Published in the Vail Daily March 1, 2009
The Butterflies of Michoacan
After a whirlwind trip back to Colorado, we’ve returned with our car to San Miguel de Allende for March. It was an intense four day drive from Vail, not without a bit of unease at the border.
After talking with people who had driven here, reading the State Department warnings and watching the horrible news about the drug wars in the border areas, we decided that crossing at Laredo, Texas would be safest. It was also the shortest route through Mexico, entirely on the more secure Cuota highways or toll roads.
Getting the proper permits in Nuevo Laredo was very easy and at 7 am took only half an hour. The highway was equal to any in the US. Ten hours later we arrived before sunset tired but happy. A calming margarita on the rooftop terrace returned us to the tranquillity of church bells and crowing roosters as the sun set over the island of security that is San Miguel.
Of the many lectures happening on a regular basis, one stuck out; a lecture by Arturo Morales on the migration of the butterflies. I was determined to attend to learn about the incredible 2,500 mile journey the Monarchs make every year. I have known of the Monarch Butterfly’s over-wintering sites in Mexico since they were first written about in National Geographic years ago. I always dreamed of visiting one of the sanctuaries to experience the visual feast as millions of the bright orange and black jewels festoon the forest.
Arturo’s lecture was liberally punctuated with photos from the Sierra Chincua sanctuary high in the mountains of the state of Michoacan, the southerly neighboring state to Guanajuato in which San Miguel de Allende resides.
We learned that this year held the highest population in years and that right now was the peak of the 4-5 day mating season. After they mate, the males die, immediately reducing the population by 50%. Of course, Arturo owns a tour company that happens to run tours to the sanctuary every Wednesday. For only $80, how could I resist!
I am picked by a minibus in the gathering pre-dawn light out front of our casita. The driver deftly maneuvers through the extremely narrow, steep alleys and streets picking up others before heading south out of town to the mountains of Michoacan.
As we travel through the broad, rich agricultural valleys of the volcanic central highlands, Arturo reiterates parts of his previous lecture. The long migration of the fragile Monarch Butterfly is truly among the most amazing in nature.
When the fertilized female Monarchs migrate north from Mexico in late March, they follow the blossoming the Milkweed plant, their pupae’s only food source. Arriving around the Great Lakes and in Canada in May/June, they begin laying their eggs on the milkweed. When the eggs hatch, the tiny worm immediately begins feeding on the poisonous milkweed. The sap contains a compound that not only makes the caterpillars poisonous but later gives them their bright orange color warning off predators.
They grow in five stages and around the second week of October, after their metamorphosis, the new butterflies emerge from their chrysalis. Somehow sensing the Autumnal Equinox they begin their journey south through the Mississippi basin.
Following thermal currents that switch from north to south at this time, the millions of butterflies make around 25-30 miles a day, flying ninety feet above the ground. They arrive at their winter sanctuaries in Michoacan around the second and third weeks of November.
There are twelve separate areas in the mountains, all around 10,000’. These provide the nectar, water and protection that will sustain the population for the next four months. The colonies were discovered in the late 1970’s and since have become protected habitats. The indigenous peoples around the over-wintering grounds were slow to realize their value, encroaching on the habitat through cattle grazing and deforestation. With world-wide publicity and the ensuing tourism, they have become fierce defenders of their forests.
After 4 1/2 hours we finally arrive at a tiny village, the trailhead to the sanctuary. Ten additional dollars gets me a small horse with only one speed, slow, for the steep, dusty, forty-five minute descent to the butterflies. Numerous wildflowers fill the forest. At each tiny creek I see more and more Monarchs sipping water and nutrients from the damp earth.
After leaving the horses, butterflies become suddenly more numerous until the sky above is dotted with hundreds of orange flecks. Thousands now sit on branches. When we arrive as close as we are allowed to the heart of the colony, we see entire branches weighted down, engulfed by tens of thousands of the ephemeral creatures. The air is filled with the sound of hundreds of thousands of beating wings.
Mature males have release their pheromones causing a sexual frenzy. Love is literally in the air. Mating couples on the ground force us to watch every step. A slight breeze stirs up a cloud of orange.
Even my telephoto lens doesn’t accurately capture the dense masses drenching the trees 75 feet away, my only disappointment. Regretfully, our time with this phenomenon of nature draws to a close. Perhaps sometime again I will come on my own, camping in the town to experience them in the early morning and at my leisure. Perhaps without a group I will be allowed closer.
As I sit in our garden writing this the following day, I see that the northerly migration has just begun. There have always been butterflies 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 northern migration will pass over, through and around San Miguel de Allende. The first step on their 2,500 mile journey to the Great Lakes, 140 million illegals headed north. If these few now are a foretaste, I can’t wait. Perhaps from dozens in an afternoon their will be hundreds, maybe even thousands and I will to relive, if only through a shadow, the incredible experience of yesterday