You can feel it is not a weak animal from their energy. The energy they give you.
The main reason why the monarch butterflies migrate is they cannot survive the cold in Canada and the United States. So they have to go south. It is one of the largest insect migrations in the world, a total average migration of 4,800 kilometers. The generation that is here in Mexico is the strongest generation. Normally, butterflies live only about eight weeks or less. Ten days even. This butterfly is called the Methuselah generation because they tend to get much older. (Methuselah was a character in the Bible who lived a very long life.) These monarchs are between eight and nine months old. Normally they start in September, and they fly an average of 100-200 kilometers a day. The journey takes about two months, so it’s amazing that such a small butterfly can make such a big trip! It’s still a mystery how they figure all of this out.
When they arrive they are still disoriented from the long flight.
They use November and December to recover by drinking water and seeking nectar from plants. The number that arrive varies year by year because the long migration makes them very vulnerable, as does the attack on the natural grounds where milkweed grows. Actually seeing the butterflies is one of the most unique experiences in nature. What they do is when they arrive here in the pine woods, they cluster in the top of the trees and they only can survive as one single organism. They have to all cling together to warm each other up. At night, if one butterfly tries to stay on its own, he will be dead by the next day. He needs the colony to survive. When it’s cold, they’re all still in the tree branches. You can only see the outside of their wings; it’s a bit brownish. The magic begins when the first sun rays hit the branches and they open their wings and its very bright orange with black. It’s beautiful. They start moving their wings to warm up and if the sun really comes through, then they start flying. And if they’re flying a lot, you will hear them. A popping sound. The noise of their wings. We are talking about millions of butterflies.
The Pre-Hispanic people believed they were the souls of the people that died. You can see a strong link there with the Day of the Dead celebrations. For example in Michoacán, they use the Cempasúchil flower, which is a very bright orange and the same color as the butterflies. They are found throughout the graveyards. Orange is very uncommon in nature and some believe the famous flower was actually manufactured by the Prehispanic people to resemble the color of the butterfly. They thought it was the souls of their ancestors. It’s very beautiful to think about it like that. That orange as the sunset of the soul. Little pieces of sun in your hand.
When they fly to my hand, it’s an incredible feeling.
To be in such direct contact with nature and this incredible insect. An animal that actually comes to you. You can see them up close. To see them all cling together high up in the trees knowing that it’s the only way for them to be able to survive, it still touches me, still gives me emotions.
I grew up in an old Roman town called Maastricht. It’s at the very bottom of the Netherlands. Five minutes walking, I was in Belgium. Ten minutes by car you’re in Germany. We still have an old Roman bridge and protection walls ring the old city. You can walk around them for hours. After university, I worked in market research. I organized one of the first consumer panels in Costa Rica with housewives offering them different names and packages for a new coffee creamer. Later, I started working in call center management. My free time I always spent traveling. I got a project in Mexico to revise the quality of the support help desk of an Internet provider. That was a project of three months but in month two, I met Lydia.
I wanted to know about different parts of the country.
She had her own travel agency but she said we’d go just the two of us. When the project ended, I quit my day job. Now I can dedicate more of myself to travel. It gives you a lot of freedom.
It’s important that you’re not stuck to just one place. I think that’s one of the things we can learn from the butterflies. They are so flexible, so adaptable. If I make the metaphor to myself. If you’re really not feeling at home in one place, or not feeling at home anymore, I think it’s important to spread your wings and see if there are other places where you can have a better life and enjoy more.
Piedra Herrada, this sanctuary, is almost all pure nature.
Only the first part has paths made from cement. It’s a steeper walk up, and there are less arranged paths and more dust. You’re really walking up in mountain. If you see two butterflies clinging together on the ground and if they have enough energy, they will fly up together. That’s the mating dance of the butterflies. The difference between the males and females is the males have two little black dots on the back of their wings (which you can see if the wings are open) while the female doesn’t have those.
It’s important not to make noise. They don’t like it. If you’re quiet, at a certain point, they might come for you. On your arm, hand, head. They’re not afraid of us and they’re very good flyers. They know exactly where you are. Here’s how to have the best chance that a butterfly will land on your hand. Wipe some sweat off your forehand with your knuckle (you will probably sweating from the hike uphill) and place your hand, knuckle up, in a sunny spot where a lot of butterflies are flying around. Then, if you are worthy, a butterfly may land freely on your hand to eat some of the salt.
If you see a butterfly lying on the path, most likely will be stepped on if nothing is done.
Here’s how to perform a rescue. Under no circumstances should you take it by its wings. Put your hand under its head and maybe it will climb freely on your hand. If not, put both hands under its body, touching its wings as little as possible. And then leave it near a flower with exposure from the sun. It might recover to survive another day or maybe it will even be able to migrate back north.
You must not take any with you. Like all of us, they turn into dust. It’s important that deceased remain so the living can find their way back. The bodies are the dust of their ancestors. Year after year, they follow the path of dust.
As told to Jason Schwartzman, True Senior Editor