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Motion Picture Show

     A cool, rainy day during our family beach vacation wasn’t a bad thing.  An excuse to sleep late, to get out of the sun, and to explore the area.  A day to browse a bookstore’s shelves.  A day to drive seven miles for a special hot dog, one with sweet potato mustard.  A day to shop the big box stores that we don’t have here at home.  And best of all, a day for the monarch butterflies in South Carolina to realize it was time to fly further South.

For a couple of days, we’d seen a few lone monarchs fluttering near the vegetation on sand dunes.  Beautiful, bright orange butterflies with black markings.  But when I walked on the beach in the early morning after our cool no-beach day, I had to dodge to avoid a butterfly that tried to sideswipe my ear.  They flew in small groups, three or more together, with an occasional single one fluttering fast to catch up.  They weren’t a mass of orange, like the film produced by National Geographic, but they created a calming motion picture show along the shoreline.  Right where I had my beach chair and my Grands played.

I knew enough to tell my Grands that these creatures were flying south to Mexico where they’d live through the winter and then fly back to their northern homes next spring.  And that they didn’t need a map; they flew by instinct.  After my Grands ran out of hearing range, Husband asked, “But don’t butterflies have a short life?  Just a few weeks?”  That complicated my explanations.  Would these same butterflies make the long 3,000-mile flight to Mexico, winter in tall trees for several months, and then fly back?

The migrating butterflies we saw, appropriately called migrates, are the great great grandchildren of the monarchs that flew north this past spring.  Monarchs go through four generations in one year.  Four generations from eggs to adults.  Next March or April, the butterflies we watched will return from migration to lay eggs on milkweed plants and die.  The first generation will live only two to six weeks after laying its eggs.  Same for the second generation that will be born in May and June, and the third generation, born in July and August.  And then the long lifers, the migrates, will be born in September or October.

“Look at the monarch that landed on my toe,” I said.  He sat, still, with wings outstretched.  My Grands weren’t impressed.  Maybe because I’d talked about monarchs all day.  I was amazed.  These small insects were imprinted with an inherited behavior that would bring them back along this same beach next March or April.  With lots of luck, I’ll remember how to make the 500-mile trip from Cookeville, without a map or a GPS, and meet them there.

After all, monarchs are the only butterflies that migrate.  Someone should greet them to celebrate their successful journey, and the sequel promises to be a picture show worth seeing.

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