Poetic Fliers: Monarch Butterflies

One recent morning, as the boys and I were finishing our two-mile perambulation through the fields and woods across the road, I noticed a Monarch butterfly leave the maple trees alongside our path and begin its effortless dance through the air, in search of nectar.

Then another Monarch departed from the maples just ahead of us, and following the other, began its own aerial dance above the field.

Then another.

Aha! The maples must be where they roost for the night!

I stood in awe, watching them, struck by the poetic nature of the scene, thankful I was there at the right time – shortly after sunrise as the air began to warm – to bear witness.

Such a gift of nature.

The line of maples from which the Monarchs emerged.

When I first arrived in Vermont, in mid-July, I saw one or two Monarchs flying among the milkweed flowers that bloom in abundance alongside the road the boys and I frequently walk. That’s when I realized that Vermont is under the U.S. east coast Monarch migratory path.

It seemed a bit late to be heading north? Maybe what I saw were some stragglers?

Neighbors said the Monarchs would return in September, on their way south.

Indeed, they did.

Watching the handful emerging from the maple trees to fly over the fields the boys and I regularly tramp, intrigued and delighted, I decided to do some light research. I wanted to know more.

A Monarch butterfly in flight as the boys and I walk through the field. September 23, 2021.

First, I learned that Monarchs are the Vermont state butterfly, and have been since 1987. The states of Alabama, Idaho, Illinois, Minnesota, Texas and West Virginia also have designated the Monarch their state butterfly or insect.

I may have seen one or two Monarch butterflies in my sixteen years living in Idaho. I’ve already seen more in just a few months in Vermont. Apparently, the part of Idaho I lived in was not one of their favorite locations. I’m surprised to learn they’re that state’s butterfly.

My new location in Vermont, though, is prime Monarch territory. Not only are there tons of milkweed plants – which is where the females lay their eggs, because the milkweed plant is the only food the Monarch larvae can eat – but there are also abundant fields full of clover, which is a key stopover food and habitat for them on their flight south for the winter.

The delicate and intricate relationships between plants and animals never cease to amaze me.

The Monarch’s migration is divided into three parts. This graphic – taken as a screenshot from a video mentioned at the end of this blog – describes it better than I can.

What’s truly amazing is that eastern Monarchs fly thousands of miles over the course of their fall migration south, going from southern Canada to Florida and Mexico.

Bits of Wikipedia’s entry on Monarch butterflies follow, in italics. If you want to know more about Monarchs, including all of the life stages, that’s a good place to start. My interests focused on their name, how they fly, and how threatened they are by humans and climate change.

The name “monarch” is believed to have been given in honor of King William III of England, as the butterfly’s main color is that of the king’s secondary title, Prince of Orange.

I guess it’s fitting, then, that this post on Monarch butterflies follows quick on the heels of the one about Queen Anne’s Lace flowers.

Monarch flight has been described as “slow and sailing,” with a flight speed estimated at approximately 9 km/h or 5.5 mph. For comparison, the average human jogs at a rate of 9.7–12.9 km/h (6–8 mph). 

“Slow and sailing” are pretty good descriptors of Monarchs in flight, based on my observations. I might add carefree and even lighthearted, at least to me. Maybe that’s too fanciful. They certainly make me smile, as they effortlessly surf the breeze, several feet above the field, quickly changing direction and elevation before selecting and descending upon a bright purple clover flower.

Monarchs are one of the slower-flying butterflies. Apparently, butterflies that are foul tasting or even poisonous to their predators are the slowest fliers, which makes evolutionary sense. The milkweed that Monarch larvae feed upon contain chemicals that are poisonous to birds and other predators. And as adults, the Monarch’s bright orange wings with spots are a signal to predators: I taste bad, so don’t even bother! With those evolutionary tricks, they can afford to take their time flying in search of the best spots to feed.

From the website Science Focus I found this tidbit about butterflies and flight.

Butterflies and moths use their wings for many purposes: for flight, as mobile billboards to advertise how poisonous they are, and to create camouflage patterns. So you would expect them to be less adept fliers than insects that have optimised their wing design purely for aerodynamics. But the butterfly’s erratic flight is actually an evolutionary tactic that makes it harder for any would-be predators to predict the insect’s flightpath. The more poisonous butterflies don’t need to carry out these evasive manoeuvres, and as a result these species tend to fly much straighter.

Fluid dynamics simulations that were carried out at Kyoto University in Japan last year showed that butterflies achieve their trademark swoops and tumbles by generating a lot of extra turbulence with each wing beat. And high-speed photography studies undertaken at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, US, reveal that they also constantly adjust their centre of gravity by shifting the position of their body and wings.

Monarch butterflies are so good at this that they can effect a 90-degree turn in less than a single body-length.

No wonder I was so enchanted, watching the handful of Monarchs leave the security of the maple trees for their first flights of the morning, swooping and tumbling, doing butterfly aerobatics before landing on clover flowers. But they were also observant and wary of me; as soon as I got close to try to take a photo, they would take off and quickly be out of reach.

I ended up switching my phone’s camera to video mode, which turned out surprisingly well. Most of the time I was recording I wasn’t even sure I had the Monarch in view, but when I got home and edited the videos, I realized that I could take a “snapshot” of an isolated scene that captured the butterfly in flight. I took several. Made my day!

