The Magnificent Monarch Butterfly Migration in Texas

September 9, 2022

It’s time for the annual monarch butterfly migration! Read on to learn how you can see this phenomenon here in Texas!

Monarch butterfly migration resting in trees 
With so many colorful and beautiful variations of butterflies out there, it may be hard to identify a certain type as they flutter in your garden or perch on your shoulder. However, if you’re a Texan native, there’s one particular butterfly you may see a lot of this time of year: the monarch butterfly. But, of course, that’s because it’s monarch butterfly season!

If you’ve never taken notice of the monarch butterfly before or have yet to witness the breathtaking monarch butterfly migration, seeing so many of these vibrant creatures now may arouse some questions. Questions like: How can one identify a monarch butterfly? Why are there so many? Where are they headed?

Luckily, as one of the most widely researched and recognized butterflies, there’s plenty to share about the sightings of our gliding friends.

Read on as we answer all these questions and more!

Monarch butterfly facts

Monarch butterflies are fascinating creatures. While their typical lifespan is from 6 to 8 weeks, these stunning pollinators can live up to 8 to 9 months in the winter months!

And if you’re not quite sure if what you’re seeing out your window or in your garden is a monarch butterfly, rest assured that they are pretty easy to identify! In fact, it’s because of their large frame (their wings are roughly 4 inches long) and bold colors that they’ve become one of the most recognized butterfly species. You’ll know you’ll have spotted one when you see its deep orange hue with thick black stripes on the creases of their wings, along with white spots on the edges.

But before we can get into why you’re seeing so many of these bright monarch butterflies in Texas right now, let’s review some more insightful monarch butterfly facts! Doing so can help you better understand why these creatures do what they do.

First, it’s essential to know that Monarch butterflies are much like your typical butterflies when it comes to their life cycle. They experience the average metamorphosis by moving through the egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, and butterfly stages.

However, there are notable differences.

Monarch butterflies belong to the Danaus genus of butterflies, also known as milkweed butterflies. Butterflies in this group have similar life cycles to other species, but the egg and caterpillar stages of life occur exclusively on the milkweed plant (genus Asclepias). Although adult monarchs feed on the nectar of a variety of flowers like other butterflies, their caterpillars only feed on the milkweed, which is actually toxic to most other animals - including humans.

This makes milkweed an essential part of the monarch’s livelihood and makes their skin a practically poison to predators. While they’re safe for humans to touch, they can be fatal to the frogs, birds, mice, and lizards that dare try to consume them.

Milkweed is a genus of over 200 species found on several different continents and you can find milkweed butterflies almost anywhere you can find their favorite plant! However, unlike other milkweed butterfly species found throughout the world, the North American monarch butterfly does something unusual each year: they migrate! This brings us to the very reason these creatures may be filling up your sky!

The monarch butterfly migration: Why do monarch butterflies migrate?

Each year millions upon millions of North American monarch butterflies (danaus plexippus) travel thousands of miles south from the northern and central United States and southern Canada to their winter homes in Mexico. So why make such an arduous journey?

Monarchs migrate for survival. They are incredibly sensitive to cold temperatures so they must find a warmer place to overwinter. Additionally, as the fall approaches, nectar sources dwindle and milkweed ages, so they must seek more abundant food sources. But while these queues certainly play a role in telling monarchs when it is time to migrate, researchers aren't certain what the exact mechanism is.

Migration is an essential part of the monarch's life cycle, but no single butterfly makes the round trip - monarch migration is an intergenerational process. The first generation are the offspring of the butterflies that spent the winter in the southern United States and Mexico. After hatching and maturing, they begin the journey north, laying eggs along the way. 

The second generation continue the northward journey and begin to reproduce and lay eggs in the northern part of the US and southern Canada. The third and fourth generations, the great and great-great grandchildren of the overwintering monarchs, are born in the north as well. However, unlike their parents, they will not immediately begin reproducing. Instead, they undergo what is known as diapause; a delay in maturation that prevents them from reproducing right away. Instead of mating and laying eggs, these generations will focus much of their energy towards heading south as the seasons change. 

