Make that "an early, unexpected guest who was given a warm welcome and an even warmer send-off."
Henry is a Marin County winter monarch butterfly.
Winter monarchs are becoming more and more common in the Bay Area and near the coast, according to butterfly experts Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor, and David James, associate professor at Washington State University.
Karen Gideon's front yard in Greenbrae yielded the caterpillar on her milkweed, “Hello Yellow" Asclepias tuberosa, on Dec. 9. The perennial, also known as "the butterfly weed," is native to eastern and southwestern North America.
Karen gifted the caterpillar to her friend, UC Master Gardener Alanna Brady of Ross, who reared him to adulthood from Dec. 9 to March 4, the day he eclosed.
“There were so many caterpillars in different stages/sizes all over the plant they were eating the stems down, too!” Alanna related. "Karen gave me one small and one large ‘cat since I had none. I think Henry was in his second instar stage, but we don't really know. The larger 'cat was gone the next day--never found, but Henry remained to feast on the entire plant! All other caterpillars left and she didn't find any chrysalids."
While Henry was cycling through metamorphosis, Alanna nicknamed him "Slow Poke."
In the monarch world, the life cycle from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to adult, goes like this:
- The egg usually hatches into a caterpillar in 3 to 4 days
- The caterpillar generally remains in this stage for 10 to 14 days, and then "J's" and forms a chrysalis
- The chrysalis stage usually lasts 10 to 14 days, when the adult monarch ecloses
Henry the Caterpillar took 43 days to "J" and pupate, doing so on Jan. 21. Then he took 42 days to eclose (March 4) from his chrysalis.
”It was an amazing experience,” Alanna said, noting that this is her first year rearing monarchs. She missed the eclosure. "I missed it—literally within 5 minutes he was out! He took a long time pumping up those wings! He hung around Friday morning and took off in the afternoon. I am ready to do this again! So amazing.”
Why did she name him Henry? “After so many weeks of eating here, he needed a name--and "Henry" suited his voracious appetite--and being a monarch! Henry j'd and attached to our (mobile) teak birdhouse so I could move it into the sun in the afternoons. He remained outside the entire time except for one night below 32 degrees in our shed.”
So, on Friday, March 5, Henry the Winter Monarch fluttered away from his Ross home. Perhaps he soon found some nectar, a sunny spot to warm his wings, and a mate. Who knows?
One thing's for sure: "We miss Henry,” Alanna said.
WSU entomologist David James, who studies monarchs and posts his research on the Monarchs of the Pacific Northwest Facebook page, is keeping a close watch on the winter monarchs.
On Dec. 23, he posted:
"As Director of the Washington State University Monarch tagging program, I would like to appeal to all monarch lovers in California who have milkweed and monarchs still active in their backyards, to carefully check all the monarchs they see for a tag! During late summer and fall, we tagged and released about 1200 monarchs in Oregon, Idaho and Washington and to date seven of these have been found in inland areas of CA around milkweed. None have yet been found at overwintering sites. This is very different from previous years when most sightings of our tagged monarchs occur at overwintering sites. We suspect that a far greater proportion of migrant monarchs this year have become reproductive and are staying inland rather than remaining non reproductive and overwintering at coastal sites. So please check that next incoming monarch for a WSU tag, photograph it and report it here or to the email address on the tag, Your observations are important!"
On Jan. 12, he posted a graph "showing the number of observations of monarch larvae/pupae (as recorded on I-Naturalist) in the San Francisco Bay area during November/December for every year since 2015. The graph showed a huge (>5X) increase in observations in 2020 compared to each of the the previous 6 years."
On Jan. 21, he posted:
"Reports continue to come in on monarch breeding activity in the San Francisco Bay area. In fact, there appears to be a flush of new adults and egg laying. This apparent new generation is likely to be the sons and daughters of the migrant generation that eschewed spending winter at the conventional overwintering sites, in favor of reproduction. I believe the well-being and survival of eggs being laid now and over the next few weeks in the Bay area will play a role in determining the size and extent of western monarch populations this summer. With only 1914 monarchs at overwintering sites (50% sex ratio = estimated 950 females), current Bay area breeding populations may well support at least this number of females."
