Taylor Smith is a sophomore news and magazine major and writes “Bold Type” for The Daily News. Her views do not necessarily agree with those of the newspaper. Write to Taylor at email@example.com.
“Write about saving the monarchs,” Auntie Mar says every time I ask her for a story idea. This time, I decided to listen to her.
The monarch butterflies are dying.
They are dying quickly, and we are the reason why.
We are destroying their habitats — their homes — through deforestation. We are producing so much carbon dioxide, it makes milkweed, a monarch butterfly’s only source of food, dangerous for them to eat, and when they do eat it, the milkweed fills them with toxins that cause them to starve and makes it nearly impossible for them to lay their eggs and reproduce.
We are causing drastic temperature changes, moving butterfly breeding areas further north and their migration pattern further south, thus making the monarch migration path longer and more difficult, so each year, the population of migrating monarch butterflies drops by close to 80 percent.
And monarch butterflies don’t just add beauty to the planet with their colorful wings – they pollinate flowers, they indicate healthy ecosystems, they serve as natural pest control and because of their migration patterns, they share an interest in the natural world across North America.
I used to be afraid of butterflies. I thought their wings were pretty, but their wormy, fuzzy bodies always scared me. They looked beautiful and harmless until you got close, and then they turned into little demon monsters.
There is a zoo near my house with a type of butterfly sanctuary tucked away in one of the corners. When I was younger, my mom always wanted to go inside, sit and stare at the hundred or so butterflies flapping their stained-glass window wings, sucking on tulips and milkweed. But every time we went in there, I was terrified. I would cry and beg my mom to let me wait outside of the exhibit until she was done, and pretty soon, we stopped going to the butterfly sanctuary.
But as I got older, butterflies started to become important to me. They reminded me of my mom, her butterfly tattoo, her backyard butterfly decorations and the photos she took of butterflies that landed on the black-eyed susans she planted in our backyard in the spring.
“Tay, run inside and grab my camera!” she would say, and when I brought it outside to her, she snapped pictures until they flew away.
Butterflies turned into little reminders my mom sent me while I was on the playground during recess; a monarch would fly over my head, and I knew that no matter how many kids bullied me that day, I would be able to go home to my mom and not have to worry about a thing.
Butterflies began to remind me of other members of my family, too.
The stained glass window my Papa made has a variety of purple, red and blue flowers which form its perimeter, and in one of the corners, a stained glass butterfly is stuck in its place; its wings trapped flapping forever, flying over my Mimi every time she stands at the kitchen sink.
When my cousin Sophia was a year old, Auntie Dee dressed her up as a pink, green and white butterfly for halloween. She wore a giant, fuzzy onesie-looking costume with pink and green polka dots and butterfly wings that attached in the back. There was a little hood on it, too, and when she put it on, her antennas flopped on her head with each stumbling step she took down the sidewalk, holding onto her trick-or-treat basket with her little hands and asking for candy in an uninterpretable way.
Her third birthday party was a few days ago, and my mom and aunts painted butterflies on their faces. They were rainbow butterflies — one of them had a unicorn horn (Sophia couldn’t decide what she wanted her mommy to have, so she got both). Sophia loved them. Sophia has turned into a butterfly princess — she holds butterflies in her hands, lest them crawl up her dresses and in her hair. She reminds me of a little, magical fairy.
Auntie Mar started with a little butterfly tattoo on her wrist, and pretty soon, there was a butterfly on her back. As time passed, she added more butterflies along with leaves, flowers, ladybugs, dragonflies and little caterpillars that would one day be butterflies. Her back became a scene straight out of the butterfly sanctuary, and it was beautiful.
Along with her intricate tattoos, Auntie Mar also started her own project of saving the monarchs two years ago, just before the summer of 2018. It started off small. We were driving home from St. Paul, Minnesota, when she stopped in a parking lot. She found a stem of milkweed with a nearly full-grown caterpillar crawling around, eating and making the leaves look like green pieces of swiss cheese. She cut the milkweed and shoved it into a water bottle before placing it in the cupholder of her Jeep.
We drove four hours home with a caterpillar in the backseat of her car, and I turned around every few minutes to make sure the chunky yellow and black worm wasn’t crawling up my back. A few days later, it formed a chrysalis in the little butterfly cage my Papa made for her. It emerged as a monarch later, and I started to understand why she loved butterflies so much.
My aunt saved upwards of 300 butterflies this summer. She had more butterfly cages built and encouraged my Aunt Renee to start saving monarchs with her.
It takes a lot of work to save the butterflies — collecting and cleaning milkweed for them to eat and lay their eggs on, keeping caterpillars of different sizes in different areas to make sure they all stay safe, moving them around whenever they are ready, building cages with wiring suitable for caterpillars to use to form their cocoons and when it’s time, finally releasing hatched butterflies nearly every day. But to my aunts and me, it’s worth it.
This summer, we also celebrated with a butterfly release party. Auntie Mar put a monarch in my hair, and it sat there for a few minutes, its wings wide open just above the right side of my forehead. It looked like a barrette, its wings shining in the golden hour of sunlight. My mom took photos like she always does — photos of my butterfly kisses.
I learned to love butterflies this summer. I learned to love their beauty, their delicacy. I learned to love their fragility, their need for protection and my aunt’s desire to give it to them. I learned to love how they brought my family together, how they left smiles on the faces of everyone no matter their age, from 3-year-old Sophia to 82-year-old Mimi.
We need to save the monarchs. We need to protect them because they can’t protect themselves.
Plant more milkweed. Build a butterfly sanctuary. Search for monarch eggs on milkweed in your neighborhood and take them home to make sure they survive.
We need to save the monarchs because they're one of the brightest reminders of happiness in my life, and the world deserves to see what I see in them.
I learned to love butterflies this summer, and I want to be able to love them forever.