Butterflies along the Mississippi River
Table of Contents
Bellevue State Park
c Pat Middleton. Excerpted from pages 58-59, Discover! America's Great River Road, Volume 2 (The
Middle Mississippi) by Pat Middleton. May not be reproduced or reused in any form without
the express consent of the publisher, Heritage Press. Click here for
more information on the Discover! series.
Bellevue State Park, near Bellevue, Iowa, just south of Dubuque, is located atop a
300-foot high limestone bluff with panoramic views of the Mississippi River valley and
Lock & Dam 12. It also shelters the largest Butterfly Garden in Iowa.
The Garden Sanctuary for Butterflies contains over 100 separate plots, each
featuring plants which provide nectar for adult butterflies and/or host plants for
caterpillars. Pathways allow visitors to enjoy the wide variety of butterflies and
flowers. An area has been established next to the garden to allow close-up viewing of the
According to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, butterflies found in Iowa are
either in the process of migration or are completing one of the various stages of their
life cycle. Approximately 60 species of butterfly can be expected to make their appearance
at the Butterfly Garden each year. Host plants for butterflies include wild aster,
ragweed, goldenrod, lamb's-quarters, daisy fleabane, milkweed, cottonwoods, wild cherry,
hackberry and willows.
c Pat Middleton. May not be reproduced or used in any format without permission.
The gentle shift to fall is palpable around us. The sun sets southward, over the
neighbor's pathway, rather than behind the northern bluffs. Geese fly from cornfield to
cornfield in great flocks. 64 degrees today, 40 tonight. We gather firewood.
For the second year in a row, a swarm of Monarch butterflies have set up camp in the
old cedar in the side yard. They hang motionless from the branches--like dull brown seed
pods--until a late- comer flutters by. Then all gently beat their orange-colorful
"hello" and "where've you been" until the traveler, too, is
accommodated comfortably to its own berth for the night.
Along the Mississippi by Ruth Nissen, Wisconsin DNR
Monarchs Ready to Head South
About this time of year we begin to notice more monarch butterflies fluttering in the
wind and congregating (or staging) in areas where bountiful supplies of nectar are
But what isn't readily apparent is that those butterflies are moving with a purpose and
direction. Every year, in late summer and early fall, millions of monarch butterflies from
the Eastern United States and Southern Canada find their way to Central America. This is a
journey of more than 2,000 miles from the Upper Mississippi River.
The monarchs are heading to the Transvolcanic Mountain Range, located west of Mexico
City, to spend the winter. They gather there in huge colonies of tens of millions of
butterflies, literally hanging from fir trees in clusters so thick they look like bundles
of dead leaves.
The butterflies arrive in November and remain largely inactive until undertaking the
return trip north in mid-March. How they find their way is a mystery because the monarchs
that leave Mexico in spring are at least three generations removed from those that will
make the journey back in the fall.
Monarchs leaving the wintering areas migrate 800 miles to the Southern United States,
where they lay their eggs. The next generation on monarchs continues the northward
migration to the upper United States and Canada. This continued movement north is
necessary because southern milkweed plants die out in June. Two to three more generations
are produced during the summer before the monarchs begin to flutter their way back to
About 12 wintering sites have been identified in this mountain range of central Mexico.
The monarchs are attracted to the high altitude fir forest of these sites because the
combination of temperature, humidity, and wind velocity create the conditions essential to
their survival. The canopy of the fir trees also protects them from large temperature
fluctuations and winter storms.
Unfortunately, monarch experts say bad weather is not the greatest threat to the
butterflies. As is the case in other forested areas, habitat destruction by humans is a
much more serious concern. A monarch reserve has been created by the Mexican Government,
but the reserve on includes five of the known wintering sites. In addition, logging
pressure is heavy on 75% of the reserve area. Logging affects the microclimate to such an
extent that either the monarchs may not use the site, or if they do, their survival over
the winter is dramatically impacted.
In order to insure that the phenomenon of migration doesn't disappear, it is very
important that humans find some way to work together to preserve the livelihood of the
local people in the wintering sites, which in turn would lower the economic pressure on
the monarch reserve.
Along the Mississippi is an ongoing series related to the Mississippi River. Articles
are prepared by officials with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and comments
can be directed to the DNR office in La Crosse, Wisconsin.
We've recently added this section for those who wish
to follow the Monarchs to Mexico. The most visited sanctuary is El Rosario,
and the best place to base yourself is the town of
Angangueo, an old mining town. Seeing the
butterflies, so thick that they sometimes BREAK tree branches (!) will require
hikes of up to three hours, though it is not a strenuous hike. It is recommended
that visitors hire a local guide or travel with a guided tour group.
If you travel independently:
If you approach from Brownsville, the first important city
you will reach will be Ciudad Victoria, capital city of the state of
Tamaulipas. By continuing on south you will cross
the Tropic of Cancer at Jaumave, and at every mile
you will notice more and more butterflies which often take the attention of even
the disinterested tourist. At Ciudad Mante you will
be at the very foot of the Sierra Madre Oriental range. Just south of Ciudad
Mante the highway divides — one route goes to
Tampico on the coast; the other veers southwest into
the mountains towards Mexico City. Be sure to choose the latter route for best
butterfly viewing. This route takes you to Nuevo Morelos
and Ciudad Valles, and there is good butterfly
viewing all the way from here down to Tamasunchale.
Our guided tour itinerary will give readers and idea
what to expect from a journey. Looking for a good organization to travel with?
Search the Internet and also have a look
Habitat World Wide Tours offers tours (you guessed it!) world wide.
From Mexico City, travel through
the central highlands to the picturesque mountain village of
The nearby Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary offers your first
encounter with the king of the butterflies. The path is groomed, but sometimes
fairly steep, trail with convenient benches for occasional rests. At the
epicenter of millions of monarchs cover the tall
oyamel and fir trees! Mexico’s sanctuaries may be the only
places in the world where you can actually hear butterflies’ wings beating.
Many Mexicans still hold the Aztec belief that the souls of the dead are
reborn as monarchs.
Chincua / Angangueo
Chincua Butterfly Sanctuary offers a
second memorable experience with the monarchs. For those who choose, horses
are available for this excursion. As Carlos Gottfried, president of
Monarca A.C., says, “When you stand in a monarch sanctuary, your soul
is shaken and your life is changed.” In Chincua,
we ride our horses most of the way then walk down
into the area of high butterfly density.
/ Mexico City
Relax in luxury at the luxurious Hotel Avandaro
Spa & Resort in Valle de Bravo.
A visit to the Piedra
Herrada Sanctuary is the newest spot opened for viewing the
monarchs. Once again, horses take us most of the way and we then walk, often
through thick vegetation, to the spot where the butterflies are located. This
area is “wilder” than the other two sanctuaries and often provides a more
remote nature experience. During your return trip to Mexico City, stop in
originally an Indian settlement dating back to the 13th century.
The El Rosario
Sanctuary is accessible from either
Angangueo or Ocampo.
Angangueo is approximately 115 kilometers from
and 205 kilometers from Mexico City.
When to Go: August through