The annual migration of North America’s monarch butterfly is a unique and amazing phenomenon. The monarch is the only butterfly known to make a two-way migration as birds do. Unlike other butterflies that can overwinter as larvae, pupae, or even as adults in some species, monarchs cannot survive the cold winters of northern climates. Using environmental cues, the monarchs know when it is time to travel south for the winter. Monarchs use a combination of air currents and thermals to travel long distances. Some fly as far as 3,000 miles to reach their winter home!
Monarchs can travel between 50-100 miles a day; it can take up to two months to complete their journey. The farthest ranging monarch butterfly recorded traveled 265 miles in one day. It is crucial to the survival of the monarch butterfly to have pollinator habitat to feed on as they travel southward. A wide variety of Fall blooming nectar sources on our roadsides provides the food source necessary for the monarch to successfully complete the journey.
Researchers are still investigating what directional aids monarchs use to find their overwintering location. It appears to be a combination of things, such as the magnetic pull of the earth and the position of the sun.
Monarchs only travel during the day and need to find a roost at night. Monarchs cluster close together to stay warm during the cool autumn evenings. Roost sites are important to the monarch migration. Many of these locations are used year after year. Often pine, fir and cedar trees are chosen for roosting. These trees have thick canopies that moderate the temperature and humidity at the roost site. In the mornings, monarchs bask in the sunlight to warm themselves.
Monarchs in Western North America overwinter in California, while monarchs in Eastern North America have a second home in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico. The eastern population of monarchs overwinter in the same 11 to 12 mountain areas in the States of Mexico and Michoacan from October to late March.
Monarchs roost for the winter in oyamel fir forests at an elevation nearly 2 miles above sea level. The mountain hillsides of oyamel forest provide an ideal microclimate for the butterflies. Here temperatures range from 32 to 59 degrees Fahrenheit. If the temperature is lower, the monarchs will be forced to use their fat reserves. The humidity in the oyamel forest assures the monarchs won’t dry out allowing them to conserve their energy.
As the winter ends and the days grow longer, the monarchs become more active and begin a 3-5 week period of intense mating activity. In Mexico, they begin to leave their roosts during the middle of March, flying north and east looking for milkweed plants on which to lay their eggs.
Bee and Monarch butterfly populations are in decline. Now, more than ever, it's imperative to recognize the importance of native grasses and wildflowers on our roadsides and protect that natural habitat.
About three-quarters of the world's flowering plants and many of the food crops eaten in North America depend on pollinators. No pollination would mean no apples, blueberries, almonds, melons, pumpkins, CHOCOLATE or COFFEE.
In the U.S., pollination produces nearly $24 billion worth of products annually.
What is KDOT doing to help protect pollinators and native habitat?
KDOT partnered with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks & Tourism (KDWP&T), the Kansas Wildflower Society, the Kansas Biological Survey, Audubon of Kansas and the Kansas Turnpike Authority to produce the Kansas Wildflowers, Native Grasses & Shrubs brochure. 315,000 copies were printed and distributed. The brochure/poster depicts KDOT's efforts to improve the environment and beautify Kansas roadways by restoring the right-of-way to native habitat.
KDOT became part of a joint partnership between the KDWP&T, Kansas Department of Agriculture, and the Audubon of Kansas. The goal of this partnership was to help protect and preserve the natural beauty of native plant species that are found in our state. New seed mixes and erosion control practices were developed to more closely represent and protect vegetation naturally found in that particular region, benefitting wildlife and pollinating insects.
KDOT and partners from conservation groups and the KDWP&T formed an Aesthetics Task Force to develop a better way to manage the more than 150,000 acres of state-owned highway right-of-way. What emerged was a roadside management policy that not only saves money and fuel, but also enhances roadside beauty. Some of the important changes included updating KDOT's mowing policy limiting frequency and timing of mowing to allow native wildflowers and grasses to set seed, spot spraying of herbicides rather than broadly applying chemicals and adding a more diverse selection of native grasses and wildflowers to our seed mixes.
KDOT again revised its wildflower mixes to include a greater number and variety of native wildflowers. This will enhance roadside beauty and provide beneficial nectar sources for pollinators such as bees, butterflies, beetles, moths and even hummingbirds. Providing wildflower-rich habitat is the most significant action we can take to support pollinators. Native plants, which are adapted to local soils and climates, are usually the best sources for nectar and pollen for native pollinators.
KDOT is currently involved in a 15-acre mass wildflower and milkweed planting project along I-35 at the Homewood Rest Area. This project is being done in cooperation with the Monarch Highway Project, whose members consist of other state DOT's, local agencies, private entities, and organizations interested in protecting and preserving the ever-declining population of bees and Monarch butterflies. KDOT will continue to select other areas throughout the state to do the same type of project.
Most people are familiar with the flowering annual and perennials in their flower beds that attract bees and other pollinators. They may be less familiar with the fact that bees forage for pollen and nectar up in the tree canopy. With their profusion of flowers, trees are a convenient food source for bees and other pollinators.