Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Of Monarchs and Milkweed

For several Januaries, I've visited Ano Nuevo and Natural Bridges State Parks to see the elephant seals and monarch butterflies respectively. This year rain made the seals more active. Who knew?

Northern elephant seals have made a significant comeback from near extinction. Fifty were left by the turn of the last century. Over 200,000 are believed to exist now. Excellent protections by both Mexican and American governments helped this recovery.

The monarchs had already left Natural Bridges. There have been significantly fewer butterflies each year.  A docent told us some still remained at Lighthouse Field State Park. We found several clusters there.

A cluster of monarch butterflies at Lighthouse Field State Park
Unfortunately monarchs have been declining rapidly everywhere. Californians tell me there used to be millions in this small location. I've only seen thousands the past few years. The 9 January Google doodle celebrates the 1975 discovery of the monarchs' overwintering site in the Mexican Sierra Madres where they "swirled like autumn leaves." From billions, they are down to a few million.

What's the problem? Basically, milkweed eradication. Monarchs lay their eggs solely on milkweed which is rapidly disappearing as farmland is turned to housing. Each year monarchs have fewer places to lay their eggs.

What can we do? Iowa recently started "bombing for butterflies." Golf-ball sized globs of milkweed seed, loam and clay are given to cyclists, runners, and basically anyone who will toss them around the countryside. We can all join this effort. Iowa is important for monarch migration, but there are many more miles from Canada to Mexico, one of the main migratory paths for these beautiful and vital insects.

I bought native milkweed seed at a state park and grow it in a pot. No butterflies yet, but I collect and scatter the seeds annually. Milkweed has large clusters of small flowerets. From pods, their seeds disperse on little parachutes like dandelion. I thought all milkweed was white but these blossoms are pink and orange. Luther Burbank Gardens in Santa Rosa have a section to encourage and feed local pollinators that includes milkweed. Perhaps more of us could incorporate local species into our gardens.

Which milkweed should you use? There are 73 varieties native to the Americas; buy one that comes from your area.

Where should you toss them? Think nature preserves, bogs, streambeds, empty lots, your own backyard... not your neighbor's flowerbed. Here's another site with more information. If you don't live in the Americas, ask what flowers (or weeds) best support the native pollinators of your country and plant those. Update: Monarch Watch sells and mails milkweed plugs. They also have a list of seed providers for various areas.

Did you know the collective noun for a group of butterflies is a kaleidoscope? This is how I interpret kaleidoscope. How appropriate. A kaleidoscope of butterflies. Wouldn't that be a sight?

Enjoy the day,

20 comments:

  1. I have wild milkweed ( I presume it's wild) growing in my front yard amongst the echinacea. I just let it grow. Monarchs have all but disappeared here but I did see some last year which made my heart sing. I think I'll add some milk weed to the backyard next year. It's big and full of weeds in certain areas anyway so it might as well be milk weed. Thanks for sharing this.

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    1. I've seen a few along the nearby creek but none at my house. Perfect phrasing, Lisa. They do make our hearts sing. I'm going to make some milkweed balls and perhaps buy some more seed.
      I'm so impressed with Iowans! What a great way to lead.

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  2. Some people around here have monarche habitats. Thank goodness. I had no lightnening bugs this year, or butterflies or bees because 60 of 600 neighbors spray pesticides every three weeks for mosquitoes. It is horrible. The county won't help, but I will renew efforts when I feel stronger, this time with the State.
    LeeAnna

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    1. I read about an issue in India. They used pesticides for the mosquitoes but it also weakened the shells of vultures. Vultures eat the carrion. Few vultures, more carrion, more mosquitoes.
      Good luck getting more habitat going, LeeAnna. I actually like milkweed; even more now.

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  3. Fascinating and what a great picture!
    We are losing quite afew of our UK species for much the same reasons.
    Fingers crossed : )

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    1. I'm sorry to hear that, although it's to be expected. Hopefuly you can find a way to help in the UK, too.

