The Xerces Society recently released a Western Monarch Call to Action plan. According to the recent Xerces Society Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count, the Western Monarchs are in trouble and now is the time to take ACTION.
The Western monarch population needs your help and this blog will tell you how. First, I want to mention some of the organizations that are doing important work for the Monarchs.
Art Shapiro, a professor of Evolution and Ecology at University of California- Davis, has been collecting data on the California Monarch populations for 34 years! A link to his site is here. The Southwest Monarch Study is also doing research in Arizona and the Southwestern United States to better understand the monarch migration. The Xerces Society recently released a Western Monarch Call to Action plan which I am going to summarize below.
1.) Protect and manage California overwintering sites.
In summary, we need to work at local, regional and state levels to protect overwintering habitat in California and stop the destruction of overwintering sites. You can also contact your local elected official to ask that monarch overwintering sites in your area be protected.
2.) Restore breeding and migratory habitat in California.
The primary focus for habitat restoration should be (but not limited to) the Coast Range, Sacramento Valley, and the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.
We need people who live in these areas to plant habitat, both nectar-producing native species as well as native milkweed species, especially early and late bloomers which include:
Woollypod (Asclepias eriocarpa),
California (A. californica),
Heartleaf milkweed (A. cordifolia)
Narrowleaf (A. fascicularis)
Showy milkweed (A. speciosa).
In the desert southwest of California, plant rush (A. subulata) and desert milkweed (A. erosa).
AVOID planting non-native Tropical Milkweed, a non-native species which stays evergreen and does not die back in areas with mild winters—interrupts the monarchs’ natural migratory cycle, leading to disease build-up and winter breeding
Ask your local nursery to start supplying native milkweed. Organize a group to collect milkweed seed and propagate it. Engage with seed companies, plant nurseries, and land management entities to work together to ramp up production and ensure a diverse supply of native milkweeds and nectar plants which are insecticide free. Click here to find a monarch nectar plant guide for your region..
3.) Protect monarchs and their habitat from pesticides
We need to stop using pesticides and seek out non-chemical options to prevent and manage pests in your garden and landscaping. We need to push to suspend use of neonicotinoids that are known to harm pollinators.
4.) Protect, manage, and restore summer breeding and fall migration monarch habitat outside of California.
Identify existing monarch habitat around you so you can work to protect it. Choose an overwintering site near you to start monitoring here.
Conduct management activities such as mowing, burning, and grazing in monarch habitat when monarchs are NOT present. Restore monarch habitat in regions where monarch habitat has been lost such as the Columbia Plateau, Snake River Plain, and riparian areas.
Visit Western Monarch Milkweed Mapper to preview maps of the areas with the highest monarch habitat suitability in the West. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in receiving copies of the associated map products for planning or research purposes.
5.) Answer key research questions about how to best aid western monarch recovery.
"Right now, we need Californians and Arizonans to collect observations of monarchs and milkweeds, especially in the early spring (February–April), the period in which monarchs leave the overwintering sites and which scientists know least about.
In the next few weeks/months, we need eyes looking out for monarchs across the rest of the West, too, in particular, in New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and Montana. "
Thank you to all of the monarch conservation agencies, citizen scientists, teachers, park workers and monarch lovers for all of the work you do.
Do you ever find yourself watching a butterfly and wondering to yourself, what in the world are they doing? Well, this blog is meant to demystify some of your butterfly curiosities and help you to better understand the butterflies in your garden. Below are 5 key terms to understanding butterfly behavior.
Before moving ahead, I feel compelled to pay homage to the late, world-renowned Monarch conservationist and ecologist, Lincoln Brower who spent most of his life studying Monarch butterfly behavior. Without his research the Monarch world would not be the same.
Monarch feeding on Salvia mexicana
Butterflies don't have teeth but they do have a proboscis. A proboscis is basically an elongated snout that can straighten by hydrostatic pressure, allowing them to drink the nectar from tube-like flowers. When they aren't feeding, their proboscis is rolled up on the underside of their head. Some butterflies also like to feed on rotting fruit when flowers aren't available.
Did you know that butterflies are ectotherms, also known as cold-blooded? This means they rely on the sun to warm their muscles and raise their internal temperature enough for flight. According to Journey North, a monarch's threshold for flight is 55°F (13°C). Their wings work as solar panels to capture that heat and reflect it onto their black thorax. Generally they "bask" with their wings outstretched in order to capture the maximum amount of UV radiation.
