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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.)
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:
In the Pacific Northwest, they're heading for coastal California, including Santa Cruz and Pacific Grove, for their overwintering spots.
A few are tagged. Washington State University entomologist David James and his citizen scientists have tagged some with "firstname.lastname@example.org" with a serial number. Look for them! Better yet, photograph them. And then contact him.
We've seen one WSU-tagged monarch in Vacaville so far (he was tagged and released by citizen scientist Steve Johnson on Aug. 28 in Ashland, Ore. and fluttered into our pollinator garden on Sept. 5), but many more butterflies are migrating through.
One of the monarchs in James' program was photographed on a San Francisco rooftop on Sept. 18 and seen again Oct. 11 in an overwintering colony in Santa Cruz. It was tagged and released by Molly Monroe and her 5-year-old daughter, Amelia, on Aug. 30 in Corvallis, Ore. Oregon Live did a piece on this.
James says this may give hope that the Steve Johnson progeny/Vacaville surprise "may well be found in one of the overwintering colonies this winter!" The entomologist and his family will be searching for tags in overwintering colonies from Santa Barbara to Bolinas from Nov 19-26.
Check out the "Monarch Butterflies in the Pacific Northwest" Facebook page for more amazing stories.
Meanwhile, migrating monarchs continue to make pit stops for flight fuel in our yard. Some look weathered and torn, no thanks to the inclement weather and cunning predators. Some look as if they're on their last legs...er...wings. They all look hungry. Nectar! Nectar! We need nectar!
We spotted a male nectaring on a Mexican sunflower (Tithonia) and minutes later, a female touched down on the same flower. The scene reminded us of an exquisite painting. Autumn's reigning colors gracing a one-of-a-kind canvas.
Then came the wonder of wonders: a monarch headed for the clothesline and snuggled up to a clothespin.
Let's hope that wasn't the bottom line...
Monarch butterflies are migrating now, but we're still finding a few caterpillars in our pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif.
We recently plucked off five caterpillars from our milkweed plants (our game plan is protect them from California scrub jays and other birds, tachinid flies, wasps and the protozoan parasite, Ophryocystis elektroscirrha or OE, for short).
These are the last 'cats of the season.
Ours is a small-scale conservation project. Our goal is to reach 50 by the end of the season. We're on track to do our small part for the declining monarch population. Plant milkweed (the host plant of monarchs), plant nectar-rich flowers such as Mexican sunflower (Tithonia), butterfly bush (Buddleia) and Lantana, and Danaus plexippus will come.
Weiford works inside the French Administration Building, named for former president C. Clement French. When I joined the Daily Evergreen news staff--way back when!--I used to interview Dr. French.
And it became even smaller when the WSU-tagged monarch (email@example.com), part of WSU entomologist David James' research program, stopped by for a visit. It was reared by citizen scientist Steve Johnson of Ashland, and tagged and released 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 said. "Pretty amazing."
Yes, pretty amazing, indeed.
Now, with any luck--well, lots of luck--Steve Johnson's progeny has made its way to an overwintering colony in Santa Cruz or Pacific Grove.
And with any more luck, we'll be adding five more to the overwintering site.
But at least we know he hails from Ashland.
That's what we learned about the male monarch that fluttered into our pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif. on Monday, Sept. 5 (Labor Day) on his way to an overwintering site along the California coast.
The tag read "firstname.lastname@example.org," and serial number "A6093," which ties the butterfly to a research project led by Washington State University entomologist David James. He maintains a network of Pacific Northwest citizen scientists who rear, tag and release monarchs.
When I wrote a Bug Squad blog on Oct. 17, 2014 about James' work, encouraging folks to be on the lookout for WSU-tagged monarchs, I figured I'd never see one. Not me. Not ever. And then it happened. A6093 dropped down for some flight fuel.
His presence was pure serendipity for several reasons: (1) I had earlier written about James' work; (2) I'm a WSU grad--"Go Cougars!" and (3) I rear monarchs for conservation purposes (40 so far this season).
So, on Labor Day, I happened to be hanging out in our 600-square-foot pollinator garden, the ever-present camera strapped around my neck, when I spotted a white-tagged monarch 15 feet away. I edged closer (three feet and 10 inches, to be exact), and photographed serendipity.
It was a good day to hang out with a marvelous, magnificent monarch linked to my alma mater and an insect that matters. And I did.
The fellow that reared him was Steve Johnson of Ashland, Ore., a member of the Southern Oregon Monarchs Advocates (SOMA). He tagged him and released him 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," WSU entomologist David James told me on Sept. 6. "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!”
What a traveler! Let's see, by car it's 410 miles from Ashland to the overwintering site of Santa Cruz. It's 451 miles from Ashland to Pacific Grove. And it's about 113 miles from Vacaville to Santa Cruz. I can get lost in a five-mile range.
After posting a Bug Squad blog on the migrating monarch, I received a delightful email from Steve Johnson, with the subject line “I am the tagger!”
Omigosh! The tagger!
