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 gathering in the butterfly garden of our home was “better than church,” according to my mother Hilde Maeckle, his surviving partner, now 89. 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, a bit of peace, and some reassurance.
Ever since, whenever I hear news of a loved one’s passing, I suggest we tag a butterfly in the person’s name during monarch migration season which is in October in San Antonio. I’ve yet to have anyone resist the gesture, and it always draws a smile and gratitude.
Monarchs cluster on pecan limbs, October 2021. Photo by Lee Marlowe
Each fall, thousands of migrating monarch butterflies are tagged as they funnel through Texas as part of an international citizen science initiative organized by Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas. We capture 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. The data is submitted at the end of the season, and any butterflies recovered in Mexico are reported in announcements the following spring.
Back in 2020, as COVID-19 hit our community, we started our Forever Journey program, which involved adding the name of someone who died to our data sheets as a way to honor their life at a time when mourning was almost impossible. We all remember the difficult time, when morgues were overloaded with COVID victims and we were unable to gather and offer comfort.
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.
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 beginning in Canada and Minnesota. In the Alamo City, peak monarch migration season runs October 10 – 22.
Monarch Watch says an estimated 100,000 monarch butterflies are tagged each year. Photo by Monika Maeckle
That’s why San Antonio’s annual Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival, now in its seventh year, is staged here each fall. Since 2016, the 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.
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 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 2022. And while our tagged butterflies will never have pumped their wings anywhere near that 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 two years five butterflies tagged as part of our Forever Journey campaign have been recovered and reported. We’re hoping for more this year.
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 by joining us at our Festival at Brackenridge Park in San Antonio on October 8 and tag one yourself. Can’t make it? We’ll tag one for you. Just fill out the form at this link.
Top photo: ARTWORK by José Sotelo
Like what you’re reading? Don’t miss a single post from the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam or Instagram.
Like what you’re reading? Don’t miss a single article from the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery by subscribing below, or follow us on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.