It may sound easy to see butterflies but it takes a lot of effort, people and transportation. First of all, we flew from 10′ above sea level in Virginia, USA to Mexico City, MX (Altitude 7,350′). Then we rode a bus to our accommodations in Angangueo where we arrived at an altitude of 9,300’above sea level. (Over half of our group of 16 were not able to go any further due to altitude sickness or physical restraints?) Next we rode in the back of open air trucks up to the entrance of the sanctuary.
Then we hopped on a horse who carried us for about one mile.
(The horn of the saddle was about as big as a steering wheel.)
Last, we climbed up on foot another 30 minutes to get to the forest with lots of stops to catch our breath. (No wonder they had a hard time finding these butterfly colonies.) There were also many changes in temperatures so we were either putting on layers or taking them off.
The microclimate in the oyamel forest is very important for temperature regulation. In 2002, many of the butterflies in the monarch colonies died. It rained and then it snowed. The monarch can endure one or the other but not both. This caused many to die of frostbite of the wings. If any good can come from that, a more accurate count of the butterflies were achieved since they were dead on the ground.
Monarchs are a flagship species. They are charismatic. People can get behind saving them; like penguins and seahorses, for example. As a bonus, a flagship species becomes an umbrella species because by protecting them, other species benefit.
In 2015, Canada, USA and Mexico signed a pact to protect the monarch. Each country has a role to play and each country has its own challenges.
Canada needs to secure more protected areas in the north.
The USA needs to plant milkweed to provide food for the migrating monarchs. They are establishing flyways and creating corridors, not islands, for preserving their migration path. I-35 is called the Monarch Highway. Kansas University is a leader in monarch butterfly 🦋 research. (I think that my dad and I will stop by on our road trip to Kansas this summer.)
If you intend to plant milkweed, be sure to find out the type of milkweed that is native to your area. There are 104 different species of milkweed but only 25% can be used by the monarch. The floss produced by the milkweed seeds is six times more buoyant than cork. It does not absorb water, and it was collected and used in life vests in WWII.
The biggest factor for the USA is the use of herbicides such as roundup. After looking at this graph, I asked why the data point stopped at 2008, and they said that the manufacturer (Monsanto) would not give them any more information.
Also, there is a movement called “Know Before You Mow”. There is only a short amount of time that the monarch is eating milkweed in any specific area in the USA. Please let them eat and get on their way.
Some activists oversimply the planting of milkweed. It is more complicated than it would seem. The rancher/farmer cannot have milkweed growing near his cattle as the toxins in milkweed will kill them if they eat the plant. And families or pet owners should be concerned for the same reason. Nothing is clear cut.
Mexico needs to protect and save the forests. The butterflies need the thin needles of the oyamel fir trees to form clusters. These clusters provide protection and the proper temperature for the butterflies. Mexico will protect the core zones where the butterflies are clustering. Surrounding the core zones are buffer zones which ensure and protect the proper microclimate.
Mexico has provided armed police to protect the forests canopy and also to check that wood which has been harvested has been certified to do so. No logging takes place in the core where the butterflies are, but some highly-controlled logging is allowed in the buffer zone. They use drones to monitor.
Every July, school kids get involved by planting the oyamel fir trees and participate in reforestation programs. The oyamel tree is called Abies religiosa which means “sacred tree”. The Spaniards thought that the three branches at the top of the tree symbolized a cross.
Tourism takes place in the core areas. Butterflies don’t know boundaries and the reserves are on the border of two states in Mexico. (Did you know that Mexico’s official name is the United States of Mexico?) The oyamel forest grows in the transvolcanic belt. There are a lot of minerals including magnetite. The theory is that the butterflies embed this mineral and use it in some way to navigate back to Mexico.
On the first day, we went to the El Rosario sanctuary in the afternoon and saw the butterflies in large numbers returning to cluster for the evening. There were so many that you could hear all of those flapping wings which made a faint sound of a running stream. The second day we went to another sanctuary called Sierra Chincua which was more modern and used solar and other sustainable technologies. The third day we returned to El Rosario early in the morning. All of the days were awesome but the last day was the epitome of butterfly observations.
The cluster resembles a piñata hanging up high in the tree. (I really could have used a neck massage.)
No talking is allowed. Once a cluster warms up, the butterflies all leave at once. We only saw it one time but it felt like we were at a Super Bowl celebration. Watch this video: I am struggling with this technology so let me know if you can see it. Some have responded that they couldn’t see the video so try this YouTube link.