“I am so glad that my progeny, A6093, made it to Vacaville,” he began. “I have released about 80 monarchs thus far this season and have tagged about 30." This is his first year to tag. Some were raised from eggs while others were collected as caterpillars from native milkweed on a five-acre parcel outside of Ashland (a parcel that includes 2.5 acres of vineyards). Some were reared at his home in Ashland.
"Since that time, the population has exploded on the property. That fall, we found a large caterpillar in the vineyard and just put a fire pit screen over it to protect it. Well, it made its chrysalis on the screen and we moved it to our greenhouse since it was starting to get cool in October. After 21 days it eclosed and we released it at the very end of October. We seriously considered driving it to Redding because of the pending forecast for an early winter-type storm!”
Yes, "monarch parents" are dedicated!
So last year Steve and Laurel began collecting caterpillars from the five acres and rearing them in commercially available cages. And, with the seed they collected in her vineyards and gardens, they also planted showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) in large pots at his house in town. They released 85 monarchs last year.
This spring, he and Laurel planted more seed at his house in town, both in pots and in the ground. The old adage, "plant it and they will come," rang true. The monarchs came!
“Although the butterflies were not numerous, a few females loved to lay their eggs in the potted milkweed and we probably collected as many caterpillars/eggs on the 1/3 acre in town as we did on the five acres in the vineyard," Johnson related. "For some reason there are far fewer butterflies and caterpillars on the five acres this year as compared to last year. In fact, right now, we are only seeing occasional migrants nectaring on our butterfly wall. We had days where we would see 8-10 monarchs skittering about the vineyard and gardens but not close to what we had last year. In town, in addition, we planted heartleaf milkweed (Asclepias cordifolia) and despite its small size in the first year we collected a few caterpillars from this beautiful species.”
Give a lot of credit to the Southern Oregon Monarchs Advocates (SOMA), formed in 2014, and to its leader Tom Landis. Last year SOMA reared and released more than 2000 monarchs as part of the WSU project. "This year we're putting more emphasis on controlled rearing in schools and have over a half-dozen schools in northern California and southern Oregon participating," said Landis, who worked at a Forest Service nursery in Colorado and then served as an Extension agent for nurseries across the west. "My primary focus has been monarchs and milkweeds workshops (67 so far) and creating pollinator habitat with monarch way stations."
Meanwhile, WSU entomologist David James continues his monarch research. In his "Annual Project Progress Report for 2015: Developing an Understanding of Monarch Butterfly Breeding and Migration Biology in the Pacific Northwest," the associate professor wrote that "with assistance from inmates at the Washington State Penitentiary, a total of 1487 monarchs were reared, tagged and released from Walla Walla, Yakima and Prosser during August and September. An additional 1400 monarchs were reared and tagged by citizen science collaborators in Oregon, Idaho and Nevada. Nineteen fall migrants were tagged at Lower Crab Creek. Thus, a grand total of 2906 monarchs were tagged during late summer and fall 2015 in the Pacific Northwest. At the time of writing (February 2016), 16 tagged monarchs have been recovered at distances greater than 50 miles from the release location, mostly in overwintering colonies on the California coast. The longest distance traveled was 775 miles by 2 males released at Walla Walla and Pasco found in the same overwintering colony at Morro Bay, CA. "
His project goals and objectives are five-fold:
- To determine the phenology and ecology of monarch butterfly breeding in eastern Washington.
- To determine migration directions, routes and destinations used by summer and autumn monarch butterfly generations in the Pacific Northwest.
- To determine the environmental cues responsible for inducing reproductive dormancy and migratory behavior in Pacific Northwest monarch butterflies.
- To engage incarcerated citizens at the Washington State Penitentiary in scientific research with demonstrable social and educational benefits to themselves and the corrections community.
- To provide scientific information needed for development of effective and targeted nectar and host plant conservation strategies along monarch butterfly migration corridors
As for Steve Johnson, it's really a small world. The "Monarch Dad" is connected to UC Davis and the UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR). His late father, Walter Johnson, a UC Davis grad, served as a UC Extension agent for 40 plus years in Alameda, Placer and Shasta counties. A brother and two nephews are also UC Davis grads.
As for A6093, we're all wondering where he is now. Johnson quipped that maybe the monarch needs a name instead of a number. Maybe the name of a vineyard? It's possible A6093 came from an egg or a caterpillar in a vineyard that Banke leased to Eliana Wines. "The owner has a small tasting room on the property (on Gaerky Creek Road) where the tasters can sit out and watch the monarchs," Johnson noted. The owner, determined to evoke the elegance of the wine, named his wine Eliana, which in Hebrew and Romance languages means "God has answered."
This is for certain: A6093 was born in Ashland: either in town or in a vineyard just outside of town. He was tagged and released from town.
Meanwhile, keep an eye open for WSU-tagged monarchs. Their migration will continue through Northern California to coastal California until the end of October, James said. Then in February, the monarchs will leave their overwintering sites and head inland.
Let's hope that A6093 or Eliana will be one of them.