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 "email@example.com 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.
It's good to see butterflies, especially monarchs, getting so much press.
Now let's see if we can press the issue.
The Washington Post just published an article in its style section: "Butterflies Were Symbols of Rebirth. Then They Started Disappearing," chronicling the history--as we know it--of butterflies. For his in-depth piece, reporter Dan Zak interviewed butterfly guru Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at UC Davis, who has monitored the butterfly population in Central California since 1972 and maintains a research website.
The Washington Post reporter mentioned the monarch butterfly summit held Feb. 28 in the Putah Creek Lodge, UC Davis, where invited guests of the Environmental Defense Fund discussed "Recovering the Western Monarch Butterfly Population: Identifying Opportunities for Scaling Monarch Habitat in California's Central Valley."
How serious is it? "The latest population surveys indicate that monarchs overwintering on the central coast have declined 86% since last winter and now total 0.5% of their historical average," according to the agenda.
Shapiro, one of the speakers, delivered a presentation on "What We Don't Know and What We Know That Ain't So About Monarchs" in which he declared that "monarchs are on life support in California, and we are reduced to prescribing placebos." (See Bug Squad blog.) "I never saw a single wild Monarch larva in 2018—the first time since I became butterfly-aware in 4th or 5th grade!" he said.
In his Washington Post piece, published March 6, Zak wrote: "There's compelling evidence that pesticides, deforestation and habitat loss are to blame for monarch decline. Climate change sharpens every threat by altering weather patterns, extending droughts, strengthening storms. It's easy to conclude, then, that we are responsible....Shapiro says we don't fully understand what's happening to butterflies, but he can't shake a feeling of responsibility."
“I feel like a doctor who has a patient he's known his entire life, and the patient is obviously dying, and the doctor and his colleagues have been unable to determine why — so they can't recommend treatments,” Shapiro told the reporter. “It's a level of frustration where I'm watching things that I love go away, and there's nothing I can do about it but just stand there.”
We experienced that a little of that level of frustration last year in our pollinator garden in Vacaville. We saw--and reared--only 10 caterpillars in 2018. Compare that to 2016 when we reared and released more than 60 monarchs.
In 2016, we'd commonly see seven or eight at any given time all day long in the late summer and early fall. They'd stop for some flight fuel before winging it over to the California coast to overwinter. On Labor Day, 2016, we photographed a tagged migratory monarch from Ashland, Ore. nectaring in our garden. It was part of a citizen science project conducted by Washington State University entomologist David James.
Very few migratory monarchs fluttered into our garden in 2018. Where are all the monarchs? Something indeed was--and is--happening.
"For thousands of years, humans have looked to butterflies as a reassuring symbol in times of change," Zak wrote. "The Earth now is changing, and butterflies have become a symbol of something else: loss."
As Shapiro said in his presentation in the Putah Creek Lodge:
- Consider a doctor faced with a patient in rapid decline. All tests have failed to identify the cause. What is the doctor to do? You can't prescribe treatment for an undiagnosed illness, can you? You can make a wild stab at a prescription on the basis that the patient is going to die anyway, and MAYBE, just maybe, this drug will do some good. Or you can prescribe a placebo, just to reassure the patient that you are doing something. That's where things get interesting. Occasionally a patient improves drastically on a placebo. Maybe he would have improved anyway; there's no way of knowing. Suppose our patient has a complete remission despite having received only a placebo. Does our doctor convince himself the placebo cured him?
As of right now, the Monarch is on life support in California, and we are reduced to prescribing placebos. If our patient comes back from the brink—as history suggests it may well—will we convince ourselves that our placebos worked? Probably. And that's not how to do science. That's what philosophers call the fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc.
We can do can do better than that!
Meanwhile, Shapiro will be teaching a UC Davis graduate student course, "The Science of the Monarch Butterfly," on Tuesday nights, starting April 2, during the spring quarter. The course is set for 8:10 to 10 p.m. every Tuesday in Room 2342 in Storer Hall, located off Kleiber Hall Drive. He's inviting citizen scientists or others interested in the science of the monarchs to audit the course, for free. No reservations are required.
...Birds do it, bees do it
Even educated fleas do it
Let's do it, let's fall in love
When Cole Porter wrote “Let's Do It, Let's Fall in Love” in 1928, he wasn't thinking about butterflies. He was thinking of birds, bees and...well, educated fleas. As opposed to uneducated?
