Of all migrations by small creatures, few are as astonishing as the one performed by the monarch butterfly. The embodiment of fragility, these insects travel between 1,200 and 2,800 miles or more between their starting and ending points—a feat without parallel.
What is even more remarkable is that the ones migrating to the sites where monarchs hibernate have never been there before. These are the great-great-great-grandchildren of those that performed the intrepid journey from Northeast Unites Stated, and Southeast Canada to the highland forests of central Mexico the year before.
WWF’s Monica Echeverria has escorted environmental reporters, and television crews to the monarch butterflies’ wintering grounds on numerous occasions over the past ten years. She spoke with WWF Travel about her trips to the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve.
WWF Travel: Our tour takes place in February. Can you describe what our travelers will see at that time?
Monica Echeverria: The first time I went to see the monarchs was at the end of January in 2007. At this time, the butterflies are often sleeping, but some of them wake up when the sun hits them and warms their wings. Then they fly to ponds or puddles to go take a drink of water and return to the trees.
The second time was at the beginning of March, just when they started to awake and fly all over the place. One of the most impressive scenes was when we were driving on a highway, on our way to one of the monarch sanctuaries, and all of a sudden, we noticed a group of butterflies flying down the mountain, they crossed along the highway, and continued to the other side, down the mountain. It was like a huge column of black and orange, all following each other. You think they are going to crash into you, but they don’t. All the cars stopped, and we watched for an hour.
WWF: What are the conditions like?
ME: The butterflies are found in high-altitude areas. Often you will have to hike 1 or 1 ½ hours through oak, oyamel and pine forests to get the sanctuaries.
WWF: Do the branches on the trees in the forests really bend from the weight of all the butterflies?
ME: They do! It’s like tree branches in winter, hanging from the weight of the snow. Each butterfly weighs less than half an ounce, so there must be thousands on each branch. You don’t even see the trunk or branches of the trees—not one single spot is left. It’s all black and orange.
WWF: Why do the butterflies come here?
ME: As with some other species, the monarchs migrate to avoid the strong winters in Canada and the United States, finding the right temperature to hibernate in these forests. What we don’t know is how each year a new generation for every four or five generations comes back to not only to the same mountains, but also to the same sanctuaries. We don’t know how they find their way to the same sites. It’s a big mystery.
WWF: How does a small butterfly have the energy to make such a long trip?
ME: The generation that migrates North to South is physically different from the other generations. For example, during their larval phase they don’t develop sexually, but instead they accumulate fatty deposits, gaining calories to prepare for the trip. They use those lipids for energy to fly across the United States, all the way to central Mexico. When they arrive, they sleep to recuperate, and take in sun exposure. During this time, they also become sexually mature. When they finally wake up, they go like crazy! You see them mating everywhere before they start the migration back to the North.
WWF: What’s the current status of the monarch butterflies and their migration?
ME: Unfortunately, we have seen a sharp decline in the migratory monarch butterfly population over the last 20 years. This is due to several factors, from deforestation in their hibernating grounds in Mexico to the loss of milkweed along their migratory route. Milkweed is essential for the monarch butterfly reproduction; it is the only plant where monarch butterflies lay their eggs, and upon which larvae feed and grow before they turn in to butterflies. The combination of these hazards has vastly impacted their populations, but as we have seen with other species, they can recuperate if we all help to protect their habitat.
WWF: What was the latest impression you had on your most recent trip?
ME: At the end of February 2016, an unusual winter storm hit central Mexico, damaging the forest, and creating freezing conditions in the monarch wintering habitat. When the population survey was conducted our fears were confirmed; showing a 27% decrease in the monarch population in relation to the year before.
However, I also noticed that there were more people from the local communities engaging in initiatives to protect the forest, the monarchs, and many of them are participating in sustainable projects within the area. For instance, they have established tree nurseries that help to reforest the area, and mushroom production at a small-scale. Both activities are supported by WWF, and partners in the field, providing local communities with an alternative income, and the feeling of ownership; you can see they are proud of it. Overall, there is a more noticeable commitment from the communities towards preserving the monarchs.
WWF: What should travelers do to prepare for this trip?
ME: Expect a lot of walking. Because of the high altitude and denser air, you should be in good shape. Make sure to wear good hiking boots, and bring lots of water. It can get cold, so bring gloves and a hat and a warm jacket.
WWF: What can travelers do when they get back home to help ensure that the monarch migration is around for years to come?
ME: Join the Monarch Squad! It is a WWF campaign where we ask people to sign up and support the monarch butterflies in many ways. One way is to plant milkweed wherever you are, whether that is at home, schools, or at a community center. You have to be careful of selecting a native milkweed, depending on where you are. The other way is to help us advocate for policy decisions in relation to supporting sustainable agricultural practices. By joining the Monarch Squad, we will keep you informed about our work to continue the conservation of the migrating monarchs.