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Eco Talk: Habitat work key to supporting monarch butterflies

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Monarch butterfly on flower

Are you amazed to see a butterfly passing by? I have been fascinated with these creatures for as long as I can remember. A monarch butterfly will catch my eye every time, causing me to wonder where they have been and where they are going.

Monarch butterflies are probably the most recognized butterfly in North America. Their wingspan measures 3.5 to 4 inches and has a distinctive reddish-orange, black and white pattern. It is estimated that the monarch can fly up to 6 mph.

In eastern North America, the monarchs begin to migrate south starting in late summer into the fall. The monarchs will leave from as far north as southern Canada and fly to Mexico to over-winter. These butterflies will cover hundreds to a few thousand miles during the fall migration.

They return in the spring from their over wintering habitat; however, their migration north is slower and takes several generations to accomplish. Prior to leaving their overwintering sites, the monarchs will mate.

Several days after mating, the female will deposit one egg on the underside of a milkweed leaf. The eggs take three to eight days to mature and hatch into a caterpillar that then eats the milkweed, its only food source. It is estimated that a female monarch can lay up to 700 eggs.

Adult monarchs live four to five weeks and mate more than once. When overwintering in their Mexican mountain forest habitat, they go into hibernation, often with tens of thousands huddled together for warmth on a single tree.

In the 1990s, it was noticed that monarch populations were declining due to several factors. Most significant is the loss of habitat both in North and Central America. Milkweed is their only host plant, and is essential in the spring and summer for egg-laying and as a food source for the caterpillars to feed on.

Deforestation (removal of the forest trees the monarchs overwinter in) in Central America and farming practices along the edge of the fields in North America are the main causes of habitat loss. Additionally, the changing climate is resulting in temperature extremes and drought, which has impacted both the butterflies and milkweed plants. Also, the climate is warming in Mexico, causing the overwintering monarchs to use their stored fat reserves. With depleted fat reserves, they are not able to successfully migrate in the spring.

If you are interested in helping monarchs survive their migration, consider setting up a waystation for them to rest during their long journey. You can join thousands of homeowners, schools, community gardens, parks and farms who have already provided a waystation. Be sure to register your waystation at, which also has information about the monarch butterfly and milkweed. As an added benefit, any effective monarch waystation will also be visited by other pollinators!

Looking for a good community service project? A quick look at the map of registered waystations shows lots of opportunity for placement of waystations in central New York and the Finger Lakes region. Interestingly, there are four species of milkweed that are recommended for the Northeast to plant for monarchs, which are common milkweed, swamp milkweed, butterfly milkweed and poke milkweed.

According to the Northeast Integrated Pest Management Center (, there are approximately 17 million acres of roadsides in the U.S. that could be converted into habitats for pollinators, migratory birds and small mammals. Some states have already adjusted their management of roadsides and right-of-ways to provide habitat to support pollinators.

Integrated roadside vegetation management reintroduces native plants, adjusts mowing frequency and reduces the use of herbicides for vegetation control. The state of Iowa was one of the first states to establish an IRVM program beginning in the mid-1970s. In 2015, the University of Northern Iowa published a IRVM Technical Manual that is available online.

States and communities using IRVM are seeing savings in their road maintenance budgets, with reduced mower time and herbicide costs. Additionally, the vegetation along the road is living and stabilized, which helps reduce surface water runoff, improves air quality and provides resistance to potential invasive plant species.

I hope you will give some consideration to how we as a community can create a habitat to support monarch butterflies. More information can be found on the Environmental Protection Agency’s pollinator protection webpage.

No doubt any positive effort, regardless of size, will be appreciated by these magnificent creatures and other pollinators so we can continue to enjoy them for years to come and marvel as they flutter by.

Judy Wright is the senior agriculture specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Seneca County. For more information, visit or call (315) 539-9251 ext. 109.


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