Rather than a single location, this piece explores a wide swath of geography, from the Canadian border through the eastern United States to the west central highlands of Mexico. Annually, millions of monarch butterflies take this journey that spans more than 2,500 miles. Arriving in Mexico in late October, they cluster on the tops of pine trees, conserving energy and protecting themselves from the cold nighttime temperatures. They breed in the spring and a totally new generation of monarchs leaves for the northern migration, arriving in the exact location left by the previous generation.
Upon arrival, the females immediately seek common milkweed plants to lay their eggs. The common milkweed sought by the monarchs contain chemicals that are toxic to most species. While they can later feed on nectar from other plants, the monarch caterpillars require the chemicals in common milkweed for the metamorphosis process. They are able to store these toxins for the rest of their lives, warding off would be predators who recognize the characteristic orange and black of the monarch.
Several generations later, a totally different population of monarchs will leave, returning to Mexico for the winter, a spectacular life span and migration pattern that is truly in danger. The Agricultural success of the herbicide Round Up has eliminated many stands of milkweed growing in and around fields planted with crop. With the industrialization of farming, fallow fields are now being developed, eliminated the milkweed that has thrived there. All of this, along with urban expansion, is eliminating monarch habitat.
This habitat loss is not limited to the United States. Logging and roads to transport the logs are destroying the breeding grounds in Mexico. A group called the Monarch Watch started monitoring the populations of monarchs in the mid 90’s and found that the average area inhabited by wintering monarchs was 17.5 acres of the highland forests. In the winter of 2013 – 14, they occupied only 1.7 acres.
An incidental and inadvertent threat is through well intentioned but erroneous planting of milkweed, intending to restore the habitat. However, people have planted non-native or other nursery “showy” garden milkweed which can interfere with the fall migratory patterns by staying in bloom later than the common milkweed, stranding the monarch in the northern climate.
I selected this as a topic, not for a specific location or the passion of one person, rather as a broad geography that clearly demonstrates our impact on the ancient patterns of nature. In this piece I depict the journey, from the milkweed, over the distance, over borders to the evergreens of the Mexican forests.