Adventure, Love, Struggle, Mystery, Hope and Great Grit
Many hundreds of thousands of Monarch Butterflies fly 2,500 miles in an arduous one month journey to arrive in Pacific Grove each fall with a great purpose.
These fragile little critters flew 100 miles every day, stopping at night near flowers. In the mornings they fueled up on nectar, and took off south for another 100 mile leg of their incredible flight to California. For nearly a month, day after day, they continued their pilgrimage and their last leg was an incredible one-day flap over open sea across Monterey Bay.
Now these delicate little golden flutterers are about to consummate their achievement. But, first they must rest before they begin the regeneration of their amazing five generation annual life cycle. They hang in clusters until the weather is warm enough to fly, above 50 oF. Colder than that, and their wings get too brittle, and they can’t fly. Then they move around to eat nectar from trees and other plants.
In Pacific Grove, Santa Cruz and a dozen other coastal areas, where there are ancestral groves for their wintering, the Monarchs build up their strength for the big event. In March when milkweed appears, the Monarchs begin a marvelous ritual, the crowing achievement of their great journey.
Ro Vaccaro, “The Butterfly Lady”, (back to the camera) tells her Monarch Magic stories in the forest. With wit, passion and a vivid knowledge of the subject, she makes believers out of her delighted audiences.
With their energy restored and they begin a beautiful mating ritual. The male and female flutter ballet, their wings bright gold in the sky in flirtation. The male catches her from behind, and they embrace. Then, suddenly, they clumsily fall to the ground.
The couple is on the ground for 15 minutes in what looks like a wrestling match. The male caresses the female to calm her, then aligns the abdomens so he can”make the connection,” as Ro says. Once they are coupled, the male lifts the female and carries her to the top of the trees where they will be warm. They stay coupled until sunrise the next day.
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Eventually, they fly off in separate directions, and the male dies because he expended so much energy in the mating. Males that don’t mate, because they matured late, linger on, looking for a partner. The female flutters out to place her 400+ eggs on milkweed bushes all the way over in California’s San Joaquin Valley. She will lay them one at a time, on the underside of a leaf.
Each year her challenge gets greater. As development proliferates in Central California,her opportunities to find milkweed to lay her eggs on diminish.
After she has laid all her eggs, she dies.
Phono by Don Nielsen
Here she deposits eggs on Asclepias Fascicularis (Milkweed) in a Ventana valley.
Her hatchlings will aspire to similar exaltations, maybe not as epic, for some live but 5 weeks, but they perform as critical links in this incredible journey. Four days after the egg is laid, it emerges as a tiny caterpillar. It eats its shell and the leaf it was attached to.
The milkweed leaf is poisonous to the Monarch’s predators, so the newborn can develop without being eaten by a bird. After two weeks the caterpillar crawls up on a stem, or, a branch, and using its last two back legs, hangs upside down and becomes a butterfly chrysalis.
When the new Monarch has formed, and splits the cocoon, it must remain still for two hours so its wings dry, and the veins harden.
Then strong enough to fly, it goes north to repeat the mating cycle. Four short (one-month) generations of Monarchs fly north (like a relay race) until the fourth generation reaches the last milkweed of autumn in Canada.
Then the fifth generation, the long-living (8 month) butterfly is born in Canada in late summer, and immediately migrates south to sanctuaries in California.
So, now the Monarch that arrives in the Fall is the fifth generation, or they are the great great grandchildren of the original female mentioned above. It is not known how they knew where to come. Also, the trees they congregate on now are Eucalyptus, which have been in California only the past 120 years. Originally, the Monarchs came to the Monterey Pines and Cypress that are here in one of only the few habitats in the world for these trees. It is magic.
It happens in about 20 locations along the California coast. They come from the western reaches of the Rocky Mountains in the U.S. and Canada. About 65,000 come to Pacific Grove. And in Mexico, in Michoacan, each year Monarchs arrive from central and eastern Canada and the U.S.
But why? Maybe it all was for us to experience the beauty of a human dedicated to interpreting it for us. Perhaps to get to know the Butterfly Lady, was a good enough reason. There she is, going out into the forest everyday, as a volunteer, paid by some inner meter, and sharing some wonderful insight about nature with some uninitiated visitors, who surely will be touched for the better by the experience.
Steinbeck, a former resident of Pacific Grove, and who spent significant parts of his life here, mentions the return of the Monarch in Sweet Thursday, and the critter has become a part of the Pagrovian conscience. They come in late October, and it is a joyous experience. School children have a parade, and come dressed up in butterfly costumes.
Ro in the Sanctuary – Photograph by a Monarch Docent
Town residents help the habitat by planting certain purple and yellow flowers that the Monarchs are partial to: lantara, yellow aster, Pride of Madera, and Mexican Sage. They like to call these Butterfly Gardens. It is magic.
To learn more, call Friends of the Monarch at 888.PGMonarch
In a park by the beach, there’s a sculpture of a Monarch. Signs warn motorists of butterflies crossing. Many of the town’s 13 community parks are favorite hang outs of the Monarch, but one is a Monarch Grove Sanctuary. If all that is not enough to induce a special regard for these intrepid little critters, who have such grit, Pacific Grove has very strict laws prohibiting anyone from molesting a butterfly.
Become a Monarch Docent-Naturalist at Natural Bridges State Park Classes begin Wednesday, Sept. 24 and are conducted each Wednesday evening and Saturday afternoon through October 22, 1999. The best way to learn about and to experience the Monarchs is by doing and teaching others. Email Julie Sidel, Park Interpretive Specialist:
And, a great Butterfly resource is Gerald Mines in Nebraska. You will be pleasantly surprised of Gerald’s use of the language in:
My Butterfly Collection (And, a valuable source for planting Butterfly gardens.)
For more about Pacific Grove folks and their love for their Monarchs, visit their outstanding new site: Pacific Grove Friends of the Monarch For very helpful, insightful and friendly discussion and chat about Butterflies and their habitats Visit the Butterfly Forum at Nature.Net
Here you get to meet Melany and all the gang that like to help the curious and the dedicated. Fantastic source of butterfly information.
(Recently, a program to use genetically modified corn emits a pollen that destroys Monarch larvae habitats in the American Midwest is the subject of serious protest. To learn more see: http://www.nature.net/forums/load/butterfly/msg0508562515415.html?3)
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