Monarch Butterflies Looking Good in 2019 (Trevor Hance)
I just returned from Mexico, where I experienced beautiful forests, people, and millions of monarch butterflies who overwinter there each year. I am grateful to Natural Habitat Adventures and World Wildlife Fund for being selected to join them on an expedition to the monarch butterfly sanctuaries in the transvolcanic belt of central Mexico as part of their first ever Monarch Scholarship Grant for Educators.
In the Americas (plural), las mariposas monarcas (i.e. – monarch butterflies) have two large populations, one that makes a short migration in California and the other, an unbelievable 5-generation, 3,000 mile migration from the Oyemel (i.e. – fir tree) forests of Central Mexico to Canada and back. While the migrating populations only live a few weeks to a month, the overwintering population can live 6 to 9 months.
Once in Mexico, the monarchs roost among 12 sanctuaries, and we visited two, both very different, but both filled with massive numbers of butterflies. The first sanctuary we visited was El Rosario, one of the most commonly visited sanctuaries. We were very fortunate with butterfly-viewing-weather on our trip and while numbers are still being counted, I feel a little optimistic based on what I observed in November back in Texas, and now in January in Mexico.
A Species in Decline
Due to human actions (i.e. – changing land use patterns, deforestation in Mexico, RoundUp used throughout the United States) and extreme weather (i.e. – droughts/hurricanes), monarch numbers are down from their historical highs (first measured in the 1990s). A report released this week showed the numbers in California are down 86% this year to about 30,000 monarchs total, and down globally overall over the last 20 years.
Tell Me More
Not a single picture will do the experience justice, so I am collaborating with friends at several universities, government organizations and other schools to create a Google Earth based story of why pollinators (and in particular monarchs) are important, and what steps can be taken at home to support success for this important umbrella species and other pollinators that provide necessary eco-services for over 75% of our food crops. For the time being, here is one of my favorite photos from my time in Mexico amongst millions of “mariposas monarcas.”
Conservation Education in Angangueo
One aspect of the expedition that will forever stick with me was the time spent in a third grade class at the local elementary school. The school is in “downtown” Angangueo, which is a picturesque mountain village of less than 10,000 people that sits in a steep valley at about 9,000 feet above sea level (the monarchs roost about 2,000 feet higher in the sanctuaries nestled in the mountains above the village). The school itself is completely nondescript. From the sidewalk, we entered through a large metal door to an indoor courtyard where the students were having some playtime, kicking soccer balls and playing chase, which shifted to immediate curiosity when they noticed the obviously-not-Mexican visitors who just entered the school.
Our Expedition Leaders left us to let the Principal know we were on campus and the students quickly crowded around us with the same inherent curiosity all kids share. The teacher in me took over and with my horrible efforts at recalling my college Spanish classes, I started asking the kids questions like “¿Cuantos años tienes?” (9 or 10), “¿Te gusta escuela?” (si), and “¿Prefieres la ciencia o leer?” (hurra, ciencias!). They were immediately responsive, forgiving of my poor pronunciation, and overall, welcomed that I was at least trying to satisfy their curiosity. Indeed, as the only visitor to make the effort to speak Spanish, I was invited to join the fútbol game, but had to decline as the teachers showed up to take us all to class.
In class we spent some time learning from the students (en Español) what they knew about the monarchs and the overall importance of conservation. I was very impressed with their ability to articulate the connection between the ecology of the monarchs, the economic impact it had on their community, and the overall value-shift in their community towards conservation (i.e. – illegal logging is no longer a real threat in the forests there, but I’ll save that story for a different day).
I was mentally prepared for it, but, there were few resources at the school. Impressively, there was a large hand-created poster just outside the classroom door that said “Para ayudar a tu planeta” and “Reduce, Recicla, Reutiliza.”
Several fellow travelers brought supplies to give to the school and there was a lot of excitement with the new crayons that each student received. I spent some time visiting with Dulce Marisol, a nine year old girl with two younger sisters who was at first quite shy, but she quickly warmed up when she realized that I was more than happy to let her correct my Spanish as we worked on an assignment. We finished our visit the way I finish many of my emails, and I got a big smile out of her when she learned to say “High-5, Maestro Hance!”
The Long Game
I will have more to say about the science, conservation, economics, and education aspects of the monarchs in the coming weeks, but suffice it to say I am impressed with the monarch and forestry-based conservation efforts underway in Mexico, and a huge high-5 goes to @NatHab and @World_Wildlife for their work there over the past 20 years. The long-lens investment provides hope for sustainability and success of monarchs in Mexico, as well as in California, but it will take increased literacy and commitment from the US to be successful.
For now, the monarchs will be back in Texas in about 8 weeks. I have a lot to do to get our gardens ready (including a visit to Mission, Texas next weekend!). Subscribe to the blog and I’ll have tips on what and how to garden your own pollinator friendly garden in the coming weeks.