If you traveled to the Natural Bridges State Park in Santa Cruz this fall or to any of the other overwintering monarch sites along coastal California to see these iconic butterflies, did you see very many?
The Xerces Society of Invertebrate Conservation today announced "disturbingly low numbers" of monarch butterflies sightings.
"The Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count (WMTC) has been done annually for the last two decades," wrote Matthew Shepherd, director of communications and outreach. "We're still completing the count for this year, but preliminary results show disturbingly low numbers of monarch butterflies overwintering in California."
"The count results that we have from 97 sites show only 20,456 monarchs. In case you're thinking--'Wait, why say anything now before you have all the data?'--it's worth noting that the sites already reported include many of the most important overwintering groves and combined host the majority of monarchs overwintering in California. In 2017, these sites hosted approximately 148,000 butterflies, more than three quarters of the total monarch overwintering population. The 2018 numbers represents an 86% decline from last year—which was already a low population year."
"We were not expecting this to be a great year because we knew it had been a rough season in the breeding and migratory range, but it's looking worse than anyone had expected," Shepherd related. "If the rest of the Thanksgiving Count data show the same trend as these sites, we anticipate seeing less than 30,000 butterflies overwintering in California this winter. In comparison, last year there were more than 192,000 butterflies counted; in 1997, it was estimated that more than 1 million overwintered; and research suggest that there were at least 4.5 million monarchs overwintering in California in the 1980s."
To read more about the count and what may be causing this abrupt decline in numbers, access the Xerces blog, Early Thanksgiving Counts Show a Critically Low Monarch Population in California.
The Facebook page, Monarch Butterflies in the Pacific Northwest, affiliated with the migratory monarch research projects of Washington State University entomologist David James, knows the situation well.
On Nov. 27, the administrators posted: "This time last year we had found almost 50 of our PNW-tagged Monarchs in California! This year is a very different story with just 10 tag recoveries so far in California. The tenth recovery occurred on November 19 at the Moran Lake overwintering site in Santa Cruz. E5363 was spotted and photographed by John Dayton. This male was reared by Belinda Vos and released in Talent, Oregon on August 17 into extremely smoky skies. Regardless, E5363 flew 367 miles across the landscape to get to Santa Cruz."
And on Nov. 19, the PNW administrators posted:
"Good survival of our small overwintering populations is even more important this year, if we are to see a rebound in numbers next breeding season. However, we may get a boost from the eastern US population which unlike the west had an excellent breeding season in 2018. Back in 1994, the western Monarch population crashed to 'nothingness' then bounced back the next year. The late and revered Monarch researcher, Lincoln Brower connected this remarkable recovery with a likely westward shift of spring migrating Monarchs from the Mexican overwintering sites. He theorized that the western population may be subject to periodic declines from drought and climate cycles and depends on refreshment from Mexico. We will get the opportunity to see if this occurs in spring 2019. If the large summer population of monarchs in the eastern US translates into a large overwintering population, any 'leakage' to west of the Rockies could be significant. Let's keep our fingers crossed!"
And the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service posted this on its Facebook page yesterday: "The California overwintering monarch population has been reduced to less than 0.5% of its historical size and has declined by 86% compared to 2017."
Want to help them? Here are a few things you can do, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service:
- Observe and report monarch sightings: https://www.monarchmilkweedmapper.org/
- Plant nectar resources and native plants
- Reduce pesticide use
Meanwhile, brace yourself for a dreary monarch season next year.
It was a dismal year in Vacaville (and other parts of California) for monarch-rearing. Of the 10 caterpillars we collected from milkweed in our pollinator garden in early September and tried to rear, only eight made it.
One caterpillar died when a sibling attacked it. Another caterpillar made it to the chrysalis stage, and then it succumbed.
"The intersegmental membranes are showing," observed butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, who has researched butterflies for more than four decades and maintains a research website at http://butterfly.ucdavis.edu. "Whatever caused that, it opens the door to severe water loss, so the pupa will probably die."
Yes, it did.
Black lines rimmed the non-viable chrysalis, and then it deteriorated almost beyond recognition.
Lynn Epstein, UC Davis emeritus professor of plant pathology, photographed it under a Leica DVM6 microscope on Nov. 2. An amazing image.
Meanwhile, perhaps the eight monarchs we reared and released made it to an overwintering site along the California coast...maybe to the eucalyptus grove at the Natural Bridges State Park, Santa Cruz.
Or maybe they encountered a predator--a praying mantis or a bird.
Regardless, the declining monarch populations at the overwintering sites along coastal California are troubling.
The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, based in Portland, Ore., noted in a news release Feb. 2, 2018 that the "annual census of monarch butterflies overwintering along California's coast reveals that populations in western North America are at their lowest point in five years, despite recovery efforts. Volunteers with the Xerces Society's Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count visited more sites this past year than have ever been counted since the survey began in 1997, yet they tallied fewer than 200,000 monarchs."
“This year's numbers indicate a continuing decline in the monarch population,” noted Sarina Jepsen, the Xerces Society's endangered species program director. “Two decades ago, more than 1.2 million monarchs were recorded from far fewer coastal sites, and just last year nearly 300,000 monarchs were observed at almost the same number of sites.” Population estimates at individual sites also suggest that the western monarch population has continued to shrink. Of the 15 sites which have been monitored annually for more than two decades, 11 had lower counts than last year."
Also in the news release, Emma Pelton, conservation biologist with Xerces, said: “Counts at some of the state's largest sites were dramatically lower. Pismo Beach State Park was down by 38 percent, a private site in Big Sur was down by 50 percent, and the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary in Pacific Grove was down 57 percent, from 17,100 to just 7,350 butterflies.”
