Thursday, January 21, 2016

FLIGHT BEHAVIOR by Barbara Kingsolver

I don’t often do book reviews even though I’m a voracious reader. However, this book I thought should be reviewed. I’ve enjoyed all of Kingsolver’s books, but hadn’t gotten to this one until recently. Although it’s a fictional account of monarch butterflies wintering over in North Carolina, her facts about the monarchs are accurate and the fact that climate change is causing problems for the monarchs is backed by scientists.

The fictional part of the book is the characters and the sudden migration to the mountains of N.C by the monarchs. It’s a story of both the plight of the monarchs in surviving climate change, the worries and frustration of scientists who study them, and the people in the small town near where the butterflies landed.

Dellarobia Turnbow is a restless young farm wife unsatisfied with married life, her in-laws, and although she loves her two children, the fact that her life is boring and not what she’d envisioned when she was younger. That is until she comes across a huge migration of monarch butterflies on the mountain behind her house when she went for a walk up there. The migration has the town thinking a miracle has happened and Dellarobia was blessed by God although not all feel that way. The migration brings scientists, sightseers, the town’s people, reporters and media to visit the site, disrupting the lives of Dellarobia, and her family. When she starts working with the lead scientist who came, she becomes even more dissatisfied with her life as it was. Kingsolver does an excellent job with the conflict Dellarobia is facing as is her husband, a simple man, and her in-laws who have conflicting views.
This picture portrays the description in the book.

At the end of the book, Kingsolver wrote about an unprecedented rainfall in February 2010 that caused mudslides and catastrophic flooding on the town of Angangueo where thirty people lost their lives and thousands lost their homes and livelihood. The town was a gateway to the same mountains where most of North American monarchs return every autumn.

Although, the migration moving to North Carolina is pure fiction, Kingsolver did extensive research and met with many scientists about monarchs and climate change and the effect it’s having on them. I didn’t write down the facts as I was reading the book. I was too engrossed to do that, however I did do some research on monarchs. Some of it I already knew, other stuff was new to me.

Some facts: The orange, black and white wings of monarchs are a warning to predators that the monarch is foul tasting and poisonous. The larval stages of monarch caterpillars feed on milkweed which contains a poisonous toxin they store in their bodies. The adults get their nutrients from the nectar of flowers. Monarch butterflies cannot fly if their body temperature is less than 86 degrees. They will sit in the sun or “shiver” their wings to warm up.

Although they are found throughout the United States, Mexico and Canada, they make the three thousand mile trip in the fall to their wintering grounds in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Mexico or Southern California depending on which part of the U.S. or Canada they’re from. There are three geographical pathways they migrate from. One population is east of the Rocky Mountains, one west of the Rockies and one in Central America. Millions make the trip and during the migrations, the migrating monarchs will land on a certain tree in their migrating path.

Monarchs can produce four generations during one summer on their migrations north. The first three generations will have life spans from two to six weeks and will continue moving north. During this time, they will mate and have the next generation that will continue the northbound migration.  The fourth generation is different and can live for up to nine months. This is the generation that will migrate south for the winter to Mexico or Southern California.

A monarch butterfly navigates using a sun compass in its mid-brain and circadian clocks in its antennae. Until now, what makes a monarch reverse its direction had remained a mystery, but new research showed that the chill at the start of spring triggers this switch to their navigation into heading north instead of south. I would think it was the warming of spring, but the article said chill.

Steven Reppert and Patrick Guerra, neuroscientists at the University of Massachusetts, captured fall migrant monarchs and kept them under various light and temperature conditions. After 24 days, they released the butterflies into a flight simulator. Monarchs which were maintained under fall temperature conditions continued due south. Monarchs that were subjected to temperatures similar to those in their overwintering ground in Mexico of between 4 and 11 degrees Celsius reoriented themselves to fly north. The flight orientation of the monarchs is much like that of birds which is unusual.
Yes, these are monarchs at rest.

Unfortunately there are threats to the survival of the monarchs. One is climate change. It is predicted that one of the many effects of climate change will be wetter and colder winters. If they are dry, monarchs can survive below freezing temperatures, but if they get wet and the temperature drops, they will freeze to death. If a cold snap following a rain hits the small area in which they winter in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Mexico, it could be devastating.

