As the warmth reached the monarch colonies, which had been hanging from the trees in gray clumps, flashes of orange appeared. Occasionally, an explosion of wings occurred as the butterflies awakened and began fluttering down the mountain in search of food and water. They were all around me—a river of butterflies—alighting on my clothes and hat.
Visitors passed by, but hardly in the numbers I’d expected. El Rosario is, after all, the biggest of several visitor sites in this internationally known monarch biosphere preserve. Mostly, visitors were quiet and respectful. Mostly, they spoke in whispers and stayed a long time watching the ever-changing enchantment.
Two older American couples came up the path. I saw the young guide first. With a furrowed brow, he was gently picking up the butterflies that were on the path moving them to the side. Then I saw why. The Americans were oblivious, chatting away about restaurants or golf or their stay at an all-inclusive resort, I can’t remember. You’ve heard the conversation—the inane chitter-chat that creates a bubble around the participants. The marvels of the earth could be laid in front of them, and they would pass blindly by, engrossed in who said what to whom.
The Americans went on (I don’t think they saw me) to the trail’s end where explosions of butterflies were still sweeping down the mountain. Twenty minutes later, they tramped back, still chatting and, as far as I could see, unfazed by the miracle they had just witnessed. Mission accomplished. Bucket list item #84. Check.
This really happened, folks, and it’s a metaphor.
The monarchs are disappearing. The year I visited (March 2014) they had reached the lowest numbers ever recorded—and scientists have only known about this place since 1975. In that short time, the number of acres (or hectares) occupied by colonies of monarch has plummeted from a high of almost 22 acres in 1996 to 1.65 in 2013.
At first, habitat loss was to blame—all those Mexicans cutting down the trees for lumber, firewood, and to clear land for agriculture. So, the preserve was established in 1980 and declared a World Heritage site in 2008. Commercial logging is illegal, although trees may still be cut down by local people with mules and chainsaws.
But the monarchs continued to decline.
“I think the problem is in the north,” said Joel Moreno, whose grew up in Macheros, a village in the midst of the preserve. When he was a child, so many butterflies might roost in the branches of the oyamel trees that occasionally one would break from their weight and crash to the ground. His father was the area’s only park ranger for many years.
Lately, however, the finger points to farming practices in the US. The decline of the butterflies is inversely related to the increase in intense, GMO, Roundup-ready farming in the heartland of the US, through which the monarchs make their yearly migration.
Fields are cultivated without hedgerows that formerly grew native food plants, such as milkweed and goldenrod. Highway shoulders and medians are more rigorously mowed. Pesticide use has increased.
All these practices increase the hazards of the monarchs’ epic migration, making rest and food more difficult to find along their 3,000-mile journey.
Changing the practices of Big Ag is a long-term project—powerful companies aren’t likely to release their toxic golden geese anytime soon. Evironmental groups, including some organic farmers, are taking on Monsanto, the company with a chokehold on GMO, Roundup-ready seeds.
But if that kind of activism isn’t in your blood, what can you do to tilt the scales just a little for the monarchs and other pollinators?
- Plant. Even if you don’t live along the monarch flyway, get rid of your showy garden ornamentals for a more naturalized landscape of plants that attract birds, bees, and butterflies. What are the native food plants in your area? They grow like, um, weeds in many parts of the country. Plant them! My sister just put in an entire field of milkweed, which are the only plants on which monarchs lay their eggs.
- Join. Check out monarchwatch.org for information on growing and releasing your own adult monarchs. Join the National Resources Defense Council, a large environmental group that takes on the big issues like protecting monarch flyways with a small army of lobbyists and lawyers dedicated to these causes.
- Educate. Monarchwatch wants ambassadors in schools talking to kids about this amazing insect, how to grow them, and how to help insure their survival. In fact, the site has all kinds of fun projects for you. Other informative sites: are here and here.
- Visit. Go to Mexico and see their overwintering sites. But be careful. You may become one of those frenzied activists that people edge away from at a party. Guaranteed, you won’t be the same afterward.
Monarchs are hardy creatures, but we are going to lose them if we don’t change our ways. Explain that to your grandchildren.