Monarchs Arrive for Summer

Have you noticed monarch butterflies flying around your California yard this summer?

Western monarch butterflies are an iconic butterflies that delight us with bright orange plumage, black stripes, and white polka dots. They are so large, they cast a shadow when they fly overhead.

After hearing about the historically low overwintering monarch butterfly count last winter, I have been surprised to see a healthy number of western monarchs making daily visits to my home landscape over the past few months. 

Monarch rests on a native milkweed. (E. Wallace)

I am seeing more monarchs than I expected because last winter, fewer than 2,000 monarchs were counted overwintering in California. 

According to Xerces.org, “Early count numbers from Xerces’ Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count suggest that the western migratory population is headed for an all-time low. With approximately 95 percent of the data in, only 1,800 monarchs have been reported…This is a significant decline from the low numbers of the last two years where the total hovered just under 30,000 monarchs. These numbers are a tiny fraction of the millions of monarchs that likely visited overwintering sites in the 1980s and the hundreds of thousands of monarchs that graced California’s coast as recently as the mid-2010s. In fact, this represents an overall decline of more than 99.9% in the migratory population.”

Photo of overwintering Western monarch butterflies by Candace Fallon/Xerces Society

What can we do to help reverse their dramatic decline in numbers?

Monarch caterpillars only feed on milkweed. The first step you can take to help the western monarch butterfly is to plant milkweed that is native to your area. Good native milkweed choices for Southern California include narrow-leaf milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis) and woolly-pod milkweed (Asclepias eriocarpa). 

You can install native milkweed plants now, and support monarch butterflies looking for a host plant to lay their eggs. 

Western monarch caterpillars feasting on woolly-pod milkweed in Southern California. (E. Wallace)

Planting milkweed that is native to where you live is more beneficial than non-native (tropical milkweed) because non-native milkweed often hosts parasites that harm butterflies and disrupts their reproduction and migration.  

One nursery in Southern California is trying to help increase western monarch populations by offering a free trade-in. At Roger’s Gardens in Corona del Mar, you can bring your non-native tropical milkweed into the nursery and receive a free native narrow-leaf milkweed replacement plant.

Another great nursery to buy native milkweed is Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano. Tree of Life Nursery has several species of native milkweed plants for sale this year including woolly-pod milkweed shown above.

Monarch caterpillar munching native narrow-leaf milkweed yesterday. (E. Wallace)

Planting plenty of native milkweed in your garden is a great first step in helping the western monarch butterfly populations recover. I will discuss more ways you can help monarchs in my next post. In the meantime, visit your local nursery and buy several milkweed plants for your garden, and while you are outside, look for monarchs cruising your garden.

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