A Monarch Butterfly is seen in the Wings of the Tropics area at the Butterfly Pavilion in Broomfield on Tuesday. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)
For centuries, monarch butterflies have been celebrated in Mexico as ambassadors between the worlds of the living and the dead. Throughout November, Butterfly Pavilion’s exhibit “Monarch Magic” continues the celebration and conservation of the insects.
The finish line of the Monarch’s 3,000-mile seasonal migration stretches across central Mexico, where they settle in the high-altitude oyamel forests to survive the dry winter. The butterflies arrive in Mexico in early November, when people across the country celebrate Dia de los Muertos.
“It is believed that the monarch butterflies bring along the souls of those who have passed, so they have a very, very special significance within the celebration,” Ericka Hernandez said. Hernandez is the program director at the Mexican Cultural Center of Denver, and this is the second time the cultural center has partnered with the pavilion to celebrate monarchs.
A monarch butterfly is seen in the Wings of the Tropics area at the Butterfly Pavilion in Westminster on Tuesday. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)
Instead of mourning lost loved ones, Dia de los Muertos is a holiday dedicated to celebration, inviting the departed souls for a visit to the living world. As the bearers of the souls, monarchs play an important role in the tradition.
Hernandez said the monarchs are heavily incorporated into the holiday celebrations — from costumes and clothing to statues on ofrendas, or altars, dedicated to the departed souls. The cultural significance of monarchs dates back to Mexico’s Indigenous populations pre-Colonization, but the insects also have environmental significance.
“The monarch migration, the movement of biomass invertebrates in general, is the foundation of the food pyramid. So they are a significant piece of nutrients in the ecosystem but beyond that, butterflies are also pollinators,” Butterfly Pavilion’s resident butterfly scientist, or lepidopterist, Shiran Hershcovich said. By visiting flowers along their journey the monarchs help spread pollen, allowing plants to reproduce and make fruit and oxygen.
Monarchs are not considered endangered, but habitat destruction and anecdotal evidence suggest their numbers are declining. Much of the research required to qualify a species as endangered is not focused on invertebrates.
“There’s millions of different species (of invertebrates) with no research at all on numbers and no historical records to compare to because they have not been the focus of scientific efforts for a bulk of our academic process,” Hershcovich said. “But that’s now changing. We are realizing how important invertebrates are, how pollinators’ survival is so deeply linked to our survival.”
Hershcovich said that in addition to the conservation work Butterfly Pavilion does, individuals can become community butterfly scientists. By working with programs like the pavilion’s Colorado Butterfly Monitoring Network, volunteers can gather important data that helps contribute to their ongoing conservation efforts.
“We are at risk of losing that incredible migration that has inspired centuries of traditions and such beautiful art and poetry,” she said. “Losing the species goes beyond them being biologically significant, their cultural significance means we stand to lose much more.”
Monarch Magic aims to teach visitors about the cultural and ecological significance of the butterflies. Guests can also interact with the monarchs in Wings of the Tropics, the pavilion’s miniature indoor rainforest full of free-roaming butterflies. By visiting the butterflies without barriers, guests get to experience the insects’ unique personalities.
The community altar is seen inside the Wings of the Tropics area at the Butterfly Pavilion in Westminster on Tuesday. In some Mexican cultures the Monarch represents the souls of the departed returning to visit the living. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)
“Monarchs are among the most social butterflies and some of the most likely to interact with our guests and get up close,” Hershcovich said.
In addition to Monarch interactions, guests can engage in Día de los Muertos traditions, leaving remembrances at a special community altar created by Butterfly Pavilion, with support from Arrupe Jesuit High School students. Daily tours are also being offered in Spanish at 1 p.m. Monday through Thursday.
Butterfly Pavilion, 6252 W. 104th Ave, Westminster, is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week. For more information or to purchase tickets online, visit butterflies.org.