Butterflies are one of the most intriguing winged creatures. Flitting around from flower to flower, bringing a little bit of joy to adults and children alike.
Certain areas in the United States are seeing a large number of monarchs during the late summer to early fall season. This is due to their long migration south to Mexico.
Northwest Iowa happens to be one of the stops along the migration route and if you are fortunate you may have witnessed groups or “kaleidoscopes” of butterflies fluttering near their favorite flowers or roosting in large groups in trees. “The peak in this area to see monarchs migrating is Labor Day weekend,” says Emily Ostrander, Lyon County Naturalist, although you still may see some monarchs passing through.
Monarch butterflies will migrate to oyamel fir trees in Mexico and California to the eucalyptus trees during the late summer and early fall to spend the winter months in a hibernation state, explained Ostrander. During this trip the monarch will feed as much as possible on nectar and fruit juices. The 3,000-mile trip is long and difficult for monarchs and when the winter is over the monarchs make the 3,000-mile trip again back north to lay eggs on milkweed plants. “It’s pretty amazing that these small little things fly that far,” Ostrander says. Flying takes a toll on the butterflies and that is evident by their appearance after the long flight. “Their wings are so tattered by the time they get to Mexico.”
According to Ostrander, the same butterfly that starts out as a larva on a milkweed plant will not be the same butterfly taking shelter in overwintering areas. The subsequent generations will continue the journey to warmer temperatures and back again to their summer homes. “Relatives land on the same tree, down to the same branch,” Ostrander explained. No one knows how the butterflies know where to gobut according to Ostrander, “They always know how to get back to where they came from.”
Monarch populations have decreased significantly over the years. According to the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, since 1990 a billion butterflies have vanished. Experts have several reasons why the monarchs are disappearing.
Ostrander explains that monarch butterflies lay eggs on milkweed plants and feed only on milkweed plants as larva. This is the only food source monarch larva will feed on and protects the butterfly from predators since the ingested milkweed acts as a poison. Without milkweed the monarchs have no place to lay eggs and this habitat has been decreasing. “Milkweed is considered a weed by most people and often treated with pesticides,” says Ostrander, which has led in part to the decrease in monarch butterflies. Ostrander reports that there are other factors contributing to the decrease including the logging of the oyamel fir trees in Mexico, leaving less area for overwintering.
Ostrander has participated in monarch tagging programs in the Lyon County area. “I usually start tagging the day after Labor Day and tag up until October.” Specially designed stickers are attached to the wing and the tagging information is recorded when the butterflies reach the final destination.
There are several ways to get involved in the monarch migration and help increase monarch populations, including taking part in tagging programs. “There are free programs to start your own butterfly gardens,” Ostrander says. Adding further, “If you have milkweed, let it grow.” Individuals like Ostrander are helping by educating the public about the amazing life of the monarch butterfly.
“Monarch butterflies have the biggest migration of butterflies,” said Ostrander. But they aren’t the only butterflies to migrate. “Painted lady butterflies are extraordinary this year,” she said, “surpassing the number of monarch sightings so far.”