Merry Christmas has always been merry, but it's better with butterflies! Isn't everything better with butterflies?
Last year, in our small-scale monarch rearing project here in Vacaville, Calif., we saw one monarch eclose on Saturday, Dec. 24, one on Sunday, Dec. 25, and one on Tuesday, Dec. 27. What's missing this Christmas: no monarch butterflies.
In 2016 we reared and released 62 Danaus plexippus. This year, eight. We could blame it on predators, parasites, pesticides, loss of habitat, human errors, natural occurrences, climate change or MC (mysterious circumstances), but we won't. We do know this: eight is not enough.
Just one butterfly is a miracle of nature. That's whether you
- live in France and call it "papillon"
- live in Italy and call it "palomma"
- live in the Philippines and call it "paruparo"
- live in Portugal and call it "borboleta"
- live in Germany and call it “schmetterling"
- live in Vietnam and call it "npau npaim"
Butterflies are the canaries in our coal mines. Their very presence indicates a healthy environment and healthy ecosystem and represent symbols of hope, love, joy, change, transformation, strength and endurance.
They overcome the odds. We are part of those odds.
They are flowers with wings: flitting, fluttering and fluctuating flybys just out of our reach. Miracles of nature.
Merry Christmas! And may the best of what's to come be filled with butterflies.
A Sept. 7 article in Reuters, headlined "Monarchs in Western United States Risk Extinction, Scientists Say," indicated that "Monarch butterflies west of the Rocky Mountains are teetering on the edge of extinction, with the number wintering in California down more than 90 percent from the 1980s, researchers said in a study published on Thursday."
Reuters' reporter Laura Zuckerman wrote that "The migratory monarchs of the western United States have a 63 percent chance of extinction in 20 years and an 84 percent chance in 50 years if current trends continue, according to the study."
The scientists, led by Washington State University conservation biologist Cheryl Schultz, published their work in the journal Biological Conservation. It was funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is weighing the prospect of offering federal protection for monarch butterflies through the Endangered Species Act. The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation is among those spearheading the effort.
Noted lepidopterist Arthur Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology who has studied butterflies, including the monarchs, for more than four decades, doubts that the western monarchs are teetering on the edge of extinction.
Shapiro, who maintains a website, Art's Butterfly World. says that yes, the western monarchs have been declining faster than the eastern monarchs, as per the Biological Conservation paper. However, during the drought, California populations appeared to rebound significantly, and it is not known whether the trend will persist, he says.
Their comprehensive and well-researched work, titled "Understanding a Migratory Species in a Changing World: Climatic Effects and Demographic Declines in the Western Monarch Revealed by Four Decades of Intensive Monitoring," was funded in part by the National Science Foundation. Their Oecologia abstract: "Migratory animals pose unique challenges for conservation biologists, and we have much to learn about how migratory species respond to drivers of global change. Research has cast doubt on the stability of the eastern monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) population in North America, but the western monarchs have not been as intensively examined. Using a Bayesia hierarchial model, sightings of western monarchs over approximately 40 years were investigated using summer flight records from ten sites along an elevational transect in Northern California."
"Multiple weather variable were examined, including local and regional temperature and precipitation. Population trends from the ten focal sites and a subset of western overwintering sites were compared to summer and overwintering data from the eastern migration. Records showed western overwintering grounds and western breeding grounds had negative trends over time, with declines concentrated early in the breeding season, which were potentially more severe than in the eastern population."
"Temporal variation in the western monarch also appears to be largely independent of (uncorrelated with) the dynamics in the east. For our focal sits, warmer temperatures had positive effect during spring. These climatic associations add to our understanding of biotic-abiotic interactions in a migratory butterfly, but shifting climatic conditions do not explain the overall, long-term, negative population trajectory observed in our data."
In acknowledgments, Shapiro and his colleagues thanked the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation and the North American Butterfly Association for the monarch counts and making the data publicly available.
Meanwhile, since late August, the western monarchs (Arizona, California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Utah) have been winging their way to their overwintering spots to forested groves along coastal California.
And then, around February, they will head inland to start the process again.
