In late September as I rounded the corner of a sandy walking path at Mentor Headlands Preserve, a flash of orange and black hovering in green vegetation caught my eye. I stopped to observe and was enchanted by the sight of many Monarch butterflies feeding on milkweed plants. Further down, another clump of milkweed hosted more Monarchs. A group of photographers stood back with long lenses, trying to capture the constant fluttering. The Monarchs were migrating, having made it south from Canada to the shores of Lake Erie. This was a temporary resting place on their southern journey.
I knew they were heading to Mexico, but I didn’t know much more about their habits. What I learned later is astonishing. I was looking at the fourth generation of this year’s butterflies. That generation isn’t reproductive at this time. They’ll fly 2000 to 3000 miles to their breeding grounds in Mexico, and then in the spring they’ll become reproductive as they fly north, laying eggs on milkweeds as they progress. Their offspring, who feed on the milkweed, will continue the journey but will live only 2 to 5 weeks. Each succeeding generation continues north, an amazing feat for tiny creatures (weighing less than a gram) who are venturing into unknown territory. Then as the fourth generation is born in late summer/early fall, the cycle will continue.
The butterflies are in danger, though. One of main causes is the use of herbicides in the U.S., resulting in the loss of milkweeds. Climate change is also a factor, as is urban sprawl. We can help the Monarchs along by planting milkweed in our yards and gardens. (Some libraries make the seeds available, and many garden centers have it.) I added milkweed to my pollinator garden this year. It’s a small contribution, but if many of us do it, we can make a difference.