Generations three and four generally live longer than their ancestors as they travel thousands of miles to their overwintering homes. Once they arrive, they spend much of their time surviving, waiting for winter to pass so they can begin their journey back north. But generations three and four don't make it all the way back. After winter, they finally become fully mature and as they fly north, they lay eggs along the way; eggs that will become a new first generation and the cycle begins anew. 

When do monarch butterflies migrate?

So when do monarch butterflies migrate? Well, if you’re lucky, you’ll get to witness two migrations from the monarchs: Once in the fall months as they escape the cold winter and once again in the spring as they return north. 

The southerly migration of monarchs begins around September and October and they usually reach their overwintering location in November. Here they'll stay until the spring when they begin traveling north around March. 

Once in the fall months, as they head away from the winter’s harsh cold, and once again in the spring between February and April, as the monarchs emerge from their overwinter roosts. During the spring months, they’ll head back to their preferred destinations in search of a mate to repopulate and lay their eggs on their beloved milkweed plant.

Where do monarchs butterflies migrate to?

The answer to this question typically depends on where the monarch butterfly originates from. If they’re residing in East or North America, the monarch butterfly will make their way across the Americas as they set their sights in Central Mexico for their overwintering hibernation.

During the monarch butterfly migration, Texas is typically a state they pass through - which explains why you may have seen so many in San Antonio or Austin lately!

Not only is this a long journey that can total up to 3000 miles depending on where they’re coming from, but monarch butterflies are the only butterflies we know of that are capable of even making this lengthy journey! Flying between 4 and 12 mph, these butterflies typically cover about 25-30 miles daily.

Once in Central Mexico, most monarchs will roost in oyamel fir trees (often the very same ones used by their ‘ancestors’) that host almost tens of thousands of these migrating butterflies. Then, they’ll enter a practically dormant state, barely moving for the entirety of winter—living only on their stored energy!

However, suppose these butterflies are Western American (coming from the rocky mountains, for example). In that case, they’ll make their way to the Pacific Coast and roost in sites along the California coastline such as San Diego, Orange County, Monterey, and Santa Cruz, doing the same roosting acts as their Eastern and Northern counterparts.

So how do they know where to go, and how do they know how to get there? This is a fascinating question that has yet to be fully answered. Some evidence suggests that the sun plays a large part in starting and guiding migration. The position of the sun during this time of year likely helps them keep their bearings, using what is known as a "time-compensated sun compass" to account for the changing position throughout the day. 

Yet other researchers suggest that monarchs possess a genetic memory, like an inherited map passed down through the generations. Or perhaps, as some suggest, they are simply guided by the landscape and environmental conditions. The truth is that more research is needed before we can say for sure. 

Speaking of research, there is one final monarch destination worth mentioning - one that requires little boost to reach: The International Space Station! Within the Commercial Generic Bioprocessing Apparatus module aboard the ISS, researchers have studied several butterfly species, including our migratory friends the monarch! Here they set up several butterfly habitats where they carefully monitored the effects of microgravity on the entire lifecycle. They launched and arrived as caterpillars and after a few weeks, became the first butterflies in space

Monarch butterfly migration in Texas

As we mentioned, you’re more than likely to see the monarch migration as they make their way through Texas and towards their Central Mexico destination.

However, if you’re on monarch watch and looking to increase your chances of seeing them (whether in the fall migration or the spring migration as they make their way back), there are some places you can venture to!

According to Texas Parks & Wildlife, during the fall months, monarch butterflies are known to “funnel through a 300-mile wide path stretching from Wichita Falls to Eagle Pass.” They can typically be spotted here at the tail end of September and completely gone from this area by early November.

After that, your next best bet is to catch them along the Texas coast “roughly from the third week of October to the middle of November.” And if you miss both of these opportunities, TPW says you’ll have to wait until they come back out of their overwintering periods—but don’t wait.

“Seeking emerging milkweeds, [female adult monarchs] move through Texas laying eggs before dying. Their offspring continue heading north, leaving most of Texas behind.”

Monarch butterfly celebrations in Texas

In addition to scouting out the migration, there are a number of festivals across Texas that celebrate our tiny friends and their journey!

