A blog focused on nature, science, environmental topics, and happenings at the Pocono Environmental Education Center (PEEC).

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

Wing Tips to Hiking Boots: Musings of a New, Full-Time Poconos Resident

I was jealous of my wife for taking such a great photograph of a male Monarch butterfly. I had tried repeatedly in the spring, but they proved too busy. I rationalized this by concluding that her fall butterfly was geriatric and less elusive. I was wrong. This guy was just getting started. 

Monarchs are the greatest among butterflies that migrate, traveling as much as three thousand miles. Migration begins in the fall. This fellow will soon begin heading south. In three weeks he will arrive in Mexico, where he will spend most of his life in near hibernation. Then he will stir himself, mate and die, having lived as a butterfly Methuselah, six to eight months, compared to the six to eight weeks that most survive, if they are lucky. 

His children will find Texas or Oklahoma, then reproduce, all within the normal life span of a couple months. The grandchildren will arrive in the mid-Atlantic states and their offspring will return to our part of the forest, or into Canada in time to welcome spring. The great-grandchildren will repeat the long voyage south, and be given the extended lifespan required. 

Monarchs received their name from King William III of England, also known as William of Orange. The Viceroy butterfly is often mistaken for a Monarch. It has a black bar across the lower part of its wings, which the real Monarch lacks. The Monarch’s black and orange colors of both butterfly and caterpillar signify “don’t eat me. I’m poisonous.” Most predators will not eat a second Monarch. Even so, only about ten percent of Monarch eggs, pupa or caterpillars survive to adulthood. Today they are threatened by land development that takes away their milkweed home and climate change that confounds their migrations. Their numbers are down over 80% in the last twenty years. 

The long-lived Monarch appears undistinguishable from the other generations. Yet there is something inside that allows them to travel and endure far beyond its ancestors or descendents, a greatest generation of butterflies, appearing every fall.

 

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