Mexican Migrants In My Backyard: Monarch Butterfly Migration

Art of a Monarch butterfly Garden, Watercolor by Ann Litrel

Now that my boys are grown and gone, I sometimes feel like the only kid left outside in our neighborhood. When I see a turtle, I run out to take a picture and give it a name. (So far I’ve named eight.) When my husband finds a cool bug like a writing spider or praying mantis, he knows to send me a picture because it makes me happy.

And in September every year, I go out in my garden to look for monarch caterpillars in my milkweed.

Passing neighbors no doubt wonder what I’m doing – a middle aged lady with sketchbook and camera, crouching down to stare at something no one else can see. That’s okay. As the world becomes more developed, I’m interested in what small animals, bugs and critters can survive in my yard – a tiny oasis of wild plants and flowers in the middle of a big subdivision.

Who Feeds Them?

When I was a kid, every first grade classroom had a glass fish tank for hatching monarch butterflies. Every kid got to see the caterpillar form a chrysalis and hatch two weeks later into a grown butterfly.

Nowadays, the monarch butterfly’s annual flight to and from Mexico appears in innumerable documentaries. It’s named one of the world’s “ten great animal migrations.” What you might not know is that the entire migration takes four generations to complete. The female butterfly that flies north from Mexico in spring to mate, lay her eggs, and die, is the great grandmother of the butterfly that makes its way back south in the fall to hibernate. He or she will roost sleeping with millions of its fellow monarchs, and then fly north in the spring to mate and start the cycle all over again.

Fifty years ago, milkweed was common along roads and in fields. It’s the only plant that monarch caterpillars will eat. In my small hometown in the Midwest, we could always find a stand of milkweed – with caterpillars – to bring to class for the annual hatching.

This was not true for my sons. In the manicured subdivision where we live now, anything that vaguely resembles a natural field is sprayed or mowed down to create the appearance of conforming green. Outside subdivisions in rural areas, most farms use herbicides, killing the strips of wildflowers between fields that used to feed and host butterflies in their migrations.

Home Owners Form a Grassroots Rescue Operation

Across the country, many people have joined together to fill the gap, swelling into a grassroots movement to plant Monarch waystations in their own gardens. These small plots and patio pots include nectar flowers for butterflies, and host plants for caterpillars to eat. In an amazing feat of species survival, even a tiny spot of asters can call a monarch down from the sky to feed, and lay their eggs if they are so fortunate to find a milkweed.

As I write this article, I take a break every few hours to watch a baby monarch caterpillar eat milkweed I’ve placed in a jar. By the time this magazine appears, the caterpillar will have made its chrysalis and hatched. And hopefully, I will see it spread its wings and take off on its flight for a long winter’s sleep in Mexico.

Plant a Monarch Waystation This Fall for Next Spring

Nectar Flowers for Adult Butterflies

  • magenta Echinacea
  • purple Liatris
  • gold Black-Eyed Susan
  • pink Joe-Pye Weed
  • yellow Sneezeweed

Host Plants for Monarch Caterpillars

  • Common milkweed
  • Butterfly weed

Online sources for native plants:

www.easywildflowers.com
www.nichegardens.com

 

Monarch caterpillar feeding on a milkweed leaf in this Georgia suburbs garden.

Just hatched: a baby monarch caterpillar feeds on a milkweed leaf in my Atlanta suburban garden.

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