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All About the Monarchs


Return of the Monarchs


                                                  Photo by Rene (Surf’s Out)





                                       by Jeannie Lieberman

One of the profoundest mysteries of the natural world is the annual trans- continental odyssey of the Monarch butterflies from Canada, across the United States to Mexico. Caterpillars blossoming into beautiful butterflies perform an aerial feat of endurance and navigation without prior experience. It is their first flight to an unknown area following something – wind, sun – yet they reach their destination every year at precisely the same time, a feat unique in the animal kingdom (butterflies are animals, not insects). They start usually one at a time, then the air is saturated with them, the startling contrast of their bright pattern immediately recognizable.



The process begins late on August north of Lake Huron in Canada. Tiny caterpillars already exhibit circular bands of the monarch’s variegated colors. In an amazing transformation they will grow and shed their skin 4 times while, within a delicate case, a completely new being is formed. In 10 days they will lose all traces of caterpillar and turn into a 4 winged butterfly with interconnecting stripes:  black with white polka dots, yellow and black precisely designed interconnecting stripes. Their wings harden in a few hours then the flight of 100 million begins their migration. From Southern Canada, through northeast United States, 2000 miles and two months later to Mexico.



The reverse process began 3 generations earlier when a group left Mexico at the end of  winter.Then in one month they flew to the U.S. mated in Texas laying  300 – 500 fertilized eggs which continue the journey mating and dying every month on the way until the 4thgeneration reaches its original starting place in Canada a full year later. The fourth generation lives nine months and flies back to Mexico. What triggers the annual exodus is unknown.


A Monarch’s wingspan is 4”, its weight less than 1/5 oz. How do they survive migration? They only fly when the conditions are perfect, when it’s too hot they stop flying, when it’s too cold their wings become sluggish, they make infrequent stops for nectar, their natural enemies are spider webs, bad weather like deadly rainstorms. They fly south to avoid death of cold winter. Pesticides kill many pf them. Decreased amount of trees in the forests and illegal logging another threat.


The sun provides a magnetic field, and their brain cells regulate an internal clock and keeps them on course. They must fly 50 miles per day which requires a huge physical effort and their aerodynamic design is poor. They must soar to conserve energy, and fly thermal winds currents like a glider.

The Great lakes are their first trial with miles of water and shifting winds. They stop and wait on ships’ surfaces until conditions are right, then there is the scorching desert heat, and the Sierra Madre Mountains.


Their ultimate destination is 60 square miles, 10,000 feet high in Mexico where the waiting Mexicans are celebrating “the day of the dead”. They believe the butterflies are the spirits of their loved ones and they build alters of flowers and fruits for them. In October they light candles and pray for their safe arrival giving rise to businesses in small towns the Mexicans need to survive the rest of the year. They finally arrive the first week of November after 2 months and thousands of miles. They fill the skies and  cover the vegetation, millions of them and there are great celebrations in the towns.



There are 12 specific sites within the 60 miles which have perfect conditions: heat from trees and the land while the forest supplies the umbrella. The Mexicans protect their trees for this reason. Now they rest in clusters, clinging to the trees for warmth for 5 months when they bloom again opening their wings to the sun. Writers and scientists have been inspired to study them. In 1975 scientists first discovered the extent of their migration by tagging them.

In 1992 a Monarch watch began when Chip Taylor of the University of Kansas had kids tag the Monarchs revealing travel speeds and flight paths. In an experiment relocating them to D.C. they still managed to find the original flight path using different vectors to get on track traveling through small Western towns and the Great Plains of the Southwest.

Monarch butterflies do migrate along Fire Island I have tried to research, unsuccessfully, an explanation for the presence of the Monarchs on Fire Island. They should be here as you read this. Too bad we can’t ask them. Just enjoy this amazing phenomenon.

The migration here on Fire Island this year seems to be NOW (August 19. 2012).
From the Journey North site, they have a record of 200 monarchs in a 10½
hour period on September 16, 2008:

Images courtesy of US Fish & Wildlife Service

P.S. My research did find this disturbing advertisement:

Special Sale! 20% off Monarch Butterflies

for more info:

Paula S. Valentine
Public Affairs
Fire Island National Seashore 

The Butterfly Lady of Fire Island

Every fall, the dunes become a way station for tens of thousands of monarchs. But their numbers are declining, and one resident is keeping count.

By Joshua Jelly-Schapiro

There’s no place like an island, and a barrier island especially, for seasonal migrants. That’s certainly true of Fire Island. The thirty-two-mile-long sandbar off Long Island may be best known for little red wagons, houses on stilts, and gay beach parties, but it is also beloved by lepidopterists. Every September and October, the island’s dunes become a way station for tens of thousands of monarch butterflies, who stop there on their three-thousand-mile journey from Canada to a mountaintop in Michoacán, near Mexico City, where they go to reproduce and die.

