I recently interviewed for a blogging job with a nature-based nonprofit foundation. The director of the nonprofit sat and talked with me for two hours about his fascination with nature, especially a recent trip he and his wife had made to the Monarch Butterfly Grove near Pismo Beach, California. The couple was intrigued by the migration of monarch butterflies in and concerned about the decline of California monarch butterfly populations. Inspired by a recent viewing of the IMAX 3D film called “Flight of the Butterflies” at the California Science Center, they found themselves immediately embarking on a two-and-a-half-hour road trip north of Los Angeles to see the monarchs for themselves. The director was a decent wildlife photographer and showed me a half dozen photos of the monarchs that annually overcome the area like a biblical plague. (Photos included here are not his, but mine, except where noted.)

migration of monarch butterflies, decline of monarch population
Autumn leaf imposters pictured here in long hanging clumps in the direct center and right center of this photo.

When the director of this nonprofit first showed me a photocopy of his photos from the trip, I wondered, Where are the thousands of butterflies? In some photos, all I saw were pictures of dull, densely leaved trees; in others, some close-up shots of the monarchs and their caterpillars. I felt foolish at first, but on closer examination, the butterflies crystallized into view. The director mentioned later in our conversation that when it comes to natural wonders, it’s common for people to not see what is right in front of them.

After our meeting was over, I searched the internet and found a video of the migratory monarchs. They were clustered en masse on eucalyptus and pine trees, their beautiful orange wings flickering like blinking lights on an early Christmas tree. I felt a rush of emotion at the wonder of it, and even wiped a tear or two from my eyes. Admittedly, nature does that to me. So, I, too, set out with a camera to a migratory site along the California coast north of Los Angeles. I’m so glad I did.

migration of monarch butterflies, decline of monarch population
Adult monarchs shown here forming clusters on eucalyptus trees. The scientific name for the monarch butterfly is Danaus plexippus.

I didn’t make it all the way up to Pismo Beach, which seems to garner the title of the “best spot to see monarchs” but there are plenty of other locations to witness the California monarch butterfly migration, albeit with smaller populations. At these less-populated sites, it might take a bit of patience and self-education to locate monarchs, but it’s still pretty darn cool when you find them. Even though the butterflies are draped from the trees in clear view, depending on the temperature and cloud cover, instead of bright shades of orange, folks may see what I did in the photo: the underside of wings colored a dull yellow-brown that make the butterflies look like dead leaves on autumn trees. They are clustered together on branches of eucalyptus keeping warm while waiting for the sun, at which point they will take flight in search of water. The fact that they sometimes look like dying autumn leaves strikes me as apropos because monarchs arrive at Pismo and much of the central and southern California coast in late October each year. Those that travel to Mexico for overwintering tend to arrive between October 31 and November 2, coinciding with All Hallows Eve, All Souls Day, and All Saints Day respectively. To the Mexican community, the monarchs symbolize the annual return of the dearly departed, a joyous and reverent time of year.

migration of monarch butterflies, decline of monarch population
Pictured here is an adult monarch showing off its beautiful wings. Monarchs have a 30-day metamorphosis from egg, to caterpillar, to chrysalis, and finally to adult butterfly.

Whether it is in California or in Central Mexico, overwintering monarchs will not make it out of their winter location alive. Instead, after four months of near dormancy, they will become active, feeding and mating until they die. It is their offspring that will make the trip back north in the spring. Each spring and summertime generation of offspring will have a short lifespan—as short as two to six weeks—continuing the mating, dying and propagating cycle as each successive generation makes its way further and further north. Once the colder fall weather creeps in, the migratory cycle starts all over again.

California’s monarchs will only be in the area until about March, at the latest. By then, their caterpillar offspring will have eaten through the surface of their eggs, gorged themselves on milkweed plants, and will have emerged from their chrysalises ready to head back north.

Migration of Monarch Butterflies and the Decline in California Monarch Butterfly Populations

Monarch Butterfly Grove boasts the highest overwintering monarch population in the United States, but it is not the only destination of monarchs in North America. In fact, monarchs that reside west of the Rocky Mountains tend to overwinter in coastal California, while monarchs residing east of the Rocky Mountains tend to overwinter in Michoacán, Central Mexico. There are exceptions to these rules but overall, there are two primary population sets in the United States. Monarchs can start their trip from as far north as Canada, but the butterflies destined for Mexico (some 2,500 miles from southeastern Canada) represent the bulk of the migratory butterfly population. Several hundred million monarchs arrive in Mexico each year, though the numbers are dwindling. Those destined for the California coast once topped out at 230,000 in the 1990’s but now run only in the tens of thousands.

migration of monarch butterflies, decline of monarch population
Even the bees love eucalyptus trees, especially the flowers.

