The Great Butterfly Migration

Our ever-curious and adventurous Sustainability Director Rhett has been meandering through the Oyamel Fir Forests in Mexico to witness first hand the migration of the Monarch Butterfly. Here’s an update from his first few days and what he's learned about this fragile population...

“The once secret overwintering grounds (where an organism will hide out for winter) of the Monarch Butterfly is nestled atop Mexico's Transvolcanic Mountains in the protected recesses of the Oyamel Fir Forests. This delicate population and migratory process is truly a wonder of the world, but it is at risk of disappearing! Each year, five to seven hundred million Monarch Butterflies congregate in a mere 20 hectares of forest (a hectare is about the size of a city block) after traveling as far as 5,000 miles and covering a range of over 100,000 hectares east of the Rockies from southern Canada to Mexico.

But this year, to a trained eye, the winged miracle has nearly fallen silent. Only .6 hectares of Oyamel Fir Forest held the Monarch's overwintering tribes. Still, the overwhelming amount of butterflies overwintering here are magnificent, impressing upon anyone seeing them the urgency to conserve one of our Earth's natural wonders.

The problems challenging the Monarch's tiny and fragile lives are multitudinous and powerful: the policy of nations, the acts of the world's richest corporations, and the desperation if it's poorest citizens.

Fly over the fields of the central United States and you will find endless miles of corn and soy sterilized of biodiversity by a powerful chemical herbicide Glycophosphate, more commonly known as Roundup. Special breeds of genetically modified crops are bred to be resistant to this chemical herbicide and are known as 'round-up ready.' Roundup is applied en masse by plane and tractor across the American agricultural belt. Where once ecosystems supporting plant biodiversity could be found between the crop rows, now is bare soil. This means serious trouble for Monarchs, who rely on this ecosystem biodiversity for survival and growth. Specifically, they rely on Milkweed for food and egg laying as they travel back north. This plant is commonly eradicated from agricultural areas, causing the Monarch population to die off along its migratory route.

Another burden on the fragile butterfly population is logging. Despite the protected status of the Oyamel Fir Forests, local farmers often turn to logging to provide for their families. Removing trees from these forests severely disrupts the unique micro-climate that protects the fragile Monarch. In 2002, a frost killed almost 80% of the butterfly population exposed to the elements from an illegally logged and fragmented forest.

An adult Monarch visits thousands of wild flowers in its brief existence to drink up their liquid sugars. Along the way, these winged creatures inadvertently pollinate those same thousands of flowers. With numbers of migrating Monarchs in the hundreds of millions, the population has the potential to pollinate billions of individual flowers! Without these butterflies, these same billions of flowers would simply become sterile and live and die without developing seed or fruit. This would cause the forest structure to undergo a dramatic change, allowing for the occupation of new species, the alteration of ground litter and soil composition, and with it the biodiversity of the eco system. These same ecosystems filter the air we breath and the water we drink, produce the nutrients for the fertility of our fields, and the biodiversity accounting for the majority of creatures on our continent.

But there is hope. Two weeks ago the presidents of Mexico, Canada, and the United States met to discuss the provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). On the agenda was the Monarch Butterfly. All parties expressed the need for international governmental cooperation to protect this population. Agreed upon was a corridor of milkweed habitat from Canada through the American plains into Mexico, as well as support for Mexico's ongoing efforts to stop logging and create sustainable livelihoods for the region's farming communities.

What is not clear is how or over what timeframe these programs will be enacted. I for one, am not going to wait. I am following the call of conservationists, citizens, and scientists to plant Milkweed in my community and provide habitat for the monarch caterpillar and butterfly. It might seem like a small action, but each monarch that survives can lay up to 300 eggs. I will buy my Milkweed plant from Monarch Watch. Go to or look up your local native plant nursery to find out what species of Milkweed grows in your area. Many of us may have heard of 'the butterfly effect,' how a small action can lead to large and unexpected results. This is especially true in the case of the Monarch. One plant can have a big impact."

Rhett Godfrey
Loomstate's Sustainability Director

Safe travels Rhett! Stay tuned for a short film of this beautiful migratory phenomena in the coming weeks.

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