Travel story: The butterflies of Michoacan
Vail CO, Colorado
Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a series of travel stories from Edwards residents Dennis Jones and Yolanda Marshall about their journey through Mexico. Jones is a professional photographer. View more of his work at http://www.dreamcatcherimaging.com.
I have always dreamed of visiting the Monarch Butterfly sanctuaries of Mexico. Since first learning of their existence, I’ve been fascinated by the idea of experiencing a visual feast as millions of bright orange and black jewels festoon the forest.
A lecture by Arturo Morales on the incredible 2,500 mile butterfly migration from the Great Lakes to the mountains of Michoacan south of San Miguel intrigued me further. This year holds the highest population in years and right now is the peak of the 4 to 5 day mating season. After mating, the males die, immediately reducing the population by 50 percent. Arturo runs tours to the sanctuary every Wednesday. For only $80, there’s no time to lose!
I was picked up by a minibus in the gathering pre-dawn light. The driver deftly maneuvered the extremely narrow, steep alleys and streets, picking up others before heading south to the mountains of Michoacan.
As we traveled through the broad, rich, agricultural valleys of the volcanic central highlands, Arturo reiterated parts of his previous lecture. The long migration of the fragile Monarch Butterfly is truly among the most amazing in nature.
After the fertilized female Monarchs migrate north in late March, arriving in May around the Great Lakes and Canada, they lay their eggs on the milkweed plant. Upon hatching, the tiny worm immediately begins feeding on the poisonous milkweed. The sap makes the caterpillars and butterflies poisonous, and also gives them their bright orange color, warning off predators.
Around the second week of October, after metamorphosis, the new butterflies emerge from their chrysalis. Somehow sensing the Autumnal Equinox, they begin their journey south through the Mississippi basin from their summer habitat around the Great Lakes. Following thermal currents, the millions of butterflies fly 25 to 30 miles a day to arrive in Michoacan mid-November.
Twelve areas in the mountains, all around 10,000-feet high, provide conditions able to sustain the population for the next four months. These were discovered in the 1970s and have since become protected habitats. With world-wide publicity and the ensuing tourism, the indigenous peoples, indifferent at first, have become fierce defenders of their forests.
After a 4-and-a-half hour drive, we finally arrived at the trailhead to the sanctuary. Ten additional dollars rented me a horse with one speed ” slow ” for the steep, dusty decent to the butterflies. Numerous wildflowers filled the forest. At each tiny creek, more and more Monarchs sipped water and nutrients from the damp earth.
After leaving the horses, the butterflies became more numerous until the sky was dotted with hundreds of orange flecks. Thousands sat on tree branches. When we arrived as close as we were allowed to the heart of the colony, entire branches were weighted down, engulfed by tens of thousands of butterflies. The air pulsated with the sound of beating wings.
Males released pheromones, causing a sexual frenzy. Love was literally in the air. Mating couples on the ground forced us to watch every step. A slight breeze stirred up an orange cloud.
Even my telephoto lens didn’t accurately capture the dense masses drenching the trees 75 feet away ” my only disappointment. Regretfully, our time with this phenomenon drew to a close. Perhaps sometime I will come on my own to experience them in the early morning and at my leisure. Perhaps without a group I will be allowed closer.
As I sit in the garden writing this the following day, it’s evident the northerly migration has begun. Butterflies are always visiting the garden; small white ones, large yellow ones, several other species, but not until today have I seen Monarchs. One after another passes through, pausing to sip nectar from the flowers or water from the grass.
Arturo told us that come March 26-28, the main wave of the migration will pass over, through and around San Miguel de Allende, the first step on their 2,500 mile journey to the Great Lakes. One hundred and forty million illegals headed north.
If this is a foretaste, I can’t wait. Maybe instead of dozens in an afternoon there will be hundreds, maybe later thousands, and I will relive, if only through a shadow, the unforgettable experience.
Dennis Jones is a local photographer and writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.