The Mystery of the Missing Monarchs

MonarchYou may have seen the story in the Boston Globe on August 13 about how monarch butterflies have been hard to find at Mass Audubon’s Boston Nature Center. Monarchs may be our most popular and well-known insects, and this is the time of year when we should be seeing their familiar orange and black wings over gardens. But observers all across the state say they’re spotting very few of them.

Is this a sign that monarchs everywhere are in trouble? And if so, why? The answers to these questions aren’t as simple as you may think.

A Closer Look at Monarch Numbers
The number of monarch butterflies in Massachusetts fluctuates from year to year, and when the insects are scant here, they may be numerous elsewhere. We have to be careful about using our local sightings to talk about the overall health of the species.

However, we do know that observers in nearby areas, such as eastern Canada, Vermont, and New Jersey, are also reporting low monarch numbers this year—what we’re observing here may be part of a larger pattern.

Perhaps most alarmingly, the monarch population hit a record low at its overwintering sites in Mexico, down 59 percent from the previous year’s December count—and researchers have documented declines there in six out of the past seven years.

Threats to Monarchs
There are many reasons why monarch numbers may be dropping. Because they travel over such a wide area and spend time in different habitats, they’re vulnerable to environmental change all along their route. Here are some issues:

  1. Habitat destruction in Mexico, where monarchs winter, has historically represented a major threat.
  2. They’re sensitive to extreme weather; they don’t do well if it’s too hot or too cold, too dry or too wet.
  3. Monarchs are very specialized—they only lay eggs on milkweed. These plants have declined in the central and mid-western states’ expansive corn and soybean fields due to changes in farming practices, such as new developments in herbicides.

Learn More
Consider participating in one of our upcoming programs about monarchs and other butterflies. We’ve got butterfly walks for both kids and adults, where you’ll learn about their life histories and favorite plants, and hopefully glimpse some monarchs.

You can also participate in research programs at Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary in Topsfield, Allens Pond Wildlife Sanctuary in South Dartmouth, and Wachusett Meadow Wildlife Sanctuary in Princeton. You’ll learn how to “tag” monarch butterflies, applying tiny stickers to their wings as part of a continent-wide research effort to track their travels.

Have you seen any monarch butterflies this year? If so, tell us where and when in the comments.

69 thoughts on “The Mystery of the Missing Monarchs

  1. Vicki Gamage

    I did see just ONE this weekend on my Butterfly Bush in Rockport, MA. There are usually a lot more on the bush by now 🙁

    1. Meredith Young

      My friend’s farm in Hadley and my yard in Northampton have been visited by hardly any butterflies this year, other than Cabbage Whites which are everywhere. We are concerned.

  2. kim

    Last year saw monarchs in good numbers in September/October on the Gurnet in Scituate MA…. will be sure to look for them this year at that time as well.

  3. Laura

    We spotted our first Monarch of the season, in Buzzards Bay on August 22. We live in Stow MA and have a good patch of milkweed in our yard, but in the past few years it has finished flowering well before the Monarchs appear. We now mow it early on to delay growth and flowering in hopes of having plants for egg-laying. We haven’t seen any Monarchs in Stow yet this year.

    In Buzzards Bay they’re having a banner year for Spicebush Swallowtails, however.

    1. Penny

      I spotted the first monarch I’ve seen this season in my friend’s garden in Wareham on August 23. Last year we had a large number of monarchs in our own garden in Bourne but have not had a single visit this year. I agree, Laura, it is a good year for spicebush swallowtails here. We are just across the Cape Cod Canal from Buzzards Bay.

  4. Heather Wager

    We just spotted our first monarch of the season today, August, 23rd on our butterfly bush. We live in Marblehead, MA. Usually we have a dozen or so. It was a nice surprise to spot one and we are praying for more to come!

  5. George Daniels

    I have maintained a fairly large planting of butterfly weed (a kind of milkweed) for several years. It has always attracted Monarchs to lay eggs, in large numbers. I normally checked the caterpillars while they developed. They stripped some of the plants, but it didn’t seem to harm the planting which continues to be healthy. I never use any insecticide. Before last summer most of the caterpillars seemed to mature naturally. But last summer after the Monarchs came to lay eggs something strange happened. As I watched the caterpillars only one reached the size I would expect just before pupation, but there were still lots of small ones. The small caterpillars then began to look sick and finally all disappeared. I searched the plants until I found a dead caterpillar that was about half black. I should have taken a picture but didn’t. However my web search did turn up a picture of a caterpillar with a disease called something like “the black death”, which was very similar. I sent out e-mails to places that I thought might be able to shed some light but received no responses. In any case I have not seen any Monarchs in my yard this year, and one elsewhere in town. I live in Orleans MA.

