For hundreds, maybe thousands, of years, monarch butterflies flapped and floated across prairies and through woodlands of the Eastern part of the United States.
Then, as trees and native grasses fell before the ax and plow of the pioneers, an agricultural patchwork of pastures, corn and hay fields, roadsides and fencerows emerged. But unlike the bison and the bobcat, the monarch butterflies soldiered on.
Each spring the bronze-colored butterflies with the distinctive black-line markings begin a northward trek. Along the way, the butterflies sip nectar, mate and deposit eggs on milkweed plants.
Come fall, second- and third-generation descendants of the spring monarchs head south. Some start as far north as the southern regions of the Canadian provinces of Quebec, Ontario and Saskatchewan.
These fall monarchs set off on a very long and dangerous journey. Some have to travel more than 2,000 miles, with only favorable winds and wing muscles to carry them along. They all head to a little spot, a few square miles, in the mountains of central Mexico. These fall-migrant monarchs have never been there, but it’s a place where wintering monarchs have avoided the lethal cold and snows of northern climates for untold generations.
Because of their size, coloration and migration habit, the monarch is one of the most recognized and most admired of the butterfly species. Many books and poems extol the virtues of this insect, which is native to North America.
In spite of the adulation of and the press about the monarch, the facts regarding its migration were unknown for many years. Relative to the monarch butterfly, historical entomologist, J. H. Comstock of Cornell University wrote in his 1895 book, “Manual for the Study of Insects”: “It is believed, however, that the species dies out each year in a large part of the Northern States, and that those butterflies which appear first in this region, in June or July, have flown hither from the South, where they hibernated in the adult state. In the extreme South they fly all winter.”