Kids can play part in the monarch butterfly’s migration

  • Ann Posegate Special to The Washington Post
  • Sunday, February 24, 2013 2:47pm
  • Life

In the world of insect migration, monarch butterflies rule the sky. Every fall, hundreds of millions of these black, orange and white insects migrate thousands of miles from the United States and Canada to the mountains of central Mexico, where they spend the winter. By late February, they begin their return journey north.

“We’re estimating that many of these butterflies fly more than 5,000 miles in their lifetime,” said Chip Taylor, who runs the Monarch Watch Program at the University of Kansas. He and his team place small tags on monarchs’ wings to monitor where they fly.

“Monarchs have a biological clock in their brain, but also one in their antennae that tells them when the sun rises and sets,” Taylor said. By keeping track of the sun’s location in the sky, these two body parts act like a calendar and compass for the butterflies.

Monarchs that spend the winter in Mexico live eight or nine months, longer than any other monarchs. They begin their migration in late summer or early fall and reach Mexico in late fall and early winter, covering an average of 25 to 30 miles a day.

They begin their flight back to the southern United States in late February and March. Along the way, each female lays a few hundred eggs. As the migrating generation dies off a month or two later, the new generation continues the springtime migration north and reaches the eastern United States and Canada in late spring and early summer.

Migrating monarchs face many dangers, including storms and predators. But according to Taylor, their biggest threat is habitat loss.

Like all living things, monarchs need food, water and shelter. Adult monarchs eat nectar from flowers, and their larvae (the caterpillar stage) eat milkweed plants.

In the United States, about 6,000 acres of land are paved over each day for roads and buildings, leaving less space for butterfly habitats.

But kids can help. You can raise the caterpillars to butterflies, then release the adults. “Monarch Watch provides monarch caterpillars to hundreds of schools,” Taylor said.

Kids also can plant milkweed and other butterfly-friendly plants in their gardens, or catch and tag adult monarchs before migration begins.

“Catching butterflies isn’t as easy as it may sound,” Taylor said. “There are some skills involved.” But every tag helps researchers learn more. And when it comes to these tiny traveling butterflies, there is much to discover.

Learn more

To learn about tagging and tracking monarch butterflies go to www.monarchwatch.org.

More in Life

Take a closer look: Winter gardens share gifts in subtle way

Go on a neighborhood walk this month to enjoy the seasonal beauty offered by a variety of gardens.

Great Plant Pick: Pinus contorta var. contorta, shore pine

What: Who is not impressed by the beauty and toughness of this… Continue reading

Red wine usually costs more, but you can still find bargains

Here are five good-quality reds that won’t drain your grocery budget.

Beer of the Week: Skull Splitter and Blood of My Enemies

Aesir Meadery of Everett and Whiskey Ridge Brewing of Arlington collaborated to make two braggots.

Jesse Sykes brings her evolving sounds to Cafe Zippy in Everett

She and Phil Wandscher make a return trip to a club that she values for its intimacy.

Compost: It’s what every gardener really wants for Christmas

A pile of decomposed and recycled organic matter is the gardener’s gift that keeps on giving.

Need a centerpiece? Plant paper-whites for December beauty

The white flowering plant brings the garden indoors in winter, even if the bulbs were never outside.

Beer, wine, spirits: Snohomish County booze calendar

Ugly Sweater Party and Canned Food Drive at Whitewall: Marysville’s Whitewall Brewing… Continue reading

Student winners to perform concertos with Mukilteo orchestra

This annual show is a partnership with the Snohomish County Music Teachers Association.

Most Read