Texas Butterfly Ranch, San Antonio, TX. The Texas Butterfly Ranch in San Antonio holds its annual Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival in early October, featuring free educational events and artistic exhibits.The Butterfly Ranch also tags monarchs for research and tracking and offers the opportunity for family members to add the name of a lost loved one to the tag to honor those who have died. This is a beautifully poetic gesture because in the Mexican tradition of Día de Los Muertos, the returning monarchs are said to carry the souls of loved ones who died. 

Butterfly Flutterby, Grapevine, TX. The Butterfly Flutterby festival in Grapevine Texas celebrates the monarch's annual migration, and includes parades, costume contests, arts and crafts, and art exhibits. You can even help release tagged butterflies, which will be tracked along their journey to Mexico. 

Wildseed Farms Monarch Celebration, Fredericksburg, TX. Fredericksburg may be known for its wildflowers in the spring and Oktoberfest in the fall, but they also celebrate the monarch migration! In early October, you can visit Wildseed Farms for family fun, education, and of course, their monarch tag and release program!

Save the monarch butterflies

As beautiful as it is to witness the monarch butterfly migration in Texas or wherever you may be, the sad truth is that their numbers are dwindling. Estimates say that the population has shrunk as much as 72% in the past 10 years, and on July 20, 2022, the International union for Conservation of Nature added the migratory monarch butterfly (which calls our state and country home) to the list of endangered species. So what is causing their decline? Is there anything we can do to help our fluttering friends?

Climate change

Climate change is one of the biggest threats to monarch butterflies. As the Earth’s temperatures change, it poses the risk of disrupting the internal signals a monarch butterfly uses to know when it’s time to migrate. Without this, they may stay in areas longer than is safe for them and may not even know to migrate at all. 

Additionally, increasing rainfall makes it difficult for them to lay enough eggs to sustain the population, and more frequent severe weather and thunderstorms make it dangerous and even fatal to travel.  In 2002, a major storm in Mexico killed between 74 and 80% of the overwintering population.

Create a natural habitat 

The monarch migration seems like natural miracle, but is impossible for them to pull off without the very specific habitats they rely on. Factors such as climate change, deforestation, urban development, and land-clearing for agriculture result in increasingly dwindling resources for the migration, from the milkweed their caterpillars rely on for food to the trees and forests they turn to for rest and shelter.

Although these problems exist at a large scale and may seem difficult for an individual to address alone, you and your community can build Monarch Waystations to help these butterflies continue to flutter by. 

A Monarch Waystation is simply a place built to provide monarchs with the resources they need along their journey, which mainly includes a nice crop of milkweed.

Although a waystation doesn't have to take up a lot of space, the ideal minimum is at least 100 square feet. You'll want to place it in a space that receives at least six hours of sun a day with low-clay soils and good drainage for the milkweed. 

Monarchs need shelter at every stage of life, so you'll want to plant milkweed close together (but not so close that it is overcrowded). This will go a long way towards providing protection from the elements and predators. 

As far as milkweed goes, there are several variants that will happily grow in your Texas garden! Some native Texas Milkweed plants include:
  • Clasping Milkweed
  • Engelmann’s Milkweed
  • Pink Milkweed
  • Butterflyweed
  • Whorled Milkweed
To create a Monarch Waystation that provides resources for all stages of development, consider adding other butterfly-friendly flowers to provide adults the nutritious nectar they need.  

Pesticide use

While your tending to your yard and making it a great place for monarchs and other Texas pollinators, it's important to be conscious of the pesticides and herbicides we use. Although most herbicides or pesticides are EPA-approved, they can still be extremely harmful and even fatal to species like the monarch butterfly.

So if you’re managing your yard or garden, consider using natural weed killers that keep your lawn looking healthy and the monarchs safe!

Enjoy the monarch butterfly migration!

For generations, the monarch migration has been one of the defining natural wonders we have here in Texas; it is truly one of the most awe-inspiring sights to behold and we Texans have been lucky enough to have a chance to witness it. We hope that you've enjoyed reading about these beautiful creatures and the amazing lives they live, and perhaps inspired you to try and catch a glimpse this year.

Monarch Butterfly migration in front of a sunset 

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by Geoff Ullrich

About the Author

Geoff Ullrich is a writer and Content Marketing Strategist at Germania Insurance.

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