Published in Vol. 5 Issue 2 of Written River
Mesmerized, I watch black-orange veined wings of monarch butterflies slip easily in and out of sunbeams. Surrounded by these fluttering “souls of the dead” – so named by Aztec ancestors of the Mexican people – I make a futile grasp for the teasing mariposas as they float just beyond reach, lazily awakening to late morning warmth in their mountainous winter home in central Mexico.
Thousands of lilting, dancing monarchs imprint a permanent memory. I’d visited their nesting site in these giant oyamel fir trees last year and couldn’t forget images of one of the miracles of creature endurance. So I’d returned to experience their fantasy-like flitting again, to see if reports of continued plummeting numbers were true.
A journey to the monarchs is no easy undertaking, but it is dwarfed by their arduous migration. For theirs is a remarkable passage, one made by few other creatures and not fully understood even by scientists. Weather variations, compounded by logging, plus the diminishing availability of winter sanctuaries, and in some areas, reduced milkweed, make the mariposas’ travels challenged by more than physical distance. Yet despite the odds, and despite decreasing numbers, their yearly migration continues to enrich the lives of visitors at the Reserves where they linger in Mexico and where they display their breathtaking beauty: stained glass wings that quiver as the sun stirs them, opening, then hovering dreamily with untouchable grace and ease.
My trip began in Mexico, in the colonial town of San Miguel de Allende, the state of Guanajuato, with a late February excursion organized by the local Audubon Society to neighboring Michoacán, location of the wintering monarch Reserves. San Miguel is a city of bright colors, folk art, fireworks, and engaging people, with a lightness and jubilation that, in a way, mirror the floating butterflies.
After being on the road for five or six hours of travel, we stopped for a night at Agua Blanco near Jungapeo, an eco-resort with thermal pools and underground caves, the area highlighted by luxuriant purple flowers of blooming jacaranda trees splaying against blue sky. The next day involved negotiating higher elevations to reach the aggregate nesting forest areas at El Rosario Monarch Biosphere Reserve, just outside the town of Ocampo. The Reserve is part of the World Heritage Site encompassing about 56,000 hectares (one hectare equals about two-and-a-half acres). Normally, a dozen or so major colonies of monarch butterflies, spread among four to five different locations in this Reserve and several others, inhabit long-needled oyamel firs where millions of individuals winter. But this year, according to our guide, Rodrigo, of the six reserves out of twelve open to the public, 80% of the monarchs were at El Rosario; the rest were almost empty.
Once our van deposited us at 9,000 feet, we could either maneuver the steep terrain by horseback or hike up the next 2,000 feet to see the monarchs. Rodrigo recommended that we ride up and walk down. He and I both remembered last year’s trip: a 92-year old man fell off his horse on the way down and had to be rescued – hand-carried by six men downhill. Our diverse but compatible group took his advice. From a trial lawyer and his wife who lived in New Mexico to six-year old Dahlia from Boston who had flaming red hair, all seemed as excited as I was to get on the move, most on horseback, to reconvene at the top for a final walk into the forest. While our trek to see the nesting butterflies would be relatively short, the monarchs’ journey had its beginning almost a year earlier.
The monarch butterfly migration is a remarkable feat. The origin of the journey for the monarchs we were visiting was El Rosario Reserve itself; their destination was the northeastern U.S. and Canada. As convoluted as that may sound, in order to understand the challenges of the great distances they must fly, it is best to consider that monarchs travel in stages.
Preliminarily, there are five phases in the life of a monarch, beginning with eggs laid on milkweed leaves by the adult female. From these eggs, larvae develop which grow into caterpillars. Each caterpillar creates a pupa, or chrysalis, in which a metamorphosis occurs, resulting in a butterfly. This miraculous process is normally completed within two weeks. Monarchs usually breed four or sometimes five distinct generations within a year, but it is only the final generation that will undertake the migration.
Our mariposas will travel, from beginning to end, a route of several thousand miles. Their journey begins in the oyamel firs in Mexico where they have essentially experienced a reproductive “diapause” – a state of quiescence – during winter, after arriving in October or November from the northeastern U.S. and Canada. They will not begin to leave Michoacán until mid-March when their reproductive organs begin to function again, timed with the re-growth of milkweed. Once in flight, they will soon find a place to mate and the female will deposit her eggs on a milkweed plant she alights upon. Within a month, both parents of these eggs will die. The eggs are somewhere north of Michoacán, in the direction of Texas and Arizona. Larvae will form from these eggs, very small worm-like creatures, which will eventually grow into caterpillars. Each caterpillar will make a pupa in which a butterfly will develop. At the end of about two weeks the monarch emerges and unfolds its wings as blood pumps through them. The wings harden from chemicals in the body fluids. Then it takes flight, continuing north/northeast. This is the first generation. It will fly on for about another month before mating, laying its eggs, then dying – again, and another six weeks total time will have elapsed.
