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Campus a fall oasis for southbound Monarchs

A monarch rests at one of ACU's butterfly gardens.
A Monarch rests on a Gregg’s Blue Mistflower at one of ACU’s butterfly gardens.
Each year, Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus), also known as milkweed butterflies and “King Billy” butterflies, make an amazing multi-generational migration from as far north as Canada to their winter homes in southern Mexico and California. This journey – like that of migratory birds such as snow geese, cormorants and pelicans which frequent West Texas – thrills viewers who eagerly anticipate their arrival each year at spots along the way.
Monarchs at the Hunter Welcome Center butterfly gardens
Monarchs dominate this gathering at the Welcome Center butterfly garden.
The campus of Abilene Christian University is one of the places Monarchs visit each year and the first butterflies arrived in Mexico the last week of October this fall.
Abilene has in years past hosted monarchs in large roosting colonies frequenting local pecan trees as favored sleeping areas. As recently as 2011, the Monarch migration came in stunning numbers to our campus, clustering in the large pecan trees around the Hardin Administration Building and Phillips Education Building. However, numbers in subsequent years have dropped dramatically for a variety of reasons, including the excessive heat and drought that plagued the central U.S. in 2012 and drops in the caterpillars’ food supply, the milkweed plant.
A queen butterfly (foreground)
Queen butterflies look similar to monarchs, especially at rest with their wings closed. When open, their different markings are more distinguishable.
Even though the number of Monarchs on campus this fall was small, the ones who came were warmly welcomed with two special garden spaces. Planted on the east side of the Hunter Welcome Center and the south side of Brown Library, they are filled with drought-resistant native plant species specially chosen to attract butterflies of all kinds. Plants include Gregg’s Blue Mistflower (Conoclinum greggii), “New Gold” lantana (Lantana x hybrid ‘New Gold’), butterfly bush (buddleia davidii), and several varieties of salvia. According to Corey Ruff, ACU director of physical resources, building and grounds, Gregg’s Blue mistflower attracts butterflies like no other plant material.
This summer the gardens were primarily occupied by Queen butterflies (Danaus gilippus), which at first glance resemble monarchs. But when the Monarchs finally arrived in early October, the difference in size and markings was easy to spot. For about three weeks the gardens were covered with many varieties of butterflies, becoming more active as the temperatures warmed during the day. Finally, a cool front on Halloween sent them on their way south.
With the short, cold days of winter fast approaching, the gardens will sleep, too – waiting for the warmth of spring and a new generation of these lovely winged creatures to remind us of God’s beauty and creativity.

“Beautiful and graceful, varied and enchanting, small but approachable, butterflies lead you to the sunny side of life. And everyone deserves a little sunshine.”

– Jeffrey Glassberg, president of the North American Butterfly Association

Buckeye buttterfly (Junonia coenia)
Buckeye buttterfly (Junonia coenia)
American Painted Lady butterfly (Vanessa virginiensis)
American Painted Lady butterfly (Vanessa virginiensis)
Red Admiral buttterfly (Vanessa atalanta)
Red Admiral buttterfly (Vanessa atalanta)
A monarch's lower wings are lighter in color than the upper ones. Queen butterflies have the same dark orange colors above and below.
A Monarch’s hind wings are lighter in color than the fore ones. Queen butterflies have the same dark orange colors front and back.
Monarchs also like to gather on pecan trees on the ACU campus.
Monarchs also like to gather on pecan tree leaves on the ACU campus.