Citizen Science

Follow Monarchs on a 2,500 Mile Journey

October 21, 2014

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A Monarch butterfly in the Boston Public Garden. Photo by Flickr user Nietnagel through a Creative Commons license.

What is Journey North and Why Should You Participate?

Migrating monarchs are one of nature’s wonders — they can travel up to 500 miles in just three days on their 2,500 mile journey from Mexico to Canada and back again over the course of a year.

And they’re also one of the few creatures that gains weight during migration — from 60mg of lipids (fat) when they start their southward migration to 140mg by the time they reach Mexico—because they glide on the wind instead of flapping.

“They’d never make it to Mexico otherwise,” explains Elizabeth Howard, founder and director of Journey North, which works to track monarch migrations. “In flapping flight, they would burn enough fat that they would starve in just 44 hours. Soaring and gliding they can go for 1,060 hours.”

But there’s a lot we still don’t know about monarchs. Which is Journey North is looking for your citizen science observations on the backyard behaviors of this iconic and threatened insect.

Why is Journey North Important?

Monarchs are currently completing their journey south to their overwintering grounds in Mexico. But the migrations get more difficult with each passing year.

The migration and the butterflies are in danger because of threats like climate change and changes in agriculture that have limited the amount of milkweed, a key plant for monarch conservation

In recent years, the population has declined dramatically.

Your observations can help scientists determine the abundance of monarchs and find out if they are overwintering in new locations. The data could help them answer questions like, how do monarchs know when to go to Mexico, how do they know where to fly, and why do monarchs migrate?

Answering questions about when butterflies travel, where they go, and whether or not the timing of their migrations has changed could help scientists to understand how climate change impacts their journey.

It could also help in advising when and where people should plant milkweed.

Monarch Butterfly Fall Migration MapMonarch Butterfly Migration Map Fall 2014. Courtesy of Journey North.

Journey North is also an excellent source of materials and facts for teachers and kids interested in the monarch migration. Even if they don’t pass by your area, you can track their progress on Journey North.

You can find out how to tell a male from a female or hear the story of a monarch that was blown off course all the way to England!

That’s not common, of course. In fact, migrating monarchs seem like they’re on a mission, according to Howard.

“It’s incredible the way they ‘beeline’ towards Mexico during fall migration,” she says. “When you see a migrating monarch, you know it. No matter how many times I see it I’m amazed. They fly overhead as if following an invisible roadway. One at a time, often a few minutes apart, they follow the same flight path.”

How Can You Get Involved in Journey North?

If you live where there are monarchs, just submit your sightings online.

If you aren’t sure where to find monarchs, here are two pro tips from Howard:

a. Find Nectar

If you want to see fall migration, find a large source of nectar. The best places are farm fields with blooming clover, alfalfa, sunflowers, etc. Stick around until sunset, watch the monarchs carefully, and you’re likely to see them gathering into an overnight roost.

b. Look for Little Butterflies

To find a field that’s rich with nectar you can drive around in your car. Watch for little butterflies — like sulphurs and cabbage whites — flitting above the flowers. They are much more numerous than monarchs and so are good clues that flowers are producing nectar and monarchs might be present.

Keep up with the monarch news or watch the maps to find out when monarchs come through your area.

There are many other things that you can do at home to help monarchs. For instance, plant milkweed, provide nectar plants, and avoid pesticide use.

Follow along with the migration online and get ready to record your observations for next year’s journey north!


Is there a citizen science project that you think deserves more attention? Contact Lisa Feldkamp, lfeldkamp[at]tnc.org or leave a comment below with a link to make a recommendation for Citizen Science Tuesday.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Nature Conservancy.

Lisa Feldkamp

Lisa loves all things citizen science and enjoys learning about everything that goes on four legs, two wings or fins - she even finds six and eight-legged critters fascinating at a safe distance. She has a PhD in Classical Literature and Languages from the University of Wisconsin - Madison and enjoys reading Greek and Roman literature or talking about mythology in her spare time. More from Lisa

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10 comments

  1. If you’d like to plant milkweed, but aren’t sure where to get seeds –

    SaveOurMonarchs.org has FREE milkweed seed packets on their website.

    Just send a self addressed, stamped envelope to:

    SaveOurMonarchs Foundation
    Box 390135
    Minneapolis, MN 55439

    1. We must help them. They are a symbol of everything amazing about our planet and nature!

  2. I have been planting milkweeds wherever I think it is safe from cutting,cornfields,construction it is getting harder and harder. I do plant in my gardens!

  3. I have my soil tilled and ready to plant milkweed. I bought some seeds already. I love butterflies and agree absolutely that they need our help.

  4. Was vacationing in Lake Michigan area . We were swimming in Lake Michigan and there were hundreds of monarchs. It was so wonderful to see them.

  5. We have been enjoying the monarchs in our personal natural Texas garden, in Plano Texas. We planted Gregg’s Mist, Mystic Spire and other plants in which they thrive. We just had a cold front so the butterflies have moved on.

    1. We always have milkweed around the yard.
      A few years back we had 7 chrysalis’s lined up on the
      ceiling of the front porch. It was awesome!