2014 Monarch Butterfly Migration: Worst in History or a Hopeful Rebound?

Moth week is behind us and next up on the pollinator calendar is the Monarch butterfly migration. The storied insects start moving south on their 3,000-mile fall migration from Canada to Mexico around August 15th.

This year started with only 33 million Monarchs leaving the Oyamel forests of Michoacán in March–that’s the lowest count in history, down from more than one billion in 1994. It’s no surprise that Monarch watchers are on the edge of their seats, wondering if the majestic orange-and-black butterflies will rebound.

I saw my first-of-season (FOS) Monarch since the spring migration on Sunday, July 20, enroute to help our son Alex Rivard move into his first home. As I  crossed the driveway to my car, I noticed a Monarch butterfly on Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, in my front yard pollinator garden in downtown San Antonio.

There she was, tucking her abdomen to reach the underside of milkweed leaves, laying dozens of eggs in the process.  See the video above. I collected 34 eggs, took them inside for fostering, and left about that many on the plant.  Days later, little round “chew marks” on the garden’s milkweed plants proved that the eggs had hatched, but not a caterpillar was in sight.  Wasps, ants, spiders, ladybugs, a bird–who knows what got them?  Nature is brutal.

Still, I couldn’t help associate the FOS, egg-laying Monarch with the “new beginning” of our son’s arrival as a mortgage-paying, first-time homeowner. Alex will get a chrysalis as a housewarming gift.  And I am feeling hopeful about the 2014 migration.

Texas Drought, July 2014

Better rains, less drought translates to more welcoming conditions for Monarch butterfly migration. Map by U.S. Drought Monitor

So is Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch. He told us via email that he suspects a modest increase in monarch numbers.

“I’m not ready to say what ‘modest’ means in terms of hectares but all the indications remain positive. Monarch production from the upper midwest from the eastern Dakotas through Wisconsin and parts of southern Missouri will be above that of last year–areas to the east will be low again but not quite as low as last year.”

In June, Taylor pointed out that the harsh winter we experienced after three dry summers has driven down the predator population, increasing the survival rate of Monarch caterpillars in the central breeding grounds.   “Monarch larvae should survive in greater numbers. Elevated reproductive success in early generations usually leads to growth of the population.”

Elizabeth Howard

Elizabeth Howard, founder of Journey North, a website that tracks the Monarch migration. Courtesy photo

Elizabeth Howard, founder of Journey North, agrees. “Yes, I do think this fall’s migration will be larger than last year’s,” she told us via email.  “However, considering how dismal last year’s migration was, that isn’t saying a whole lot.”

Journey North taps citizen scientists across the hemisphere to collect data about Monarch sightings and posts the info on a handy map so you can track the migration from your desk (see above).   They also provide weekly reports summing up the state of the migration and Monarchs’ move through the hemisphere, like this one:

“There are hopeful signs of successful reproduction from the Upper Midwest and across much of Ontario. People are reporting up to a half-dozen monarchs at a time, and more eggs and larvae than all of last year.”

“Hopeful signs of reproduction.”  Yes, we like the sound of that. Because if we can just get a slew of Monarchs produced in the midsection of the country they can start their trip to Mexico through the Texas Funnel and this year we can offer a much more welcoming reception than we’ve been able to provide in the recent past.

Monarch butterfly caterpillars

Yes, please.  More Monarch caterpillars mean more migrating Monarch butterflies.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

While the drought continues, we’ve had a relatively mild summer, with few days over 100 degrees.  Sporadic rains–more than 10 inches at the ranch just in July–have fueled the growth of late summer flowers.  Nectar plants await our favorite migrants: Frostweed, Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnate), and Goldenrod stand at the ready, about to bust out their blossoms for a full-on nectar party.  Send some Monarchs our way, please, and we’ll make sure they’re well fueled for the rest of their journey.

In the meantime, it’s not too early to order your tags from Monarch Watch.  Tagging season begins soon. Related posts:

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21 thoughts on “2014 Monarch Butterfly Migration: Worst in History or a Hopeful Rebound?

  1. In 3-4 weeks it will be obvious that the rebound is not just “modest” but spectacular because dozens of “Fall Roost” reports -some involving 100’s or even 1000’s of monarchs -will be posted to Journey North in mid and late August from the upper Midwest whereas last year there was only one report in August.

    • So glad to hear that. Here in Central Indiana, the egg collecting has been much improved..twice as many as last year’s total with nearly a month left of my season..

