January 12th 2023
The Epic Life, Flight and Fate of the Monarch Butterfly BY Julie Gebhardt
‘i am beginning to change
and though i can’t imagine
the discomfort that rises
as i turn to liquid gold
gives me the space
to breathe again
i am more and less
completely me and nothing else
i’ve done my time
as a caterpillar
and now i must prepare to fly’
For centuries, the Monarch has held the symbolic meaning of a new beginning, following a new path, a rebirth, and heading in the right direction.
It is apropos then, that this is exactly the life cycle, or the story of the Monarch. The journey, or metamorphosis of the monarch butterfly begins at stage one, the egg (new beginning); stage two, the caterpillar (following a new path); three, the chrysalis (a rebirth); and finally the adult butterfly (heading in the right direction).
Monarch eggs are always laid on their host plant, the milkweed, the only plant that the monarch larvae will eat. After hatching, the larvae feeds onto the milkweed as it grows into a caterpillar, eventually finding its way to a suitable place where it weaves a silken skin to form a soft green chrysalis then in its finality, seals it with a liquid gold seam. Several days later, it bursts through the golden seam exposing its small and shriveled wings. Newly emerged it will take two to three hours before it can fly, gaining strength from its own bodily fluid in which it pumps into its wing veins in order to make them stronger so it can be prepared to fly and follow its new path, its new beginning with the other Monarchs.
One of nature’s most remarkable phenomena is certainly the metamorphosis, especially if one is fortunate to watch it. Even more of a phenomena is the epic annual migration of the Monarch butterflies across North America into Mexico. With only four generations of Monarch’s born every year, it’s the last generation that begins their journey south in early August with the first Monarch’s reaching Mexico two months later. During their flight they stop for nectar in prairies and flower meadows, building their strength for the imminent migration in hopes that they survive the dangers of their journey south.
Amazing to think that they make this migration annually each August, travelling over 2,500 miles and arrive at the same mountainous locations in Mexico year after year.
These mountains are over 3,000 meters high, where the Monarch’s have reached the end of their two-week journey. For decades their ancestors have come here, spending winters clustered in hanging masses in the fir trees in the forests.
Their migration to Mexico however, is nothing like it had been for hundreds of years prior. Not only was the 2017 hurricane season deadly to so many, but since then Mexico has been deforesting, with illegal logging being the main driver, destroying the giant firs for animal agriculture. This coupled with the conversion of grassland to farmland for crop production, the use of herbicides and pesticides killing the milkweed, all comes together to create the perfect storm for these delicate creatures.
In the winters of 1995 to 1996, approximately 45 acres of forest in the Monarch mountainous regions in Mexico were covered with Monarchs. In 2003 through 2004, there were 27.5 acres of forest coverage; in the winter season of 2020, just over 5 acres were occupied.
Because of the destruction of their habitat for agricultural purposes, they are now listed on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species as Endangered, threatened by habitat destruction and climate change.
So what what is begin done about it? The World Wildlife Federation is in collaboration with the Mexican government to promote good forestry practices and management, providing assistance to sustainable projects, and education on the Monarch migration.
How can we help? We can offer pollinators in our own gardens, planting native wildflowers, lantanas, their host plant the milkweed, to help rebuild their habitat to support their population and their incredible migration. The more people plant, the more it helps with conservation. The smallest efforts often provide the greatest value.