Where Do Western Monarchs Spend the Spring?

Despite the fact that Western Monarch butterflies are universally loved, their numbers have plummeted in recent years.

Two monarch butterflies cruise together under a Coast Live Oak tree. (Elizabeth Wallace)

What can you do to help? Join the Western Monarch Mystery Challenge–a campaign created to increase awareness of locations where Western Monarchs spend the spring in California after leaving their coastal California overwintering sites.

Male and female Western Monarchs together. Photo by Jeff Wallace.

If you see a monarch from February 18 through April 22, take a photo (it can be far away and blurry). Then report the siting to iNaturalist, the Western Monarch Milkweed Mapper, or email it to MonarchMystery@wsu.edu.

Far away and blurry photo of Western Monarch on baccharis pilularis cultivar and coffee berry. (Elizabeth Wallace)

Your photo will help scientists better understand Western Monarchs’ locations and activities in February, March, and April. When you share your springtime Monarch observations, you help conservation efforts for the butterfly.

In between reporting your spring Western Monarch sitings, plant more native plants in your garden, especially California buckwheat, salvias, manzanitas, narrow-leaf milkweed, and maybe a scrub oak tree!

Butterfly Weekend

This weekend was California Biodiversity Day 2019 sponsored by the California Natural Resources Agency.  Scientists sought observations by fellow scientists, gardeners and ordinary citizens in mapping plants and animals living in California.

Male and female monarchs get together on the leaves of an alder tree to perpetuate the species. Photo by Jeff Wallace.

In honor of Biodiversity Day, I took a break from my chores and spent some time outside in my backyard with my husband to observe the local wildlife. We saw eight different species of butterflies, cactus wrens eating California coffee berries, hummingbirds sipping nectar from California fuchsia, a lizard doing push-ups on our garden wall, and a leaf-cutter bee laying eggs.

A pair of woodland skippers resting on a ceanothus. (Elizabeth Wallace)

After taking these photos, we uploaded them to iNaturalist, a citizen science project and online social network of naturalists, citizen scientists, and biologists built on the concept of mapping and sharing observations of biodiversity across the globe.

Metalmark butterfly at rest. (Elizabeth Wallace)

It’s fun discovering tiny butterflies and native bees that live in the garden.  I spend a lot of time watching the butterflies, wishing they would rest so I can capture their image with my iPhone.

My friend in Costa Mesa noticed Monarch caterpillars had eaten all of the leaves of her two narrow-leaf milkweed bushes this week.  She was alarmed and worried the caterpillars would need more food.  She drove to Armstrong Nursery on Thursday and purchased a large narrow-leaf milkweed and her Monarch caterpillars are happily munching away once again.  They are hungry!

Monarch caterpillar feasting on a narrow-leaf milkweed. Photo by Cynthia Grilli.

Scientists were concerned because the annual Western Monarch butterfly count was historically low this year (fewer than 30,000 butterflies were counted–down 99 percent from the 1980’s).  They fear the Western Monarch may be nearing extinction.

It feels hopeful to see these chubby caterpillars, and the two adults mating in my garden this week.  If you would like to learn more about how you can help Monarchs, go to The Xerces Society.

Simple Ways to Make Your Garden Good for Butterflies

Bringing local wild land plants into your garden will increase the number of butterflies inhabiting your airspace.

Two monarch butterflies cruising together beneath a Coast Live tree. (Elizabeth Wallace)

For residents in Southern California, gardening with native California plants can be unfamiliar. Most homeowners appreciate the ease of shopping at their neighborhood Home Depot Garden Center, Lowes, and True Value for plants. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to find California native plants at these outlets.

The showy orange-colored, non-native tropical milkweed is available from local retailers like Home Depot, but tropical milkweed is not healthy for adult monarch butterflies in Southern California.

Why Native Milkweed

Native milkweed for sale at Rogers Gardens in Corona del Mar, California. Photo by Ron Vanderhoff.

Tropical milkweed (non-native) hosts a protozoan parasite that harms adult monarch butterflies in Southern California.

To help increase monarch butterfly populations, plant milkweed that is native to your area. In Southern California, narrow-leaf milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis) is one of the best species of milkweed to support monarch butterfly populations.

Narrow-leaf milkweed

Narrow-leaf milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis) growing in the wild at O’Neill Regional Park in Southern California. (Elizabeth Wallace)

You can find native milkweed at nurseries that grow or source California native plants. Tree of Life Nursery  in San Clemente is the largest grower of California native plants in the state. Roger’s Gardens in Corona del Mar also sells California native plants that are safe for birds and butterflies.

Tree of Life Nursery

Fall flowers for pollinators at Tree of Life. (Elizabeth Wallace)

When you visit Tree of Life Nursery, you can choose among thousands of California native plants that are all beneficial to birds and butterflies.

In the next post, I will talk about some of the easiest California native plants to grow in your garden, including the California buckwheat of course!

California buckwheat

California buckwheat growing in a home garden. (Elizabeth Wallace)

If you would like more information about butterflies, including monarchs, visit The Xerces Society.