Note that the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in a Dec. 15, 2020 press release, agreed that the monarch butterfly should be listed under the Endangered Species Act, but said that other priorities preclude that for now.
"After a thorough assessment of the monarch butterfly's status, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has found that adding the monarch butterfly to the list of threatened and endangered species is warranted but precluded by work on higher-priority listing actions," the press release indicated. "With this decision, the monarch becomes a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and its status will be reviewed each year until it is no longer a candidate."
Meanwhile, Henry the Winter Monarch is not alone out there!
Butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, spotted a female monarch butterfly at 1:35 today.
As he mentioned in his email: "So, at 1:25 p.m. a female monarch flew directly over my head, roughly 8' off the ground, near the corner of Oak Avenue and 8th Street. It was headed northeast very lazily."
Shapiro noted that Kathy Keatley Garvey saw a monarch in Benicia on Jan. 23, "so this is the second sighting known to me this year in this general area. If there are really only 3000 or fewer overwintered in the whole state, I guess we won the lottery!"
So, the count as we know it:
- Monarch butterfly, gender unknown, flying over 115 West G St, Benicia, on Feb. 23, Garvey sighting
- Monarch butterfly, a male, that the Garveys reared in west Vacaville and released on Feb. 25
- Monarch butterfly, a female, flying near the corner of Oak Avenue and 8th Street, Davis, on March 2, Shapiro sighting
Now some folks are blaming tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, a non-native, as a serious threat in the massive decline of the monarch population.
Don't blame tropical milkweed, agree Shapiro and monarch researcher David James, an entomologist and associate professor at Washington State University (WSU).
James told us in an email: "I have been involved with monarchs for 43 years, and the single, overriding thing that I have learned is that the monarch is a highly adaptable creature! It has an incredible ability to adjust to changing environmental circumstances. In Australia, it took less than 100 years to change its core physiology as part of adaptation to a different climate. Adapting to man-made environmental challenges may take monarchs a while but I believe it can happen."
"I believe that the widespread and intensive use of neonicotinoid insecticides is one likely factor behind the current monarch population decline," James says. "But even with insecticides, insects can develop resistance over generations. The few monarchs that are alive and well in California currently are the survivors, those that have beaten the perils stacked against them. Clearly, we need to try and make life as fruitful as possible for these survivors, to aid in their population recovery. These monarchs will produce progeny that are also ‘fitter' than the general population and we need to ensure that milkweed is there for them, particularly during spring in California."
"The monarch as a species is particularly good at trying different things," James points out. "Thus, while the majority of the population does one thing (like migrate and overwinter), there is always a significant subset exposed to the same environment, that decides to do something different, like not migrate. Most of these of course will die but in some circumstances, some locations, the outcome may be good, giving another option for continuation of the species, should it become necessary. We may be seeing this now with the rise in winter breeding of monarchs in warmer parts of interior California like the LA Basin and SF Bay Area. There is also evidence for the first time of breeding winter monarch survival in far southwestern Oregon."
A post on texasbutterflyranch.com touched on the native/non-native milkweed controversy. "David James takes issue with the loud and persistent claim that non-native milkweeds pose serious threats to monarch butterflies and the viability of their migrations. When asked if he thinks the technically non-native tropical milkweed poses a dire threat to monarch butterflies, James' answer was emphatic."
No, he does not. "Not at all, in fact," he told them.
You can follow David James' research and observations on his group's Facebook page, Monarchs of the Pacific Northwest at https://www.facebook.com/MonarchButterfliesInThePacificNorthwest.
On Jan. 12 James posted a graph showing "the number of observations of monarch larvae/pupae (as recorded on I-Naturalist) in the San Francisco Bay area during November/December for every year since 2015. The graph showed a huge (>5X) increase in observations in 2020 compared to each of the the previous 6 years. I have now extracted data on monarch reports for January 2021 and compared them to the previous six years (see graph below). Once again, the data show a large increase in reports of both adult and immature stage monarchs during the past month in the SF Bay area. In fact, the increase is greater than for Nov-Dec. The average number of larvae/pupae reported on I-Nat during January from 2015-2019 was 1.0. This year the number was 63. Similarly an average of 5.0 adults were reported for January during 2015-19, yet this year there were 58 sightings reported to I-Nat. Of course some of this increase can be explained by increased use of I-Nat in these covid times to report sightings, but I doubt that this explains it all. Interestingly, there were signs last January of an increase in sightings when 10 larvae and 12 adults were reported. But the numbers in January 2021 are on another level."
