The butterflies are back! The annual migration of monarchs shows the highest number in years

By Michael Levitt | NPR
Friday, November 26th, 2021

Every year, monarch butterflies migrate to California from across the western United States to escape the harsh winter weather. More than a million made the trip each year in the 1980s and 90s.

These numbers have plummeted by more than 99% in the past few years.

“In the past few years we have had fewer than 30,000 butterflies,” said biologist Emma Pelton. “Last year we actually fell below 2,000 butterflies. So really a change in size in a short time.”

Pelton works with the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation and says pesticides and habitat loss are playing a role in this decline.

But this year the numbers are starting to rise. Biologists and volunteers across California have counted more than 100,000 monarchs.

Richard Rachman is the coordinator for the Xerces Society’s annual Thanksgiving monarch census in Los Angeles County and was endorsed by the numbers.

“It’s kind of magical to just be in this closed woodland and then all of a sudden, puff! You’re like a Disneyland fairy princess surrounded by butterflies, ”he said.

Connie Day is a volunteer with Rachman and met him at Woodlawn Cemetery in Santa Monica last week for an early morning census.

They went out when it was still dark and the butterflies were calm and not fluttering.

“It’s really hard to count them when you move,” said Day.

“You know, when you first see them, they look like the trees are dripping. And when they start to flutter, people come and see them for the first time and they gasp.

“I mean, I wheeze, and I’ve been doing it for a long time.”

Day said they had seen around 200 monarchs there in the past few weeks, and the duo found more than 100 near the beach that morning.

The count will run until December 5th, and so far this year’s numbers have been encouraging overall. But Pelton says it’s too early to know what’s causing this resurgence.

“Nature gave us a second chance … but I think we are in really dangerous terrain,” she said.

“The population has never been as low as it has been in the past three years.

“I think that’s really a good reason to take courage, that maybe there is still time to make a difference.”

Pelton says if you live in the western United States you can help by planting native silk plants and flowers in your garden.

A small act that could give the monarchs a big boost.

The audio version of this story was produced by Ashish Valentine and edited by Christopher Intagliata.

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