Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Monarch Marveler Momentous Migration

Epilogue to The Monarch Butterfly Metamorphosis

In my last post I share the incredible emergence of the Monarch butterfly from its chrysalis. We witnessed the entire metamorphosis of the Monarch butterfly in the last four posts. I want to thank you all for sharing this odyssey with me . . .  from egg to butterfly. Your generous comments and support mean a great deal to me. Thank You! My last caterpillar is beginning to spin his or her silk button and will become a chrysalis tomorrow. I was happy to release yet another perfect male into the garden a few hours ago. Now there are other Monarch butterflies in the gardens and fields fueling up for their marvelous migration to Mexico. 

It is said that butterflies link us to spirits . . . they are messengers from souls. The word for butterfly in French is papillon, in Spanish its mariposa, in Hebrew it is parpar, in Japanese cho cho and the ancient Greeks word for soul . . .  psyche . . .  was the same for butterfly. Psyche “an emblem of the immortal soul by reason of its passing through a kind of death in the pupa (youth) stage and a resurrection in the adult.”  The pupa or chrysalis is somewhat mummy like from one perspective. Metamorphosis simply by its being allows for a creature to live in two different environments. A mere insect . . .  the order LEPIDOPTERA . . .  from Greek lepis . . .  for scale and pteron . . .  for wing. Scale covered wings with pigments. Rudolf Steiner believed they were once part of flowers . . .  petals/wings . . .  sensors or antennae/stamens set free. All butterflies are surely as beautiful as any bloom and animate our gardens with their colorful wings and antics. When we chance to see a butterfly, there is a feeling of magic and awe about. The Monarch or Danaus plexippus has a great sense of its wings. It sails through layers of sky seemingly carefree with determination and great skill. Monarch butterflies are great navigators. They float and glide in between fluttering. This aerial mastery helps the butterfly accomplish its long migration.

Here a female Monarch is sunning . . . note the wider veins and the end of her abdomen being different from the dapper male below. 

The male can be recognized also by the teeny black sacs on both hindwings . . . these sacs or pouches are filled with scent scales. Both male and female butterflies emerging now will not have fully developed sexual parts. They need all their reserves for flying south . . . no time for distractions or diversions. Somehow they will not become fully developed until spring, when the temperatures in Mexico warm and they begin their reverse migration towards Texas, where they will lay eggs and die. It will take four or five generations for the Monarchs to reach Flower Hill Farm next summer.

These late bloomers will live for up to six or eight months, where the earlier spring and summer Monarchs mate and live for only two to six weeks. Here a later Monarchs sips rich food from Joe-Pye Weed, before flying off on her long arduous journey to her overwintering sites in Mexico. She will join other Monarch butterflies along the way feeding and resting overnight in roosts or clusters high in trees. You might be lucky enough to see one of these! Hundreds and thousands of butterflies hanging like leaves from treetops. 

Several years ago I too took flight in to Mexico in order to see the amazing Monarch colonies high up in the Sierra Campanario and Sierra Chincua. My southern flight was much easier and quicker than that of the Monarch Butterfly's nearly 3,000 mile journey. Once there and out of Mexico City, we had a friendly driver, who drove the group up the bumpy and steep roads, to where we would begin our hike towards the overwintering colonies. 

The landscape is lovely and the people warm and friendly. The buildings above hold merchandise for tourists visiting the butterfly colonies and help the indigenous peoples. The colonies are under continued assault from illegal logging. This post is not intended to give you all the information on the colonies but more my observations. You can learn a great deal here.

After purchasing a hat and T-shirt we began our trek up the mountain. 

We visited two colonies and each had a unique path towards our goal. Sierra Campanario I believe was far less difficult a climb. 

There were not as many butterflies there that year. Still I was excited to see these clusters and wondered if any of the hundred or so I raised that year may have made it to this destination. I must share one detail about arriving near the colonies. There were so many butterflies suddenly flying down the mountain side that the bus carrying our group could only drive about five miles an hour so as not to injure any butterflies. The first place we would see butterflies in large numbers was along the road. For some reason I just wanted to experience the moment without my 35 Mm Pentax camera. I did regret it! Others in the group were bird watching and I continue walking on hoping to see what our guide had described as "Monarchs streaming down the mountainside." After a few minutes walk I did indeed see just that! Thousands of Monarch butterflies flying down the mountainside in front of me like a stream and turning just before where I stood along a wide dirt path, then turning off to the left about twenty feet ahead. It was amazing and I was all alone. I so wanted to share this moment but did not want to leave. I kept looking back to see if any of the others were coming. Someone finally did come, but it was sadly to tell me the others were waiting and that we must leave. I thought we should have the others come to see this amazing sight. The colorful ribbon just kept flowing . . . beautiful sunlit shimmering orange and black with white dots . . . a narrow river of butterflies! Diane had to coax me away nearly in tears. This as it turns out was the most magical moment of the entire trip for me . . . in terms of butterflies that is. I would not be as close to the Monarchs again on this tour. 

