ALBANY, N.Y. — One late-blooming monarch butterfly will get the royal treatment on Monday, when Southwest Airlines airlifts the lone arthropod from Albany to San Antonio, where it will reunite with other monarchs that had long since begun their winter journey south.
Maraleen Manos-Jones first spotted the insect in late September when it was still mid-metamorphosis, a mere caterpillar hanging upside down in the extensive butterfly gardens of her Shokan, Ulster County, home. Manos-Jones, a self-styled butterfly expert who decades ago adopted the name "Butterfly Lady," expected the butterfly to emerge damaged, as they often do when slow to develop.
"Instead she came out fabulously," said Manos-Jones. "She's big, she's hearty, she's healthy."
The butterfly's fellow swarm-mates had already flown south, though, and by Oct. 1 it was too cold for the newly emerged monarch to head south on its own.
Monarch butterflies are known for the epic journeys they make each fall and spring, flying thousands of miles from the Northeast, Pacific Northwest and Canada to Mexico. It's the only butterfly species known to make a two-way migration each year. Most species instead overwinter as larvae, pupae or even adults, but monarchs are not equipped to handle the below freezing winters of northern climates.
A typical monarch lives for two months and it takes three to four generations of its offspring to complete the migration back north.
"I knew if I just let her go, she'd die," Manos-Jones said. "But she's so fabulous she deserves to be in Mexico with all of her millions of brothers and sisters. She was such a magnificent specimen, and my heart just responded to her."
Manos-Jones started making calls, looking for a way transport the butterfly south. Southwest Airlines, her first call, agreed to fly both Manos-Jones and the butterfly to San Antonio.
"Southwest's conservation efforts run deep, and after thoughtful consideration, we decided to assist the healthy butterfly down to San Antonio, knowing that it wouldn't make the migration otherwise," said Brooks Thomas, a Southwest spokesman, citing the airline's concerns for climate change.
"Even one butterfly makes a difference," he said.
Another kink in the hastily hatched plan quickly emerged though: A permit is required for an individual to transport a butterfly across state lines, and it usually takes months to get one.
She put in a call to an etymologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, pleading the case of her one, beautiful butterfly. The permit arrived in two days.
Manos-Jones then conferred with Lincoln Brower, a leading etymologist at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, who specializes in the overwintering, migration and conservation biology of the monarch butterfly. Brower concurred that flying the butterfly to San Antonio was a good idea — there it would find other butterflies mid-journey to join.
She will carry the butterfly on the plane herself, packed in a glassine envelope with a damp piece of cotton, inside a Tupperware container, packed inside yet another container outfitted with an ice pack to keep the butterfly cool and calm. That container will go into a bag, padded with layers of newspapers and towels.
"It's not a frivolous endeavor," said Manos-Jones, who has raised and released thousands of butterflies and worked at the American Museum of Natural History's seasonal butterfly conservatory for over a decade.
She has been feeding the butterfly sugar water, now that her nectar-rich flowers have died off.
Manos-Jones will release the butterfly at the San Antonio Botanical Garden, where there will be plenty of blooming flowers for it to feed on. From there, the butterfly will continue south on its own.
"This is just not the release of this butterfly, but of everything she symbolizes," said Manos-Jones. "She is a symbol of hope."