It's an amazing phenomenon.
As I write this, four monarchs are gathering some flight fuel, nectaring from two M's: milkweed and Mexican sunflower in our little pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif., part of their migratory path to the coast. They flutter from flower to flower, seemingly unaware of the California scrub jay circling them and a photographer zeroing in on them. Or the rain about to fall.
A little haggard, a little worn, a little ragged, a little torn.
But there she was on Monday, Aug. 1, the first monarch of the season to lay eggs in our little pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif.
She found the milkweed, but that was AFTER the aphids, milkweed bugs, praying mantids, assassin bugs and assorted spiders claimed it.
It's always a joy to see the majestic monarch fluttering through a pollinator garden. On Sunday, July 31, a male lingered for two hours, nectaring on the Mexican sunflower (Tithonia) as the male territorial longhorn bees tried to chase him away. No welcome mat for him! No place setting for him!
Then today, a female arrived, first stopping by the showy milkweed, Asclepias speciosa, to lay eggs and then fluttering over to the tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, to lay more.
It's amazing how the monarchs, Danaus plexippus, know how to put their "resources" in multiple places. Like the idiom that cautions "don't put all your eggs in one basket," instinctively they seem to know that if they put all their resources in one place, they could lose them all. There's a better chance of offspring survival if they spread the eggs around.
Looking back at 2016, monarch butterflies reigned supreme--or at least they did in this Bug Squad blog!
Finding--and photographing--a tagged monarch butterfly (firstname.lastname@example.org A6083) in our pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif. on Labor Day, Sept. 5, highlighted the year. The migratory butterfly, a male, was part of a research project led by Washington State University entomologist David James, who maintains a network of Pacific Northwest citizen scientists who rear, tag and release monarchs (Danaus plexippus).
Turns out that Steve Johnson of Ashland, Ore., a member of the Southern Oregon Monarchs Advocates (SOMA), reared A6083. Johnson tagged and released the monarch in Ashland on Aug. 28, which means "that it flew 285 miles in 7 days or about 40.7 miles per day" to reach Vacaville on Sept. 5, James related.
Amazing! Amazing and serendipitous for several reasons: (1) I'd written a piece about James' research in October 2014, alerting readers to watch for tagged monarchs (and never expecting to see or photograph a WSU-tagged butterfly in our own backyard) (2) WSU is my alma mater, and (3) our family rears monarchs as a small-scale conservation project to help the declining monarch population.
Our pollinator garden caters to bees and butterflies. For the monarchs, we provide four species of milkweed, ranging from narrow-leaf to broadleaf, and grow such nectar-producing plants as Mexican sunflower (Tithonia) to butterfly bush (Buddleia), and Lantana.
This year our monarch-rearing season proved quite lengthy; it crept into winter. Monarchs continued to lay their eggs throughout November, with chrysalids forming in December. Today the reared-and-released tally is 62 and counting...counting because No. 63 eclosed Dec. 29 and has not yet been released, and No. 64 is still a chrysalis.
"Monarch Moms" and "Monarch Dads" and "Monarch Kids" differ in their rearing activities, but the concept is the same: protect them from predators and parasites. Otherwise about 97 percent of the eggs never complete the cycle of egg, caterpillar, and chrysalis to adult. We rear our caterpillars indoors in a zippered, meshed butterfly habitat (purchased from the Bohart Museum of Entomology, UC Davis), but some laundry bags will suffice. We fill a heavy, flat-bottomed, narrow-necked tequila bottle with water and just add milkweed and 'cats. There they munch on milkweed, pupate, and eclose. The best part of rearing monarchs? Releasing them. The lift-off, the flutter of wings, and it's time to be a butterfly.
A look back at the WSU traveler and a view of the monarch life cycle that unfolded in our pollinator garden:
It all started in mid-to-late November when 12 caterpillars surfaced in our pollinator garden in Vacaville. What! What are you doing here? Didn't you get the memo?
We'd just reared and released 54 monarchs. We'd just winterized the garden, pruning back the plants except for one flowering tropical milkweed. We'd leave that for the pollinators, and then, it, too, would freeze.
