How I Find Inspiration In Monarch Butterflies
I’ve been thinking about monarch butterflies.
Anyone who knows me understands that I am all about inspiration and that I often seek it in the natural world. I am fortunate enough to live near a state park that is rife with lovely old trees, small wildlife, and riffling streams that branch from a main river, the Neshaminy. Lately, during my walks, my mind has been elsewhere.
While visiting northwestern Michigan this past August, we encountered a hot spot in their migratory path and saw entire fields of the caterpillars. I took close to a million pictures and videos of them and simply can’t get them munching away on wild milkweed off my mind.
Butterflies are important in so many ways. Beyond symbols of beauty, they represent the larger story of how our lives cycle through change, often in drastic ways. Monarchs, like their name and devoted lepidopterists (even amateur ones) suggest, are close to perfection in insect form. Majestic in coloring and bearing, they embody the astonishment we feel when we encounter nature at its finest.
Monarchs are a symbol of everything right with the world.
Their life cycle and migratory habits are the stuff of elementary school projects, the kind that kids actually enjoy doing. Did you know that migrating colonies can top fifteen thousand individual insects? I’ve seen this with my own eyes when my family lived for a brief time in northern Michigan.
I awoke one late August morning to find a congregation of monarchs covering the willow in my yard in a pulsing mass of marigold and black. It was almost like a giant tiger had chosen this spot for a long-deserved rest. While I suspect this experience might have partially fueled for the fascination I have for these creatures, I know that I am not the only one who loves and respects them.
A Passion for Poison
Let’s face it, everything about monarchs is just cool – from their ovoid eggs which look like alien landing pods when viewed up close, to the softest emerald chrysalis attached to a milkweed leaf with a spun silk pad. And ah, the larval stage. I think I actually love the caterpillars more than the adults!
These pajama-striped munching wonders consume milkweed by the acre. As a kid, I used to gather milkweed pods by the dozen and offer their downy seeds to the wind. Now, I am careful not to disturb this perennial, as I understand it is the most important food source for monarchs.
More about Milkweed
The wild milkweed is beautiful, but I enjoy its sassy attitude as well. It’s reliably cold-hardy and tough as nails. When it blooms, it attracts local pollinators to its fragrant pink-ish blossoms. But most importantly, when damaged, it exudes a milky white latex that contains a cardiac compound that renders it toxic to most animals.
It is the build-up of this substance in the munching caterpillars which protect the monarchs into their adult life. Their beautiful orange and black markings, so familiar to us, serves as a bell and whistle warning for birds not to eat them. How interesting that the genus is named after Asclepius, the Greek god of healing!
Speaking of pollinators, did you know that monarchs, like all butterflies, are actually important pollinators? As adults they flit among flowers alongside bees and moths, and suck nectar through their super-slim proboscis’, spreading pollen along the way.
It was just over forty years ago when the winter habitat of the monarch butterfly was discovered in Mexico. After searching for decades, it wasn’t until January 1975, when an entomologist at the University of Toronto, Fred A. Urquhart, received a phone call from an American living in Mexico City named Kenneth Brugger, who told him that “We have located the colony. We have found them — millions of monarchs — in evergreens beside a mountain clearing.” (Source: Huffington Post)
Talk about inspiring! Can you imagine coming upon the sight of literally millions of these incredible insects carpeting the landscape as far as the eye can see? For more on this story, I recommend the documentary, On The Wings of The Monarch, which is available for streaming on Amazon. It takes generations for these creatures to make their way back to their southern home – a once-secret place.
I like to believe they arrive with a soulful sigh as if finding solace in the groves of their beloved Oyamel fir trees.
Of all the creatures now endangered, let’s call the monarch what it is – a telltale species, a species that, if lost, unlike so many unseen gastropods, copepods, and other unattractive or easy to overlook creatures, this loss would be catastrophic.
Please learn as much as you can about them. Please leave a patch of wildflowers to grow undisturbed. And above all, please remember that the smallest of things can be inspirational and just the knowledge of their existence can feed our souls.