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Mexico's Magnificent Monarchs

Updated on September 15, 2009

Monarchs are jewels in Nature's crown

Monarch Butterfly at rest.    photo by
Monarch Butterfly at rest. photo by
Milkweed!  Loverly!  Monarch caterpillar prepares to dine.
Milkweed! Loverly! Monarch caterpillar prepares to dine.
The skies fill with Monarchs as they gambol in the sun.
The skies fill with Monarchs as they gambol in the sun.
Signs like this are on all roads entering the Sanctuary. They say "Protect the butterflies"
Signs like this are on all roads entering the Sanctuary. They say "Protect the butterflies"
Angangueo, Michoacan.  Monarch Sanctuary begins on slopes above town.  Hotels here. Pretty place.
Angangueo, Michoacan. Monarch Sanctuary begins on slopes above town. Hotels here. Pretty place.

The useful and gorgeous creatures are under threat

Teetering twixt timber interests and ecologists

With no little relief, I have turned from writing about creepy-crawlies such as spiders, scorpions and centipedes, interesting and valuable as they are. Instead, the hub today is about one of the most beautiful and harmless creatures on the planet and their incredible migration between Canada and Mexico and back.

As the title has revealed, these are the Monarch Butterflies, huge, insects with a 4-inch wing span; orange, with bands of black and spotted with white, of the species Danainae, as beloved to lepidopterists as are dolphins and whales to marine biologists.

The Monarch’s winter retreat is in the states of Michoacan and the State of Mexico, in the country of the same name. A battle has been going on for years between those wanting to save the butterflies and lumbering interests - and where have we not heard that before! Taking trees from the sanctuary has been prohibited for years when the “Special Reserve of the Biosphere of the Monarch Butterflies” was initiated by decree from the Mexican Federal Government. But the age-old argument rages on: in this case, cutting down lumber puts food on the table of the poor peons, why should we put the rights of a mere insect before that noble enterprise? On the side of the ecologists is the indisputable fact that eco-tourism - the motivating buzz-words in Mexico of late in the battle for many disappearing resources - brings many millions of dollars every year into one of the poorest states in the Republic - Michoacan. But none of this gelt chinks into the peasant’s pots, as does money from the lumbermen.

As if the loss of their habitat wasn’t enough, the migrants also have had to contend with Canadian GM, high-yield maize, or corn. Changes in the crystalline, protein formations affects pollen, which is picked up by the gusty winds. These gritty particles land and stick on plants the Monarch’s larvae feed upon. One scientist remarked “This is like a plague for the butterflies, destroying their digestive tracts.”

I have visited the Monarchs in their lovely sanctuary areas several times. The last visit, made a couple of years ago, showed a definite thinning in the colourful clouds of 15 years ago. Just one of these creatures can take the breath away. Being caught in a snow-storm of the creatures is really an “other world” experience. The vibrant colours and the steady rushing sound of a million gossamer wings; the soft caress on face and hands, or the sight of a torrent of “Mariposas” ( Butterflies Sp.) being carried along a gully by the breeze. Well, you won’t soon forget it, I can guarantee that.

Monarchs are far from unknown in other continents. Australia has some, called “Wanderers,” so does New Zealand, (called Kiwis…just kidding). Madeira, the Azores and the Canary Islands. They are the “State Insect” in 7 states in the US. But nothing anywhere else can come close to the huge migrations from Canada to Mexico, a 3,100 kilometre trip during which, there and back, several generations of the creatures perish and others are born. Must be like a journey to the stars for man in a spaceship where several generations would be required to reach far away planets. One of the few romantic concepts suggested to us on this tired old world now.

The Monarchs eat only one or more of the 20 or so varieties of Milkweed, a highly poisonous plant to most higher-order creatures. This renders the insects poisonous, so much so, that they are left alone by most birds and other predators which would otherwise dispatch them rapidly. (Certain birds have adapted to eat parts of the insects). The caterpillar is almost as glamorous as mum and dad, with bands of the same colours. Even the pupae has an upmarket look: blue-green with a band of gold and black. (Very popular in Canadian schools who breed them). The caterpillar wastes no time in getting ready for its migration, as it increases its body-weight 3,000 times within two weeks of being born! Lucky they don’t eat a plant we need and like. (Most gardeners everywhere detest evil-smelling and poisonous milkweed, another reason to look after the butterflies).

There was heated discussion amongst scientists for years as to how the butterflies managed to navigate along the same routes to the same exact destinations, year after year. Finally, it seems they use the good old sun and not other exotica, such as the magnetic forces in the Earth, etc. Just good old Sol. Have a time finding their way around the UK! (Incidently, we now know moths use the moon in the same way at night. This is why moths get confused with lamps, seeing them as so many moons, and causing the erratic flight that has them burning up on hot bulbs).

It seems vigorous replanting of pine and other trees around the fringes of the 790,000 hectares of the “Model Forest,” near Angangueo, Michoacan, is the latest attempt to save the Monarch’s biosphere. It would be cynical of me to comment further about this.


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