  6. Ann McGill

    I loved watching monarchs flit across Danvers Square in 1984 when I moved here. And later, the years there were none. At the time we feared that monarchs were wiped out. Two years later they made an astounding recovery and once again flitted across the square. Sometimes while we tamper, nature repairs.

  7. Steve V

    Noticed a decline of all butterfly species in south coast area, but a large increase in the amount and variety of dragonflies.

  8. Ernest Ruber

    I have seen one – perhaps two all summer at our condo in Mashpee. I remember that field of milkweed at Fort Hill that was mentioned. We had a few milkweed plants, our landscaper tore them out: they look ugly. There are so many things working against the butterflies- habitat, special plants, the absence of farm manure piles that provided nitrogen. And then the possibility of new plants bred to contain insecticides. Who knows. It’s a great tragedy in the making.
    Ernest Ruberhanguf

  9. Helen Miranda Wilson

    Re. monarch butterflies: I have lived in the same place for 65 years.
    I have always been acutely aware of monarch butterflies, as they pass through.
    About 30 years ago I planted a buddleia bush which they would show up on every year.
    NOT THIS YEAR. Havn’t seen one… just a lot of swallowtails.
    More of those than usual, by the way.

    That’s all I know.

  10. Lisa

    We have seen only two monarchs this summer in North Chatham, and they only appeared in the past week on our butterfly bushes. In past years, we have had dozens, starting when the milkweed blooms in July.

  11. Laura Trendel

    My family spotted our first Monarch of the year last weekend at Prescott Park in Portsmouth NH. We realized that it had been a while since seeing one. It was, sadly, a bit ragged in appearance.

  12. sandra winter

    I created a Monarch Way station five years ago and have had two monarchs every summer – plenty of eggs on the milkweed. I was so sad not to see ONE monarch either in my garden or in my daily walks here in Marblehead.

    1. Saundra

      We also are a Monarch Way Station and have had the same results. So sad. We are in South FL.

  13. Karen First

    I have been closely observing monarchs and raising them with my students for six years and this is the worst year I have experienced. I am very worried about the migration. I believe that we need to do what we can to create backyard gardens that support wildlife, connect the dots between species loss/decline and climate, and work to change large scale agricultural practices, especially corn and soybeans, that rely on pesticides.

  14. Carl Ericson

    We saw only saw a few Monarchs this summer. We haven’t see any caterpillars this year. We have a number of butterfly weed plants which grow wild on our property in Eastham as well as butterfly bushes so we have seen many more in years past.

  15. tim wonson

    I have only seen 1 monarch this year, I think it was in Newbury/Byfield a few days ago.I remember seeing hundreds on Eastern Point in Gloucester in October during migration season as a kid.

  16. Scott DeMolles

    I too did not have any monarchs this year, however in “low” years I have an abundance of milkweed tussock moth caterpillars. I thought I had a monarch, but it turned out to be a viceroy.

  17. Nancy Rezendes

    I saw my first monarch this season today on my buddleia in my garden in Lakeville MA. We participated in Monarch tagging last year, and loved the experience at Allens Pond SAnctuary. We had record numbers of Monarchs in my yard last year, and did lots of tagging. We are seeing many hummingbirds, black and tiger swallowtails in our yard, and an increase in bumble and honey bees.

  18. Ann Byers

    NO monarchs this year. We are in Gloucester, have lots of milkweed, butterfly bushes & other flowering plants, & don’t use pesticides. We also had no monarchs in 2011, but MANY in 2012. I start looking for eggs as soon as I see the first butterfly; last year, from mid July through the end of August, I found, brought inside to raise, and eventually released a total of 60! In 2011 I suspected those horrible tornados in Alabama, etc. in early Spring might have done them in on their return migration…but no such catastrophes this year. VERY fearful for their survival!!!

  19. Michele

    Last summer, we raised and released 3 generations of monarchs (11 butterflies in all) and had many more flitting around our garden in Beverly, MA. This summer we have not found any eggs on our milkweed plants and the milkweed itself looks small and unhealthy. We did find a couple eggs on some milkweed in York, ME in the beginning of August, but the eggs never hatched. I know that many communities in MA sprayed for mosquitoes last fall and again this summer because of the EEE threat. Wonder if that spraying is impacting the monarch population?

