ItThe California winter was brutal and the butterflies were struggling to survive.
It is one of the most spectacular natural spectacles. The orange and black butterfly mass migration to California each year, along with a second odyssey to central Mexico every year, are among the largest. T-shirts and pottery featuring images of butterflies are sold in tourist hotspots where they have spread to places where there is a lot of them.
However, the numbers are getting smaller. The California monarch horde was estimated at four to five million in the 1980s. The numbers have been declining in recent years. In 2020, a sobering nadir was reached—fewer than 2,000 monarchs were counted in sites along the California coast, barely 1% of the historical norm.
This year, however, saw a bit of a revival. The three-week long count of monarch butterflies around Thanksgiving found that almost 250,000 were present. This was in addition to previous strongholds near Santa Cruz, Monterrey and Santa Cruz. It’s unclear what happened – some researchers point to a burst of favorable weather, others to problems in the count.. “We were ecstatic but also thought ‘wow what is going on?’” said Emma Pelton, senior conservation biologist at the Xerces Society, a group that has conducted monarch surveys since 1997. “It has led to some optimism, although it is cautious optimism.”
The monarch butterfly can travel 3,000 miles, despite being as heavy as a raisin. The California population arrives in October or November, blanketing trees in groves dotted along the coast until February when the butterflies will lay eggs on milkweed plants, the species’ only food source. They transform into caterpillars and eat the milkweed. Then they turn into butterflies. This cycle continues for four to five generations.
Learn more The Monarchs Can Be Saved
This blurred of color is now gone. It was once a reliable feature of nature, which used to delight people when they saw the monarchs stopping off in their yards. But the same diseases are responsible for the dramatic declines in the insect population recorded from Germany’s nature reserves, the rainforests of Puerto Rico, and the rolling plains Ohio.
Bulldozing prime habitat for crops and highways has resulted in the plowing of monocultural farms, urban sprawl, and roads. The deadly pesticides used on lawns and crop plants have also been applied to them. Climate change is increasing temperatures to levels that are too high for butterflies and other insects to bear. “We really are making life as hard as possible for insects right now,” said John Tooker, an entomologist at Penn State University.
Although monarch numbers fluctuate from one year to the next, there is a clear trend over time and any 2021 increase can only be welcomed with muted joy. “One slightly better year isn’t a recovery – we are still down 95% and the long-term outlook isn’t great,” said Pelton. “We haven’t addressed the root causes of the declines.”
On Jan. 31, 2022, Monarch butterflies rest on plants in El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary in Michoacan, Mexico.
Daniel Cardenas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Monarchs may already, Pelton suspects, be subject to what’s known as shifting baseline syndrome among people—250,000 butterflies feels like a lot now, but it would be considered an average number five years ago and a wretchedly minuscule total at the dawn of this century.
California is suffering from its worst drought since 1,200 years. According to Chip Taylor (founder of Monarch Watch), this is the most dangerous time for the monarch butterflies. “They don’t do well in the heat, they just sort of hunker down in the mountains,” he said.
“They need nectar and carbohydrates and that food source dries up when it gets hot and dry. They stop regenerating. Extreme temperature increases are what we see in the U.S. West. You can have monarchs if the temperature is cooler. On our current path, we will just see fewer and fewer of them.”
Some dispute the idea that climate change is the primary threat—Pelton is more critical of habitat loss, including the razing of the monarch’s favored eucalypt trees for coastal properties or to reduce wildfire risk. Despite the butterfly’s bad odds, the monarch’s appreciation community is fully mobilized to give the insect a fighting chance. Volunteers spend many hours counting butterflies and acting as guides for tourists. Many more Americans are engaged in planting milkweed (there are 3 main varieties of milkweed and tropical milkweed) in every corner. They also breed monarchs to increase their numbers.
This devotion is not common. The monarch is the most loved of the many insect species known.
“They are the panda of the bug world, a sort of charismatic microfauna,” said Pelton. “They are easy to recognize and they have this really special migration that holds a lot of power for people.
“I’m floored by how many people reach out to us to share their enthusiasm and love for monarchs,” she added. “We hope that can help them to think more holistically about insects in general, even people who don’t think about themselves as bug people.”
Many monarch lovers are working together to save habitat and give the beloved butterflies a fighting chance despite all odds. Monarch Watch has distributed one million milkweed plants in the past decade and helped create thousands of monarch ‘way stations’ – patches of wildflowers and milkweed in schools, businesses and roadsides – to provide oases of food and shelter for creatures hemmed in by barren farmland and poison.
This task cannot be completed and there is a risk that the demands on monarchs will spiral out of control. Taylor estimated that two million acres worth of habitat must be restored each year by conservation groups to meet the demands of growing suburban sprawl and agricultural land. “It’s like the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland where you have to run fast just to stay still,” he said. “That’s the absurd and demoralizing situation we are in.”
Pismo State Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, Pismo Beach (Calif.) – A child visits the Grove in a costume that resembles a butterfly.
Ruby Wallau/Getty Images
Monarch conservationists are concerned that they may disappear to the point where the animals stop migrating and settle in small groups on the coast. This amazing movement ripple, a pulse of life that swirls around trees like an orange-hued night, might soon fade away.
While it’s too soon to tell if the limited revival of the monarch is a sign of a longer-lasting comeback, butterfly enthusiasts say they’ll go on fighting. “You can give up or you can try to somehow fight back,” said Taylor. “That’s all we can try to do.”
The task may seem hopeless, but the secret of insects’ 400 million year tenure on Earth has been a certain tenaciousness. Insects have survived five mass exterminations, and they will most likely survive the next one. Although they now have to face their biggest challenge yet, their composition and numbers are already changing dramatically. However, their ability to cling onto even the most tenuous of lifelines is still their best asset.
As the ecologist Roel van Klink puts it, insects’ situation is a little like a log floating on water with us pressing our foot down on it. It can bounce back if we let it go a bit. It may be that conservationists, who are planting milkweed and breeding butterflies as well as protecting tree groves with their help, give monarchs more breathing space to keep going even if they’re in diminished forms. We can make the monarch migration a reality by acting swiftly on climate change and curbing our dependency to noxious insecticides.
A growing devotion to monarchs may blossom into something even greater, an appreciation for the vital role of insects in supporting life on Earth, including ours. The pollination of a third the food we eat comes from bees, flies and other insects. Without tiny midges we’d have no chocolate. Even blowflies, cockroaches, and other pests we don’t like help us maintain healthy forests and landscapes that are not covered with feces or corpses. As many people rally around monarchs during their times of crisis, we might do the same with insects.
Oliver Milman is the author The Insect Crisis – The Fall of the Tiny Empires Which Run the WorldYou can order a copy of ‘The Secret Garden, now available from W. W. Norton
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