It was about a Sacramento, Calif., family with eight children. The journalist/father, Tom Bradford, wrote a column for the fictitious Sacramento Register.
"Eight Is Enough!" the father declared.
He was wrong.
Eight is not nearly enough--that is, when it comes to rearing monarchs. Like a growing number of folks, we set out to do our part--a small scale-conservation project--to help the declining monarch population.
All season long, monarchs showed up to lay their eggs on the four species of milkweed in our pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif.
- Asclepias tuberosa
- Asclepias speciosa
- Asclepias curassavica
- Asclepias fascicularis
So to protect them from predators and diseases, we'd bring the caterpillars indoors and place them in a meshed, zippered butterfly habitat, purchased from the Bohart Museum of Entomology. There they munched away on milkweed, pupated, and voila! Adult monarchs ready to stretch their wings. Off they fluttered: to sip nectar, to mate, to migrate.
Fast-forward to mid-November. We walk out in the garden and spot something we shouldn't be seeing. Monarch caterpillars, munching away on the remaining tropical milkweed.
Just when we thought the season was over in November, it wasn't. Just when we thought the final count was 54 monarchs reared and released, it wasn't.
The November 'cat population: 12. We brought them indoors and began feeding them the last of the milkweed.
Of the 12 caterpillars, eight are now beautiful monarch butterflies.
The most recent three to join the monarch menagerie: one eclosed on Saturday, Dec. 24 (Christmas Eve); one on Sunday, Dec. 25 (Christmas Day), and one today, Tuesday, Dec. 27.
More monarchs to come...eight is not nearly enough!
Next: decision time for the eight monarchs.
Then it happened. The three monarchs caterpillars that we'd been rearing in our indoor butterfly habitat, pupated, forming those familiar, awe-inspiring jade-green chrysalids. Soon three monarchs--two males and a female--eclosed.
Should they go? Or should they stay?
The first monarch, a male, eclosed on Tuesday, Nov. 8, Election Day. What to do? Wait for the other two to eclose and drive them all to Santa Cruz—since we're going there any way on Monday, Nov. 14-- or release him now? Decisions, decisions, decisions.
An inner voice argued with me.
Me: “Release him. Let him be a butterfly.”
Inner Voice: “If we transport him there, he'll have a better chance of survival. It's November and pretty late in the migratory season for him to make that 113-mile journey. He can join the cluster of 800 to 1000 already there, overwintering high and happily in the eucalyptus trees, and then next February, he'll head inland.”
Me: “No. Release him. He's antsy. He wants out. Besides, how do you know if wants to go to Santa Cruz? Maybe that's not on his itinerary!”
So off went Butterfly No. 1, soaring 80 feet high into the air. He never looked back.
Then a female eclosed on Thursday, Nov. 10 and a male on Friday, Nov. 11, Veterans' Day. The weather report indicated rain within the next few days. Release them or drive them to Santa Cruz?
Me: “Well, since we're going there any way on Nov. 14, and the monarch population is declining, why not take these two to Santa Cruz?”
Inner Voice: “Yes! Why not?”
So off we went, Don, Marilyn, Jim, yours truly and the two monarchs, Danaus plexippus, well fed and roosting comfortably in their mesh butterfly habitat.
We left Fairfield mid-morning on Nov. 14, and after a 90-minute trip, arrived at Natural Bridges around noon. It was a picture-perfect autumn day, a day to treasure, with temperatures at 60 degrees and rising. And, there we were, standing in the monarch sanctuary, in awe of a thousand tiny butterflies silently clustering in the towering eucalyptus trees. From 80 feet below, the drab-graylike clusters looked ever so much like dead leaves. When the clusters broke in the warmth of the sun, the sanctuary took on a life—and color--of its own. The iconic orange, black and white butterflies glided and soared above us in numbers that folks rarely see.
There is strength in numbers. Color, too.
We found a secure place, away from the crowd, to release the Vacaville born-and-reared monarchs. The female went first, fluttering delicately out of Marilyn's hand to join the others. The male lingered several minutes on her finger, and then he, too, departed, soaring high.
Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose…
Poet Gertrude Stein once described Oakland as: “There is no there there.”
But in monarch overwintering sites in Santa Cruz, there is. There is a "there" when “they're there.”
A mid-life chrysalis?
Well, maybe not mid-life, but definitely out of season.
A female monarch butterfly eclosed today in our little indoor butterfly habitat. Two weeks ago, we “rescued” the caterpillar from a narrow-leafed milkweed plant in our Vacaville pollinator garden and brought it inside. Our goal: conservation. We sought to protect it from prey, including the resident scrub jays.
So, this morning, we lost a chrysalis and gained a butterfly. She was right on schedule: Eclosure after 10 days as a chrysalis.
When the temperature hit 61 degrees at around 1 p.m., we released her. She fluttered a bit, and then soared straight up, a good 80 feet high. Usually when we release the monarchs, they flutter around, sometimes touching down on a bush and sometimes soaring over it. This one wasted no time.
On its way to Santa Cruz?
Not sure. At 3:30 p.m., we spotted a monarch butterfly--same one?--roosting on our African blue basil as a dozen honey bees buzzed around, gathering nectar.
Meanwhile, the fellow members of her species are winging their way to their overwintering sites: the monarchs east of the Rockies to the Sierra Madre Mountains in Mexico, and those west of the Rockies to the California coast, including the Natural Bridges State Beach in Santa Cruz, and Pacific Grove in Monterey County. They cluster in eucalyptus, Monterey pines, and Monterey cypresses.
Monarchs do not fly at night. They travel only during the day and then find a roosting spot for the night. "Roost sites are important to the monarch migration," according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service. "Many of these locations are used year after year. Often pine, fir and cedar trees are chosen for roosting. These trees have thick canopies that moderate the temperature and humidity at the roost site. In the mornings, monarchs bask in the sunlight to warm themselves."
