A monarch butterfly fluttered into our pollinator garden in Vacaville yesterday and sipped nectar from a Mexican sunflower (Tithonia) as a bird looked on.
Well, sort of looked on.
The bird was decorative art. The monarch was real.
Now if that bird had been real, the monarch may have been a meal.
It would not have tasted very good, though, due to the infamous cardenolide defense, which the monarch gets in its caterpillar stage while chowing down milkweed, its host plant.
Yes, birds eat monarch butterflies, but they don't eat them like people eat potato chips.
We remember the Linda Fink-Lincoln Brower research article published in May 1981 in the journal Nature about how some birds can overcome the cardenolide defense of monarch butterflies in Mexico.
"Flocks of black-backed orioles (Icterus abeillei Lesson) and black-headed grosbeaks (Pheucticus melanocephalus Swainson) eat several hundred thousand monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus L.) in the dense overwintering colonies in central Mexico, and in 1979 were responsible for over 60% of the butterfly mortality at several sites. Such predation is unusual because, during larval development the aposematically coloured monarch butterfly sequesters cardenolides from its milkweed foodplants (Asclepiadaceae). These bitter-tasting heart poisons cause vomiting in 12 species of birds in 9 families, although the domestic chicken, Japanese quail, hedgehog, mouse and sheep have been shown to be insensitive to their emetic effects. Extensive predation of monarch butterflies by birds has never been observed except in Mexico. We report here that the Mexican butterflies are weakly emetic, and that taste discrimination by orioles and cardenolide insensitivity of grosbeaks allow these birds to feed freely on monarch butterflies."
We've seen birds scatter the overwintering monarchs roosting in the eucalyptus trees at Pacific Grove, Santa Cruz, but never witnessed an all-you-can-eat buffet. They ate a few, though.
What are the odds?
Here you are, standing in the garden section of a home improvement store, and you select a tropical milkweed to purchase. You place it on the ground and admire the brilliant yellow blossoms and luxurious green foliage. It's the best of the best. Just as you're about to pick it up and place it in a cart, a monarch lands on it and begins laying eggs.
What are the odds?
That happened to us around Wednesday noon, Sept. 4 in Vacaville as we were purchasing an end-of-the-season Asclepias curassavica.
Most likely, the plant had been in the nursery since last spring, as it was root-bound. We took it home, replanted it in a larger pot, and set it in the sun. Milkweeds like full sun. And monarchs go where their host plant is, whether it be in the wild, in your backyard, in your city park, or in a garden section of your local home improvement store.
Hopefully, the monarch eggs will hatch and this tropical milkweed will yield some caterpillars, chrysalids and adults.
Ironically, we found a monarch laying eggs in the garden section of a home improvement store!
Said entomologist David James of Washington State University, Pullman, who researches migratory monarchs: "That's an amazing story...selecting your milkweed and then having a female come over and deposit a few eggs for you!"
As an aside, as we were purchasing the milkweed, I casually asked the clerk at the check-out line "Have you seen any monarchs here?"
"Not in HERE," she said, surprised I would ask such a question. She tallied up the sale as "Mama Monarch" fluttered around her nursery, unnoticed, laying the next generation.
Curiously enough, a family member recorded a monarch laying eggs in the garden section of that same store the day before. About the same time. Maybe the same monarch. (See YouTube video)
Butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, who has monitored all butterfly populations in the central valley for more than four decades and publishes his research on a website, says that “this is the biggest milkweed year in northern and central California in living memory. Speciosa is up to 5' tall and some fascicularis almost as big, and both are covered with both genera of Lygaeids (milkweed bugs), plus both oleander and gray aphids. But Monarchs only showed up here about two weeks ago! Lots of milkweed, no Monarchs to use it. I have seen 10 Monarchs in 2019 and have not seen a wild larva since 2017, and I am afield 260 days a year.”
Sometimes life just isn't fair. Entomologist Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology at UC Davis, commented “Weirder and weirder. They still haven't found MY milkweed.”
We never thought we'd see one this year.
And then it arrived.
The first monarch sighting of the year.
A Danaus plexippus majestically touched down on our Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia) around 5 this afternoon in our pollinator garden in Vacaville, circled the milkweed plants about 10 times, and then fluttered over the roof and vanished.
Meanwhile, we managed to grab a couple of photos of the iconic butterfly.
Fellow monarch enthusiasts report the scarcity of monarchs.
"Haven't see any this year," said one.
"Me, either," said another.
"No, not a single one," said yet another. "I'm looking."
Rita LeRoy has seen two at the Loma Vista Farm, Vallejo.
