When Dellarobia, the heroine of Barbara Kingsolver’s 2012 novel Flight Behavior, first spies a horde of monarch butterflies during an afternoon walk, she is overcome by their presence:
“The flames now appeared to lift from individual treetops in showers of orange sparks, exploding the way a pine log does in a campfire when it is poked. The sparks spiralled upward in swirls like funnel clouds. Twisters of brightness against grey sky.”
At one time, I lived on Wolfe Island, in the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. Late one September afternoon, we had a smaller but nonetheless moving experience of migrating monarchs, as many hundreds of monarch butterflies flew into a maple tree in our farmyard and settled in for the night. The tree was solid orange; we could not see the leaves at all.
When we woke up the following morning, our hearts sank. We saw the butterflies covered in frost and perfectly still. They were not, as we feared, dead: as the sun rose higher in the sky and the temperature warmed, we noticed their wings quivering delicately and, eventually, the butterflies shook away the overnight frost and flew off, headed for the south shore of the river and, eventually, the mountains of Mexico.
Some years later, we visited that winter habitat in northern Mexico. As we ascended the mountain on horseback on a beautiful sunny morning in late February, the sky around us was filled with butterflies drifting through the air as they awoke from their hibernation and began to prepare for the next leg of their journey, this time heading north. We saw millions of butterflies that day, some still and some in motion, in what was perhaps the most visually moving experience of my life.
If you grew up in Ontario then, like me, no doubt the monarch butterfly has flown in and out of your life since you were a child. My recollection is that there were monarchs everywhere when I was a kid, although this is probably not accurate. Certainly, they were not rare. I suspect we largely took them for granted as just being part of the summer backdrop to our outdoor activities.
More than once, my siblings and I captured a monarch in the larval stage, imprisoned it in a mason jar and impatiently waited and watched as it turned into a chrysalis and then hatched into its adult form: the butterfly. We were duly impressed with this bit of magic, but once we released it we did not give it another thought. We had no idea of the odyssey it was about to undertake, making its way to Mexico for the winter, before beginning the return migration the following spring. Likewise, we had no notion that the numbers of this beautiful insect we saw everywhere would, within a generation, become dangerously low.
Revisiting those memories
A couple of weeks ago, our youngest grandsons (4 and 6 years old) wanted to know everything we could tell them about monarchs after we spotted some of them clustered on milkweed plants at Hamilton’s Royal Botanical Gardens. We explained that these tiny creatures (average weight between .0095 and .0026 ounces) travel 5,000 kilometres from Ontario to the mountain forests of Mexico every fall.
We also told them that the numbers were dropping precipitously because the milkweed plant, the sole source of food for monarchs as well as the place they lay their eggs, has been largely eradicated from North America as a result of the use of global herbicides by large commercial farming operations. Coupled with this, deforestation in their Mexican winter hibernation location and, more recently, the dramatic weather patterns caused by climate change, have decimated the number of monarchs during their southern migration. The number of monarchs has dropped from 930 million to 93 million over two decades, which experts say is half what is needed for a stable population.
That was enough bad news for young children, so we moved on to some more hopeful information. While the number of monarchs continues to drop – according to the World Wildlife Fund, the number is down by 14% from 2017 to 2018 – the decrease is slowing.
Mexico has introduced laws to stop further deforestation and is replacing that employment with jobs in reforestation and eco-tourism efforts.
Many North American communities on the butterfly’s flight path have initiated mass milkweed plantings and banned the use of herbicides such as Round Up.
Organizations like the World Wildlife Fund as well as community groups count and track monarchs throughout the year.
And then, it was time to stop talking in favour of simply watching the butterflies in front of us, thinking as Dellarobia did that they really are “like the inside of joy.”