Monarch Butterflies in the Sanctuary on Sierra Chincua mountain. Photo courtesy of Alternare A.C.
Secrets of the Monarchs
If the world feels unpredictable, at least one thing is sure: The monarch butterflies have begun to arrive in Canada, following their annual migration from Mexico. We had many questions about that for our Philanthropy Cheek Shade partner, the Monarch Butterfly Fund.
At Chantecaille we have great affection for the Monarch Butterfly Fund, our first-ever charity partner. Sylvie has often shared the story of how, more than 15 years ago, her realization that the butterflies had vanished from her garden was the initial catalyst for what has grown to 29 philanthropy partnerships and counting. That first product partnership in 2006, the Les Papillons eye shadow palette, raised around $25,000, Sylvie recalls, which “the scientists we gave it to were so excited for—they said they could now buy land to conserve in Mexico.”
Fast forward to today and our partnership is still going strong, now with our Philanthropy Cheek Shade in Bliss. With the annual arrival of the monarchs up north, we thought it was a good moment to check in MBF’s chair, Don Davis, to learn more about their migration and the impact of your support on butterfly conservation.
Monarchs take flight. Photo courtesy of Alternare A.C.
Butterflies are small but mighty. Why are they so important?
Butterflies have been around for millions of years. They’re an important part of life on Earth. The presence of butterflies is a sign of a healthy environment. They’re pollinators and are food for other animals. Our famous monarch mentor, Dr. Lincoln Brower, said it best: “We should care about monarchs like we care about the Mona Lisa or the beauty of Mozart’s music. To me, the monarch is a treasure like a great piece of art. We need to develop a cultural appreciation of wildlife that’s equivalent to art and music.”
Tell us about Monarchs physically: Is there any significance to their wing patterns? Can they see? Smell? Taste?
The adult monarch is a large butterfly, with a wingspan of 3 to 4 inches. Its bright orange wings have black veins and black edges with white spots along the margin—the bright colors of caterpillars and adults warn animals that they are distasteful. Male monarchs have a black spot —a scent gland—on each hindwing. Butterflies' sensory systems help them find food and mates, avoid predators, and choose appropriate host plants for their eggs. Monarchs live about 30 days, time enough to find a partner and lay eggs, though monarchs that hatch in late summer and early fall are migrants and can live for up to 9 months.
"Monarchs use the sun as a compass to keep them flying in a southerly direction."
Their migration patterns are so fascinating. How do monarchs know it’s time to start heading south or north? How are they able to make such a long journey?
In late summer and early fall, when there is less daylight and cooler weather, changes take place in monarch caterpillars. The adults that hatch out are not fully developed, they cannot reproduce yet. These migrating monarchs will winter in Mexico. Cooler, wetter weather further tells that monarchs that it’s time to head south. How do monarchs that have never made the trip to Mexico find their way? This is not well understood, but monarchs use the sun as a compass to keep them flying in a southerly direction. The earth’s magnetic field and landforms such as mountain ranges may guide the journey to Mexico. These monarchs finish growing up during the winter months in Mexico, and in the spring begin heading north to the southern U.S. and the young tender milkweeds awaiting them.
The Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. Photo courtesy of Monarch Network.
Tell us about where they wind up in Mexico, the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, and why these areas need to be protected. Also, can anyone visit them?
The Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve is a World Heritage Site found in the Mexican State of Michoacán. The Reserve contains most of the monarch overwintering sites. The President of Mexico ordered that the lands on which the monarch spends the winter be protected, and another president increased the size of the Reserve, which is now about 216 square miles in size. While anyone may visit the monarch sanctuaries in Mexico, only certain colonies are open for tourism. The El Rosario sanctuary is the largest.
