We first saw her at 10 a.m. on Oct. 27, 2017.
She was eating. That's what monarch caterpillars do best. They eat. A lot.
"Where have you been?" I asked. "Where have you been hiding? Your siblings have long gone. Your buddies passed through here in late August and September on their way to their overwintering sites in Santa Cruz and beyond."
How could I have missed her? This one was a fifth in-star and almost ready to pupate.
"Let's see. When your mama laid the egg, you hatched in about three to four days. You'll be a caterpillar for 10 to 14 days. Then you'll be in the pupa stage for 10 to 14 days. But that's all under normal conditions, summer conditions. This is fall, not normal conditions, little buddy."
The chubby black, yellow and white monarch caterpillar kept eating. "YOU could have been eaten, little buddy," I told her, glancing at the hungry California scrub jays vocalizing in the cherry laurels. True, milkweed contains a poisonous toxin that protects monarchs from predators, but birds do eat them. "Just not as much," says Louie Yang, associate professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis.
Then there are the other deadly encounters. Tachinid flies and braconid wasps parasitize the caterpillars and chrysalids. And some fall victim to that dreaded disease, Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, caused by an obligate, protozoan parasite.
Give her a chance, just a chance...
So, awed by her unexpected appearance, we prepared the indoor butterfly habitat for its last tenant of the season. Our monarch-rearing kit features a Patron tequila bottle; the narrow neck prevents the 'cats from drowning, and the broad, heavy base assures stability (this is one bottle that doesn't get tipsy!). Just add water, milkweed stems and the caterpillar, and center the bottle in the zippered habitat. Then you wait for the caterpillar to create a silk button and form a J. And then a chrysalis. And then an adult ready to generate more generations.
This November tenant, however, chose the most fragile, overhanging milkweed stem in the bottle to pupate. No mesh ceiling for her!
When the jade-green chrysalis formed on Nov. 4, it looked like a jeweled ornament dangling from a Christmas tree. Or a mid-life chrysalis.
Now, "hurry up and wait." In ideal conditions, a monarch ecloses in 10 to 14 days. In ideal conditions.
Nothing happened for 10 days. Then 12. Then 14. Then 18.
On Day 19, Nov. 22 (the day before Thanksgiving), the chrysalis darkened, revealing the orange, black and white wings in all its transparency. The chrysalis bulged, throbbed and swayed. Out slipped the butterfly, wings flat, wings pumping. She clung to the pupal case as her wings expanded. A big, strong and healthy girl.
On Thanksgiving Day, four adults, two dogs and one butterfly celebrated in Casa de la Garvey. At least we think the butterfly celebrated. She dropped to the floor of her habitat and sipped orange juice and a honey/water mixture. Then, sustained, she fluttered up to her perch, and began searching for an opening, an escape.
She. Wanted. Out.
Hmm...No way would she be able to fly three hours to the overwintering site in Santa Cruz in the cold and rain. And then there are those hungry California scrub jays hanging out in the cherry laurels...Just waiting...
It just so happened that a friend and pollinator advocate, Rita LeRoy, the self-described "farm keeper" at the Vallejo School District's Loma Vista Farm, Vallejo, was heading to Santa Cruz on Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, to show her out-of-town relatives the overwintering migratory butterfly sanctuary at the Natural Bridges State Beach Park. That's about a 100-mile trip from Vallejo.
Could Ms. Monarch hitch a ride?
She could. And she did.
Rita, who delights in showing area schoolchildren the monarchs that frequent Loma Vista Farm--she's also a Monarch Mom who rears and releases monarchs and is active in the Bay Area Pollinator Posse--unzipped the mesh habitat at the butterfly sanctuary.
Her sister-in-law captured an image of Miss Monarch in freedom's hands.
Wow! Just wow! From a caterpillar to a chrysalis to an adult. And there she was! In Rita's hands. In Santa Cruz. In the migratory butterfly sanctuary. With her buddies. Or soon-to-be buddies.
"She flew so fast that we didn't get a picture of her flying away," Rita lamented. "She was anxious to join her new friends."
"It was a beautiful day," Rita said, adding "Thank you for allowing me the pleasure of setting her free. I was so sad that my last ones (monarchs) didn't survive. It was really nice to have this happy experience."
Once upon a monarch...thanks to Rita, the ending could not have been better...
They're on their way.
Camera ready? Check. Notebook ready? Check!
Entomologist David James of Washington State University, Pullman, Wash., who studies the migration routes and overwintering sites of the Pacific Northwest monarch population, told us last Friday, Aug. 25: "Many monarchs have been/are being tagged in Southern Oregon! One has already been recovered showing southern movement, so its likely they will be heading your way very soon!" He maintains a network of Pacific Northwest citizen scientists who rear, tag and release monarchs.
Last year on Sept. 5, Labor Day, a tagged monarch--a male--from his citizen scientist program in Ashland, Ore., fluttered into our yard in Vacaville, Calif. for a five-hour "pit stop" on his way to an overwintering site, probably in Santa Cruz or Pacific Grove. We followed him around, watching him sip nectar from Mexican sunflowers and butterfly bushes. Then we contacted James, sending him photos and information, and wrote about the encounter on a Bug Squad blog.
The tag read "email@example.com," and serial number "A6093," which tied the butterfly to Ashland citizen scientist Steve Johnson of the Southern Oregon Monarchs Advocates (SOMA). Johnson tagged and released "A6093" on Sunday, Aug. 28.
