The Aztecs believed the souls of the departed remained on earth in the form of butterflies. Even images carved in the ancient Aztec monuments show this belief -  linking the spirits of the dead and the Monarch butterfly.

Every autumn Monarch Butterflies, which have summered up north in the United States and Canada, return to Mexico for the winter protection of the oyamel fir trees. The local inhabitants welcome back the returning butterflies, which they believe bear the spirits of their departed. The spirits to be honored during Los Dias de los Muertos.

Borne aloft on brightly colored wings, the monarch butterfly completes a marvelous feat of endurance each year, migrating thousands of miles to spend the winter in California and Mexico.


The monarch butterfly is found throughout North and South America wherever the milkweed plant grows. The monarch larvae feed on various types of milkweed, which thrives in open spaces, as well as beside roads, along woodland edges, on empty lots, and in overgrazed pastures. Anywhere milkweed grows, monarchs thrive.


In early spring monarch butterflies come out of hibernation and begin their migration north.
Many stop to mate and lay their eggs on milkweed plants. The eggs hatch into caterpillars within a few days. After the caterpillars pupate and become butterflies a month later, they also join the northward flight.
During the flight, the newly-adult butterflies may also stop to breed. Up to five generations of monarch butterflies may migrate in one season. All monarch butterflies congregate at specific winter roost sites in California and Mexico.


Despite its paper-thin wings. the monarch butterfly is a powerful flyer with uncanny endurance. It is best known for its annual migration through-sometimes as far as 3000 miles-North America to California and Mexico. Monarch Butterflies that breed in the temperate parts of North America migrate so that their eggs and caterpillars won't be killed by prolonged winter frost. For this reason, the autumn monarch broods are more likely to migrate than those that are hatched during the warm spring weather.
The 5 million monarch butterflies from western North America head for a small number of sites scattered along the coast of California. The 100 million butterflies from the eastern part of the country head south to Michoacan in Central Mexico.

During the last 200 years, the monarch butterfly has also succeeded in colonizing places as far away as Hawaii, Fiji, Australis, and New Zealand. These tropical monarch butterflies tend to be less mobile than their relatives in the temperate zones, seldom needing to travel far from their warm habitat.


The crowded winter roosts of the monarch butterfly are one of the natural wonders of the world. In Mexico, the roosting sites of the eastern monarch butterfly consist of a small area of pine forest. As many as 15 million orange and black butterflies cover the trees at one time. The temperature of the roost should be just above freezing. If it is too cold, the butterflies will die; if it is too warm, they will wake up and expend valuable energy.


Length: in. (body).
Mouthparts: Sucking in adult.
Wings: 2 pairs of flying wings.
Wingspan: 3 in.
Eggs: Number variable.
Hatching time:3-4 days.
Development time of caterpillars: 3-4 weeks.
Diet: Larvae feed on milkweed; adults feed on flower nectar.
Lifespan:3-4 weeks in summer generations; 7-8 months in over-wintered generations.
The similar African monarch, Danaus chrysippus.


  • The longest recorded flight of a monarch butterfly is over 3,000 miles. While migrating, it can cover 80 miles a day.
  • The monarch butterfly is believed to have reached some of the islands it has colonized by hanging on to the riggings.
  • The monarch makes its migratory flight at speeds of up to 11 miles per hour. It travels 16 or 17 feet above the ground.