The Monarch Butterfly and Día de los Muertos

The monarch butterfly and Día de los Muertos… what’s the connection? Read on…

What do insects have to do with Día de los Muertos?

Continuing our exploration of Día de los Muertos, we’re on to a discussion about a mighty group of insects. Before we can understand the link between butterflies and a festival that honours our departed loved ones, let’s recap what Día de los Muertos is all about.

Día de los Muertos

Día de los Muertos centres around the belief that, for this day, the souls of the beloved departed can return. It is a belief steeped in tradition, history, religion and culture and is another example of the way new and old world traditions have been mixed together in Mexico and other parts of Latin America.

Celebrations to honour souls of the departed can be traced back to pre-Aztec times, however, it is believed modern Día de los Muertos celebrations are linked to the Aztec Empire. The Aztecs worshipped Mictēcacihuātl, Goddess of Death, especially in the month of August. With the introduction of Christianity, these traditions were merged with the Catholic All Souls celebrations in November.

Día de los Muertos is a celebration of the life of those who have died. The tradition recognizes death as a natural part of the human experience; just as birth and childhood development. On Dia de los Muertos, the dead are awakened from their eternal sleep to join in celebrations with the living. It is a joyous festival. To be consumed with grief and mourning would be an insult to the dead.

The Monarch Butterfly

Monarchs are native to North and South America, but spread throughout much of the world in the 1800’s. They can be found in Hawaii, Australia and New Zealand. Monarchs also inhabit the Mediterranean, Portugal and southern Spain along the Iberian Peninsula.

These butterflies are reddish-orange with black vein-like markings. There are white spots on the black border around its wings which look like stained glass windows. Their bright orange colour lets predators know they make for a yucky meal!

The Monarch Butterfly and Dia de los Muertos - image of single butterfly

The amazing monarch butterflies live on average tow to six weeks EXCEPT for those of the species who will migrate. The migratory monarchs can live for several months! For more info on the life cycles check out Monarch Joint Venture and USDA.

Every year monarch butterflies fly around 2,800 miles from Canada and the United States to spend the coldest months of the year in warmer locations. Their favoured overwintering spot is in Michoacán, Mexico in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, which was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2008.

According to UNESCO:

The overwintering concentration of butterflies in the property is a superlative natural phenomenon. The millions of monarch butterflies that return to the property every year bend tree branches by their weight, fill the sky when they take flight, and make a sound like light rain with the beating of their wings. Witnessing this unique phenomenon is an exceptional experience of nature.

Monarch Butterfly and Día de los Muertos migration

What's the connection between these migratory butterflies and Día de los Muertos?

The monarch’s arrival in Mexico is described as breath-taking. In their overwintering colonies, they cluster together, coating oyamel fir trees, drinking water, and even nectar from local flowers. Entire trees are transformed into a riotous blaze of colour.

The butterflies arrive at the same time each year. Their arrival coincides symbolically with the Día de los Muertos celebrations on November 1 and 2. This is a centuries old phenomenon and the indigenous groups of Michoacán (the Purépecha and the Mazahua) have long cherished the monarchs, which were believed to be the souls of their ancestors returning to visit for Día de Muertos. The Purépecha have, in fact, tracked the butterflies’ annual return to Mexico for centuries.

For the people of Michocán the monarchs are not just a scientific wonder but a cultural treasure.

Find out more about the Día de los Muertos ofrenda – used to honour and entice the departed. 

Monarch butterfly being held

Connecting the dots...

Let’s look at a few more linkages between the monarch butterfly and Día de los Muertos.

  • The long journey the butterflies make, from Canada and the United States all the way to central Mexico, mirrors the distance travelled by the souls who cross over for Día de los Muertos.
  • The bright orange colours of the monarchs blend with the flor de muertoflor de cempasúchil (marigold) used for Día de los Muertos.
  • Scientists have yet to figure out how exactly the butterflies know to return to Michoacán each year – perhaps they really are the spirits of loved ones returning home… 

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  1. carolinehelbig October 21, 2021 at 7:32 pm

    I knew about the monarchs’ massively long migration but the connection to Dia de los Muertos is new to me.Very cool.

    1. K D October 21, 2021 at 7:56 pm

      Hola Caroline. It was the other way around for me. Lol. I knew they appeared around Nov 1 but I never realised the incredible migration they undertook! I’d love to visit the reserve at some point.

      1. Rouvaishyana December 14, 2021 at 1:38 am

        Monarch butterflies, and some other insects, have spiral portions in their tiny but functional brains that contain “maps” of memories: a smell here, a landmark there, temperature patterns along the way. These help them find their way north and south. But even this explanation reveals a greater mystery underneath it all. How does this work exactly, and how did these insects develop such a long-range ability?

      2. K D January 4, 2022 at 1:34 pm

        It’s amazing. I really never would have thought it possible. I was surprised to learn about the life span of the migratory butterflies.

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