"So, assuming it didn't travel much on the day you saw it, it flew 285 miles in 7 days or about 40.7 miles per day," James related. "Pretty amazing. So, I doubt he broke his journey for much more than the five hours you watched him--he could be 100 miles further south by now. Clearly, this male is on his way to an overwintering colony and it's possible we may sight him again during the winter in Santa Cruz or Pacific Grove!”
As far as we know, the Ashland reared-and-released monarch wasn't sighted again.
Fast forward to this year. We are seeing fewer monarchs this year than last. Last year we reared and released 60 monarchs in our small-scale monarch program. This season, however, we've noticed a drastic drop in the number of visitors to our pollinator garden, which includes plenty of milkweed, their host plant, and even more nectar sources. So far we've reared and released only four monarchs--three females and a male. Four chrysalids remain.
"Yes, it's been a dismal year for monarchs in many areas of the West, unfortunately," James wrote in an email on Aug. 29. "I think it stems from the late winter storms that hit the California coast just as the overwintering colonies were beginning to disperse... I think the survivors that produced the first spring generation of larvae were fewer in number than 'normal.' Consequently, the next generation (that begins migrating into the Pacific Northwest) was also smaller than usual. Many areas of the PNW had very few monarchs this year."
The good news, though, the associate professor said, is "that where monarchs did colonize in Washington, Idaho and Oregon, they had good breeding success, resulting in locally 'normal' or above normal sized summer populations. So I'm expecting an overwintering population comparable to last year. Thus, you should see a definite increase in numbers of monarchs coming through your yard over the next month!"
We hope so! Meanwhile, keep a lookout for those WSU-tagged monarchs. If you see one, try to photograph it and mail the image and information to David James at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 (email@example.com 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:
What amazing journeys!
For the last two months, migratory monarch butterflies have regularly stopped for flight fuel in our 600-square-foot pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif. to nectar on Mexican sunflower (Tithonia), butterfly bush (Buddleia) and Lantana.
At any given time--morning and afternoon throughout September and October--we'd see four and five in the garden. A veritable migratory corridor! A veritable visual feast!
Now it's November, and we haven't seen any for a week. They've probably already reached their destination--overwintering sites in the area, including Santa Cruz and Pacific Grove.
On Labor Day, we photographed a tagged one, part of the research project of David James, entomologist at Washington State University. (See Bug Squad blog; WSU News story by Linda Seiford; and a Daily Evergreen piece by reporter Haley Donwerth on the Vacaville find. ABC, Channel 10, Sacramento, also covered "Why does this butterfly have a sticker on it?", interviewing butterfly expert Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology.
It's exciting to read the reports on the Monarchs in the Pacific Northwest Facebook page, as the tagged monarchs are photographed and recorded. Several recent entries:
- Nov. 7: "Two new tag recoveries from California! Both are currently in the Lighthouse Field, Santa Cruz overwintering colony (currently numbering about 7000) and both were found by John Dayton. The tagged Monarch (shown on the page) has flown at least 750 miles from Redmond, WA where it was reared and released on September 20 by Connie Grandberg. This is the first recovery of a Seattle-area Monarch in our program! There are now 4 PNW-tagged Monarchs residing at Lighthouse Field! We will provide information on the second new recovery once we get all the associated details."
- Nov. 7: Our second new tag recovery from Santa Cruz! This one is remarkable in that it is almost obscured from view among the other butterflies. As luck would have it, the only bit of the tag showing for John Dayton's camera is the bit with the serial number! A6935, is a female, and she was reared in Brookings in southern Oregon by Andrea Christensen and released by her at nearby Redwood Bar along the Chetco River on August 25. Santa Cruz will be Ms A6935's winter home and who knows where she will go next spring? Many thanks to Andrea and John for making this recovery possible!"
- Nov. 2: "Today we proudly announce the 9th long distance tagged Monarch recovery of this season so far! A female Monarch tag B2174 was found on November 1 at Morro Bay State Beach by Regena Orr a biologist with CA State Parks. B2174 was among about 350 clustering Monarchs and has travelled an estimated 792 miles since September 8 when it was released in Yakima, Washington! This Monarch was reared by Cindy Dunbar as part of a rearing program between PNW Monarchs and Cowiche Canyon Conservancy. 152 monarchs were reared by the 14 members of this group in 2016 and this is the first recovery for the group Congratulations! This Monarch now holds the record of the longest distance traveled by a Yakima-released Monarch. The photo shows a silhouetted group of Monarchs at Morro Bay in 2015."
Stay tuned. And stay focused with your camera! You might see a tagged one at an overwintering site.
It apparently originated during World War II. Remember the 1942 film, "The Flying Tigers," starring John Wayne as Capt. Jim Gordon?
John Wayne, aka Jim Gordon, asks a Rangoon hotel clerk about a missing plane: "Any word on that flight yet?"
The hotel clerk replies that Japanese aircraft attacked the plane, but "She's coming in on one wing and a prayer."
Then there's the 1944 film, "Wing and a Prayer," about "the heroic crew of an American carrier in the desperate early days of World War II in the Pacific theater" (Wikipedia).
Fast forward to today, but this time with migratory monarchs. It seems that, they, too, fly on a "a wing and a prayer."
Over the last two months, we've seen dozens of migratory monarchs-often four or five at a time--stop for flight fuel in our 600-square foot pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif. Many arrive in poor condition, their wings gouged, shredded and tattered. Still, they manage to sip nectar from Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia), butterfly bush (Buddleia) and Lantana, and continue their hazardous journey.
Imagine how incredibly difficult it is for these tiny, fluttering insects to weather the elements, not to mention evading birds, praying mantids and other predators.
Not all will make it. But look for some to arrive in the overwintering spots along coastal California "on a wing and a prayer."