Where did everybody go?

Where did everybody go?

By Rick Mikula (Dec. 2017)


What happened? It seems that I was just munching on some turkey and commenting about the unusual number of late season butterflies we had this year when I turned around and I’m in the middle of a glacier. A really cold glacier! With most of the country hoping for the return of double digit temperatures butterflies seem more as a far off fantasy that couldn’t possibly ever return to our frozen landscape. It’s harder to believe that the collection of winged jewel that grace our gardens during the summer months are still out there somewhere underneath all that snow. Except for the Monarch the other species prefer to ride out the winter as eggs, caterpillars, and some as a chrysalis. Danaus plexippus is a breed of its own and prefers to head to relocate to better climes to renew the genetic pool. Why they choose this routine of escaping northern winters is still open to discussion, lots and lots of discussion.


Spending the winter in the Mexican mountains may not be as pleasant as it would seem even to a frozen Northerner! During the winter months monarchs are routinely subjected to both rain and snow storms in the high mountains. While normal a solitary individual in the overwintering sites they sleep collectively in a ‘roost’ tree. Theories suggest that their combined body weight will help to hold down the braches from whipping in the wind that could eventually damage their wings. And much like the inside of a bee hive, their collected body heat will increase the temperature inside the roost. These amazing creatures can usually withstand a pretty good rainstorm as they proved during the recent hurricanes. Monarchs are fairly water repellent but if knocked to the ground they can easily drown in a small amount of water. These hardy survivors can also withstand prolonged cold temperatures and even weather snow storms surprisingly well. During an average over wintering stay they often experience both and can usually handle them without much problem. They do however run into problems when they become stranded on the ground while still soggy wet from a rain storm and then immediately become covered with snow before their wings ever have a chance to dry. This unfortunately has proven to be quite disastrous many times in the past. But the key word here is ‘many’. Normally after a over wintering season with high losses it usually takes then about three years for their numbers to rebound. Hopefully nothing major happens during that period to interrupt the comeback or the clock starts all over again.


Monarchs are rugged and routinely have braved these winter storms for centuries so one more storm is usually nothing new for them. Unfortunately however, from time to time, there are some devastating storm related losses. Reading those reports are always heart breaking but despite them the monarchs still persist. The unfortunate downside to this set back is that there are far too many news stories published claiming that the most recent storm will be the end of the Monarch butterfly for all times and will you never see a Monarch butterfly ever again! It is a shame that many writers of such articles subscribe to the philosophy that ‘Sensationalism Sells Copies’ and go all in with it. What is worse is that too many of them just rewrite an older article without doing any investigation on their own. As long as they get a ‘click’ or a ‘share” they are happy. Over the decades I have been told that the Monarch would become extinct in 1980, 1983, 1990, and every year since 1997 but if you read the data from sites such as Monarch Watch or Journey North you will find that their numbers have actually been increasing. This last summer I had more monarchs in my garden than in the past three years. So please don’t become discourage if you happen upon any of those “the sky is falling in” stories. You are still going have monarchs in your garden next year and the year after that.

Since most of us in the lower 48 seem to be experiencing freezing temperatures, with killing wind chills, summer seems as if it is still eons away. Don’t despair! It’s never too early to start planning next year’s garden. Start looking through all of those seed catalogues that magically appeared in your mail on December 26th and plan the layout for this year’s ‘Migration Station’. Remember that in only three months they will venturing back north and searching for milkweed on their way. Will your milkweed be ready for them? If you are planning on using the Monarch Migration Station ‘Pollinator Garden then you have two great gardens to design! And don’t forget you’ll need both host and nectar plants for a successful Monarch Migration Station! So on a snowy frigid day like today paging through those catalogues just may help to warm us up a bit and inspire a great welcome home garden for our wandering friends.

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