Benny Prado looks at monarch butterflies during the Monarch Butterfly & Pollinator Festival held in 2018.
Benny Prado observes monarch butterflies during the Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival in 2018. This year the festival returns to in-person gatherings at Confluence and Legacy parks. Credit: Edward A. Ornelas for the San Antonio Report

October in San Antonio means the arrival of monarch butterflies sweeping through the city, providing an opportunity to celebrate the ecological and cultural importance of the orange-and-black migrators.

The sixth annual Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival, which went virtual last year because of the pandemic, is back to being an in-person event this year, with the main event on Oct. 16 at Confluence Park. 

As in previous years, festival attendees will be able to help tag and release around 600 monarch butterflies that will continue on their way to Mexico. 

This year, continuing a tradition that was begun last year to remember people lost to COVID-19, residents can again participate in the Forever Journey program by filling out a form to have a butterfly tagged in honor of a loved one who has died. Each year the monarchs reach their wintering spot in the forests of the mountains of Mexico in early November, right around Día de los Muertos. Mexican tradition holds that the butterflies are the spirits of dead ancestors and loved ones returning for one night.

At last year’s festival, butterflies were tagged with the names of about 200 loved ones who had died.

Festival founder and director Monika Maeckle said tagging monarchs, which she has been involved with since 2005, gives scientists a wealth of information about the impacts of climate change, habitat destruction and weather, but is also a beautiful experience not to be missed.

“It’s just this incredible engagement tool,” she said. “I always call [monarchs] the gateway bug, I know for myself, if I had not had the experience, that physical contact with the butterfly, I don’t think I would be doing this. It’s very seductive to have that inter-species contact and I think that happens with people who come to the festival.”

Maeckle said this year organizers are hoping the festival can promote education and openness to talking about climate change, which she said goes hand in hand with the goal of encouraging interest in habitat-building and protection for monarchs, as well as for other pollinators like bees and birds. 

A complete list of festival events can be found here.

One highlight of the festival is a free livestreamed conversation Thursday with climate scientist and author Katharine Hayhoe at 6 p.m. at Legacy Park downtown. Hayhoe will be discussing her new book, Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World, with San Antonio Report Senior Reporter Brendan Gibbons. 

Climate scientist and author Katharine Hayhoe

“She approaches climate change from a very interesting and accessible perspective,” Maeckle said. “She’s somehow able to reach across the aisle and reach people in a way that other scientists are not able to, and she’s just lovely.”

Maeckle hopes events like the climate discussion with Hayhoe will be of interest to younger adults and motivate them to get involved in efforts to fight climate change.

At the Thursday event with Hayhoe, each person attending will be able to take home a pollinator plant to start their own garden, said Ashley Bird, the festival’s program director. Pots and soil also will be provided.

“You get to make your own plant, plant it in the pot, and take the pot with you for free,” Bird said. “Everyone gets to start their own pollinator garden.”

The festival’s free Oct. 16 event at Confluence Park includes hands-on activities designed to be accessible, fun, and get families and children invested in the importance of helping and protecting nature’s pollinators. It runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

“The whole objective is to create experiences where people can learn and connect with nature and the ecosystem and to be able to find a way to support it and, ideally, make a positive change in their life in regards to it,” Bird said.

San Antonio has earned designations as a Monarch Champion City and a Bird City Texas because of commitments and actions it has taken to protect the species and their habitats, and now Maeckle said the city is working to also earn a designation as a Bee City USA.

To that end, many of the activities at the festival will have a bee theme, including an opportunity for participants to don bee headbands made from upcycled materials and then complete a kayaking obstacle course mimicking the bees’ honey-making process, ending with a honey reward.

Bird said there will also be a story walk from Concepcion Park to Confluence Park that will take festival-goers through the journey that monarchs make every year from Canada to Mexico with signs and explanations along the route.

In past years the festival has been held at the Pearl, but Bird said the choice of Confluence Park, located south of downtown where San Pedro Creek meets the San Antonio River, for this year’s festival made a lot of sense for several reasons.

“Accessibility and equity are very important to us — making sure that all of San Antonio has the opportunity to participate — so Confluence Park really represents that,” Bird said. “It’s designed to educate people about the value of water, and water being essential to all pollinators, it’s a really easy tie-in to those two missions.”

Frates Seeligson, director of Confluence Park and executive director of the San Antonio River Foundation, said the mission of the festival fits perfectly with the foundation’s mission.

“Highlighting native ecology and how we are stewards of it and our actions to preserve it is right in line with protecting the water and watershed,” Seeligson said. “It’s a well-loved festival and we thought it was a nice opportunity to host it on the South Side of San Antonio at Confluence Park, which is a venue designed all around sustainability.”

Disclosure: Monika Maeckle is the co-founder of the San Antonio Report.

Jennifer Norris

Jennifer Norris has been working in journalism since 2005. She's a native Texan, but a new San Antonian who is excited to get to know the city.