Can You Fly Like a Monarch? Head Outside and Try

August is Monarch Month at the Forest Preserve District of Will County! In our area, the end of August marks the beginning of the monarch’s epic migration to Mexico. Celebrate with a couple of fun monarch activities you can do outside.

Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock

Monarch Flight


To make that trip to Mexico, monarchs have to be skilled fliers. They can travel between 50 miles and 100 miles in a single day. The record was set by one ambitious monarch that traveled 265 miles in a single day! Even flying such long distances every day, it can take up to two months for the butterflies to reach their destination.


Flight Hacks


To successfully complete their trip, monarchs have a few tricks up their wings. They don’t flap for 50 miles of flight. Instead, when conditions are just right, they spread out their wings and soar.


Try it outside: Fly like a monarch! Flap your wings for 50 seconds while running around. Now try it again keeping your arms out. Which is easier?


Just for fun, play monarch tag. Designate a starting point (Canada) and an end point (Mexico). You can also designate a couple safe zones where players can stop without being tagged (Will County and Texas, for example). Everyone starts at Canada. The monarch who is “it” has to give everyone else between a 5-second and 10-second start before they chase.

The person who is “it” also gets to call out flap (everyone flaps their arms as they run) or soar (run with arms straight out). The “it” monarch can call out flap or soar as much as they like. Whoever makes it to Mexico first without getting tagged wins!


Hot Air Rises


Monarchs fly with the help of the air around them. Hot air rises up, while cool air falls. Rising hot air is called a thermal. These thermals can occur anywhere the air is just a couple of degrees warmer than the air next to it.


Try it outside: Hunt for thermals! Believe it or not, you’ve seen thermals before. Have you ever looked at a very hot car or parking lot and noticed the air wiggle? That heated air is rising, floating above the cooler air further over the car. The cooler, denser air (think heavier air) falls down, only to get heated by the car and rise again. Basically, the hotter air and the

cooler air keep switching places. All the rising air is called a thermal.


You might not be able to feel it, but you can set up an experiment. Tie some feathers on a string and hold it out. Are the feathers doing anything? Now try holding the feathers over a thermal, like over a hot car. What do they do?


Try it outside: Cloud gaze! Another tell-tale sign of thermals are cumulous clouds. The clouds form when a column of air rises and then cools at higher altitudes. The moisture in the air condenses and forms a cloud. Cumulous clouds are big, fluffy clouds. How many do you see today? Can you make out any shapes?


Ride the Thermals


With their feather-light wings, monarchs can float up to 1 mile above ground on the thermals. Gliding on the thermals help these tiny insects get to Mexico!


Try it outside: Design and fly a paper monarch glider! Draw a monarch butterfly on a stiff piece of paper. Make sure to include the long body between the wings. Cut out the monarch. Fold it in half through the center of the body, then fold the wings down in the opposite direction. Fly it like a paper airplane and see how far your monarch can soar!


Do you need to make any adjustments? Add some weight with a couple of pennies or paper clips. Experiment with your monarch glider to see if you can get better results. Hold contests with your friends. Whose monarch glides the furthest? Whose goes the highest?


Try it outside: Search for monarchs! How many monarch butterflies do you see? If you have a net you can even try to catch them. Just be careful not to damage their wings – and make sure to release them when you are done. They have a long flight ahead.


Want to learn more about monarchs? Join the Forest Preserve District for the following upcoming programs.


Discovery Isle: Monarchs!: 1 to 3 p.m. Wednesday, August 14, at Isle a la Cache Museum. We’ll be talking monarch migration and monarch flight and flying paper gliders! No registration required.


Monarch Way Stations: The Forest Preserve District will host this program from noon to 2 p.m. Sundays throughout August at different preserves. Learn about monarch way stations, which are milkweed hot spots that provide valuable habitat and nectar sources for monarch butterflies. The program will be held at the following locations:

  • August 4: Hickory Creek Barrens in New Lenox

  • August 11: Hickory Creek LaPorte Road Access in Mokena

  • August 18: McKinley Woods Kerry Sheridan Grove in Channahon

  • August 25: Isle a la Cache Museum in Romeoville


Mission: Monarchs: 8:30 to 9:30 a.m. Saturday, August 31, at Isle a la Cache Museum. Learn how you can be a part of the monarch butterflies' amazing, 3,000-mile annual migration through the Monarch Watch Tagging Program. Registration required by Thursday, August 29.


Monarch’s First Flight: Visit the Plum Creek Nature Center through Sunday, September 29, to release butterflies as they emerge from their chrysalis. The nature center is helping out these pollinators by rearing monarch caterpillars in a safe environment. Join us to take part in a monarch’s first flight. You will also receive a free eco-friendly straw so you can have a proboscis just like the butterfly! A naturalist will be on hand to answer all your butterfly questions and give you some great pointers how to entice butterflies to your yard. No registration required, but call 708.946.2216 before arriving to ensure there are butterflies to release!