Monarch Butterfly | WWF-Canada

Monarch Butterfly

Monarch butterflies embark on a marvelous migratory phenomenon. They travel between 2,000 – 5,000 kilometres; their two-month journey is the second longest migration of all known insects. The butterflies travel from Canada south to the United States and hibernate in the forest mountains of Mexico. The butterflies hibernate in Mexico in a moderate climate before they head back North. Adult monarch butterflies possess two pairs of brilliant orange-red wings, featuring black veins and white spots along the edges. Males, who possess distinguishing black dots along the veins of their wings, are slightly bigger than females. Each adult butterfly lives for a maximum of four to six weeks.

Where they live

Every November, millions of monarchs fly from southern Canada and the United States. A fraction of these butterflies will overwinter along the coast of California, but the vast majority will come to rest at nine or ten principal sites in Mexico. Most of the butterflies will be found in the Monarch Butterfly Reserve, located in Michoacán, Mexico. These creatures descend upon the forests of Mexico and creates a “golden forest” of fir trees teeming with thousands of monarchs. In recent years, the number of acres of forests covered by wintering butterflies have dramatically decreased due to threats to monarch population and habitat.

What they eat

© Frank Parhizgar / WWF-Canada

In their early caterpillar stage, the monarch’s source of food is the milkweed plant. Butterflies will usually lay their eggs on milkweed plants so that once they hatch, the caterpillar can start feeding on the milkweed leaves. Once the butterflies turn into adults, they can start sipping the nectar from the flowers.

Life cycle

The monarch butterfly goes through four stages in its life cycle: egg, caterpillar (larva), pupa (chrysalis) and butterfly. Once the eggs are laid, the species grows inside the egg for about four days. It then hatches into a caterpillar and feeds on the milkweed plant for about two weeks. The pupa lasts for about ten days and then hatches into a beautiful adult butterfly, whose lives for about 4-6 weeks, unless it is the late summer generation, which lives 6-7 months overwintering in Mexico. 

© Frank Parhizgar / WWF-Canada

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Protect the flight of the monarchs

Key Facts

Status: Endangered
Scientific name: Danaus plexippus
Weight: less than ½ gram
Length: wingspan of 7-10 cm
Age: reproductive monarchs live for 5 weeks

Risks they face

Monarch butterflies are currently facing three major risks: illegal logging, lack of milkweed plants and climate change. WWF’s 2013-14 report from Mexico showed that the number of monarch butterflies wintering there was at its lowest in 20 years. This finding was determined by measuring the amount of forest they occupy; in 2013, the number of butterfly acres decreased to 1.65 acres compared to 27.5 acres in 2003.

Monarchs need mountain forests in Mexico for their winter habitat, however nearby human communities also rely on them and create pressure on forests through agriculture and tourism activities.
In Canada and the U.S., monarchs need places to reproduce and feed. Herbicide use is also decreasing the availability of their primary food source, the milkweed plant.

Climate change threatens to disrupt the monarch’s annual migration pattern by affecting weather conditions both in wintering and summer breeding grounds.

© J.D. Taylor / WWF-Canada


What Needs to Be Done
  • Illegal logging in the Mexican forests, now virtually eliminated, must remain under control.
  • Ecotourism needs to be managed sustainably, for the benefit of the local communities and the monarchs
  • The elimination of common milkweed from herbicide spraying needs to be examined in Canada and the U.S., since this is the most widespread and abundant of the milkweed species and since the monarch only uses the milkweed group of species as its host plant.
  • The task force commissioned by the three heads of government – including Prime Minister Stephen Harper – in 2014 in Mexico to make recommendations on monarch conservation across North America must prepare an urgent and actionable agenda for monarch recovery – it’s report is due when the three leaders meet in Canada in 2015

What WWF is Doing

  • WWF is working to conserve the biodiversity and the mosaic of ecosystems within Mexico's most biodiverse regions including the Mesoamerican Reef, the Chihuahuan Desert, the Gulf of California, and the forests of Chiapas and Oaxaca, home to hundreds of unique species.
  • WWF is working with the local communities, government and private sector to preserve butterfly habitat – mainly oyamel fir and pine trees – in Mexico by promoting good forest management and reducing illegal logging.
  • WWF is strengthening our partnerships with local organizations to develop economic incentives that will encourage local communities to conserve the core zones of the Monarch Reserve.
  • WWF is putting Canada on the path to 100 per cent renewable energy by 2050. WWF’s Energy Report calls for increased investment in the world’s renewable energy potential.
  • WWF is engaging teachers and students on monarchs and wildlife as part of our Schools for a Living Planet education program.


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