“The Birds and Bees” soon became a euphemism for courtship and reproduction. "The Talk."
Well, Cole Porter could have—should have--added "butterflies."
Monarch butterflies. Especially considering the dwindling number of overwintering monarchs along coastal California.
According to a Dec. 8 article in The Guardian, in the 1980s some 4.5 million monarchs overwintered in California, but today the number has dropped to about 30,000. That's a drop of some 97 percent, The Guardian noted.
Earlier, on Nov. 30, the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation (which organizes the Thanksgiving count) reported:
"We currently have preliminary count results from 97 sites, which includes many of the most important overwintering sites. In 2017, these sites accounted for 77% of the total monarch overwintering population, hosting approximately 148,000 monarchs. In 2018, the same sites have only 20,456 monarchs. This represents an 86% decline since last year."
"We will not have final numbers until the count is over and all the data are in and vetted (usually late January)—and we will keep our fingers crossed that other sites are hosting more monarchs."
Speaking of The Birds and The Bees, when migrating monarchs from the Pacific Northwest and inland California were fluttering to coastal California--and some were just eclosing--we encountered a courtship in Vacaville, Calif.
The date: Sept. 29, 2018
- A bird: A metal sculpture nailed to a post.
- Bees: Dozens of honey bees foraging on Spanish lavender beneath the post
- Butterflies: Two monarchs, Danaus plexippus...well...getting acquainted.
- Educated Fleas: No where in sight. (No uneducated fleas in sight, either.)
Sadly, the statistics indicate--with or without educated fleas--a dismal spring for monarchs.
We first saw her at 10 a.m. on Oct. 27, 2017.
She was eating. That's what monarch caterpillars do best. They eat. A lot.
"Where have you been?" I asked. "Where have you been hiding? Your siblings have long gone. Your buddies passed through here in late August and September on their way to their overwintering sites in Santa Cruz and beyond."
How could I have missed her? This one was a fifth in-star and almost ready to pupate.
"Let's see. When your mama laid the egg, you hatched in about three to four days. You'll be a caterpillar for 10 to 14 days. Then you'll be in the pupa stage for 10 to 14 days. But that's all under normal conditions, summer conditions. This is fall, not normal conditions, little buddy."
The chubby black, yellow and white monarch caterpillar kept eating. "YOU could have been eaten, little buddy," I told her, glancing at the hungry California scrub jays vocalizing in the cherry laurels. True, milkweed contains a poisonous toxin that protects monarchs from predators, but birds do eat them. "Just not as much," says Louie Yang, associate professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis.
Then there are the other deadly encounters. Tachinid flies and braconid wasps parasitize the caterpillars and chrysalids. And some fall victim to that dreaded disease, Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, caused by an obligate, protozoan parasite.
Give her a chance, just a chance...
So, awed by her unexpected appearance, we prepared the indoor butterfly habitat for its last tenant of the season. Our monarch-rearing kit features a Patron tequila bottle; the narrow neck prevents the 'cats from drowning, and the broad, heavy base assures stability (this is one bottle that doesn't get tipsy!). Just add water, milkweed stems and the caterpillar, and center the bottle in the zippered habitat. Then you wait for the caterpillar to create a silk button and form a J. And then a chrysalis. And then an adult ready to generate more generations.
This November tenant, however, chose the most fragile, overhanging milkweed stem in the bottle to pupate. No mesh ceiling for her!
When the jade-green chrysalis formed on Nov. 4, it looked like a jeweled ornament dangling from a Christmas tree. Or a mid-life chrysalis.
Now, "hurry up and wait." In ideal conditions, a monarch ecloses in 10 to 14 days. In ideal conditions.
Nothing happened for 10 days. Then 12. Then 14. Then 18.
On Day 19, Nov. 22 (the day before Thanksgiving), the chrysalis darkened, revealing the orange, black and white wings in all its transparency. The chrysalis bulged, throbbed and swayed. Out slipped the butterfly, wings flat, wings pumping. She clung to the pupal case as her wings expanded. A big, strong and healthy girl.
