Fritz Pölking

...and there are miracles from time to time

- millions of butterflies hibernate in high mountain regions -

The first butterflies started to exist about the time fiowers "set foot" on our planet, 130 to 140 million years ago. In the meantime, about 170.000 different types of butterflies have been discovered and accounted for, yet still there are new types found even today. In China, a plant which is related to the magnolia family has been discovered to be even 25 million years older than the presently oldest plant known. So maybe the oldest types of butterflies are also older than presumed up to now.

But no other type of butterfly has surprised us humans like the monarch butterfly. He lives in North America during the summer months and disappeared like all other butterflies towards winter, but no-one knew just where they went...

Until the Canadian butterfly expert and explorer, Fred Urquart, in 1976 discovered that the monarch spent the Winter months in Mexico, in the high mountain regions at up to 3 and 4.000 meters altitude, in giant colonies of millions of insects. This discovery was absolutely sensational.

Even the other butterfly experts were surprised at this great achievement. This little butterfly, onIy a few centimeters in size, flies from the Great lakes south of Canada and the U.S. thousands of kilometers every fall to the forests of eastern Michoacan, a Mexican state.

Up to now, no-one exactly knows just how he orientates himself. When they arrive at their place of hibernation, they hang millions at a time on the Oyameles trees, a type of conifer (evergreen). So when the sun comes up during the day and warms the air somewhat, they swarm up under the blue skies, thousands at a time and offer an overwhelming sight.

Copulation in the winter quarters in Mexico. The eggs
will be laid in Louisiana and Texas by the female
after a long flight.

'Mother and father copulate during their winter vacation in the mountains of Mexico at about 3.000 Meter in elevation. The father dies shortly thereafter and the mother flies by herself some thousand kilometers to Louisiana or Texas where she gives birth to her children. After this she also dies. The children continue on further north to the Great lakes of the USA and Canada, where they spend the summer and end their lives. Towards winter, in the fall-time, the grandchildren fly more than 6.000 km back to the same mountains from which their grandparents came in the spring before. Exactly at the same spot, where their grandparents engaged in their sex games. The question which has been unanswered until today is: How do the grandchildren know of this "vacation home" of their grandparents, how do they find it over the distance of 6.000 km without information, guidance or ever having seen it before?'

At first glance male and fernale look alike. The easiest way to tell the two apart is through the two dots on the wings of the male.

The fernale is able to produce from 100 up to 1000 eggs, but weather conditions, minimal food, fallen trees and their enemies keep their numbers at bay.

There is even a light colored type of this butterfly, the so-calied white monarch. This one was seen -rarely to be said -in Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia and the U.S. OnIy a very few specimen are seen every year.

Like most insects, the monarch butterfly can not survive long and/or cold winters; although no other butterfly endeavors on such a long and strenuous journey.

The specimen to the west of the Rocky Mountains hibernate on the coast of California, whereas the ones living to the east of these mountains fiy to the volcanic high mountain region of central Mexico every year.

After mating in their winter quarters they begin their retreat in March and the offspring enters the world in Louisiana or Texas and the first generation dies there. So the second generation flies on to the north in order to multiply east of the Rocky Mountains and in turn to die there. It is the third generation, the grandchildren, that finally during the months of October/November, leave Canada and the USA to fly to Mexico. It is assumed, that they orient themselves on magnetic fields. They start off in small groups and avoid unfavorable currents in the air. They fly low to the ground and in the shadow of trees and hills when encountering headwinds. By back wind they fly high up above the clouds -to where freedom has no bounds -and they have been observed at over 2.500 meters altitude.

Around these sanctuaries of about ten known hibernation places, a type of ecological tourism has developed on a small scale: hotels, pensions, souvenir vendors, guides, bus companies and the employees of the sanctuaries partially survive through the income from this butterfly tourism. This should be the best protection for these insects. We can observe this in all the other national parks and sanctuaries in the entire world: they can onIy be kept up permanentIy and safely if they bring the needed revenue for people in order to guarantee the minimum of existence.

There was some excitement recentIy about whether or not trans -genetic corn pollen is dangerous for the monarch butterflies. During laboratory experiments at the Cornell University of New York, butterfly larva perished miserably after having been fed with gene manipulated corn. It is necessary to know that the caterpillar is the main feeding stage in the course of life of a butterfly

Beginning November 1999 a special symposium to this subject was held in Chicago and scientists concluded that genetically altered corn made to be resistant to pests is no danger to the monarch butterfly. Let 's hope they are right

Whereas the Mexican farmers at times turned flame throwers on to their winter guests high up in the mountains, mistakenly thinking the accumulation of these millions of insects on the trees as pests -like our bark beetle -these beautiful and enchanting creatures are now preserved. We now have to concentrate on stopping the deforestation of some of the hibernation quarters -which are often located on private property -and the survival of this unique butterfly seems to be secure -for now. The prospects seem to be pretty good .

The village of Angangeo in the mountains of central Mexico
- with its small hotels - is a good starting point for the winter
quarters of the monarch butterflies. You can get there in
approx. 4-5 hours with the rental car from Mexico City.

Where many millions of butterflies hibernate, the forest
ground is covered with dead monarch butterflies.

Male and female. The male can be distinguished from
the female easiest through the two dark spots
on his wings.

A male monarch suns himself on a small twig
above the water and so produces a mirrored image.


In answer to the noon warmth, the
butterflies open their wings.

When the temperatures rise, the heavens come to life through the
unbelievable number of butterflies. As long distance experts, they surmount thousands of
kilometers. Where do the monarch butterflies get all this energy from?


It was the discovery of the century when, in 1976, the butterfly expert
Fred Urquhart found the province of Michoacan high up in the mountains
as the winter quarters of the monarch butterflies - often in
elevations of up to 3.000 meters.



You can't see the trees with all the butterflies. On some trees, the limbs
have disappeared through the enormous number of butterflies.


All images with Nikon F5, 2.8/80-200 mm
and 4.0/500 mm, tripod, Sensia-100,
Februay 2000.

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