Are We Watching the End of the Monarch Butterfly?

Heartbreaking. In Today’s New York Times:

Citizen scientists recently gathered in a coastal Northern California town to count the butterfly during its winter migration. The results were alarming.

Jan. 25, 2019
By Mary Ellen Hannibal

Ms. Hannibal writes about science and the environment from San Francisco.

Haleigh Mun

For almost 30 years, hundreds of volunteers have helped document monarch butterfly numbers at more than 200 sites across California, from Mendocino to San Diego. A small group of these citizen scientists recently descended on the sleepy coastal town of Bolinas, near Stinson Beach, north of San Francisco, to conduct the latest tally in a place where thousands of these butterflies were once counted during their winter migration.

The group was met by Mia Monroe, a ranger for the National Park Service for 40 years. She was representing the Xerces Society, a nonprofit devoted to invertebrate conservation.

“We aren’t expecting many butterflies today,” Ms. Monroe warned. Monarch numbers have been plummeting for decades, and recent surveys of their breeding habitats had reported low numbers. Making matters worse, only weeks before, wildfires had swept through the region, engulfing the Bay Area with smoke for two weeks.

“Maybe the monarchs have taken a different route, around the fire and smoke?” someone asked. “That’s a dream,” Ms. Monroe said. “But we are here to honor the survivors, and to be together in a difficult moment.”

Directing us to move with stealth into a lot overgrown with poison oak vines and blackberry brambles, she pointed to a ring of eucalyptus trees. The morning had begun cold but the temperature had inched past 54 degrees, when monarchs begin to emerge from their slumber. The brown and green branches of one tree were stirring, as if a slight breeze was ruffling the dun-colored leaves. But then a distinctive orange color revealed itself. Butterflies peeled off from the branches, each one opening like a warm kiss before fluttering into the air.

Increasingly, people without formal backgrounds in science are collaborating with scientists to collect data on a scale that scientists alone would be unable to compile. The work of these people in recording the exact time, place and conditions of their butterfly observations is vital to monitoring the health of monarch populations. Tracking these butterflies is one of the longest-standing examples of this kind of teamwork.

Over the period of a year, monarchs produce four to five generations. The last and longest-lasting of them is born between August and October. Unlike their predecessors, which live as butterflies for a mere two to four weeks, these monarchs survive for six to eight months. After staying put over the winter in Mexico or California, they disperse in March or April, spreading far and wide in search of milkweed upon which to lay their eggs, which will morph into caterpillars that become the next generation of butterflies. The final generation in this yearlong cycle will return to the same California coast as their ancestors did. How these butterflies find their place of origin remains a mystery.

Last year’s count in Bolinas had been very low; still, the trees had been festooned with scores of butterfly clumps, in which hundreds of monarchs hung together for warmth and protection. This time, there was just one clump. Later we would learn that the total count of this site in Bolinas, which the previous year tallied 12,360 butterflies, plummeted this winter to just 1,256 monarchs. “This animal story that has been going on for centuries and perhaps thousands of years is disappearing and may be gone” soon, Ms. Monroe told us, her eyes tearing.

The total number of West Coast monarchs was estimated at approximately 4.5 million in the 1980s. In the latest count, that number fell to 28,429, dipping below the number scientists estimate is needed to keep the population going. This drastic decline indicates the migration is collapsing. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to announce in June whether its scientists think the monarch qualifies for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

We love butterflies but tally them in transactional and utilitarian terms. We say that losing so many is dangerous because in their life stages from pupa to imago they provide food for creatures higher up the food chain. Fewer butterflies means fewer birds, and we need birds, in part, to help control other insects, like mosquitoes, that carry dangerous diseases. We acknowledge that the biotic world only works by way of the networks that connect each species in a web of life. We must take account of our role in the demise of this species, a consequence of habitat loss, climate change, and pesticides and herbicides, if only to help us understand how to rebuild the population.

We can still muster hope for these butterflies. We can rally against the chemicals we use to kill insects not only in big agricultural operations but also in local backyards. We can create more habitats by gardening with native plants. We can stay keenly attuned to development plans in our communities and insist that they include sustaining habitat for other living things. In partnership with their Ph.D. brethren, citizen scientists can measure efforts against results and amend strategies accordingly. We would not know the extent of the monarch decline without citizen science, and we will continue to need these volunteers if we hope to make a difference for butterflies and other species in trouble.

We ended our day in the yard of one Bolinas resident who relishes the yearly return of monarchs to his tall trees. He was happy to share the love. He explained how mowing his grass at specific times of the year supported the growth of native grasses and flowers, food sources for the overwintering butterflies. “This is a spiritual place,” he told us, “so I have to take care of it.” We sat down on his lawn to watch the sky around us fluttering with wings. The orange cloud shifted this way and that in the sunlight, the very soul of nature, still present.

Mary Ellen Hannibal is the author of “Citizen Scientist: Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction.”

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The Broken Tangerine Crate.

About 10 years ago, I took knitting lessons from my friend Dorothy’s 90+ year old mom, Ruth. She not only did the impossible (taught me how to knit), but also imparted many interesting stories about the depression and scarcity during World War II. I remember, one night, she offered me a clementine tangerine, and then smashed up the little wooden crate (before my very eyes) and placed it into her fireplace.

My very first instinct was to think: “That’s odd.”

Then I paused for a beat, and thought… “No! I’m odd for thinking that’s odd.”

I mean, how absurd is it that we wouldn’t burn scrap wood for heat? How much more absurd is it that we would put it in the trash to be hauled away to be buried and take decades to decompose.