James' work draws such comments as "You rock, Dr. David James! Thank you for speaking common sense and not regurgitating a hard line which equates to death for the monarchs when milkweed is purposely cut and no milkweed is available for the next generation to consume! I look forward to more findings from you and your honest research reporting. Thank you so much for all you do to help the monarchs thrive not just survive!"
Meanwhile, anyone else see any monarchs flying around the Bay Area and/or in Yolo and Solano counties?
So, folks, if you're in their migratory pathway and anticipate seeing them head toward their overwintering sites in coastal California, don't get your hopes up.
They're not coming. They are either non-existent or few and far between.
But we remember when they did.
Back on Labor Day, Sept. 5, 2016, a male monarch tagged "firstname.lastname@example.org A6093" fluttered into our pollinator garden in Vacaville. Washington State University entomologist David James traced it to citizen scientist Steve Johnson of Ashland, Ore., who had tagged and released it on Sunday, Aug. 28.
James calculated "No. A6093" flew 285 miles in seven days or about 40.7 miles per day to reach our Vacaville garden, which apparently is in a monarch migratory pathway. "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!” he said at the time. (No sightings reported.)
Still, it was a very good year for monarchs in 2016, as compared to previous years. We reared more than 60 in 2016. We saw dozens of migrating monarchs fueling up on nectar from the Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia rotundifola) and butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii). They arrived tattered and torn, and some could barely fly.
But come they did.
Not this year.
"It's been a very poor year for monarchs in the Pacific Northwest," James said. "In Washington, we had just two confirmed sightings of monarchs! This is the worst showing since I started taking records in 1999. I thought 2019 was bad (eight monarchs) but 2020 beat it."
"There were a handful of sightings in central and northern Oregon but they largely failed to cross into Washington," the entomologist said. "This is simply a result I believe of a very small overwintering population that had difficulty populating California and southern Oregon let alone locations further north."
"If future overwintering populations do not exceed more than 30,000, then this is what we can expect for the future; the monarch to be a rarity in Washington and BC."
Johnson, who rears monarchs in a vineyard in Ashland, says it was "a very poor year in the vineyard. We have three chrysalids right now and that will probably be it for us in the vineyard this year. They come from three 'cats that we found on the same day. We have seen far fewer monarchs than in any of the past years. Overall, to my knowledge, it has been a grim year in Oregon except for some isolated pockets."
Southern Oregon seemed to fare a little better for monarchs in the Pacific Northwest this year, James said, but "as Steve said, it was still way less than recent years."
"Idaho had quite a few monarchs, maybe as many as southern Oregon, but these arrived and bred from--I believe-- migrants that came from Mexico," the WSU entomologist said. "Populations in Arizona and Utah were also reasonable this summer. 'Leakage' 'of northerly spring migrants from Mexico is the ‘saving grace' of monarch populations in the West and may be the reason why monarchs can persist long-term in the West. This was a theory expounded by the late Lincoln Brower and I believe it has a lot of merit."
Johnson noted that the air quality in Ashland "at the moment (this morning) is 415—very hazardous."
How does all that poor air quality, all that smoke and ash from the wildfires raging across the West affect the migrating monarchs?
Thanks to James' tagging program and cooperators like Johnson, James now has "some limited data indicating monarchs do NOT have a problem migrating in very poor quality air. These data will appear in a publication I am preparing. Tagged monarchs released into poor quality air flew just as far and lived just as long as those that were released into good air."
Butterfly guru Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at UC Davis, who has monitored butterfly populations in Central California since 1972, has seen only six monarchs all year (the first one in Sacramento on Jan. 29) and "no eggs and no caterpillars at all." (See Bug Squad blog on his comments on "California monarchs on life support")
Naturalist Greg Kareofelas of the Bohart Museum of Entomology, UC Davis, has seen only one monarch all year and it was a female laying an egg on his milkweed in Davis. He is in the process of rearing it from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to adult. It's a chrysalis now.
Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum and UC Davis professor of entomology, and UC Davis forensic entomologist Robert Kimsey have not seen any in their Davis garden.
This year our Garvey family has managed to collect dozens of eggs and 'cats from our garden and rear them in three different batches. First batch: 5. Second batch: 11. The third batch? As of Sept. 1, we've reared and released 37 monarchs, with one chrysalis remaining. No. 38 should eclose in a few days.
Incredibly, our Vacaville pollinator garden seems to some kind of monarch magnet.
"I think Kathy and one gardener in the East Bay who is having a similar experience have all the monarchs in the region in their yards," Shapiro commented. "Very bizarre."
Very bizarre, indeed.
Where are all the monarch butterflies?
There's good news and bad news.
First, the bad news:
"An Epic Migration on the Verge of Collapse," wrote the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation on its website detailing monarch conservation.
"Both the eastern and western migrations have experienced significant decline in a matter of decades," they wrote. "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. Now, researchers and citizen scientists estimate that there has been a decline of more than 80% in the east. In the west, the news is more dire. Monarchs have experienced a decline of 99.4% in coastal California, from an estimated 4.5 million in the 1980s to 28,429 as of January 2019."
In our pollinator garden in Vacaville, I've seen only two monarchs this year. One, a female, lingered on the Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia rotundifolia) and butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) for about 30 minutes on Sunday.
But as luck would have it, a family member spotted a monarch this morning in the garden section of a home improvement store in Vacaville and captured this video (below). It was laying eggs on tropical milkweeds, Asclepias curassavica.
That's three. That's a far cry from the 60 we reared in 2016.
Now the good news:
Brookings, Ore., is fluttering with monarchs.
From the Facebook page, Monarch Butterflies in the Pacific Northwest, covering Washington State University entomologist David James' research and the work of his many citizen scientists, comes the remarkable story of a female monarch named Ovaltine (since passed) and her progeny:
Aug. 23: "The biggest Monarch story on the west coast right now has to be the population explosion in the far southern Oregon coastal town of Brookings! From a single female (that we know about) 'dumping' more than 700 eggs at one Monarch Waystation in late June, there is now such an abundance of Monarchs in Brookings that every patch of Milkweed seems to have eggs on it! It's quite likely that a few other Monarchs also laid a lot of eggs in Brookings in June, but what has been surprising is the way that females have targeted single Milkweed patches for egg 'dumping'. Egg 'dumping' has been observed in other Brookings Milkweed patches, some of them very small. Holly Beyer, whose Waystation hosted the first egg 'dumping' female, has now had to limit egglaying by the new generation of 'egg dumpers' by enclosing her milkweed in netting cages, for fear of the larvae running out of food! I have never heard of anybody needing to do this before! Brookings is an official 'Monarch City' so its certainly living up to its name and the Monarch festival to be held there in early September should be graced by plenty of Monarchs dropping in!"
Aug. 29: "Holly has counted more than 1800 eggs laid by Ovaltine's tagged daughters in her garden! Ovaltine's 'grandchildren' will soon begin eclosing (from mid-September to mid-October) and of course will be the migratory generation. Their numbers will be limited by milkweed availability in Brookings but I expect significant numbers of fresh, migrant monarchs to be milling around Brookings in the coming weeks, feeding on nectar before they depart southward. If Holly had not captive-reared Ovaltine's progeny, there would not be monarchs flying around Brookings in the numbers we are currently seeing! We do not generally consider captive-rearing to be a good conservation strategy for monarchs but in this instance it has demonstrably contributed to monarch conservation. If you want to see monarchs flying, then a trip to Brookings, Oregon in September could be in order!"
If you see any WSU-tagged monarchs migrating through California to their overwintering sites along the coast, photograph them and contact David James at email@example.com. We distinctly remember the tagged monarch from Ashland, Ore. (tagged by Steve Johnson and part of the David James' citizen science project) that passed through our garden on Labor Day, 2016. (See Bug Squad post.)
Our little pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif., usually draws dozens of them in the summer as they flutter around, sip nectar from the Mexican sunflower (Tithonia) and lay their eggs on their host plant, milkweed.
