Delicate Balance: Monarch Migration

Monarch in flight. Houston TX.
Monarch in flight. Houston TX.

Story & photos by Theresa DiMenno

As I settle in to write this piece, the monarch butterflies are filtering through the central  flyway of Texas. It is a chilly morning in Austin as we had our first cold front of the  season last evening. Fifty degrees feels like forty five, cloudy with twenty mph winds, and sporadic drizzle. The northern breeze could push the monarchs along their  southern migratory journey to Mexico, but the cold and rain will keep them in place until  the weather clears. They prefer a moderate to warm temperature, and rain on the wing  is not a butterfly’s friend.

A considerable amount of attention has been given to the monarch butterfly over the  past decade, mostly due to their declining migratory population. Their journey is stunning and seems magical in nature. Witnessing millions of monarchs in Mexico is an indescribable feeling. I wept one morning in the Sierra Chincua Butterfly Sanctuary when the sun shone through the morning clouds and suddenly millions of monarchs left  their roosting trees in flight. In reality, it is a story of survival, for they cannot withstand the freezing winters of the northern and central continental climates, therefore the monarchs migrate south to Mexico each autumn. Their perilous journey thousands of miles, year after year, tells the story of their fragility and ultimately of their resiliency.

Monarchs in Sierra Chincua Mexico.
Monarchs in Sierra Chincua Mexico.

More than that, the monarch butterfly is a pollinator, and we cannot survive as a species without our pollinators. Pollination is how numerous four foot tall milkweed plants showed up in our garden in the spring of 2009. I walked into the back yard one sunny spring morning to witness milkweed plants which had seemingly appeared over night. I  was elated to see large caterpillars munching on the leaves of milkweed, the monarch’s  host plant. I immediately began photographing the butterflies and have continued to do so ever since. I have posted photos on social media, shared monarch stories, traveled to Mexico, created exhibitions … all in an effort to spread the word of their amazing story, but mostly to spread the word about how much we depend on them and other  pollinators for our survival.

Monarch caterpillar eating milkweed, the butterfly's host plant. Houston TX.
Monarch caterpillar eating milkweed, the butterfly’s host plant. Houston TX.

Last year, we saw the largest increase in the migratory monarch population since 2006. Many factors aligned, including favorable conditions in Texas and generally favorable  climate throughout the breeding zone, with abundant rainfall yielding a plethora of  nectar plants and milkweed. While this is encouraging and we are hopeful, it is likely an isolated situation as climate conditions worsen and effective change is a slow process.

 Educating individuals and large-scale U.S. agriculture on the deadly consequences of  pesticide use, fertilizers and monoculture has become a necessary, yet difficult endeavor. Glyphosate-based weed killers have been accused of being carcinogenic, with unknown effects on wildlife, and that’s just the tip of the chemical iceberg. Have you  noticed how few insects you see splattered on your  windshield after a long trip? Hardly any! This is a serious problem. (See earlier article on the looming “Insect Apocolypse“.) Meanwhile, wildlife habitat is disappearing at an alarming rate, and much of what remains is sprayed with neonicotinoid pesticides, which were banned last year in Europe due to the threat they pose to bees and other pollinators.

Monarchs in Mexico at El Rosario Sanctuary. Angangueo Mexico.
Monarchs in Mexico at El Rosario Sanctuary. Angangueo Mexico.

Citizen scientists have helped by planting monarch waystations, butterfly gardens, and reducing pesticide use in home and community gardens. Comprehensive dialogue and action to curb logging in Mexican forests is helping to replenish the depleted oyamel fir forests and habitat loss, where monarchs overwinter in the Sierra Madre forests of Michoacán.

I have learned much through my relationship with the monarch. I have learned to look  closer at the natural world around us, from sweeping landscapes to macro vignettes. I have learned patience while waiting hours to photograph the forming of a chrysalis and, later, the emergence into a magnificent butterfly. I have learned to pause before pruning a plant or a tree, weeding a landscape, or blowing the leaves from a lawn. There could be a bird nest in the treetops or a chrysalis on the underside of a leaf. Fallen leaves are fertilizer for the soil. Wildlife depends on their natural habitat and we are an integral part of that wildlife. Everything in nature has a purpose. When we disrupt one, we disrupt another. It is a delicate balance and we are all connected.

Monarch nectars on milkweed. Houston TX.
Monarch nectars on milkweed. Houston TX.

Everything starts with education. Take a look at these comprehensive links and decide what you can do. From planting your own butterfly garden to using your vote, there are plenty of options to bring about change.

 For a wealth of information about the monarch butterfly including tagging and sightings, check out Monarch Watch at https://monarchwatch.org.  For current news, migratory maps and monarch sightings, go to Journey North at https://journeynorth.org.

Looking for a little beauty and inspiration? Take a moment to view the trailer for The Butterfly Trees, a documentary by my friend and colleague, Kay Milam, at https://vimeo.com/343541965.

You can also view a selection of images of the monarch metamorphosis on my website  www.theresadimenno.com in the Delicate Balance Gallery.