Flight of the Monarchs

When the air is cool and cloudy the huge pine trees are covered with a living blanket of butterflies. With their wings folded dusky side out, the butterflies look brown and drab. However, when the sun pops out, the monarchs flutter about in a blizzard of neon orange.

Every autumn millions of monarch butterflies make an extraordinary migration from the Eastern United States and Canada. They fly thousands of miles south to an isolated forest section of the Sierra Madres Mountains in Central Mexico between the states of Mexico and Michoacann. The monarchs arrive in Mexico about the first of November – Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead. Mexican Indian people believe the butterflies are the returning spirits of dead children or the souls of lost warriors.


The spring monarch departure to the north signals planting time in late March. The monarchs leave the Mexican state of Michoacan, looking for milkweed, the only plant on which their caterpillars feed. It takes three or four generations to reach the Great Lakes, New England and Canada.


Once again as the days begin to shorten, the autumn monarch generation puts on extra fat, postpones mating and lives up to twelve times longer than the summer adults. The butterflies gather in Texas and along the Gulf Coast, following an invisible highway through the skies, heading south in waves to a distant place that their great-great-great-grandparents left six months ago. No single butterfly has “been there before” or “knows the way”. There are still many unanswered questions about this mysterious migration.

The Mexican government set aside five small sites as protected biosphere areas in 1986. However logging continues because much of the forest is under private ownership.

Wing patterns of Monarch butterflies on tree trunk
Wing patterns of Monarch butterflies on tree trunk

Tall pine trees covered with thousands of monarch butterflies is an amazing site to see in person. However, I found the trees a challenge to photograph. When I got far enough away to include the trees, the butterflies looked more like dead leaves or moss on the tree branches. I concentrated on focusing on the living mosaic patterns of thousands of butterfly wings.


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