Follow the nectar! The Monarch Butterfly survives on milkweed and flowers, and navigates thousands of miles via a sun compass...
Our leaders inspire us, and for those aboard The Butterfly Ship, this is role of the monarch butterfly. The name stems from the Greek monos ‘alone’ and arkein ‘to rule’; although the beauty of these butterflies may give them an air of regality, it was their bright orange color that inspired English and Dutch settlers in North America to name them after their ruler, King William, who was also Prince of Orange. In our magical story “The Butterfly Ship” the monarch encourages us to voyage.
The ship is followed by butterflies of all kinds, but principal among these is monarchs, for they are migrators. Of all 20,000+ species of butterflies in the world, the monarch is the greatest traveller: it migrates distances spanning 2500 miles, with each tiny creature flying on average 20-30 miles per day, and some days flying more than 150 miles! The current theory that monarchs navigate by a 'sun compass’—keeping accurate track of the time of day relative to the position of the sun—makes them fitting characters to follow a ship that sails through the Light Spectrum on its way to the Sun.
Monarchs’ wings are marked by a beautiful pattern of brilliant orange shapes contrasted with black outlines and dusted with tiny white dots at its edges. It is a sight to behold when large populations of monarchs in North America migrate annually to specific trees in either Mexico or California. Barbara Kingsolver describes the view in her novel Flight Behavior:“The forest blazed with its own internal flame...Brightness of a new intensity moved up the valley in a rippling wave, like the disturbed surface of a lake. Every bough glowed with an orange blaze.”
Butterflies born on milkweed plants will munch their way into adulthood, and then fly northward in successive generations (as a butterfly, they live 2-6 weeks) throughout the summer. But the final generation of the summer is different—they live an impressive 8-9 months! They accomplish this marvelous feat by delaying their maturity into adulthood: this helps them reserve enough energy to fly south for the winter and stay there until the temperatures warm.
To fuel their long journeys, these butterflies depend on the existence of “nectar corridors,” so they can sip energy-giving nectar from plants that bloom at just the right time along their paths. Monarch caterpillars rely on stands of native milkweed: this plant supplies them the bitter compound that make these butterflies unpalatable to predators. It is on milkweed that monarch caterpillars dine exclusively, and it is here the butterflies choose to lay their eggs. Milkweeds themselves depend on monarchs and other insects to bring pollen from one flower to another; for this service their flowers offer nectar as a reward.
In the past two decades, monarch habitat has dwindled with more widespread application of herbicides on agricultural land, the logging of host trees in Mexico, shifting climate lines and more frequent storms due to climate change. Monarch populations in the late 1990s and 2000s plummeted by alarming rates—an over 80% decline from a 21-year average—and so humans have taken up the quest to revive monarch habitat (native species of milkweed, host trees on which to overwinter, and nectar plants). Due to these habitat building efforts, and some good weather, monarch numbers have increased a little in 2016.
The Butterfly Ship will soon be hosting a journey into the color GREEN (date and place to be announced). You can help us to plant a stand of native milkweed (in Sonoma County two native species are Narrow-Leafed and Showy Milkweed), and also enjoy a performance of outdoor dance, music and storytelling.
WINGS Publication reflects on the human experience through language. It is the literary expression of our performance group "The Butterfly Ship". Here you will find articles by members of our crew and guest writers, on themes which contribute to the 'building' of the vessel with which we will sail to the sun....