Return of the Monarchs
Photo by Rene (Surf’s Out)
MYSTERY OF THE MONARCHS
One of the
profoundest mysteries of the natural world is the annual trans- continental
odyssey of the Monarch butterflies from Canada, across the United States to
Mexico. Caterpillars blossoming into beautiful butterflies perform an aerial
feat of endurance and navigation without prior experience. It is their first
flight to an unknown area following something – wind, sun – yet they reach
their destination every year at precisely the same time, a feat unique in the
animal kingdom (butterflies are animals, not insects). They start
usually one at a time, then the air is saturated with them, the startling
contrast of their bright pattern immediately recognizable.
process begins late on August north of Lake Huron in Canada. Tiny caterpillars
already exhibit circular bands of the monarch’s variegated colors. In an
amazing transformation they will grow and shed their skin 4 times while, within
a delicate case, a completely new being is formed. In 10 days they will lose
all traces of caterpillar and turn into a 4 winged butterfly with
interconnecting stripes: black with white polka dots, yellow and black
precisely designed interconnecting stripes. Their wings harden in a few hours
then the flight of 100 million begins their migration. From Southern Canada,
through northeast United States, 2000 miles and two months later to Mexico.
reverse process began 3 generations earlier when a group left Mexico at the end
of winter.Then in one month they flew to the U.S. mated in Texas
laying 300 – 500 fertilized eggs which continue the journey mating and
dying every month on the way until the 4thgeneration reaches its
original starting place in Canada a full year later. The fourth generation
lives nine months and flies back to Mexico. What triggers the annual exodus is
Monarch’s wingspan is 4”, its weight less than 1/5 oz. How do they survive
migration? They only fly when the conditions are perfect, when it’s too hot
they stop flying, when it’s too cold their wings become sluggish, they make
infrequent stops for nectar, their natural enemies are spider webs, bad weather
like deadly rainstorms. They fly south to avoid death of cold winter.
Pesticides kill many pf them. Decreased amount of trees in the forests and
illegal logging another threat.
provides a magnetic field, and their brain cells regulate an internal clock and
keeps them on course. They must fly 50 miles per day which requires a huge
physical effort and their aerodynamic design is poor. They must soar to
conserve energy, and fly thermal winds currents like a glider.
lakes are their first trial with miles of water and shifting winds. They stop
and wait on ships’ surfaces until conditions are right, then there is the
scorching desert heat, and the Sierra Madre Mountains.
ultimate destination is 60 square miles, 10,000 feet high in Mexico where the
waiting Mexicans are celebrating “the day of the dead”. They believe the
butterflies are the spirits of their loved ones and they build alters of
flowers and fruits for them. In October they light candles and pray for their
safe arrival giving rise to businesses in small towns the Mexicans need to
survive the rest of the year. They finally arrive the first week of November
after 2 months and thousands of miles. They fill the skies and cover the
vegetation, millions of them and there are great celebrations in the towns.
12 specific sites within the 60 miles which have perfect conditions: heat from trees
and the land while the forest supplies the umbrella. The Mexicans protect their
trees for this reason. Now they rest in clusters, clinging to the trees for
warmth for 5 months when they bloom again opening their wings to the sun.
Writers and scientists have been inspired to study them. In 1975 scientists
first discovered the extent of their migration by tagging them.
In 1992 a Monarch watch began
when Chip Taylor of the University of Kansas had kids tag the Monarchs
revealing travel speeds and flight paths. In an experiment relocating them to
D.C. they still managed to find the original flight path using different
vectors to get on track traveling through small Western towns and the Great
Plains of the Southwest.
Monarch butterflies do migrate along
Fire Island I have tried to research, unsuccessfully, an explanation for the
presence of the Monarchs on Fire Island. They should be here as you read this.
Too bad we can’t ask them. Just enjoy this amazing phenomenon.
The migration here on Fire Island
this year seems to be NOW (August 19. 2012).
From the Journey North site, they have a record of 200 monarchs in a 10½
hour period on September 16, 2008:
Images courtesy of US Fish &
P.S. My research did find this
Special Sale! 20% off Monarch
for more info:
Paula S. Valentine
Fire Island National Seashore
The Butterfly Lady of Fire Island
Every fall, the dunes become a way station
for tens of thousands of monarchs. But their numbers are declining, and one
resident is keeping count.
no place like an island, and a barrier island especially, for seasonal
migrants. That’s certainly true of Fire Island. The thirty-two-mile-long sandbar
off Long Island may be best known for little red wagons, houses on stilts, and
gay beach parties, but it is also beloved by lepidopterists. Every September
and October, the island’s dunes become a way station for tens of thousands of
monarch butterflies, who stop there on their three-thousand-mile journey from
Canada to a mountaintop in Michoacán, near Mexico City, where they go to
reproduce and die.
