Chasing Monarchs

Last week I saw some videos of roosting monarchs posted by Jackie Huggins in the Monarchs, Swallowtails, Moths, Beasts and Blooms! Facebook group.  She commented, “I have been all over Michigan in the last week and a half looking for roosting monarch potential. Based on this year’s maps as well as my own sightings, the west side of Michigan is the prime location this year!”

I was quite excited to read this because I was on my way to Kalamazoo, Michigan, and thought I might be able to see some migrating monarchs roosting. For the past four years, I have tried to find roosts of migrating monarchs with no success. I commented on the post and Jackie immediately sent me a private message and offered to assist me in finding a roost to observe.

A few days later Jackie sent me a message. A farmer had agreed to let us onto his property to see some monarchs that were roosting in some pine trees on his land. We arranged a time and place to meet. We arrived and parked at the planned meet-up point, a local cemetery. Cameras in hand we began to trudge through poison ivy avoiding foxholes to find the stand of fir trees where the farmer said the monarchs were roosting. I was excited finally to see a roost of migrating monarchs.

As we neared the stand of trees where the monarchs were sighted, Jackie received a text message from the farmer saying he had driven by the cluster of monarchs earlier that morning and must have scared them because they all dispersed and flew away. Jackie looked dishearten. But when on a “quixotic” quest hope springs eternal. We kept walking. Maybe the farmer was wrong.

No monarchs in sight.

And then we saw a monarch in a nearby patch of grass. Maybe a few had stayed behind. Then we saw another monarch off in the distance in a meadow. Could they still be around?

Can you see the monarch?

We continued walking looking for what was a field where the farmer had planted poppies earlier in the summer. Not knowing where we were going we turned into a field of flowers surrounded by several deciduous trees. All of a sudden, much to our surprise and delight, several monarchs flew right in front of us. We looked closer and realized that although the monarchs had scattered and left their roost in the pine trees, they had formed small clusters in the trees surrounding a field of flowers.

Trees full of monarch butterflies!

Can you see the cluster of monarchs? They are very well camouflaged among the leaves of the trees.

As we continued to walk slowly, trying to see where monarchs were clustered together in the trees, we would unknowingly startle a group of butterflies that would flutter right in front of us. It was such a thrill to see so many orange wings at once swoop right in front of us.

I lost all sense of time and was caught up in the excitement of seeing so many monarch butterflies. I walked quietly so as not to disturb them trying to get some photos and videos of the clusters of butterflies. We estimated that there must have been close to 150 to 200 monarchs in that area. But I have to admit; no videos or photos can truly capture the euphoria of the experience.
Why do the monarchs roost when they are migrating? According to Journey North, cool temperatures paralyze monarchs, making them vulnerable to predators. A roost provides safety in numbers. When overnight temperatures are warm, monarchs may not aggregate as tightly or roost at all. Perhaps monarchs shift to roosting behavior when cold overnight temperatures make them vulnerable.

The colors of the monarch’s wings blend in with the changing colors of the leaves and the seeds.

Migrating monarchs also need to build their fat reserves for their long journey by drinking nectar along their migration pathways. The tall trees and the fields of flowers provided a perfect spot for the monarchs to protect themselves as well as find plenty of nectar until they were ready to move on.

Chicory (Cichorium intybus), Goldenrod (Goldenrod, spp.), Black-eyed Susan (Ruudbeckia hirta), and Red Clover (Trifolium pratense) provide lots of nectar for the monarchs to feed on.

One of the best ways to follow the fall migration is to track where they are forming roosts. Journey North keeps and posts data collected by citizen scientists on where roosts are being observed. The roost map shows where there are large concentrations of monarchs. Week by week, it reveals the fall migration pathways to Mexico and the pace of the migration.

Click here to track the Eastern Monarch Fall Migration.

Many thanks to Jackie Huggins who took the time to share this amazing experience with me!

Jackie Huggins is an active Citizen Scientist and collects data for the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project.

Read more about monarch roosts here:

The Monarch Butterfly Super Generation

The monarchs we see at this time of year are truly special. They are the “super generation”,  also known as the Methuselah generation. They will be the ones that migrate up to 3,000 miles to the Sierra Madre mountains in Mexico. These super monarchs live longer, travel farther, and reproduce on a different schedule than their parents or grandparents.

