2020 was a troubling year for the monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus.
USFWS announced Dec. 15 that the iconic butterfly qualified as an endangered species but resources are not available to place it on the high priority list. Translation: no funding. However, USFWS said the "monarchs' status will be reviewed each year by the agency and conservation efforts will continue."
Still, both the Western population, which overwinters along the California coast, and the Eastern population, which overwinters in central Mexico, are declining rapidly. Since the 1990s, monarchs have declined by approximately 80 percent in central Mexico, and by 99 percent in coastal California, scientists say. The threats impacting the monarchs? "Habitat loss and fragmentation has occurred throughout the monarch's range. Pesticide use can destroy the milkweed monarchs need to survive," USFWS says. "A changing climate has intensified weather events which may impact monarch populations."
Incredibly, 2020 was a very good year for monarchs--the best year yet--in our family's pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif. We counted more than 300 eggs or caterpillars. We donated some to researchers to establish populations, and we reared some ourselves.
Our entire garden was a'flutter. The monarchs nectared on the milkweed flowers, Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia rotundifolia), butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii), and assorted other flowers.
Monarch butterflies usually lay their eggs beneath the milkweed leaves, but sometimes we see them laying their eggs on flowers and stems. One memorable day in late summer, we spotted four monarch eggs on a milkweed "floral bouquet." We offer the monarchs a choice of milkweed, primarily: narrowleaf milkweed, Asclepias. fascicularis,and showy milkweed, A. speciosa, both natives; and tropical milkweed, A. curassavica, a non-native. ( As recommended, we cut back or remove the tropical milkweed before the migratory season.)
Let's hope that monarchs will fare better in 2021. Check out the Xerces Society's page at https://xerces.org/monarchs and let's do what we can to help.
Yes, monarch butterflies qualify for the Endangered Species list.
But no, we can't protect them because we don't have the money.
That's the gist of what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) said today.
USFWS director Aurelia Skipwith announced in a news release: "We conducted an intensive, thorough review using a rigorous, transparent science-based process and found that the monarch meets listing criteria under the Endangered Species Act. However, before we can propose listing, we must focus resources on our higher-priority listing actions. As part of the decision, monarchs' status will be reviewed each year by the agency and conservation efforts will continue."
The monarch population is declining at an alarming rate--both the Western population, which overwinters along the California coast, and the Eastern population, which overwinters in central Mexico. Since the 1990s, monarchs have declined by approximately 80 percent in central Mexico, and by 99 percent in coastal California, scientists say. The threats impacting the monarchs? "Habitat loss and fragmentation has occurred throughout the monarch's range. Pesticide use can destroy the milkweed monarchs need to survive," USFWS says. "A changing climate has intensified weather events which may impact monarch populations."
Butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, says monarchs are on "life support." (See Bug Squad blog.)
Will there be a time when we no longer see the iconic monarchs fluttering into our yards, laying eggs on our milkweed and sipping nectar from our plants? Will they go extinct like the Xerces blue butterfly, Glaucopsyche xerces, last seen in the early 1940s in the San Francisco Bay area?
What can we do to protect the monarchs from extinction?
We can all do our part by planting milkweed, nectar-rich flowers (especially important during their migration) and avoiding all pesticides. We can also get involved with organizations such as the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, which monitors the monarch populations and offers advice and suggestions. See https://xerces.org/monarchs.
As Xerces points out: "The Xerces Society, government agencies, partner organizations, and communities are working across the U.S. to protect and restore habitat for monarch butterflies across a broad array of landscapes, provide workshops and educational resources on monarch conservation, and conduct research—including facilitating community science projects like the Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count and the Western Monarch Milkweed Mapper."
When the monarchs overwinter, they cluster to keep warm. Is it too much to ask that we humans cluster together throughout the country to protect them from extinction?
You never know about those photo-bombers. You can't trust 'em.
So here I was, trying to photograph a tiny egg that a monarch butterfly had just deposited on our milkweed.
I held it up for a better look.
And then, the photo-bomber!
An oleander aphid, Aphis nerii, appeared out of nowhere and headed over to the egg for a quick "inspection."
Oleander aphids suck the juices, the very lifeblood, out of milkweed plants. They're yellow with black cornicles, they're non-native, and they're pests on milkweed when all you want are guests! (Like monarchs)
Want to know more about these pests? Check out the UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program's website on aphids.
"Aphids are small, soft-bodied insects with long slender mouthparts that they use to pierce stems, leaves, and other tender plant parts and suck out fluids," UC IPM says. "Almost every plant has one or more aphid species that occasionally feed on it."
They are also quite good at photo-bombing. Trust me.
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.
We don't normally name the monarch butterflies we rear, but we decided that the first one reared from an egg "The Greg Way" would be named for Greg--naturalist Greg Kareofelas, associate at the Bohart Museum of Entomology, UC Davis.
The first one, however, is a girl, so she's "Greta" instead of "Greg."
Over the last five years, we've reared more than hundred monarchs from caterpillar to chrysalis to adult. We collect the 'cats from the three species of milkweed in our Vacaville pollinator garden. This summer, however, we decided to collect a few eggs after seeing Mama Monarchs depositing them on tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, and narrowleaf milkweed, Asclepias fascicularis. (As recommended, we cut back the tropical milkweed before the migratory season begins.)
Here's "The Greg Way":
"I put a single egg on its leaf in a small salsa container (the little plastic ones you would get at a Mexican restaurant)," Kareofelas says. "I take a square of toilet paper and fold it into a small square (3/4 of inch), dampen it and squeeze it so it is not sopping wet, just damp, and set the leaf and egg on the top. Put the lid tightly on the container. This keeps a level of moisture in the container. I check the containers daily, changing the toilet paper square to keep from molding."
The egg hatched. The caterpillar ate. And ate again, again and again. Did we mention "Again?" Again, again and again. She went through five instars, and then she j'd and formed a chrysalis on the ceiling of our indoor, netted butterfly habitat. The entire cycle from egg to larva to chrysalis to adult takes about a month. (See more on Bug Squad blog, Joy of Rearing Monarchs)
So Greta eclosed this morning, big, bold and beautiful. We released her in the pollinator garden, near where Mama deposited her as an egg. Greta inched up on a Mexican sunflower (Tithonia rotundiflora) and then took flight. A blur.
Hopefully, she will mate and overwinter in coastal California, avoiding the wildfires, adverse weather conditions and predators.
Safe travels, Greta! (And thank you, Greg!)