Probably the most recognizable butterfly in North America is the monarch, with its distinguishable and vibrant black and orange color palette.
Did you know that during the summer, millions of these beautiful winged creatures (if you recall from biology class: lepidoptera from Ancient Greek lepís “scale” + pterón “wing” – the order of insects that includes butterflies and moths) spend their summers in the northern Great Lakes region around Michigan?
While the “summer” monarchs only live for only about four weeks, the migratory winter monarchs (also known as the “super generation”) are noted as the longest-living butterflies with a life span of up to mine months. These late bloomers are just now gearing up for their 2,000-mile or so migration to winter in Mexico (as the butterfly flies, from the Straits of Mackinac to central Mexico).
“This generational difference is caused by changes in weather, aging milkweed, nectar sources and shorter photo periods. With fall quickly approaching, plants are beginning to die back and milkweed, or the caterpillar food, is beginning to brown,” according to a 2018 post on the Original Butterfly House of Mackinac Island website.
“The monarchs emerging in these cooler temperatures are slightly different from their parents and grandparents. Butterflies have a gene that produces collagen which influences flight muscle structure and growth. In the super generation, this gene, produces lower levels of collagen than in the summer monarchs. Less collagen in the flight muscles, increases the endurance of migratory monarchs so they can physically make the trip to Mexico. On top of all that, when the monarchs of the super generation, emerge from their chrysalises, cold weather stunts their development and sends them into a reproductive diapause, meaning they are not sexually active. Due to this HUGE energy reserve they have the ability to live for up to nine months.”
The U.S. Forest Service in Rapid River (located at the north end of Little Bay de Noc, northeast of Escanaba reports that monarchs typically travel 50 to 100 miles a day (although the longest daily trek was recorded at 265 miles). Some, they say, take up to two months to reach their seasonal homes. This group gathers information from tagged butterflies, which provide useful information about migration patterns, timelines and successful arrivals.
According to MonarchWatch.org, “each fall, hundreds of millions of monarch butterflies migrate from the United States and Canada to mountains in central Mexico where they wait out the winter until conditions favor a return flight in the spring. The monarch migration is truly one of the world’s greatest natural wonders.”
As of August 2019, there have been over 26,000 Monarch Waystation habitats in North America registered with Monarch Watch, including 1,950 in Michigan (the third highest state, behind Texas and Illinois respectively).
This migration season is a sight to see and throughout the months of August and September (depending on the weather each year), monarch sightings around northern Michigan are high.
One of the most popular viewing areas is Stonington Point in the Upper Peninsula near Escanaba (150 miles northwest of Mackinaw City), located at the southern tip of the 894,836-acre Hiawatha National Forest. Here, the tower of the Peninsula Point Lighthouse (c. 1865) stands watch over the kaleidoscope (the official designation for a group of butterflies) which at its peak amounts to more than 3,000.
In a 2018 Mlive.com article, writer Emily Bingham notes “because not all monarchs decide to head south at the same time, the butterflies’ migration through Michigan can take up to a month. And, because their staging points can vary based on the elements, it can be tricky to catch the pageantry of a large roost. To that end, Duke Elsner, a consumer horticulture educator with Michigan State University Extension, recommended the website www.journeynorth.org: a citizen-reported tracking database for migratory animals, birds and insects, including the monarch butterfly.”
Are you seeing monarchs around the Straits of Mackinac? If so, share our photos at https://www.facebook.com/MackinawCityMI/.
PHOTO: Michigan State University Extension.