Around the late 4th instar, monarch caterpillars and adult butterflies will get their cues to go south from nature. These cues include shorter daylight hours, native milkweed starts dying back, temperatures start cooling at night and during the day. (Journey North)

Late summer and fall monarch caterpillars are most likely the great-great-grandchildren of monarchs who migrated from Mexico last spring.

The angle of the sun may also be a major cue for them to head south. Orley Taylor, an insect ecologist at the University of Kansas discovered through the Monarch Watch’s tagging program that most monarchs took flight when the sun’s angle was about 57° above the horizon at noon, no matter where they set out. “There seems to be a window of opportunity for flight when the noon Sun is between 57° and 48°, the team reports in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.

Midpoints and Peaks of the Monarch Migration By Latitude (Monarch Watch)

Migrating monarchs change physiologically. Beginning in mid-August in the north, adults are in diapause when they emerge from the chrysalis. They are full-grown but not reproductively mature. Their reproductive development is on pause. These monarchs will not complete development and begin to mate until next spring in Mexico. The hormone deficiency that leads to diapause also leads to increased longevity. Breeding monarchs live only 2-6 weeks; migratory monarchs live up to 8 months. (Monarchs that overwinter in Florida, Texas, and California, however, may not emerge in reproductive diapause because they do not migrate to Mexico.)

Adult Monarchs that will be migrating south are changing dramatically in the fall not only in physiology but also and in their behavior:

Three Signs of Migratory Monarchs
1. Flying in directional flight
2. Clustering in overnight roosts (Click here to read more.)
3. Nectaring intensely

Monarch butterflies will roost together at night during fall migrations.


Accumulating Fat
Monarchs are shifting focus now from breeding to intense feeding. They must build body fat to fuel migration and to survive the winter in Mexico. Never is nectar more important to monarchs than during fall migration. Nectar fuels migration. It’s also critical for building the fat reserves the butterfly will need to survive the winter months in Mexico.

Help Migrating Monarchs by planting flowers that bloom late into the fall. Click here to read more.

Butterfly Container Gardening

If you live in an apartment with a small patio or deck you can still have a butterfly garden by planting the right plants in a container.

Remember, butterflies visit a garden for two things: In search of food (nectar), which they get from butterfly-friendly flowers, and for host plants on which to lay their eggs. So if you are making a butterfly garden, ensure you grow both butterfly-friendly flowers that are nectar-rich and host plants, the plants that caterpillars prefer to eat.

A Gulf Fritillary is attracted to a Mexican Sunflower planted in a container. Also shown are Purple Trailing Lantana (Lantana montevidensis), Giant Red Penta
(Pentas lanceolata), and Blue Porterweed (Stachytarpheta cayennensis).

Start with a large container. You can use just about anything that will hold soil, but it has to have holes in the bottom for drainage or you’ll have floating plants after the first thunderstorm. Poor drainage is the most frequent cause of failure in container gardening.

Fill the bottom of the container with empty soda cans. You can also use pinecones if you prefer to use something more natural. This serves two purposes, first, you use less potting soil in the container so that the container is not unbearably heavy, and second, the cans or bottles provide oxygen and room for the roots to grow.

One formula used by designers is to include at least one spiller, one thriller, and one filler in each pot. The filler can be anything bushy, the spiller is a trailing plant to soften the edge, and the thriller can be a bloomer or something with interesting texture or weird foliage to provide the wow factor.

Sweet Potato Vine (Ipomoea batatas) is the spiller, Pincushion Flower (Scabiosa columbaria ‘Butterfly Blue’) is the filler, and Butterfly White Penta (Pentas lanceolata) is the thriller.

Because of the intensive planting, you will need to fertilize and water your containers often. A slow-release fertilizer mixed in the soil at planting time will keep the plants blooming all summer long. Deadheading and grooming the plants will keep them looking gorgeous. Don’t hesitate to shear back bloomers if they look tired and leggy. They will reward you with more blossoms later in the season.

Don’t forget to include host plants such as fennel, dill, and parsley for Black Swallowtails and milkweed for Monarchs.


