The well-groomed horses slogged up the hill, each one bearing the weight of a local or foreign tourist. Each one guided by a local villager who might be anywhere between six and 60. The guide who led my tan horse was an adult, but I was surprised to see young girls and boys alike leading these large animals up the steep incline. The beautiful roan horse one of my friends rode was guided by a small boy no older than 10. Our adventure took place in the Mexican selva or jungle of Valle del Bravo, a national nature preserve two hours west of Mexico City where I was visiting friends.
After 45 minutes our guides and horses simply stopped. I heard a commotion, turned around and saw everyone looking skyward. Thousands and thousands of monarch butterflies whirred in unison as they dipped and flew through the trees. Those resting appeared like Christmas ornaments dangling from the tall Mexican pine trees.
Thousands more monarchs rested on tree trunks and limbs waiting for mating season to begin.
Monarchs fly better when it’s warmer. A few couldn’t survive the cold. Still others lay dead on fallen logs or humus. Some no doubt became lunch to hungry birds that ate only the body of the creature, leaving their lovely wings behind decorating the forest with the colors of a tiger.
The population we saw had hit the terminus of their predecessors’ journey from Canada. Annually five generations of monarchs take turns fulfilling their destiny on the 2,000+ mile journey. Each generation lives between two to six weeks although if you include their entire lifecycle from egg to adult, it would be more like six to eight weeks.
Carlos Gottfriend summarizes the monarch’s extraordinary capacity this way:
The colors of its wings, its capacity to generate heat, its incredible resistance to carry out long flights at a considerable speed, reveal the dedication with which nature created this insect, whose organism is something so perfect and integrally designed that it surpasses any machine Invented by man. –México desconocido, noviembre 1981
All of this natural wonder is threatened. Monarch populations are declining precipitously. According to the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, “A documented 74% decline in California overwintering population since the late 1990s mirrors the steep decline, estimated at 80–90%, of the number of butterflies in Michoacán, Mexico, over the same period.” Note that we were not viewing the Michoacán population but a population relatively nearby.
Despite the challenges of habitat loss, pesticides and climate change, among other factors, humans can still help monarch preservation. Planting the right species of milkweed, which is the required food of monarch caterpillars (and other insects) can support their recovery. A good place to start to ensure you get the right species of milkweed is the Society’s website, which is filled with excellent resources. Visit http://www.xerces.org/milkweed-seed-finder to find seeds suitable for your area.