No not Monarchs as in rulers and royalty. I’m talking about the eastern population of North American Monarch butterflies who overwinter in a dozen or so mountain areas in the States of Mexico and Michoacan from October/November to late March.
Millions of them gather in oyamel fir forests in the mountain hillsides. The elevation, temperature and humidity provide an ideal microclimate for the butterflies, as it assures that they won’t dry out and allows them to conserve their body fat for energy.
Monarch Butterflies can be found throughout Mexico, the US and as far north as southern Ontario in Canada. Every year, once the temperatures start to drop they head south. Like many a ‘snowbird’ they are heading south for the winter to escape the cold. No comfortable RV for these delicate creatures though, they fly south, some of them covering over 3000 miles.
The butterflies that make it as far as their winter home are known as ‘the super generation’ as they can live 8 to 9 months (a normal generation is 5 weeks).
Once they arrive, they form dense colonies that cover the trees in what appear to be lumpy brown clumps from a distance. Closer up it is easy to discern the more subdued coloring of the undersides of millions of tightly closed wings, as each butterfly snuggles up to its neighbour to conserve warmth and energy. As the weather warms, or if they are warmed up by a sunny day they will take to the air in a cloud of wings, before settling down once more.
With limited body reserves they have to preserve their energy and survive until springtime so that they can mate and pass on their genes to the next generation. Most of the males expend their sperm and remaining body fat in an orgy of mating (as they will mate multiple times) and die upon the mountains.
The pregnant females spread out and head north many as far as Texas, looking for milkweed plants on which to lay their eggs and then die. The next generation hatches, eats, forms a chrysalis, transforms into a butterfly and flies north another few hundred miles before finding another patch of milkweed and the process continues. The ones that reach Canada may be four or five generations removed from the super generation.
As fall comes around once more and temperatures start to drop, the current generation of Monarchs start to head south. Making use of air currents they manage to wing all the way back to Mexico. How can such a delicate creature make such a seemingly impossible journey?
Then there is the bigger question. How do these descendants know that they need to head south and how do they know where to go? After all they have not been there before; in some cases neither did their great, great grandparents.
I had seen a documentary on this ‘fantastic journey’ years before, so jumped at the chance to go visit one of these overwintering colonies in person.
The colony we chose was that of Cerro Pelon, due to its proximity to Mexico City and the fact that this was the site of the first confirmed colony. It has the longest, steepest trail and the most pristine forest. It is also one of the lesser visited sites and therefore not as touristy.
We chose to go to JM Butterfly B&B and take their tour up to see the Monarchs at Cerro Pelon. The B&B was started by Joel (whose father was a forest ranger at the time tourists started flocking in to see the butterflies) as a way to help the small town of Macheros and its approximately 300 inhabitants to benefit from the influx of visitors coming to see the butterflies.
The B&B is very much a family affair as his mother runs the restaurant along with some of his sisters, while others help run the B&B. Joel’s wife Ellen is the driving force behind building their excellent website and also behind The Butterflies and Their People Project which creates jobs for local people in forest and Monarch butterfly conservation. They have recently released a wonderful video which explains how and why they started The Butterflies and Their People
You can find out a lot more about them on their site, including all of the sanctuary’s they visit. We only had time for one and that was right on their doorstep–Cerro Pelon. Our visit was in early November and we were originally unsure as to whether the Monarchs would have arrived, but they had and in sufficient numbers to have formed two different colonies.
Butterflies are not early risers so we set off at 10 am. We mounted our steeds and of we went (even if you are a novice rider like I you will be fine as each horse is led by its owner) up the steep trail. It was an ethereal experience to work our way up the steep hillside with the only sound the wind in the trees, birdsong and the occasional snort from our mounts.
Eventually we reached a big open meadow, nearly there! A short distance further on, we dismounted (some more easily than others) and after a short hike reached a group of trees festooned with thousands, upon thousands of butterflies. It was a surreal moment, made even more so with the overcast, slightly misty weather. None of us wanted to disturb them in their slumbers, so in hushed tones we asked our guides Joel & Ellen to tell us a little more before heading to a small clearing for lunch.
Because we were there on an overcast day and not during sunnier, warmer weather we were not treated to the spectacle of millions of wings beating the air unlike some have witnessed.
Nonetheless it was an experience not to be missed. Not seeing them in flight gives us just one more reason to return. Cerro Pelon is a wonderful and magical place, made even more magical with the warmth and knowledge of our hosts Joel & Ellen.
Note: North America’s western population of Monarchs (those from west of the Rocky Mountain range) overwinter in California near Santa Cruz and San Diego. Here the Monarchs roost in conditions very similar to that in central Mexico.