Monday, September 14, 2020

An Omen of Hope

    For more than a week now, brilliant yellow butterflies have been tumbling across my yard close by the river. They seem to be metamorphosing from their caterpillar forms into their flight versions in a thick hedge that borders my property. 

    They flutter past singly or in groups of two or three. All heading unerringly northwest toward some mysterious destination. How the devil are they navigating so precisely? Their sophisticated antennae can sense a variety of odors, which helps them find favorite flora, but they can’t be following a scent trail because the breeze has been nearly constant off the water out of the northeast, a direct crosswind for them. It would blow any scents away.  

    A little digging revealed they’re called Cloudless Sulfur butterflies, with a wingspan between two and three inches. In the fall they migrate hundreds of miles south to Florida and the northern Bahamas. It’s nearly time to begin their Big Trip, but the direction they’re all going is directly opposite their migration direction.

    So where are they going and how are they navigating there?

    Any investigation of butterflies turns up the incredible migration of the large Monarch, with its stunning orange-and black-wings that resemble an exquisite work of miniature stained-glass art. It carries out one of the most incredible migrations on the planet. It, too, moves southward each fall, fluttering up to 3,000 miles from northern America and southern Canada all the way to the fir-tree-clad mountains of Mexico, taking advantage of air currents and thermals wherever possible along the way.

    How the Monarch (and presumably its Cloudless Sulfur cousin) navigates has only been partially discovered. Scientists think it senses sun angle and time of day precisely using its compound eyes and delicate antennae. Its tiny brain (cerebral ganglia) processes this information continuously, translating it into a “sun compass” that gives it a correct course to follow. In the fall, it’s compelled to make the entire journey from northern breeding grounds to Mexico. But the return spring journey can require up to four generations of successors.

    So how do those intermediate generations know what to do, having never seen either the breeding grounds or the Mexican mountains? And how does a third- or fourth-generation team member summering in Canada know it must travel south to the same place its ancestors did before it turns cold? I’m pretty sure there is no tiny butterfly training manual.

    Butterflies favor milkweed for dining, but they also love a variety of nectar plants, and thus, like bees, they perform an important pollinating role in nature’s complex scheme.    

    In Native American culture, the bright yellow Cloudless Sulfur creatures, standing out cheerful and brave against blue skies or dark storm clouds, were an omen of hope and spiritual guidance. Something we sorely need in these troubled times.

    No matter how they find their way in this natural realm we share, the little yellow passersby have been lifting my heart for days. Each one I see evokes an inner smile.


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