Monitoring Migrating Monarchs



By Dawn Watson

Weighing less than a penny and with wings as seemingly delicate as gossamer, the monarch butterfly is a marvel of migration. Setting out from the East End, and other parts of the eastern United States and Canada, each September the Danaus plexippus began to make their legendary annual trek to Mexico.

A monarch caterpillar.
A monarch caterpillar.

Covering as much as 3,000 miles during the trip, the iconic pollinators undertake a monumental journey across the vast North American landscape in order to overwinter down south in the sun. The voyage is even more miraculous considering that the brightly colored insects, born here in the north, have never before travelled much beyond their birthplace.

It takes several generations of the floaty fliers to complete the odyssey, says Springs-based naturalist Mike Bottini. The initial group of winged travelers sets out from the far south in March and arrives on the East End in the springtime. They then mate and hatch eggs that grow into larvae—caterpillars—and into pupa—chrysalis—before adulthood, creating two subsequent generations that are born here during the summer months of June, July and August. After the short summer season, the pupae that emerge as adults in September comprise the “super generation” that will fly south and overwinter in Mexico before making the long haul back north to begin the process all over again.

Hoping to get one last glance of the majestic orange and black butterflies, Mr. Bottini will lead a “Sofo Monarch Migration: Georgica Pond Nature Paddle” in East Hampton on Saturday, September 12. Fingers crossed, the South Fork History Museum and Nature Center outing will provide an opportunity to view the royal butterflies before they undertake their arduous fall voyage, he says.

Monarch chrysalis.
Monarch chrysalis.

The last few years have been tough for the winged travellers. The local monarch population has dwindled considerably, Mr. Bottini reports. Once abundant, they are now dying off at alarming rates.

The reason, he says, is that the butterflies are not finding enough food during their annual trek in order to survive the journey. To make the massive migration, the butterflies need access to a variety of natural plants for their food supplies. During the fall flight, those are nectar-producing plants, such as milkweed, Joe Pye weed, asters, goldenrod, Echinacea, thistle, alfalfa and clover.

“They need to refuel as they make their way south. And for that, they need nectaring plants,” Mr. Bottini reports. “But those plants are disappearing, thanks to us.”

Similar to the plight of the honey bee population, which has been facing decimation for the last several years, monarchs are now in danger of being wiped out. Scientists say that, just like with the bees, man-made environmental factors are blame.

From the deforestation of natural habitat land and the far-reaching effects of fertilizers and pesticides, to the impact of global warming and the widespread planting of genetically modified seeds, humans are systemically creating hostile environments that have lead to the near destruction of the monarch.

“The use of herbicides and herbicide-tolerant soybean and corn have affected nectar plants,” explains Mr. Bottini of the one of the primary threats to the possible extinction of the species. “Anything growing near the crop fields ends up being killed out.”

Milkweed, in particular, is necessary for the butterflies’ survival, he adds. But in the fields that populate the Midwest, genetically modified plants have all but eliminated their main food source.

The rapidly decreasing butterfly numbers are so alarming (in February of this year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provided a statistic showing that nearly a billion monarchs have vanished since 1990) that the species is currently being studied in consideration for Endangered Species status.

Here on the East End, Mr. Bottini continues to see the resulting local adverse effects on the butterflies. Basically, they have been very few and far between during the past few summers.

“I’ve been doing this Georgica paddle for years,” he says, adding that the area is a microcosm for the entire Long Island region. “We used to see dozens and dozens of the monarchs as they got ready for migration. Last year we might have seen three.”

But all is not quite lost yet. In June of last year, President Barack Obama issued a Presidential Memorandum on “Creating a Federal Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators.” As a result, a Pollinator Health Task Force was created and solutions to the decreasing population are being sought.

Locally, there’s plenty that we can do, Mr. Bottini reports. For starters, create a welcoming environment by adding nectaring plants to the garden. You can also make your lushly manicured lawn area smaller, allowing native grasses and plants to thrive instead. And, stop spraying general pesticides all over everything, he admonishes.

“There’s no such thing as a specific spray for ticks and mosquitoes. And the general pesticide sprays work on contact and kill everything,” he says. “But they are sprayed in the daytime, when the mosquitoes aren’t even around, and only kill the ticks that are present during the application.”

A more natural alternative, such as Daminex Tick Tubes, are much better for the environment and don’t kill crucial wildlife, he says.

Even though he’s quite concerned about the monarchs, the naturalist says he believes that here on the East End we can do something to reverse the eminent threat to their survival.

“I’m hoping that this ends up being a teachable moment, one that creates a call to action,” Mr. Bottini says, adding that everybody should appreciate the beauty of the butterfly and the magic of its migration. “You don’t have to be a naturalist to fall in love with the story of the monarch. It’s an amazing creature.”

Mike Bottini will lead a SoFo Monarch Migration: Georgica Pond Nature Paddle on Saturday, September 12, from 9 to 11 a.m. on Georgica Pond in East Hampton. Space is limited for the paddle, which costs $7 per adult and $5 per child aged 3 to 12. To learn more, visit For reservations, call 537-9735.

Want to attract monarchs to your garden? Here are a few nectaring plants that the butterflies love: milkweed, aster, thistle, Echinacea, horseweed, Joe Pye weed, alfalfa, goldenrod, lilac and red clover.