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The Mighty Monarch Butterfly Migration

Published by Jason Hussong, Writer

Country: Mexico

The Experience

The Monarch butterfly migration “is one of the most significant biological events on this planet,” according to University of Kansas biology professor Chip Taylor. It is an awe-inspiring sight to see thousands, if not millions, of Monarch butterflies come to roost in the Oyamel forests of Mexico and the trees of Southern California. The Monarch butterfly migration route takes these insects thousands of miles from the north, some coming from as far away as Canada, making this migration a beautiful wonder, and one that no other butterfly takes part in.

Each winter, as the temperatures drop in the north, the Monarch butterflies migrate south to the warmer climates of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. No bad for an insect that weighs less than a gram. Generally, birds fly south for the winter, but the Monarch does manages up to 12 mph over a journey as long as 3,100 miles (nearly 5,000 km).

What’s particularly astonishing about the Monarch migration, is that not one single butterfly succeeds in a full migration due to their short life span. It generally takes three or four generations of Monarch butterflies to complete a full migration cycle (to the southern Monarch sanctuary and back). It’s simply a pattern that’s engrained in the butterfly’s genetic code to instinctively know where to go.

The Monarch migration generally starts around October. If temperatures drop earlier, then the butterflies will go south, travelling about 50 miles in a single day. The Rocky Mountains appear to be the dividing line that helps determine where the Monarch migrates—if they’re east, they go to the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in the Mexican state of Michoacán; and if they’re west, they go to Southern California, most notably around Santa Cruz. When they arrive at their destination, the butterflies tend to use the same trees each year to roost, huddling together for warmth, which makes for a truly bizarre and wonderful experience to observe.

This migratory test of endurance proves unsuccessful for many of the Monarchs as they succumb to fatigue and the dangers of storms and passing cars. Despite this, it is believed that as many as 300 million of the orange and black butterflies successfully migrate to their over-wintering lands in the south. The exact path they take is still being studied and plotted, but as there’s no mass exodus filling the skies, the only real spot to enjoy the migration is at their winter roosts nearly two miles (2,400 to 3,600 meters) above sea level.

When to Go to Monarch Butterfly Migration

The best time of year to experience the Monarch butterfly migration is when they're roosting for the winter in Mexico or Southern California. And because humans are infringing upon and affecting their habitat, the sooner you go the better. University of Kansas researchers estimates that the number of Monarch butterflies wintering in Mexico is now at an all-time low. Although, the butterflies aren't in danger of becoming extinct as they're found in other parts of the world. Current statistics estimate that only 40-60% of the Monarch butterflies, and their subsequent generations, are surviving the wintering. Things could continue to change as their habitats are destroyed for roads, houses and other projects.

Odds n' Ends

Because of the extreme elevation, make sure to take proper precautions for altitude sickness as well as colder weather. While the Monarch butterflies migrate south for food and warmth, it still can be cold at such heights. Make sure to dress appropriately and be prepared for changing weather conditions.

The 200 square mile Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve was deemed a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008. Only some areas within the Reserve are open to the public.


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