Newsroom Midwest Region

The monarch super generation

August 16, 2017

Monarch on rough blazing star. Photo by Debbie Koenigs/USFWS.
Monarch on rough blazing star. Photo by Debbie Koenigs/USFWS.

It's mid-August, the start of fall migration. Adult monarchs are partway through their lifecycle, but their reproduction is on hold. These monarchs are different from their parents, grandparents and great grandparents. Previous generations completed their life cycle in four weeks. Each of these generations migrated north, resulting in four generations this summer. But these butterflies are members of the generation that migrates south, often called the monarch ‘super generation.’

Imagine the journey- flying more than 3,000 miles to Mexico, not knowing where you can rest or where you will have your next meal. The sun is your guide on daily flights, traveling about 50 miles a day. You often catch “free rides” on thermal air currents, sometimes flying a mile high. When rain splashes down, the wind blows strong, or your body temp drops below 86 degrees, you are unable to fly.

Decreasing day length and temperatures, along with aging milkweed and other nectar sources triggers the birth of the super generation and their epic migration. They live eight times longer than their parents and grandparents- up to eight months, and travel 10 times farther. To do this, they must conserve energy by storing fat in both the caterpillar and butterfly life stages and waiting to lay their 700 eggs until spring.

Monarchs must time their spring and fall migration to coincide with optimal habitat conditions, including nectar availability. Timing is everything! Monarchs are dependent on milkweed. No milkweed, no monarchs. It’s actually that simple! Milkweed is the nursery for caterpillars who only eat this plant and the flowers are a nectar source for adults. If this nursery goes away, the population declines.

The number of monarchs has decreased significantly over the last 20 years and massive efforts to address this problem are currently underway. The focus is to improve habitat for pollinators, including monarchs. Given the scope of this challenge, we must all work together to improve, restore and create pollinator habitat. Together we can save the monarch.

No matter who you are or where you live, you can get involved today. Start by planting native milkweed and nectar plants that are local to your area. Garden organically to minimize your impacts on pollinators and their food plants. Become a citizen scientist and monitor monarchs in your area. Educate others about pollinators, conservation, and how they can help. Learn how you can play a role in reversing the population decline and save the monarch.