April: Monarchs are coming!

As we hunker down at home, Monarch butterflies are on the move.

Millions of Monarchs spent the winter in the mountains of Mexico, clustered together in the region’s oyamel firs. A smaller group rested in eucalyptus trees along the California coast.

Early in March, as the days lengthened and the temperatures warmed, the butterflies began to rouse themselves and to fly north.

The Mexican Monarchs headed across the Gulf of Mexico, in search of the milkweed growing in south Texas and Florida. Monarchs can’t survive without milkweed – it’s the only thing Monarch caterpillars can eat. Once they reached land, they laid the eggs that would produce the next generation. Those descendants are now crossing the continent, tracking milkweed as it emerges.

Here on Tippah Avenue, our first milkweed sprigs have pushed out of the ground. It’s perfect timing. Monarchs should reach Charlotte some time this month.

We probably won’t see many. Charlotte sits at the edge of the Monarch migration routes, so we don’t get the swarms of butterflies that fill the skies in luckier locales. But there are always a few.

About three days after a Monarch lays her eggs, stripy caterpillars eat their way out of the shells. If you have a cage and a supply of milkweed, you can raise some.

After about 10 days of nonstop munching, the caterpillars fashion jade-green, gold-spangled chrysalises. A week or so later, new butterflies emerge.

Their wings reveal whether they’re male or female. Males have scent glands – visible as dark spots – on their lower wings.

Male Monarch – scent glands on lower wings.
Female Monarch – no scent glands.

We usually only see spring Monarchs for a few weeks, while our milkweed is young and fresh. The butterflies born here will fly further north, some all the way to Canada. We’ll see a new group in August and September, as yet another generation passes through on its way back to Mexico.

You can follow the Monarchs’ progress through the Journey North project, based at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum (they also track hummingbirds, which are on their way to Charlotte as well). Check out the Monarch Resources tab for maps and photos.

A Year in Shamrock’s Gardens, the 2020 calendar produced by the Shamrock Gardens PTA, celebrates 10 years of our school’s butterfly gardens. Thanks to Lexie Longstreet for the generous donation that allowed us to give a calendar to every family and staff member at the school.