The second generation will undergo the same process, flying farther toward the northeastern U.S. and Canada. Along the way, these monarchs also mate, lay eggs, live a short time, and die. The first and second generations have furthered their lineage in the species by continuing to fly to the appointed destination. The third generation will make its way even farther toward its goal, reaching Canada and the U.S., close to its overall, complete, mid-journey destination (of this lineage in the species) before it, too, mates, lays eggs, and soon thereafter, dies. What the third generation has given birth to is the fourth (or the fourth generation birthing the fifth, depending on circumstances) generation which will accomplish something that none of the previous generations has been able to do: migrate.
The fourth generation, now alive in northeastern U.S. and Canada, lives for about five months, two of which will involve an over 2,500 mile flight back to the parent’s parent’s parent’s wintering grounds in Mexico, a destination they have never been to. Somehow, they “return” to Mexico, in October or November, and remain until March when they depart their nests, fly a bit farther north, mate, lay their eggs – thereby creating the next first generation – and then die. The monarchs have done this for probably thousands of years, perhaps longer, even though not all that begin the migration survive to help create the full-bodied, high-hanging “hives” seen in the Michoacán forest. But most eventually fly toward the southwest, and although they periodically stop during flight, they are not lazy. One monarch was tagged, followed, and recorded as completing over 265 miles in one day.
How the monarchs complete their journey is speculation. They appear to be “genetically programmed” to follow a particular course. They may use the sun’s rays or possibly the earth’s magnetic fields to guide them. And when they veer off course, they seem to self-correct their flight pattern.
There are also physiological reasons for this specific group of creatures to endure as they do. When caterpillars are exposed to shorter days and cooler temperatures in fall, physical changes to this group result in adults that live longer. This longevity can be attributed to several factors, including that they: are in reproductive diapause; have extra body “fat” to make it through winter; have a desire to migrate; and exhibit aggregation behavior.
Usually, monarchs arrive in the oyamel forests of Michoacán to coincide with the November first and second Day of the Dead celebrations that honor spirits of those who have died. Ancient Aztecs believed monarchs were the “souls of the dead,” returning year after year for the festivities. So the migration not only brings economic benefits to towns with butterfly reserves, it strengthens and perpetuates an important Mexican tradition.
Unfortunately, a completed migration of monarchs is no sure thing, threatened as it is by various obstacles. If the weather is too hot or too cold, butterflies don’t fly. Logging the forests where they aggregate to endure the cold season is also a major issue. Interestingly, much of the land of the Reserves where the monarchs winter belongs to the people, not to the government. The land is divided among rural farmers, and life for these people is not easy. But the Mexican government has made efforts to be more committed to the preservation of the sanctuaries, and the people themselves are very involved. They work in small huts at El Rosario Biosphere where they sell handmade crafts: woven baskets, butterfly magnets, earrings, key chains, shirts, all sales helping to support the local economy and provide an alternative to logging.
In addition to the harmful effects of temperature and logging, altered environments endanger the monarchs. Changing patterns in U.S. farmers’ use of herbicides are detrimental to the feeding of caterpillars. Milkweed plants, the only place where monarchs lay their eggs and a primary food source, are being destroyed. Also, aberrations in local conditions like droughts of the last few years and extreme flooding in Angangueo and surrounding areas several years ago adversely affect the migration. Mexican government statistics measuring monarch density that were released in March 2013 indicate that the migration reached its lowest level for the last two decades with a 59% decline.
Soon after the flooding of 2010 novelist Barbara Kingsolver – she had been a keynote speaker at the nearby Writer’s Conference in San Miguel – visited the monarchs. She wrote Flight Behavior, a novel based on the premise that catastrophic conditions in the traditional wintering sites of the monarchs resulted in their arrival to the forests of Tennessee, suspending all of their orange and black glory in an alien environment whose inhabitants didn’t quite know what to do about those millions of enfolded wings.
