Recently, I have noticed that there are monarch butterflies floating by me as I sit on my patio. They all seem to be heading south. It is a lovely sight to see these endangered species. It is a sad sight, because that only means one thing; summer is over, and their journey south has begun.
How can one tell if the monarchs in your area are moving south? There are a few signs to watch for. Since the butterfly only travels during the day, clustering overnight is a sign that the migration has begun. According to Journey North, monarch migration has begun. The data states that August 11th was the first sighting of roosting. This is one of the earliest dates that the migration has begun. Seventeen different sights (to date) have recorded monarchs roosting. At three of these sites, they have counted close to 1,000 butterflies. This is a good thing.
You may have noticed that the monarchs feed heavily. They are drinking lots and lots of nectar. This is called “nectaring intensely”. This is essential for the monarch. They need to have as much fuel as possible for the long trip to Mexico. This process will help them build up fat, which they will live off of during the winter months.
The monarchs seem intent on traveling south. The wind may hinder their ability to fly directly south. But the butterfly will try to travel in a southerly direction as much as possible. This is a good indication that migration is underway.
What I find fascinating, is the fact that nature seems to have a built in calendar that will tell them when to leave. The monarch is responding to the declining sunlight in the northern areas. Declining day length is referred to as photoperiod. This is what triggers a monarch to begin its migration. Their northern breeding grounds are losing 20 minutes of daylight every week now.
The adult monarchs that emerge in mid-August are not reproductively mature. This phenomenon is referred to as diapause. That is a process whereas the adult monarch leaves the chrysalis and their reproductive development is on hold. These monarchs will not completely develop until next spring, when mating begins in Mexico. This hormone deficiency will increase the longevity of the monarch. A breeding monarch lives only 2-6 weeks. But the migratory monarch can actually live up to 8 months.
Yes, the beautiful monarch is traveling back to its winter home. They may stop off for a “bite” to eat as they are giving you one last look at them for the season. Get your cameras out and take a picture of them. They will not be here long, because they have a one-track mind. They are on a journey. They need to complete their trip. Wish them good luck, safe travels and good weather conditions for flying. The more of them that make it back to Mexico, the better chance of seeing the monarchs return next year.
Attracting more monarchs to your yard
Now that the monarch migration is in full swing, one of the more common questions gardeners will ask is “so how do I attract more monarchs and other butterflies to my yard?” There are quite a few things that a gardener can do to make their landscape more welcoming to butterflies.
This is probably the most important aspect of attracting butterflies of all kinds to your yard or landscape. Keep in mind that when we talk about food for butterflies, we have to consider both the adult butterflies and the larvae or caterpillars. The food for adults is more universal among butterflies because most of them will feed on nectar, so having flowering plants in the landscape is the primary prerequisite. But, having the right mix of plants can make a big difference.
If I were to recommend one group of plants to focus on, I would say to plant a diversity of plants in the Asteraceae (Aster) family. This is a very large group of related plants that all produce similar types of flowers called a composite, which means the flower is made up of many individual florets all grouped together into one larger flower. One of the favorite nectar plants for monarchs and other species of butterflies is the garden zinnia (Zinnia). Zinnia flowers are often made up of over a hundred individual florets that gradually open from the outside of the flower first, then more florets open closer and closer to the center of the central part of the flower or cone. The florets that make up the cone in a composite flower are known as disk florets. Zinnias also usually have showy petals, technically called ray florets, that are thought to help guide butterflies to the more plentiful nectar providing florets in the center of the flower. They also offer a convenient place to land and provide a good foot-hold for the butterfly while they are feeding with their long, coiled tongue.
Some other flowers in the Asteraceae family that are great nectar sources for butterflies include marigolds (Tagetes) and cup plant or carpenter plant (Sylphium). These and other plants that have the characteristic ray florets are generally good choices for attracting more butterflies to your landscape. But there are many plants in this family that do not have the showy ray florets but still provide a good source of nectar and are very attractive to butterflies. Two favorites of monarchs and other butterflies is gayfeather (Liatris) joe pye weed (Eutrochium, Syn. Eupatorium) and floss flower (Ageratum). The flowers of these plants have a fuzzy appearance. In fact, Ageratum is actually known as the floss flower. Despite not having the showy ray florets, these are still choice nectaring plants for butterflies. Other good plants to consider are members of the mint family (Lamiaceae), particularly the many different kinds of sage (Salvia) and anise hyssop (Agastache).
Of course, when discussing food plants for monarchs, the milkweeds (Asclepias) should be considered. While many people may frown at the idea of allowing the common milkweed to grow in their landscapes, it does offer not only a source of food for the adult monarchs when in bloom, but an all-important food source for the larvae. There are also several other species of milkweed that are more attractive when in bloom and have a lesser propensity to spread by underground rhizomes. They all can spread by the seed that will float around your landscape when mature, supported by a parachute-like tuft of hairs that is attached to the tip of each seed. If you do not want more plants to come up in your yard, simply cut off the flowers before they mature.
Other species of butterflies require other types of food plants for their larvae to feed on while they develop. There are too many to list here but consider including a variety of both woody and herbaceous native plants in your landscape to help provide a variety of food sources for the various species of butterflies and other native insects, birds and other animals. Some species of butterflies also feed on ripe or decaying fruit. So, putting cut up fruit can also attract and feed some butterflies.
As you all know, butterflies are rather fragile creatures, but they can still fly surprisingly well in the nearly constant wind we have here in South Dakota. However, if given a choice, they would prefer to be able to feed in a more sheltered location where they are less exposed to the strongest winds. Incorporating various types of trees and shrubs to the landscape can help them get away from the wind and severe weather. Some of you may have seen the cute little butterfly houses that are often available at craft sales. While these sound like a good idea, generally speaking, butterflies will not make use of them. Instead they will seek out sheltering vegetation to cling to during inclement weather.
Butterflies, like all living creatures, need a source of water. While they do get some water as they feed on nectar, many will appreciate a chance to take a sip of water as well. You have probably seen butterflies sitting on the ground at the edge of a water puddle from time to time. In that case they are not only getting water from the puddle but also dissolved minerals from the soil that they need to supplement their diet. Incorporating rocks with shallow depressions to hold water or just having a bird bath in the yard will often supply the water needs of the butterflies in your yard.
Avoid using insecticides
While we enjoy seeing butterflies flitting around the yard, most of us are not to happy to encounter swarms of mosquitos and other insects that might want to feed on us or our plants. Unfortunately, too many people are too quick to reach for the spray at the first sign of an unwanted or even unidentified insect. Remember that most of them are likely beneficial in some way. So be careful when making the decision to spray an insecticide and when you do, follow the instructions carefully and avoid spraying in areas where butterflies and other pollinators are foraging.