Raising Monarch Butterflies in My Garden

by Girish Bhatt, EMGV

A few years ago, looking at my sunny backyard lawn, it occurred to me that a vegetable garden would do well here. It became a project that required manual labor and a budget — removing the grass, tilling and amending the soil, and fencing the area to keep the deer and rabbits away. Being an extension master gardener volunteer intern helped me learn how to complete this project.

Since then my family and I have enjoyed growing a variety of produce for our kitchen as well as for our neighbors and friends. Last year, we planted the common milkweed and the butterfly weed in this garden (Asclepias spp,). This transformed our small garden into a way station for the migrating monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) on their way to over winter in Cerro Pelon, Mexico.

At the beginning of September, we saw a few monarch butterflies flitting around the milkweeds and just a few days later we saw caterpillars. We recorded the progress of the caterpillars in the series of photographs presented below.


These pictures were taken between September 5 and September 21, 2018. Hopefully, next year we can add photos of the eggs to this collection.

Further Reading
More information about the migration of this endangered species and creating a habitat can be found at the following websites:



Credit for all photos: Girish Bhatt


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


http://www.ourhabitatgarden.org/creatures/monarchs-life-caterpillar.html – 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: www.flightofthebutterflies.com
Migration map
Credit: http://www.flightofthebutterflies.com

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?  http://www.monarchwatch.org/ has lots of information for gardeners, teachers, and anyone who would like to participate in citizen science projects to help the monarchs.

see also: https://durhammastergardeners.wordpress.com/2013/12/13/monarch-melacholy/

Monarch Melacholy

Monarch Melancholy
by Sarah Parsons

In November of 2012, 60 million Monarch butterflies were estimated to have migrated from southern Canada to northern Mexico. In November of 2013, only 3 million Monarch butterflies were thought to have made the journey1. The sharp decline in Monarch butterflies over the past few years has unsettled the souls of scientists, naturalists, and ecologists everywhere. What is contributing to the decline of these fragile, beautiful creatures? Researchers across the U.S. have been conducting studies to pinpoint an answer. The results from their studies are slowly being revealed.

According to a New York Times article published last week the reason for Monarch decline is directly related to both our farming and our landscape practices in the U.S1. Chemicals used on crops to kill weeds, are killing native vegetation on which Monarchs thrive. Milkweed (Asclepias spp.) is the native plant, on which most Monarchs depend for food and reproduction. Additionally, the lack of native plants incorporated into our rural, urban, and suburban landscapes, is creating “food deserts” for Monarch butterflies. However, this “food desert” reality is not only devastating Monarch populations, but it is also devastating populations of other pollinators, including native bees and honeybees. Honeybee populations have been on the decline over the last several years as a result of the Varroa mite and a virus that causes a phenomenon in honeybee colonies, known as Colony Collapse Disorder2. Both diseases are exacerbated when honeybees cannot find native forage on which to feed2. The lack of native forage lowers immune system effectiveness in bees and thus increases their susceptibility to diseases. Honeybees are vital to our food system and are responsible for the pollination of many of our nation’s crops. Collectively bee pollinated crops are thought to bring in approximately $15 billion in revenue to the U.S. each year3. Monarchs, butterflies, honeybees, and native bees are all pollinators that play an important role in the food we eat.

The good news: We can stop the decline of both Monarchs and honeybees. We can encourage policies that support preserving native flora landscapes on our farmlands, in our cities, and along our streets. We can also plant more native flowers in our yards and home gardens.

The bad news: Does anyone really care? Are there enough people, who care, to make a positive difference?

I have shared my distress about the fate of the Monarch butterfly with others. Some people have nodded their heads in sorrowful acknowledgement, while others have given me blank stares that say, “Why are you upset about a damn butterfly?” I get it. I can be weird sometimes, and a little over zealous about the environmental problems of our day. However, I do not think I am wrong to feel sadness about this phenomenon that is occurring. Our butterfly friends are ecological indicators, whose health is directly related to the health of our environments – and, in this instance, the health of our agricultural environments. Without butterflies, bees, and other pollinators, we do not eat. However, my sadness does not come from this reality alone. My sadness also comes from a realization of what will be lost if the Monarchs cease to be.

Monarch butterflies are the type of creatures you would find in a J.K Rowling book. They are mythical, mysterious, and almost believably magical. Every year the great grandchildren of Monarch butterflies, who fly north to Canada in the spring, fly south to Mexico and California in the fall4. How these butterflies know where to fly and when, is still something of a mystery. Every third generation of Monarch butterfly flies approximately 3,000 miles across the U.S. When the Monarchs fly south in the fall they end their trips in Southern California or in the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt Pine-Oak Forests of Michoacán. In these destination locations, Monarchs congregate by the millions on trees throughout the forests to mate. In her book, “Flight Pattern,” Barbara Kingsolver uses the following words to describe the spectacle that is the congregation of Monarchs5:

“It looked like the inside of joy, if a person could see that. A valley of lights,
an ethereal wind.”

Should Monarchs cease to be, the magic that is their existence will also cease to be. I can see no greater loss of something so wonder-filled and beautiful.

I have hope that people will care that these butterflies are dying. Hope is all I have as a naturalist. However, I also have hope, because I know that by sharing the story of the Monarchs with others, they will be inspired too. A few days ago, I shared the story of the Monarch butterfly with the young students I teach. I expected most of them to give me the “Why are you upset about a damn butterfly?” stare. However, much to my surprise every single student looked at me with a face of sincere sadness. They shared with me in my grief, even if just for a moment. Their faces gave me hope, and it is for them I write. I do not want a world without Monarch butterflies. A world without Monarchs is almost as tragic as a world without Santa Claus. Monarchs help us to believe in something unexplainable. They help us believe in something greater than ourselves, and they help us to believe in a world that is beautiful. We need butterflies and bees for our food system, yes, but we also need them to instill in us the kind of wonder that keeps us young and life-full.

So I ask you to please join with me in my sadness, even if just for a moment. I also ask that you feel inspired. There are many ways you can help improve the fate of the Monarchs and other pollinators. Planting a butterfly garden that includes milkweed (Asclepias spp.) is a good place to start. For more information on butterfly and pollinator gardens, please visit this site. Please see this site for more information about how you can help protect Monarchs. Be inspired and please help in any way that you are able.

I thank you for being with me in my grief. I hope for you wonder and light, and one day may you see the inside of joy.

1 Robbins, Jim. “The Year the Monarch Didn’t Appear.” New York Times. November 22, 2013.

2 USDA, EPA. “USDA and EPA Release New Report on Honey Bee Health.” May 2,2013. http://content.govdelivery.com/bulletins/gd/USDAOC-795a36

3 Ostrow, Nicole. “Honeybee Health Damaged by Common Fungicides, Study Finds.” Bloomberg. July 24, 2013.

4 The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. http://www.xerces.org/monarchs/

5 Kingsolver, Barbara. Flight Pattern. HarperCollins Publisher. New York, NY. 2012.