Clouds of monarch butterflies arrive in Mexico for Dia de los Muertos

Annual migration up to 3,000 miles long

The Monarch Butterfly population has declined by 85 percent in the last 20 years. Photo: The Nature Conservancy.

Florida – Imagine seeing clouds of thousands of monarch butterflies fluttering through the sky at one time. Sounds like a movie doesn’t it? Well, it happens not once, but twice a year. Monarch butterflies like certain species of bird, fly south for the winter.

Yes, you read that correctly. They migrate to Mexico every fall in October to hibernate. Why? It’s simple. They cannot survive the harsh winters in the northern United States and Canada.

While most fly to Mexico, the ones that live in the western United States migrate to Pacific Grove, California. Those that reside in the New England states even head to Florida.

Check out the migration map below.

This map shows both the spring and fall migration paths for the monarch butterfly based on where they live. (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services)

Eastern North American monarchs fly south and end up together in Texas where they continue to the journey to Mexico.

The event is so popular in the Rio Grande Valley, the McAllen International Airport has decorated part of the terminal with metal-like butterflies suspended from the ceilings.

Butterfly display at McAllen Airport (Copyright 2021 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

The thought of such a delicate insect flying so far is quite remarkable. It is after all, the longest insect migration in the world!

McAllen Airport Display (Samara Cokinos)

The bold orange and black nymphalids with bright white spots even have a favorite spot to vacation, much like people.

Every year they fly to the state of Michoacan to the Oyamel fir tree forests just west of Mexico City, just as generations before them have. Arriving just in time for the Dia de los Muertos celebration on November 1st & 2nd representing the spirits of loved ones who have died, returning.

Here, the monarchs roost in the fir trees up to 2 miles above sea level.

Sure, it gets a little cold, but the winter temperatures range between 32-59 degrees Fahrenheit. If it gets colder the butterflies use their fat reserves and they cluster tightly together to stay alive and warm while conserving energy to fly home in March.

They even use the morning sunlight to warm their wings after the long, cold winter nights.

Monarch Butterflies in Mexico. (Enrique Corte Barrera)

Unfortunately, this home is threatened by the illegal harvesting of the trees. Every year, this winter home for the monarch is less and less as more acres are chopped down.

In California, the monarchs find their safe haven in eucalyptus trees, Monetery pines, and the Monterey cypress.

The Florida-bound monarchs are found in milkweed plants. Florida even has it’s own population of monarchs that don’t migrate. They don’t need to because of the tropical climate and mild winters found in parts of central and of course, south Florida.

Spring is nature’s indicator for these gorgeous insects to go home. This happens in March.

Sadly, these precious pollinators are on the endangered species list. The World Wildlife Foundation cites the deforestation of the wintering forests, disruptions in migration due to climate change, and the loss of native plants like milkweed as the main contributions.

Ink Dwell Studios founder Jane Kim painting a Migrating Mural on Orange and Magnolia avenues. Image: The Nature Conservancy

So how can you help Get Results for the monarchs?

Plant a monarch reserve! Milkweed and other flowering plants like Lantanas, Black-eyed Susan, and Bluestars. Of course, these are just a few flowering plants that the monarchs love that will help their decline.

In addition to helping out the monarchs, enjoying the beautiful fluttering of their brightly colored wings is an added benefit to any yard.

About the Author:

Emmy Award Winning Meteorologist Samara Cokinos joined the News 6 team in September 2017. In her free time, she loves running and being outside.