Not Yet, Monarchs, Not Yet!

Monarch butterflies are leaving Mexico and traveling north, as they always do.  However, they’re coming a lot further north than they typically do in April.  The first I heard about this was a text message from conservation photographer Michael Forsberg back on April 9.  Mike said he had just photographed a monarch butterfly with faded wings in his Lincoln, Nebraska backyard.  “Could this be from Mexico (seems too far north)?  Or could this be a local new generation (seems to early)?”  Yes, exactly.

Mike and I checked with some experts who all agreed that Mike’s butterfly had overwintered in Mexico and had flown all the way north to Nebraska.  And yes, it was awfully far north for a monarch to be spotted at this time of year.  Moreover, Mike wasn’t alone in his observation.  According to Journey North’s website, there have been numerous 2017 sightings of monarchs much further north than they are normally seen in April.

Well, good for the monarchs, right?  They’re getting a head start on the season, and hopefully they’ll have a great year…

…Unfortunately, coming this far north this early is probably not a good thing.  Ordinarily, monarchs that leave Mexico in the early spring fly as far north as the southern United States and lay eggs on milkweed plants there.  The generation that hatches from those eggs then makes their way further north, including to our Nebraska prairies.  By overshooting the southern United States this spring, the early monarchs here in Nebraska have arrived before our milkweed plants are even out of the ground.  There’s no place for them to lay their eggs, and that could lead to big problems.

No, this wasn’t a monarch from this spring. This was photographed in Minnesota in July 2015, a reasonable time and place for monarchs. There is no milkweed to be found yet in our prairies this spring.

Our Platte River Prairies land manager (Nelson Winkel) says he saw a couple monarchs last Friday, and I got to add my own early sighting to the Journey North database this weekend.  As I was driving into our family prairie with two of my kids, I saw a big butterfly out of the corner of my eye and thought “monarch??” but missed getting a good look.  An hour later, though, I had a very clear look at a monarch butterfly in flight, so when I returned home I logged in and reported it.  On Monday, I returned to our prairie to do some work and saw a monarch again (same one?).  I followed it for a while to see what it was up to, and over the next 5-10 minutes, I watched it repeatedly hover low to the ground, fly 10 yards or so, and then hover again.  It sure looked like it was searching for something, and it bypassed quite a few wildflowers, so I don’t think it was looking for nectar.  I’m guessing it was looking in vain for milkweed plants, but I might just be projecting.

It’s too early to know what this year will bring for the monarch butterfly.  The Eastern North American population count in Mexico was higher than many had anticipated, but still far lower than desired.  Habitat loss both in North America and Mexico, pesticide impacts, landscape fragmentation, declines in milkweed populations, and weather events all threaten butterfly populations.  Now, overly-ambitious monarchs taking advantage of strong tailwinds appear to be compounding their own problems.  It remains to be seen how many will arrive before milkweed plants are ready for them, and what impacts those early arrivals might have.  I’m hoping the majority of the population will stay south and make lots of babies that can come up here in another month or so.  We’ll do our best to make them welcome when they arrive.

Want to help make monarchs welcome in your area?  Planting and protecting milkweed plants in your neighborhood can give monarchs somewhere to lay their eggs.  Even better, do what you can to ensure a diversity of blooming plants is available throughout the growing season.  Monarchs are only one of many pollinator insects that are suffering because of a lack of consistent and abundant supply of pollen and nectar.  Plant native wildflowers in your yard and help keep native prairies and other natural areas in good condition so bees, butterflies, and other pollinators can find food for themselves and their offspring all season long.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
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31 Responses to Not Yet, Monarchs, Not Yet!

  1. davidinkc says:

    Hi Chris, I am much more of a birder, but we are also noticing a lot of early migrants this year as well. A few of records for early arrivals of migrating birds of all feathers (usually only by a day or two), but a lot of arrivals well ahead of their median first record times (over the past 10-, 20- or 30- years). Bunch of theories about this, but as you alluded to in the last paragraph, I personally think the strong winds are a major factor here.  The good news is apparently down here we have milkweed all ready for the Monarchs. A few reports from friends that they’ve already seen some eggs on their plants.  Cheers, Dave

  2. I am in Texas, about 100 miles north of the Gulf of Mexico, and I am seeing that same behavior. For fall migration, I typically see the monarchs flying about 20 feet up in the air and heading straight south. This spring, I am seeing lots of faded monarchs, but they are flying near the ground, looping around like they don’t know where they are going. We had a very mild winter here, but nothing is in bloom yet, at least at my place.

  3. bradguhr says:

    Great post, Chris. I started seeing faded individuals in SC KS that same weekend of April 8-9 too. Fortunately, the milkweed had already emerged here and more often than not milkweed plants (A. syriaca, A. tuberosa, A. viridis so far) are found with one and sometimes 6-10 eggs on them. We are waiting patiently for eggs to hatch.

