Vast numbers pass through the southern U.S. — including Northwest Florida — with the majority taking residence in the mountain forests of Mexico.
As temperatures continue to drop in Northwest Florida and tourists bid farewell to the coast, a new wave of beachgoers can be spotted lounging and drinking along the shore: monarch butterflies.
Mary Salinas, residential horticulture agent with the University of Florida, said these nectar drinking visitors are a welcomed sight this year, especially following the release of a 37-year study showing the monarch population has dropped by 80 percent since 2005.
"A lot of people have been seeing lots of monarchs over the past month," Salinas said. "Over the weekend I saw a dozen in my yard feeding on the milkweed and other flowers."
Dozens of the butterflies were also spotted last weekend feeding on wildflowers in the sand dunes on Okaloosa Island. Salinas said the monarchs, however, often can be confused with queen butterflies that also come to the area during the fall and winter.
"It’s really hard to tell the difference many times, unless they’re standing still for you," Salinas said. "The coloring is the same, but the pattern is a little different."
Monarch butterflies spend summers in the northern United States and Canada. But as days grow shorter and nectar-producing plans die back, the monarchs head south.
Vast numbers pass through the southern U.S. — including Northwest Florida — before the majority take residence in the mountain forests of Mexico. Salinas said sometimes, though, a small group of monarchs won't make the trip down to Mexico and will instead stay in the area all winter.
It's all dependent on the severity of the winter weather, she said.
"It’ll be interesting to see if we do have any that are overwintering this year," Salinas added.
The beautiful sight of the butterflies fluttering across Northwest Florida's blue skies are a reminder that residents can do more to protect the species, she said. They should stop using pesticides and plant more flowers — especially milkweed — if they want help the monarch population thrive.
Research of the declining monarch populations shows the use of pesticides and the shrinking of the native milkweed population are part of the problem.
Salinas said she predicts the butterflies will migrate out of the area within the next few weeks, and encouraged people to enjoy them while they're still here.
"We love to see that they are alive and migrating, although it's of great concern that the population numbers are down and that the migration numbers are down," Salinas said. "It is disconcerting."