  20. Johanna Korpita

    Ordinarily, as a classroom teacher in Western MA, I find many many eggs and caterpillars for my young students. Most years, each student is able to have at least 1 or 2 caterpillars at their seat to observe and journal about.
    This year, I have seen only 2 Monarchs and I have found only 5 caterpillars. Many of the fields where I usually find milkweed were void of the plants. I will continue to search for the milkweed and the caterpillars or the eggs.

  21. Colleen Wade

    I live on a lake in Mansfield, MA with 20+ acres of woods behind my house. I have loads of milkweed plants, a variety of flowers and a huge butterfly bush – last year I counted 14 monarchs on it at the same time – enjoyed their visits for over 2 weeks. This year I have 2 tiger swallowtails visiting but not one monarch. Very alarming.

  22. Susan Madaus

    We have a butterfly habitat in our backyard in Lexington, MA. We saw four or so Monarchs last year and raised and released 17 Monarchs from eggs found on milkweed. This year have seen only one. We did not get to the few eggs in time to save them from predation. Only tiny eaten holes remained where the few eggs hatched; the caterpillars were eaten within the first days after hatching. The one egg we salvaged dried up on the milkweed leaf; very unusual. We did see 2 Tiger Swallowtails and they left eggs. We raised and released four offspring. We have stopped drawing birds to our backyard with bird food, as they will eat young caterpillars that we don’t find in time.

  23. Donna Marchant

    There used to be a vacant lot on Rogers Street in Gloucester that was jam-packed with Milkweed. As a teacher/naturalist, I’d be able to find anywhere from 20 to 50 Monarch eggs on each plant and it was a delight to share the process of their metamorphosis with children of all ages.
    Some people thought that the space was ‘scruffy’ and ‘unruly’ so the fence was removed and the plants mowed down. Currently there are some sort of plans to develop the former meadow, but now it’s being used as a parking lot.
    As a suggestion, planting Milkweed, Parsley, or other members of the Carrot Family in yards and vacant places may give these beautiful insects a place to lay their eggs and raise their larvae.

    Donna (Jacques) Marchant

  24. Sally Naser

    I wonder if there’s any connection between the lack of monarch butterflies in MA (& beyond) and the prolific spread of black swallowwort

  25. Sally Naser

    I wonder if there’s any link to the lack of monarch butterflies and the prolific spread of black swallowwort all over the state

  26. Sharon Shelton

    I walk 5 days a week at Great Brook Farm State Park in Carlisle, MA. I have seen “zero” Monarches this year, though a plethora of Milkweed, and fewer of other butterfly species. Crescents are way down, Tiger Swallow Tails, too. I feel as if my friends are missing in action – it triggers a true ache and worry.

  27. Susan

    Have seen between 5 and 8 Monarchs each week lately, including one newly hatched with wet wings on the grass. They are attracted to the many milkweed plants I maintain at the edges of my yard in South Yarmouth. But no groups as in prior years. So sad!

  28. Nel Paul

    I, too, have always left milkweed growing for the Monarchs, and this year have not seen a single one. Very disturbing, as have been watching the numbers decline in Western Mass for the past 10 years.

  29. Katie Hone

    We’ve only seen two adults in our certified Monarch Waystation here in Ipswich, MA. Last year there was always one flitting around. Luckily one laid eggs and we’ve managed to raise up all four caterpillars to chrysalises. One adult emerged this morning and we just released it, the other three should emerge any minute. so that’s 4 more we can add to the population, very bit helps. Plant milkweed!

  30. Catherine Cornell

    Here in Northport Maine we usually have many butterflies with gardens and many milkweed. I wondered why very few this year until I read the Globe article. Now I have 2 Monarchs on my Buddleia under the window. Previous years we saw swarms of them coming over the bay from Ilseboro. Very sad and worrisome.

  31. Carol R. Rogers

    No monarchs in our yard in Bedford, MA., n.w. of Boston. I have buddleia shrub, some milkweed,lots of flowers, no spraying on our acre of property. I have seen a few tiger swallowtails.

    1. Paddy Wade

      I also live in Bedford and have a field with milkweed, but no Monarchs. I saw no eggs, but might have missed them. I have joe-pie-weed blooming and have only seen one tigerswallowtail on it. I have been here for over 50 years and never used pesticides. The only butterflies I have seen in any numbers have been the white ones which I think are cabbage although I have not gotten close enough to really id them. I have woods and fields around me. I am above route 3 and the Shawsheen River. Leets hope they are some where.


