Butterfly biker hits the road for research

Sara Dykman will teach locals to monitor monarch ‘streams’ of Mexico

Sara Dykman in Broken Arrow on a stop along her way to Mexico. Photo by Kelly J Bostian / KJBOutdoors

For the CCOF

The Butterbike lady is now a butterfly biker woman.

Sara Dykman, 38, is migrating south through Oklahoma with the monarchs again. This time she plans to train village women how to monitor monarch “streams” unique to the mountain region of the state of Michoacán, Mexico.

Since her last swing through Oklahoma in 2017, the bicycle adventuring biologist and naturalist has morphed into a motorcyclist, book author, and monarch researcher. The monarch is since listed internationally as “endangered.”

In 2017 she pedaled her “Butterbike” bicycle north in the spring then south in the fall, from Mexico to Canada and back, 10,201 miles. This month she kicked off her trip at the 30th-anniversary celebration of the Monarch Watch program at the University of Kansas and is heading south to continue research interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

She is promoting her book, too, along the way. “Bicycling with Monarchs: My 10,201-mile journey following the monarch migration,” was published in 2021 and recognized as a National Outdoor Book Award winner.

“This is my first chance to get on the road and meet with people face-to-face about it,” she said.

This is more than just a book tour, however. Research equipment, an ambitious plan, and a group of village women await her, and the monarchs, as both should arrive at over-wintering sanctuaries in November.

At the conclusion of her 2017-2018 odyssey, she trained 10 local women how to monitor “monarch streams.”

The term describes the spectacle as tens of thousands of monarchs leave their mountain roosts at 10,000 feet above sea level to find water.

 “It looks like a river of monarchs flying down the road, down the valley,” she said.

She had to leave Mexico in March of 2020 for a seasonal job in California because of COVID-19 uncertainties. Like many things in 2020, the wildlife research field job didn’t happen, however. She ended up “hunkered down” in a cabin on a friend’s 8-acre property about 2 hours from Sacramento, for about two years.

“It was the right place for me to be. For all of COVID I didn’t have any cell service. I had to bike two miles to send a text. Then, about the same time my book was published they put up a cell tower… I had it pretty good,” she said.

While there, she learned that the methodology she taught the women in Mexico was sound and that her research idea was good to go—in partnership with Monarch Watch founder Chip Taylor at the University of Kansas as well as a professor at California’s Humbolt State University, and a GoFundMe account with a fundraising goal of about $17,000.

Why streams matter

She plans to train, and pay, 20 women to monitor monarch streams three times a day as part of a study that could run several seasons.

“It’s something no one has looked at,” she said. “It could be another way to monitor the population, it could help with ideas about how climate change is impacting them, and it can make a financial difference for the women, even if it is a small amount.”

The over-wintering monarchs don’t eat and typically stay on or near their huge tree-covering swarms. But when temperatures warm and the sun hits the orange masses—most often as the spring migration time nears—they pour off the roosts in search of water.

The plan is to monitor the streams not just near migration, but all winter long, she said. Monarchs migrate and over-winter on fat reserves, and if warmer or dryer weather forces them to seek water more often, or fly farther to find it, it could impact their return migration odds.

“When you see the monarchs migrating right now the most important thing for them is nectar,” she said. “They need it to build up fat reserves, and this year that is extra hard because of the drought.”

Some monarchs will find nectar sources in Mexico, but Dykman said if they need local nectar to survive the winter it’s likely they won’t survive the trip back north.

“They don’t eat once they leave Mexico,” she said. “They come north as fast as possible to find milkweed, lay eggs and then die. When you see them they look tattered and faded. It’s pretty remarkable, really, they’re survivors for sure.”

Motoring vs. biking

But first, Dykman has to outpace the migration south.

Her motorcycle is a step up from a bicycle, her beast of burden, a Honda Rebel 250, has its limitations.

“I’m way slower than Google maps says,” she said with a chuckle and a grin. “And you can carry more gear on a bicycle, believe it or not.”

Her preferred route is a rural highway and a speed of 50 mph.

“I can go 70 miles per hour, but that’s asking a lot from me, the bike and my arms, especially when it’s windy,” she said.

Dykman wraps up her Oklahoma visits 5-9 p.m. Monday at the Monarchs in The Park celebration at Norman. She will be in Dallas a week later and hit several stops all the way to Mexico.

Near the Mexico border, she will, somehow, stack new weather monitoring tools on her little motorbike and head for the mountains.

 “Honestly, the part I’m most excited about is giving people a chance to work as scientists, to make a difference in what they see in the monarchs, and to add to their available income,” she said. “The way we help the world, help the planet, is by noticing things. So, here’s another opportunity for people to notice and to empower them to do science and contribute to the overall picture.”

Kelly Bostian is an independent journalist writing for The Conservation Coalition of Oklahoma Foundation, a 501c3 non-profit dedicated to education and outreach on conservation issues facing Oklahomans. To learn more about what we do and to support Kelly’s work, see the About the CCOF page.

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