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Have We Been Too Focused On Monarch Butterflies?

Joanna Gilkeson
USFWS, used under CC-BY-2.0
The numbers of monarchs are overwintering sites across California this winter was shockingly low.

If we just focus on monarchs and not all insects around us, we’re missing the big picture.

You would think that a lepidopterist (a.k.a. butterfly and moth scientist) would be thrilled that people are paying so much attention to the fact that western monarch butterflies have reached an all-time low this year. You would think he would be glad for the seemingly wall-to-wall news coverage: articles in the New York Times and New Yorker; a television spot on local CBS news. And you would be wrong.

“Like, what is next? We're going to see one of those hideous Sarah Mclaughlin commercials: “Imagine a world without the monarch.”

Liam O’Brien, a lepidopterist and artist in San Francisco, is a fierce champion for butterflies, but not the monarchs. He feels like they’ve gotten enough attention.

He’s taking me on a walk on top of Twin Peaks, one of the tallest hills in San Francisco. This rocky dry, outcropping — from which you can see all of San Francisco, the bay, and the ocean — is the last remaining habitat in San Francisco for the Mission Blue butterfly (Icaroides Missiensi), named after the city’s Mission District. If you come up here in April, around Earth Day, “You can't miss it. It's an electric blue little creature darting between all of these Lupines.”

Credit Marissa Ortega-Welch / KALW
Liam O'Brien, a lepidopterist and artist in San Francisco, has worked for the restoration of the endangered Mission Blue butterfly on San Francisco's Twin Peaks.

O’Brien says he had to step away from being the unofficial “monarch keeper” of the city. “I would go into meetings to propose new butterfly projects and the first thing out of the people who held the purse strings is, ‘I want to help the monarch.’” At first, he hoped that monarchs could be like the gateway drug for people to enter the world of butterflies, but that didn’t happen. He says instead, people fall so in love with the monarchs that, “They forget that there's a whole other group of butterflies too.

O’Brien’s militant stance against the monarch is being tested this winter though. An annual count of the charismatic butterfly that takes place every Thanksgiving in California revealed something disturbing: the western population of monarchs dropped to shockingly low numbers.

If you’ve never been to a monarch overwintering site, it’s incredible. On the west coast, most monarchs west of the Rockies migrate to warm spots in California to spend the winter. The most famous of these are Natural Bridges State Park in Santa Cruz or the “monarch grove sanctuary” in Pacific Grove. (On the east coast, monarchs migrate down to Mexico.) They cling to trees in clusters; at first glance, they look just like leaves. But look closer and you realize: there are hundreds, sometimes thousands of butterflies. On a warm day, the butterflies will fly slowly around the tree groves. East Bay Regional Park naturalist Christina Garcia, who coordinates some of the Bay Area’s monarch counts, describes it as being like “standing in a snowglobe of butterflies.”

Credit Marissa Ortega-Welch / KALW
East Bay Park Naturalist Christina Garcia has conducted the annual Thanksgiving monarch count at Ardenwood Farm for about 25 years. She says, this year, there just weren't any butterflies.

This year, the monarchs out on the east coast actually had a good year. It’s the number of west coast monarchs that dropped this winter. Insect populations tend to fluctuate. You have to look at many years of data to see the trends. For both western and eastern monarchs, it’s been a downward trend since the ‘80s. What’s making the news now is just how low the western monarch numbers got this winter. Naturalists and volunteers counting the butterflies found below thirty thousand individuals, the number which some scientists use as a threshold below which monarchs may not be able to reproduce and continue their population. That’s why we’re seeing headlines about a possible monarch extinction.

Nobody knows exactly what caused the numbers to plummet this year. But you can probably guess what’s causing that downtrend overall. It’s the usual suspects: habitat loss, pesticide use, climate change. Stuff that’s going to affect other insects — not just the monarchs.

Eric Simons, an editor for Bay Nature, a local environmental science magazine, says that we’re talking about the monarch decline because people are actually counting the monarchs, unlike other insects. They are one of the few insects to have a statewide annual count. “Maybe everything just had a terrible year statewide, but we wouldn’t know because nobody’s been looking.”

Entomologist Art Shapiro of UC Davisconducts an annual transect of insects from the delta to the Sierra and he found shockingly low numbers of butterflies this year, but that’s just one study.

This problem of a lack of data is true around the world. Globally, we’re seeing headlines about the “insect apocalypse,” but the truth is, it’s a lot more complicated. Those headlines draw on a study here, a study there, which tend to look at one species at a time — charismatic species like monarchs or insects that have an economic impact, like honeybees. You can’t extrapolate about ALL insects from those specific studies, but the data they present does paint a scary picture.

Simons says the media seems to only want to report on the crises. “We live in an age in which everything is going to be in crisis all the time,” he says. “This is what climate change is doing to the world.” He worries this is going to lead people to feel crisis fatigue.

Simons says that while donating is important, he doesn’t want people to feel like that is the only way they can engage in the natural world now. “You can go for a walk outside and just pay attention to what’s around you,” he says. It sounds simple, but Simons says that noticing your surroundings is the first step to noticing changes. “The natural world needs witnesses, now more than ever.”

So Simons wants you to get out and see stuff, and not just the charismatic species like monarchs. He says you can find all kinds of butterflies in the Bay Area - some that are really common, some that are on the decline, and some that are rebounding after almost going extinct. And he says, don’t forget - butterflies are just one tiny part of the insect world!

“There’s so much to see and explore and pay attention to out there and you can find a crisis anytime you want but you can also find something optimistic,” he says. He thinks taking this big picture view is ultimately more fulfilling than just being “jerked from crisis to crisis. When everything is always in crisis it's just hopeless. You can give your money and what else can you do?”

O’Brien agrees. He thinks that environmental groups are capitalizing on the monarch crisis right now and using it as a way to get people to donate. The best of these organizations use that money to restore habitats, fight climate change, and reduce pesticide use, efforts that could help many species. O’Brien says it’s great if you want to donate to those organizations, but no non-profit can really work to just save monarchs. “It's a charismatic creature that brings in a lot of money. It seems to be plummeting over the side of a cliff. Money's not going to solve that freefall.”

Credit Marissa Ortega-Welch / KALW
O'Brien and I sit down among the lupine flower leaves for evidence of Mission Blue caterpillars feeding on the plants. "I think it's a little early," he says.

O’Brien encourages people to get out and notice the natural world too, but he cautions that it’s important to also slow down and try to understand what you’re seeing.

“There's a lot of zealotry involved in wanting to help the monarch,” he says. Sometimes people want to help the monarchs so badly, they end up doing things that aren’t actually that helpful. Like planting milkweed which monarch caterpillars depend on for food. But a lot of local gardeners plant tropical milkweed, a non-native species, that has leaves year-round. The leaves trigger the adult butterflies to lay eggs in the winter - during the wrong season.

O’Brien wants people to slow down a bit and learn more before they jump into helping. He likes to paraphrase the famous biologist Jane Goodall: only if we understand, can we care. Only we if care, can we help. Only if we help can they be saved.

“The problem with that quote is everyone skips the first sentence. Nobody really wants to work hard to understand,” O’Brien says. We project a lot on the butterflies and I find them to be incredibly opportunistic invertebrates that need understanding, not so much caring.”

Crosscurrents Science & Technology