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Orange and black monarch butterfly alights with outstretched wings on a purple flower
The number of monarch butterflies overwintering in California has fluctuated dramatically over the past several years. But even with promising numbers in 2021, the population is considerably reduced from the 1980s when millions overwintered in California.  (Jeff Stefan/iStock)

How You Can Help Save the Monarch Butterfly and Other Pollinators

How You Can Help Save the Monarch Butterfly and Other Pollinators

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This is a good year to catch a glimpse of monarch butterflies waiting out the winter in places like Pacific Grove and Pismo Beach.

Preliminary reports say that over 200,000 monarchs have gathered along coastal California where they are roosting together in chandelier-like formations to stay warm.

That’s encouraging news after 2020’s record low, when fewer than 2,000 Western monarch butterflies were spotted during the annual Thanksgiving count.

But as encouraging as this year’s overwintering numbers are, monarchs are still in danger.

The reasons: loss of habitat and food sources. Pesticide use. Climate change.

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“It’s hard to pinpoint in any one year, in any given location, what the driving factor is,” said Angela Laws with the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Protection. “It’s multiple things operating at once.”

Good intentions

When a Bay Curious listener named Ellea, who lives in Richmond, heard the news that so few Western monarch butterflies were counted in California, she wanted to help. She planted some milkweed — the only plant that Western monarch caterpillars eat — and tried to raise some monarchs to release into the wild.

But things didn’t go as planned. Only about half her caterpillars matured to adult butterflies.

“I was devastated by that,” she said.

And her milkweed wasn’t doing so well either. One plant seemed to disappear altogether.

“Monarch butterflies are plummeting toward extinction. This is my first year trying to raise them,” Ellea wrote to Bay Curious. “I’m shocked at the difficulties in getting, planting and protecting native milkweeds. Why is it so hard?”

Terry Smith of the Pollinator Posse, an Oakland-based nonprofit that educates and trains people to help pollinators like the Western monarch, said she heard from a lot of people who started to rear monarchs in 2021.

But as well intentioned as those efforts are, raising butterflies without a permit is actually illegal in California, the same as it would be for any wild animal.

“People thought that because they were insects, they didn’t count,” said Tora Rocha, Smith’s co-founder of the Pollinator Posse.

Research shows that when humans help monarchs through the delicate metamorphosis from egg to adult butterfly, it can actually hurt the species. It produces butterflies less likely to survive migration and contributes to the spread of Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (commonly known as “OE”), a parasite that kills monarchs.

You’re “raising them in a false climate,” said Rocha.

How to plant pollinator-friendly gardens

But there’s good news for anyone interested in helping monarchs: You can take plenty of other actions, whatever your skill or commitment level.

“Planting habitat, reducing pesticide use in your community or pressuring elected officials at all levels of government to enact real solutions to climate change — these things are going to have a big impact on monarchs and all of the other pollinator species who are also in need of conservation help,” said Laws from the Xerces Society.

Rocha said that you don’t need a big garden to make an impact. Even one or two nectar plants on a stoop or balcony helps.

A woman dressed in a shirt that says Polinator Posse on it stands in front of ornate iron gates leading to a garden.
Tora Rocha, co-founder of the Pollinator Posse, stands in front of the gates at The Gardens at Lake Merritt, in Oakland. (Amanda Stupi/KQED)

But if you’re planning to grow milkweed, be sure to find some that’s native to California. Native milkweed goes dormant in the winter, which reinforces the monarch’s migration pattern. But tropical milkweed, often sold at plant nurseries, can increase the spread of OE, that deadly parasite that kills monarchs.

There’s a lot of information about milkweed varieties on the internet — it can get overwhelming. One good resource is this fact-sheet from the Xerces Society, which recommends types of milkweeds to plant and types to avoid.

Like a lot of gardening, finding a place where your native milkweed will grow requires some trial and error, and patience, said Rocha. “They want sun, they want heat,” said Rocha. “Things that go dormant take a little longer to establish.”

Some growers make the mistake of thinking that their native milkweed has died when, really, it’s doing what it’s supposed to: taking a winter break.

Native plant societies often have plant sales where you can purchase milkweed and other nectar plants. There are chapters all over the country and you can search for the one nearest to you. There are also nurseries that specialize in plants native to California.

That said, native milkweed can sometimes be hard to find. It’s in high demand, and garden clubs and plant societies often sell out.

But there are plenty of other plants you can grow to support the Western monarch.

While it’s true that milkweed is essential for breeding and for feeding caterpillars, the monarchs’ main activity in the Bay Area is overwintering, when the butterfly enters a stage of reproductive diapause.

“They need to keep their fat stores up to survive the winter, and that means they have to stay alive for four months,” said Rocha. “So they need to get nectar, and [in the Bay Area] we don’t have a lot of nectar in the winter.”

