Monarch Watch Update - March 19, 2003



1) Welcome!

2) Adopt-a-Classroom

3) Status of the Population

4) Tag Recoveries

5) Monarchs Sink Ship at Sea?

6) Butterfly Nectar & Host Plants Available

7) How to Unsubscribe from this Update


1) Welcome to Monarch Watch's Update List!

You are receiving this email because you have provided Monarch Watch with your email address at some point and expressed interest in receiving updates from us. If you do not wish to receive these periodic (probably monthly) email updates or feel that you were subscribed in error, please see the unsubscribe information at the end of this message.

Have you somehow missed (or misplaced ;-) an update? Now you can find all of the updates archived online at

If you know someone that you think might be interested in receiving these email updates from Monarch Watch with monarch news, special announcements, tips on raising monarchs in your classroom, monarch tagging information and a whole lot more, please send them on over to

to join our new Monarch-Watch-Update email list - it's easy!

Monarch Watch ( is a not-for-profit educational outreach program based at the University of Kansas. We run a Monarch tagging program and offer Monarch Rearing Kits, Monarch Tagging Kits, and other educational/promotional materials that allow you to actively experience the monarch life cycle and its spectacular fall migration.If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us anytime!

Your friends at Monarch Watch


2) Adopt-a-Classroom

This year contributions of school supplies, books, and donations of dollars and shipping for the Adopt a Classroom program allowed us to assemble 14 pallets of materials for distribution to the schools in the vicinity of the Monarch Biosphere Reserve . The 14 pallets fill two thirds of a semi-trailer and weighed at least 10,000 lbs. This was quite a load but it caught the attention of the Aduana (Customs) in Mexico and even though we had letters and documentation that the materials were donations, the shipment was delayed at the border. To get this much material into Mexico now requires a great deal of paperwork. At this writing (16 March) the materials are sitting in a warehouse in Texas and we are still negotiating the last details on this shipment. We have been repeatedly assured that the shipment will go through once all the documents clear. It is just a matter of time. The teachers in Ocampo are waiting for these materials. It's often a surprise for the teachers and students to receive the gifts provided by those who contribute to this program. In addition to the usual school supplies, this year's shipment included 600 sets of supplies for individual students assembled by students at Crestwood Elementary in Richmond, VA (organized by Judy Nickels). The shipment also contained 13 metal carts and 5 pallets of paper products that can be used for art supplies provided by Appleton North High School in Appleton, WI (organized by Connie Roop). Storybooks were a big hit with the students last year so with the help of Janis Lentz (a teacher in Texas) we purchased nearly 300 storybooks in Spanish for distribution to the schools this year.

Given the difficulties with the 2003 shipment, we met with the mayor (presidente) of Ocampo on 6 March to start the paperwork for the shipment next year. We need a better way, perhaps government to government, to get the materials into Mexico if this program is to continue.

Although we were disappointed not to be able to personally distribute the materials to the schools this year, we have made arrangements for the temporary storage and distribution of these supplies to the schools once they arrive in Ocampo. Our hosts were also disappointed that the materials did not arrive on time, but they made it clear how much they appreciate the efforts of Monarch Watch participants and supporters to provide materials for their schools. We at Monarch Watch also thank you for your generosity and help to make this program a continued success.


3) Status of the Population - by Chip Taylor

For the first time in three years, the overwintering monarch population has not experienced winter storms that severely reduced the population. At the end of each of the last two winters, the population moving north may have been the equivalent of two hectares of butterflies or less, the lowest spring populations since measurements of the colonies began in 1993. In each breeding season, the population has bounced back. This year the number of butterflies moving north is substantially higher. The overwintering population measured 8 hectares and, without substantial mortality due to storms, the population that moves north this spring could be higher than in any spring since 1999 while ranking below numbers recorded in the springs of 1996 and 1997. Unfortunately, good spring numbers do not translate to good fall numbers 5 months later. The high spring populations of 1997 and 1999 were both followed by significant drops in population size the next winter season.

Moving Out

When do the monarchs leave the overwintering sites? Actually, we know much less about when monarchs leave the colonies in the spring than we do about the timing of their arrival at the colonies in the fall. Monarchs begin to arrive in the vicinity of the overwintering sites in the last few days of October each fall, with the peak in arrivals in mid November and with the last butterflies arriving in the first week of December (a 5-6 week interval). Eligio Garcia has mentioned that he has observed monarchs leaving the colonies in the last week of February. This departure time is expected if some of the earliest monarchs are tracking changing celestial patterns in the spring and it also corresponds to the timing of the first arrivals in Texas. If the butterflies are tracking the sun, the rate of northward movement should average about 25 miles per day. Thus, a late February departure could lead to arrivals in South Texas in the first week of March. The peak in departures appears to be mid March with some butterflies lingering into April. Thus, it would appear that departure from the overwintering sites also involves a 5-6 week interval.

