Monarch butterflies are remarkable animals. Their story is unbelievable. Who would guess such a delicate creature could travel huge distances and survive the challenges they face? [UPDATE: Well, actually, they're in trouble and have just been added to the endangered species list (in 2022).] So I want to highlight the history of the Monarch butterfly as we know it.
A couple of weeks ago, my boys and I were walking on our property to a section that has a bunch of pine trees to collect some pine cones. When we arrived, I was delighted to see a Monarch butterfly flutter past my face. And then I saw another one. And another one.
Later that evening, we went walking again in the woods and they were everywhere. I realized that it was my very good fortune to be witnessing the Super Generation on their fall migration to Mexico. They arrive at their destination - the Oyamel fir forests of Michoacán, Mexico - right around the time of Día de los Muertos. And so, it is no surprise that these beautiful creatures are now closely associated with the folklore surrounding Day of the Dead.
This post contains affiliate links.
A Remarkable Journey
But the Monarchs that arrive in Michoacán, are not the same ones that left it the previous spring. In fact, each year, it takes four generations for the butterflies to complete their journey from Mexico to Canada and back again. This is their cycle:
- In March, the butterflies leave their wintering grounds in Mexico and begin laying eggs as they make their way north into the southern United States.
- 1st Generation: Those eggs laid in the south hatch into caterpillars who grow into butterflies to lay more eggs as they continue their journey north.
- 2nd Generation: These butterflies hatch and lay eggs in the north.
- 3rd Generation: These also hatch and lay eggs in the north.
- 4th Generation: This final generation hatches in the north and begins its long single journey to their southern wintering grounds in Mexico. If they survive the winter, they will begin their journey north and lay eggs as they pass through northern Mexico and the southern United States.
Dr. Fred Urquhart, a Canadian biologist who together with his wife, Norah, had been studying the butterfly for more than 30 years. They had identified the migration routes of the Monarch and wondered where it was that the butterflies were migrating to. They were convinced it was somewhere in Mexico.
In 1972, he hired two naturalists - Catalina Aguado (shown above) and Kenneth C. Brugger - in Mexico to look for the Monarch's winter habitat. Three years later, they discovered it. (Read the original article here.)
There are only 12 locations where the Monarchs overwinter. The oyamel fir forests are found in the volcanic mountainsides of central and southern Mexico and western Guatemala. These high-altitude cloud forests experience cold temperatures and occasional snow... which makes them surprising overwintering grounds for these delicate creatures.
Did you know? The Spanish name oyamel comes from the Nahuatl word oyametl: oya, "to thresh"; metl, "agave"; literally "threshing agave").
The habitat's future remains a concern. Especially after the death of Homero Gómez González, the former logger who became an environmental activist who was very vocal against illegal logging. He managed El Rosario butterfly reserve and was a champion for the preservation of the oyamel and the Monarchs. Homero's tortured body was found floating in a well two weeks after he'd gone missing.
The Super Generation
Monarch butterflies typically live 2 to 6 weeks... except for the fourth generation which makes the long migration from Canada to Mexico in the fall and back up to the southern U.S. in the spring. It can live as long as 8 to 9 months!
How do they do that?
And they make an incredible journey of more than 3,000 miles, sometimes flying 50 miles each day.
How do they do that?
These fragile insects rely on their environmental temperature to warm or cool their bodies. In fact, they can't even fly if their body temperature drops below 86 degrees. And yet, they migrate not to a warm climate, but to a high-elevation forest where cold temperatures are common.
Why do they do that? Why bother to migrate if they are able to survive such a winter climate?
And finally, these butterflies make the incredible journey to return to the EXACT same place that their GREAT GREAT GRANDPARENTS overwintered the year before.
How. Do. They. Do. That?
Day of the Dead
It's certainly no wonder why the little Monarchs are so revered by the Purépecha, an indigenous group from Michoacán, who believe the butterflies are actually the souls of their dearly departed.
This video was produced last year and has been going around social media for a few weeks now. It's absolutely beautiful, so I decided to go ahead and share it. (Nati and her Abuelita are my favorites!)
Monarch butterflies move through Texas each fall on their way to the Mexican mountains to arrive in time for Day of the Dead. In this year of COVID-19 and a raised awareness of social injustice, we celebrate the spiritual aspect of the migration. For centuries, perhaps millennia, the return of the butterflies to Mexico each fall has been associated with the souls of lost loved ones, as they typically arrive in the Mexican mountains in time for Day of the Dead. As a gesture of hope and healing, all 600 butterflies tagged this year as part of our Festival will be done so in the names of those lost to COVID-19, social injustice and other causes.
Go check out their site and enjoy the online videos they have posted before they are removed!
Monarch Butterfly Learning Tools
If you want to continue the learning experience with your children, here are some of my favorite Monarch-themed learning toys.
To wrap things up, here's a printable activity for your kids. Print the following on cardstock and help your child put together this Monarch Butterfly Life Cycle Flip Book!