It’s Monarch time again! The glorious orange and black butterflies have been sighted in Maine, New Hampshire, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. I’ve seen them on our lilacs and milkweeds here in Yarmouth, Maine.
Monarchs are truly amazing creatures. They carry out one of the most incredible cross-continental journeys in the animal kingdom, traveling upwards of 3000 miles from Canada and the northern U.S. down to sacred fir forests in the mountains of Mexico.
The summer breeding range of monarchs is defined by the northern limit of milkweed. We can all help them by planting milkweed. There are over 100 milkweed species native to North America, many of which are used by monarchs. Sadly, monarch migration is declining and the butterflies need protection. Loss of milkweed habitat, drought in California and elsewhere, insecticides and herbicides, and habitat loss in overwintering sites in Mexico from illegal logging contribute to their decline.
Lincoln Brower, professor at Amherst College, led a team of researchers studying the overwintering grounds of monarchs in the mountains of Michoacan, Mexico. I knew Brower when I was at Hampshire College, also in Amherst MA. In the last decades of his life, Brower recorded sharp decline in North American monarchs by 80% attributed to herbicides, logging, and weather events.
Brower advised novelist Barbara Kingsolver on butterfly migration for her 2012 book Flight Behavior, a terrific read I strongly recommend. The story features Dellarobia Turnbow, a young discontented housewife living with her poor family on a farm in Appalachia. Dellarobia’s life suddenly changes when she finds millions of monarch butterflies in the valley behind her home.
For monarchs to overwinter far from the heat of the south is unprecedented. Locals view their arrival as a message from God. Entomologist Ovid Byron, a gifted African-American researcher who comes to investigate, puts the blame on a very different agent: climate change. Byron hires Dellarobia to help him to make sense of the strange apparition on her land. In the process, she acquires a self-confidence she had been denied by her lack of education and begins a new life as an environmental scientist.
I am very impressed with Kingsolver’s skill incorporating details of this insect’s life history into fiction. That’s a real challenge (which, as an ecologist, I can certainly relate to) and Kingsolver is the master.