That seemingly insignificant, inconsequential moment had a huge impact on me.

Ruth also saved seeds from the fruits and vegetables she ate and grew lots of seedlings in her kitchen that, each summer, were transferred to her garden in the back yard.

Again.. why wouldn’t we do that? Why don’t we do that?

About a week ago, I was listening to some NPR story about Monsanto and how Monsanto forbids farmers from saving seeds from year to year. The story recounted how a farmer had saved a bushel of corn (that he grew) and planted it (with the plan to use it to donate to a local food panty) and Monsanto sued him for millions of dollars. Naturally, Monsanto won.

Out for a run the other day, I watched some Laotian immigrants in Buffalo fishing in the Niagara River. My first thought was “Oh my, that’s disgusting.” But, really it isn’t. It’s responsible and sustainable.

It’s strange: we have been so conditioned by big-corpra: big parma, big agriculture, big everything; that only food grown doused in chemicals is safe, that only drugs made by huge factories are safe. When, in actuality, nothing could be further from the truth. I’m skittish when thinking about plucking an apple growing from the tree in my local park, but not skittish about eating an apple that was grown 7,000km away in Chile, its natural protective skin burned with acid then rolled in wax, stored in an oxygen deprived chamber for 9 months, and then shipped to my supermarket where countless people touched it as they rifled through the “crate” looking for a “fresh” apple.

Who knew that Ruth—saving seeds in her suburban kitchen—was a rebel pioneer like the corn snubbing Monsanto farmer? So, inspired by Ruth, I made a resolution earlier year to start to be more sustainable. Rather than buying pickles, I’ll make my own facto-pickles (I learned to do this in Estonia this past summer). Rather than buying dried plums imported from Turkey, I’m making my own in my dehydrator. Rather than buying herbs and spices, I’m drying my own. I made my own tomato sauce this past weekend… which, was a lot of work. It’s all a lot of work.

I stopped shopping at the überbig supermarket chains, and I source my food from farmers markets and from Aldi (which has fewer choices and less distractions with impulse junk that I don’t need or really want.) I buy less, store, freeze, and can more, and seem to be making more adventurous and inventive food.

My thinking is this: if I have to work hard to make my food, maybe I’ll appreciate it more. Maybe I’ll eat less of it and maybe I’ll make healthier choices.

I know one thing for sure: it has made my relationship with food much more complicated, and much more satisfying while at the same time simplifying the amount of choice available from my kitchen.

I’ll keep you posted… what about you: how has your relationship with food changed over the years?

A New (Little) Shed

When you only have 68 square feet of living space, every foot counts. Having a jug of kitty litter reduces your living space by 2%. A garbage can, another 2%, a pair of shoes, another 2%. While I am not complaining about my small space, every item and every centimeter counts.

I have been thinking for a while about building (or buying) a shed…and I found this little one at Lowes. It was surprisingly simple to put together and seems decently sturdy. It’s really made for two garbage bins, but I’m using it to store a lawn mower, some outdoor chairs, a hose, and some kitty litter.

Truthfully. I could probably fit all those things in the rear (under bed) storage area, but I’ve filled that with fiberglass insulation, which keeps the airstream toasty warm.

Best of all, this little shed snaps apart and folds flat, so when I move, it will move with me.

So…one more improvement checked off the list!!

A New Patio!

Phew. What a day! Today, Florence earned a stylish new patio!

Last year, I put in some pavers, but had some difficulty because at some point, there was a driveway (or blacktop) put down but grass had grown well over it, probably for years.

To do the job correctly, it was necessary to bust up the blacktop and set the pavers properly. Thanks to my contractor, Terrence, we were able to do that today!

The plan was to augment the pavers I bought last year with more gray pavers. I called Lowe’s to make sure they were in stock and made the long trek to pick them up. When I arrived at the store they didn’t have a single gray paver in stock. So, the red pavers were the only option… and the unintended retro checkerboard turned out to be a perfect throwback fit for Florence. I think it looks great and is a BIG improvement. Some lillies of the valley from my parents garden set the patio off from the grass.

Here it is in progress:

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And complete:

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More about the water heater repair later this week.

Summer Landscaping

I finally found a little time in my summer break to do some gardening, landscaping, and exterior maintenance at the Airstream! I have found, when full-timing, that on the north side of Florence, a green, slimy algae seems to grow on surfaces. Well, no longer. Thanks to my Aldi power washer, Florence got a very good bath (and waterproof test) today. The power washer blasted every last bit of slime and dirt from her surface, and even blasted some mold from the concrete around her base. The concrete looks brand new.

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The pots with little ornamental shrubs also look great. I filled the pots with dirt and weighted them so they won’t blow away or tip over (like the ones last year.) If I learned anything, I learned, go low not high with plants in buckets.

Against my better judgement, I sprayed weed killer around the concrete pad and in the cracks on the concrete pad. In the midst of doing it, a big bumble bee got in the way, and got a dousing. I feel terribly about that.

While mowing, my good friend, Monsieur LeFrog came back for a visit. He’s about twice his size from last year. Nice to see him again.

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After a thorough bath and power wash, I mowed the lawn and added some mulch around the trees I planted last year. Hopefully, the mulch will keep the weeds at bay!

My neighbor, Teddy, loaned me his hose to use with the power washer today, and I noticed he had planted a little garden. I never did, because I assumed the deer would eat it. He said that’s never a problem, so I might plant some tomatoes and/or lettuce for snacking.

Tomorrow, I tackle the patio and washing windows (inside and out!) Next week, I’m going to tackle the cracks in the concrete pad, and repair of the hot water heater (gulp!)