I love animals and I love to travel so when the opportunity to combine these passions presents itself, I rarely pass it up. That is how my husband, Mike, and I found ourselves at the top of a mountain in Mexico surrounded by millions of butterflies in the winter of 2008.
I had heard about the annual migration of the Monarch Butterflies and was intrigued. Each year, these butterflies log an incredible distance on those fragile wings, migrating thousands of miles from their birthplace in Canada. Scientists believe that they use an internal compass to make the pilgrimage but however they do it, they arrive year after year in a relatively small area in Mexico beginning in October. The Mexican government designated the area a protected biosphere in 1980 and UNESCO named it a World Heritage Site in 2008. I decided it was a must-see and Mike agreed.
We flew into Morelia and met up with our tour guide in the town square. He introduced us to our traveling companions, 3 young men who were students on spring break. Their English was unaccented so I assumed they were from the States. I was surprised to learn they were all Mexicans from Juarez and asked how they learned English. One laughed and said, "We grew up watching American cartoons on television." It appears there is some redeeming quality to TV after all.
We chatted amiably as we traveled to El Rosario, the largest of the Monarch sanctuaries. We chose it not only for its size but also because it is the most developed site. We knew that climbing almost 10,000 feet to the summit would be a challenge and we wanted to take advantage of anything that would help ease the way. The young students set off at a good pace and were quickly out of site. We had already decided to take it slow and let our sea-level lungs acclimate to the altitude so we were surprised to round a bend and find them patiently waiting for us. As soon as they saw us, they waved and set off again. After this happened three or four times, we told them, "Thanks, guys, but please don't feel like you have to wait on us. We'll see you at the top." To this they replied, "We don't mind waiting. We started together and we'll finish together." Mike and I decided what they were really thinking was, "We are going to have to carry these old gringos off this mountain if they collapse. No point in having to back-track so let's see how far they make it."
Ultimately we labored our way to the top and the spectacle that confronted us took what was left of our breath away. The branches of the trees were bent under the weight of the Monarchs and there were rivers of butterflies gliding past. We had to step carefully because the ground was covered with them, too.
The butterflies spread their wings to absorb the heat of the sun. We were lucky to be there on a bright, sunny day and they were very active.
The Monarchs seemed to have a special attraction to one of the students. The guide explained they are attracted to certain pheromones so we dubbed him "Mr. Animal Magnetism." His friends seemed to find this hilarious and teased him about it all day.
The guide told us these were the fourth generation of the butterflies that had been here the previous year. The first generation departed and made it about as far as Texas. They munch on Milkweed along the way--their only source of food--reproduce and then die. The second generation continues the journey to the Midwest where they also reproduce and die. The third generation flies on to Canada where they meet their demise. The butterflies in these generations live only about six weeks but the fourth generation is a butterfly of a different color. They live several months--long enough to fly all the way to Mexico for the grand convention of all the colonies. Just before spring, the butterflies engage in what can only be described as a giant orgy of mating frenzy. As is so often the case in nature, once they've filled their roles, the poor males immediately die but the impregnated females fly north to begin the cycle all over again.
I don't think there is anything more mysterious and wonderful than the natural world.
When I was 10 I took an interest in bug collecting and butterfies in particular. In Illinois there was alot of milk weed and I was fortunate enough to find several monarch caterpillars and see the whole process to the newly born monarchs. I have always wanted to take the trip you did.
I would love to see that in person. I have been to the butterfly palace in Branson and the butterfly room in the insectarium in New Orleans but they are NOTHING like this. What a wonderful experience.
What a wonderful story! I'd love to know what happens to our Monach Butterflies here in Australia, where they are often nicknamed 'Wanderer Butterflies' which hatch from beautiful striped (white, with black stripes)caterpillars. Where do they migrate to mate? Their larvae feed on many of our native vegetation and especially on a shrub called Butterfly Bush.
Annie, Apparently Monarch Butterflies made there near Adalaide and other southern Australian places. They are not native to Australia and did not appear until milkweed was introduced in the early 1800s. Did eggs also appear with them, and are these Wanderers descendants of the original hatchlings that may have been on the milkweed when they were introduced? Interesting questions, to be sure. They are also found in New Zealand and Phillipines.
It was an extraordinary experience and I encourage anyone who has an inclination to go. Eco-tourism helps keep the sanctuaries thriving and is a win-win for both animals and humans.