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The Marvelous Mighty Monarch

Sep 03, 2018

The monarch butterflies you see in the fall in Missouri are long distance travelers, biologically and behaviorally adapted to make the long flight to the same mountain forest in Mexico where their ancestors spent the winter.

Monarchs are the only butterfly known to migrate long distance and roundtrip. It takes four generations to complete the journey and this fourth generation will live the longest and travel the whole distance to Mexico. They will neither mate nor lay eggs until their spring return, conserving their strength for the more than 2,000 mile flight. The monarchs' innate ability to integrate the time of day and the sun's location in the sky is a modern navigation marvel. Their large complex eyes monitor the sun's position in the sky and their internal clock is centered in the antennae. Eyes and antennae send information to the brain. Scientists and engineers at Michigan and Massachusetts universities believe they are close to cracking how this information is processed by monarchs travelling to the same destination year after year.

Monarchs will stop to fuel up on nectar along the way to last through winter. They will ride air currents to conserve energy. In the spring, they begin the journey back north through successive generations. This return trip requires milkweed plants. These are the only plants where monarchs will lay their eggs and hatching caterpillars will feed. Their children’s grandchildren, the fourth generation, will make the return trip the following fall.

Help Solve the Monarch's Mighty Problem:

The monarch migration is a natural wonder, yet their numbers are in serious decline from weather events, habitat loss and other factors. You can help by planting native milkweed plants and other nectar sources in backyards or back forties, at schools, businesses, parks, roadsides and other open places.

  • A truly effective Monarch habitat will be at least 100 square feet.
  • Monarch plants need lots of sun; therefore, Monarch habitats need to be located in an area that receives at least six hours of sun a day.
  • Milkweeds and nectar plants will do best in relatively light (low-clay) soils. Good drainage is needed to avoid root rot and provide good aeration of the roots.
  • To assure that the maximum number of monarchs survive in your habitat, the plants should be relatively close together. However, they should not be crowded.
  • All monarch life stages need shelter from predators and the elements. Planting milkweeds and nectar plants close together contributes to this shelter for monarchs and other wildlife.
  • To maximize the utilization of your habitat by monarchs, it is desirable to include a number of milkweed species, which will increase the likelihood that monarchs will utilize your property for a longer period during the breeding season.
  • A Monarch habitat should contain at least 4 biennial or perennial native plants that provide nectar for butterflies.

For more on making a Monarch habitat, visit MDC’s website.


Monarch Butterfly and Chrysalis
Monarch Butterfly and Chrysalis
Monarch Butterfly and one on the way in chrysalis

Monarch Story

A Monarch Story
A Monarch Story

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