Protecting these lands and forests is difficult because they are privately owned by individuals and communities called “ejidos.” The people who live here need the forests to earn money and for wood to build and heat their homes. Researchers are concerned that the monarch forests are deteriorating through illegal logging and by the continued clearing of lands for agricultural use. What’s more, monarchs are less protected from winter storms and freezing temperatures when trees are removed from areas where the monarchs spend the winter—freezing, wet winter storms can kill millions of monarchs.
Canada and the United States also contribute to the monarch population decline with the loss of breeding habitat and increase in huge monoculture crops, urbanization and development, extensive use of pesticides and herbicides, and climate change.
So how much have the populations of Monarchs shrunk?
Each year, World Wildlife Fund Mexico, working with others, measures the total forest area covered by wintering monarchs. For the past 17 years, the number of monarchs counted has gradually declined. For the wintering season of 2019-20, eleven colonies were found with a total area of about 7 square acres, a 53.22% decrease from last year. For the monarch migration to continue, scientists say that a wintering population of 14 acres is needed to sustain it.
A woman and child from the local community caring for saplings to plant. Photo courtesy of Alternare A.C.
That’s concerning! How does MBF work to conserve monarch populations?
Monarch Butterfly Fund uses donations from Chantecaille and others to pay for projects that help rural communities in Mexico to manage their own natural resources, improve their quality of life, and participate in monarch conservation.
Schools work with local tree nurseries to grow native trees. Oyamel fir, pine trees, and other trees are planted to improve both monarchs and local people. Different kinds of trees are planted depending on how they will be used. Some types of trees will be grown for firewood and lumber. Other kinds of trees are planted in the actual location where monarchs spend the winter. Watching how the trees grow and caring for them results in a high tree survival rate. Instead of paying for labor, money is given to repair schools and purchase educational supplies, water pipes, fences and other equipment to benefit the entire community.
We train everyone who lives near the monarchs to use the forest wisely. The local people learn to manage the forest and conduct forestry for their own needs like cooking, and those of the monarchs, both now and into the future. This way we hope to reduce or stop logging at higher elevations where monarchs spend the winter.
Monarch Butterfly Fund also supports monarch conservation in the United States as an active partner of the Monarch Joint Venture, a partnership of organizations working to preserve monarchs and their habitat. Scientific research supported by MBF in the United States and Mexico helps determine the most effective steps to take to help monarchs in North America.
Wintering monarchs on a tree in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. Photo courtesy of Alternare A.C.
What kind of impact has the Covid-19 crisis had on Monarch conservation?
MBF is concerned about the possible impacts of the pandemic on the MBBR region. Unemployed individuals have returned back home, where multigenerational families live in poverty. Illegal logging has increased. What if the region is closed to tourists due to the crisis? The loss of employment opportunities and ways of earning an income would be devastating for both the people and for monarch conservation.
What can we all do in our yards and neighborhoods to support Monarchs?
Large areas of North American monarch habitat are now used for agriculture and development. You can help bring their numbers back! Create Monarch Waystations in your home, school or community gardens. Encourage your town or city, private companies, and landowners to do the same.
So what do we plant?
Monarchs need milkweed! Their caterpillars only eat milkweed plants, and adults lay their eggs on milkweed leaves. Planting milkweed is a great way to help other pollinators too. Milkweeds provide nectar resources and habitat for bees, butterflies and other insects.
Adult monarchs need nectar sources to survive. It’s a good idea to Include a variety of native flowering species with different bloom times to provide monarchs with the food they need during the breeding and migration seasons. Select appropriate native and other nectar sources that will grow well in your area—here is a good resource (look under “About Monarchs”).
What’s the coolest/most memorable encounter you’ve had with a monarch butterfly?
What comes to mind is the time I carefully edged myself down a steep mountain slope, stopping at the edge of a mass of flying monarchs. I was being filmed by a documentary film crew, and demonstrating how to tag a monarch. With hundreds of thousands of monarchs flying all around me and landing on me, with the rustling sound of their wings against a rugged terrain with majestic trees, I felt how lucky I was to have this special moment recorded on film.