Xerces Society officials also noted that "the few sites in which monarch numbers remained stable or increased compared to 2016, include Natural Bridges State Park, Moran Lake, and Lighthouse Field State Park, all in Santa Cruz County."
We like to think that The Vacaville Eight were The Lucky Eight.
It's Halloween and scores of trick-or-treaters are donning monarch butterfly costumes.
But they can't do justice to the living monarchs, those iconic, majestic butterflies that are always dressed in Halloween colors: black and orange.
It's always a treat to see them but they have to avoid the "tricks"--predators and parasitoids.
Among the last monarchs we reared in September: a brightly colored female, healthy and strong and rarin' to go.
Where is she now, on Halloween? Is she overwintering in Santa Cruz or Pacific Grove? Or, did a predator, perhaps a California scrub jay or a praying mantis, nail her?
We don't known "witch" way she went, but as she fluttered away, we wished her "Safe travels!"
It's been a troubling year for monarchs, Danaus plexippus, according to butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, who maintains a research website, Art's Butterfly World. "I have not seen a wild egg or caterpillar of the monarch this entire calendar year at low elevations," he said Sept. 6, 2018 during an interview on the "Insight with Beth Ruyak" program, Capital Public Radio, Sacramento. "Not one." (Listen to the interview.)
Where to see the overwintering monarchs in California?
They've been found at more than 400 sites along the California coast, according to the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. "The mild winters of the California coast are a perfect haven from the harsh cold weather found in our country's interior," Xerces says on its website. "Monarchs take advantage of this climate and often use the same overwintering sites year after year. Congregations of overwintering monarchs have been found at more than 400 sites along the California coast, from Mendocino County in the north to San Diego in the south. For many people, the arrival of autumn along the California coast is marked by the flutter of orange and black as monarchs arrive at these groves and settle in for the winter."
"The last few years have witnessed low numbers of butterflies throughout the region compared to the late 1990s, but there are still many places to view overwintering monarchs and get involved!"
And when you do, you'll be helping the bees, butterflies, beetles and bats.
The gardens? They can be public or private gardens or landscapes that support pollinators. If you don't have access to a garden, you can fill pots with pollinator plants and grace your deck, patio, balcony or windowsill.
The Porland, Oregon-based Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, an international nonprofit organization that protects wildlife through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitat, is a partner. Communications director Matthew Shepherd wrote a blog last June challenging us all to help the pollinators. The Garden Network, coordinated by the National Wildlife Federation, is an outgrowth of the White House's National Pollinator Strategy. "It draws together nearly two dozen nonprofits and organizations with a shared aim, to make gardens better for pollinators nationwide," Shepherd says.
Your garden should offer a diversity of plants rich in nectar and pollen. No pesticides. That bears repeating. No pesticides. And don't mulch your entire garden; leave some bare soil for solitary bees to nest. And it's good to install bee condos for leafcutter bees and blue orchard bees.
You can register your garden on the SHARE website where "visitors will be able to visually track the progress of the campaign," according to the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge. "Registrants can upload photos and videos of their sites, and the map can be sorted by garden type. In addition, a metric to assess pollinator garden actions across multiple organizations will be in effect as the campaign progresses."
What's in Matthew Shepherd's garden in Beaverton, Ore.?
- Bee balm
- Black-eyed Susans
- Blanket flower
- Bleeding heart
- California fuchsia
- English lavender
- False indigo
- French lavender
- Giant hyssop
- Grape hyacinth
- Great northern aster
- Jerusalem artichoke
- Lamb's ear
- Narrow-leaf coreopsis
- New England aster
- Oregon grape
- Plains coreopsis
- Prairie coneflower
- Purple coneflower
- Riddell's goldenrod
- Showy milkweed
- Wood rose
- Wood strawberry violets
"The front is sunny, the back a shady forest edge—part of the reason for the diversity of plants," Shepherd noted.
In our bee/butterfly garden in Vacaville, Calif., we've planted milkweeds (host plant of the Monarchs), passionflower vine (host plant of the Gulf Fritillaries), English lavender, salvias, blue beard, catmint, lantana, Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia), Photinia, butterfly bushes, honeysuckle, blanket flower, California poppies, alyssum, gaura, California fuchsia, crape myrtle, African blue basil, cherry laurels, foxgloves, sedum, dwarf bulbine, oregano, rock purslane, cosmos, zinnias, tomatoes, cucumbers, pomegranates, olives, lemons and tangerines, to name a few.
We're feeding the bees, butterflies and beetles. And other pollinators, such as hummingbirds and moths. We're not feeding the praying mantids. They're feeding themselves.
It's sad to see and say, but like honey bees, the bumble bee population is declining, and that decline is alarming. Public awareness can help turn this around.
That's why we're glad to see that the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, based in Portland, Ore., has just published a free downloadable booklet titled Conserving Bumble Bees: Guidelines for Creating and Managing Habitat for America’s Declining Pollinators.
The booklet outlines "the important role bumble bees play in both agricultural and wild plant pollination, details the threats they face, and provides information on how land managers can create, restore, and enhance high quality habitat," the authors said. "Importantly, these guidelines describe how land managers can adapt current practices to be more in sync with the needs and lifec ycle of bumble bees."
The booklet also includes bumble bee identification guides to both common and imperiled species in each region and lists important bumble bee plants.
One of the many plants they go for is lavender. In our yard we see as many as 10 yellow-faced bumble bees (Bombus vosnesenskii) foraging at one time. The bumble bees share the lavender with honey bees, syrphid flies, drone flies, blue and green bottle flies, carpenter bees, ladybugs, spotted cucumber beetles, butterflies, katydids, grasshoppers and a few predators, including crab spiders and jumping spiders.