There is another issue to consider: do the monarchs just leave or do they have to go through some period of preparation before leaving the overwintering sites? There is no data on this point, but my guess is that there is a period of induction during which the monarchs prepare to move north by feeding at flowers, increasing metabolic rate, acquiring seasonally specific information, etc. On this last trip (2-8 March; the latest I’ve visited the colonies) it was apparent that the behavior of the butterflies within the colonies was different from those seen outside the colonies. Butterflies visiting flowers within and adjacent to the colonies could be easily collected by hand while those outside the colony areas were skittish and unapproachable, suggesting that the metabolic rates were higher for the latter. It may be that the intense streaming down and up the slopes from the colonies seen at a number of sites in late spring is related to the period of induction mentioned above.

Moving North

On 8-9 March, we drove from the monarch overwintering sites - specifically El Paso near Ocampo/Angangueo, Michoacán - to the Texas border. Both days were sunny with temps in the highs 60s to high 70s and winds were light. Rather than taking the four-lane route 57 north from Queretaro, we chose to drive through the mountains on highway 85 - a route that goes east from 57 near San Juan del Rio to Tamazunchale and then north to Ciudad Victoria. The first portion of the drive - to Tamazunchale - took about 4 hours at an average speed of about 30 miles per hour. It was a beautiful drive that took us from spectacular desert landscapes to lush forests and orange groves on the eastern side of the mountains. Monarchs were seen at 7 locations along this route. Generally, the butterflies appeared to be heading north. Asclepias curassavica (tropical milkweed) was seen along the roadsides near the divide starting at about km 230. This was the first milkweed we had seen. It was too late to see monarchs from Tamazunchale to Ciudad Valle where we spent the night.

On Sunday, monarchs were seen at 7-10 locations, mostly near and 20-30 km north of Ciudad Victoria. Flowering trees, shrubs and forbs were abundant along the routes taken both days. There was no lack of nectar except in a relatively small portion of the desert on the west side of the Sierra Madre Oriental. The most memorable sighting occurred as we were waiting in the van at about 2:30 PM to enter the U.S. at the Pharr, Texas port of entry. A monarch passed us on the left relatively low only to climb steadily as it approached the archway over the entrance. It ascended over the 30+ foot arch and passed the stylized giant metal monarchs that festoon its south side. It entered the U.S. about 10 minutes before we did.

Was this monarch on time or early? Monarchs are typically reported in South Texas, at locations away from the coast, during the first week of March and they are often reported in the vicinity of San Antonio and Austin around the 12-14th. Given the sightings reported this week to Dplex-L, the monarchs seem to be replicating what they have been doing in recent years.

Spring Conditions

What floral and milkweed conditions will monarchs encounter as they move into the United States? Droughts seem to play a large role in the development of the monarch population in the summer months. A glance at Drought Monitor ( shows that moisture levels in Texas, the Gulf States and into the Northeast are normal or above normal in nearly all areas. In other words, conditions look favorable for reproduction for the first generation (now to May). How well monarchs will do during the rest of the season depends in part on the distribution and abundance of rainfall in the coming months. The first generation monarchs begin moving north in late April, reaching the upper mid-west in mid to late May. At present, the conditions in this region do not look good. Drought monitor uses five gradations of drought from abnormally dry to exceptional (D0-D4). Abnormally dry to extreme dry (D0-D3) conditions are reported for the entire states of North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Nebraska. Most of Kansas and Missouri, northern Illinois and Indiana, and extreme northern Ohio are experiencing similar conditions. Since these regions seem to be the main breeding grounds for monarchs, the present conditions do not look promising. However, spring rains could change these conditions over the next 8 weeks.


4) Tag Recoveries

There is good news and bad news about tags. So far this year we have purchased over 800 tags that were recovered at the overwintering sites in Mexico. This is the second highest number of tags recovered in one season (that's the good news ;-) The bad news is that only about 150 of these were tagged last fall. The remaining tags were found on butterflies that died during the storm of January 2002. Because it is difficult for us to make contact with all those who have tags, the recovery of tags used during the fall 2001 migration may continue into the 2005 season. We are making arrangements for the purchase of another 300 tags so we expect the total for the season to exceed 1100 tags and hope that at least 200 of these will be from the 2002 tagging season.

