Today was a Monarch Kind of Day...in Vacaville.
When Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, searched for butterfly species today at one of his field sites--Gates Canyon in Vacaville--he spotted not one, but two monarchs.
He spotted them separately, both near the bottom of the Brazelton property, and recorded "Two Danaus plexippus: one large, fresh-looking male; one small, unfresh-looking female."
Shapiro, who maintains a research website, Art's Butterfly World (he's monitored the butterfly population in central California since 1972), knows just how scarce monarchs are this year.
Yes, they are. In the fall of 2016, we'd see seven or eight monarchs at a time flutter in for nectar or lay eggs on our milkweed in our Vacaville pollinator garden. This year they're as scarce as the proverbial hen's teeth. However, over the last two weeks, they're starting to appear, one sighting at a time, one monarch a day. They are mostly huge, fresh-looking males seeking nectar from our patch of Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia). A few are females that head over to the tropical milkweed or Tithonia. Solo sightings.
But today was a Monarch Kind of Day.
Around noon, two monarchs arrived at the same time and they both sipped nectar from the Tithonia at the same time. In tandem. Inches away.
It was a Monarch Kind of Day.
Happy Presidents' Day.
It's day we honor not only George Washington and Abraham Lincoln but all the men (no women yet!) who have served as President of the United States.
"The federal holiday honoring Washington was originally implemented by an Act of Congress in 1879 for government offices in Washington and expanded in 1885 to include all federal offices," according to Wikipedia. "As the first federal holiday to honor an American president, the holiday was celebrated on Washington's birthday under the Gregorian calendar, Feb. 22. On Jan. 1, 1971, the federal holiday was shifted to the third Monday in February by the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. This places it between February 15 and 21, which makes 'Washington's Birthday' something of a misnomer, since it never occurs on Washington's actual birthday, Feb. 22."
"A rough analog of this phenomenon can be seen in Commonwealth realms, where the reigning monarch's official birthday is celebrated without regard to their actual date of birth."
There you have it.
And speaking of monarchs and Presidents' Day, it's a good time to post a monarch on the American flag. Danaus plexippus reigns supreme in the world of butterflies, in that it's arguably the most recognized butterfly.
The embattled monarch--some folks want to see it listed as threatened or endangered--will be the subject of a session hosted by the Environmental Defense Fund on Feb. 28 at the University of California, Davis. It's by invitation only. But one of the speakers is Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology.
Shapiro, who has monitored the entire butterfly faunas (including monarchs) at 10 locations along I-80 coordinator for more than four decades, just published a commentary in the Davis Enterprise headlined "So the Monarch Is Endangered--Now What?"
He began with "So the monarch butterfly is in trouble and various folks, including the editorial board of the Sacramento Bee, want California or the United States, or both, to declare it endangered or at least threatened (Bee editorial Feb. 5). Great, then what?
"The fact is, nobody can answer that question competently."
"There is no disputing the facts: Monarch butterfly populations in California have dropped catastrophically," he wrote. "Based on counts of adults overwintering along the coast, numbers have dropped from some 4.5 million in the 1980s to a mere 28,429 this year. At one site, Bolinas, numbers dropped 90 percent in one year from 12,360 in 2017 to 1,256 this year."
"But the decline has not been linear or monotonic, and it is very poorly understood."
He noted: "Conservation organizations are promoting lists of things private citizens and organizations can do to help “save the monarch.” The most-often-repeated one is to plant milkweed, its larval host plant. But there is absolutely no evidence that there is any milkweed shortage in California, let alone that such a shortage is driving monarch declines."
Shapiro went on to write that "there are huge holes in our knowledge of basic monarch biology, and those translate into our inability to say why monarchs are in decline."
Shapiro noted in his commentary that "We have been stuck with using the winter censuses, which are easy to generate, as our measure of population size. But the winter numbers are the sum of everything that happened during the year, which is hidden from our view except very locally. One can do statistical analyses with them and they will give you some kind of an answer, but will it tell us anything used in interpreting reality?"
"The point of giving species protection under Endangered Species legislation is to provide a legal umbrella to encourage actions that will promote species recovery. Most endangered species have discrete populations and their critical habitat and resources can thus be protected. The monarch is different. There is no point in declaring it threatened or endangered if that, like planting milkweed, is just a feel-good action unlikely to translate into any benefit to the species."
As for the meeting at UC Davis on Feb. 28, "its first order of business," Shapiro believes, "should be to decide what we need to know that we don't know in order to take meaningful action on the monarch (and by extension, to help the rest of our imperiled butterfly fauna)."
'Twas the night before Christmas when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse
--Clement Clarke Moore
We never tire of hearing that immortal poem, but this year let's offer another version:
'Twas the night before chrysalis when all through the land
Not a monarch was stirring, can you give us a hand?
That's because those iconic monarchs, Danaus plexippus, are in trouble.
"An epic migration, on the verge of collapse," says the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation on its website.
"In the 1990s, nearly 700 million monarchs made the epic flight each fall from the northern plains of the U.S. and Canada to sites in the oyamel fir forests north of Mexico City, and more than one million monarchs overwintered in forested groves on the California Coast. Now, researchers and citizen scientists estimate that only a fraction of the population remains, a decline of more than 80% has been seen in central Mexico and a decline of 97% has been seen in coastal California."
We're all accustomed to seeing and reading about the migratory monarchs traveling from the Pacific Northwest to coastal California. Entomologist David James of Washington State University studies the migratory monarchs and engages citizen scientists in his program.
Statistics show that 10 million monarchs overwintered in coastal California in the 1980s. The latest count this year: about 300,000. They seem to be as scarce as goodwill on earth.
