The Incredible Journey of the Monarchs – on PBS

January 26, 2009

She Was Completely Transparent With Me
Creative Commons License photo credit: Randy Son Of Robert

What do you know about monarch butterflies?

A universal favorite, most people know that these showy orange and black butterflies fly south every year to spend the winter in Mexico. Many of you may have raised their black, yellow, and white caterpillars on Mexican milkweed as a class project or in your backyard.

But why do the adult butterflies migrate, and how do they get there and back? Who are the people and cultures they encounter as they traverse the continent from north to south each year? How did we learn about their migration, and what does it tell us about the natural world?

Creative Commons License photo credit: tlindenbaum

To answer these questions, and to see some amazing footage of millions of butterflies in flight and at their overwintering grounds, be sure to watch NOVA’s long-awaited special, “The Incredible Journey of the Monarchs.” It airs on PBS tomorrow night (Tuesday, January 27) at 7 p.m.

Inspired by Sue Halpern’s book, “Four Wings and a Prayer,” the filmmaker followed the butterflies in hot air balloons and high tech gliders, interviewing researchers and ordinary citizens in Canada, the USA, and Mexico to tell the story of these unusual butterflies and the unique phenomenon of their migration.

You can catch a quick preview of the show, learn about filmmaker Nick de Pencier, or see a list of monarch links and books at the NOVA website.

According to our friends in the monarch-watching business (see this film is “the best program ever done on monarch butterflies.” Don’t miss it!

Again, it airs in Houston on PBS (Channel 8) on Tuesday, January 27 at 7 p.m.

Authored By Nancy Greig

Dr. Nancy Greig is the founding director of the Cockrell Butterfly Center, which she oversaw from 1994 to 2016. As emeritus director she continues to work with the museum doing outreach and education. Her academic training is in botany and entomology, with a specialty in the interaction between insects, especially butterflies, and plants. In addition to cultivating backyard butterflies, she grows vegetables and bees

10 responses to “The Incredible Journey of the Monarchs – on PBS”

  1. SuzyQJenn says:

    Thank you so much for the heads up about this program on PBS, can’t wait to see it tonight!

  2. Wanda Pitser says:

    I watched this program and it was wonderful. I’ve always been a friend of the Monarch butterfly, especially when I was growing up in Indiana.

  3. Mike Plagens says:

    It seems that every ‘science’ and ‘nature’ program on PBS has been evicerated of any mention of evolution. Years are always in 100’s and 1000’s, never millions. The creationists seem to be contaminating these venues to dumb down the population.

  4. SuzyQJenn says:

    What a wonderful program – Nova never fails to make a top notch documentary! I never realized just how far and how long the Monarch’s travel – it was VERY informative. Just an FYI, if you missed it – you can watch it for free on starting today.

  5. Nancy says:

    Hello Mike,

    I certainly agree that “evolution” is a bit of a loaded term in the public eye these days, and that is extremely unfortunate. However, I don’t think the failure to talk about millions of years in this program was due to purposeful “dumbing down.” It’s my understanding that the movement of monarchs northward, out of their ancestral habitat (the tropics), was due to the disturbance caused by agriculture in the USA and Canada. Apparently most milkweeds are weedy successional plants that thrive in disturbed areas; monarchs seem to have extended their range northward to take advantage of this new, seasonally abundant resource but have not (yet?) evolved the capacity to withstand prolonged sub-zero weather. In other words, there may not have been a North American monarch population until a couple of thousand years ago, i.e., the migration phenomenon may be a relatively recent innovation, in geological time. I’ll do some research to find out more and report back to you – but that is my (superficial, admittedly) understanding.

    Do you live in Texas? If so, and if you are interested in the creation/evolution wars, you should check out the Texas Freedom Network’s website and consider becoming a member to support their efforts ( See their recent postings about the State Board of Education hearings on the science curriculum in public schools.

    Best wishes,

  6. Nancy says:

    Hello SuzyQ,

    I tried to leave a comment on your blog site but was not able to do so. So I’ll compliment you on your post-viewing blog on the monarch show here. I am glad you enjoyed it, and thought your summary was perfect. The photography was indeed fabulous, as you noted.

    If you have never been to the overwintering sites in Mexico, I highly recommend that you go (with a good camera) sometime. It is truly an awe-inspiring sight. Best time to go is late February/early March, not long before they take off to head back north. It’s an easy enough trip from Texas – Continental has direct flights to Morelia, the closest city…

    Thanks again for your comments and your great blog!

  7. Terri says:

    I picked up the Monarch program on the radio yesterday. Miss the televised program. When will it be shown again? Please! Thanks, Terri Vermeil

  8. I am going to the Monarch’s overwintering sites in just a few weeks. I was very excited to watch this video. After watching it I am more eager than ever to actually witness millions of monarch butterflies hanging from the oyamel fir trees in the mountains of Mexico. I am a 4th grade teacher and my students and I have been raising and releasing over 40 monarchs each school year. This year we tagged 24 of them. This video is very informative. It captures the beauty amd mystery of these wonderous insects!

  9. Nancy says:

    Hi Sheila,

    Did you see the airing of the Nova feature this past Tueaday evening? They showed it again. You are right, it is both beautiful and informative. And do you know about Monarch Watch (I guess you must if you have tagged monarchs)? I get an e-bulletin from Monarch Watch occasionally and understand that the overwintering population this year is the smallest yet recorded, due to the difficult conditions in the US last summer. I am sure there will still be millions to see and it will be amazing. The good news is that, if conditions are favorable this coming summer, that the numbers can increase again rapidly.

    I hope you have a wonderful trip! Maybe you would like to send us a report about your experience that we could post on the blog?

    Happy butterflying,

  10. Nancy Greig says:

    Terri – a message for you. I just checked the Houston PBS website. The Nova “Incredible Journey of the Butterflies” is being shown again TONIGHT (Jan 28) at 7 p.m., and again on Sunday, Jan. 31 at 6 p.m. Hope you can catch it; it’s really good!


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