Monarch Butterflies Head South After a Disappointing Year

Since the middle of August Monarch Butterflies have been a steady presence in the front garden. There have been at least two fluttering around almost every day. This past Sunday there were three, passing through on their way south to Mexico.

Monarch on Tithonia this past Sunday.

This year started on a promising note for Monarch Butterflies. The population at the overwintering sites covered just over 4 hectares, or about 10 acres. This was a big improvement on the numbers from recent years. The lowest population on record covered just 0.67 hectares during the winter of 2013-2014.

After this positive start the Monarchs were devastated by  a freak ice storm in March, while they were still in their roosting areas. Weather along the migration route was also less than favorable in May and June.

Chip Taylor, who writes the blog, is predicting that the 2016-2017 overwintering population in Mexico will cover between one and two hectares – at most half of the prior winter’s population.


It’s a hard truth that a single storm can have a major negative impact on the Monarchs. This will continue to be a worry as long as the population remains so small. All the more reason for everyone in the path of migrating Monarchs to plant more Milkweed.

Anyhow, the three Monarchs in the front garden on Sunday morning were joined by a single Black Swallowtail. All were nectaring on the Mexican Sunflowers (Tithonia rotundifolia), which is definitely a butterfly favorite for a number of species.


In the picture above I managed to get a Monarch and a Swallowtail into the same frame.

There were far more Tithonia flowers than butterflies, and yet the Swallowtail and the Monarchs repeatedly chased each other off of the same flower. In this behavior they reminded me of some people I could name.


As founder of the International Society for the Promotion of Tithonia (ISOPROT), I would be remiss in not repeating that Monarchs are exceedingly grateful to any gardeners who offer Mexican Sunflower along the fall migration path. Plus, look at that bright,clear orange – how can you resist?

52 Comments on “Monarch Butterflies Head South After a Disappointing Year”

  1. As a British member of ISOPROT I concur that Tithonia flowers are magnets for butterflies, bees and hoverflies. Sadly, no monarch butterflies in Europe though. I was thrilled to see my first monarchs in Yosemite Valley this summer – they really are beautiful.

  2. I have Tithonias in the garden for the first time this year (thanks to Tammy) & love them. I’m a huge fan of orange in the garden and they are blooming like crazy now. I’ve not seen any butterflies on them yet, but will now know to keep an eye out.

  3. Jason, so interesting to read about your tracking of the Monarchs. I also worry that weather is becoming more unpredictable and extreme, with stronger storms, as climate scientists have predicted. I am about to read a controversial book, Half-Earth, in which the author calls for half the earth to be turned over to nature. I also have The Sixth Extinction but have not been able to bring myself to read it. Anyway, I hope to read Half-Earth this weekend and will likely write about it on my blog. Always enjoy visiting your your garden home, thanks for sharing it with us.

  4. I grew Tithonia from seed in pots a couple of years ago, but it doesn’t really get hot enough here, for long enough, for them to thrive. I want to try them again though, maybe as annuals in the beds. We don’t get Monarchs really in Washington, but we do get plenty of swallowtails. I never realized that butterflies could be territorial. Our hummingbirds are, they chase each other all over the garden.

  5. This was the first year I’ve grown tithonia from seed and was able to give some away as well as plant them in my own garden and at the neighborhood butterfly garden. We have been wondering where the monarchs were and your report from Monarch Watch explains a lot. Over the past three weeks I usually see at least one monarch when I’m in the garden. Have to laugh over the monarch and swallowtail wanting first dibs at the same flower. My dogs are just like that!

  6. Beautiful shots of the Monarch on Tithonia. I am so grateful for being introduced to Tithonia through your blog – we have large containers of them in front of our big living room window this year, so even on a cloudy day we can see them up close and en masse from indoors! And our bees are grateful too. Thanks Jason!

  7. It’s so worrying to know how vulnerable these butterflies are,good on you being founder of such a fantastic cause and spreading the word! What’s not to like, a gorgeous plant in the garden and gorgeous creatures adorning them…..fantastic pic btw!xxx

  8. Even here in southern Californa where many gardeners grow Milkweed in our community garden, I can’t help notice the decline in the Monarch butterfly population this year. Not only Monarchs but hummingbirds and bees, as well. I’m growing Tithonia next season. Every little bit helps. And, they are beautiful!

  9. That IS a beautiful bloomer! Despite my severe lack of bright sunlight, I’m contemplating a little spot where it might thrive. I know it’s a tall plant, so I’ll have to plan carefully! In my garden, the butterfly magnets are Swamp Milkweed, Blue Mistflower, various Zinnias, Lantanas, Cosmos, Echinacea, and Pentas. I wish I could be hopeful about the Monarchs and other pollinators–trying, like you, to do my part to make a little difference. 🙂

  10. Interesting post with some good information about Monarchs that I had not seen before. I tried starting some Tithonia from seed this year, but not one seed came up. I may have let the soil get too warm–forgot to turn the heat mat off for several consecutive nights! I’ll try again next year, and start them much earlier, too, since may people commenting here say it’s slow. The butterflies in my garden like the Joe Pye Weed, Monarda, and Zinnias. I planted an Asclepias a few weeks ago, so I’m looking forward to seeing what it might attract next year.

  11. I recently planted asclepias (again!) in hopes of attracting monarchs and providing them with a food source for their caterpillars. So far my butterfly weed is flourishing. Maybe I have finally found a place it will like in my garden. Now I need to add some more flowers for the adult monarchs.

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