  2. We welcome you to visit the Save Our Monarchs (www.saveourmonarchs.org), a new foundation established to bring back our monarch butterfly. Visitors can order free milkweed seeds directly on our website! You can also donate to our cause if you wish.

  3. A big problem I have had is with wasps. The Monarchs
    & other come but the wasps feed on them & I’m not sure what to do about that. I have had that problem the past 2-3 years. Also, just recently I found some bugs that resemble ladybugs but are not. They got a lot of the eggs also….Houston, Tx

  4. I have had a much better season of egg collecting this year than last. I had only 60 last year and I already have twice that now. I still have almost a month to go 🙂

  5. I broke open a leaf of what I thought was asclepias tuberosa but no milky substance came out. I have found caterpillars on the leaves but is this not a true tuberosa and if so is it harmful to the butterflies? I plan to try the yellow tuberosa but not if it is harmful. Could you direct me to a source of seed for the antelope horn milkweed?
    Thanks, D. Mack

  6. I’m 62 years old and have loved gardening all my life. I didn’t realize until this year that I had a mistaken idea of what a “milkweed” was. The Master Gardeners put some pictures of different varieties of milkweeds on TV and I said, “OMG! So THOSE are milkweeds.”
    I immediately started noticing them all over my property and mowing around them. I built a flowerbed around some. Now I’m saving seed pods for the Master Gardeners, watching caterpillars, etc. Wish I has started 50 years ago, but . . .

  7. I’m in rochester New York and had my first 2 butterflies emerge from their chrysalis this morning. A beautiful male and female. I have another 24 in their chrysalis, 2 eggs and 47 cats eating me out of milkweed. :). I’m so happy to hear that there is a good chance they will rebound. Thanks for all the postings about predators…I will rescue every newborn cat I find to make sure they have a chance of making it to Mexico!

  8. I had no monarch eggs on my new milkweed last year and was disappointed. But then this year I saw a monarch that I thought was sipping nectar from my milkweed, but after it left, I found 4 eggs. I left them to eat and grow and 2 disappeared, so 2 brought the 2 remaining inside. They both ate quite a bit of milkweed and I went looking for more milkweed and brought more home, only to find 4 more caterpillars. 2 have formed their pupa and today 1 hatched and I put it on some milkweed flowers. It sipped and flew to a high dogwood tree branch. I expect the 2nd one to hatch this week and I will release in the same manner. I somehow currently 7 pupa and 5 more getting ready to pupate. I checked my outside milkweed again and have 4 more eggs that were laid yesterday. I will bring those in and any others so they have a fighting chance to migrate south. I am just excited and speechless.

    • Good for you, Nadine. It’s addicting, isn’t? Keep up the good work and please keep us posted of progress!

  9. I love your work. It’s very in-depth, thorough and insightful. I truly appreciate being able to understand the beautiful world of butterflies.

    I’m truly sadden by only seeing one female monarch in my butterfly garden. Your article provided the needed information on how to mitigate their circumstances.

    I have a gomphocarpus plant that is bearing close to 80 seed pods. Each seed pod contains close to 60 via seeds. I’d like to give these away free for the cost of a “self-addressed stamped” envelope.

    Do you have any advice or opinion on this matter?

    Looking forward to hearing from you.

    Pam

  10. Hello! I’m not a gardener of any sort, but I’m a nature enthusiast and my young sons and I found 3 Monarch caterpillars on our honeyvine milkweed here in central Indiana, and we’re eagerly anticipating our butterflies emerging in just a couple days! However, we’re having our first week of real fall weather (highs in 60s/70s, lows in 40s/50s), and I’m wondering if it’s safe for the butterflies. Will they still be able to fly and find all the food they need as they migrate in this cooler weather?

    • I live in central Indiana as well and have released close to 300 Monarchs this year. It’s been a great year..I am told that as long as the temp is >55, they will be able to fly-unless its pouring down rain..a gentle rain will not hurt them. I have kept mine on my enclosed porch for up to 48 hours before releasing them in better weather. They flew straight off, so I will assume this did not hurt them

  11. I live on the Mason Dixon line of md and pa. As of Sept. 30th. I’ve seen a few butterflies flying one at a time last weekend. Will these guys make it? Is it late in the season to be still here? Each year I try to get more involved to help the butterflies. I am hoping to see a good comeback this year. Think Positive !

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