The Pollinator Posse website lists nectar plants by color and month that they bloom.

The Xerces Society offers a list as well that provides information on the types of insects the plants attract.

Pushing for fewer pesticides

Along with habitat destruction, pesticides are one of the reasons for the Western monarchs’ steep decline.

Neonicotinoids are a widely used type of pesticide that pollinator supporters want banned. They spread through every part of a plant and can stay in the plant and soil for years. The European Union banned the outdoor use of “neonics” in 2018, in part because of their impact on bees. The city of Oakland also has committed to not using neonics in its landscaping.

A garden hut holds pieces of deadwood stacked neatly in cubbies. A sign reads AirBeeNBee.
To make The Gardens at Lake Merritt more pollinator-friendly, Tora Rocha advocated for this ‘AirBeeNBee,’ created from decaying wood pieces. (Amanda Stupi/KQED)

Angela Laws and Tora Rocha say asking about pesticide use when you buy plants sends an important message.

“Because if people start hearing from many of their customers that this is something that they want, I feel like that will lead to big change,” said Laws. “So just asking, I feel like it’s really powerful.”

Rocha finds it particularly frustrating that nurseries use neonicotinoids and other pesticides on plants they advertise as pollinator-friendly.

“Nurseries use it because they only have to spray it once and it’s just cheap,” she said.

“Ask the nurseries the hard questions,” said Rocha. “Because they’ll tell us they have to spray because no one wants to buy a plant with aphids. Well, we want to see aphids because then we know it hasn’t been sprayed.”

Citizen scientists observe and report monarch populations

Rocha said the other big thing you can do to help Western monarchs is count them.

“We need to look into more observation. We just don’t have the answers,” said Rocha.

Two women wearing masks search a verdant green bush for monarch eggs.
Two volunteers search for monarch eggs and caterpillars at Children’s Fairyland in Oakland. (Amanda Stupi/KQED)

This is especially important given that some monarchs are staying year-round in places they used to use only for overwintering.

“Now it seems like there’s a year-round population that just stays in the Bay Area all year and doesn’t migrate,” said Laws. “We don’t know much about that population yet. What’s driving it? We don’t know if some of those individuals do migrate, and we also don’t know how sustainable that is.”

You can report your butterfly and caterpillar sightings online at the Pollinator Posse website or volunteer to collect data for them at places like Children’s Fairyland. And the Xerces Society’s Thanksgiving Count, which just completed its 25th year, relies heavily on volunteers.

In the world of butterflies, there’s a tradition of citizen scientists contributing in major ways.

“Scientists didn’t know where monarchs went in the winter,” said Rocha. “It was citizen scientists that tagged them and found them in Mexico.”

Help one pollinator, you help them all

As much work as Rocha has done to help monarchs, it was bees that first got her involved in protecting pollinators. She sees the monarch as a flashy ambassador that draws people into caring about the plight of pollinators in general. And that’s fine by her.

Hundreds of butterflies cluster on tree branches, making it look like an orange and black chandelier.
During colder months, monarch butterflies overwinter, clustering on trees to stay warm. (JHVEPhoto/iStock)

“Once you help one pollinator, you’re really helping them all,” she said.

A lot of the nectar plants that support monarchs support other species, too. Similarly, limiting the monarchs’ exposure to pesticides means other insects will be exposed less.

“We can’t let the monarchs go, because it means we’re failing the rest of the pollinators,” said Rocha. “If we’re willing to let an iconic species die, then we’ve really messed up.”

Don’t call it a comeback … yet

The 200,000 plus monarchs spotted overwintering across California during 2021’s census have certainly renewed Rocha’s hope.

But she knows that a good year does not signal a full recovery.

“Insect populations tend to bounce around a lot,” said Laws. “They can go really high and really low.”

The 2021 numbers are coming after multiple years of very low numbers — and remember, there were millions of monarchs in California as recently as the 1980s. In that context, 200,000 doesn’t seem like such a victory. And the Western monarch still lacks protection at the federal and state level.

Perhaps this year’s showing is the monarch’s way of telling humans not to give up on them, that given adequate habitat and protection, they can thrive once again.

Resources to get you started

The Pollinator Posse’s list of pollinator-friendly plants is a good starting point with big pictures.

The Xerces Society’s one-sheet on milkweed provides vital information without sending you down a rabbit-hole.

Calscape.org is an overall good resource. It lists nurseries that sell native plants. The website also has a fun quiz to help you plan your garden.

The Xerces Society offers tips for what to ask nurseries about their pest-management practices.

Here’s information on how to help the Pollinator Posse gather data.

For information about helping the annual Thanksgiving and New Year’s counts visit Western Monarch Count.org.

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