While the butterflies had been on a mission for many months, our ascent was trouble-free and consumed only about twenty minutes. After riding horses to the higher elevations of El Rosario Reserve, dismounting, and glancing about at only an occasional butterfly, periodically someone – that would be me – worried aloud: “What if we don’t see any?” But we continued walking, searching for monarchs, though all we saw were lifeless butterflies patterning the ground. The oyamel firs were so thick only shafts of sunlight filtered through. We strained to see monarchs, silently meandering, our quietude anticipating their fluttering just around the next turn in the path.
Then we saw one lovely specimen, poised on a flower . . . then several more . . . and then another. In the distance we saw suspended nests clumped with slowly moving wings. Up one huge tree trunk motionless butterflies were attached for yards . . . and butterflies alighting on lavender flowers, butterflies moving as if in a rolling undulation through the forest. Our astonishment was silent witness to our journey to find monarchs.
Although still cool, sun began to warm the air. In the distance, oyamels were shadowed with clumps hanging in hives, suspended from dozens of firs. Miniature and clearly visible swaths of monarchs clustered wing to wing, body to body, thousands upon thousands conjoined in masses. It was as if orange leaves had fire-sprouted from these trees (image courtesy of Barbara Kingsolver). After we had been watching for about a half hour, the monarchs began to shift ever so slowly in their nests, still chilled from night’s temperatures. It was a sight I imagined Walt Disney could have created, with an ethereal quality, and I felt as if I were moving in slow motion, floating with the butterflies.
The mariposas peeled away, slowly readjusting their positions, fluttering lethargically, as if they were wing-stretching. Then they were tremulous, quaking among themselves, some lifting and hovering in the air. Sun-awoken, delicate black and orange wings began lifting through sunbeams, more and more moving toward us – gathered behind an invisible line Rodrigo had asked us to honor. They settled around us, on leaves, on the ground, dancing through the air. As they continued to congregate nearby, dozens spread out together, clinging to lower oyamel limbs, bathing in sunshine.
Then they filled the air, surrounding us, flitting, pausing, momentarily hanging, sleep-walkers drugged by cold nights, delirious in the sun’s warmth. They ventured closer, some landing on our arms, our hats. And running joyfully through the monarchs was Dahlia, red-head aflame with butterflies on her arms, in her hair, several clinging to her back, one pausing on her nose – her eyes straining to see its tiny black feet. I could have remained for hours, caught in the pleasure of warm filtering sunshine, brimming with amazement at these festive, dancing butterflies, always flying just beyond my fingers, playful, not allowing even a casual brush with their velvet touch, except for Dahlia, who paused far longer than I ever thought possible, the butterflies landing softly, lingering on her arms, and then floating on.
Regardless of the pleasures our group experienced with the monarchs, I recalled my previous visit. Unhappily, despite these thousands of fluttering wings, I realized that this year’s population seemed only about a fourth of the numbers I had seen last year. Rodrigo told me that in the five years he has been visiting the nests, butterflies are only about 30% of what he used to see, and he believes there may be a time in the near future, if conditions do not change, when there will be no more excursions to these brilliant mountains in Mexico.
Now, I find myself nostalgic, relishing the butterflies I saw and imagining the millions I did not see, for the story of their long journey to a destination they have never been to continues to fascinate me. Still, I know first-hand that the migration we witnessed is threatened, and that we human beings must acknowledge our role in what is happening to these butterflies as well as to other beings across our planet.
But I will remember how I tilted my head back to view butterflies grasping green fir needles, survivors settled in Michoacán, how I delighted in those evasive winged creatures floating about me – especially the one perched on Dahlia’s nose. Leaving the butterflies behind, I realized that this congregation of miraculous mariposas was in its way celebrating, like the fireworks of San Miguel, perhaps in some small way because despite the obstacles, they had made it. This, too, was Mexican magic: sweet undulations of sunlit mosaics, black-orange wings accompanying us as we descended the trail, dust stirring in puffs along our way, as we imagined which dead souls we’d awakened.
Marianne Werner’s passion is travel and she journeys to distant places, often writing about or photographing her experiences. A retired English teacher who spends part of the year in Chico, CA and part in southern Oregon, she has published poetry and articles in a variety of local and national literary magazines including Empirical Magazine, Watershed, San Miguel Literary Sala Solamente, Pilgrimage, White Pelican, and River Poets Journal. In 2013 she published Simple Images, a collection of her nature poems and photographs.