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Monarchs sucker punch us with nature’s beauty

Alan Braunholtz

“What? No, well I guess I’ve never been that impressed by people whose sole claim to fame is that their ancestors cudgeled the peasants better than most.”

“Uh? No I mean the butterflies! Are you with the butterflies? Are you escorting them?”

“Ohh …”



At this point Gayle stopped pedaling her bike, looked around her and this seemingly senseless conversation with the woman in the passing car became beautifully clear.

On all sides, hundreds of thousands of monarch butterflies draped themselves over the tall trees. Wrapped in colored gossamer, the branches pointed earthward under hundredweights of nothing. Butterflies tumbled through the air, shards of stained glass floating in the shafts of light that pierced the sheltering grove. Nature’s cathedral of shimmering brilliance. Disturbed branches exploding into showers of skin-kissing wings, a leaf fight with a particularly frivolous world.



Monarch butterflies provide us with the chance to be sucker punched by the sheer splendor of nature. We may have lost forever the thunder of the very earth as the plains buffalo roamed their domain in a sea of power, the darkening sky under the feathered swarms of passenger pigeons. Old pictures in naval museums suggest that pods of whales spouted, breached and effortlessly parted the oceans waters as far as the eye could see. All these are gone, but we still have the monarchs.

There are two populations of monarchs. The Eastern population spends the summer migrating up through Texas to Canada then down the East Coast to winter in “the Plain of the Mule” in Michoacan in Mexico. They roost in Oyamel trees in a very few sites high in the hills. Any child will tell you that butterflies are cool, and monarchs need cool temperatures to keep their metabolism low. That way their fat reserves will last the winter. Moist clouds provide moisture, and the shelter of the trees prevents below-freezing temperatures, which kill the butterflies. In these Mexican forests you can find 10 million butterflies per hectare. Imagine the surprise and awe of the first North American lepidopterist to chance upon them in 1975.

The Western monarchs roost on the California coast and migrate east and north into the mountains before returning each winter. There are eight main groves where almost the whole population over winters. Western monarchs have switched to Australian eucalyptus groves after logging of the Monterey pines and cypresses.



Monarchs will go through four life cycles each summer. Butterflies have a four-stage life cycle: egg, caterpillar, pupa, butterfly. The monarch likes to lay her eggs on milkweed and the yellow, white and purple caterpillars munch away, molting their skin five times as they grow. Milkweed possesses a nauseous toxin, which the caterpillar stores as protection. Few birds can stand the taste of a monarch, though insect predators seem to do better. I guess it’s tough to gross out a bug!

After two weeks they form a pupa, hanging from a leaf, metamorphose and emerge a large red, orange and yellow monarch. These colors say STOP to predators, since the adult inherits the useful toxins from the caterpillar. The hard body and large wings allow a monarch to survive a one-bite attack. Butterflies with beak-shaped wing holes after being spat out by a fussy blue jay can thank their caterpillar’s chemical counter measures.

The summer butterflies live 2-5 weeks. But the fall one lucks out, living 6-9 months. Of course they have to make a 2,000-mile journey averaging 70 miles per day to make their winter roost, so they earn it.

Life is getting harder for monarchs, with herbicides killing off the milkweeds. Pesticides and now Bt corn, a genetically modified plant producing a toxic pollen, kill off a few monarchs along with target pests.

The major threat is the logging of their winter forests creating holes in the protective blanket of trees. They suffer massive die-offs in cold snaps.

Mexico created a reserve for the monarchs in 1986 and then expanded it in 1999. The WWF is working hard to create a trust fund for locals who rely on logging to survive and provide alternative incomes. Possibilities include reforestation projects, bee keeping, assistants at the sanctuaries and ecotourism. All these provide sustainable revenue as opposed to the current logging in which the people end up as poor after as before, but now surrounded by barren and unlivable lands. What then? “Then we will go to Mexico City or the USA,” the locals reply. At the moment illegal logging by locals and timber companies continues.

Western monarchs are equally threatened. Coastal areas are prime real estate and Australian eucalyptus is often an unwanted foreign species. In 1999 real estate development destroyed two sites where 25 percent of the butterflies roosted. It’s tough to ask the Mexicans to do more when that happens here.

These long-distance butterflies link Mexico, USA and Canada together, a compelling image illustrating the fragile and fantastic connections that joins the natural world together. Environmental issues cross borders as easily as a butterfly.

After experiencing the wonder of the monarchs, Gayle finally replied to the lady in the car. “Who wouldn’t be with the butterflies?”

Alan Braunholtz, raft guide and ski instructor, writes a weekly column for the Daily.


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