Another way for butterflies to raise their internal temperature is by shivering, or moving their wings rapidly. Butterflies do not have it easy. They are constantly avoiding freezing, desiccation, heat stress, and predation. That is why they have developed so many behavioral strategies in order to survive. According to a scientific paper by researchers Masters, Malcom and Brower: "The monarch thus is the first butterfly in which shivering has been shown to be of major ecological importance."
Butterflies don’t exactly sleep but they do rest or "roost". In fact, a cluster of butterflies is called a roost. When they roost, their wings are generally closed and you can see why. The Monarch butterfly has an excellent camouflage on the underside of it's wings that makes them look just like dried leaves. So, roosting allows them to hide from predators, rest and regulate their temperatures. Studies have found that clustering will also raise the butterfly's temperature, protecting them from freezing at night.
Butterflies can be found sipping moisture from puddles or wet soil after a nice rain. Not only are they being hydrated but they also pick up salts in the process. The salts are also thought to increase a male butterfly's fertility.
The Monarchs at their overwintering site in Mexico do mate but they do not reproduce until Spring. This is due to the fact that there is not any milkweed present in the sanctuary.
Interestingly enough, Monarchs differ from their close relatives, the Danaids, in their mating behavior. For instance, Monarchs do not use pheromones or complex courtship rituals to engage with their mates. Instead, they pursue the females in flight or perch on them while they are on the ground, then attempt to mate with them through coercion. Research done by K. Oberhauser, M. Solensky, and D. Frey, suggests that mating by coercion evolved in both overwintering and summer generations of Monarchs, and the dependence on chemical cues was lost.
According to several reports, including the arborists of Cerro Pelon and Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, this is the year to visit the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary in Mexico!
If you've found yourself on this page, you probably don't need any convincing to go see this phenomenon. Seeing millions of Monarch butterflies floating in the sky like an orange and black snowstorm is truly a magical experience. However, there are even more reasons to visit the overwintering ground in Central Mexico.
In the past, the forests of the sanctuary have suffered from issues of illegal logging and this is still happening in some places. However, with the income from butterfly tourism and concern about the Monarch population, some locals have started tree nurseries and are working as guides within in the sanctuary. By visiting the sanctuary, you are helping to raise awareness and employ those who are protecting the sanctuary.
When to Visit
The Monarchs begin to arrive at the sanctuary in the Central mountains of Mexico in November (this year they arrived on November 6th) and will overwinter there until mid-March when they head North again. The sanctuaries aren't open to the public until mid-November. Apparently, the most popular time to see them is between January and February when they are in peak migration. However, I would highly recommend going in late-November or December. Why? For one, there will most likely be less people and you will have a more private experience. Don't worry, you will still see A LOT of butterflies. The video above was taken in Cerro Pelon in early December.
There are 4 sanctuaries open to the public. Each of these sanctuaries is a little different in accessibility, difficulty of hike, location, Monarch population, and flora. Why not visit them all?
A Monarch feeding on Salvia mexicana in the sanctuary
Cerro Pelón is where scientists first confirmed that the butterflies migrated from Canada all the way to this Oyamel Fir forest in Central Mexico. Many butterfly enthusiasts and travelers will say that this is the most rugged and beautiful of the sanctuaries. I would have to agree that it was a lovely and private experience. Other than the arborists, ranger, and our guide we were the only people up there on the mountain.
The view on the ride up to Cerro Pelon
We booked our Cerro Pelon tour and stay through JM's Butterfly B&B. As far as I know, they are the only local guide company based in Macheros, the mountain village where the entrance to the sanctuary is. In fact, the entrance to the sanctuary is just a few minutes walk from JM Butterfly House and someone from the B & B will escort you. I highly recommend staying at JM's and booking a tour with them. Their guides, as well as Joel and Ellen are extremely hospitable, knowledgable and will give you the full butterfly experience! I was very excited to meet the Butterflies and Their People arborists. For prices and concise directions to JM Butterfly click here.
It is a very steep hike up even for the experienced hiker. I opted for the horse and it was about an hour and 20 minute ride up the mountain at a fairly brisk pace (for the horse). Have no fear if you are not an experienced horseback rider because there will be a horse handler to lead you and your horse. Once you arrive at a clearing at the top of the mountain, your handler will tie up your horse and it will be between a 15 and 25 minute walk to the colony of butterflies. Keep in mind that the length of time will vary considerably at different times of the season. I visited at the beginning of December. My guide, Ana, said that the Monarchs generally continue to move deeper into the forest and higher on the mountain as more butterflies arrive.
