When my father John Maeckle died in 2015 at the age of 93, we celebrated his life with the release of 93 monarch butterflies. The low-key ceremony in the butterfly garden of our home with family and friends was “better than church,” according to my mother Hilde Maeckle, his surviving 87-year-old partner. For weeks, every time I’d see a monarch along the San Antonio River, I’d tell myself “that’s Opa’s butterfly.”

The thought gave me hope, inner peace, and a sense of reassurance.

Ever since, whenever I hear news of a loved one’s passing, I suggest we tag a butterfly in the person’s name come autumn. The individual who lost someone always smiles and agrees this is a good idea.

Tagged Monarch butterfly

This year’s Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival will honor the dead by tagging a monarch butterfly in their name.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

Each fall, citizen scientists like me tag thousands of monarch butterflies as they funnel through Texas. We snag butterflies in our nets, gently grasp them, and adhere a tiny, round sticker to the discal cell of their wing. We record the date, sex of the butterfly, location, and the name of the person who tagged it before releasing it to the winds to join the annual monarch butterfly migration. We submit that data to Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas.

This year, however, in addition to the usual data collected, we’ll record the name of someone who died, as a way to honor their life.

The possibility that a butterfly tagged in San Antonio will find its way to the Mexican mountains to continue the life cycle offers a small gesture of hope and healing–both in short supply this year.

That’s what drives our 2020 Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival. We’ll still educate the community on the citizen science of the monarch migration and encourage people to plant pollinator habitat. But this unique, difficult year calls for us to focus on the hope the monarch butterfly migration represents.

Millions of monarch butterflies move through the Texas Funnel each fall on their way to their overwintering roosts in the Mexican mountains. San Antonio, named the nation’s first Monarch Butterfly Champion City by the National Wildlife Federation in 2015, sits in the heart of this migratory flyway. The monarch migration is just starting in Canada and Minnesota. In the Alamo City, peak monarch migration season runs October 10 – 22.

Monarch migration map

Monarch butterflies leave their roosts in Mexico each spring and migrate over multiple generations to Canada, returning to Mexico in the fall. Graphic via Monarch Watch

That’s why San Antonio’s annual Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival, founded in 2016, is staged here each fall. For the past four years, a public-private partnership has organized myriad events–workshops, lectures, movies, art exhibits and panel discussions that raise awareness and appreciation of insect and wildlife pollinators. They are, after all, the essential workers that make one of every three bites of our food possible. They also symbolize our inherent cross-border connectedness, from Canada to Mexico.

The Festival has always consummated in a gathering of thousands of people at Pearl where children and families learn the how and why of tagging monarchs, a citizen science initiative started by Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas at Lawrence.

But COVID-19 forced a reset of our fifth annual Festival. We’re taking it online and focusing on the monarch migration’s spiritual dimension.

Millions of Monarch butterflies at their Mexican roosts. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Butterflies have long been associated with the souls of the dead. In Mexico, migrating monarchs typically arrive in the mountains west of Mexico City just in time for Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, which falls on November 1. These tiny creatures of transformation arrive at the high elevation forests by the tens of millions as ambassadors of hope, sorrow and passage to the next stage. The mariposa monarca reminds us all that life and death are a cycle, one of birth, change, and rebirth.

The metaphor of the monarch couldn’t be more apt in this year of pandemic and great social unrest.

As COVID-19 death counts mount and the number of social injustice victims climbs, few opportunities exist for the communal mourning of our losses. Gatherings of more than 10 people are prohibited. Hugs are out, physical contact limited or forbidden. Business is brisk at local funeral homes, where the bodies of loved ones can sit for two weeks in a refrigerator truck waiting their turn for a memorial service due to increased demand.

The butterflies we tag and release this year will catch wind currents and draft each other all the way to Mexico. Their great- great-great-grandparents started this multi-generation journey high in the Mexican mountains in the spring of 2020, around the same time COVID-19 hit San Antonio. And while our tagged butterflies will never have pumped their wings anywhere near this remote patch of forest, they somehow will find their way there this fall.

They’ll roost for the winter. In the spring, they’ll mate. The females will head north in search of milkweed to lay the first generation of eggs, often in Texas. The life cycle continues.

In the past three years, eight butterflies tagged at our Festival have been recovered and reported. We’re hoping for more this year.Honor a Loved One

Wouldn’t it be a sweet and hopeful sign if your loved one’s butterfly made it to Mexico? Help us remember your lost family member, friend, or co-worker by name. Simply fill out the form above, or at this link.

ARTWORK by José Sotelo

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