As the world warms, suitable habitat will begin to move northward resulting in a longer migration. This means monarchs may be forced to adapt and produce another generation to reach further north. It is uncertain if the last generation will be able to make a longer trip.

Other threats include the habitat loss and the loss of milkweed which the larva depends upon to survive. Illegal logging remains a problem in Mexico in protected areas and is devastating to the monarch’s winter habitat.  I know that I didn’t see as many butterflies last summer even though I have many flowers in my gardens. I wonder what the problem was. Perhaps it was a very bitter cold winter followed by lots of rain in the spring continuing into summer. I hope next summer will be better.

There is a reason for hope, however. IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) has designated the monarch migration a threatened phenomenon. In 1986, the Mexican government created the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve which protects sixty-two square miles of forests in the Sierra Madres where hundreds of million monarchs spend the winter. The Biosphere Reserve was expanded to include 217 square miles in 2000. Local organizations are also working to stop the illegal harvesting of trees on the reserve.

My information came from: an article in Scientific American “Climate Change May Disrupt Monarch Butterfly Migration” by Nayantara Narayanan, Climate Wire on Feb. 22, 2013

Do you have monarch butterflies around your house?

Do you believe in climate change?


  1. Nice blog. We have a Monarch garden at work and tag a few every year. Their migration is amazing.

  2. I also read and enjoyed Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior. Up north, we rarely have monarch butterflies, although we have a number of other varieties. I have had them in plentiful abundance in other houses I have owned.

    ~ Jim

  3. Hi Gloria,
    I am so crazy about this book! My book club was totally divided about the ending (which we cannot discuss here because we don't want spoilers). Kingsolver is a wonderful writer.
    Monarchs and all butterflies fascinate me. I'd see an occasional one in the yard. It would be a gift to see them in the numbers Dellarobia experiences in the book.


  4. KB, I have a lot of flowers, but not milkweed anymore. My sister gave me some pods so this year I'm going to try to get some growing.

    Jim, I usually have a lot of butterflies, mostly swallowtails, but this past summer very few, and I do think it was a combination of a harsh winter and a rainy spring and early summer.

  5. One of the most breathtaking sights I have ever seen occurred on my own front lawn, and much too quickly for me to get a photo. I had a tiny, brand new, key lime tree planted. I glanced out the window and it was covered in hovering Monarchs. There they were, for an instant, and then they were gone. I've been told that the Florida version of the Monarch is not the same as the northern version so these were probably a bit different to the ones you see up north, but I have also been told that they have a habit of doing just what I saw. Wish I could download the mental image. It was magnificent.

  6. Shari, I made three suggestions for the coming year, but they didn't pick this one. A few had already read it and others said they would. I loved the book, too, and I can understand how some would not like it, but I was okay with it. I haven't seen too many monarchs since my son mowed down all the milkweed in his pasture which was once mine, but I have seen them other places. I can't imagine seeing all those monarchs in one place. Makes me want to travel to Mexico or Southern California in their winter quarters.

    What a wonderful experience, Kait. They may be a little different, but they're still monarchs and quite amazing. Almost every year my small Korean lilac is covered in yellow and black swallowtails. Unfortunately, not this past year and last winter also had much of the lilac dead and very few blooms.

  7. I have milkweed seeds to plant this spring and I always have a big pot of parsley on the deck for whatever butterfly larvae feed on it. I have many butterfly-attracting flowers in my garden and will plant more this year.

  8. Once a butterfly landed on my hand. I stood motionless and it departed.

  9. Margaret, I plan on planting milkweed seeds in one section of my vegetable garden that I
    don't plant vegetables in anymore. I usually plant as many flowers as I do vegetables, too.
    Hopefully this will be a much better spring than we had last tear,

    Warren, how thrilling that would be.

  10. We have a utility cut that runs along a side of our property, and it usually has lots of milkweed. I leave it for the butterflies, although there have been fewer of them in the last couple of years. I plant some things that butterflies like. I'm almost sorry to have discovered that butterfly bushes are considered an invasive species, because they do attract lots of butterflies.

  11. KM, so it wasn't only around here that the butterfly population tapered off. I hope it was just due to the horrible winter we had last year, and that it will be better this year. The butterfly bushes I plant rarely last beyond the first year they're planted. Our winters seem to do them in.