Trip to See Butterflies | Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium

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April 5, 2018

Trip of a Lifetime to See Butterflies

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Zoo Docent, June Bernard, takes an incredible trip to see monarch butterflies.

Editors Note: June Bernard is a Docent at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium. June also teaches Monarch butterflies classes and holds workshops on how to tag butterflies. Recently June had the opportunity to travel to Mexico to see Monarch butterflies in their native winter habitat.  She shares her experience.

My recent trip to Mexico was a dream come true. This trip was something that I have wanted to do for over 20 years, I finally got the chance to visit the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserves. The reserves are the wintering site for millions of monarch butterflies.

I was very excited as I made my way to Mexico. I joined Dr. Tom Emmel, founding Director of the Maguire Center for Lepidoptera, along with a group of 28 others to begin our butterfly journey.

The first sanctuary was El Rosario. It is a three hour bus ride west from Mexico City to Angangueo in the state of Michoacan, where we stayed for three nights. El Rosario is the most easily accessible of all the known butterfly wintering colonies. Monarch butterflies are tropical butterflies that aren’t able to tolerate the cold winter temperatures of the United States, so they migrate to warmer weather.

After a horseback ride and hike to the roosting sites which are 11,000 feet up into the Sierra Madre Mountains, we arrived. The first sight was the millions of monarchs high up in the Oyamel trees, layered five-deep in clumps. As the sun warmed the air, it appeared as if a huge cloud suddenly sprang up to blacken the sky, but it was the millions of Monarchs taking flight. They travel to nectar and puddle before returning to their roosts for the night. It was an incredible sight to see. We spent several hours watching, videoing, and snapping photographs.

Day three we headed to the second sanctuary of Sierra Chincua. Sierra Chincua is four hours away and more remote. It is less visited than El Rosario mostly due to the challenging horseback ride and hike of the much steeper mountainside. Again, the number of Monarchs was impressive. We sat and had lunch as we watched them soaring above the clouds and hearing the soft whisper of their wings.

Each year in the beginning of November Monarchs travel about 3,000 miles from east of the Rocky Mountains and as far north as southern Canada to Mexico. I was so proud to learn that five of the Monarch butterflies that I tagged in Pennsylvania, either through my classes or on my own, wintered in Mexico.

The Monarch’s host or food plant is the milkweed, which doesn’t grow in the sanctuaries. So in the spring, the butterflies migrate back to the north to find milkweed to lay their eggs for the next generation of butterflies. This migration has been occurring for millions of years. 

Unfortunately, Monarch butterflies are under serious threat. The biggest threat is loss of habitat. Milkweed plants are the only plants the Monarch caterpillar uses for food. It contains a poison that the Monarch can safely ingest and most predators can’t tolerate. With the lack of native flowering plants along their migration route, the butterflies must fly farther in search of plants to lay their eggs. The loss of milkweed is caused by many factors including the spraying of crops. The herbicide doesn’t harm the corn or sorghum plants, but kills off the milkweed and native flowering plants. Currently there is a collaborative effort between Mexico, the United States, and Canada to restore milkweed and native nectar plants to what is referred to as the Milkweed Highway, the large area through which Monarch butterflies travel.

Global warming is another threat for Monarch butterflies. Monarchs need the cool, moist temperatures of the mountainous elevations in order to rest for the winter. They usually roost at about 11,000 feet, but scientists don’t know how much higher the butterflies will have to go if the cooler temperatures continue to intrude into their wintering areas.

In Mexico, logging is a serious threat for the Monarch butterflies. Monarchs need the layers of trees for protection and warmth in the winter months. Freak weather systems like the spring snowstorm of 2002, wiped out 80% of the Monarch population that year.

I developed my interest in Monarch butterflies when I read about the efforts of Dr. Fred Urquhart of the University of Toronto in my Weekly Reader handouts in grade school. Every year I would try to observe butterflies in my yard to see if they were tagged.

Many years later, my son’s preschool teacher brought caterpillars into the classroom and encouraged the kids to learn about butterflies and help raise them from caterpillars to butterflies. My interest continued to grow and I received certification from the Monarch Watch tagging program at the University of Kansas.

My hobby led to teaching classes on Monarch biology and tagging at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium where I work in the Education Department. I have also worked with the Zoo’s Horticulture Department to plant more milkweed and other butterfly host and nectar plants. I am so proud that all of my efforts for Monarch butterfly conservation are now highlighted as one of the Zoo’s conservation initiatives.

We can all play a role in the conservation of Monarch butterflies. It is as easy as planting a milkweed plant or other nectar plant in your yard then looking to see if a butterfly visits. Seeing them up close and learning about them is such a magnificent way to enjoy nature.