  4. Malia Robinson says:

    Here is SE Lancaster county we saw a few in our yard this past weekend, flying up high around trees as they often do here. We have lots of milkweed around, but they are just starting to shoot up. Feeling bad for this first ambitious batch.

  5. Sheena Beaverson says:

    There have been a number of ragged butterfly sightings, and sightings of large numbers of eggs on newly emerging milkweed, in east central Illinois since late last week. I’ve posted reports and photos to Journey North.

  6. sarah holmes says:

    In our schoolyard garden in Kansas City, the milkweed is about 6 inches high. There are about 5-8 eggs on each shoot of milkweed. Crazy!

  7. beingbodeker says:

    My 12 year old son insisted he saw a monarch over the weekend here in eastern Iowa & I absolutely did not believe him despite his protests & spot-on description…may need to do some apologizing. Thank you for this post.

  8. Andrew White says:

    As a wildlife biologist in NW Missouri, my job takes me to the field on a regular basis. The first time I spotted a Monarch (so faded it was almost unrecognizable), was March 30, while on a site visit in rural Livingston County. I honestly thought I was going crazy. I was checking out a new CP42 (CRP pollinator) planting that had been sown in November of last year. There was common milkweed everywhere, about 6-8″ tall. The sighting immediately turned my focus to the plants. Every single plant I looked at was loaded with eggs. One plant had 9 eggs on it! In a way, their early arrival alarmed me initially, but I think we are in good shape over here. I can’t wait to go back and visit this site in a few weeks and see/photograph the Monarch hatchlings!

  9. K. Haller says:

    We have been seeing monarch’s in Topeka, KS for about the last 10 days. Also, a friend of mine found monarch eggs on newly emerged milkweed at the KCDC prairie here in Topeka as well. Thanks Chris.

  10. Pingback: Monarch Butterflies – Rational Thinking 101

  11. Tom Wojtech says:

    I saw a Monarch yesterday in my Salina Kansas yard and thought it was too early for here.

  12. April 15th, Indianapolis area: female monarch searching for places to lay eggs. She ended up dumping several hundred on the sparse shoots and nascent leaves just emerging in our waystation we planted last spring. 8 cats have hatched to date.

  13. Jane Papsdorf says:

    I have not heard of any sightings in Indiana. Good thing.

  14. Moni Usasz says:

    We saw six Monarchs at visiter’s center at Cheyenne Bottoms near Great Bend, Ks on Friday and another 5 at Quivira Wildlife Refuge in several locations. Then saw our first Nebraska one at Holmes Lake Sunday.

  15. Not here in Ohio, but I plan to plant milkweed and other ornamentals.

  16. Soni Cochran says:

    I had monarchs in my yard this past weekend – April 15 & 16… too early. Wilber, Nebraska

  17. Julene Bair says:

    Thanks for this, Chris. You’re doing a wonderful service to all her care about the wild flora and fauna of the Great Plains.

  18. Patrick says:

    One side benefit to the early arrival of monarchs, assuming they can find some milkweed, is that they might get a jump on their larval insect predators like assasin bugs. It would be interesting to know whether this year’s early crop of larva has better survival, assuming we can avoid a late hard frost.

  19. Kay Peters says:

    My milkweed is coming up fast in Omaha. . Hope they find me.

  20. Ed May says:

    Hi Chris, This is interesting and somewhat scary information. From your observations over the years have you seen Monarchs arriving so early? I think I saw one last weekend too. Thanks! >

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Hi Ed. Based on the Journey North site, this is by far the earliest they’ve made it to Nebraska since at least 2010. I’ve seen several more since writing this post… Hopefully they’ll survive here long enough to lay eggs as the milkweed starts emerging more. There are beginning to be a few milkweed plants popping out of the ground just this week.

  21. BtownButterflyMomma says:

    Between April 14-17, in Bloomington, IN, I’ve now found 128 eggs and one desperate-looking mama monarch looking to lay eggs. Luckily I have friends who have mw and no monarchs, so I’ve been shipping most of the eggs out. I’m keeping 40 for myself and am pretty sure that they will be eating squash for their last few days in the caterpillar stage…

  22. Reblogged this on Veronica The Pajama Thief and commented:
    This is not good news. Milkweed is barely coming into bloom.

  23. Carolyn says:

    Thanks for the interesting article. We were surprised to see one in our backyard (in Seward, NE) in early April.

  24. We are a monarch waystation in Lincoln. I had heard of sightings here, and have been watching for the milkweed to come up. I saw two different monarchs the 17th, just when the common and showy milkweeds were popping up. I am glad they are growing pretty quickly, since there are now eggs on them. The whorled, swamp, purple, and butterfly milkweeds are not up yet.

  25. Mylissa Stutesman says:

    I spotted one on Wednesday of this week hovering over my Blooming Prairie Crabs (Malus ioensis) here in Northwest Missouri, Clinton County. We are northeast of Kansas City 38 miles. Milkweeds are still dormant here.

  26. Mylissa Stutesman says:

    I also spotted a Missouri Swallowtail and a common Buckeye.

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