  • Be sure that any container you use has drainage holes.
  • Avoid small containers. They often can’t store enough water to get through hot days, so will need constant care. Large pots also insulate roots better.
  • Clay pots are usually more attractive than plastic ones, but plastic pots retain moisture better. Consider a plastic pot inside a larger clay pot to get the best of both worlds!
  • New, lightweight materials, such as fiberglass, plastic, or foam composites, make moving pots easier.
  • Use soil-free potting mix; not only is it light, but the fluffy blend provides roots with more oxygen and nutrients.
  •  To plant, place the container where you want your flower to grow. Be sure it receives enough sun.

    A variety of containers can make for an interesting display.


  • Fill the container ⅔ full with potting mix.
  • With your hands, make a hole in the potting mix about the diameter of the pot.
  • Knock the flower out of its pot, spread its roots slightly, and place it in the hole.
  • Add more potting mix to bring the level up to 2 inches below the container top.
  • Water gently, press the mix to reduce air pockets, add more mix if necessary, then water again.
  • Mulch container surfaces to prevent soil compaction or root damage. Heavy rains and high-pressure hose blasts can dislodge potting mix and damage roots or pound the surface creating a hard crust through which water has a difficult time penetrating. Sphagnum moss, aquarium gravel, pebbles, and shredded cedar bark are all attractive barriers that thwart these problems.
  • Feed container plants at least twice a month with liquid fertilizer, following the instructions on the label.
  • Keep the planting medium moist. The container plant is totally at your mercy for water.
  •  Deadhead old flowers to promote new flower formation and to prevent seeds from forming which stops the bloom cycle.

A variety of butterfly-friendly seeds can be purchased at Butterfly Lady’s Etsy Shop.

Annuals for the Butterfly Garden

There are many benefits of adding annuals to your butterfly garden.

Annuals not only bring color and excitement to summer gardens but provide lots more pollen and nectar sources to attract many butterflies, hummingbirds, and bees to your garden. 

Some of the best annuals for butterflies include Zinnias, Pentas, Cosmos, Mexican Sunflowers, Lantana, Verbena, and Scarlet Milkweed. Click here to find seeds.

Annual flowers grow quicker and bloom longer. They have a lot of work to do in one season, so they’re efficient plants, germinating and growing quickly. And they often stay in flower all season long.

I am regularly asked, “What is the most popular flower in your garden?” Mexican Sunflowers definitely!

Annuals come in a multitude of colors.  Annual blooms are usually bright and vivid. They need to attract pollinators and they don’t have time to waste. You can count on filling up empty beds quickly and dramatically with annuals, mixing colors and heights to create the palate you want.

Butterflies love lantana. Clusters of nectar-filled blooms make lantana a magnet for pollinators.

Annuals are easy to grow from seed. You plant, water, and sit back to enjoy the show.

Zinnias are one of the easiest annuals to grow. Just prepare the soil and sow them directly into the ground. Click here to purchase seeds.

Joe Pye Weed is the Queen of the Meadow

Joe Pye Weed, also known as Spotted Joe Pye Weed, or Queen of the Meadow is a herbaceous native perennial wildflower found throughout much of the United States and Canada. It must be called “Queen of the Meadow” due to the number of butterfly and pollinator parties it hosts!

Tiny mauve flowers of Joe Pye Weed bloom in large clusters atop the stems. These flowers have a sweet vanilla scent.

Joe Pye Weed is an outstanding garden plant and will flourish in any rich garden soil. Reaching heights of 4 to 6 feet, it is topped with huge clusters of mauve flower heads on tall straight stems which are so rich in pollen and nectar that they are like a magnet for butterflies, bees, and other pollinators.

Monarch (Danaus plexippus), Common Buckeye, and Tiger Swallowtail are just some of the butterflies attracted to these fragrant flowers.

Joe Pye Weed does best in average, medium to wet soils in full sun, but tolerates some light afternoon shade in hot summer climates. You can cut the plants to the ground in late winter.

Joe Pye Weed is a very tall plant, up to six feet tall, but strong stems support the flowering plant so it rarely needs to be staked. Click here to purchase seeds.

This is a very low-maintenance native perennial that is simply stunning when planted in groups. It does require large space to grow, but it’s can make a great impact on the back of borders, in cottage gardens, meadows, native plant gardens, wild, naturalized areas, and of course, butterfly gardens.