Millions of monarch butterflies spend the winter in the oyamel fir tree forests in Michoacán, Mexico. When the weather warms up in spring, they leave the central Mexican mountains to fly north, spreading out as they traverse the U.S. on their way to Canada. They stop along the way and lay eggs on milkweed plants. Because monarchs have a typical life span of two to six weeks, it takes four generations of monarchs to complete the migration from Michoacán to Canada and back, making their trek a mutigenerational, multinational migration, as author and outdoor educator Sara Dykman points out.
Dykman is an epic adventurer. She has canoed the Missouri River from source to sea, walked from Mexico to Canada and cycled all over North and South America. In her new book Bicycling with Butterflies, she details her 10,201-mile trip accompanying the monarchs on their migration — from Michoacán to Canada and back again. The book is by turns funny, lyrical and exciting as Dykman describes the adventures of biking alone, her awe of the butterflies and the characters she meets along the way. While readers are being entertained, they’ll also absorb natural science and a huge appreciation for monarch butterflies.
Dykman told Inhabitat a little about what she calls “butterbiking.” If you want to know more, get her new book.
How did you get so interested in butterflies?
Dykman: I’ve always been fascinated by animals of every kind. I especially love animals that are overlooked. The “creepy crawly” creatures like frogs, snakes and spiders, and the small insects, like butterflies, that live in our backyards. Butterflies, too, are great guides. They invite us into their world with their beauty and help us discover the brilliance of every creature.
How did you come up with the idea to ride the migration route?
Dykman: The idea started as simply a desire to visit the monarchs in Mexico, but as I did some research, I learned that their population has suffered steep declines, in large part due to habitat loss. I saw the potential to have an adventure and shine a light on these declines. I knew that by pedaling alongside the migration, I could help make conservation fun.
Could you share a highlight or two of the ride?
Dykman: I loved crossing paths with so many creatures that I wasn’t expecting. I had a run in with a skunk that thankfully ended without spray. I saw scissortail flycatchers, hummingbird moths, tussock moth caterpillars, and so much more. You can’t know what you will find when you step outside, but I can guarantee if you take the time to look, the details will astound you.
I also loved crossing paths with people. I stayed with 68 families on my tour, so it’s hard to pick just one, but the one that comes to mind right now is a family of cyclists I met and stayed with in Mexico. They saw me on my bike and stopped to ask questions. The next thing I knew I was playing Scrabble in Spanish. Even though I was learning Spanish and my game partner was a 5-year-old learning to spell, we managed to win!
Any scary or frustrating experiences along the way?
Dykman: I found the amount of habitat loss both scary and frustrating. I saw so much land that was once the monarchs’ home converted to green grass lawns. I was frustrated that people found such lawns beautiful. I now see the world through the eyes of butterflies, so to me, green grass lawns are an ugly mess. I see wild landscapes filled with flowers and the buzz of pollinators as beautiful.
What did you learn about monarchs from accompanying them on their migration?
Dykman: I learned so many details about monarch ecology, but the overarching thing I learned is that the migration is perfect. There is such balance, from the pace of the migration to the temperature of the forest in Mexico where they overwinter. Yet, just like with so much of our world, that balance is threatened.
How did your view of yourself change?
Dykman: I think it was the depth of my love for our planet and my despair at seeing such neglect that I discovered. I was shocked at how angry I got at hearing countless times from older generations that they use to see lots of monarchs but now saw few. I realized that I might not be able to save the monarch, but I want to tell future generations that I tried.
What should readers know about monarchs, and how can they help?
Dykman: Monarchs span much of North America, and all of us can help them by planting natives and milkweed. Milkweed is the only food source for monarch caterpillars.
We can all plant milkweed, native plants, and use our voices to tell the story of the monarch. I didn’t see a monarch every day of my trip, but every day I saw the people that will determine the monarch’s future.
Images via Sara Dykman