As you read these words, migrating monarchs are arriving at their overwintering forests in Mexico. I hope they are arriving in strong numbers.

They certainly left this neck of the woods in the strongest numbers I’ve ever witnessed: 2,942. My mind is still boggled! I’ll use three vignettes to illustrate my point.

Milkweed field

First is a 23-acre field south of Nevis. Abundant dwarf and common milkweed were present. They provided food for hungry monarch caterpillars and nectar for adults. Jack pines were scattered in places.

From July 14 through Sept. 23, I witnessed 177 migratory monarchs on my 11 visits there. The 177 were a combination of those that locally emerged in the field, plus others passing through.

I noticed that many of the freshly emerged would perch for awhile in the jack pines.

Blazing Star meadow

Second is a meadow south of Akeley that has many patches of blazing star. I visited that meadow six times in August, when blazing star was in bloom.

Refueling migratory monarchs were taking full advantage of the bounty found there. My six-visit total was an incredible 1,1704 monarchs!

In fact, on my first visit on Aug. 9, I was surrounded by 657 monarchs during the 24 minutes I was there. The 657 were more than I encounter in a full season some years!

Small milkweed patch

Third is a nearby neighbor’s very small patch of common milkweed. Though small in size, the patch was huge in the number of monarchs it hosted. I witnessed a total 50 caterpillars. In fact, 10 were visible on just one day: Aug. 14!

An amazing 11 monarchs emerged there from Aug. 2 through Oct. 9.

‘Weed’ chrysalis

Now I’ll briefly recap the chronology of just one of the 11 monarchs that emerged from that small patch:

  • Aug. 20 : My wife, Marlene, notices that a final fifth instar caterpillar “J” has become a jade-green chrysalis on a tall weed.

  • Aug. 23: I measure that chrysalis attached 40 inches above the ground. (What a climbing feet for the caterpillar! It had grown 2,000 times the volume of when it had started as an egg!)

  • Sept. 5: Strong rain and wind overnight had bent the weed over. I stake it up.

  • Sept 17: I’m very pleased, but surprised the chrysalis is still OK.

  • Sept. 19: The adults merges before 2 p.m. By 4:41 p.m. on its journey to Mexico after spending 30 days in the chrysalis. Rain and cool weather had really extended its time in chrysalis way beyond what could have been as little as “two weeks.” (What’s normal anymore?!)

An adult monarch is visbile inside this chrysalis. It will emerge three days later on Oct. 9 to become Weber's 2,942nd and final monarch of the 2019 season. 
An adult monarch is visbile inside this chrysalis. It will emerge three days later on Oct. 9 to become Weber's 2,942nd and final monarch of the 2019 season. 

Last hurrah

At the neighbor's small patch, another chrysalis was actually attached to a common milkweed. It was still OK on Sept. 20 after a morning rain. Though all leaves had died and turned brown on that plant, it was still hanging in there on Sept. 22. On Oct. 6, I took a picture showing an adult was still safely inside the chrysalis.

Happily, at 10:43 a.m. on Oct. 9, the just-emerged adult was sitting atop a plant. It was the final adult I saw in the 2019 season: my 2,942! That was almost double the 1,569 I had in my best previous year – 2015.

I hope it made immediate tracks, heading south on the last warm day we had in October. Two days later, two inches of snow fell.

A chrysalis hangs empty below the freshly emerged adult that had spent 30 days inside it.
A chrysalis hangs empty below the freshly emerged adult that had spent 30 days inside it.

Affinities

I don’t know if anyone has researched several affinities I noted for migrating monarchs this year.

  • Conifers: In Mexico, monarchs spend their winters roosting on Oyamel firs. In Minnesota, a number of freshly emerged adults spent some time perching for a bit on conifers, especially jack pines. Are they getting their bearings? Is this behavior coded in their DNA?

  • Blazing stars: How do the migratory ones “recognize” that these plants provide high-octane nectar for fueling their flight to Mexico? Again, has it been passed own in the DNA of successful migrants?

Bottom line

The incredible 1,704 migrating monarchs in the blazing star meadow certainly skewed my findings for 2019, especially when you realize I’d not visited that meadow at all in 2018.

I hope that all the migratory monarch activity I witnessed in my neck of the woods is reflected in an increase in the number of hectares they occupy in Mexico this winter.

To “even the playing field,” so to speak, I’m excluding them when calculating the number of hectares occupied by overwintering monarchs in Mexico. I’m predicting they will occupy more than the 6.05 percent they did last winter.

With the climate and many other crises facing them, monarchs have many challenges and obstacles confronting their journey south.

We can wish them well as they seek nectar, favorable weather, etc. as they flutter along.

A local butterfly and dragonfly enthusiast, John Weber writes the "Leps & Odes" outdoors column for the Enterprise. Since 1997, Weber has been meticulously recording every dragonfly sighting. He’s counted butterflies since 1993. “Leps” is short for the insect order of lepidoptera, meaning butterflies and moths. “Odes” is short for odonata, or dragonflies and damselflies.