Monarch Butterflies: Beleaguered Friends

monarchs1Spring is for tidying and trying out new ideas.

This spring I’m bent on turning the back yard into a pollinator’s paradise and bird sanctuary. In particular, I want to get it certified as a waystation for my beleaguered garden companion, the monarch butterfly.

Butterflies, like so many of nature’s creatures, are facing tough times. Unless you and I get involved, these tiger emissaries of beauty won’t be with us much longer.

There are, however, simple things homeowners can do; but first, a few things about the monarch you may not know:

They are a dying species. According to the the Department of Ecology at the University of Iowa, their numbers have declined a startling 81% in the Midwest since 1999.

Their demise has come about largely due to the increasing scarcity of the common milkweed and its several varieties. Development and herbicides have taken a huge toll.

Monarch butterflies use no other source for laying their eggs and feeding their larvae.  Here I am reminded of Rachel Carson’s observation how “in nature, nothing stands alone.”

Each year, however, milkweed increasingly gets bulldozed, poisoned, or pulled. In suburbia, the monarch’s last great hope, millions of us obliterate them every weekend with our mowers and weed eater arsenals fresh from Lowe’s and Home Depot.

Farmers haven’t been much help either in their embrace of GMO soybean and corn production and consequent use of toxic herbicides like glyphosate (a probable cancer carcinogen in most processed foods).

I can’t say I haven’t cut down milkweed myself, seeing I didn’t even know what it looked like until recently.


But knowing now the plight of the monarch, I aim to make up for my misdeeds against these aerial delights and daily garden companions.

Monarchs are amazing. These diminutive creatures fly 3000 miles, traveling on thermals at a speed of 12-25 mph, from southern Canada and the eastern U. S. every August through September to overwinter in Mexico, returning in spring to produce a new generation.

They don’t have lungs, breathing instead through tiny vents in the thorax, or abdomen, called spiracles.

Monarchs can perceive colors and assess habitat. They can even detect UV lights, something humans can’t do.

This may surprise you, but monarchs store a poison, which helps protect them from predators like frogs, lizards and birds. (I’ve never ceased marveling at the wonders of evolution.)

Monarchs are unique among all animal species in their regeneration pattern. Every spring and summer, three generations, each living only two to six weeks, are born. Then comes that fourth generation in August and September.

Though biologically the same as the others, this generation is mysteriously programmed to live for some eight months, making winter migration possible. It’s this generation, the great grandchildren, who produce progeny, a miracle that continues to baffle scientists.

Now here are things you and I can do to help them out and to get more of them into our yards:

Create a waystation: This means converting a portion of your yard–doesn’t have to be large–that will provide milkweed and nectar plants for monarchs along with habitat and shelter.

You can get your waystation certified. Just go to and follow the link. In just the past two years, waystations have increased nationally from 36 to 234. In Lexington, KY, where I live, their number has gone from 36 to 60!

You will also enjoy the video available at Look for the Main Street Monarch Migration video. It’s filmed in Kentucky’s gorgeous Audubon State Park, which observes a butterfly festival each year.

Here are some recommended plants to help you create your pollinator sanctuary, via the kind auspices of Lexington photographer and gardener Betty Hall ( Many of these plants may be suited for your own locale, but try always for indigenous plants as they’ll fare best.

Be sure you include the crucial milkweed you’ll see in her listing. You’ll have to search your locale a bit, since the majority of nurseries, including the box stores, don’t carry them.

Saving the monarchs has taken an international turn. Did you know that President Obama recently discussed the issue with Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto and Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper?

The good news is that Mexico has now set aside some 62 square miles of forest in the Sierra Madres for their preservation. You’ll find it by googling Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Preserve,

I find the challenge of keeping our monarch guests around exciting and hope you will too.




















Pacific Grove and its Monarch butterflies


For all its ever burgeoning population and high cost of living, I think California still offers a lot of good living away from the crowds in small towns hugging its pristine coast, offering the surf swish of blue Pacific ocean, cradling mountains that often walk down to the sea like in Big Sur country and, of course, the soothing warmth of year-round sunny days with low humidity.  To me, California is like going into one of those specialty ice cream outlets and finding yourself overwhelmed by a dazzling array of choices.  I just love the place!

Pacific Grove, however, stands out for me, located on the Monterey peninsula not far from ritzy Pebble Beach, rugged Big Sur, and charming Carmel-by-the Sea.  This area, in particular, means a lot to me, for Karen and I spent fun honeymoon days taking in its varied tapestry twenty years ago.  I’m all about regaining paradise.

Pacific Grove wasn’t even on my radar map until several weeks ago when I happened to find it mentioned in a book off my shelf that I hadn’t read in over two decades and started reading again.  While noting the town is famous for its annual influx of migrating Monarch butterflies each November, the writer laments their declining numbers, probably due to a shrinking habitat as housing construction continues to expand. I would add the increasing loss of milkweed, a principal food supply for the larvae.

Now this was way back in 1990 and thus my curiosity was aroused as to the plight of the Monarchs since, and so I did the research and came up both buckets full with info on Pacific Grove and its wintering Monarchs.  The news is good, though it could be better.

After more than twenty years, they still come to escape the winter cold of the Canadian Rockies and Southern Alaska, though in sharply diminished numbers, perhaps about 10,000, unlike the 50,000 plus in the halcyon days long gone.  The town seems attentive to its friends, even staging an annual parade (October), and why not, since they’ve built a thriving tourist industry around them and any further decline means diminished dollar intake as well.  There is a fine of $1000 for molesting a butterfly.


Well-meaning, but on occasion, the city council can be dimwitted, opting in 2009 to prune the eucalyptus trees that the monarchs favor in their designated Monarch Grove Sanctuary, resulting in a precipitous drop shortly after to less than a thousand Monarchs.  Cutting a branch is like tearing down a house replete with its residents, since the larvae cocoon on these bare branches.  Today you’re  likely to see more Monarchs further down the coast toward Santa Cruz.  Some recent visitors report seeing just a couple of trees with butterflies, vastly changed from the swarms that blanketed the eucalyptus several decades ago.  What appalls is the council’s acting against the advice of environmental scientists.

pacificgroveThen, in November 2012,  the council was forced to make public its plan to revamp the Sanctuary, strikingly out of touch with California’s environmental recommendations.  In the past, the council has a history of foregoing environmental reviews.  As I write, I don’t know the outcome.

But I do need to be fair.  It used to be that the the principal Monarch habitat lay in the city’s George Washington Park, but urbanization, foot traffic and drought have taken their toll.  The city is trying to restore the habitat through tree planting, mulching and new trails.  The numbers are down to less than a hundred now.

The Monarchs are awesome in their intricacy of evolved pattern, suggesting aerial tigers.  They’re also, though infinitely delicate, intrepid pilgrims on their own hajj to a nesting place they’ve never been, and yet they somehow find their way in a journey consummating up to 2000 miles.

Central California is Steinbeck country and the Nobel laureate made Pacific Grove his home with his first wife, Carol, and visited it often in his later years as his own sanctuary providing renewal.  He would later tellingly write that “Pacific Grove benefits by one of those happy accidents of nature that gladden the heart, excite the imagination, and instruct the young” (Sweet Thursday).  I suspect the Monarchs had a great deal to do with that.

Be well,


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