ut­terly but­ter­fly

Ev­ery Novem­ber mil­lions of mon­archs de­scend on Mex­ico. Sarah Marshall wings a trip

The Wharf - - Travel -

Fut­ter­ing above the ter­ra­cotta roofs of An­gangueo, a for­mer mining town in cen­tral Mex­i­can state Mi­choa­can, mil­lions of wings beat and set­tle like flakes of am­ber snow. “Our an­ces­tors thought they were spir­its,” ex­plains my guide Her­nando, as the ethe­real be­ings float into the folds of for­est-cloaked moun­tain slopes.

“I re­mem­ber when my mother died; a but­ter­fly ap­peared the fol­low­ing day.”

It’s un­der­stand­able why lo­cal peo­ple might in­ter­pret this mass mi­gra­tion as a visit from the other side; the mon­archs’ ar­rival ev­ery year hap­pens around the be­gin­ning of Novem­ber, when Mex­i­cans hon­our their dearly de­parted dur­ing El Dia De Los Muer­tos (Day of the Dead).

Like clock­work, masses of the el­e­gant in­sects leave their birth­places along the US and Canadian bor­der, al­though it wasn’t un­til 1975 that sci­en­tists re­alised they were com­ing here, to a small patch of fir for­est, nearly 3,000 me­ters above sea level.

Trav­el­ling for an in­cred­i­ble four months, they cover 5,000km for a gath­er­ing that’s the equiv­a­lent of Glas­ton­bury in the en­to­mol­o­gist’s world.

Distin­guish­able by their polka dot-fringed tan­ger­ine wings, monarch but­ter­flies can be found in many coun­tries, but these are the glo­be­trot­ters, the only ones that travel so far.

Stop­ping at the base of El Rosario, part of the Reserva Mari­posa Monarca (Monarch But­ter­fly Re­serve) which is open to the pub­lic, we swap our four wheels for horses, and climb higher into the Oyamel fir for­est.

I’m vis­it­ing at the end of March, when most but­ter­flies have left, but I’m still show­ered by petals of an­i­mated con­fetti, even though lo­cal guide Sil­vestre in­forms me this is just 25% of the 150 mil­lion that an­nu­ally de­scend.

Most but­ter­flies live for 25 days but one gen­er­a­tion, the methuse­lah, can sur­vive for up to nine months – the equiv­a­lent, in hu­man terms, of 525 years. These are the in­trepid ad­ven­tur­ers able to travel from North Amer­ica to Mex­ico and back.

The se­cret to their longevity is still a mys­tery, al­though one the­ory sug­gests it’s all in the birth date; emerg­ing from their chrysalis at the end of Au­gust (when tem­per­a­tures are fall­ing and days are shorter), they slip into a state of semi-hi­ber­na­tion, slow­ing down bod­ily func­tions and stor­ing en­ergy for a longer life.

The sci­ence of their in­ter­nal com­pass is an even greater enigma, be­cause no sin­gle but­ter­fly makes this as­tound­ing mi­gra­tion twice.

Sil­vestre has been work­ing at El Rosario for 17 years and he doesn’t know the an­swer, but he’s still stag­gered by the phe­nom­e­non year after year.

Other lo­cal res­i­dents, how­ever, didn’t al­ways feel that way.

“Some peo­ple thought they were a plague,” he tells me as we perch on fallen logs in a sun-splin­tered clear­ing. “They used to fry the but­ter­flies, re­move any poi­sonous parts and eat the rest in tacos.”

A greater death threat came in 2010, when North Amer­i­cans de­stroyed fields of milk­weed – a favourite food for monarch cater­pil­lars – re­sult­ing in the pop­u­la­tion’s dras­tic de­cline.

In 2014, the pres­i­dents of Canada, USA and Mex­ico agreed the con­ser­va­tion of but­ter­flies was a pri­or­ity, and Sil­vestre as­sures me num­bers have risen since then.

Noise up­sets the but­ter­flies, so we sit in si­lence and lis­ten to the sound of beat­ing wings trick­ling like rain­drops, even though the air is bone dry.

In shady ar­eas, clus­ters keep warm by cling­ing to tree trunks, trans­form­ing the for­est into a mass of rep­til­ian scales. Above us, wings blus­ter like au­tumn leaves across the blue sky, their shad­ows danc­ing at my feet.

Some will re­turn home, oth­ers will stay, spi­ralling to the ground now their time is up.

And so the cy­cle of life con­tin­ues, an epic mi­gra­tion and a jour­ney with no be­gin­ning or end.

A clus­ter of monarch but­ter­flies

An­gangueo in Mex­ico

The monarch but­ter­fly mi­gra­tion in Mex­ico, above, and Sarah watch­ing but­ter­flies at the El Rosario but­ter­fly re­serve, right

In a flap: A monarch but­ter­fly at the El Rosario but­ter­fly re­serve

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