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.)
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 email@example.com.
Every sighting helps.
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.
It's August, 2007 and bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey, manager of the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility, University of California, Davis, is opening a hive in the apiary.
"Girls, where's your mother?” she asks again, pulling out another frame.
She quickly locates the queen bee, "the mother of them all." And "all" is not right in the bee world.
Susan "Sue" Cobey wants to "build a better bee."
Cobey, now a bee breeder-geneticist at Washington State University, seeks to maximize the good traits and minimize the bad traits. By controlling the genetics of honey bees (Apis mellifera), she says, researchers can breed stronger, more survivable bees--bees able to withstand such pests as varroa mites and such maladies as colony collapse disorder. “Controlled mating is the basic foundation of all stock improvement programs.”
Cobey who joined Washington State University's Department of Entomology in 2010, works with department chair and bee scientist Walter "Steve" Sheppard, who researches population genetics and evolution of honey bees, insect introductions and mechanisms of genetic differentiation; and bee scientist Brandon Hopkins, an expert on cryopreservation of bee semen.
"Building a better bee” involves collecting bee semen (germplasm) in European countries, including Italy, Slovenia, Germany, and the Republic of Kazakhstan. Those countries, she points out, rear bees with favorable genetic traits, such as resistance to varroa mites, the No. 1 enemy of beekeepers in the United States.
The dwindling gene pool diversity in the United States is troublesome, Cobey says. Although European colonists brought honey bees to the Jamestown colony in 1622, live honey bee imports have been banned in the United States since 1922.
So Cobey has been traveling to Europe since 2006--every year but 2016--to collect bee semen. “It took me 22 years to get that first permit," says Cobey. "It was opening the Canadian border to Europe that turned it--politics, not biology-based. We started asking (to collect bee semen in Europe) in the early 1980s with Harry Laidlaw's backing."
"My first trip to Europe was in 2006 from Ohio State University for carnica (Apis mellifera carnica, a darker subspecies) bee stock," recalled Cobey, who studied and trained with Harry Laidlaw, the father of honey bee genetics. Cobey joined the UC Davis Department of Entomology in 2007 and a year later, she began collecting bee semen in Europe with Steve Sheppard. The WSU bee breeding program involves crossbreeding honey bees to bolster their genetic traits. WSU is the only lab in the country with permits to import bee semen, and the only laboratory with the ability to freeze it. The WSU team uses liquid nitrogen to preserve the bee semen.
The European trip was memorable and productive. "Slovenia is a beautiful country with a long tradition of beekeeping," Cobey said.
"In Semič, Slovenia, we collected bee semen, met with the local beekeepers and gave presentations about our program,” Cobey said. “Afterwards we celebrated with a feast of roasted pig, hosted by Stane Plut."
"What a trip that was (to Italy and Slovenia)!" said Park-Burris. "Slovenia only allows the beekeepers to keep Carniolan bees. Sue was in heaven and it was fun to see how excited she got about her bees. Likewise I was really happy to see the Italy stock in Bologna again. The beekeepers there were so excited that we wanted more of their stock. Their hospitality was overwhelming."
Park-Burris marveled that the Slovenians keep almost all of their hives in "houses" and "then they paint pictures on them that tell a story. It was very interesting. One Slovenian told me that they treat their bees like pets and that was so true!"
Cobey is an international authority on the instrumental insemination of queen bees. She's taught the specialized technique for more than three decades, instructing students how to extract semen from a drone, and inseminate an anesthetized virgin queen. Magnified images on a computer screen help illustrate the procedure.
Cobey began training students in instrumental insemination in 1984. "This has taken me all over the world--currently I have invitations/inquiries to six countries," said Cobey, who has set up a lab at her home on Whidbey Island to teach workshops. Husband Timothy Lawrence, also a veteran beekeeper, is an associate professor and the county director (Island County) of Washington State University Extension.
"I receive three to five requests for classes per day here; I'm sorting these to the most needed/most serious," Cobey said. "The interest is much more serious. But note--still many struggle with this, as there are many aspects, including the specialized beekeeping that goes with it."
Cobey recently taught UC Davis staff research associates and beekeepers Bernardo Niño and Charley Nye of the Elina Lastro Niño lab in a three-day class in her lab. "I'm just doing small classes so I can give more individual attention, and concentrate on the details. So I have just three or four people per class. I hope UC Davis starts some classes as the interest is overwhelming." A UC Davis goal is to offer classes in 2018 or 2019, according to Niño.
Some of Cobey's students go on to teach others the technique. UC Davis graduate Elizabeth Frost learned from Susan Cobey while working as her staff research associate at the Laidlaw facility. "She is now teaching instrumental insemination in Australia," Cobey said.
Cobey traces her interest in bees back to the 1970s. After enrolling in a student exchange program in entomology in 1975 at Oregon State University, Corvallis, she received her bachelor's degree in entomology in 1976 from the University of Delaware, Newark. From 1978 to 1980, she worked at UC Davis, where she was influenced by Harry Laidlaw (1907-2003).
Laidlaw perfected artificial bee insemination technology. “He discovered the valve fold in the queen bee which hinders injection of semen into the lateral oviducts,” Cobey said. “He developed instrumentation to bypass the valve fold enabling the success of bee insemination.”
Utilizing the training, Cobey established the Vaca Valley Apiaries in Vacaville in 1982, developing the highly regarded New World Carniolan Breeding Program. The Carniolans, originally from the Austrian Alps and the Balkans, are darker than the popular Italian honey bees, the most common subspecies in the United States. The Carniolans are known for their gentle behavior, and may be more suited to cooler weather.
In 1990 Cobey pulled up roots—and hives—and settled in Ohio, serving as staff apiarist at the Rothenbuhler Honey Bee Research Laboratory at Ohio State University until accepting the staff research associate position and manager of the UC Davis facility in 2007.
Now she's focused on the WSU bee breeding program, which produces breeder queen bees, which are then provided to commercial queen bee producers, who in turn can produce thousands of queen bees for the nation's beekeepers. The goal is to preserve and improve the stock of honeybees and to prevent subspecies from extinction.
Hopkins says that genetic diversity offers improved bee fitness and productivity. A genetically diverse colony handles diseases better. The biggest need in the U.S. honey bee population is anything that would increase resistance to parasitic Varroa mites, Hopkins says. (See WSU post.)
Cobey is featured in a National Public Radio piece, "No Offense, American Bees, But Your Sperm Isn't Cutting It."
"Honey bees aren't native to America," Cobey told reporter Ryan Bell. "We brought them here. But the U.S. closed its borders to live honey bee imports in 1922, and our honey bee population has been interbreeding ever since."
"Girls, where's your mother?"
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: