This Biologist Followed 10,000-Mile Butterfly Migration on Her Bike

'Monarchs are excellent teachers.'

Sara Dykman

Sara Dykman

Each year, millions of monarch butterflies make a multigenerational migration, traveling thousands of miles across North America.

One year, biologist and outdoor educator Sara Dykman decided to tag along on her bike.

From March to December 2017, Dykman followed the monarch butterflies from their overwintering grounds in central Mexico to Canada—and then back again. During her tour, she made presentations to more than 10,000 eager students and citizen scientists and may have even converted some skeptical bar patrons and climate deniers she met along the way.

Dykman did it all from the back of a relatively rickety bike, loaded up with camping and video gear. She tells her adventures in Bicycling with Butterflies: My 10,201-Mile Journey Following the Monarch Migration

We spoke to Dykman about the motivation behind her butterfly bicycling adventure and what she encountered during her trip.

Treehugger: What came firstthe butterfly or the bike? Were you interested in finding a way to tell the monarch’s story or looking for a fascinating story you could tell from the back of a bike?

Sara Dykman: I was actually on a year-long bike tour, traveling from Bolivia to the United States when I first had the idea to follow the monarch butterflies. Well, technically, my idea had been to visit the monarchs, but as the idea spun in my head, it grew in possibility. A visit to the monarchs morphed into a nine-month tour, following their roundtrip migration, and visiting schools along my route to share the adventure with students. 

Of course, all that being said, biking is not my first love. Before bikes, there were animals, especially frogs. Frogs are transformational underdogs, and while they are very cute, their migrations are limited and could be followed in a day. Butterflies, also transformational, were the next best thing, especially monarchs. As migrants, monarchs spread out across North America, visit both rural and urban worlds, thrive in backyard gardens, are abundant, and are easy to identify. They were such obvious travel companions, the real question might be why I didn’t think of them sooner. 

How did you prepare for your trek? Can you describe your bike?

I prepared for my trip by learning about monarchs, making contacts, and getting the word out about my tour. I left Mexico with only a vague route, a tentative schedule based on monarch tracking data from years past, and quite a bit of doubt as to whether I would see a single monarch. The only certainty I had was that the details would work themselves out. I would eat when I was hungry, camp when I was tired, get in shape with each day’s ride, and learn from the biologists, citizen scientists, teachers, gardeners, plants, and animals I met along the way.  

The other thing I did to prepare was get my bike in tip-top shape. Though my frame was an old, rusty steel mountain bike frame from the ‘80s, the components were newish, cleanish, and ready to get me down the road. Most people were shocked at how unfancy my bike was, especially when it was saddled with my homemade kitty-litter-bucket panniers. It might not have been light or pretty, but my no-frills bike is a reliable machine. The dilapidated look had many advantages, including being a statement against consumerism and a convenient theft deterrent. 

Sara Dykman cycles alongside milkweed
Dykman cycles alongside caterpillars in milkweed. Sara Dykman

What was each day of your trip like? How many miles did you cover on average per day and what sorts of stops did you make to talk about the butterflies?

Most days I set out with not much of a plan. My goal was to cover about 60 miles a day and see what I could see. I spent a lot of time crawling through roadside ditches. It was common for motorists to stop, thinking I had crashed and needed help. I rarely passed milkweed—the only food source of monarch caterpillars—without a short pause. 

My other stops were to give presentations at schools and nature centers. I wanted to share what I learned and become a voice for the monarchs. I presented to nearly 10,000 people on my tour about science, adventure, and monarch conservation. 

The school presentations were my favorite. I loved being an example to kids of what it means to be a scientist, steward, adventurer, and a self-confessed weirdo. When so much of my trip was about calling to attention the plight of a disappearing species, the school presentations kept me going. The excitement of kids was the hope I needed during the most depressing miles. Visits to schools meant that even if my trip wasn’t always fun, it was always necessary. We all have a role to play in taking care of our planet, and for me, it is to be a voice for the creatures that make this planet spectacular. 

What was the feeling like riding alongside the monarchs? Were there always huge groups of them around you or did you ever lose them?

At the very start of my trip, I spent the afternoon biking down a road with thousands of monarchs. They reminded me of drops of water in a river, and together we streamed down the mountainside. The sound of their wings was a hum and I cheered with joy. We were on the same trip. It was a glorious feeling, though it lasted only a few miles. When the road curved to the left, the monarchs cut into the forest. Soon they would spread out, and I would spend the rest of the trip celebrating mostly solitary sightings. I saw an average of 2.5 monarchs a day after that. Some days I didn’t see any monarchs, but more importantly, there was never a day I didn’t see someone that could help the monarchs. 

Sara Dykman with a caterpillar
Dykman with a caterpillar. Sara Dykman

Through more than 10,000 miles and three countries following the monarchs, what did you learn from them?

