When I think of the end of summer, I imagine myself in a hammock enjoying an earlier sunset and cooler weather. I think of vegetable gardens coming to fruition and farmers markets packed with delicious ingredients for my neighbors and I to enjoy.
But at this time of year, monarch butterflies are preparing for an entirely different scenario that will involve an unbelievable amount of resilience and stamina.
These brightly-colored insects, only a few inches in length, will journey approximately 2,500 miles to their wintering grounds in Mexico in late August. Their timing is critical as they cannot fly when temperatures drop below 55 degrees.
Interestingly enough, it took several generations of Monarchs to migrate north in the spring, but this final generation is charged with the incredible task of returning all the way to the southern end of their range. How they find their way to the same forests in Mexico as their ancestors without ever having travelled there is still a mystery.
Even before they embark on this journey, monarch butterflies will have gone through a grueling lifecycle spending time in an egg, as a caterpillar, and in a chrysalis over the span of five weeks.
They spend their days as a caterpillar feeding exclusively on milkweed, a plant with foul-tasting milky sap. The sap builds up in their body and deters predators who associate the foul taste with their color scheme. As an adult, rest can be hard to come by, as they may fly up to 100 miles in a single day.
Monarchs and many other pollinating insects have been in decline over the past few decades. Research shows that this is due to a significant loss of habitat, increased use of herbicides and pesticides, and a changing climate.
How can we help? By planting milkweed and other pollinator-friendly plants, avoiding the use of pesticides, and supporting conservation efforts, you can help monarch butterflies and other species each year.
Interested in learning more about monarchs? Register to attend a monarch tagging program at the Lowry Nature Center in early September. Reservations can be made online at threeriversparks.org or by calling 763-559-6700.