The True Monarchs of Pismo Beach – Butterflies, that is

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Pismo Beach is one of my favorite places in California, and while much of the country shivers through ice and snow, the Monarch butterfly is spending its winter here sheltered in the coast’s eucalyptus groves. We’ve seen these beauties overwintering a few times in Pismo, and were fortunate enough to view them last week during a family visit. Monarchs living in the western US migrate to California in the winter, a different path from the eastern Monarch, which funnels through Texas on its migration into Mexico.

A Monarch cluster
Monarchs clustering in Eucalyptus

The Monarch’s lifespan is only 2 to 6 weeks long, but they are sexually mature as soon as they emerge from the chrysalis as adults, and there are multiple generations each year. However, the last generation of the season (usually determined by the decline of nectar plants) do not become sexually active when they emerge as adults, but go into reproductive “diapause”, which means that they can’t reproduce. They head for the California coast, and cluster together in the Monterey Pine forests of Pacific Grove, and the Eucalyptus groves of Pismo Beach, Morro Bay and San Luis Obispo. They slow their metabolisms, and have sufficient fat stored that they don’t need to eat over the winter.

Then, when the first warm days of January occur and the Eucalyptus bloom as a food source, they begin to mate and renew the cycle. As we watched two Monarchs on the ground together, the docent explained that the male was trying to pick up the female and carry her to the tops of the trees to mate. It sounded fanciful, but apparently he grabs his intended from the cluster, which causes them to tumble down. If she closes her wings to become more aerodynamic, it means she’s willing to be taken to the top… of the tree. If she flutters her wings and keeps them open, it’s “buzz off, buster”.

After mating, the female takes off inland in search of the milkweed plant to lay some of the 400-500 eggs she will probably lay over her short lifetime. After emerging and eating its own eggshell, the Monarch caterpillar eats milkweed leaves exclusively to incorporate the plant’s toxins into its body. Predators know the Monarch is a poisonous butterfly, and won’t eat it. When the caterpillar is about 2 inches long, it begins the process of turning into a pupa. After 10-12 days in the pupa stage, a damp butterfly emerges, pumps liquid into its wing veins to inflate them, dries, and flies off to feed and mate. This second generation of Monarchs will travel into Oregon, Nevada or Arizona. Third and fourth generation Monarchs will venture even farther afield, until it’s again the end of the season, and they return to the California coast when their ancestors lived and begin another cycle of life.

Monarch Flightpath
Flightpaths for eastern and western Monarchs

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mbarnato

mbarnato has ridden her bicycle around the block a few times, and is happily still riding!
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11 years ago

I used to live on or around the southbound flight path, NW Missouri, amazing creatures and beautiful with it.

Reply to  Holte Ender
11 years ago

They *are* amazing creatures, Holte. So strong yet so fragile. Incredible that they make the journeys they do.

11 years ago

When I was about 9, the monarch horde migrated through Tulsa. There were hundreds in our backyard. I had several land on me. It was really one of the most amazing natural phenomena I’d ever encountered, before or since. (My dad took pictures, but who knows where they are now.)

Reply to  Mother Hen
11 years ago

Mother Hen, that reminds me of a story my husband tells: he was a kid playing ball in the street with friends in his LA neighborhood, when a horde of small grey & yellow butterflies came down the street. They had to stop playing in amazement, the butterflies were brushing by them and landing on them, there were so many. Again, it was a one off incident. Cool how a small change in the migration pattern can give us a treat!

11 years ago

The decline of the species is sobering however. I grew up in Santa Barbara county and loved watching the huge migration every year. It’s breathtaking.

Reply to  Dusty
11 years ago

True, Dusty, it’s comforting to see masses of these beauties doing what they do every year. But sad and sobering to think of the number die-offs of beneficial insects and pollinators. Not to mention the birds, fish, mammals……

Michael John Scott
11 years ago

I love butterflies, and from time to time I see them here in the Deep South. I was pleasantly surprised to see that one of their flight paths take right through Georgia. Curiously I have never seen them in great numbers. Beautiful post. Thank you.

Reply to  Michael John Scott
11 years ago

Now that’s interesting, Mike, I would have thought you’d have loads of butterflies in the deep south. Nectar-producing plants must grow in abundance, and there are many butterfly types in sub-tropical climes. Of course, none of us see the numbers of some insects we saw as kids… Thanks. :->

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