Monarch Mystery ~ Photo Essay

Maybe it started with Easter, a mystery all its own. With each spring come the butterflies that flit into our lives and I recall chasing them enthusiastically as a child. Was I swift and sneaky enough to catch one? Fireflies in the dim twilight were no problem, but butterflies had more elusive skills. I had no idea as a child in the Midwest that, as an adult, these same creatures would continue to awe me.

Unbeknownst to me, something wonderful happened when I was about 8 years old—ironically, probably around the same time as I was swishing my first butterfly net. In the mid ‘70s, scientists finally discovered where the massive populations of monarch butterflies migrate each winter. Identifying their hibernation grounds in a tiny region of Mexico is considered one of the most significant discoveries of modern natural history.  

That news never reached my radar in my little hometown. Day-to-day life was just that and far-off lands were, well, far off. The term “out of sight, out of mind” seemed to suit just about everything that didn’t have a direct effect on my life. 

Recently, my curiosity, not altered much since childhood, took me all the way from hiding in the bushes of my front yard waiting for monarchs to the mountainous regions northwest of Mexico City. Here I climbed the dusty trails of three of the main monarch sanctuaries to experience the overwintering colonies.

Hiking the trails was not easy, as they are steep and the air is thinned by elevations exceeding ten thousand feet above sea level. Our group managed to cover the terrain with a good deal of huffing and puffing. I was surprised to find the sanctuaries were not crowded and included few foreign visitors. In fact, we saw no other Americans during our entire journey. Despite U.S. State Department advisories against travel in the area because of the Mexican drug cartel, we received peaceful and warm greetings from locals at every stop.

The small mining and logging town of Angangueo was our base station for most of the week. Imagine the jostling as we made trips to the mountain, in the bed of pickup trucks driven along rutted roads by local guides who spoke little English! When we passed small, dilapidated homes, hopeful children would run and jump on the bed of our truck, singing cheerful songs in Spanish to invite candy or money. 

Each monarch sanctuary was cloaked in a sense of respect and awe. There seemed to be a delicate balance between the magical beauty, local economy and visitors. No one was allowed to hike the trails alone. A guide accompanied each group up the mountain and back. 

As we began, I was surprised to discover zero monarchs anywhere—not a single one in the town or even along the journey in the truck. It was probably at least half a mile up the side of the mountain before we saw the first winged beauty. Soon, more joined in flight and we felt relief to be headed in the right direction.

Breathing hard and eagerly anticipating what millions of monarchs would look like in one place, we were abruptly stopped by a thin yellow rope stretched across the trail. Without the aid of a translator, no words were exchanged with our guide. 

“Why have we stopped?” I wondered, panting. Then, looking up, I was shocked to realize the trees above us were dripping with monarchs. The few thousand or so fluttering in the thin air were nothing compared to the millions that hung idle, clinging to the trees. On some of the Oyamel firs, the monarchs completely resurfaced every single inch of the trunks, leaving absolutely no bark visible. A continuous living pattern of wings became the new protective outer coating for these towering plants.

“Camera. I need to get my camera now and start shooting!” I recall having to catch my breath, get a grip on myself, and remember my mission of making images of these creatures. Standing in the middle of them, it was nearly impossible to decide where to start. Large clumps hung backlit to the left. Swarms filled the sky overhead, and entire trees to the right were swept with burnt orange like Vermont in the fall.

Staring at the walls and walls of monarchs, the real mysteries began to sink in. These were “super monarchs,” as some call them. That is because they were born in September or October in Canada and the northern United States and will continue to live until late February or March. Then they’ll head north and reproduce somewhere near Texas or Louisiana. They will live from six to nine months, though three to four generations before and after the super monarchs only live three to six weeks. No one knows what triggers the “super” genetics to kick in each fall to enable a new migration a world away.

While the super monarchs are fascinating, there was another fact that gave me goosebumps right out there on that trail, looking up at these massive colonies. These butterflies had never been there before—ever. Their parents and grandparents also had not been there. How in the world did this species manage to get back to not just that location, but in many cases, those EXACT same trees each and every fall, several generations removed from the previous year’s visitors?

These secluded locations were only discovered in the mid ‘70s. How long the monarchs have come to these areas, no one is certain. Learning more about the butterflies from our guide, I realized many challenges threaten the monarchs. Deforestation of the Oyamel forests greatly jeopardizes overwintering sites in Mexico. Efforts are being made by various world organizations to compensate land owners who save the trees. 

However, a bigger concern lies north of the border. The monarch caterpillar depends on milkweed, which only grows in the United States and lower Canada, as its only food source. As the name implies, milkweed is viewed as a nuisance plant and is intentionally eliminated. Natural fields of wild vegetation are being reduced and milkweed is becoming less plentiful. 

There is hope. Besides reducing the use of herbicides on the larger agricultural scale, individuals can plant “way stations” for the monarchs with wild milkweed and other attractive, nectar-producing plants. These areas could be large sections of yards or simply potted plants on the back deck. Either way, monarchs will find much-needed sustenance.

My journey to the monarchs was satisfying on many levels. I loved making images of these mysterious, beautiful creatures and enjoyed the solitary pilgrimage of my own. It’s refreshing to realize, in this seemingly programmed, overly scripted, and completely discovered world, true mysteries persist. 

Knowing everything about everything is highly overrated. Don’t you agree?