The Wikipedia article also discusses threats faced by Monarch butterflies. Some excerpts:

There is increasing concern related to the ongoing decline of monarchs at their overwintering sites; based on a 2014 twenty-year comparison, the overwintering numbers west of the Rocky Mountains have dropped more than 50 percent since 1997 and the overwintering numbers east of the Rockies have declined by more than 90 percent since 1995.

In February 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provided a statistic showing that nearly a billion monarchs have vanished from the overwintering sites since 1990. At that time, one of the main reasons cited was the herbicides used by farmers and homeowners on milkweed, a plant used as a food source, a home and a nursery by the monarchs.

While herbicide use has been proposed as one factor causing the decline in overwintering numbers of eastern monarchs, it is not the only possibility. Another is that the monarchs are experiencing problems reaching Mexico.

The area of forest occupied [in Mexico] has been declining and reached its lowest level in two decades in 2013. The decline is continuing but is expected to increase during the 2013–2014 season. Mexican environmental authorities continue to monitor illegal logging of the oyamel trees. The oyamel is a major species of evergreen on which the overwintering butterflies spend a significant time during their winter diapause, or suspended development.

Monarchs in the oyamel trees, Mexico. Photo: thejourneynorth.org, ElRossario0055.

A 2014 study acknowledged that while “the protection of overwintering habitat has no doubt gone a long way towards conserving monarchs that breed throughout eastern North America,” their research indicates that habitat loss on breeding grounds in the United States is the main cause of both recent and projected population declines.

Climate variations during the fall and summer affect butterfly reproduction. Rainfall, and freezing temperatures affect milkweed growth. Omar Vidal, director general of WWF-Mexico, said “The monarch’s lifecycle depends on the climatic conditions in the places where they breed. Eggs, larvae and pupae develop more quickly in milder conditions. Temperatures above 35 °C (95 °F) can be lethal for larvae, and eggs dry out in hot, arid conditions, causing a drastic decrease in hatch rate.” If a monarch’s body temperatures is below 30 °C (86 °F) a monarch cannot fly. To warm up they will sit in the sun or rapidly shiver their wings to warm themselves.

While there are few scientific studies on the subject, the practice of butterfly gardening and creating “monarch waystations” is commonly thought to increase the populations of butterflies.

I’m pleased that my new home is abundant with milkweed in summer and clover in fall. That should benefit the Monarchs as they pass through on their migrations. I hope the roadsides and fields are free of pesticides; I know the fields where the boys and I walk are, but I don’t yet know what’s common practice among municipalities and private property owners in Vermont. My sense is that Vermont leans organic, which bodes well for the Monarchs and other pollinators.  

We don’t have a lot of time to do better, folks. Too many species have already suffered and/or gone extinct because of our stupidity and selfishness regarding climate change. It may already be too late. It feels overwhelming, when confronted with such momentous issues. I know all too well. But individuals can do small things that help that, when glomped together, can have a meaningful, positive impact. And that’s better than nothing, than inaction or indifference.

For example, make your area – your home garden, or the open spaces and parks in your community – attractive to butterflies, bees, and other insects that pollinate. Our lives depend on their lives. Literally.

Watching Monarchs fly so poetically over the clover?

Pure bonus.

Chasing butterflies. September 23, 2021.

***

NOVA/PBS produced a nice documentary about Monarchs in 2019, titled The Incredible Journey of the Butterflies, worth watching if you’re a subscriber. Flight of the Butterflies, a 2012 Canadian documentary film, is on Amazon Prime (for rent). For free is this nice (and shorter) documentary, Saving the Migration – available on YouTube, as are other videos about butterflies and Monarchs in particular. Knowledge is power.

Feature image: a screenshot from video of a Monarch in flight, September 23, 2021.

9 thoughts on “Poetic Fliers: Monarch Butterflies”

  1. Beautiful creatures. We have two similar looking ones called Danaus genutia and D. chrysippus. But I don’t think they have the interesting migratory behaviour of your D. plexipuss.

    On a related note, I just finished reading Barbara Kingsolver’s book Fight Behaviour which centers on these butterflies. I liked it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. They truly are beautiful. Such intricate, vibrant designs on their wings.

      Ah, Kingsolver’s book! I’d forgotten about it, so thank you for mentioning it. It was my introduction to the environmental challenges they face. It’s on my shelf, read years ago; time for a reread!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What a wonderful encounter. They’re such beautiful and delicate creatures. How they manage such a massive migration has always amazed me. We used to have lots of monarchs but our milkweed seems to have disappeared so we don’t see them that often anymore.

    Like

  3. Years ago, I saw Flight of the butterflies in 3D. It’s my favorite ever 3D movie. I also think it’s cool how recently they figured out where in Mexico they actually go. I’m surprised they’re still in Vermont. Seems like it’s getting pretty late in the year. The got a long way to fly.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Seeing Flight of the Butterflies in 3D would be amazing!

      New to Vermont, I’ve no idea whether they’re “on time” or not. There aren’t many, though; not sure if that means I somehow missed most of them, or the bulk are yet to arrive, or there just aren’t that many of them migrating these days. And yeah, if they’re only flying at 5 mph, I’m stunned they can make it all the way to Mexico before winter! They must catch some amazing tail winds along the way 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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