    In Croton on Hudson, NY, my wife has an extensive butterfly garden with Joe Pie and other butterfly-friendly flowers. We’ve seen all sorts of butterflies, birds (including hummingbirds), and bees – but no Monarchs. We’ve been wondering what’s up with that. At Truro last week and visits to Fort Lee and other seashore sights, we saw none. I’m worried about it.

  33. Fran

    Here at the Highland Light on Cape Cod we have always had milkweek plants everywhere. This summer on my lunch break walks in a nearby field of milkweed (I am always looking for a chrysalis to observe) I noticed that all the milkweed plants were completely gone and the field was all Queen Ann’s Lace, the tallest I have ever seen. It is as if someone came in and pulled out every milkweed plant. It’s amazing. I’ve only seen one or two Monarchs all summer. Also at the old North Truro Air Force Base, most of the milkweed plants are gone . I used to see a wide variety of butterflies there, including the Swallowtails, and this year very few.

  34. Anne

    Yes last year we literally had Monarchs swarming ourw garden. Not this year, but we do have yellow Monarchs for the very first time, however no orange.

  35. Anne Geisel

    I live in Duxbury,MA,and I have seen 2 or 3 monarchs flying around our yard this year,but thats nothing compared to last year.I also have not seen any on the beach,where we normally see a great many.

  36. Anne Geisel

    I live in Duxbury,MA,and I have seen 2 or 3 monarchs flying around our yard this year,but that’s nothing compared to last year.We also have not seen any on the beach,where we normally see a great many.

  37. Susan

    I have the occasional Monarch in my garden in SE Mass. Also,at Moore airfield in Ayer MA I have seen a few of them but not as plentiful there as in past years when there would be scores of them at this time of year.

  38. Carol Boulukos

    We have seen only one monarch in our Cambridge yard this summer. We have a lot of milkweed, buddleia and other flowers that we used to see many monarchs visiting. Also, we have seen no Red Admirals this summer We have seen tiger swallowtails here and in Mashpee at the Cape, but no monarchs there, either.

  39. E. Paine

    Seal Cove, Mount Desert Island, Maine

    No Monarchs so far this summer at a healthy milkweed patch. Usually covered in prior years

    August 22

  40. diane jjohnson

    It would be most helpful if the Nation Sea Shore would help save the Monarch. Several years ago at Fort Hill in Eastham they cut down a very large milk weed parch and continue you to do so. I made
    calls local and national to avail.

  41. Martha

    I watched with a heavy heart as the field across the street from me got hayed (first cutting) just last week. Due to all the extreme heat and the bouts of rain, it had gone much later than it normally does, before getting hayed. As I looked out across it, it seemed to be more of a field of milkweed than hay…… and I cringed as the mower went around cutting it all down, knowing it was saying goodbye to any monarchs that were in any stage of development.

  42. Dianne Mrak

    Have seen only ONE Monarch this year in New Hampshire -none in my location in Dover NH which we have left milkweed plants and usually are usually visited by many Monarchs during the summer! :o(. I do not use any insecticides on our 7+ acres!

  43. lj ide

    even tho i tend a small organic garden of milkweed plants each year and have had them visit in the past…sadly i have had zero monarchs in the garden this year!

  44. David Mehegan

    I remember fondly years when it seemed the monarchs were passing in virtual clouds. But it is true that in a trip this past week (August 16 to 21) to the Ticonderoga corner of the Adirondacks and Berkshires (Sheffield, Great Barrington, Lenox, Stockbridge), and in Plymouth County where we live, we have yet to see a monarch this season.

    We are Mass Audubon members.

  45. arcticpug

    I’ve seen a couple fly by my house (Chatham, MA) and I’ve found a few hatched monarch caterpillars on the milkweed around my house… though I certainly have noticed less monarch butterflies flying by this year, than in the past.

  46. Katie

    I actually have a butterfly garden with tons of milkweed. I have only seen one monarch this year! Last year I had too many to count! This is a very disturbing and sad situation!

    1. Susan Shea

      I have been doing a survey here on Martha’s Vineyard all summer and so far we have only come up with 18 or so of Monarchs for the entire summer!! Here it is August 22 and there are Butterfly Gardens and fields of milkweed all over but hardly any Monarchs! We usually have them by the thousands and were once a migrating stop off for them! Hundreds of thousands would fill our trees! We here on Martha’s Vineyard are Very Concerned!

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