Thanksgiving and Monarch Butterflies

Overnight temperatures in the low to mid-twenties meant that most of the remaining flowers in the garden were done for. The snapdragons and marigolds had faded some weeks ago, but until the temperatures dropped below freezing the vincas had remained robust with firm shiny leaves and bright white flowers. After the freeze the flowers dropped off and the now-dull leaves drooped as if they had been steamed. The dry, brown leaves of the hydrangeas rattled with the breeze. Even the mums, heavy with spent blooms, bowed to the ground.

It was time to clean out the flower garden for the winter.

As the branches of the butterfly bush fell to the shears, a bit of color appeared in the debris at its base. It could have been a candy wrapper or other bit of human detritus. It was instead a large fragment of a butterfly wing. Probably from a Monarch, although it came from the part of the wing that is similar to that of the Viceroy. It was a moment of wonder mixed with melancholy.

A fragment of a butterfly wing.
A fragment of a butterfly wing.

Monarch butterflies have an amazing life story, as some readers might already know (see www.monarch-butterfly.com or www.monarchbutterflyusa.com). Their annual migration to and from Mexico and Southern California is well reported, as is the danger they face from pesticide use and habitat loss. A new bit of information for me this year is that four generations of Monarchs are born in their breeding locations each spring, summer, and fall.

One generation overwinters in the warm climate, finds mates and migrates north in February and March. The females lay their eggs on milkweed plants and soon both males and females in that generation die. The eggs of this first generation hatch, move through caterpillar and chrysalis phases, then mate as adults and lay eggs. Having laid their eggs, the adults then die. From egg to adult, this generation and the next two generations live only six to eight weeks.

The fourth generation goes through the same egg, caterpillar, and chrysalis phases as the preceding three, but instead of laying eggs and dying, this generation of adult butterflies migrates south, where they will hibernate for the winter to begin the cycle again in the new year.

While this story could form the basis for an essay on God’s design for creation, the thought that prompted reflection is the ephemeral nature of encounters with creatures such as butterflies. They do not hang around. The longest they stay in one place is the time they spend as a caterpillar or chrysalis, which are interesting in their own right but not as memorable as the adult. Adults visit flowers for a few seconds or a few minutes and then move on.

I am thankful to God for the tangible blessings of family, friends, shelter, sustenance, and security, and I am also thankful for the moments in the past year when I have had a slice of joy or wonder in the natural world. The moment we spotted a grape-size toad or a pileated woodpecker while out on a hike. The moment four killdeer chicks sprinted across the field at City Green. The moment in early spring when a Mourning Cloak butterfly lit nearby and we later learned that they can overwinter in cold climates due to their bodies’ ability to produce a substance like antifreeze. The moment I picked the first blueberries of the season or the last raspberries of the season. These moments are brief and fleeting, like the visit of a butterfly, but the memory of them gives reason for thanks.

Thank you for stopping by and reading. I wish you and those close to you a blessed and peaceful Thanksgiving and holiday season. May you be granted your own moments of wonder in the natural world.

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