Fluttery greetings, gentle readers! Mabon is a season of marked change, and there’s not much I can think of that symbolizes change better than the transformation of a caterpillar into a beautiful Monarch butterfly. I had the privilege of being up close and personal with a LOT of these lovelies as I raised over 120 to adulthood this summer and thought I’d share my musings with you now that, like summer itself, their season is drawing to and end.
As I write this post, the Midwest is right smack at the peak of migration season for Monarch butterflies as they head back south from Canada to their wintering roosts in Mexico. You can read more about that here if you’re interested.
Monarchs are fascinating to me for a lot of reasons, including the fact that they’re just plain PURDY. Firstly, they have a wildly varied life span, depending on their generation. Like many butterflies, the monarch usually only lives 2 – 6 weeks and reproduces once in its lifetime. However, monarchs are the only butterfly known to have a two-way migration pattern like birds have – which means they don’t just fly north, but they have to fly south again at the end of the year. But if each generation only lives for 6 weeks at most, how do they get where they’re going? It takes at least five generations to make it from one point to the other, so how does each middle generation of these beauties know the way up north or back home to their roosting spots? It’s a genuine mystery, but somehow they just know it – current theory is that it’s somehow programmed in their genes and passed on through generations that will never even see either Canada or Mexico! And that’s not all: the last generation of monarchs for the year – the ones that make it down to Mexico after several generations get them there with their genetically passed-down navigation system – live in a sort of stasis for several months, overwintering in the warm climate until the following Spring, when they are the first to start the migration cycle north again. How do they do it? In the immortal words of Dr. Ian Malcom from Jurassic Park: “Life finds a way!”
Monarchs also fascinate me because they are one of the few insects that are universally not considered pests. While the adults may sip the nectar of (and therefore pollinate) lots of different flowers, the larvae only eat one type of plant: milkweed. (If milkweed ever becomes a cash crop, I’m sure the worldview on these critters would change, but for now, it makes my heart happy to have an entirely beneficial bug to like.) One caterpillar can eat through the entirety of a midsized milkweed plant’s leaves during its growth through 5 stages of development before pupating into its chrysalis and making the change into its adult form, so it’s very important to keep these plants around for our fluttery friends.
For a long time, many states and municipalities mowed their roadside ditches and vacant lots frequently over the summer months, which also cut down wild milkweed plants, destroying the habitat of these beauties and possibly disrupting their migration patterns in the process. Even a year or two ago, monarch numbers were down significantly in the United States. Lots of progress has been made with grassroots efforts to persuade our cities and states to preserve the monarch’s habitat more effectively, though, and now I’m happy to report they’re bouncing back as of the summer of 2018!
One good way to help boost the monarch population is to rear the eggs and smallest babies indoors, where they are safer from disease, parasites, and predators. The citizen-scientists that I worked with this summer told me that a caterpillar only has a 10 – 15% chance of survival to adulthood in the wild, while it has an over 90% chance in captivity. Raising these pretty little things wasn’t always sunshine and roses – I lost a significant number to diseases and parasites that run rampant through their population despite my best efforts, but the vast majority of my houseguests grew to glorious adulthood and visited me in the nature reserve behind my home all season long.
And now for the last thing I find so fascinating about these beautiful creatures: their arrival back in Mexico always occurs at the very end of October so that they make it back just in time for their traditional celebration of the Day of the Dead. It turns out that in this tradition, monarchs are believed to be the souls of the beloved dead returning to visit with their still-living families during the time of year when the veil between the dead and the living is thinnest. Sound like any upcoming sabbat we witchy types know? (coughSAMHAINcough)
As I write this, my last seven visitors are snugged up tight in their chrysalises, ready to emerge any day now and catch the caboose of their migration train down south. It pleases me greatly to feel like I had a small hand in helping 100 more of these delicate but determined beauties – whether they’re the souls of loved ones or just a gorgeous, gossamer part of the Universe – on their way to where they’re meant to be.
If you liked this post, you may also be interested in my Monarch “Safe Travels” Vehicle Protection Sachet – click here for details. 🙂