"Send some over to us," we said.
We remember butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, commenting at a meeting hosted at UC Davis Feb. 28, 2019 by the Environmental Defense Fund, that "monarchs are on life support." The attendees--some scientists, some citizen scientists--were there to discuss "Recovering the Western Monarch Butterfly Population: Identifying Opportunities for Scaling Monarch Habitat in California's Central Valley."
The organizers related that "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. Population declines have spurred greater scientific study, funding, and coordination around the western monarch. California legislators appropriated $3 million in funding to the CA Wildlife Conservation Board to establish the Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Rescue Program."
"Additionally," they said, "the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies released a Western Monarch Butterfly Conservation Plan calling for an additional 50,000 acres of monarch-friendly habitat in the California Central Valley and adjacent foothills by 2029. Join Environmental Defense Fund along with farmers, restoration practitioners, and scientists for an invitation-only workshop to share expert knowledge and identify strategic opportunities for restoring monarch butterfly habitat across the Central Valley. We will discuss important topics including opportunities for monarch habitat in the food production landscape, incentivizing monarch habitat restoration using limited resources, production and distribution of native plants, and other subjects that will put the western monarch butterfly population on the path to recovery. We will use the results of the workshop to inform conservation initiatives and effectively and efficiently allocate funds and resources for optimal conservation outcomes."
Shapiro was one of the five speakers in the "State of the Science" workshop section. He has been monitoring Central Valley's butterfly population since 1972 and maintains a website on his research.
In his presentation, Shapiro declared that "monarchs are on life support in California, and we are reduced to prescribing placebos."
"Consider a doctor faced with a patient in rapid decline," Shapiro told the group. "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!" (Read his presentation on a Bug Squad blog.)
Meanwhile, we know there's at least one monarch in Vacaville...Maybe it's a female and will return to lay eggs on our milkweed. We can only hope.
It's Halloween and scores of trick-or-treaters are donning monarch butterfly costumes.
But they can't do justice to the living monarchs, those iconic, majestic butterflies that are always dressed in Halloween colors: black and orange.
It's always a treat to see them but they have to avoid the "tricks"--predators and parasitoids.
Among the last monarchs we reared in September: a brightly colored female, healthy and strong and rarin' to go.
Where is she now, on Halloween? Is she overwintering in Santa Cruz or Pacific Grove? Or, did a predator, perhaps a California scrub jay or a praying mantis, nail her?
We don't known "witch" way she went, but as she fluttered away, we wished her "Safe travels!"
It's been a troubling year for monarchs, Danaus plexippus, according to butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, who maintains a research website, Art's Butterfly World. "I have not seen a wild egg or caterpillar of the monarch this entire calendar year at low elevations," he said Sept. 6, 2018 during an interview on the "Insight with Beth Ruyak" program, Capital Public Radio, Sacramento. "Not one." (Listen to the interview.)
Where to see the overwintering monarchs in California?
They've been found at more than 400 sites along the California coast, according to the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. "The mild winters of the California coast are a perfect haven from the harsh cold weather found in our country's interior," Xerces says on its website. "Monarchs take advantage of this climate and often use the same overwintering sites year after year. Congregations of overwintering monarchs have been found at more than 400 sites along the California coast, from Mendocino County in the north to San Diego in the south. For many people, the arrival of autumn along the California coast is marked by the flutter of orange and black as monarchs arrive at these groves and settle in for the winter."
"The last few years have witnessed low numbers of butterflies throughout the region compared to the late 1990s, but there are still many places to view overwintering monarchs and get involved!"
It's a magical moment.
First an egg, then a caterpillar, then a chrysalis, and then a butterfly, Danaus plexippus.
We took some images of a monarch eclosing back on Sept. 10, 2016. It was late in the season. While other monarchs were migrating to coastal California, some were fluttering into our yard in Vacaville, Calif., nectaring on blossoms, mating, and laying eggs on milkweed, their host plant.
The caterpillar, from the first instar to the fifth instar, munches the milkweed like there's no tomorrow (maybe there isn't?), and then forms an emerald green chrysalis, dotted with gold that's reminiscent of royalty. When it turns transparent, you can see the familiar black and orange wings, a promise of what's to come.
It takes about two weeks for an adult butterfly to emerge from its chrysalis and then it slides out--swoosh!--and hangs upside down, pumping fluids into its expanding wings. When the wings dry, off it goes. Sometimes it soars high into the sky. Sometimes it just lingers.
If you're a butterfly aficionado, you never get tired of watching that magical moment when a monarch ecloses.
Here's to Independence Day and to America's favorite butterfly, the monarch.