Monarch Musings


Sandy Creek Park is a certified waystation for Monarch butterflies as they migrate throughout North America. This unique Durham park features milkweed, nectar sources and shelter that help sustain Monarchs throughout their migration. In celebration of the Monarchs, the Durham Monarch Festival will feature music, family friendly activities & food. Experts will be giving talks about Monarch biology, ecology, and conservation and pollinator friendly plants will be available for purchase.


I have been watching a few small patches of milkweed for monarchs. In the past week, I saw as many as 10 caterpillars feeding on the plants. Recently, the numbers have been fewer, but I have located a couple of chrysalides.

Monarch Caterpillar on Milkweed Photo: Ann Barnes

This morning, as I was tending the garden located inside this fenced enclosure, I saw a monarch caterpillar attached to the fence in the “J-Shape”. This is characteristic of a caterpillar that is ready to pupate. Butterflies do not spin cocoons; instead, a butterfly caterpillar pupates as a chrysalis. The caterpillar’s skin splits near the head (at the bottom of the “J”) and the pupa works its way out.

Monarch Caterpillar Photo: Ann Barnes

Although I missed some of the beginning, this video shows the process. It happens fairly quickly, especially on a warm day. Apologies for the shaky camera, I was not anticipating having something exciting to film today and didn’t have a tripod.

Once the chrysalis dries, it will resemble this one (below):

Monarch chrysalis Photo: Ann Barnes

Monarch butterflies that emerge in the fall will make a long trip southward to spend the winter in a warmer climate. I hope to see at least one Monarch butterfly emerge in the next 10-14 days.

For more information about Monarchs, please see – great photos of a Monarch’s life cycle

Monarch Migration

by Ann Barnes

Google Doodle, 1/9/16
Google Doodle, 1/9/16

Today’s Google doodle commemorates the 41st anniversary of the discovery of the Mountain of Butterflies. The Mountain, now protected as the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, is located 62 miles northwest of Mexico City. Each winter, millions of Monarchs make their way to colonies in this reserve.

Monarchs overwintering in Mexico. Photo: Wikipedia
Monarchs overwintering in Mexico. Photo: Wikipedia

Canadian scientists Fred and Norah Urquhart began studying the migration of monarchs in 1937. They tagged and released butterflies and recruited citizen scientists to do the same through their organization, the Insect Migration Association. This group, now known as Monarch Watch, is still actively monitoring monarch migration. The Urquharts mapped migration routes from Canada, across the United States, and into Mexico. Ken Brugger and Catalina Aguado, citizen scientists living in Mexico located the Mountain of Butterflies in 1975 after two years of searching in remote parts of Michoacán, Mexico.In 1976, the Urquharts traveled to the area and found a tagged butterfly, confirming that the monarchs really did make the long journey south.

Migration map Credit:
Migration map

Monarchs begin migrating south in September and arrive in Mexico starting in November. The return northward begins in March. Monarchs traveling north live 4-6 weeks, laying eggs on milkweed plants along their route. Monarchs are dependent on milkweed plants as a site to lay their eggs and as the food source for their caterpillars. It takes multiple generations to make the journey north. However, in the fall, one “super generation” of monarchs is able to travel the full southern route. The super generation butterflies enter a state called diapause during migration. They do not mate while traveling and their bodies store more lipids than the generations of butterflies making the northern trip.

Populations of monarch butterflies have decreased in the years since their overwintering sites were discovered. Urbanization, the increase of large scale farms, and the use of herbicides have reduced the habitat for caterpillars and butterflies along their travel routes. Illegal logging in Mexico has also reduced their overwintering habitat. Climate change also threatens the butterflies and their habitats. Gardeners in the US can help by planting milkweed for monarch caterpillars as well as other nectar rich flowers for adult butterflies. Ideas for attracting butterflies can be found in the Extension publication “Butterflies in your Backyard“.

The story of this discovery was published in National Geographic magazine in 1976. A documentary film called “Flight of the Butterflies” was released in 2012. This film is screened at area science museums from time to time.

Want to learn more about attracting, helping, tracking, or studying monarch butterflies? has lots of information for gardeners, teachers, and anyone who would like to participate in citizen science projects to help the monarchs.

see also: