GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — It’s time for the popular monarch butterfly to head south and avoid the cold Michigan winter, flocking by the hundreds — and sometimes even thousands — to find their ideal weather conditions.
No tropical butterfly migrates farther than monarchs. According to Monarch Watch, a nonprofit organization that tags and tracks the butterflies’ movement, monarchs travel up to 3,000 miles one way.
While monarchs west of the Rocky Mountains have a slightly shorter commute, spending their winters along the California coast, monarchs to the east of the Rockies typically head as far south as Mexico.
WHY DO THEY MIGRATE?
Monarch butterflies can’t withstand the cold of the Midwest winters, but they can’t survive all year round down south, either.
Experts say the main motivator is food. Each year, monarchs are forced north in search of milkweed, their only source of sustenance. And once the days start to shorten and the butterflies sense autumn’s cooling pattern, they start moving back south.
While the migration pattern is mostly the same in the fall and spring, it’s a much different ride. In the spring, monarchs only fly a few hundred miles before finding a patch of milkweed, laying eggs, and dying.
Pablo Jaramillo-Lopez, a researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, told National Geographic that these generations of monarchs last only five to seven weeks. However, the butterflies born in the north — called a “super generation” — tend to live up to eight months, making the trip from Canada and the northern U.S. all the way back to Mexico.
“This makes the migrating monarchs so unique as they are the same species but for some reason live much longer,” Jaramillo-Lopez told National Geographic.
WHERE TO SPOT THEM?
In Michigan, the best places to find them are along the lakeshore.
The primary reason the “super generation” of monarch butterflies can survive the long trip is that they take advantage of the air currents flowing along the Great Lakes to help them conserve energy and travel further.
One of the most popular spots to watch the monarchs migrate is the Peninsula Point Lighthouse in the Upper Peninsula. The lighthouse sits on the Stonington Peninsula that juts into Lake Michigan, forming Big Bay de Noc and Little Bay de Noc just east of Escanaba.
The peninsula serves as a pit stop for thousands of monarchs each year, allowing them to rest up and wait for the ideal winds before making the jump over the big lake and either head down the Michigan or Wisconsin coastline of Lake Michigan.
Another popular location is Tawas Point State Park along the northern edge of Saginaw Bay. The park sits along a narrow strip of land that points toward Michigan’s thumb, giving monarchs a respite before jumping the bay and following Lake Huron and the St. Clair River further south.
Monarch migrations can be spotted all along the West Michigan lakeshore however they are much more sporadic.
Monarch Watch has a chart to track the typical range of the monarch migration based on latitude. Monarch Watch estimates the peak monarch migration for the 45th parallel (Traverse City, Leland) between Aug. 29 and Sept. 10. The peak for the 43rd parallel (Grand Haven/Holland) is between Sept. 3 and Sept. 15.
PROTECTING AN ENDANGERED BUTTERFLY
While the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service have not added the monarch butterfly to its endangered species list, it is considered endangered by other groups, including the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
According to the World Wildlife Foundation, the monarch population has dropped more than 80% over the last 30 years. The WWF says the butterfly faces several threats.
Habitat loss in parts of Mexico has hit the butterflies particularly hard as forests have been decimated by illegal logging operations. Shifting climate patterns have also forced monarchs to adapt to the northern edge of their range, and a rise in herbicide use has killed off a lot of milkweed.
According to the USFWS, a report from 2020 found that the monarch butterfly warrants being listed as an endangered species but is a low-level priority compared to other species facing more dire situations.
Aside from being beautiful, monarch butterflies play an important role in their ecosystems. Just like bees, they are heavy pollinators, which help plants spread and produce fruit.
The National Wildlife Federation has six tips for helping monarch butterflies — but the two easiest are to avoid using pesticides and to plant milkweed in your yard or garden.