The low number of recoveries for 2002 tagging is puzzling. The overwintering population was sizable, about 8 hectares, and populations of this size have yielded larger numbers of recoveries in the past. The most plausible explanation may be the location of the colonies in the forests. This year the El Rosario colony, which usually produces the largest number of recoveries, was located beyond the Llano de Conejos, the open area on the top of the mountain. When the colony utilizes this location, the guides tend to bring the public to the edge of the colony. Thus, the guides spend most of their time near the edge of the colony and don’t traverse the entire area occupied by the butterflies. When the colony is located on the "front side" of the mountain below the Llano de Conejos, the rate of tag recovery is higher, apparently because a larger portion of the dead butterflies or those visiting water are seen by the guides.

Alternative explanations include the following:

1 - Fewer monarchs were tagged in 2002. This may be the case. We will have an estimate of the total number tagged last fall in the next update.

2 - Most of the monarchs at the overwintering sites originated from locations where we have few taggers. In past seasons most of the monarchs appear to have originated from the upper Midwest, specifically the agricultural heartland or cornbelt. If a sizable portion of the monarchs originated from southern states where there are fewer taggers, we would expect fewer recoveries.

3 - Recoveries would also be lower if the monarchs survived at a higher rate and visited water sites less often this past winter. This may have been the case since the winter was wetter than normal and there were no catastrophic events that contributed to the mortality of the overwintering butterflies. If the tagged monarchs survived at a higher rate than for most winters, a substantial number of tagged butterflies may be heading north at this time.


5) Monarchs Sink Ship at Sea? - by Chip Taylor

I was recently asked by one of my colleagues who’s teaching a general entomology course to contribute accounts for a lecture about legends, myths and strange but true stories about insects. Here is one of my contributions. Is this account strange but true or a myth?

A few years ago after I had given a talk on monarchs to the Idalia Society in Kansas City, a local society devoted to the study of Lepidoptera in the Midwest, a gentleman came up to me and asked if I had ever heard of monarchs landing on ships. I told him I had and that there were many anecdotes about monarchs landing on ships offshore and boats and sailing craft on inland waters. "Well", he said, "I've got a story along those lines". His story was approximately as follows.

"A number of years ago we were in the salvage business along the Gulf Coast. We were searching for wrecks, ships lost in storms, from which we could harvest relics for sale. To find the approximate locations of these wrecks, we searched through old Naval and Coast Guard archives. We came across one first hand account that was amazing and hard to believe, but it was a first person account. The record concerned the fate of a sailing ship in the late 1800s. Apparently there was a strong shift in the wind in the afternoon and the seas became choppy. At about the same time, one of the crew noticed a dark cloud that seemed to be approaching the vessel. The cloud was unusual; it was large, but not like other clouds and it was low. The cloud turned out to be a mass of monarch butterflies that proceeded to land all over the ship, particularly the sails. The number of monarchs was enormous. What happened next was not clear but for some reason, perhaps due to the mass of monarchs on the sails and the swells, the crew lost control of the ship and it capsized and sank."

The fate of the crew was not related to me, but evidently someone survived to tell the story. The storyteller didn’t have additional details, since the ship and its cargo were of no great interest in terms of salvage. Is this a true story? I don't know. Elements of the story make sense, but others, such as the loss of control of the ship, are hard to accept without knowing more about the size and displacement of the ship and the weather conditions at the time of the incident.

Monarchs are known to land on sailing vessels using inland waters - sometimes in the thousands - during the migration in September. However, since monarchs are not known to fly together during the migration, it is hard to accept the "cloud of monarchs" observation, unless such "clouds" occur under special meteorological conditions or over water.

I've been reluctant to publicize this story. It may be another entomological myth. Yet, it could have happened. Perhaps someone searching naval archives will come across this account again and we can learn more about the circumstances about "the ship sunk by monarchs".


6) Butterfly Nectar & Host Plants Available

Once again, Monarch Watch will be offering a limited number of butterfly nectar and host plants to the local community. A modest donation will be requested for each plant and we will announce dates and locations (probably around Earth Day, April 22nd in Lawrence, KS) in the next update. A tentative plant list appears below. Stay Tuned!

Asclepias curassavica
Asclepias incarnata
Asclepias tuberosa
Asclepias tuberosa Hello Yellow
Buddleia Nanho Purple
Buddleia Royal Red
Caryopteris First Choice
Lantana Athens Rose
Lantana Dallas Red
Pentas Pink Profusion
Pentas Starburst
Stachytarpheta PorterWeed Purple


7) How to Unsubscribe from this Update

If you would like to be removed from this Monarch Watch Update mailing list, please send an email message to

and include in the body of the message (no other text):


If you have any questions about this, please feel free to contact us anytime.


Monarch Watch

All material on this site © Monarch Watch unless otherwise noted. Terms of use.
Monarch Watch (888) TAGGING - or - (785) 864-4441