Citizen Science

Larva Lookout (Monarch Butterflies)

March 31, 2015

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Three very hungry monarch caterpillars share a snack. Photo by Flickr user Nick Thompson through a Creative Commons license.

Citizen Science Tuesday connects you with opportunities to be a part of conservation science with outdoor projects around the world and online projects to try from the comfort of your own home.

What is the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project?

“When I was a kid I had a bug collection for 4-H. Every year I would add 20 or 30 more species to my collection and the hunt of exploring and finding new insects inspired me to get more involved in insect conservation,” says Wendy Caldwell, Program Coordinator for the Monarch Joint Venture.

Young bug collectors today don’t see so many of the monarch butterflies that were once easy to find across the United States. Researchers estimate that a jaw-dropping 970 million monarchs have vanished since 1990.

The problem sounds dire, but there is hope and you can help.

Calling all bug collectors, butterfly lovers, gardeners — and wannabes — young and old!

Take part in the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project (MLMP) and your online submissions will further the scientific effort to understand the causes of monarch declines and create plans to restore monarchs.

Adult monarch on New England aster. Photo by Rick Hansen/USFWS on Flickr through a Creative Commons license.
Adult monarch on New England aster. Photo by Rick Hansen/USFWS on Flickr through a Creative Commons license.

The MLMP has many activities from tracking density to monitoring parasitism. Choose one or try them all.

“Researchers and conservationists will use the data collected by MLMP volunteers to inform conservation efforts,” Caldwell says. “You are involved in a real scientific project and your observations are extremely helpful to us!”

Why is the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project Important?

“Not only are monarchs beautiful and they undergo an amazing annual migration, but they are a flagship species for conservation – many organisms benefit from monarch habitat conservation,” Caldwell explains.

Other species that benefit include native plants that people restore when creating butterfly habitats and gardens and other native pollinators, like bumble bees that are drawn to the same plants.

When people attempt to restore a species or habitat without scientific information to back up their efforts, they sometimes make mistakes.

For instance, some efforts at planting milkweed for monarchs backfired because non-native tropical species were planted in the US instead of locally native species.

Tropical milkweeds are active through more of the year than native species, which encouraged monarchs to stay in place rather than migrating and led to increased rates of parasitism.

But that’s not a reason to give up, citizen science helps people to track and correct those mistakes.

Monarch butterfly nymph chrysalis. You can see the orange wing, indicating this one was moments from opening.
Monarch butterfly nymph chrysalis. You can see the orange wing, indicating this one was moments from opening. Photo by Chesapeake Conservation Landscaping Council on Flickr through a Creative Commons license.

Efforts like the MLMP are valuable because they track observations over time (since 1997) and across regions (US and some parts of Canada & Mexico).

Participants record observations of monarch larva abundance at each phase from egg to pupa, what kind of plants they’re on and even what kind of parasites they have. Don’t worry! They’ll train you in proper IDs.

That kind of information can help scientists and conservationists to track what kinds of habitat restoration work well and where problems arise (as when tropical milkweed was linked to increased parasitism) so that they can make informed conservation decisions.

“Volunteers commonly report tachinid fly parasitoids emerging from monarch caterpillars or pupae, but there is also a species of wasp that lays its eggs in a monarch pupa, and then wasps emerge instead of an adult monarch,” Caldwell says. ”I’ve seen about 250 of these tiny wasps come out of one monarch pupa!”

In fact, MLMP observations have been used in published research that is benefitting monarch conservation.

“Analyses of the information gathered have helped to determine reasons for the population decline, abundance of monarch eggs and larvae across the country, and habitat characteristics that benefit monarchs,” Caldwell explains.

A monarch caterpillar prepares to pupate. Photo by Flickr user Whit Andrews through a Creative Commons license.
A monarch caterpillar prepares to pupate. Photo by Flickr user Whit Andrews through a Creative Commons license.

On top of that, the MLMP encourages people to get outside and connect with nature in their neighborhood – something that is good for all of us.

“Challenge yourself to learn the species of plants and insects at the site. Bring a field guide to help you identify these plants and other insects for your reports,” Caldwell urges. “This information is important and can help us identify characteristics of a site that are either better or worse for monarch survival.”

How Can You Get Involved in the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project?

Take the online MLMP training. Or, better yet, attend an in person training session near you.

Then get started monitoring!

“We encourage people to start with Activity 1, weekly monarch density,” says Caldwell. “There are numerous activities listed to participate in, but you can do as many or as few as you’d like!”

And she shared some pro tips for MLMP beginners:

  •  Check the nooks and crannies of the plant for monarchs when you are monitoring. I find a lot of eggs and early instar monarch caterpillars hiding in the top few leaves of the plant or in the flower buds.
  •  Look for signs that a monarch was there – holes in the leaves, caterpillar frass, etc. Keep detailed notes of your observations to share with the project.
  •  Keep your online reports up to date. You don’t want to let your data entry pile up, plus, if you enter your weekly reports as you go, your site monarch density graph will show up on our website for others to see and learn about what is happening in your part of the country.

Try the MLMP – make a few observations and see how you like it!

I will be planting milkweed and monitoring later this spring in the DC/MD/VA area. Please share your advice for a newbie gardener and MLMP participant in the comments.

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

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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  1. I have enjoyed the Monarchs in my garden every year. Last year I saw ONE! I would like to help. Please tell me how. Thank you.

  2. I am having trouble with black death. Some of my milk weeds have yellow flowers and some have orange/yellow. How can I tell which ones to plant.

  3. I wanted to participate this year, but our 1.5 acre property has hosted ONE larva this year. I’m between New Albany and Johnstown, Ohio.

  4. Hi, I have 2 monarch butterfly larva on my milkweed! I am so excited. Live in San Diego area and I am trying to find where to put one of the larva that has moved off the plant and is slowly moving up the side of the house (stucco). I do not know where it is going and I was wondering if I should move it to a plant. The way the poor thing is going there is no food source here! Do you have any info for me? I do not have time to sit on this computer and find an answer. Thanks

    1. Hi Becky, If it is a monarch, it would be best to put it on milkweed. Thank you for checking!