Things Unseen – Mystery of the Monarch

Things Unseen is a special series of posts to get you and the people where you live thinking about the unseen or under-appreciated wonders of the natural world and what lies beyond.  It is April 2020, and the world has become a very different place as a tiny virus makes its way across the planet.  At a time such as this, we are sobered and humbled by the fact that this vast universe holds much that is far beyond our understanding and certainly our control. Perhaps we are meant to enjoy and ponder it more, as well as the things that really matter in this life.. things unseen.  Just a thought. What do you think? 

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Encinitas, California – Known as “the flower capital of the world,” dinky little Encinitas lives up to its name. Flowers can be seen everywhere and where there are flowers, there are pollinators, and where there are pollinators, there are bound to be butterflies wafting through the spring air.

One butterfly captures our imagination perhaps more than any other and is probably the most recognized butterfly in the country.  The magnificent Monarch.  This gorgeous butterfly looks like a cross between a piece of exquisite hand-painted bone china and a luminous stained glass window of an ancient cathedral.  To me, there has always been something deeply compelling about this ethereal creature. I feel the desire to travel along with it, if only for a short time.

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As a group, Monarchs lead very interesting lives.  Throughout the year, each member is an important component in one of two massive migrations across our country, the eastern group ever moving toward a warm winter destination; the Oyamel Forest in Angangueo, Michoacan, Mexico. The western group moves toward the pacific coast of California. Once they arrive at their destinations, they cluster together for warmth by the thousands and enter a dormancy period to survive the winter.

The generation that actually makes it to Mexico is known as the Methuselahs (from Genesis 5:27 in the Bible) because they can live for up to five months, whereas the life span of a typical Monarch is only 2 – 6 weeks.  A distance of over 3,000 miles, it takes three generations of Monarchs to move from their summer grounds in the northeastern US and Canada to the Oyamel Forest for winter.

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“Monarch Butterflies” by learnatw is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 

No one completely understands how individual butterflies know where to go when they have never been there before. The answer lies hidden somewhere in the dimension of things unseen. Scientists are exploring everything from genetics to some kind of internal orientation to the sun or magnetic field around the earth, but the jury is still out on this one and it may always remain one of nature’s best kept secrets.

On their mysterious journey, Monarchs rely on a very specialized supply network of places to shelter, lay eggs and find food.  Monarchs are quite particular about all three of those arrangements. For instance, Monarchs require the milkweed plant in order to lay eggs.  The young larva that hatch from the eggs must have milkweed to eat when they emerge. No other plant will do. Mercifully, there are many varieties of milkweed that grow in different regions.

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Monarch butterfly after laying eggs on a milkweed plant

After the caterpillar stage, they wrap themselves in little sleeping bags (chrysalis) hung from the underside of leaves or stable structure and go through a mind-boggling transformation from wiggly worm to winged wonder. Talk about things unseen!  This process has been studied throughout history as one of the greatest mysteries found in nature. Thanks to modern scanning capabilities, scientists can now watch the process unfolding inside the butterfly chrysalis. Every fiber and system is reduced to liquid and reconstructed into an entirely different creature in a matter of 8 – 15 days, depending on conditions.

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A Monarch chrysalis is initially light green in color, but deepens in color until it is transparent, allowing us to see the developing butterfly inside. When it is time, the chrysalis will split from the bottom allowing the adult to begin unfurling its wings while hanging upside down.

Once the butterfly emerges from the chrysalis, it still has work to do. Velvet-like wings are crumpled, wet and soft, unsuitable for flight.  The Monarch must hang upside down and pump fluid from its abdomen through the wing veins to “inflate” them.  If the Monarch is unable to spend the necessary time in the upside down position, its wings will be defective, impacting its ability to fly.  The butterfly patiently waits for its damp wings to dry and firm up before alighting on its maiden flight.

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A new Monarch gently pulling itself out of its chrysalis.

Butterfly food is very different from caterpillar food.  Caterpillars chomp, butterflies sip, each requiring an entirely different menu. As caterpillars voraciously consume milkweed leaves, they also take in the toxins from the plant, making both the caterpillar and the adult butterfly it becomes poisonous to would-be predators. The adults use their nifty straw-like proboscises to slurp up nectar from all kinds of flowers, including milkweed, although some butterflies don’t eat at all.  They are focused on their job of mating and egg laying, coasting on energy reserves built up during their caterpillar days.

Many communities and gardeners intentionally plant milkweed to assist the Monarchs passing through their areas.  To read more about milkweed and how to be a part of planting native species, check out Xerces Society’s Milkweed Project.  The North American Butterfly Association is a treasure trove of regional information and provides detailed instructions for creating a butterfly garden, including plant lists and how to certify your garden as butterfly habitat.

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The mysteries surrounding this lovely insect only emphasize the extent of our limited knowledge. We often don’t even know what we don’t know and must admit that we have much to learn about earthly and heavenly realities. The more we study the created universe, the stronger we sense the reality of things we do not see. Hebrews 11:1 When you track winged wonders, be prepared to encounter more questions than answers, but savor the simple act of wondering.

WT LogoCultivate Wonder… Discover Design

(c) SPegany
Now faith is a well-grounded assurance of that for which we hope, and a conviction of the reality of things which we do not see. Hebrews 11:1

Butterfly Farms in Encinitas, California is a small research station where visitors and observe butterflies in various stages of their life cycle.  The farm also sells native milkweed plants and offers advice for attracting native butterflies to your neighborhood.

References and Resources

  1. Monarch Joint Venture
  2. journeynorth.org
  3. raisingbutterflies.org
  4. discoverymagazine.com – Watch a video which demonstrates the unbelievable transformation inside a chrysalis
  5. sciencing.com
  6. US Forest Service – Monarch butterflies FAQs
  7. insidepassageseeds.com – a native seed distributor in Port Townsend, WA

Images: SPegany©2020, unless otherwise noted

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Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 2 Corinthians 5:17

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