Elizabeth Hargrave – Designers Diary #1
In 2002, I quit my job working for a US Senator, got married, rented out my apartment, and hit the road with my husband. We planned to travel for six months: camping and visiting friends across the US, down the California coast, and back east as far as Austin. We left our car with friends in Austin, flew to Belize City, spent almost a month learning Spanish in a tiny town in Guatemala, and started working our way back north by bus.
And so it was in early 2003 that we found ourselves in Michoacán, Mexico, debating the pros and cons of hitchhiking on the back of a logging truck to get up a steep hill – the last leg of the journey to the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve.
The vast majority of monarch butterflies in eastern North America migrate to Mexico for the winter, a journey of up to 3,000 miles. And they don’t go just anywhere in Mexico – they make their way to about a dozen specific mountain slopes where the conditions are just right for them to survive the winter. No single butterfly ever makes the round trip. In fact, there are generally four generations of monarchs in a year – so the butterflies that return to Mexico in the fall are the great-grandchildren of the butterflies that left in the spring.
Imagine what it must be like to be there when half a continent worth of butterflies return to this tiny region. It’s estimated that about 300 million monarchs made the journey in the fall of 2018. The butterflies arrive around the Day of the Dead, and local traditions say they are the spirits of ancestors returning to visit.
The monarchs roost in huge evergreen oyamel trees on cool, cloudy days, gaining a little extra warmth by huddling together. I remember arriving in the reserve and seeing trees that looked like they had autumn leaves – and gradually realizing that each one of those leaves was an orange butterfly with its wings folded. Then the sun came out, and clouds of butterflies took to the air all around us. It is an experience I will never forget.
The clouds of butterflies have been decreasing at an alarming rate. A few decades ago, the migratory population of eastern monarchs was over a billion. The 300 million in 2018 was a particularly good year in a stretch of much worse numbers – the population was as low as 34 million in 2014, and probably about 150 million in 2019.
On the northern end of the journey, weedy patches of milkweed plants — monarch caterpillars’ only food source — are becoming fewer and fewer due to land development and agricultural herbicide use. In Mexico, the oyamels are being poached, and also starting to show stress from climate change. Early in 2020, 2 men associated with the monarch reserve were found dead — many assume at the hands of the illegal loggers.
My primary goal with Mariposas was just to tell the amazing story of the monarch migration. But the little things that those of us who live in the eastern US and Canada can do to help them survive are integrated into the game, because they’re the things that monarchs need. As monarchs move around the map, they land on nectar-giving flowers – the fuel for their 3,000 mile journey. If they land next to a milkweed icon, they can make new butterflies. In cities, they can collect bonus-giving waystation tokens – a nod to the Monarch Watch waystation program. Just as Wingspan has inspired a few gamers to become birders, perhaps Mariposas will inspire a few people to plant their own monarch waystations to help provide nectar and milkweed and sustain the next generations of monarchs on their journey.