Kansas City Native Follows Monarch Butterflies By Bike, From Mexico To Canada — And Back | KCUR

Kansas City Native Follows Monarch Butterflies By Bike, From Mexico To Canada — And Back

May 11, 2017

Cycling 10,000 miles would be plenty of work for anyone. For Sara Dykman it's a labor of love.

The Johnson County native is pedaling her way from the mountains of Central Mexico all the way up to Southern Ontario, Canada, following the migratory pattern of millions of monarch butterflies.

"I love animals," Dykman says. "I like the underdogs — and lots of insects are ignored — but there is this one beautiful butterfly that everyone can get behind."

The monarch migration that occurs east of the Rocky Mountains starts in the spring, in a 73-mile-wide swath of Mexican forest in the state of Michoacán.

"When you go there, you see orange trees because all the trees are covered in monarchs," Dykman says. "It is something that you'll never forget."

The northbound route covers a distance of more than 3,000 miles, ending in the Great Lakes region of the U.S. and Canada. Then there's the trip back south in the fall.

All in all, it takes several generations of butterflies to complete the migration.

For several reasons, monarch numbers have been shrinking. According to Monarch Watch, an affiliate service of the Kansas Biological Survey, habitat loss and destruction plays a major part in the monarch's increasingly tough lot in life.

Monarch larva, like the one shown here, depend on milkweed as their only source of food.
Credit United States Geological Survey

"As they fly north, the females are looking for a special type of plant called milkweed," says Dykman. "This is the only plant that the caterpillars will eat."

She spoke with guest host Brian Ellison on a recent episode of KCUR's Up To Date.

"A long time ago, this plant was everywhere," she says. "This was all prairie and there was milkweed in abundance."

Over the last 15 years, an enormous number of milkweeds have been lost due to the adoption of herbicide tolerant crops, suburban sprawl, and excessive mowing and herbicide use, according to Monarch Watch.

"This monarch migration is depending on literally every single person and every single municipality and every single road project to share some of this space with monarchs," Dykman says. "Everyone has a part to play in this conservation project."

Dykman is in the Kansas City area for a few days, visiting schools and speaking with the media about her road trip, before continuing north toward Minneapolis.

"On my bicycle I have four bags, and they carry my tent, my sleeping bag, my sleeping pad, food, a stove," she says, "everything I need for the road."

In all, it is about 70 pounds of gear.

"Sometimes I get lucky and I meet a nice person that lets me camp in their yard or in their basement or in their spare bedroom," Dykman says, but "most of the time I find a quiet​ spot off the road and set up my tent and camp."

She hopes to accomplish some simple, yet important, things with the journey, which she describes as a publicity stunt, of sorts, for the plight of the monarch.

It doesn't take a field-full of milkweed to make a difference, says Dykman. "I visited a school the other day and they had just ten milkweed plants in their garden, and there were dozens and dozens and dozens of monarchs."
Credit Luke X. Martin / KCUR 89.3

"For me success is having people start conversations about the monarch, having schools plant milkweed, having kids be excited about this insect that visits their school, that visits their home," she says. "Success is just raising awareness and getting people excited."

Dykman estimates she has ridden about 2,200 miles so far. Even with the bulk of her trip looming, she says her prospects are rosy. (In more ways than one: Spending hours in the sun has done wonders for her complexion.)

"It's so fun, and I love turning any old spot alongside the road into my home for the night," she says. "It's kind of magical."

You can listen to Sara Dykman's entire conversation with Brian Ellison here.

Luke X. Martin is the associate producer of KCUR's 'Up To Date.' Contact him at luke@kcur.org.