An adult Monarch butterfly lives only about four to five weeks. But one of the many wonders of the Monarchs is the annual creation of a unique “Methuselah generation.” As autumn approaches in their sites of migratory origin, a very special generation of butterflies is born. Unlike their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents — all of whom had ephemeral lives measured only in weeks — these migratory butterflies survive seven or eight months.
This generation performs the incredible feat of flying from Canada and the United States to the center of Mexico — after which they begin the northward journey again. Once they reach the United States, a kind of relay race begins: their short-lived offspring, with only four or five weeks to live, continue making the trek northward over several generations.
Of all migrations by small creatures, few are as astonishing as the one performed by the Monarch butterfly. The embodiment of fragility, these insects travel between 1,200 and 2,800 miles or more between their starting and ending points — a feat without parallel.
How was I unaware of this butterfly’s secret? I thought the Monarch was common and not such a big deal. Hello world, these guys are a big freaking deal. Think about how a butterfly flies, bumping up and down and flitting around–they look like the aren’t really headed anywhere, just trying to catch your eye. And maybe that is because many Monarchs are of the “ephemeral” generations and not the long distance runners. But, as I understand it, the migratory generation of Monarchs is exactly the same insect as the ones that live only a few weeks. The migrators live longer out of necessity. They fly unimaginable distances because they have to. The survival of their species depends on getting to someplace warm where there are things to eat.
Sometimes I feel the same way.