Monarch butterflies will soon be on the wing. Spring is coming, and they are getting ready to move. I can feel it in the air, the travel urge, because spring softens the air here in Tucson, blowing the dust around and whispering of all the possibilities in the universe. Get ready to fly!
And I’ve been paying attention to the butterflies ever since last year when the news reached me that Monarch populations were seriously dropping. E-mails with petitions arrived in my in-box: help put the Monarch on the government endangered species list! I started paying attention to the growing number of people who are spreading the alarm and sharing the concern and looking for something to do, and I started watching for butterflies.
I signed petitions, certainly. There is a degree of protection awarded creatures legally described as “endangered.” Possibly all living things need official recognition on the endangered species list. And it is possible that once officially protected, the Monarch could command and demand elimination of weed killers that destroy the milkweed plant.
I have traveled through many areas in North America where almost everything seems already dead – boarded up buildings, empty houses in small towns, acre after acre of agriculture land where the soil has been deadened with toxic chemicals, and city after city where even the pretty places are poisoned to keep out weeds. I perceive weeds to be natural life wanting to grow and heal and support our native land, and I tend to live and let live with the wild plants that make their way through the hard desert ground of my city yard. Sure, I pull some out here and there, when they block the entrance to our door, or when they have finished blooming and become a dry hazard. I always figure that I can only do so much damage with my bare hands, and natural balance has to include my movement along with the movement of everything else.
Walking out in the neighborhood earlier in March, I passed a young man with a spray unit in hand, tank strapped to his shoulders. He was walking on the landscape rocks between the sidewalk and the west end of our corner strip mall, squirting a blast of his payload on the occasional green plant daring to grow up between the rocks. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t fertilizer he was applying, and I held my breath as I walked by, noting that he wasn’t even wearing gloves. I wondered if I had any questions or comments to direct his way that would change the situation in a positive way.
An old friend came to mind, a friend whose common sense morality seemed unable to tolerate witnessing an injustice without somehow responding. She’d pick up a tossed candy wrapper on the street and return it to the thoughtless thrower. She’d stop her car, and get out of her car, if she saw something wrong that she thought she could fix.
Was I going to fix the application of chemicals by landscapers? I didn’t think so. I walked on by. I have a picture, and my picture is that we need the abundant diversity nature offers and will never know enough to know which things it is all right for us to annihilate.
On Bakke Farm, we cultivate, protect and allow diversity. I guess other people have other pictures.
Cruising the internet looking for Monarch news, I have encountered numerous pictures and facts; every day, and in more places than I can mention, people are sharing news, posting pictures, tracking the location, numbers and condition of the mighty Monarch.
It is a most interesting collaboration – strangers across the continent connecting with reports of the Monarch migration. It reminds me of accounts I have read of the first North American scientific study of the Monarch, with Norah and Fred Urquhart and the volunteers they mobilized keeping records of the movement of Monarchs to discover where the North American summer butterfly goes in the winter. But now, anyone with a computer and interest can participate in the study.
The Monarch migration is unique among insects because, like birds, these butterflies go thousands of miles to specific places and then return in the spring to northern homes. There are aspects of this migration that remain mysterious, although study continues to find out how it all comes about. So many things must be in good time with one another. The Monarchs are in diapause from late summer to spring, and they begin active mating at their wintering sites before they begin the return migration. It is essential that the female butterfly find a milkweed plant when it is time to lay her fertile eggs, and so the existence of this rather rangy wild plant is essential for survival of the insect. And by extension, of course, for the survival of all of us. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, it can take three to four generations before the butterfly reaches the northern United States and Canada. If that is the story, the scene must include healthy milkweed growth in at least four major territories across northern America.
The ANNENBERG LEARNER organization, offering cross curricular educational resources, publishes JOURNEY NORTH, A Global Study of Wildlife Migration and Seasonal Change. People posting on JOURNEY NORTH have begun sharing news of spring Monarch activity, reporting thirst among the wintering butterflies, restlessness and active mating, all characteristics of a butterfly getting ready for a long trip. The word is, “departure imminent.”
Departure of the butterflies from their wintering zones begins the migration of the Monarchs, a huge movement of energy in orange and black as this major pollinating force moves out across the continent.
JOURNEY NORTH invites viewers to register butterfly sightings, and the sightings that people register are shown on a map that can be viewed to follow the movement of the migration. The work begun by Fred and Norah Urquhart and their network of volunteers continues and is expanded by the connecting aspects of our internet technology.
The first time I looked at the JOURNEY NORTH map, a few days ago, there was one sighting noted, in southern Texas. Today, the red symbols indicating a sighting mark locations north through Mexico, up the California coast, though Texas to the north and east, and into Florida. Amazingly enough, a sighting was reported in Quebec.
They are moving. The Monarchs are moving north!
Watching the map, I can imagine the butterflies, strong, delicate and vibrant, moving out of Mexico and southern California to carry the orange and black message of spring to all of North America, a beautiful and comforting vision. What an amazingly hopeful thing, this migration of the Monarch.
While the Monarch migration is unique among insects, other butterflies migrate, emigrate, and disperse in various ways. Lest we forget the others, the National Butterfly Association posts sightings of all butterflies that people report to them, and they publish clear instructions on how to contribute to that record.
I am watching, and next time I see a butterfly I’ll try to identify it and get a picture so that I can report the sighting. I don’t expect to sight a Monarch in Tucson, we are just out of range, but I put a bumper sticker on our car as a reminder to watch.
Watch and slow down: I brake for butterflies.
The automobile and the butterfly are not well matched in an air encounter on the highway. In fact, no high speed encounter can be very good for a Monarch. The creature weighs only about one half a gram.
We are sending out the bumper stickers as fast as we can, knowing that even with a bumper sticker it is not always possible to even see a creature so small as a butterfly when one is flying down the road at 70 miles an hour. Now, when I see the rear bumper of our car, I am reminded to offer a prayer for safe traveling.
And if every car displayed a bumper sticker, at least we’d all be facing a sign to slow down.
I brake for butterflies.