They have just found where the monarch butterflies go in autumn
Those red gold drifters edged in black
That blow like leaves but never coming to rest
Always fluttering out of reach and disappearing…
Speed 14 miles an hour on a 3000 mile course to Mexico…
What a way to go; you make it or you don’t
Or the winds snatch you away….
(Loren Eisley 1975)
“Now I wonder, am I a man dreaming I was a butterfly,
Or, whether I am now a butterfly dreaming I was a man…
(Zhuangzi, 4th Century B.C. )
On November 1st when Mexicans celebrate their Day of the Dead, some also celebrate a return of the monarch butterflies, which they believe also carry the returning souls of their dead. This year however, for the first time in recent memory, they didn’t arrive. A week or so later they began to slowly straggle in, in record low numbers. Some experts now fear that their spectacular migration could be nearing collapse. The Monarch’s Central Mexican sanctuary was unknown until 1975 when it was discovered that they overwinter in highland oyamel fir forests from November until mid-March. In spring, they begin their northward return while breeding along the way, and many die within a cycle that takes three or four generations to complete. No individual butterfly completes a round trip and only their great-grandchildren return to their colony’s starting point. Known as El Rosario Mexican Butterfly Sanctuary, 3 hours NW of Mexico City, in the state of Michoacan, near the town of Angangueo, it has now become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The monarch’s ability to navigate an extraordinary and perilous journey with pinpoint accuracy, to such a secluded place where they have never been, remains a mystery. The path of their unknown homing instinct was beautifully filmed in 3D in a Canadian IMAX documentary: Flight of the Butterflies, (2012).
Scientists speculate that recent deforestation, and illegal logging operations within the monarch’s overwintering habitat, has led to a drastic reduction in their population since these oyamel trees serve both as blankets and umbrellas for protection. While there was a time when monarch wings covered over 50 acres of fir forest, with as many as 15 million on a single branch, these delicate creatures now occupy an area of less than 2 acres. Climate change, as well as changes in agricultural practice and land use in the USA and Mexico, involving GMO crops and that proven deadly herbicide Roundup, are believed to be contributing factors to the disturbingly dwindling numbers. While there has been no mention of ongoing and increasing levels of ionizing radiation, now streaming throughout the northern hemisphere, this presents a likely and ultimately lethal factor, as well.
Some hold that the monarch was so named because of its size and the fact that it exists over a large domain. Another theory suggests that since this name was first published as such in 1874, in honor of English King William III, these butterflies were also called “King Billies”.
Well known by their scientific name Danaus plexippus of the family Nyphalidae, migration patterns of the monarch provides a leitmotif for Barbara Kingsolver’s 7th novel, Flight Behavior (2012). Here we find that the primary focus is on climate change, which the author, who is also a biologist, refers to as “global weirding”. Her novel is set deep within the rural mountains of Appalachia, in a conservative, evangelical, emotionally stifling and depressed town, in her native state of Tennessee. Locals and farming folk in particular have noticed a shift in the weather which she describes as, “Summer heat never really arrived, nor the cold in turn, and everything living now seemed to yearn for sun with the anguish of the unloved”. This beautifully written story about Nature as well as human nature, unfolds with an unexpected arrival of 15 million shimmering orange monarchs, in a silent forest area, which creates an illusion of a seemingly Biblical “valley of fire”. The monarch’s atypical flight behavior serves as cause for concern for visiting entomologists, as well as a powerful catalyst for social change within individual lives, families and the community at large.
On a recent visit to Mexico City’s Museum of Archeology I discovered that the beauty of their country’s iconic monarch butterflies is celebrated by design team of art historian Cristine Pineda and textile engineer Ricardo Covalin ,who founded their studio in 1996. As a onetime, now retired art historian myself, I can appreciate the enormous energy, quality and depth that has contributed to their research. Considered by many as the “Hermes of Mexico” the stated mission of Pineda Covalin’s designs, is to preserve a collective memory of Mexico’s pre-Columbian, modern folkloric and country-wide abundance of natural beauty. Within their preferred medium of highest quality silk, these innovative designers have beautifully captured the exquisite, stained glass, shimmering luminosity of the monarch’s tawny, reddish-gold colors with tracery patterns outlined in black with delicate points of white. Among many others concerned with preserving the both the beauty and survival of our magnificent monarchs, we have monarchwatch.org which can serve as a useful entry point for those willing to share both resources and concern.