On Thanksgiving Day, four adults, two dogs and one butterfly celebrated in Casa de la Garvey. At least we think the butterfly celebrated. She dropped to the floor of her habitat and sipped orange juice and a honey/water mixture. Then, sustained, she fluttered up to her perch, and began searching for an opening, an escape.
She. Wanted. Out.
Hmm...No way would she be able to fly three hours to the overwintering site in Santa Cruz in the cold and rain. And then there are those hungry California scrub jays hanging out in the cherry laurels...Just waiting...
It just so happened that a friend and pollinator advocate, Rita LeRoy, the self-described "farm keeper" at the Vallejo School District's Loma Vista Farm, Vallejo, was heading to Santa Cruz on Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, to show her out-of-town relatives the overwintering migratory butterfly sanctuary at the Natural Bridges State Beach Park. That's about a 100-mile trip from Vallejo.
Could Ms. Monarch hitch a ride?
She could. And she did.
Rita, who delights in showing area schoolchildren the monarchs that frequent Loma Vista Farm--she's also a Monarch Mom who rears and releases monarchs and is active in the Bay Area Pollinator Posse--unzipped the mesh habitat at the butterfly sanctuary.
Her sister-in-law captured an image of Miss Monarch in freedom's hands.
Wow! Just wow! From a caterpillar to a chrysalis to an adult. And there she was! In Rita's hands. In Santa Cruz. In the migratory butterfly sanctuary. With her buddies. Or soon-to-be buddies.
"She flew so fast that we didn't get a picture of her flying away," Rita lamented. "She was anxious to join her new friends."
"It was a beautiful day," Rita said, adding "Thank you for allowing me the pleasure of setting her free. I was so sad that my last ones (monarchs) didn't survive. It was really nice to have this happy experience."
Once upon a monarch...thanks to Rita, the ending could not have been better...
They're on their way.
Camera ready? Check. Notebook ready? Check!
Entomologist David James of Washington State University, Pullman, Wash., who studies the migration routes and overwintering sites of the Pacific Northwest monarch population, told us last Friday, Aug. 25: "Many monarchs have been/are being tagged in Southern Oregon! One has already been recovered showing southern movement, so its likely they will be heading your way very soon!" He maintains a network of Pacific Northwest citizen scientists who rear, tag and release monarchs.
Last year on Sept. 5, Labor Day, a tagged monarch--a male--from his citizen scientist program in Ashland, Ore., fluttered into our yard in Vacaville, Calif. for a five-hour "pit stop" on his way to an overwintering site, probably in Santa Cruz or Pacific Grove. We followed him around, watching him sip nectar from Mexican sunflowers and butterfly bushes. Then we contacted James, sending him photos and information, and wrote about the encounter on a Bug Squad blog.
The tag read "firstname.lastname@example.org," and serial number "A6093," which tied the butterfly to Ashland citizen scientist Steve Johnson of the Southern Oregon Monarchs Advocates (SOMA). Johnson tagged and released "A6093" 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 related. "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!”
As far as we know, the Ashland reared-and-released monarch wasn't sighted again.
Fast forward to this year. We are seeing fewer monarchs this year than last. Last year we reared and released 60 monarchs in our small-scale monarch program. This season, however, we've noticed a drastic drop in the number of visitors to our pollinator garden, which includes plenty of milkweed, their host plant, and even more nectar sources. So far we've reared and released only four monarchs--three females and a male. Four chrysalids remain.
"Yes, it's been a dismal year for monarchs in many areas of the West, unfortunately," James wrote in an email on Aug. 29. "I think it stems from the late winter storms that hit the California coast just as the overwintering colonies were beginning to disperse... I think the survivors that produced the first spring generation of larvae were fewer in number than 'normal.' Consequently, the next generation (that begins migrating into the Pacific Northwest) was also smaller than usual. Many areas of the PNW had very few monarchs this year."
The good news, though, the associate professor said, is "that where monarchs did colonize in Washington, Idaho and Oregon, they had good breeding success, resulting in locally 'normal' or above normal sized summer populations. So I'm expecting an overwintering population comparable to last year. Thus, you should see a definite increase in numbers of monarchs coming through your yard over the next month!"
We hope so! Meanwhile, keep a lookout for those WSU-tagged monarchs. If you see one, try to photograph it and mail the image and information to David James at email@example.com.