Ellen Federico, who is known to locals as “the butterfly lady,” grew up across the water, in West Islip. She works as an event planner in Manhattan, but she spends her free time in a clapboard cottage that her father floated over to Fire Island on a barge in the seventies. The house, where she vacationed as a girl with her parents and her seven siblings, is one of the oldest in the beach community of Lonelyville. Federico, who is fifty-nine, is the island’s most authoritative witness to the gradual decline in the butterflies’ numbers.

“When I was small, the monarchs would swarm down the beach,” she said, one recent afternoon. She sat on her deck, surrounded by pots of milkweed, which the monarchs love. “You could run beneath them with a net and pull in a dozen. Not anymore.” Across America, falling monarch populations are usually blamed on climate change and on the use of herbicides that have eliminated the weeds they feed on. Federico likes to give milkweed seeds to her neighbors.

She inherited her love for monarchs from her father, who was known as Captain Bob. “He made his living from the sea—not just fishing but working charters, chumming for bait,” she said. “You know in ‘Funny Girl,’ when Barbra Streisand sings ‘Don’t Rain on My Parade’ on that tugboat? My dad was piloting one of the camera boats.” Captain Bob was fascinated by navigation. “He used to sit here when the monarchs flew over and say, ‘Look at that. Aeronautical perfection.’ ”

Federico has befriended monarch experts around the world, and she likes to explain how the monarchs fly by gliding on warm air (“as far as a hundred miles a day!”) and navigate by the angle of the sun. She gently pulled a big monarch from a mesh cage with her hands. “These ones, the royal monarchs, we also call ‘4Gs.’ They’re the fourth generation—the three generations before this, they live just four to six weeks, like most butterflies. But these 4Gs live up to nine months—long enough to fly to Mexico to mate before sending their babies back north

Seven years ago, Federico launched an effort to tag and count the butterflies on Fire Island. Each fall, her squad of child volunteers stalks the island and affixes weightless stickers to monarchs’ wings. The stickers allow her to track the butterflies all the way to Michoacán “This one’s a boy,” a ten-year-old named Cora Reynolds explained, as she held out a monarch she’d netted on a buddleia bush. “You have to be careful, when you put the sticker on his wing, not to cover the pheromone spots.” She pointed to two black dots. “Or else he won’t get a girlfriend.” Reynolds applied the sticker and wrote down its number on a clipboard.

Federico treasures a 2016 photograph of Barack Obama signing an agreement with the leaders of Canada and Mexico to protect the monarchs’ migration.. In February, she travelled to Michoacán, to see where her butterflies end up. She rode a mule up into the El Rosario biosphere reserve, with a guide and a bodyguard armed against drug cartels. “It was the most magical day of my life,” she said, holding up a photograph and pointing to clouds of orange ringing high fir trees and to a sign, in the foreground, instructing visitors to maintain silence and to remain for a maximum of fifteen minutes. “I stayed for three hours,” she said. She was distressed to learn about a surge in illegal logging there. “Do you know why they’re cutting down the Oyamel firs my monarchs love?” she asked. “To plant more avocados for us fat-ass Americans to buy at Whole Foods.”

Photo: Trish Minogue Collins

The Monarch Butterfly Migration on Fire Island

By Trish Minogue Collins

If you’ve spent any time at all outside lately, there’s a good chance you have been distracted by a bright flash of orange as a monarch butterfly fluttered by.  The monarch butterfly migration is on! For several years now, we’ve been seeing very few monarch butterflies. People across America have been raising awareness of the fact that monarchs lay their eggs only on the milkweed plant, and that we need to restore and protect this roadside plant if we are to continue to see this beautiful creature in our world. I like to think that these efforts have made a difference, but whatever the reason, there is no doubt that we are seeing an explosion of Monarch butterflies migrating along our south shore beaches right now.

Monarchs are not only beautiful, but they are unique and amazing creatures. The monarchs we are seeing now with be traveling all the way to the Oyamel fir trees in the mountains of Mexico. They are the only insects known to make such a migration. The same Monarchs that migrate south will not return here. The ones we see in the spring will be several generations down the line from these. Milkweed is needed all along the migration route to ensure that we get the pleasure of seeing them next year.

This time of year, you may have noticed monarchs particularly enjoying the goldenrod along our beaches during the day. Butterflies don’t fly at night, but instead will gather together to keep warm, most often in pine trees near their food source. Since many members of the Long Island Sun Chasers are also active on our beaches when the sun is setting and rising, they have been able to capture the monarchs gathering together in the evening, then warming their wings in the morning sun before taking flight once again.

A big thank you to the Long Island Sun Chaser members who shared their images for this piece. If you are interested in purchasing any, we will gladly put you in touch with the photographer.

Paul Peluso

Patty Mede

Jo-Ann Stevens Valenti

Kathleen Fasano

Paul Peluso