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Where Do Monarch Butterflies Go in the Winter?

Julie Harris, Master Gardener

Isn’t it fun to watch colorful butterflies fly from one plant to another in our summer gardens? But what happens to butterflies when the weather gets cold? Read about where Monarch butterflies live in the winter and why they choose that spot. Enjoy fun activities with the child in your life and butterflies.

Where Do Monarch Butterflies Go in the Winter?

Isn’t it fun to watch colorful butterflies fly from one plant to another in our summer gardens? But what happens to butterflies when the weather gets cold? Well, many butterflies migrate or move from Minnesota to warmer places. In those warmer places, butterflies can also find their food sources – flowers. Since flowers in Minnesota don’t bloom in the winter, butterflies need to fly to areas of the world where they do. Some butterflies who already live in warm climates, will move to a different location because if they stay in one place, butterfly caterpillars will eat all of the available food.

Butterflies usually start to migrate in September or October, depending on the weather. Monarch butterflies spend their winter in Mexico and Southern California. (Can you find these places on a map?) Monarch butterflies are the only butterflies to migrate so far away (2,500 miles) each year. In Mexico, the butterflies live in oyamel fir trees and return to the same trees every year. What is really strange, is that these butterflies are not the same butterflies who migrated to these Mexican trees in the prior year. These butterflies were born around mid-August and are the great-great-grandchildren of the butterflies who migrated in the earlier year. So, how do the younger monarchs know which trees to fly to? Scientists think that Monarch butterflies rely on instinct, the sun and magnetic compasses to know where to go. 

In the spring, the Monarch butterflies fly back to Minnesota because the type of food that they eat is not available to them in Mexico. One sad fact is that the winter homes of the Monarch butterfly are endangered because people are cutting down their favorite trees to build things like roads and houses. In Minnesota, we can help Monarch butterflies to survive by planting milkweed plants and not using poisonous sprays on our plants.



Help your little one appreciate beautiful butterflies by choosing one or more of these activities:

  1. Plant a milkweed plant in your garden

  2. Go out into the garden and look for butterflies; take a picture and try to identify the type

  3. Draw a picture of the life cycle of a butterfly

  4. Cut out and decorate paper butterflies

  5. Make a butterfly mask


Gotta Go! Gotta Go! by Sam Swope. This book tells the story of a caterpillar who knew she had to get to Mexico but didn’t know how she would get there. She crawled on her way until she began to grow tired, and hung from a branch, tucked into her chrysalis. When she woke up, she continued her journey until she finally came across a valley with millions of butterflies just like her. 



 Monarch Butterfly by Gail Gibbons. This is a non-fiction book that is clearly written, beautiful illustrated, and packed with scientific facts for kids. This book touches on the life cycle, habitat, migration, body parts, and behavior of monarch butterflies.


Dakota County Library


Photo credits: (1), Creative Commons (2)

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