Federico, who is known to locals as “the butterfly lady,” grew up across the
water, in West Islip. She works as an event planner in Manhattan, but she
spends her free time in a clapboard cottage that her father floated over to
Fire Island on a barge in the seventies. The house, where she vacationed as a
girl with her parents and her seven siblings, is one of the oldest in the beach
community of Lonelyville. Federico, who is fifty-nine, is the island’s most
authoritative witness to the gradual decline in the butterflies’ numbers.
I was small, the monarchs would swarm down the beach,” she said, one recent
afternoon. She sat on her deck, surrounded by pots of milkweed, which the
monarchs love. “You could run beneath them with a net and pull in a dozen. Not
anymore.” Across America, falling monarch populations are usually blamed on
climate change and on the use of herbicides that have eliminated the weeds they
feed on. Federico likes to give milkweed seeds to her neighbors.
inherited her love for monarchs from her father, who was known as Captain Bob.
“He made his living from the sea—not just fishing but working charters,
chumming for bait,” she said. “You know in ‘Funny Girl,’ when Barbra Streisand
sings ‘Don’t Rain on My Parade’ on that tugboat? My dad was piloting one of the
camera boats.” Captain Bob was fascinated by navigation. “He used to sit here
when the monarchs flew over and say, ‘Look at that. Aeronautical
has befriended monarch experts around the world, and she likes to explain how
the monarchs fly by gliding on warm air (“as far as a hundred miles a day!”)
and navigate by the angle of the sun. She gently pulled a big monarch from a
mesh cage with her hands. “These ones, the royal monarchs, we also call ‘4Gs.’
They’re the fourth generation—the three generations before this, they live just
four to six weeks, like most butterflies. But these 4Gs live up to nine
months—long enough to fly to Mexico to mate before sending their babies back
years ago, Federico launched an effort to tag and count the butterflies on Fire
Island. Each fall, her squad of child volunteers stalks the island and affixes
weightless stickers to monarchs’ wings. The stickers allow her to track the
butterflies all the way to Michoacán “This one’s a boy,” a ten-year-old named
Cora Reynolds explained, as she held out a monarch she’d netted on a buddleia
bush. “You have to be careful, when you put the sticker on his wing, not to
cover the pheromone spots.” She pointed to two black dots. “Or else he won’t
get a girlfriend.” Reynolds applied the sticker and wrote down its number on a
treasures a 2016 photograph of Barack Obama signing an agreement with the
leaders of Canada and Mexico to protect the monarchs’ migration.. In February,
she travelled to Michoacán, to see where her butterflies end up. She rode a
mule up into the El Rosario biosphere reserve, with a guide and a bodyguard
armed against drug cartels. “It was the most magical day of my life,” she said,
holding up a photograph and pointing to clouds of orange ringing high fir trees
and to a sign, in the foreground, instructing visitors to maintain silence and
to remain for a maximum of fifteen minutes. “I stayed for three hours,” she
said. She was distressed to learn about a surge in illegal logging there.
“Do you know why they’re cutting down the Oyamel firs my monarchs love?” she
asked. “To plant more avocados for us fat-ass Americans to buy at Whole Foods.”
Photo: Trish Minogue Collins
The Monarch Butterfly
Migration on Fire Island
By Trish Minogue Collins
If you’ve spent any time at all outside lately, there’s a good
chance you have been distracted by a bright flash of orange as a monarch
butterfly fluttered by. The monarch butterfly migration is on! For
several years now, we’ve been seeing very few monarch butterflies. People
across America have been raising awareness of the fact that monarchs lay their
eggs only on the milkweed plant, and that we need to restore and protect this
roadside plant if we are to continue to see this beautiful creature in our
world. I like to think that these efforts have made a difference, but whatever
the reason, there is no doubt that we are seeing an explosion of Monarch
butterflies migrating along our south shore beaches right now.
Monarchs are not only beautiful, but they are unique and amazing
creatures. The monarchs we are seeing now with be traveling all the way to the
Oyamel fir trees in the mountains of Mexico. They are the only insects known to
make such a migration. The same Monarchs that migrate south will not return
here. The ones we see in the spring will be several generations down the line
from these. Milkweed is needed all along the migration route to ensure that we
get the pleasure of seeing them next year.
This time of year, you may have noticed monarchs particularly
enjoying the goldenrod along our beaches during the day. Butterflies don’t fly
at night, but instead will gather together to keep warm, most often in pine
trees near their food source. Since many members of the Long Island Sun Chasers
are also active on our beaches when the sun is setting and rising, they have
been able to capture the monarchs gathering together in the evening, then
warming their wings in the morning sun before taking flight once again.
A big thank you to the Long Island Sun Chaser members who shared
their images for this piece. If you are interested in purchasing any, we will
gladly put you in touch with the photographer.
Jo-Ann Stevens Valenti