The migrant king: Monarch butterflies are migrating and are set to travel through the area

October 17th, 2011

The migrant king: Monarch butterflies are migrating and are set to travel through the area

By Bo Petersen

Monarch butterflies are the spectacular orange “king” of insects. Each fall, flocks make a near-mythic migration from across North America to Mexico and Caribbean islands. The awe-provoking aspect of the trip is that the butterflies migrating this year aren’t the ones who made it last year; they are descendants. Butterflies don’t live for more than a few months.

Lowcountry beaches are the heart of one of the Eastern flyways, and at the peak of the migration, thousands of the butterflies at a time might be sipping nectar across a single barrier island.

“They roost communally and the roosts can be spectacular. I’ve seen hundreds of them assembled in a single roosting colony,” ecologist Billy McCord said.

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A newly metamorphosed Monarch butterfly rests and sips nectar from a milkweed flower after being released at Brookgreen Gardens in Myrtle Beach.

Photo by The Sun News

Here’s how to find them:

What: Monarch butterflies have a wingspan wider than a baseball. They fly like vultures, cruising when they can with the wings in a ‘V’ formation, flapping only when they need to.

Mistaken identity: Gulf Fritillary butterflies, with bright orange wings, often are mistaken for monarchs. Their wingspan is smaller, about as wide as a golf ball. They tend to constantly flitter when they fly. Like monarchs, they are drawn to coastal flowering plants and are abundant this time of year.

When: The fall migration has already begun, and the first traveling monarchs are turning up on the barrier islands. The migration will peak late October to early November. They tend to move at the back end of cold fronts when the winds and rain die down, and will gather on the southwest of the islands to wait out winds and rain. The more volatile the weather, the more likely they will move en masse.

To see them: The butterflies can be found among native autumn-flowering plants across the coastal islands and will roost en masse on or near those plants at night. Right now, they are drawn to seaside goldenrod and dune camphorweed. By the end of October, groundsel trees will bloom and that is their preferred nectar.

Spots: Look among plants along beach accesses on Sullivan’s Island and other beaches, the old Coast Guard station on the east end of Folly Beach and among flowering plants along beachside streets.

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