This is the story of perhaps the most extraordinary creature on the planet. An insect that forces us to question everything we think we know about life on earth. Individually beautiful, collectively mesmerizing, the Monarch Butterfly has a remarkable story hidden deep within.
My Monarch experience started in New Jersey. I knew something about them, so when I saw my first specimen floating south, like a piece of tissue paper fluttering on the hot August breeze, I was thrilled. Another wildlife encounter to check-off the list. But in reality, I knew little of their incredible lives and my relationship with Monarchs hadn’t really started.
It was a year later when I visited San Francisco that I started to realise what Monarchs are all about. I had thought that all Monarchs migrated to Mexico, but I discovered that the western population travel down the coast to a handful of sites in California. One of these sites is in the town of Pacific Grove. The Monarch butterfly overwintering grounds is surely a bucket-list sight for all nature lovers, so I hired a car and set the GPS for Pacific Grove.
I arrived in the small town to be greeted by huge Monarch shaped signs announcing that I had arrived in ‘Butterfly Town”. The directions were a little questionable, but I drove around until I found the likely spot. I walked down a tree-lined track and was soon encountering butterflies in the air. I found some flowering bushes where butterflies picked their way over the sunshine heart of nectar oozing flowers. I couldn’t see the roosting Monarchs, though, so eventually I found a volunteer and asked. She pointed to a small collection of branches high up in a pine tree. There they were, thousands of butterflies. The pine tree branches were literally sagging under the weight of Monarch butterflies. What a spectacle!
With a wingspan of a little under 4 inches (10 cm) and weighing in at less than the weight of a 1 dollar bill, it gives you some idea of the amount of butterflies required to make tree branches sag. Clusters hung like huge silvery fruits but the occasional clapping of wings gave away the Monarch’s fiery beauty.
The Monarch migration is nothing short of a miracle. There is no other phenomena in nature to compare. Why? Because the migration isn’t undertaken by a single butterfly. It takes 4 generations of Monarch to fly south and then return to Canada and the Northern states of the United States. Based on the much studied East coast migration to Mexico, in very simple terms it looks like this:
Generation 1 – A Butterfly leaves Mexico (or California) heading north. It mates, lays eggs and dies whilst on route. For the Mexico population this occurs in the Gulf States.
Generation 2 – Flies to the Northern states of the United States, mates and dies, living for just 1 month.
Generation 3 – continues the journey to Canada where it mates and dies having lived for just 1 month. Now, this is where the magic happens.
Generation 4 – leaves Canada in the late summer months and migrates for over 2000 miles, skipping from thermal to thermal, floating on the warm late summer breeze. It has never made the journey before, it has never met its parents, it has never met another butterfly that has made the journey but somehow it knows where to go. This generation survives for 9 months.
Let that sink in for a moment. This is a creature that can adjust its life span and pre-program it’s young to travel 2000 miles without directions or guide. In a recent study a group of Monarchs were captured in Kansas, tagged and relocated to Washington DC (1200 miles east) and were able to readjust and find their way to the overwintering ground in Mexico.
All of this is extraordinary for any creature, but for a butterfly that has already come from a pin-head egg, hatched as a caterpillar, shed its skin 4 times, turned in to a chrysalis in which it dissolves its own body before reconstructing itself as a butterfly in just 10 days it is nothing less than miraculous.
A couple of years later I was driving North along Highway 1, when we spotted a Monarch sign along the roadside at Pismo Beach. I pulled off the road and followed a short track. We had stumbled upon another, albeit smaller Monarch roost. It was higher in the trees but this time I had a better camera and longer lens. I fired off a few shots and then just enjoyed being around butterflies. My kindergarten-aged son had seen the Monarch’s story on nature shows, so it was wonderful for him to be able to experience this extraordinary spectacle.
The Monarch overwintering grounds truly are wonders of the natural world. Getting to experience them in the mountains of Mexico is no easy task. It requires hiking and horseback riding through rough terrain. But the colonies on the California coast are easy to get to for young and old. This is a nature experience that must not be missed.
During the late summer months I often see Monarchs floating past the balcony of my 11th floor apartment . I watch them, one at a time, drifting south along the Hudson River. They don’t seem to be in a hurry and don’t appear to be flying with purpose. They are rolling with the breeze. Something they will do for the next 2000 miles, come rain, hurricane, or shine. In my head I wish them good luck, safe travels and nod them on their way as one of nature’s perfect wonders passes by.
Join the conversation below. Have you seen the Monarch roosts? Do you plant your garden to support the great Monarch migration? 👇👇👇
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