Fun Facts You Didn’t Know About Monarchs

An orange monarch butterfly sits on a yellow flower.
Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Tom Koerner

The monarch butterfly is one of the most easily recognized butterflies in North America. These large orange, black and white butterflies soar into our gardens and parks, bringing joy to young and old. By now, most people are likely aware that the monarch population is in decline. Many may also know that monarchs migrate and that they need milkweed to survive. They serve as a reminder of the importance of pollinator habitat conservation. But we’d like to share more fascinating facts about these beautiful butterflies!

A large group of monarch butterflies hang on leaves of a tree branch.
A group of monarch butterflies overwinter in a tree. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Great Monarch Migration

Monarch migration is an amazing feat, but not everyone knows the details that make it so impressive. The distance between wintering grounds and the northern breeding range can be up to 3,000 miles, but this travel occurs over three to four generations of butterflies! The first few generations are short-lived butterflies that continue the journey north. However, the last generation, typically born in September, will live for nine months. These individuals will travel many hundreds of miles south, using the sun to help them navigate, then overwinter in great butterfly clusters in trees. 

Greetings from Florida!

The most well-known wintering grounds are in Mexico, but some populations will stay in southern Florida. There is a separate population of Western monarchs that winter in southern California. When spring arrives, these same butterflies will awaken and begin to fly north. They will mate and lay eggs, usually in the southern U.S., and the generation cycle begins again.

A black, yellow and white monarch caterpillar climbs on a leaf.
“Caterpillar of Monarch Butterfly” by Bernard Spragg is licensed under CC0 1.0.

Survival of the Fittest

Monarch butterflies also have some interesting survival strategies. We know they need milkweed, but did you know that only the caterpillars actually require milkweed? This toxic plant is the perfect food for these little larvae. As they eat the leaves, they also become toxic to predators. The bright yellow, white and black stripes on the caterpillar warn its predators to stay away.

An orange monarch butterfly sits on a pink flower, sipping nectar.
Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Puddles Aren’t Just for Jumping

The adult monarchs feed on nectar from a wide variety of flowers. Not only does nectar contain water and sugars, but also some proteins, acids, salts and oils! These nutrients help monarchs build fat stores that allow them to survive migration. Some studies have even shown that monarchs gain weight while migrating. Monarchs (and other butterflies) also use a behavior called “puddling.” This is where the butterflies drink liquids – like muddy water – that have a higher concentration of essential nutrients and minerals. It is believed that this behavior increases the chances of their eggs’ survival!

Monarchs are certainly fascinating and beautiful creatures. As we learn more about them, we get better at helping this species survive, ensuring that future generations will be able to marvel at them just as we do.

Next time you head outside, look out for monarch butterflies, and wish them well on their journey south this fall!

Lisa Salehpour
Nature Interpreter, Sharon Woods