I went to see the butterflies because I needed a little beauty in my week. News of the horrific attacks in Paris has hit me particularly hard, and the backlashes that are occurring as a result of them are hitting me even harder. In the midst of questioning whether or not we as a species are capable of ideological evolution, I have needed to believe that change was at least possible. So for the last few days, I’ve been stalking nature’s masters of transformation.
Monarch butterflies are amongst our country’s most iconic species. I’d venture to guess that most grade school children can identify them, and they may even be able to accurately draw their characteristic orange and black wing pattern. So many of us studied these insects at some point in our educational careers that, as adults, we might still be able to recite the famous stages of metamorphosis, during which the caterpillar constructs its own chrysalis, turns to an undifferentiated “goo,” and from that goo reinvents itself as a spectacular butterfly. Their notoriety may be a result of this unbelievable transformation, or it may have more to do with the species’ distribution throughout North America. I do suspect that their beauty, grace, and delicacy support their popularity as well.
Here in Santa Cruz, CA, we have a sheltered eucalyptus grove that hosts approximately 4800 monarch butterflies for the winter. These are individuals who emerged from their cocoons sometime during the spring or summer and made the long journey south from the Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountain states in search of warmer temperatures. As cold-blooded animals who survive on nectar, they need warmth for their own metabolic functioning as well as for a reliable supply of flowering plants.
I had heard that the best time to visit the butterflies was mid-morning, when they are transitioning from their sleeping state to their active state, so at about 9:30am, I rode my bike out to Natural Bridges State Park, the only butterfly preserve in the state of California. As I approached the grove from the wooden boardwalk trail that meanders down into a small canyon, I saw only a few butterflies flying. It was a wet and chilly morning, with quite a bit of wind, so the majority of them were still in their overnight positions – hanging from tree branches, wings folded behind them, in clusters of impressive density. Congregating helps them to stay warm, reduce the effect of wind, and keep the interior butterflies dry, so they will stay clumped together until the sun is higher in the sky. In order for Monarch Butterflies to move, the temperature needs to be above 45 degrees, and it needs to be above 55 degrees outside for them to be able to fly, so their activity patterns don’t always coincide with the movement of man-made clocks.
All the action, I discovered, was at the end of the boardwalk. There, enormous clusters of butterflies were dangling from high eucalyptus branches, and the outermost layer of creatures were flapping their wings and taking off from the group. There were also numerous butterflies perched in the blackberry and poison oak thickets close to the ground, their wings vibrating in a “shivering” gesture to warm themselves up and awaken their senses. At the very end of the walkway, a volunteer had erected a barrier to prevent visitors into the last section of trail. Apparently, the high winds earlier in the morning had knocked a lot of the butterflies to the ground, and the man had arrived to find over one hundred of them on the walkway, wet wings plastered to the wooden planks where they would likely perish. He was desperately trying to revive them by picking them up, cradling them in his hands, and blowing his warm moist breath onto their wings. He was also preventing people from walking on them, because in this near-dead state they were difficult to spot on the rain-darkened boards. His technique was working; one by one he was reviving them, and they were flying out of his hands towards nearby bushes to “shiver” some more before attempting more physical activity.
The sign posted at the beginning of the boardwalk beseeches visitors to step softly and keep their voices low in the grove, and witnessing this sun-induced awakening of thousands of insects such a solumn setting brought tears to my eyes. I felt moved by the intimacy of the butterflies’ daily ritual, the respect that the visitors were paying to the moment, and the gentle and compassionate way this man was going about saving as many of the fallen insects as he could.
“They need all the help we can give them,” he said. Monarch butterfly populations are threatened by habitat loss all over the western hemisphere. The butterflies will only lay their eggs on milkweed, because that is the only food newly hatched caterpillars will eat. The toxins in milkweed are absorbed into the caterpillars’ systems, in turn rendering them toxic to birds and other predators throughout the rest of their life cycle. As farmers systematically remove milkweed from their lands with powerful herbicides, monarch butterflies can find fewer and fewer places to breed. Furthermore, their diet requires a consistent supply of flowering plants and water, other resources often threatened by ongoing development.
The docent leading our tour told the group that the average monarch butterfly life span is two to nine months. She also told us that the butterflies come back to the same exact grove of trees every year.
I had to ask the obvious question that arises from this: if it’s not the same creatures coming back from year to year, how do the migrating butterflies know to return to this spot one thousand or more miles away from their summer home?
“We’re not really sure,” she replied.
Hmm. Not only do monarch butterflies have a continuity of community, they appear to have some kind of collective consciousness that ensures that the group migrates successfully to and from the same locations every year, despite the fact that none of the members of the group are the same. The previous year’s adults die shortly after laying their eggs on the milkweed east of Santa Cruz in the spring; the best guess anyone has as to how the location of the roosting grounds is communicated from generation to generation is through pheromones left in the trees. But no one knows.
So here’s a species – one that most us would regard as being lower on the evolutionary ladder than human beings – that has an established an effective way of ensuring that individuals cooperate to guarantee the continuation of the population.
The news from the world of Homo Sapiens this week did not suggest that we can boast the same.
As I continued to stand out on the boardwalk, more and more people started to come out to the end of the trail. Some of them were shouting and shoving, chasing loud and unruly children, and mindlessly stepping over the barrier into the area where the wet-winged butterflies were struggling for survival. This is what we human beings do, especially when there are more of us in an area than the area can easily support. Some of the folks who had been hanging out watching the awakening for a while politely pointed out the barriers and asked the newcomers to keep their voices down. Most of them saw what was happening and adjusted their behavior. Not all, but most. They just needed to be educated.
Maybe there’s hope in this; but after recent events, I just don’t know.
I do know that I found my beauty.
It looks like I’m going to need to go back for a few more hits before this week is through.