What’s So Great About California?

So, what exactly lures monarchs to the California coast? Is it the warm California sun? The superior dining options? The Beach Boys music playing off in the distance?

The warm California sun has a lot to do with it. Monarchs need to escape freezing weather but they are content to winter in slightly above-freezing temperatures. They also require water for drinking but need to be protected from the elements. Coastal California fits the bill for warmer winter temperatures and a marine layer that provides just enough dew and moisture to make monarchs happy. The areas that monarchs like best are those that have plenty of eucalyptus trees to hang out on all winter and plenty of milkweed plants to lay their eggs on in the spring. Milkweed is the one and only food source monarch caterpillars like to consume. The consumption of milkweed makes monarchs poisonous to eat, which is key to keeping their predators away and allowing monarchs to survive and thrive.

What’s NOT So Great About California?

There is so much that is not known about monarchs and their migration patterns that pinpointing the reason(s) for a decline in California monarch butterfly populations becomes an exercise in  speculation. Some of the culprits likely to influence the monarch population are:

          Urbanization, human overpopulation, and the misuse and overuse of natural resources

          Increased pollution

          Changing weather patterns

          The overuse of pesticides affecting food sources and water sources

Random weather events can have a catastrophic effect on the monarch population as well. In 2002, a bad winter storm in Mexico caused the death of so many monarchs that some forest floors were almost two-foot thick with dead butterflies. Logging activities in Mexico have impacted the population as well. And in the United States, urban and suburban sprawl threatens populations by overtaking natural habitats—homes, buildings, and highways are popping up more than dandelions in a spring field.

As interconnected as the earth’s ecosystem is, there are too many factors to definitively say what is causing the fluctuation of population even in just one little area. But if you live anywhere along the coast of California on up to Canada and love the gift of seeing the monarchs each year, there is something you can do to be part of the solution rather than the problem.

migration of monarch butterflies, decline of monarch population
Shown here is a monarch caterpillar enjoying milkweed. Milkweed also doubles as a nectar source for adult monarchs. Milkweeds belong to the family Asclepiadaeae, derived from Askepios, the Greek god of medicine and healing.

What Can You Do To Encourage The Butterflies To Stay?

Whether the monarchs are in California for a temporary visit or are considering making it their permanent home, coastal Californians can extend their hospitality by sprucing up the accommodations:

          The most immediate and effective thing you can do to ensure the survival of monarch butterflies is to plant as much milkweed as you can. It is a critical food source for monarch caterpillars, so make room on your property for milkweed. Plant it, or at least resist the temptation to cut it down. Remember, if there is no milkweed, monarchs will not have a place to deposit their eggs.

          Plant pine, cypress, and eucalyptus trees on your property. Monarchs tend to overwinter in groves with these particular trees.

          Natural Landscaping: Nothing says “I love you, Mother Earth” more than using natural landscaping on your property vs. overusing pesticides and over-manicuring. Reconsider your use of weed killers. Nature has graced us with plants and weeds that serve an important purpose in the food chain. When planning out your garden, try to use plants indigenous to the area. Do your part to help the ecosystem do what it does naturally.

          Less is more—less square footage to live in, that is. Instead of being part of the urban or suburban sprawl where building bigger and bigger houses and patios and living spaces is the norm, why not downsize or at least resist the desire to takeover more natural habitats? Humans and nature are in a battle for resources and humans are winning. Use what you need but leave the rest. Try totilt the scale in favor of nature.

With just a little consideration for nature and preparation for one of its most fascinating annual miracles on the California coast, maybe next year, the monarchs will come to your home to visit YOU! In the meantime, if you live in the area, be sure to visit the Monarch Butterfly Grove between November and February. Admission is free!

Check out the following links for more information related to the migration of monarch butterflies and the decline in California monarch butterfly populations:

·         IMAX 3D film, “Flight of the Butterflies” at the California Science Center: http://www.californiasciencecenter.org/Imax/Features/FlightOfTheButterflies/FlightOfTheButterflies.php

·         MonarchButterfly.org has great information on the Monarch Butterfly Grove near Pismo Beach, including population counts and the primary viewing locations all along the west coast of the United States:  http://www.monarchbutterfly.org/

Sources of Milkweed Seeds and Plants:

·         LiveMonarch.com provides free milkweed seeds:  http://www.livemonarch.com/free-milkweed-seeds.htm

·         MonarchWatch.org provides a list of sources of milkweed seeds and plants: http://monarchwatch.org/bring-back-the-monarchs/resources/plant-seed-suppliers

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