Día de los Muertos and Monarch Butterflies

In Mexico, Monarch butterflies are beginning to arrive this week in their over-wintering sites as people prepare for Day of the Dead celebrations.

Monarchs in Mexico
Overwintering Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) swirl and pivot in a sanctuary in Mexico’s Michoacán state. • Photo Copyright by Santuario Mariposa Monarca el Rosario. Used with permission.

Celebrations for Día De Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, officially start November 1 and end November 2, and is a time of celebration and remembrance of friends and family who have died and embarked on their spiritual journey through the afterlife.

The two-day festival stems from the continuation of ancient Aztec rituals meant to honour those who had died. During the festival, people are encouraged to gather and pray to help those who have departed on their spiritual paths.

During the festival, families and communities gather to hold vigils and parties in honour of those they’ve lost. They decorate altars to commemorate the deceased, often decorating those altars with the deceased’s favourite foods or personal items, with the hopes that spirits will bless the loved ones.

Monarch Parade
Dressed up to celebrate Dia de los Muertos and the return of the Monarch butterflies. • Photo Copyright By Mari Osa of Madame’s Journey Home. Used with permission.

Day of the Dead is not about being scared of the supernatural, but rather about remembering the lives of their loved ones.

Catrina figures, costumed female with a skeleton face, have become associated with the Day of the Dead, and are a prominent part of modern Day of the Dead observances. • Photo Copyright by Danilo Rizzetto. Used with permission.

Rather than dressing in all black and mourning the passing of loved ones, Día De Los Muertos becomes a colorful and vibrant national remembrance of the lives of deceased relatives and friends.

Marigold flowers called cempasuchil, play an important role in Dia de Muertos rituals. It is believed that the spirits of the dead are attracted to the bright colors and the scent of this flower.

While most people who recognize the international holiday decorate their homes and gravesites of their ancestors with altars, relics, candles, foods, and drinks favored by the deceased; many cities will join in on the festivities by hosting parades, community-wide ceremonies, and street parties.

Mexico City’s Day of the Dead Parade 2018 (AFP/Getty Images)

In Michoacán, Mexico, Día de los Muertos, takes on an even more interesting aspect. According to traditional belief among Michoacán’s Mazahuas indigenous community, Monarch butterflies are souls of ancestors who return to Earth for their annual visit.

The video below, “Muerte Es Vida” (Death is Life), follows a family from Michoacán’s Mazahuas indigenous community as they celebrate Day of the Dead. Native peoples explain how the Monarch butterflies always return a few days before the celebrations begin. Children were taught to set out water to welcome the butterflies because they were tired and thirsty from their travels.

Whether you live in Mexico or elsewhere, you can join in the Day of the Dead celebration by sharing these stories with your children and grandchildren and by downloading the Day of the Dead Activity Guide. There are also any children’s books available that also teach about Dia de Los Muertos.

Click here to download the Day of the Dead activity guide.
Follow two children as they celebrate their ancestors in this bilingual introduction to el Día de los Muertos– the Day of the Dead! Click Here or on the book cover to see more and to order.or on the book cover to see more and to order.
I Remember Abuelito: A Day of the Dead Story
I Remember Abuelito: A Day of the Dead Story / Yo Recuerdo a Abuelito: un Cuento del Día de los Muertos written by Janice Levy, illustrated by Loretta Lopez, and translated by Miguel Arisa. • Click Here or on the book cover to see more and to order.
Madame's Journey Home
Madame’s Journey Home by Mariosa. • Click Here to see more details and to order.
Uncle Monarch and the Day of the Dead written by Judy Goldman and illustrated by René King Moreno. • Click Here to see more details and to order.

Celebrate Day of the Dead with this colorful t-shirt.

Here’s our Day of the Dead Monarch Butterfly long-sleeve T-Shirt. See other colors and cuts here: https://amzn.to/2DeoWkh

The Fortunate Visit of a White Monarch Butterfly

Life on a remote island in the South Pacific brims with quirky surprises. We learn to expect most anything.

While driving to town, the random pig will dash in front of the car, causing us to slam on brakes. Sometimes, it’s a dozen pigs, or a pair of dogs, or a clutch of chickens; or a child, who seems to delight in the cheap thrill of racing across the road and living to laugh about it.

I live in Nuku‘alofa on the island of Tongatapu in the Kingdom of Tonga, which is 1,240 miles (1,997 kilometers) northeast of Auckland, New Zealand. A few days ago, a white Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus nivosus) found the Tropical Milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) in my yard and began laying eggs.

White Monarch on Tropical Milkweed
A female white-form Monarch butterfly nectaring in Tonga on flowers of Tropical Milkweed, which also happens to be her host plant for egg laying.

I thought her wings were just old, worn, and faded, as butterflies can get as they age. But, on closer inspection, I realized that she was actually white in the places where she should have been orange. We have Monarch butterflies here in Tonga (read more here), but this is the first white Monarch that I’ve observed anywhere.

According to Monarch Watch, white Monarchs have been found throughout the world, including in Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, the Hawai‘ian islands and on the mainland of the United States. Generally, white Monarchs are extremely rare with only a few being reported each year. The exception is in Hawai‘i where it is believed that as much as 10% of the population of Monarchs is white.

Monarchs are preyed upon by birds called Red-Vented Bulbuls (Pycnonotus cafer), which are quite abundant here on our island, as well as in Hawai‘i. Red-vented Bulbuls come from Southeast Asia and are relative newcomers to the islands of Polynesia.

Scientists suggest that predation is lower for white Monarchs and raise the possibility that the white form is more cryptic (harder to see) for the Bulbuls than the orange form. Consequently, they eat more regular, orange-form Monarchs than white-form specimens, increasing the relative frequency of the latter in places where both white-form Monarchs and Bulbuls range.

As I attempted to get a photo of the white Monarch, a huge Wasp (Hymenoptera apocrita spp.) was flying around which made me nervous, and an aggressive male Blue Moon butterfly (Hypolimnas bolina) kept chasing her away as he displayed his natural territorial tendencies. I realized it was going to be impossible to get a good photograph. So I caught her with my butterfly net and placed her inside a pop-up cage with some Milkweed (Asclepias spp.).

After an overnight stay for observation, I released the white Monarch the next morning. She left me many eggs on the Milkweed in the cage, even laying on the screen, so I thanked her and set her free.

To my surprise and delight, she lingered all day in the garden and continued to come back, time and again, to nectar on the flowers and deposit eggs on the outside Milkweed. I sat on the porch and enjoyed watching her glide gracefully through the air as she flew back and forth in my yard.

Some cultures believe that a white butterfly brings good fortune. I don’t know about any fortune. However, the visit of this beautiful white Monarch brought me great joy and surprise. For that, I’m rich.