Off North Road

Monarchs on the march

By Russell Hoxsie - October 5, 2006

Ticker, my effervescent Springer spaniel, and I were walking this week along a stone-walled lane toward the pond and suddenly, in silence, we were surrounded by a cloud of Monarch butterflies. The experience was not at all like a noxious swarm of gnats or mosquitoes but like I would suppose a visitation would be from some foreign Shangri-la. Goldenrod by the green path had drawn them to nectar and we had disturbed their quiet feast. Everywhere we looked the orange, black, and white wings flapped lazily as they loped above the flowers which were hung with the creatures. Ticker was more interested in something hidden deep in the bushes and continuously raised new clouds. My decision to move on came slowly; the butterflies were an attraction not often seen at this close range. The sense of tranquility was overpowering. Overhead the Vineyard sky was blue, air crisp and the shadows of limbs overhanging the green trail softened the sun's glare.

Monarch butterflies are called Danaus plexippus, a term in Greek meaning "sleepy transformation," inspired by the mythological Danaus, King of Argos (Libya). His 50 daughters fled to Greece to avoid being forced to marry their cousins. The long migratory journey of the Monarchs was said to be reminiscent of their flight. Not satisfied by this, I went to Webster's "New World Dictionary" and found that the Danaides (pl.) were in fact the 50 daughters, 49 of whom had murdered their husbands on command of their father. More, they were condemned to Hades to draw water forever with a sieve. Apparently Dad had made a bad choice for his girls and tried to make it right. Where has my celestial scene in company with butterflies and goldenrod disappeared?

Cycle of life

In fact, Monarchs have an incredibly difficult, almost sacrificial, life. Perhaps this has something to do with the extreme joy they give their human counterparts. Interest in them is high. Google finds 2,350,000 sites in its search. Starting with tiny white oval grooved eggs laid by the adult female Monarch, she produces a caterpillar similarly colored which feeds on poisonous milkweed leaves and in turn becomes poisonous itself as protection against predator birds and others. Vomiting is a common effect, death unlikely. One might say this is a beginning for some mythical comparisons! Caterpillars feed continuously on milkweed leaves and other related plants for 7 to 14 days, gain size and weight, molting four times, each time eating their discarded skin. When approximately two inches long a larva attaches itself to the underside of a leaf or branch, then molts for the last time. As the new skin dries and hardens it transforms into a jade-green pupa (chrysalis, if you prefer), a chamber for further incubation where the worm undergoes a complete reorganization to become a gorgeous but wet and collapsed butterfly. Emerging into the air, it pumps fluid from its abdomen into its collapsed veins and dries in the air. Then the adult Monarch is ready to fly and life begins anew.

Monarchs differ in length of life, depending on the season of "birth" and whether or not they belong to a migratory group. Those that emerge from the pupa in early summer live only about two to five weeks. The late summer generation will live to winter-over. Migratory Monarchs, a so-called Methuselah generation, which emerge in late summer and migrate south, survive an astounding seven to nine months. From the United States and Canada these migrants stop breeding in fall and embark on a mythic journey of over 2,000 miles, from the east to Mexico and Central America and from the west to the central Mexican mountain ranges and southern Pacific coast. They can be seen wintering-over by the millions, covering forested areas with their colorful wings. After rest and nourishment they turn about and begin a long trek back to areas of earlier spring climate.

Monarch butterfly. Photo by Susan Safford
Monarch butterfly, a brave and glorious voyager. Photo by Susan Safford
As they travel, females again become productive, producing two to five additional generations of short-lived butterflies. These young Monarchs run a frantic relay race to complete the northward journey to repopulate their old summer homes. The ability to return to old locations continues to be the subject of continued research. Flight patterns are inherited based on a combination of circadian rhythms and position of the sun in the sky. In addition, they may have special ultra-violet photo receptors which provide a sense of direction.

At many intersections of their lives, Monarchs must contend with danger. Growing use of insecticides takes their toll. Harvesting of Pacific coastal Cyprus forests has eliminated many wintering-over areas and over-development of open prairie and marsh areas has depleted summer feeding areas. If weather is cold and wet during reproductive activity, the population of butterflies may be decimated.

Here on a bright sunny Vineyard afternoon I have happened upon a cloud of Monarchs avidly seeking nectar for their long trip south. They can ingest only liquids from the flowers to which they are attracted by using a long narrow tongue which extends into the flower blossom and can be rolled up when not feeding. Storage of fat is critical for energy to endure the long journey. Much like migrating hawks, Monarchs take advantage of wind currents to navigate the distances, rising on upward moving thermal drafts and speeding along horizontal currents, saving energy with less frequent wing flapping. They have been observed at heights up to a kilometer above ground.

Myths and truths

I thought at first that the naming of this butterfly species after the daughters of Danaus was far-fetched. The portrayal of mythical life in fable and song has always led me to mystery and disbelief, despite frequent metaphorical truths hidden beneath.

As I scratched the Internet surface, the myth of Danaus as recorded goes on and on, multiplying in complexities and confusion among godly and not such godly figures. Egyptus, another mythical king, the brother of Danaus, was indeed the mythical father of the 50 sons who were the bridegrooms of Danaus's daughters, 49 of whom killed their espoused and thereby continued the story beyond the constraints of this article. The order of nature and particularly the life of the Monarch butterfly are no less extraordinary, but their miracle is reality.