There are some things we can do:
- Plant milkweed, their host plant
- Plant nectar-rich flowers, such as Tithonia (Mexican sunflower), purple coneflowers, zinnias, verbena, lantana, asters, butterfly bush and bottlebrush (Check out the Xerces Society's nectar guide for your area.)
- Don't use pesticides
'Twas the night before chrysalis when all through the land
Not a monarch was stirring, can you give us a hand?
It's a magical moment.
First an egg, then a caterpillar, then a chrysalis, and then a butterfly, Danaus plexippus.
We took some images of a monarch eclosing back on Sept. 10, 2016. It was late in the season. While other monarchs were migrating to coastal California, some were fluttering into our yard in Vacaville, Calif., nectaring on blossoms, mating, and laying eggs on milkweed, their host plant.
The caterpillar, from the first instar to the fifth instar, munches the milkweed like there's no tomorrow (maybe there isn't?), and then forms an emerald green chrysalis, dotted with gold that's reminiscent of royalty. When it turns transparent, you can see the familiar black and orange wings, a promise of what's to come.
It takes about two weeks for an adult butterfly to emerge from its chrysalis and then it slides out--swoosh!--and hangs upside down, pumping fluids into its expanding wings. When the wings dry, off it goes. Sometimes it soars high into the sky. Sometimes it just lingers.
If you're a butterfly aficionado, you never get tired of watching that magical moment when a monarch ecloses.
Here's to Independence Day and to America's favorite butterfly, the monarch.
The research paper covered the first five years, 2012 to 2016, of the ongoing project. Citizen scientists tagged and released nearly 15,000 monarchs in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and British Columbia in the late summer and fall. The number recovered? Sixty.
"On average, these butterflies averaged almost 40 miles of travel each day," James told the WSU News Service. "That's pretty remarkable for such a small creature."
One of the monarchs released Aug. 28, 2016 in Ashland, Ore., by citizen scientist Steven Johnson fluttered into our yard in Vacaville, Calif., on Sept. 5, a 457-kilometer journey. We happened to be home and photographed the traveler, a male. The discal cell tag read "firstname.lastname@example.org 6093." WSU is my alma mater, so double excitement!
What was the longest recorded journey? A monarch that David James released in Yakima, Wash. It was recovered near Goleta, Calif., a distance of 845 miles.
When No. 6093 stopped in our yard for some flight fuel, he sipped nectar from Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia) and butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) and milkweed (in this case, tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica.)
Scientists believe that monarchs ride warm air currents (thermals) a few thousand feet from the ground. Then, they use strong upper-air currents to navigate.
It's a long, tough journey, averaging nearly 500 miles, and often with strong winds, heavy rain, or triple-digit temperatures. They need food (nectar from flowers) and often they don't escape predators, including birds, praying mantids and spiders, and such diseases as Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, a protozoan parasite.
Perhaps some day migrating monarchs will be microchipped, if a lightweight chip is invented. "Then we can just chip 100 or 200 butterflies and not tag 15,000," James pointed out.
The research paper is titled "Citizen Scientist Tagging Reveals Destinations of Migrating Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus (L.) from the Pacific Northwest." (See this site for the full text).
The fall migration of Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) in the Pacific Northwest (PNW) was studied in an unfunded citizen science project during 2012—16 by tagging 13778 reared and 875 wild Monarchs. More than a third of these Monarchs were reared by inmates of the Washington State Penitentiary (WSP) in Walla Walla, Washington. Sixty (0.41 %) tagged Monarchs were recovered from distances greater than 10 km (mean: 792.9 ± 48.0 km) with most found in California, SSW of release points. One WSP-reared Monarch was found 724 km to the SE in Utah. Monarchs tagged in Oregon flew SSE to California. No Idaho-tagged Monarchs were found in California but two were recovered at locations due south. No wild tagged Monarchs from Washington, Oregon or Idaho were recovered. Monarchs from Washington and Oregon were found during October-February at 24 coastal California overwintering sites spanning 515 km from Bolinas to Carpinteria. A single wild spring Monarch tagged in May in northern California was recovered 35 days later and 707 km ENE in Twin Falls, Idaho. This study provides compelling evidence that many Monarchs in southern and central parts of Washington and Oregon migrate south in the fall to overwintering sites along the California coast. It also provides some evidence for southerly and south-easterly vectoring of migrating Monarchs from eastern Washington and Idaho, indicating the possibility of migration to Arizona or Mexico overwintering sites. In addition to improving our understanding of Monarch migration in the PNW, this study also contributed to conservation by adding nearly 14000 butterflies to the population. The incredible involvement of incarcerated and non-incarcerated citizen scientists generated much community and media interest which in turn led to greater involvement by citizens. Increased awareness of Monarchs, their biology and conservation in the PNW has been an unexpected but important spin-off of this study."
James is grateful for all the citizen scientists assisting with the project. It would not have been possible without them. Indeed, inmates at Walla Walla State Penitentiary alone reared one-third of the monarchs. (See feature story in Entomology Today, published by the Entomological Society of America.)
Here's what you can do to help the migrating monarchs on their journey:
- Plant nectar-rich flowers. They need flight fuel to continue their journey to the overwintering sites along coastal California.
- Don't use pesticides in your garden
- Keep your eye out for tagged migrating monarchs in the late summer and fall and try to photograph them.
- Visit overwintering sites, such as Natural Bridges State Park in Santa Cruz and the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary in Pacific Grove, and look for--and record--tagged monarchs.
- Stay up-to-date by following the Facebook page, Monarch Butterflies in the Pacific Northwest. It now has nearly 5000 followers.