Since 2018, I have been a bit fascinated with the Monarch butterfly. There was a post on our local NextDoor group in Madison, requesting support to transport a monarch butterfly to Texas that had not hatched in time for release into the wild to make the unbelievable journey to the mountains of Michoacan in central Mexico. “Misty the Monarch”, named by the primary school student who had participated in a community science project to raise butterflies to learn about their life cycle and their journey, was in peril. Butterflies should be on their way by October and yet it was the end of November and Misty was finally ready to fly.
As readers know, every year we make the drive from Madison to Oaxaca, Mexico for winter, passing through Texas. After a bit of persuasion, my husband agreed we could fit Misty in our car to release him in Texas. The student was delighted that Misty would at least have a chance to reunite with his colony to winter in Mexico as hundreds of generations have done previously. Over the next three days, we took great care to feed and provide water with Q-tips on the outside of Misty’s screened container to keep him nourished, bringing him inside in the evenings. When we arrived in southern Texas, the conditions were perfect for his release. It was sunny, about 55 degrees and there was a good breeze. We were hopeful that he would find his way. As I opened his habitat, he slowly flapped his wings and then shot up into the sky like a rocket.
From that day, I wanted to visit the Monarch Biosphere in Michoacan, Mexico. This was the year. On our first day, we arrived in Sierra Chincua in the late afternoon to see the butterflies coming back to their pods as the sun started to set and the air started to cool down. The area had experienced severe weather two weeks earlier with hail and snow that killed an entire colony nearby but this colony managed to survive. My photos don’t convey the awesome natural phenomenon we witnessed. Millions of butterflies clustering together on the branches of the Oyamel fir trees to stay warm during the night.
Over the period of 4-5 months, every day as the sun shines upon them, they awaken collectively to swarm to find water and flower nectar. It is a breathtaking experience.
Monarchs and Dia de los Muertos
The monarch’s arrival in Mexico has a strong cultural significance as it coincided with Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) or All Saints Day, November 2. For the people of Michoacan, it is believed that the Monarchs represent the souls of their ancestors returning to visit them. The indigenous group, Purépecha have tracked the monarchs for centuries. With climate change, the arrival of the monarchs is getting later every year. Our guide said that this year they arrived around November 10. Yet the belief of their connection between the living and the dead remains.
The Interdependence of Monarchs and Communities
As with all ecotourism, the communities that support and care for the habitats are interdependent with the ecosystem. The tension exists between protection of the habitat and the local economy turning to cultivation of avocados, cutting down the forest to plant avocado trees. As climate change and habitat destruction along the fly way continue (elimination of milkweed plants and nectar-producing flowers), less butterflies are arriving in the overwintering habitat.
This year, 2023-24 there is significant alarm regarding the drop in the overwintering population, the lowest in 10 years and the second lowest since the count began in 1993. There are many different ways to contribute to the recovery and rejuvenation of the Monarch population. Whether it is supporting a school project of growing and releasing a “Misty”, planting native habitat along the flyway, contributing financially or advocating for conservation policies. Let’s do our part to make sure future generations have their ancestors returning to visit them.