Arborist Leonel, our guide Anayeli Moreno, arborists Jose Carmen Contreras and Oswaldo Esquive, one of the forest rangers, along with myself and my mother in Cerro Pelon
This was the second most recommended sanctuary by the folks of JM Butterfly House and I was told it was less developed and less touristy than El Rosario. My mother and I stayed in Zitácuaro the night before which is about an hour and a half drive from the sanctuary. We took a bus to Angangueo (also called Pueblo Mágico), a small mountain village with beautiful, colorful houses and a lovely cathedral. It is the perfect launch pad for El Rosario and Sierra Chincua, being just about a 30 minute taxi drive to either. I would recommend staying in this village if you get the chance.
It's easy to see how Angangueo got it's name Pueblo Magico (Magic Village).
After taking a bus from Zitácuaro to Angangueo for around 50 pesos ($2.50 USD), we took a taxi from the plaza of Angangueo to the entrance of Sierra Chincua for around 100 Pesos ($5 USD). Important Note: Once up on the mountain in Sierra Chincua, public transport is very limited and you may want to arrange a ride prior. We were told that there is a combi (an outfitted VW bus) that arrives at 5:00 pm but we decided to have our taxi driver wait for us. The price for this will vary depending on your taxi driver but he told us he would wait 2 hours and take us back to Angangueo for 500 Pesos ($25 USD).
Sierra Chincua did not disappoint. Entry fee into the Sanctuary was 50 Pesos ($2.50) per person and renting a horse is 200 pesos ($10 dollars). It is also customary to tip your guide somewhere between 100 and 200 Pesos. There are also restaurants and souvenir shops at the entrance. The horseback ride was much shorter than the one to Cerro Pelon and was only about 15 minutes up (although it is very steep). From there, it was about a 15 minute walk to the tree stand that is inhabited by the butterfly colony. It was a cloudy day and most of the butterflies were roosting in the trees. A different perspective than the sunny day we had in Cerro Pelon! Both views were absolutely stunning.
Examples of the clearly marked signs within Sierra Chincua
There were a quite a few more people on the mountain here than in Cerro Pelon
The butterflies roosting in the Oyamel Fir trees in Sierra Chincua
Unfortunately, we didn't have time to visit El Rosario this year although we got close. From Angangueo, you can take a combi to the entrance which is about 30 minutes and will cost less than 50 pesos ($2.50 USD). Here is a quote by Ellen Sharp from JM Butterfly House about El Rosario: "Unlike the unmarked trail that winds up the mountain on Cerro Pelon, here you’ll find numerous souvenir stalls, large tour groups, concrete steps, interpretive signs, and a lot more guides making sure you don’t get too close to the colony. The hike up is mostly on a paved trail and it takes 30-45 minutes each way, depending on your speed and acclimation. A horse will get you there in 20 minutes. In recent years, El Rosario has been the most populous of the butterflies’ overwintering sites. "
Again, we were not able to visit this site but here is a summary from JM Butterfly House: "The trip from our place to Piedra Herrada takes you through the small farming villages of the State of Mexico on a road lined with fields of fruit trees and nopal cactuses. Then the road descends into the cosmopolitan colonial gem and weekend resort town, Valle de Bravo, which we visit on the way back. The sanctuary is another half hour down the road from here. The trail begins with a stone path with a separate trail for horses. The hike takes from 45 minutes to an hour each way."
Bring an extra jacket because it will always be colder in the sanctuary which is at an altitude of almost 10,000 ft or 3000 m. If riding a horse, you can ask to tie the coat onto your saddle.
Bring a water bottle, as it is important to stay hydrated especially in higher altitudes.
Arrange transportation beforehand and start out early. To maximize your time with the butterflies, it's good to be up on the mountain by noon.
Don't underestimate the hike. The elevation makes it much more difficult that it appears.
Watch your feet! Be careful not to step on a butterfly. It would be a shame to come all that way and accidentally step on a butterfly!
Consider bringing a hat for sun protection.
Help your horse out by leaning slightly forward on the uphill and leaning back on the downhill. On the downhill, press your feet into your stirrups to stabilize your body.