Bicycling biologist pedals 10,000 miles along the Monarch butterfly's migration route

Wildlife biologist Sara Dykman is pedaling her way from the mountainous forests of southwestern Mexico to Canada and back, stopping at schools and wildlife centers to raise awareness about the migratory insect.

Henry Gass/The Christian Science Monitor
Sara Dykman biking from Taylor, Tex., to Austin, Tex. She is nearing the end of a 10,000-mile bike journey along the Monarch butterfly's migration route aimed at raising awareness about how to save the species' dwindling population.

It’s a cool, cloudy late-October morning in this small Texas town. Sara Dykman is outside a Wal-Mart, and she is, by her own admission, a bit grouchy.

But then you might be a bit grouchy too if you’d been pedaling a 90-pound bike eight hours a day for eight months along the 10,000-mile monarch butterfly migration route.

Ms. Dykman has been biking since March, when she left the alpine forest sanctuaries in Mexico’s Michoacán province where the iconic orange and black monarchs overwinter. The butterflies leave at the same time each year, embarking on a nine-month migration loop that winds over much of the United States and as far north as Canada, before returning in the fall to the same forests in Michoacán. Since the butterflies die soon after mating and laying eggs, the annual migration spans about five generations of monarchs. No other species is known to make a similarly long and multigenerational migration.

But as hardy as the species is to complete such a complex and arduous journey, its survival depends on fragile ecosystems and finely tuned habitats.

Monarchs can overwinter only in those specific forests in Mexico. When they migrate their caterpillars can eat only milkweed plants. And as adults, they rely on nectar from native flowers for food – and those habitats have steadily degraded in recent years.

Twenty years ago, some one billion monarchs overwintered in Michoacán, enough to fill some three dozen football fields. During the winter of 2013-2014, a record low 33.9 million butterflies arrived in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, not even enough to fill two football fields, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

On this cloudy morning, Dykman is biking along country back roads – and into a fierce headwind – to Austin, Texas. She is due to give a half-dozen presentations at schools around the city. She has been visiting at schools throughout her trip, talking about her adventures, the various pressures on the monarch, and how kids can help by planting milkweed and nectar gardens.

Dykman says she’s just supplementing a strong save-the-monarch subculture that already spans the continent. But for Karen Bishop – an Austin-based education outreach coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation who helped organize Dykman’s school visits in the city – it is a valuable supplement.

“It becomes more tangible and more alive for them,” she says. “Us talking about it isn’t the same as someone who’s experienced it talking about it, talking about nine hours of [climbing a] hill, and things like that.”

Yes, Dykman spent one of the first days of her trip biking up a hill for nine straight hours. But she’s no stranger to exhausting, education-oriented adventures. She biked through 49 states with college friends in 2010 and 2011. She built the bike she is using now for a yearlong bike trip with three friends from Bolivia to Texas in 2013 and 2014. A year later, she took the bike on a 3,500-mile canoe trip down the Missouri River.

All her trips have involved stops at schools along the way – this one even includes an educational YouTube channel. She has a degree in wildlife biology, but in professional science, she believes, “you document how everything’s going horribly wrong, and don’t do anything about it.” The education aspect of these trips though, “ feels like a solid step towards progress.”

Her “ButterBike” monarch butterfly trip is her longest solo bike trip. She spends her days listening to NPR and current events podcasts, and she has used the relative isolation to think about issues beyond just the plight of the butterflies she’s following.

Parts of her presentation aim to debunk fears of Mexico and of “others.” Her favorite story involves a motorcyclist approaching her on a long paved road in Mexico. He stops right in front of her, she recounts to her audiences.

“Every adult thinks this is a story about how I’m about to get mugged,” she says. But in actuality, he simply wanted to offer her ice cream.

“A lot of fear is from the unknown,” she tells a crowd of adults and children at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin the next day. “Then you get out there and it’s not so bad.”

The solitude of her journey has caused her to think about her privilege. “I’m very acutely aware that as a white woman I can get away with a lot of things,” she says.

Most nights she camps on random patches of grass, something passersby have so far overlooked. That may not be the case, if she did were a man or a minority, she suggests.

“People want to help me because I think they see me as vulnerable,” she says.

One woman in Canada drove her 20 miles to pick up a bag that had fallen off her bike. Another woman in Davilla, Texas, surprised her with cookies while she was charging her phone.

Would those women in Canada and Texas have helped her “if I had been a black man? Or a Latino man? Or even a white man?” she wonders. “I think about that stuff a lot.” She is even considering weaving white privilege into a book she hopes to write for fourth graders about her journey.

However the core purpose of her trip is still the monarchs. And as much as she tries to energize children in her presentations, she also tries to anger (or shame) adults in hopes of igniting action.

“I’ve heard over and over on this trip, ‘When I was a little kid there were thousands and thousands of monarchs,’ ” she tells the Wildflower Center audience.

Those anecdotes spark not just sorrow in Dykman, but frustration as well. When people share those memories, she can’t help but think, “Wait a second. You got to see thousands of monarchs, you got to change the planet, and you left me with less?”

She hopes that her work will spark the next generation to take action before it is too late.

“If we don’t take responsibility we’re going to in 20 years, tell people that there was this monarch migration,” she says.

The good news, she tells the crowd at the Wildflower Center, is that everyone can help to save the species simply by planting milkweed and native wildflowers.

“I have not seen a monarch every single day, but every single day, I’ve seen a person who can help a monarch,” she concludes. “So let’s make this happen. If you have a neighbor who thinks you’re crazy [for planting gardens], send them to my website and show them someone crazier.”

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