In October, millions of monarch butterflies will make a long migration from Canada to Mexico, many stopping in Santa Cruz, Pacific Grove, and Big Sur along the way.
The annual migration of the monarch butterfly is one of the great wonders of nature and contains as many mysteries as it does marvels.
Every fall, monarchs migrate across the continent in advance of the cold winter months. Those east of the Rocky Mountains fly to Mexico where they cluster by the millions in the Oyamel fir forests: a mere 12 mountaintop sanctuaries that shelter the overwintering monarchs.
Forty years ago, amid a forest swirling with millions of monarchs, an aging scientist found a thumbnail-sized sticker placed by two Minnesota schoolboys and solved a decades-old mystery.
Dr. Fred Urquhart, a Canadian zoologist, had searched for the wintering grounds of the monarch since 1937. At the time, no one knew where the monarchs came from each spring. In pursuit of an answer, Urquhart and his wife, Norah, created thousands of monarch tags — tiny stickers that adhered to wings — and distributed them to butterfly enthusiasts throughout North America.
One of the hottest winters in history poses good news and bad news for migrating Monarch butterflies this season. The good news: warm weather and well-timed rains translate into a grand wildflower season with plenty of milkweed in South Texas.
The bad news: those same high temperatures in Mexico where the Monarchs overwinter mean that many butterflies have burned up much of their stored winter fats, creating a lack of fuel and extra stress for their journey north.
Thanksgiving was right around the corner, and a sizable number of one of America’s most famous migrants could be seen still sputtering south. Not across the Texas-Mexico border, where most monarch butterflies should be by that time of year. These fluttered tardily through the migratory funnel that is Cape May, N.J., their iconic orange-and-black patterns splashing against the muted green of pines frosted by the season’s first chill.
This delayed migration is not normal, and it alarmed monarch researchers across the country.
As Mexico emerges from the most violent election campaign within living memory and embarks on the presidency of Andres López Obrador, one prominent citizen watches at a diagonal: a veteran of Mexico’s other war – not that over narco-traffic and its clients in politics, but that against nature.
In a recent interview with the daily El Universal, Homero Aridjis – award-winning poet and former ambassador – described all the candidates at last June’s election as “environmental illiterates” – referring to the battle he has fought for decades now, and which he sees reaching its final stages – for Mexico’s natural and cultural heritage.
Among the countless organisms that have evolved during the history of life on earth, monarch butterflies are among the most extraordinary.
Sadly, their unique multigenerational migration across our large continent, their spectacular overwintering aggregations on the volcanic mountains in central Mexico, and their educational value to children in Canada, the United States, and Mexico are all threatened. Monitoring of the butterfly population over the past two decades indicates a grim situation.
The migration of monarch butterflies is one of the natural world’s most epic journeys. Weighing only about as much as a paper clip, they fly up to 3,000 miles from their summer homes in America’s backyards and grasslands to wintering grounds in Mexico’s mountain forests.
But in recent years, the monarch butterfly populations have dwindled alarmingly.
For longtime butterfly lover Nina Veteto, a plant called Milkweed is the answer to the disappearing Monarch butterfly and their declining 2,000-mile annual migration.
Based in North Carolina, Nina’s project Divide and Multiply aims to propagate Milkweed, which is essential for healthy Monarch habitat. They will then distribute the plants to 15 non-profit organizations and schools that have signed on to maintain butterfly habitat this year.
For the first time in North American history, the numbers of bees, bats, butterflies, hummingbirds and other pollinators have fallen so low that there is scientific concern and public fear of a “pollinator collapse.”
Such a “food chain collapse” might not only affect the health of wild species in our parks and refuges, but also our food security derived from agricultural landscapes.
Monarch numbers are declining; this decline is statistically significant (Brower et al. 2012) and readily apparent from data on the area occupied by monarchs on the overwintering roost in Mexico.
While we saw more monarchs during the summer of 2014 than we did last year or the year before, and will thus hopefully see more in Mexico this winter, it’s unlikely that the population will be anywhere near as large as it was a decade ago.
The MJV brings together numerous conservation, research, and educational programs along with their respective resources in a coordinated effort to conserve monarch butterflies and their amazing migration.
Recently, the Monarch Joint Venture welcomed the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) as a partner to strengthen monarch and pollinator conservation throughout their networks and programs.
After news broke recently that the number of migratory monarch butterflies that had arrived to winter in Mexico was the lowest since reliable records began, I went on the road on behalf of the Make Way for Monarchs initiative.
This solutions-oriented collaboration is working to place millions of additional milkweeds in toxin-free habitats this next year.
Monarchs have been in the news a lot lately, most of it grim. Numbers have dropped dramatically over recent years from various causes, including climate change, illegal logging at the insects’ overwintering sites in Mexico and new practices in the agricultural industry.
A major factor is the widespread use of GMO crops that are Round-Up resistant, allowing U.S. farmers in the monarch’s summer breeding grounds in the Corn Belt to spray the herbicide on their fields to kill weeds.
Every year, monarch butterflies undertake what seems like an impossible journey.
By the millions, they leave their summer breeding grounds in the United States and Canada to fly thousands of miles to a small area of alpine forest in central Mexico.
A simple but easily-forgotten fact about American farmers was recently revealed in what may be the most innovative social history of our continent since Howard Zinn wrote A People’s History of the United States thirty-five years ago.