Then in late summer and fall, the migratory monarchs from the Pacific Northwest pass through on their way to their overwintering sites in coastal California, including Pacific Grove and Santa Cruz.
Something is happening this year, and it's not good.
As a "monarch mom," I reared and released more than 60 in 2016. This year so far: zero, zip, zilch. In fact, I never saw a single monarch in our pollinator garden this year until Monday, Aug. 13, and then again today (Friday, Aug. 30) when a male fluttered in and hung around for several hours.
This time last year and in 2016? Often five to seven sightings a day.
"What's going on with the monarchs?" I asked butterfly expert Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, who has monitored the butterfly population in central California for more than four decades and maintains a research website. "All I have on our milkweed are aphids and milkweed bugs, and occasional bees and hover flies."
I also haven't seen a single monarch on the UC Davis campus. Neither have fellow photographers and naturalists who keep an eye out for them.
Background: Shapiro has been surveying fixed routes at 10 sites at approximately two-week intervals since 1972. They range from "the Sacramento River delta, through the Sacramento Valley and Sierra Nevada mountains, to the high desert of the western Great Basin." As he says on his website, "the sites represent the great biological, geological, and climatological diversity of central California." As of the end of 2006, he has logged "5476 site-visits and tallied approximately 83,000 individual records of 159 butterfly species and subspecies. This major effort is continuing and represents the world's largest dataset of intensive site-specific data on butterfly populations collected by one person under a strict protocol. We have also collated monthly climate records for the entire study period from weather stations along the transect."
So, what's going on with the monarchs?
"You are not alone (in not sighting them)," he related in an email yesterday. "I have seen one adult monarch in the Valley in the past five weeks (and about 6 in the Sierra, migrating westward). I have not seen a single wild larva in 2018. Anywhere! Everybody's talking about it. We know there was some breeding at Fallon, Nev., but only a couple of adults have been seen in Reno. Either they are breeding in recondite places, which is possible, or the population is in serious collapse. We will know which by early November when we see what shows up at the overwintering sites. One thing is certain: it's not due to milkweed shortage!"
The statistics on his Looking Backward section of his website indicate these monarch sightings:
- 2015: 100
- 2016: 64
- 2017: 54
- 2018: 20
Note that this is the time of year when citizen scientists in entomologist David James' migratory monarch research program at Washington State University (my alma mater) tag and release them throughout much of the Pacific Northwest. (See Bug Squad)
They should be passing through our area soon. In fact, the third anniversary of "The WSU Traveler" is rapidly approaching: On Labor Day, Sept. 5, 2016, one of the tagged butterflies from James' citizen scientist program in Ashland, Ore., fluttered into our yard (see above photograph). The monarch, a male, hung around for five hours, sipping nectaring and circling around.
The background: Citizen scientist Steven Johnson of Ashland tagged and released the male, No. A6093, on Sunday, Aug. 28. It "flew 285 miles in 7 days or about 40.7 miles per day," James told us. "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!”
Maybe we'll see another tagged one this year? The odds do not look good.
As the WSU Facebook page, Monarch Butterflies in the Pacific Northwest, related today:
"While the migration from the PNW (Pacific Northwest) to California has been underway for about 2 weeks, September is when it really ramps up. Unlike the migration in eastern USA this year, our migration is subtle and comprised of much smaller numbers of butterflies. In fact there will be very few Monarchs migrating south from British Columbia, Washington and northern Idaho because we simply did not have significant summer populations in these areas this year. However, our research-based WSU breeding/tagging program will result in hundreds of tagged Monarchs migrating from various parts of Washington State. Apart from the celebrated Washington State Penitentiary tagging program, this year we also have more than 30 members of Cowiche Canyon Conservancy (Yakima) and the Washington Butterfly Association (Seattle, Spokane) each rearing and tagging small numbers of Monarchs. The first tagged Monarchs from this program were released yesterday (August 30) so watch out for them as they head south! And please be ready to capture an image on your phone that you can email to us."
So, if you see a tagged monarch butterfly from the WSU program, kindly photograph it and send the information to David James and his fellow researchers at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Every sighting helps.