Monarchs are excellent teachers. They taught me that we are all connected. We are connected by butterflies fluttering from flowers in farm fields to flowers in backyard gardens; from flowers in wildlands to flowers in New York City. We are also connected by our actions. If one of those flowers is removed the ripples are felt in every corner, by all of us. 

The monarchs also taught me about being North American. They, after all, are not Mexican, or American, or Canadian. They are North Americans; their home is North America. They need all North Americans to share their homes with them. This might feel overwhelming, but the monarchs have a lesson for that as well. They teach us that our collective action is built from millions of tiny actions. One monarch, after all, is just a butterfly, but millions together make a phenomenon. One garden, too, is just a garden, but millions together make a solution. 

These lessons are just the start. Everything I learned on my tour, from Spanish to web design, are skills taught by and for monarchs. My book wouldn’t have been written without the monarchs, and so I say, without hesitation, that the monarchs taught me to write. In exchange for such gifts, I try to be their voice and help fight for their future. 

What about the students, citizen scientists, and maybe some skeptical people you met along the way. What were those encounters like?

My bike tour, solo in design, was a giant group effort. Alone, I would have passed all my nights in my tent, showered disgustingly fewer times, and had exponentially less ice cream. Most importantly, my voice on behalf of the monarchs would have been a mere whisper. There are more people to thank than there are miles in my story.

Perhaps the best way to explain these encounters is to just name a few:

I met a young student who talked with me while hugging his penguin stuffed animal. He told me about how climate change was affecting his favorite animal, the penguin. I gave that boy a high five for thinking like a scientist, but my heart broke. He was being forced to watch the creatures he loved waddle towards extinction. We owe it to him, and all kids, to do our part to heal our shared planet. 

I met a citizen scientist in Ontario that was tasked with recording roosting monarchs that congregate at the shore of Lake Erie. She pledged her devotion to the migrants with her eyes, ears, and energy. Her efforts progressed science and helped call her community to action. It was inspiring to see her efforts ripple out.

And of course, there were TONS of skeptical people, but such skepticism had its advantages. I remember escaping a torrential downpour into what turned out to be a bar. The afternoon crowd started off just staring at me, but soon questions turned to admiration. By the time the storm had passed the bartender and all his patrons had teamed up to figure out how to work the oven so they could cook me a pizza. Skeptics-turned-friends and gifts of food are at the heart of most of my adventures. 

“Bicycling with Butterflies” is part of your Beyond A Book education project. What are some of the other adventures you launched to help kids get engaged in learning and become explorers?

My education-linked adventures include a canoe trip down the Missouri River from source to sea and a 15,000-mile, 49-state bike tour. The education element has become my way of giving back. I am so lucky to have these opportunities, and I want to share the adventure with others. It might add some logistical hurdles to visit schools, but the feeling of purpose, the challenge of teaching, and the delight of answering kid’s questions have transformed what an adventure is to me.  

What do you hope your biking, canoeing, and walking adventures will encourage others to do?

I hope my trips inspire people to see the possibilities, not just for big adventures, but for tiny ones as well. It is the tiny adventures—growing milkweed in your backyard, chasing a butterfly weaving through the sky, or stopping to study a flower on the side of an egg on a roadside milkweed—that make the world brilliant. I hope my trips can help people see the world through the lens of these other creatures and be motivated to share our planet with them. 

I remember biking down the road in Arkansas and a guy in a pickup stopped. At first, I was a bit wary, but I stopped and started answering his questions. He repeated my every answer in a whisper. “From Mexico,” he repeated after I told him where I was coming from. “Solo,” he whispered when I told him I was on my own. When we parted I knew he would never see the monarch the same way again. I want everyone to see the brilliance I see when I look at our world. 

What is your background? What led you to the nature education path?

I graduated from Humboldt State University in California with a degree in wildlife biology. While at Humboldt, I became very involved in community organizing. I worked with several groups to promote sustainable living and appropriate transportation. I found that biking merged these worlds wonderfully. I could bike to explore nature and at the same time bike to help protect it. 

After college, four friends and I took off on a 15-month tour to bike to visit every state (except Hawaii). Before starting I suggested we add school visits to our plan. It didn’t matter much to us that we had never given a presentation to kids. We were bound and determined. It took a dozen states to get the hang of things, but once we did, I was hooked. When the trip was over I began looking for other teaching experiences, as well as planning more education-linked adventures. 

Today, I am currently working at a small outdoor forest school in California. I like such work as it merges science, adventure, stewardship, and education. The other day at class we walked to the local pond. We spent an hour counting frog eggs, catching newts, and throwing sticks. It was such an adventure, and what I loved most about it was that I was a guide, not a teacher. I was guiding kids to learn the lessons that frog, the true teacher, had to offer. I hope my book acts as a guide too, so that people can go into nature and let the butterflies and milkweeds and frogs be their teachers too. 

View Article Sources
  1. "Migration and Overwintering." U.S. Forest Service.