Well, so would the 12 monarch caterpillars.
Twelve! A dozen hungry, hunkered-down striped ‘cats. Talk about challenges! Too cold, too rainy, too little food and too many predators to survive.
Without a second thought, we brought them inside, tucked them into two zippered, meshed butterfly habitats (from the Bohart Museum of Entomology, UC Davis) and fed them milkweed. There they munched away, at times appearing to “sway” to soft classical music or “shake” to the harsh political news on National Public Radio. Friends and relatives came and went, glancing quizzically at us and the 'cats. “What are you going to do with them?”
A young girl was walking along a beach upon which thousands of starfish had been washed up during a terrible storm. When she came to each starfish, she would pick it up, and throw it back into the ocean. People watched her with amusement.
“She had been doing this for some time when a man approached her and said, “Little girl, why are you doing this? Look at this beach! You can't save all these starfish. You can't begin to make a difference!”
The girl seemed crushed, suddenly deflated. But after a few moments, she bent down, picked up another starfish, and hurled it as far as she could into the ocean. Then she looked up at the man and replied, “Well, I made a difference to that one!”
The old man looked at the girl inquisitively and thought about what she had done and said. Inspired, he joined the little girl in throwing starfish back into the sea. Soon others joined, and all the starfish were saved.
Could these monarchs be starfish?
It was the holiday season and it was beginning to look a lot like chrysalids. The ‘cats, all 12 of them, each formed a “J.” Then came the chrysalids, those gorgeous gold-studded jadelike jewels--Mother Nature's magic, Father Time's gift, and humanity's treasure. The chrysalids held their own, in belligerent testimony to the monarch butterflies that didn't get the memo: “Reproduction is over!”
Despite the severity of the season outside, the monarchs thrived on the care and warmth inside. They fluttered around, dined on raspberries, orange juice and sugar-water, and roosted on the sides and ceiling of the butterfly habitat while National Public Radio “entertained” them.
What to do? Consider them “starfish” and drive “The Monarch Eight” to an overwintering spot along coastal California? (We'd just been to Santa Cruz, a 226-mile round trip, on Nov. 14.) Release them in Vacaville on a wing and a prayer? Or transport them to the Bohart Museum for “bed and breakfast” and public observation?
A friend who's an educator, a naturalist, a photographer, and an insect and gardening enthusiast came up with the ahh-so-perfect plan. Rita LeRoy, the 26-year “farm keeper” at the Vallejo City Unified School District's Loma Vista Farm, (a 5-acre outdoor classroom that provides hands-on educational activities involving plants and animals for children of all ages and abilities), told us of her pending trip to the monarch overwintering sites in Santa Cruz and said she'd be delighted to take them there.
So off the Vacaville-bred and reared monarchs went on Wednesday morning, Dec. 28 with the Good Monarcharians from Vallejo. Unlike Rita and Walter, however, the monarchs didn't know where they were going. One minute they're listening to NPR on a kitchen counter in Vacaville, and the next thing they know, an hour-and-a-half later, they're joining their buddies in Santa Cruz. Whoa! How did that happen? How'd we migrate that fast?
Rita LeRoy, known as "Farmer Rita" at Loma Vista Farm, released them, one by one, starting at 1 p.m. at the Lighthouse Field State Park. Flight! Freedom! Friends! One monarch lingered on her finger--probably the one that had eclosed the day before. The others did not linger. “The rest flew away to meet their new friends,” she related.
The overwintering site proved breathtaking, with the sun showcasing the hundreds of the iconic orange, black and white butterflies dancing in the warm breeze. “There were so many butterflies,” she marveled. “It was amazing.”
What a happy ending to a story about a small-scale conservation project that began in Vacaville and took flight in Santa Cruz. First we humans gave them roots; then we gave them wings.
Now this story has legs. “I enjoy learning about the interconnections in nature so I can share this information with the students,” said Rita-the-teacher (and a 25-year 4-H leader). “Monarchs are excellent example of the interconnection between plants and animals and the need for people to assist with the conservation of this beautiful creature.”
Yes, monarchs can be starfish, too.