Every year, millions of Monarch butterflies make a long journey from the United States and Canada to winter in the high mountains west of Mexico City. Some of them travel 3000 miles on their fragile wings, Fueled by flower nectar and carried by ascending warm-air currents, they travel for months, landing and resting each night. What an incredible migration!
But there’s more. Monarchs have a surprising system to support their migration. Since adult Monarchs live only three to four weeks, it takes several generations of butterflies to migrate north from Mexico, but for the trip south, the Monarchs produce what scientists call a Methuselah generation, born near the end of summer and able to live up to nine months. This generation doesn’t breed in the north. It will arrive in Mexico by November, rest during the winter, and breed there. Then by mid-March, the Methuselah generation will complete the first leg of the journey back into the US and Canada.
After several generations of Monarchs work their way north, another Methuselah generation will be produced, and without ever having made the trip before, it will know how to migrate thousands of miles back to Mexico. Isn’t this process elegant?
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A few years ago, Bob and I were privileged to visit the El Rosario sanctuary, part of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in the state of Michoacan, Mexico. We had flown to Morelia, the capital city of Michoacan, to attend a quinceanera (a lavish fifteenth-birthday celebration) for the daughter of good friends. Knowing how much we wanted to see the Monarchs, our friends came with us and made all the arrangements, which are tricky because the sanctuary is so remote. Yes, one leg of the journey was in the back of a wide truck.
It’s cool in the mountains where the Monarchs gather. It’s “breath-taking” too, because the altitude is 10,000 feet. We climbed up a steep trail, stopping often to sit on a well-placed bench along the path. We began to see a few butterflies. We admired the hemlocks and wildflowers. Then the trail narrowed. A sign advised us to turn our phones off and to speak softly. We began to walk silently in single file exactly like a procession of pilgrims approaching something sacred.
The hemlocks looked strangely gray and unnatural. Their evergreen limbs were hanging close to their trunks like trussed Christmas trees ready for sale. As we drew nearer, we could see that the branches were held down by the weight of millions of butterflies, layer upon layer resting quietly in the cold. When a shaft of sunlight warmed them, the Monarchs would flutter and fly, a cloud of orange jewel-light.
I’m so grateful to have had this experience – to be surrounded by butterflies, to marvel at their life story. I want my grandchildren and their grandchildren to be able to stand here surrounded by the whisper of butterfly wings. But sadly, Monarchs are disappearing along with the trees that are illegally logged in the Biosphere Reserve and the milkweed that is poisoned in the US. When will we learn to cherish and care for our Earth, our home? Do we want to live in a world without butterflies?
Toni Albert, M.Ed., is an award-winning author of more than 40 books. Her lifelong love for nature, children, and books inspired her to commit her publishing business, Trickle Creek Books, to “teaching kids to care for the Earth.”
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