Spotlight on Monarchs (and More) Community Programs.

Long viewed as otherworldly messengers and masters of metamorphosis, butterflies have for ages brought joy and beauty into our lives.
As it’s butterfly season here in the Northeast, let’s share some interesting facts about these ethereal creatures before going into some ways that you can help them survive through community science or habitat enrichment.

Did you know that butterfly wings are transparent? The wing is made of chitin, which is transparent. The beautiful colors we see are the tiny scales that cover the wing and reflect light.

Did you know that butterflies taste with their feet? They have tastebuds on their feet which help them to identify food sources as well as the correct plant on which to lay eggs.

Did you know that butterflies indicate the health of an environment? An area with a large population of butterflies and moths indicates that the area is also rich in other invertebrate species.

Did you know that monarch butterflies, migrating north from Mexico, live only 2-6 weeks? As they emerge from overwintering in Mexico, the monarchs make their way north, as far as Canada, laying eggs along the way. There will be 3-4 generations of monarchs, each subsequent generation making it a little farther north. The last generation, however, known as the Methuselah generation, can live up to 8 or 9 months. That is because that generation not only flies back to Mexico, arriving in early November, but will overwinter until March—at which time they will begin to journey north to begin the reproductive cycle all over again.

Monarchs are probably our best known and loved butterflies. Not only have they captured the interest of professional scientists who are still learning about their amazing migratory feats, but also of “community scientists” who are helping to raise, monitor, and tag them. Interest in these butterflies continues to grow as their population declines. In 2022 the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classified monarch butterflies as endangered. Below is a graph, courtesy of the, that displays the number of hectares in Mexico, by year, populated by overwintering monarchs. (A hectare is equal to about 2.5 acres.) The graph clearly shows a downward population trend.

Different ways in which you can help support monarch butterflies can be found on their website,, including information on monarch biology, community science (formerly known as citizen science) tagging programs, and butterfly gardens. Large-scale restoration projects, schools, and non-profits may be eligible for free milkweed.

Your property may be eligible to become a Monarch Waystation, a popular recognition program available through the website. If your garden meets certain criteria, you can apply to become a waystation and receive a sign to post in your yard. This program encourages homeowners to have not only milkweeds, which monarchs require for egg-laying, but other native plants that produce nectar (food) for monarchs and other butterflies. As of March 20, 2023, there are 42,280 Monarch Waystation habitats registered in the U.S. with Monarch Watch.

Monarch Watch is perhaps the best known, but not the only, organization that offers both community science projects and recognition programs for butterflies and bees. You can find descriptions of other, “sister” programs on the website under resources/community science, where you can also click to reach each sister program’s website. Here’s a quick summary:

  • Journey North provides information on tagging and monitoring monarch butterflies, but you can also report sightings of other animals and birds once you register.
  • For those familiar with the popular eBird app, a similar app is available to monitor butterflies in real time. E-Butterfly helps support abundance data on butterflies in North and Central America and the Caribbean.
  • The North American Butterfly Association has led the butterfly count program in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico since 1993. The public is welcome to join a local butterfly count that is held one day a year.
  • In addition to butterflies, other insects are supported by several community science projects such as Bumblebee WatchThe Great Sunflower Project,  and The Lost Ladybug Project.  These projects all enlist the public’s help to identify or count insects, and no special knowledge is required to participate.

Three further resources are worth mentioning. First, at the website for BAMONA (Butterflies and Moths of North America) people can

  • see what counties in Pennsylvania a particular butterfly species has been seen in (with photos, dates, and maps),
  • create a list of all the butterfly (and/or moth) species that have been found in their county,
  • submit your own butterfly or moth sightings.

The second resource is the Facebook group Butterflies and Moths of Pennsylvania.  This site is especially good for beginners who take photos of any kind, because people are willing to help in identification as well as to just get excited about a pretty butterfly.

The third great resource is the Xerces Society. This organization is devoted to pollinator conservation, endangered invertebrate conservation, and reducing pesticide use and their impacts. You can find the Xerces Society’s monarch-nectar community science project here.

You can also purchase a pollinator garden sign from them here to express your support for pollinators. You’ll receive a year of Xerces membership along with your sign!

Barbara Beck, Richland Township Bird Town Leader

Image credits:

Monarch on Swamp Milkweed by permission from Karen Campbell

Graph and Waystation sign, courtesy of Monarch Watch

Pollinator Habitat sign photo, courtesy of Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation