese efforts, there has been increased education surrounding monarch health. You can contact your mayor and encourage them to sign the pledge as well. As cities across the state sign on, a greater network will be built, providing monarchs greater opportunities to propogate and migrate through Indiana.
Avoid the use of systemic pesticides such as neonicotinoids. If possible, use organic alternatives to pesticides and herbicides and only use them as directed. Most importantly, plant milkweed and other nectar-producing native plants! Providing monarchs with their essential food sources as well as places to shelter and lay eggs is critical. Be sure to place the plants in sunny areas where the butterflies can feed and also warm themselves to keep up their energy reserves. Lastly, enjoy having your yard filled with beautiful monarchs and share the story with your friends, family, and neighbors so they can join in too! Watch this monarch conservation webinar series for more information on how to help.
Gather your friends and family for a tagging party!
Tiny paper tags applied to adult monarchs help biologists track their migration and changes in the population. Visit MonarchWatch.org to learn why YOU are so important to conserving this iconic butterfly and to get your tagging kit. In 2015, IWF successfully held a monarch tagging event where we tagged 13 monarchs on their way down to Mexico!
Host a monarch education workshop in your community. Local gardening expert, Myrene Brown, offers "Celebrate the Monarch," a specialized workshop focusing on monarch biology and habitat requirements. You can request a presentation by contacting her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Fees apply.
Not sure which nectar plants to use? Purchase one of our native plants kits with species pre-selected for Pollinators and Birds & Butterflies.