Science journalist Janet Marinelli, writing in Yalee360, said it well in her Dec. 21st piece, "To Protect Monarch: a Plan to Save the Sacred Firs."
This should be widely read, widely distributed and widely discussed.
Basically, it's crucial to plant milkweed, the host plant of the besieged and dwindling monarch, but it's also crucial to plant more oyamel fir trees (Abies religiosa) in central Mexico, where deforestration and climate disruption and loss of milkweed combine to rage an ongoing war against the migrating monarchs. These firs are the favorite of overwintering monarchs that migrate from the Eastern United States, and as far away as Canada.
This tree is called a sacred fir ”because of its narrow, conic tip that resembles clasped hands with fingers pointed upwards, praying," Marinelli writes. "These dense, dark-green conifers protect the monarchs from cold and rainy winter nights."
Says Wikipedia: "Sacred fir is named after the use of cut foliage in religious festivals in Mexico, notably at Christmas. It is also the preferred tree for the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) to reside in colonies during its hibernation in Mexico. The distribution of this tree is narrowing because of deforestation and human impact."
The fir is on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.
"A billion butterflies once fluttered down from as far as southern Canada to paint the firs a quivering crazy quilt of orange and black with white spots," Marinelli eloquently wrote. "But due to the usual litany of destructive factors — from the deforestation of Mexico's oyamel fir trees to the loss of milkweeds, the primary host plants for monarch caterpillars up north — their numbers have plummeted. By 2014, there were just 33 million of them "
So the scientists in Mexico seek to plant these trees at higher altitudes--not just to save this species of trees, but to save the monarchs.
Cuauhtémoc Sáenz-Romero, a forest geneticist at the Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolás de Hidalgo, and the plan's architect, was saying: “We have to act now. Later will be too late, because the trees will be dead or too weak to produce seeds in enough quantity for large reforestation programs.”
Agreed. It's important to act now. "Later will be too late." Saving the sacred firs is a crucial tool in the save-the-monarch toolbox.
Humankind, so apt at destroying habitat instead of protecting it, now needs to backtrack and save the environment, the firs and the monarchs.
Before. It. Is. Too. Late.
Is the overwintering monarch butterfly population along California's coast increasing or decreasing?
"So far, far the picture is rather mixed for the number of monarchs in California," according to Matthew Shepherd, communications director for the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. "More than 130 sites have been surveyed," he told us today. "Northern sites have more butterflies that last year, other sites fewer, and there are many southern sites that haven't yet reported data. A full analysis will be available in January."
The western monarchs, that is those that west of the Rockies, migrate to the California coast to overwinter while the eastern monarchs head to the mountains of central Mexico.
In a news release issued today from its headquarters in Portland, Ore., the Xerces Society said that early data from its Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count suggests "a small increase in butterfly numbers in some parts of the overwintering range."
That is, 2015 may have "been a better year for the beleaguered monarch butterfly in the western United States."
"The overall population size is still far lower than it was in the 1990s, when more than one million butterflies were counted," the news release said. "The surveys indicate that sites north of Santa Cruz are hosting more butterflies than previous years, whereas sites in Monterey, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Barbara counties are reporting fewer numbers of butterflies on average. Several new sites have been reported, including some from Marin County with up to 10,000 monarchs. The data is not yet available for Santa Cruz County and southern California."
The Xerces Society launched its Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count in 1997. This year some 85 volunteers surveyed more than 130 sites over a three-week period centered around Thanksgiving.
We'll all have to wait until January to see the final tallies.
Meanwhile, we were happy to see monarchs roosting in November in the Berkeley Aquatic Park (for the first year ever) and on Mare Island, Vallejo, (maybe also first?) but those clusters may be temporary. As butterfly guru Art Shapiro, distinguished professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis, says--they may move on as soon as the weather turns foul.
Maybe they're on their way to Santa Cruz?
"There are some sites where monarchs gather in fall, almost like staging posts in preparation for moving to overwintering locations," Shepherd told us.
Where can you observe the overwintering monarchs in California? The Xerces Society has kindly provided a web page with links to overerwintering sites in Alameda, Santa Cruz, Monterey, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties.
A mid-life chrysalis?
Well, maybe not mid-life, but definitely out of season.
A female monarch butterfly eclosed today in our little indoor butterfly habitat. Two weeks ago, we “rescued” the caterpillar from a narrow-leafed milkweed plant in our Vacaville pollinator garden and brought it inside. Our goal: conservation. We sought to protect it from prey, including the resident scrub jays.
So, this morning, we lost a chrysalis and gained a butterfly. She was right on schedule: Eclosure after 10 days as a chrysalis.
When the temperature hit 61 degrees at around 1 p.m., we released her. She fluttered a bit, and then soared straight up, a good 80 feet high. Usually when we release the monarchs, they flutter around, sometimes touching down on a bush and sometimes soaring over it. This one wasted no time.
On its way to Santa Cruz?
Not sure. At 3:30 p.m., we spotted a monarch butterfly--same one?--roosting on our African blue basil as a dozen honey bees buzzed around, gathering nectar.
Meanwhile, the fellow members of her species are winging their way to their overwintering sites: the monarchs east of the Rockies to the Sierra Madre Mountains in Mexico, and those west of the Rockies to the California coast, including the Natural Bridges State Beach in Santa Cruz, and Pacific Grove in Monterey County. They cluster in eucalyptus, Monterey pines, and Monterey cypresses.
Monarchs do not fly at night. They travel only during the day and then find a roosting spot for the night. "Roost sites are important to the monarch migration," according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service. "Many of these locations are used year after year. Often pine, fir and cedar trees are chosen for roosting. These trees have thick canopies that moderate the temperature and humidity at the roost site. In the mornings, monarchs bask in the sunlight to warm themselves."
How many miles can monarchs travel a day? Between 50 to 100 miles, the Forest Service says. "It can take up to two months to complete their journey. The farthest ranging monarch butterfly recorded traveled 265 miles in one day."
Monarchs use a combination of directional aids, including the magnetic pull of the earth and the position of the sun. They take advantage of the air currents and thermals as they head toward their overwintering sights.
To think that we humans can barely make it out of the neighborhood without our GPS devices!
As of 5 p.m., the monarch roosting on the African blue basil is still there. The bees are gone, back to the warmth of their hives.
Tomorrow, our little buddy will warm her flight muscles, sip a little nectar, and take flight.
Safe travels, Miss Monarch!