Butterflies are free, to move about the country

Great mysteries of science, history and spirit call to us:  How do the monarch butterflies do it?

Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) fly north from their enclave in Mexico every spring, stopping to lay eggs on milkweed plants.  After a migration of several hundred miles, that first group that left Mexico dies off.  Their offspring hatch in a few days, devour the milkweed, make a chrysalis, metamorphose into butterflies, then fly farther north, where they repeat their parents’ behavior:  Lay some eggs, and die.  Within three generations, they’ve spread north into Canada.

Kathryn's butterfly plantings, October 2010 - photo by Ed Darrell

Inviting the monarchs in: You can see how Kathryn worked to attract butterflies. In this photo, you can see the butterfly weed (a milkweed), red Turk's cap, and blue ageratum especially for the monarchs.

Then the fourth generation does something so strange and wonderful people can’t stop talking about it:  They fly back to Mexico, to the same trees their great-great-great grandparents left.  There they sip some nectar, get some water, and spend a lot of time hanging in great globs, huddling over the winter, to start life for generations of monarch butterflies the next spring.

Sometimes in Texas in October, we can see clouds of monarch butterflies winging south.  If we’re lucky, they stop to visit our backyards and gardens, and we might provide some water and nectar to urge them homeward.  Kathryn, of course, plants the stuff the monarchs like, to help them, and to give us a chance to see them.

Monarch habitat in Mexico is under severe stress and threat.  Late storms and early freezes decimated monarch populations over the last decade [yes, that’s the proper use of “decimated;” look it up].  Human plantings are more critical to the monarch butterflies than ever before.

Two years ago Kathryn and I spent a September morning outside the library at Lawrence University, in Appleton, Wisconsin, watching monarchs sip nectar from local flowers for their journey.  Those same butterflies — we hope — passed through Texas a couple of weeks later.

Two weeks ago . . . well, see for yourself:

Monarch butterfly on blue porterweed, Dallas, TX October 2010 - photo by Ed Darrell IMGP5343

A monarch butterfly feeds on blue porterweed in Kathryn's garden, October 2010 - photo by Ed Darrell

Monarch butterfly on blue porterweed, Dallas, October 20101 - photo by Ed Darrell IMGP5347

. . . we're here with the camera, little guy, just open up those wings, please . . .

Monarch  butterfly on blue porterweed, Dallas, Texas October 2010 - photo by Ed Darrell IMGP5345

That's it! Beautiful! Have a safe trip, and come back next spring, will you?

Resources, more:

Conoclinium coelestinum


12 Responses to Butterflies are free, to move about the country

  1. […] Butterflies are free, to The seasonal Changes Bring Bird Feeder Trade Offs says: […]


  2. Ed Darrell says:

    The fourth generation of monarchs migrate from as far away as Canada to Mexico — obviously, they can fly a couple thousand miles.


  3. AnnyDott says:

    This is interesting. I wonder how much can a butterfly fly. Because butterflies don’t have a long life and I guess they can move to different places which are not that far.


  4. […] Butterflies are free, to move about the country « Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub […]


  5. SEO says:

    Your site is very interesting site. I am impressed with the site and the information that you offer many thanks.


  6. Ed Darrell says:

    “Decimate” means to take out every tenth member of a population. That’s a good description of what’s happened in each year of most of the past decade or so (but not every year).


  7. j a higginbotham says:

    Ya got me here. In what sense is “decimate” being used? In common parlance, it means to destroy most of. I learned it as officially meaning get rid of 1 in 10, but even then this usage was uncommon. I’m assuming it is here used in the former sense but the reference to the “proper” use has thrown me. I would guess yearly populations regularly fluctuate by more than 10%.



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  9. […] This post is reprinted and edited with permission from Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub. […]


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