Experiencing the monarch butterfly migration

Our lives were touched by a monarch butterfly during this season’s migration. You may have noticed that the skies and trees were full of monarchs in early September. This was an especially big migration, and the sight was breathtaking. They came through northeastern Ohio on their annual migration path from Canada to Mexico, where they winter until the cycle begins again.

One little guy, who managed to lose part of his wings and one antenna, was carried home by my eight-year-old daughter. She refused to believe that he would die shortly of his injuries and lovingly placed him on a branch of a tree in our Bay Village backyard, which we had taken to calling the butterfly tree because of the hundreds of monarchs alighting and drinking nectar there. When I first saw him I winced at his state but told my daughter that it was very kind of her to give him such a nice place to recover.

Somewhat more jaded myself, I wondered how long a butterfly lives anyway, maybe a week or two? And so I Googled the monarch and found that the first three generations live two to five weeks, but that the migratory fourth generation will live eight to nine months. Why? Because they have to stay alive long enough to migrate some 3,000 miles.

The fourth generation monarch is a kind of super-butterfly, made to withstand the forces of time and weather and circumstance to make it all the way back to sunny Mexico, perhaps with tattered wings and missing antennae, to continue the life cycle. It turns out that an injured monarch can still take flight, even if missing up to 30 percent of its wings. But a monarch cannot regenerate its missing parts.

Our butterfly, now named Archie, was part of this migratory super-generation and was still alive and vigorous, although flightless, the next morning, sitting on his branch. As I watched, hundreds of monarchs came back to the tree, alighting and opening and closing their beautiful, luminous wings. I was transfixed by the sight as Archie opened and closed his wings in the morning sunlight along with the rest of them. It felt like a miracle.

But, alas, Archie was missing fully half of his wings and could not take flight, although he tried again and again. A couple of days went by, and we watched on a Saturday morning as Archie unsuccessfully tried to fend off an attacking yellow jacket, who, to our horror, actually chewed a little hole in his wing within seconds. 

My husband, who is deathly afraid of bees and wasps, bravely shooed the attacker away. We realized that Archie needed protection, and placed him in our daughter’s abandoned playhouse with a nice big cutting from the butterfly tree. We checked on him frequently, and I started to think that he was pretty cute, particularly when he rolled out his proboscis and cocked his little head back and forth while drinking nectar.

I held my breath the entire week that Archie was with us, waiting for the moment when the tears would come, and, of course, they did. My daughter called me at work on Thursday afternoon to ask if had moved Archie. I could tell she had already been crying, and she sobbed that Archie was gone. 

I told her that I had seen him in the morning and that he had been testing his wings (all true) and that it is possible that he finally just worked up the strength to fly away out the window of the playhouse. I heartily want that to be the case.

She greeted me that evening holding a plastic bag with a few bits of Archie’s wing. I still maintain that, while it is evidence of something, it doesn’t prove he was eaten. I reminded her that after the yellow jacket incident Archie had lost a little more of that wing and that may account for what she had found.

Our week with Archie was a week of grace. I love that my daughter did not flinch from the injured monarch and did her best to care for him. Archie made us curious about the magnificent monarch butterflies. He made us want to honor him in some way. It turns out there is something we can do.

Monarch butterflies require milkweed to lay their eggs for the caterpillars. Only milkweed will do. So, in honor of Archie, please don’t pull out any milkweed growing in your yard, and if you want to make a habitat for monarchs in the spring, set aside a part of your yard and plant some milkweed. Archie’s relatives will thank you for it.

Milkweed seed packets are available for free (or a $3 donation) from the Live Monarch Foundation, livemonarch.org.

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Volume 4, Issue 19, Posted 10:02 AM, 09.18.2012