From spring through fall, the Chesapeake region is graced with the presence of monarch butterflies. These beloved orange and black-winged butterflies fly through meadows and home gardens, hunting for nectar and pollinating our plants. Each fall, cooler temperatures trigger the eastern population of monarchs to begin their annual migration to Mexico. Here, the insect arrives just in time for a special Mexican holiday.
Monarchs arrive on Día de los Muertos
Each year at the beginning of November, over a billion monarchs flock to the Sierra Madre mountains in Western Mexico. Some of them embark on a 3,000 mile journey from the eastern United States to find a precise location they have never seen before. How the monarchs find the mountains is still a mystery to scientists. This relatively small patch of forest is the perfect place for monarchs to overwinter because it maintains a stable temperature and humidity level.
The grand arrival of monarchs in Mexico just so happens to coincide with the start of Dia de los Muertos, a two-day holiday that originated in Mexico but is now celebrated in many Latin American countries and throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Día de los Muertos honors and celebrates the lives of deceased community members. It is believed that during the holiday, deceased family members return to the world of the living for one night. Each city in Mexico carries its own traditions from indigenous traditions and ways of celebrating, ranging from parades and performances to solemn commemorations of the dead.
Because of their arrival in November, monarchs have become part of the holiday tradition. The insect is often seen as a representation of the souls of ancestors arriving for the celebration. The orange color of their wings mirrors the bright colors of the Mexican marigold, which is used ceremoniously to guide returning spirits home. During Dia de los Muertos festivals, monarchs are featured prominently in outfits, decorations and art. This is especially true in Michoacán, Mexico, where the Sierra Madre mountains are located.
Outside of Día de los Muertos, monarchs have been represented in the art of indigenous people for thousands of years. The Mazahua and Otomis people believed monarchs represented the sun god decorating the earth during the short days of winter and fertilizing the soil in spring. Throughout the world, butterflies in general symbolize hope and rebirth.
Monarch conservation status
As of December 15, 2020, the monarch butterfly became eligible for consideration as an endangered species but has not yet been declared one. It is estimated that the eastern population of monarchs fell from a population of 384 million in 1996 to 60 million in 2019, and that the western population fell from 1.2 million in 1997 to less than 30,000 in 2019.
Declining habitat and climate change threaten monarch populations. Monarchs travel throughout North America with a territory expanding from Canada to Mexico. In order to protect and restore the population, conservation work must happen throughout their entire territory. The Monarch Joint Venture was created to bring together federal, state and nonprofit partners to protect monarchs in their entire habitat.
Formed in 1986, the Mariposa Monarca Biosphere Reserve in Michoacán, Mexico, protects 217 square miles of overwintering forest habitat for monarch butterflies. In 2008, United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization added Dia de los Muertos to the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity and named the Mariposa Monarca Biosphere reserve a World Heritage Site.
The world insect population is declining by 2.5% per year with 41% of the world’s known insect species facing extinction. Impacts from this loss are felt here in the Chesapeake region as well as around the world. Insects are the base of the food web and the majority of pollinators. Insects are the main source of food for many birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish, without them these species will not survive. Additionally, without insects the majority of food crops will go unpollinated leading to a food shortage. To save monarchs and other insect species jurisdictions in North America need to adapt to climate change, reduce pesticide use and protect native habitats.
Interested in helping monarchs? Volunteer to help monarch community science initiatives to help track monarch populations at different stages of their lives. Support planting of milkweed and nectar-rich plants in your neighborhood and reduce the use of insecticides.