Monarch Butterflies: The Missing Link

It’s February and the butterflies are getting restless. The earth is warming. Clumped together and clinging to trees they are getting hungry and impatient. They have spent the whole winter in a state of diapause — a kind of suspended animation where body functions slow to a bare minimum. It is fanciful idea but I think of them in the wintertime as being between realms: not quite alive, not quite dead. Which might be a familiar sensation. Each and every one of these butterflies learned about patience and discomfort when they transitioned from caterpillar to imago. Now as the sun begins to warm their bodies as well as the land they are waking up to remember who they are. Groups spontaneously rise up in practice flights only to settle back down again. But there is strength in their wings. They remember what it is to be alive.

“I think they are small pieces of sunlight.”

Isabel Ramirez, Geologist and landscape ecologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico

In the next month or so this generation will travel to Texas to mate, lay eggs and die. Their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren will travel in a kind of relay race up to southern Canada and then back again to Mexico. It takes four generations to complete the round trip journey.

Meanwhile, the butterflies bide their time in a cloud forest in Mexico. The trees they cling to are primarily fir. Once extensive, these fir forests are now restricted to remote mountaintops because the valleys have become too dry and hot. Moss grows thickly on the forest floor. Clouds drape the tree tops. The air is cool and moist. A cloud forest would normally be a quiet muffled place but the butterflies congregate in such large numbers that when they move, they sizzle like a very hot fire or an ice storm.

Monarch butterflies co-evolved with this shrinking forest. The reliable cloud cover protects them from killing frosts. The cool temperatures that support tree life also slow the insects’ metabolism ensuring they do not deplete their stored food energy. They do not eat in the winter so those stores have to last — for a very long time. Most generations of Monarch butterflies only live for around a month but the overwintering generation lives for half a year. That would be equivalent to one of us living to be about 500 years old.

image: Colin McNulty courtesy Natural Habitat Adventures

Their arrival to the forest was met with celebration. From pre-Columbian times people have honoured the November return of the butterflies. You might not know it but the people of the Mexican highlands understand that butterflies are the souls of the dead. Remembering the dead is not a time of mourning; it is a time to party. And so, ancestor altars are set up. The food, flowers and other decorations used are gifts, lovingly chosen to represent abundance and beauty. The colours are as bright as the butterflies themselves. The altars include photos of family members who have died.

When the first butterflies are spotted church bells ring and people across the village hurry to present water for the thirsty travellers. These gifts are appreciated. Butterflies do visit the altars. In exchange, they deliver memories.

This fiesta lasts for days and begins with the Día de Muertos, the Day of the Dead. It is a busy time. November is the last harvest period for the year and people are getting ready for winter. As with the butterflies the coming winter will be a time for people to slow down a bit to think and remember. But before that happens one really ought to enjoy a moment honouring abundance and completion.

Each year fewer ancestors make the return. Maybe they are too ashamed to look us in the face. They see the trees are disappearing. The wild flowers have been Rounded up and removed. If the ancestors are not in the mood for a party, it seems little wonder.

More than any of the other indicators of life’s decline, the disappearance of insects scares me the most. Insects are mother nature’s favourites. When the most successful life forms show signs of trouble it seems certain the rest of us are doomed.

Along with plants, insects form the base of the pyramid of life. Like other old timers, I remember when insects were so abundant that driving at night in the countryside was hazardous. It was like travelling through a blizzard. Insects were so numerous we could only see a few feet ahead of us at a time. When we stopped at a gas station attendants routinely asked if we wanted the wind shield cleaned. We always said yes. There were always so many dead insects the glass was opaque.

Why care about insects? I care simply because they are beautiful and amaze me. But without insects and other arthropods we will also lose insectivorous birds. I don’t want to imagine a world where half of the bird species are missing. Without pollinating insects we would lose 90% of our flowering plants. I don’t want to imagine a world without flowers. Beyond the loss of beauty, without insects and other arthropods we cannot have fertile soil. Where there is no soil, there is no food — not even for the herbivores. Life depends on insects being here.

Has the balance tilted so far toward death that nothing will be left and no one will be around to remember? The traditions of the people of the Mexican highlands show us a way to proceed. We can sing the world back into being. Balance is restored when we remember the dead, when we celebrate the abundant gifts of the world and above all when we respect life.

mitsubachi spends a lot of time with bees and flowers.