Nature Studies: Cross the Atlantic in a ship? The beautiful Monarch can do better than that

To a British enthusiast, it's a once-in-a-lifetime encounter. Oxford don Professor EB Ford caught sight of one in 1941 and set off in frenzied pursuit.


Britain is pretty poorly off for butterflies, all things considered, with a measly 58 breeding species: cross the Channel and you’ll find nearly five times as many. So something that sets your average British butterfly-lover’s heart a-thumping is the occasional chance meeting with a rare migrant from elsewhere.

The Camberwell beauty, from the Nordic countries, with its maroon wings bordered with cream, is a quite stunning one, while very handsome, too, is the Queen of Spain fritillary from France; but the greatest prize is almost certainly the monarch, for anyone who sees one in Britain is witnessing something extraordinary: an insect which has just flown the Atlantic.

Huge and spectacular, bright orange boldly cross-striped with black, the monarch is America’s most celebrated butterfly, and its occurrence here, nearly always in the South-west in the autumn, seems to be increasing, with relatively large numbers arriving in some years: in 1999, there were up to 300.

To a British butterfly enthusiast, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime encounter, and the excitement was never better described than by the leading lepidopterist of the 20th century, the eccentric Oxford don Professor EB Ford, who on 30 August 1941 caught sight of a monarch at Kynance Cove in Cornwall and set off after it in frenzied pursuit. (You can read the full story on pp159-160 of Ford’s Butterflies, Volume One in the celebrated Collins New Naturalist Series. Although he doesn’t say so, I cannot help but picture him pursuing his quarry in a Tweed suit, with a fob watch attached to his waistcoat.)

Ford thought that monarchs might cross the Atlantic on ships, and although this is possible, in the past half-century it has become clear that they do, indeed, make it across the featureless ocean under their own steam, if the westerlies are favourable. But that should not surprise us, for the monarch’s intended, rather than accidental, American migration, is one of the real wonders of the natural world.

Every autumn, tens of millions of monarchs, perhaps hundreds of millions, set out from the northern US to fly south for the winter, in two great streams, one on either side of the Rockies. The western stream ends up in southern Califonia, but the eastern stream flies nearly 2,500 miles to the Sierra Madre in central Mexico, where the whole lot of them – and there are some suggestions that they may number a billion – roost in just a few acres of mountain pine forest, a location only discovered in 1975.

They cover the trees, they cover the ground, they cover the people who come to gaze on them; when they take flight they shut out the sun. And then in the springtime, they do the journey in reverse, heading back north to the US.

Since the discovery of the wintering site, several films have been made of this marvel, and now a new one is on the cards, from a Mexican-American film-maker based in London, Ali Alvarez. But unlike the previous nature documentaries, Ms Alvarez’s film. The Journey, will concern itself with people: the people the butterflies come into contact with on their odysseys.

There seem to be a number of stories, she says, “of these butterflies showing up in moments of tragedy and loss”, and of them representing “a sign of beauty and hope for people who had just experienced something really sad”. Far-fetched? Whimsical? Perhaps. But you can judge for yourself on the five-minute short that Ms Alavarez has made to try to crowd-source funds for the project. She needs to raise £80,000 by 3 June; so far, she has raised just under £30,000 from 132 backers. You can see the film (for free) here.

Personally, I found it to be charm itself: it is exquisitely made, and whether you wish to back her or not, watch it and you will get a vivid feel for the monarch migration and its truly wondrous nature.

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own