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!
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 "email@example.com 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.
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...