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

More in Life

Gardening tools: Experts help through hotline, drop-in clinics

The WSU Extention program is meant to help gardeners with their plant and pest problems.

Here’s how to add your plant sale to the Herald’s yearly guide

We’re taking listings now for our annual list of sales in April, May and June. Don’t forget yours.

Another sign of spring: Fun facts about the Pacific tree frog

This time of year, chorus frogs can be heard singing for a mate in evenings and mornings.

Great Plant Pick: Abies koreana, Korean fir

What: Aristocratic in appearance and slow growing, Abies koreana, commonly called Korean… Continue reading

Here are 7 locally made beers to try for this St. Patrick’s Day

Sound to Summit in Snohomish made one of the brews especially for Shawn O’Donnell’s restaurants.

Walla Walla nearly as famous for its grapes as for its wines

More than 130 wineries call the valley home, making it a destination for wine tourists.

The customer is king at Tabby’s Coffee in Everett library

Starbucks barista-turned-coffee shop owner Tabitha “Tabby” Tarter is big on customer service.

Here are 8 ways celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in Snohomish County

Local events include Shamrock concerts, leprechaun sightings and Celtic dancing, bagpipers and more.

Schack’s juried art show features 121 Northwest artists

The show’s two judges awarded Rick Holst with the grand prize for his U.S. map, a work titled “Avoca.”

Most Read