You may know that monarch butterflies are famous for their yearly migrations to and from their overwintering grounds in Mexico and California. Considering that these butterflies have to travel far to reach these grounds, you may be wondering how fast they have to fly to get there before winter. How far can a monarch butterfly fly in a day? And how can scientists track their progress? Keep reading as we explore these and other questions.
What You'll Learn Today
How Far Can a Monarch Fly in a Day?
Monarchs are the only type of butterfly that make a two-way migration each year. To successfully make this migration, they have to be able to travel incredible distances and cover a lot of ground each day.
Scientists disagree on exactly how far a monarch is capable of traveling in a day. Some suggest 25 to 30 miles a day, while others suggest the distance may be as much as 50 or even 100 miles a day.
There are numerous factors that affect how far a monarch can travel in a day. Some of these factors include air temperature, storm delays, other environmental circumstances, how far they have to go and where they begin their journey.
For example, monarchs found in northeastern portions of Canada travel to central Mexico, a distance of over 3,000 miles in some cases. Those farther south don’t have as far to go, and any monarchs found west of the Rockies make a much shorter journey to parts of southern California.
The monarchs that have farther to travel may be driven by environmental cues that prompt them to clock more miles in a day than those that don’t have as far to go.
Cold temperatures and rain can delay their progress, while warm and clear weather may prompt them to go farther, faster.
How Long Does it Take a Monarch to Migrate?
As you might imagine, this migration doesn’t take the exact same length of time for every monarch that makes the trip.
Those starting in northern Canada are bound to be traveling longer than those found in the Great Plains region because they have so much farther to journey. Those found west of the Rockies make the shortest trip of all.
At longest, a monarch’s journey takes about two months. Those who don’t have as far to travel may complete the migration in a month, possibly even less.
The length of time it takes a monarch to migrate largely depends on how far it’s flying everyday, as well as environmental factors such as prolonged periods of good or bad weather.
Check out this video to learn more about the monarchs’ migration.
Where Do Monarchs Migrate?
All North American monarchs found east of the Rocky Mountains travel to Mexico. Specifically, they journey to the Mexican states of Mexico and Michoacan, where they have about a dozen overwintering spots where they group together by the millions.
Monarchs who travel to Mexico cluster in oyamel fir trees, often clothing the trees in spectacular layers of quivering wings and bodies. Sometimes so many butterflies cluster in a single tree that branches of the tree break under the weight.
The North American monarchs found west of the Rocky Mountains journey to southern parts of California. Specifically, they flock to areas around San Diego and Santa Cruz.
These clusters are generally much smaller than the ones found in Mexico, but they can be just as impressive. Butterflies overwintering in California tend to cluster together in eucalyptus, pine, and cypress trees.
No one knows the exact pathways used by monarchs to reach their winter home. Most likely, they don’t follow an exact path but more of a general course through the middle part of the United States.
We do know that the eastern monarchs tend to follow some basic routes, or flyways, before merging into a single flyway in Texas. They have been known to fly as high as airplanes, using air currents at these higher elevations to help them fly farther than they would be able to in their own strength.
How Do Scientists Track Monarch Migration?
In many parts of North America, scientists will place small, numbered stickers on the butterfly’s wings. This is known as tagging.
Scientists and citizen-scientists will look for these tagged monarchs and report when and where they find them. This allows scientists to get a general idea of how far the butterfly has traveled and the route they might have taken.
Thanks to this simple tracking method, scientists have discovered patterns in the monarchs’ movement that has allowed us to learn much about the butterflies and their incredible journey each fall.
It is believed that monarch butterflies can fly anywhere from 25 to 100 miles each day when they are making their yearly migration. How far they can travel depends on weather, temperature, and other environmental conditions.