How many miles can monarchs travel a day? Between 50 to 100 miles, the Forest Service says. "It can take up to two months to complete their journey. The farthest ranging monarch butterfly recorded traveled 265 miles in one day."
Monarchs use a combination of directional aids, including the magnetic pull of the earth and the position of the sun. They take advantage of the air currents and thermals as they head toward their overwintering sights.
To think that we humans can barely make it out of the neighborhood without our GPS devices!
As of 5 p.m., the monarch roosting on the African blue basil is still there. The bees are gone, back to the warmth of their hives.
Tomorrow, our little buddy will warm her flight muscles, sip a little nectar, and take flight.
Safe travels, Miss Monarch!
Last Dec. 27 at the Natural Bridges State Park, we saw dozens of monarchs about 80 feet up in the eucalyptus trees. When the sun broke through the trees, assorted birds targeted them, scattering them like mosaic paper kites, much to the awe and aahs of the crowd below.
"Monarch butterflies are among the largest members of the family Nymphalidae in North America. Their caterpillars store toxic chemicals called cardiac glycosides in their bodies from the milkweed they eat. Cardiac glycosides make vertebrates like us quite sick, so don't eat a monarch butterfly or caterpillar if you can help it. The chemicals remain in the adult butterfly bodies as well but tend to be concentrated more in the wings than in the body. Interestingly, cardiac glycosides seem to have very little effect on insect predators and parasites."
"The annual North American migration begins as early as August. Populations west of the Rockies migrate to the Pacific Coast with overwintering roosts along the central California coast. One of the best known of these is in Pacific Grove, California. Populations east of the Rockies migrate to central Mexico. Adult monarchs typically only live a couple of months, although they can live up to 5 or 6 months so the individuals that emerge in early summer do not migrate. Each generation takes between 5 and 6 weeks from egg to adult. The last generation of the summer goes into migratory mode. They stop reproducing and fly in a linear fashion to one of the overwintering sites. These individuals generally do not begin reproducing until the following spring in February or March when they leave these sites and move north from the Mexican site or north and east from the Pacific Coast."
Welcome back, monarchs! You're now fueling up for mass migration.
From 75 to 80 feet below, they bore no resemblance to monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus), the most familiar butterfly in all of North America.
"Wait 'til the sun shines on them," a docent whispers. "That will be about 10 to 15 minutes." State park rangers and docents do not yell; they whisper.
At around 11 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 27, the sun's rays struck the cluster. Soon after, a bluejay scattered them.
The crowd below broke into applause. It's not often that a crowd applauds a miracle of nature, but that's exactly what it is. A miracle of nature as roosting monarchs winter in a Eucalyptus grove.
The Natural Bridges State Park is the only monarch butterfly preserve in the United States, according to a park publication. More than 100 permanent overwintering colony sites dot the California coast. They include Pismo Beach and Pacific Grove.
At the Natural Bridges State Park Visitors' Center, guests can see the four stages of the monarch: egg, larva, chrysalis and adult. Milkweed, the host plant, grows in a demonstration garden outside. Last Saturday the milkweeds were blooming as if were spring.
The winter-generation monarchs are usually born in late August or September "as the sun's rays and the days begin to shorten," according to a park publication. "This shortening of the light seems to trigger several important changes in these monarchs:
(2) They have the ability to store fat, which summer generations do not have, and they feed earnestly to build up stored body fats for the migration and the overwintering periods.
(3) They begin a serious migration to safe wintering roosts. They arrive at sites in California during October and in Mexico in November.
(4) At the wintering sites, they reduce their activity, extend their life span and wait until spring, usually February, to begin mating activities and producing the next generation of monarchs."
The roosting monarchs cluster like shingles on the limbs, needles and leaves of a number of trees, including the Eucalyptus, native to Australia. Among the other trees they favor: native Monterey pine, Monterey cypress and sycamore.
How are the monarchs able to hold on? With their tarsi, or backfacing claws. They roost in areas where winter temperatures don't dip to freezing. "The monarchs are looking for the refrigerator, not the freezer" in order to slow their metabolism, a park publication pointed out.
Other predators include the chestnut-backed chickadees, mockingbirds, phoebes, shrews and mice. In addition, several flies and wasps lay their eggs on the caterpillar.
School children touring the preserve soon learn how they differ from monarchs. Humans have two legs; butterflies have six legs; humans travel with their feet; butterflies with their wings; human smell with their noses; butterflies smell with their antennae. Humans taste with their tongues; butterflies have taste sensors on their feet, which are reportedly 2000 times more sensitive than the human taste buds.
Unfortunately, North America's monarch butterfly population is declining. Wintering groves are disappearing due to coastal development in California and logging in Mexico. And inland, loss of milkweed resources means a loss of their host plant. The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation recently related that the North America population of Monarchs has decreased by 90 percent in the past 20 years.
The good news, however, is that we humans are focused on the plight of the Monarch.
On Dec. 29, a Xerces press release proclaimed: "Monarch Butterfly Moves Toward Endangered Species Act Protection."
"In response to a petition by the Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Food Safety, Xerces Society and renowned monarch scientist Dr. Lincoln Brower, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said today that Endangered Species Act protection may be warranted for monarch butterflies," the press release began. "The agency will now conduct a one-year status review on monarchs, which have declined by 90 percent in the past 20 years."
Sarina Jepsen, the Xerces Society's endangered species director, was quoted as saying: “We are extremely pleased that the federal agency in charge of protecting our nation's wildlife has recognized the dire situation of the monarch. Protection as a threatened species will enable extensive monarch habitat recovery on both public and private lands.”