It’s something everyone should witness, at least once. The Monarch butterfly migration, the longest of any butterfly. The Monarch butterflies cover as much as 1,500 miles; their trip spans four generations of butterflies, mystifying the scientists not certain as to how, exactly, they return to the same spots to over-winter. To accomplish such aeronautical feat, they soar, taking advantage of the wind currents to reach such vast distances. Such understanding of the Monarchs might lead more of us to think twice about using pesticides or accelerate our efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change, both threatening their survival.
My family and I witnessed their winter resting place at an Eucalyptus grove in Pismo State Beach, California, where tens upon tens of thousands of fluttering Monarch butterflies gathered to over-winter every year from roughly October through February. There are many other groves all along the coast, including in Pacific Grove. On sunny days, a cacophony of activity ensues, with Monarch butterflies searching for flower nectar and water to drink as well as mating. The Pismo State Beach grove is the largest in United States, with population numbers ranging from 15,000 to over 230,000. It all makes for a spectacular and blazing show of color. For the serious ecotraveler, you can also bicycle or take the Amtrak train to the grove.
Professor Dennis Frey, now retired from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, has completed population studies on the Monarch butterflies at this Pismo State Beach grove from 1990 through 2008. According to his research, he has seen Monarch populations fluctuate between 15,000 and 230,000. During some winter seasons, there might be gigantic differences from one year to the next, like when populations plummeted from 175,000 in 1991-1992 to only 20,000 in 1993-1994. Why such declines occur is uncertain — and troubling. The Monarch butterflies at the Pismo Beach grove are a part of two distinct migration routes, one west of the Rocky Mountains that over-winter in central and southern Californian coast and the other east of the Rocky Mountains that head to Mexico for the winter.
During our visit, State Beach docent and knowledgeable guide Judy Bertonneau described the whole migration as well as the amazing Monarch life cycle process — sometimes with a butterfly contently resting upon her shoulder. She pointed out that among the greatest threats to Monarch survival is us. We’re building over important habitat, killing milkweed — pivotal to the butterflies food and metamorphosis from egg to larva to chrysalis to adult butterfly — with pesticides, and now, adding to the impacts climate change that dries out whole parts of the country. There are also growing pressures from various parasites that negatively impact the butterfly.
According to an educational brochure produced by the Pacific Grove Chamber of Commerce, here’s how you can help:
• Support open space and wildlife habitat legislation
• Plant nectar sources for butterflies if in Monarch butterfly over-wintering areas
• Minimize (why not eliminate altogether, we say) the use of herbicides, pesticides or fungicides
• Plant milkweed inland, away from wintering habitats (or allow it to grow abundantly where ever it grows, like we do at Inn Serendipity)
• Visit the butterfly groves and support the conservation work of the organizations dedicated to being the voice of the butterflies. In Pismo State Beach alone, over 60,000 visitors arrive every year.
Understanding nature, and experiencing this Monarch butterfly mystery, is one of the first steps to caring about their conservation.
Photography: John Ivanko