Celebrating monarch butterflies can happen any time of year, but there are several special days dedicated to these beautiful, winged insects. There’s National Start Seeing Monarch Day on the first Saturday in May and this week, we have Western Monarch Day on February 5, 2019 that celebrates these magnificent butterflies along the central coast of California.
Though there are many amazing species of butterflies, the monarch reigns over many of them. Sprouting regal colors of gold, yellow, orange, and red bordered in black, these butterflies lord over fields and forests. Another reason to pay special attention to these natural wonders is that their kingdom is unfortunately at risk.
Monarch butterflies have an amazing migration pattern that extends over thousand of miles and several generations. They are the only butterfly that migrates like a bird travelling north in summer, south in winter. Relying upon instinct and an internal compass, not adult populations, these butterflies to cross borders to survive another season.
Monarchs from the eastern United States travel to a region in Mexico’s Sierra Madre while those in the western United States migrate to California, overwintering in woodlands from Santa Cruz to San Diego. These woodlands are comprised of eucalyptus, Monterey pine, and Monterey cypress trees similar to those found in Mexico’s wintering location.
Many monarch butterflies overwinter in Mexico, clinging to habitat in oyamel forests in a small region. Arriving in November, the monarchs spend the winter foraging and roosting in dense clusters to withstand cold temperatures. In February they mate and lay eggs. This generation will hatch and head north, but it will take 3 to 4 generations to reach their summer grounds in the north.
In addition to these locations, some monarchs spend the entire year in California or summer there and migrate to Baja California for the winter. Some populations have also become established in Hawaii, either from released butterflies or ones that were blown off course out into the Pacific Ocean.
These brush-footed butterflies, stemming from the fact that one pair of feet is smaller than the others and covered with tiny bristles, are found across Mexico and Canada and deserve the royal treatment. Their journey has faced many challenges from habitat conversion to insecticides to loss of nectaring plants such as milkweeds. So, organizations along California’s central coast sponsor events and roll out the red carpet for these amazing creatures.
Eggs take about 4 days to hatch and the caterpillars feed on milkweed plants for about 2 weeks before they spin a chrysalis. After another 2-week period, an adult emerges and keeps the cycle going. The final generation of the season migrates and may survive up to 8 months overwintering in Mexico or California.
A monarch’s orange-and-black coloration warns predators that the butterfly isn’t a tasty snack. Having accumulated toxins within their bodies from consuming sap and leaves of milkweeds as caterpillars, the adult’s coloration keeps predators at bay. But a more pressing problem for these butterflies is the loss of habitat, lack of forage plants such as milkweeds, and lack of continuity between nectaring sites for the monarchs to fuel up at.
Western Monarch Day celebrates that monarchs have returned to California. Many organizations that track monarch populations worry for the butterfly’s survival as a species. Since 1990, nearly 90% of the monarch population has been lost due to a variety of issues such as habitat loss, spraying of milkweed with herbicides, loss of nectaring plants, and other factors.
One location that hosts special events is the Pismo Beach State Monarch Butterfly Grove. Special talks, booths, activities for kids, and guided field trips feature this creature on February 2. Even though the one-day event is over, the monarchs are still there and in other California locations to marvel at.
Conservation organizations, land trusts, school groups, and private citizens have pitched in to help the monarchs by planting milkweed plants in patches for the monarchs to lay eggs or nectar on, educating the public about the monarch’s plight, and advocating for protective reserves where the monarchs overwinter. Adult monarchs nectar on a variety of flowers, but milkweed plants are critical for egg laying.
Organizations rely upon volunteers to count adult butterflies and map milkweed patches as possible egg-laying sites and to notify landowners or municipalities of the importance of these milkweed patches. Tagging projects also utilize citizen science advocates to help trap and tag adult butterflies with a non-invasive sticker and identification number. Collected on the wintering grounds, or elsewhere, these tags help researchers understand where monarchs travel and how to help them out along the way.
Though Western Monarch Day features these amazing butterflies, everyday is worth celebrating monarchs. February is a good month for gardeners in the northern United States to pour over seed and plant catalogs. Maybe this year is the year to add some milkweeds to the garden and help in the conservation of royalty.
To learn more about monarchs or volunteer projects, visit these websites:
National Wildlife Federation: nwf.org
Monarch Watch: monarchwatch.org
Xerces Society: xerces.org
Southern Oregon Monarch Advocates: somonarchs.org