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In focus: monarch butterflies by photographer Stuart Butler

As the cold claws of autumn and winter first start to grasp the northern United States and southern Canada millions upon millions of monarch butterflies begin a remarkable migration that sees the floppy winged insects fluttering south 2,000km to central Mexico where they over-winter in the dense oyamel fir forests that cover the high mountain slopes. Come spring and the butterflies, over the course of two or three generations, return north again to breed. It’s one of the world’s most complex migrations, but it’s one that is under serious and immediate threat.

In the past the forested mountain slopes on which the butterflies over-winter suffered heavily from logging. Today the forests are protected and local people have turned from logging to conservation and butterfly related tourism. However, the financial future of people living around the reserve remains far from secure. Habitat destruction and pesticides usage in the USA is having a massively detrimental effect on the migration and may even destroy it in the near future.

The forests of the El Rosario sanctuary suffered from serious de-forestation issues in the past. The money generated by tourism, as well as an increasing environmental awareness, has turned the situation around and today locals, with help from international conservation charities, have established tree nurseries and re-forestation schemes. As long as the butterflies and tourists keep coming the future of these forests looks positive. 


Resting Monarchs 

Adult monarch butterflies live for only around a month therefore no one butterfly ever makes the entire circular migration. Instead, it takes three generations of spring-born butterflies to complete the northern leg of the migration from Mexico back to the US-Canada border. The fourth generation though is a ‘super-generation’, which lives eight-ten times longer than normal. It’s these butterflies which, each autumn, leave the Great Lakes area and fly south to Mexico.


Monarch Tree 

One of the most extraordinary, and as yet unexplained, phenomena of the migration is that each and every year the butterflies choose to hibernate in the exact same trees. Seeing how several generations have passed by since the monarchs were last in Mexico scientists remain unsure how the butterflies know which trees to use.


 Orange Skies  

The Mexican authorities have established the Reserva Mariposa Monarca to protect the butterflies and their forests. There are three reserve areas open to the public: El Rosario, which is the most popular and disturbed (but is the one at which many of these photos were taken), Sierra Chincua, which is the easiest to visit and Cerro Pelón, the most pristine of the reserve areas and the one where this picture was taken.


Butterfly Tourism 

The migrating butterflies leave the northern USA and southern Canada in around early-October finally arriving in the mountains of central Mexico in mid-late November. Numbers peak between mid-December and the end of February. By mid-March the butterflies are starting to return northwards to the US and Canada. In the height of butterfly season hundreds of tourists visit the reserves generating large sums of money for local communities. 


Declining Numbers 

Although monarchs aren’t a threatened species the future of the migration is in serious doubt. In recent years the number of migrating butterflies arriving in Mexico has fallen dramatically. In 2012 it’s estimated that ‘only’ around 60 million butterflies over-wintered in Mexico. Although the 2013-14 migration was only just getting under way at the time of writing numbers are already massively down on the previous year with just 3 million butterflies present by the end of November 2013. 


Wing patterns

I came to the reserves armed with a variety of different lighting units as I wanted to be able to highlight individual butterflies. However, anyone else planning on a similar approach should be aware that any kind of flash photography is prohibited without special permission (which I was able to obtain). For this up close photo I used a 60mm macro lens and slightly backlit the butterfly using an off camera ring flash. 


Resting butterflies 

The mountains on which the butterflies are found have an elevation of around 3000m and can get very cold. During the colder parts of the day the butterflies, which huddle together in huge groups on tree trunks and on the ground, remain fairly inactive. As the day heats up they take to the air and the sky fills with orange fluttering wings. Most of the pictures here were taken on cold mornings when it’s easier to photograph individual butterflies. 


Stuart Butler is a journalist and photographer specialising in wildlife and conservation issues, traditional lifestyles and travel. As well as writing for a wide array of international publications he is also the author of many Lonely Planet guidebooks. His work can be seen on www.stuartbutlerjournalist.com