With a couple of shoeboxes in hand, my neighbor and friend Lynne and I walked 15 minutes to a nearby beach on a monarch butterfly rescue mission. We found dozens and dozens of monarchs stranded –many of them already dead- on the beach along Lake Michigan after waves of storms had passed through.
They were a kaleidoscope of butterflies (yes, that’s actually what a group is called, though the terms flutter or swarm also are used sometimes) in the middle of a 3,000 mile journey to spend the winter in Mexico.
The monarchs and our rescue mission got me thinking about the tremendous odds these beautiful creatures face, and about what we can learn from their improbable annual trek.
Most likely, the monarchs’ wings had become waterlogged as they passed through a storm that knocked them out of the sky. Some just had to wait for their wings to dry out enough for them to fly. But many others were stuck in the sand, immobile until we lifted them out, dazed but alive. Every time we extracted one and it began to move, we were overjoyed.
As Lynne and I gathered butterflies, strangers stopped to ask what we were doing –and to help. Soon, we had collected more than 100 monarchs in various states of trauma. As we walked home, a young woman stopped us and showed us three more that she had saved. We added them to our shoe boxes and headed back, arriving just as the first drops from a new rain storm began to fall.
We were not sure how many of the butterflies would survive. We also marveled at how tremendous the odds are against monarchs –and how inspiring it is that they follow their mission anyway.
A female monarch can lay as many as 500 eggs. They need to for the species to survive. Only about one in 20 will become an adult butterfly. And of those adults, many won’t survive the long journey. The odds against them are getting higher and higher.
US monarch butterfly populations have fallen precipitously as their habitats have been bulldozed or sprayed with weed and insect killers. The eastern US monarch population fell from roughly 1 billion in the 1990s to just 225 million in 2018; and the western population from 1.2 million to just 30,000.
Weed killers have decimated 165 million acres of milkweed, monarch’s breeding habitat. Some insecticides are lethal to caterpillars.
Activists in 2014 petitioned for monarch butterflies to be listed as endangered. The US Fish and Wildlife Service is waiting for overwintering data from Fall 2019 and 2020 before making a decision on whether to list monarchs as endangered in December 2020.
The situation has catalyzed a whole movement, with websites and facebook groups dedicated to monarch butterflies and the things people can do to help them. Planting milkweed is one of the most important.
We planted milkweed in our Chicago yard this year, choosing the plants carefully. At the nursery, the staff told us to look for plants with little white dots -caterpillar eggs- on the undersides of the leaves. They also told us that while normally people pick plants with leaves that haven’t been eaten, milkweed with holes in the leaves was more likely to house monarch caterpillars, so ironically were more desirable.
As the milkweed and its tenants grew, Lynne brought caterpillars indoors, protected from the birds, to munch on milkweed until they made their chrysalises and transformed into butterflies. Each release was joyful.
As the summer ended, the migration generation of caterpillars hatched. Monarchs make the journey north from Mexico each spring in stages, laying eggs partway through the trip and letting their offspring continue the journey. But the migration south takes place in one complete, grueling, amazing journey.
The butterflies on the beach were part of that generation. Sadly, our rescue efforts were not as successful as we had hoped.
The morning after we rescued the beach butterflies and gave them nectar to get their strength back, we moved a laundry hamper commandeered as a temporary home into the sunshine on my deck. Once they had warmed up, we released them.
Lynne’s husband, a DJ, couldn’t help but sing a few bars of the Mr. Mister song “Take… these broken wings… and learn to fly again…” We were overjoyed for the ones that did.
Maybe twenty or so flew away right away. We hoped that they were strong enough to complete their journey, though who knows how far south they would make it in their post-traumatic condition. Neighbors down the street reported that at least a few took a rest on their deck.
But many had not survived the night. Another dozen or remained with us for several days, a few regaining their strength and eventually flying away. But most ended their migration at our building.
We were surprised that several of the survivors had suffered damage to their wings, but many of the butterflies that didn’t make it had perfect wings. We saved those so that more experienced butterfly rescuers could graft some of the intact wings to help other injured monarchs fly again. Others went to a school for a monarch education project.
Some dumbass on a Facebook monarch group disparaged the beach rescue, saying that it was just a drop in the ocean. Perhaps so. But the odds against success made the purpose no less meaningful — just like the very act of survival for the monarchs themselves. When purpose is powerful enough, odds are no obstacle.
This article is part of my new LinkedIn series, “Around My Mind” – a regular walk through the ideas, events, people, and places that kick my synapses into action, sparking sometimes surprising or counter-intuitive connections.
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