Any school kid can identify a monarch butterfly, even if they didn’t pay attention in biology class. They are part of normal life. The more adventurous grade-school kids have even caught, banded, and released these butterflies so scientists can track and understand their amazing migration pattern.
Common as milkweeds, we all notice them, and take as a fact of life that monarchs will show up every summer. Yet, there is more to this common insect than meets the eye, plus a lot of misinformation when you want to know more.
The questions add up fast. These creatures, weighing less than an ounce, may migrate 1500 miles back and forth every year to their over-wintering site. That’s 25-30 miles per day. Why do they go through all that trouble? And how do they know the way, when it’s the 3rd or 4th generation that makes the trip back to southern Mexico after the summer breeding season in North America.
The monarch life cycle is so complex and almost unbelievable, that few people understand how to explain it, but that’s exactly what we must do. Their fate now rests in how well we humans can communicate and cooperate with each other to help them. Because due to changing weather patterns and habitat destruction, the next generation of humans, or maybe the next one, or the next after that, may never get to see one.
If you really want to know the truth about something, you’d go to someone who has spent their life studying it. For monarchs, that’s Dr Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, a monarch butterfly research and information center that employes thousands of school kids to help track the numbers and their migrations.
Monarch Watch, based in Lawrence, Kansas, in the middle of it all, has evolved different maps of Monarch migration patterns over the years. When I first designed a map for the National Park Service book, Frequently Asked Questions about Butterflies, a few years ago, they had it down to two black and white maps–one for spring and one for fall. I was sure that the data could be combined into one map and also made easier to understand for the grade-school butterfly-banders and almost any non-scientist.
This spring, after a disastrous winter freeze in the monarch
over-wintering grounds in the southern Mexico, Dr. Taylor called on me to redesign that map from the NPS book for a poster that they could distribute. The map still wasn’t quite right to him. We sent proofs back and forth for weeks before he was satisfied that it was as correct as possible.
That’s how science works–you never assume you know the whole story, and you will always be getting closer and closer to the truth, but never arrive.
I was happy to be involved with this project in many ways. I understand what’s known about monarch migration now and I’ve helped hundreds of others to do the same.
I’ll never take anything in life for granted again, even the smallest. I can’t exactly explain why, but if the monarchs were gone, part of our collective Homo sapiens soul would leave with them.