This post was republished with permission from Lindsey Parkinson, originally published on her blog Lindsey and Tom. Lindsey recently returned from Nat Hab’s and WWF’s monarch butterfly tour in Mexico.
It was a childhood dream realized. On elementary school trips and family outings to the Pacific Science Center in Seattle I used to dress up in my brightest clothing and borrow my mother’s lilac perfume with the hope of this happening. Now, in Michoacán, Mexico, I’m wearing a black shirt under a veneer of dirt I picked up on the horse ride up the hill, I smell of said horse, and am standing quietly in the sun, listening to the beat of millions of wings, when a butterfly lands on my face.
A few months ago across the United States and southern Canada, the long September days and cool nights triggered monarch butterfly caterpillars to develop a bit differently from the generations that came before them. This last wave of butterflies to emerge from the chrysalis in 2014 were bigger and stronger than their parents and grandparents, and if they survive, they will live five times as long. The journey northward from the overwintering grounds in Michoacán to the US-Canadian border area took four generations. Now, this “super generation” will not only have to cover that entire distance back to central Mexico but they will need to survive the winter here and in the spring fly back to Texas to begin the multi-generational migration again.
If magic exists, I think it is here in Michoacán. Walking to the oyamel fir trees where the butterflies congregate en masse, my mother and I pass openings in the forest, full of flowers and fluttering individuals. On warm days, the resting monarchs glide from trees to flowers for sustenance, then down the hill to the nearest stream or pond for a drink.
Adult butterflies consume the nectar from any available flower but their young are incredibly picky – only milkweed leaves will do. That is why the generations of butterflies head north. Mother monarchs lay their eggs on the milkweed, and the caterpillars hatch and consume as much of their host plant as possible, quickly blooming up to 350 times their original size. By the time the caterpillars metamorphose into adult butterflies, the local milkweed has all been eaten. So in order to lay eggs, the new adults must continue northward. The northerly migrating butterflies only live two to five weeks, they fly just far enough to reach uneaten stands of milkweed, then the process begins again.
Milkweed is the plant of choice for monarchs, due to the toxins found within the leaves. The more a caterpillar eats, the greater the concentration of toxins found within the body of not only the caterpillar but the adult butterfly. The toxins cause the butterflies to taste horrible. If a predator, such as a blue jay, eats a monarch, they quickly throw it back up. After consuming one monarch the bird learns not to eat orange butterflies anymore. Monarch life strategy is to sacrifice a few to save the many. Other butterflies, such as viceroys, evolved to mimic the orange patterns of the monarch in order to benefit from their sacrifice as well.
Our Mexican guides tell us that on occasion so many butterflies will land on a limb of the oyamel firs that a branch will break off under the weight. While I don’t get to witness such an event, my first visit to a monarch reserve was a cold afternoon where the butterflies hung off the branches so thickly it looked like the sheets of mosses and lichens seen in old growth forests or swamps. It took some time for my brain to begin tracing the shapes of individual butterfly wings among the dark masses.
The monarch butterfly, as a species, is not endangered. Monarchs are found across the Americas from southern Canada to northern South America, Hawaii, Papa New Guinea, New Zealand, Australia, India, Nepal, and even North Africa. What is at risk is the North American migrating population. Loss of milkweed due to increases in herbicides and land use changes in the US and Canada means fewer surviving caterpillars, and wintering in only a few spots in the Transvolcanic Mountains of Mexico opens the whole population to destruction if there is some sort of catastrophe. In 2002 up to 80% of overwintering monarchs were killed following a severe storm of freezing rain. At that time, the population was still large enough to bounce back to expected levels the next year, but in the intervening years, numbers have continued to decline. It is unknown now whether the population is large enough to withstand such an event, let alone two difficult years in a row.
Monarch butterfly migration is such a unique phenomenon that it was one of the topics discussed when President Peña Nieto, President Obama, and Prime Minister Harper met in Toluca, Mexico in February 2014. The three world leaders agreed to create a task force to jointly tackle the problems facing the imperiled insects, but success will take more than just politicians.
Mexican landowners in the transvolcanic mountains where the butterflies spend the winter have switched from a largely logging-based economy to one of ecotourism. Those who visit the sanctuaries not only get to witness a natural wonder but support the efforts of these local people in protecting a world treasure. Landowners across the United States and Canada can also help repair the damage caused by changes in habitat by planting the milkweed that caterpillars need to survive in their yard.
Once the people of Mexico, the United States, and Canada work for a common cause, we can ensure that monarch butterflies won’t only be seen in the butterfly houses of the science center or the zoo but in our homes and gardens, for generations to come. Everyone should be able to feel the magic of a butterfly’s kiss.
Learn more about the monarch migration and projects being done to save it: https://www.monarchjointventure.org/
Find the milkweed species that grows in your area: https://monarchjointventure.org/images/uploads/documents/MilkweedFactSheetFINAL.pdf
We visited the Mexican monarch sanctuaries on a monarch butterfly tour with Natural Habitat Adventures and World Wildlife Fund. I would highly suggest them for anyone wishing to make the trip. Visit https://www.nathab.com/central-america/monarch-butterfly-tour/ for more information.