Mary’s Monday Metazoan: Spot the Monarch!

I took an awful grainy cell phone picture yesterday, one where it’s hard to see the subjects for the sun glare. But really, this is amazing:


Fifteen years ago when I started out at UMM, our intro biology course had an exercise where students were given butterfly nets and sent out to capture, tag, and release monarch butterflies. It was relatively easy: you’d find a tree with a swarm — and I do mean swarm, they’d be covered with butterflies dripping from every branch, and there’d be clouds of them flying about — and you’d swish that net and catch dozens. Then every year after that, we saw fewer and fewer, until it was an exercise that was frustratingly impossible to do. Most years of late I’d see only an occasional solo monarch, and some years I’d see none.

But yesterday, I was seeing scattered monarchs everywhere, and then I found this tree across the street with masses of butterflies hanging from a few branches. It was nothing like the glory days, but still…maybe they’re making a comeback?


  1. Terska says

    Yesterday I saw four on a walk around the block. The most I’ve seen in years. Last year I went tagging with the local park system. They tagged zero for the year. We saw not a one. The year before there were two. I think they might have given up.

  2. Tethys says

    The UMM has a monarch butterfly program. Monarchlab. I grow a few patches of milkweed in my garden as habitat, but I have to bring the plants with eggs inside in a vase just before they hatch or predators eat them all. I just finished raising 5 caterpillars to adults, and the last two emerged yesterday. Apparently it has been good weather for metamorphosis. Humid, hot, and no rain. I think its so cool that they flock up and migrate en-mass, just like birds.

  3. Rich Woods says

    Butterflies, no. Not more than a couple at once. Not since I saw that episode of The Invaders when I was a kid. If I saw a tree full of butterflies today I’d run.

  4. peanutcat says

    I’ve seen more Monarch butterflies in the last few days then I’ve seen in YEARS . . . . .

  5. Paul K says

    I’ve seen several in the past week, too, here in Western Wisconsin. I hit the brakes in my car to avoid harming one yesterday. They used to just be there, mostly in the background. Now they’re exciting because of their rarity. It’s pretty sad.

  6. numerobis says

    Over the past 20 years, the number of monarchs returning to the largest known wintering ground in central Mexico’s highland forests has plunged by more than 90% (Science, 
7 February 2014, p. 583). […] Between 1997 and 2014, at least some monarchs were spotted in all of the butterfly’s historical eastern breeding range (some breed in the far west), suggesting the summer population is hanging on. And a second study, relying on hourly monarch counts made by volunteers at hundreds of summer breeding sites between 1993 and 2014, found no statistically significant population trend, up or down.

    There’s “a disconnect” between those results and the wintering data, Ries says. That’s because if milkweed loss is driving the winter decline, then summer populations seemingly should be shrinking, too.

    So no, there doesn’t seem to be a comeback :(

  7. says

    I bought some native swamp milkweed from the Cleveland Natural History’s annual native plant sale. I’ve been collecting the seeds to grow more. At first I couldn’t get them to grow. Then I added warmth and they sprouted and I planted even more. This spring, some old seed containers from the failure to launch seeds started sprouting, too! They had been out all winter and maybe the good freeze plus patio sun did the trick. Plant milkweed! I’ve seen at least one monarch visit, but no caterpillars yet. It also attracts lots of other butterflies, which is cool.

  8. says

    I haven’t been to Muddy Creek, where all the milkweed is, but I’ve seen a few flying about this year. What I did note this year were bees! Lots and lots of bees, more than I’ve seen for years now. I hope that’s a good thing, and not just a fluke.

  9. myleslawrence says

    They (Monarchs) can’t make a comeback when their breeding grounds and environment have been destroyed by the human species all the way from Mexico to Canada. Put this one on the column under humans:1 , Nature:0. They should be on the endangered list.

  10. anbheal says

    @9 Numerobis — sadly, I believe you are correct. I live in Queretaro, a neighboring state of Michoacán, and every year friends and I ride horses up into Ocampo and/or Angangueo. In 2009, the scene was still jaw-dropping — my friends said, ya know, if those things evolved razor wings or venomous bites (and yes, PZ, I know that’s not how evolution works!), they could wipe out the human population in a busy afternoon. I mean, it was like a blanket across entire mountainsides, and in the forests every single tree was absolutely dripping with thousands. The past three seasons? Impressive, there are surely lots and lots of butterflies, but those gasps from visiting friends simply don’t happen, and the wranglers were quite evidently saddened.

  11. Terska says

    That one study claims that Monarch losses aren’t happening in the USA and Canada. I don’t believe it. I’ve heard that Cape May banding station has been okay but where I live there are few to none. 20 years ago a drive along a highway in September would show Monarchs flying southwest every 50 yards or so. They were everywhere.

  12. busterggi says

    They’re still awfully rare up my way in central CT, maybe seen a handful this summer. Remember much better times.

  13. says

    I’ve tried to do my part by planting milkweed in my wildflower garden. I’ve seen maybe a half dozen caterpillars this summer, but only one chrysalis which was deformed enough that the butterfly would never emerge. I don’t know where the rest of them have gone, but I usually don’t see chrysalises, just butterflies flying away.

  14. numerobis says

    Apparently you also need to make sure you plant the right kind of milkweed.


    That one study claims that Monarch losses aren’t happening in the USA and Canada

    It’s conceivable that there’s a huge loss where you’re looking, offset by a huge gain next door. Another possibility is that you’re thinking of 30 years ago, not 20 years ago, and the decline was in that decade.