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  4. Hah! I just got info yesterday from my Iowa county Soil and Water Conservation district on the fall Monarch butterfly release program where you can sponsor a monarch for release. They also sell native prairie plants and one package deal is the Majestic Monarch deal that includes milkweed, coneflower, blazing star, aster, bee balm, goldenrod, lobelia. I already have all of those out back (we have 18 acres) and see monarchs and other b'flies all year. And, in the early spring certain parts of milkweed are edible and taste, to me, much like broccoli. Once you have milkweed it is difficult to get rid of it...they are weeds but weeds I don't pull.

    I love butterflies and just recently learned this year that a flock of them is called a kaleidoscope. And, I promptly decided to make a kaleidoscope quilt with some of my many butterfly and floral fabrics. Stay tuned!

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    1. Lucky you! I've read that milkweed is only a problem if there's not enough good grass for livestock to eat. As a city person, not sure if it's true. Sometimes I think we could adapt the European "hedgerow" model both in farming and urban areas. Why are we always mowing the medians of highways, streets, etc.
      You do have lots of butterfly fabrics. They will make a great kaleidoscope quilt!

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  5. While the adult butterfly has many foos sources the larvae eat ONLY milkweed. Many plant butterfly bushes - butterflies lay there eggs there and then the larvae die since they dont eat that. This goes for all butterflies! Those bushes are BAD. i am so glad you shared this - raising public awareness is critical in preserving the environment that supports human life. Check out Mt Cuba's website - they are located in Delaware and are doing some amazing research there.

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    1. Thanks for emphasizing that fact, Linda. We may think milkweed is a weed but it is critical for the monarch butterflies. If we could bring elephant seals back from 50, surely we can turn monarch, bee, and other pollinators around before it's too late.

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  6. By the lake here we are on the path of the Monarch's migration back south. This fall I still saw them, one by one, every minute or so all day long, flying southwest past my window. It's an unfathomable journey!

    I didn't realize the seals had rebounded so strongly. Nice to know! I love that drive down the San Mateo coast -- very grounding!

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    1. Oh, lucky you! How wonderful to sew or enjoy some tea and watch the monarchs.
      It's fantastic how well the seals rebounded! They are expanding to new rookeries almost every year. It gives me hope that we can do this with other species, too.

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  7. We have the same problems with different species - and some butterflies that only exist now in tiny pockets, though efforts are being made to help them.

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    1. It's a bit scary realizing how many pollinators are disappearing. I hope we can turn this around.

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  8. Reading your post, I realized that I have never been to Natural Bridges SP. I have seen Ano Nuevo, but you've added a new destination to our Road Trip Fantasy List! We have been planting butterfly-friendly plants in our garden for awhile, and we are seeing some monarchs here, though not any kaleidoscopes of them, for sure. Maybe we'll have to see if we can find some milkweed for a back corner. We did get to see a large group of elephant seals on a recent hike out at Pt. Reyes (they haul out on the remotest part of the beach at Drakes Bay and you can see them from a lookout above). I am so glad that we are finally paying attention to some of these animals and that the numbers are increasing...we even have a couple of wolves in California in the last year or so, after nearly a century of none!

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    1. I heard they took the female who tried to cross the highway to Pt Reyes. It's great to see new rookeries becoming established. My sister got to see a lynx release is the Rockies. I was so envious.
      Ano Nuevo is a good place to visit. Always something to see.

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  9. Butterflies are fun to watch for sure. We get a lot through here in the summer.

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    1. It amazes me how many more birds and butterflies California has than Texas. You are lucky to see them, too.

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  10. The decline in butterflies here in the UK has been astonishingly fast. When I think of the amount I used to see in my childhood to the amount I see now, it's virtually nothing in comparison. As you say, a loss of habitat, insecticide on farmland have all played their part - it's not until it's gone we realise what we're missing. And now the bees...

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    1. Well, not just farmland. We city folk can be blind about the amount of insecticides and herbicides we use. Plus, this insistence that everything look like a picture. Amazing lack of diversity. We must change our habits.

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