Seeing these clusters was magical and my camera could not capture the remarkable beauty of the butterflies hanging like leaves in the fir forest. 

We did not arrive up in the colony until late in the day . . .  the light was not right for capturing these beautiful butterfly groups. 

The next day we began  hiking up Sierra Chincua to a larger colony. It was a very difficult climb and took over an hour, if I remember correctly. A stunning hike with needed rest stops along the way. Hiking through the forest closer to the colony, we saw many butterflies lit up by the sun, as they danced through the fir trees. Hundreds were climbing up the bark of the fir trees, but my photos of those were lost. There was dappled light in the colony when we finally arrive. I was breathless in more ways than one upon seeing the thousands of butterflies hanging in the trees. Streamers hanging on . . .  one butterfly to another . . . those tiny hooks on the feet helping them cling to one another . . . building a mass of butterfly leaves that seem to belong to the trees. 

The images are poor but they were mine . . . nothing like the wonderful shots in National Geographic. I did not even have a telephoto lens. I realized too late how ill prepared I was to capture these. Still the experience of being there in the moment was fabulous. Our guide had to persuade me it was time to leave . . . for there was never enough time for me. Next time I will be sure to arrange to have more time at the actual colonies. Of course I understand that tourist can create problems for the Monarchs. We had to stay rather faraway from the large canopy of butterflies and watch carefully where we stepped.

While walking away, I took these tragic photos of so many thousands of butterflies, who made the incredible migration only to die in the end. Mosaic carpets of dry Monarchs were strewn about the forrest floor. Winters can be cold and due to the illegal logging going on to this day, much of the insulation to the colonies is being lost. Cold winds and frosts and sometimes heavy snow will kill a portion of the colony each year. Monarchs are not considered an endangered group but their overwintering sites are. If you would like to learn more and help you might like to visit WWF and Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary Foundation .

A streamlet reflects the azure blue sky these Monarchs will never soar in again. Utterly beautiful and heartbreaking. 

Our guide Bill Calvert leads me out of the forest to catch up with the other hikers. It would have been a long and hard trek back down if not for these . . . 

Ponies! We arrived too late to get help from them going up. Our young friendly leader had been helping folks up and down the mountain since age six, along with his father I am sure. He is very gentle with the ponies and I was very grateful for their carrying me down the mountain. 

Bill took us to many spectacular restaurants with very kind staff and delicious food. It was a great trip and extraordinary to see where the Monarch butterflies overwinter.

 I will close this series of posts with a story about one Monarch butterfly I knew, who could not fly. I called her Flutterbye and she and I were housemates for six months. There was a slight error in one of the chrysalises that year. Right where the antennae forms are waiting . . . there was an incomplete drying leaving an sliver of an opening in the chrysalis. I was not sure if the butterfly would make it. A female did emerge right before I was headed to NYC, for a few days visit. I noticed one of her antennae was crooked but did not know what the consequences would be for the butterfly. I took her out into the gardens, after her wings were dry and waited for her to take flight from my finger. She did try but fell to the ground over and again and then tried to fly from plant and shrub but continuously fell to the ground. If I had left her she would have fallen prey to some chipmunk or squirrel. 

I decided I would care for my flight challenged butterfly and so we began our life together. Not having any knowledge of how to do this . . . I immediately call the expert Dr. Lincoln Brower, who was so kind and helpful. I had to keep the house on the cooler side so that she would not try to fly and become flustered from fluttering helplessly. Each morning I began the day by holding her in my hand and feeding her honey water. It was diluted enough not to cause her proboscis to seal. I did towards the end have to unwind it so that she could sip the home made nectar . . . for she became too weak. Flutterbye would hang out on my shoulder while I read and we had a quiet contemplative winter together. I know she was sick about not being able to fly . . . she was intended for flight. I tried to comfort her with plants and a loving environment. She lived nearly a full life, if but a sheltered and imprisoned one. 

During those six months I came to understand more about the Monarch butterfly through studying Flutterbye's behavior. I wish she could have flown to Mexico . . . that she might have a normal butterfly life . . . if that was not her fate, I am glad that she was with me. She did ride along with me to NYC and when we walked past the doorman he excitedly asked "Is that a butterfly!?" She delighted many in her brief life! Perhaps seeing a butterfly so closely opened other hearts and imaginations towards the plight of these incredible insects. 

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