As we approach the end of another western monarch overwintering season on the Central Coast, there lies a glimmer of hope in experiencing the vastness, however dwindling, of nature’s well-known royal butterfly. Though their population has faced significant decline since the late 1990s, conservation efforts are well underway to preserve the life cycle and migratory patterns of these magnificent insects. With over 100,000 visitors frequenting annually, the Pismo State Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove is one of the most densely populated overwintering sites for the western monarch population, making it an incredible sightseeing destination for tourists and locals alike. And with the gathering of orange and black clusters congregating in the dense Tasmanian Blue Gum Eucalyptus trees of Pismo State Beach, there comes an opportunity for marveling togetherness.
“What can we do to support the butterflies on their migration during the summer months?” asks a master gardener from Southern California.
“I’ve watched documentaries about the monarchs, but this is my first time seeing them in person!” exclaims an excited visitor from France.
“I make sure to bring my kids here every year; there’s so much to learn from these small creatures,” says an enthusiastic teacher from a local elementary school.
Regardless of the reason for visiting, monarch butterfly season seems to bring about feelings of awe and wonder in folks of every demographic. Spirited elders walk gleefully among the clouds of orange and black, grinning ear to ear like kids in a candy store. Children run giddily in circles, flapping their arms to mimic the flight of hundreds of butterflies flitting around them. Students and couples and solo adventurers look onward in amazement at the marvelous work of nature before them. It seems we all have something to appreciate about these extraordinary insects, whether we’re inspecting them closely to distinguish the small symmetrical black dots that mark a male monarch from the thick black veins of a female, or simply standing with mouths agape at the thousands of small movements that make up a cluster of butterflies following the sunlight. Year after year, visitors make their way to hundreds of overwintering sites along the coast of California to witness the inspiring sentience of monarch butterflies.
So what is it about them that we are collectively so drawn to? It may be too complicated a question to answer in full, but it’s possible that we find pieces of ourselves in their very existence as culturally, symbolically, and naturally transformative creatures. Beginning their life cycle as an egg on a milkweed plant, the emerging caterpillar will use the plant’s resources to sustain its life until the chrysalis stage takes effect. After a period of 8 to 12 days, the fully-fledged butterfly will emerge. Each year, western monarch butterflies make their four generation-long migratory journey from as far north as Washington, as far east as Utah, and as far south as Arizona. That’s quite a journey for such a small group of critters! And although each butterfly is a lone traveler, we often see the overwintering generation of monarchs clustered together for warmth and shelter during the more dormant months of November, December, January, and February.
It is during this time that many amateur enthusiasts and decorated surveyors alike join in to celebrate the return of butterfly season, and indulge in unique appreciation for one of nature’s most mystifyingly meticulous cycles. For a young couple, it serves as the memory of their first date. For a family of four, it is the ultimate annual vacation destination. For a global traveler, it becomes a serendipitous pit stop. Here, we see novel landscapers find the proper native seeds to plant in their budding garden beds, parties of college students admiring their area of entomological concentration, and retirees enjoying the simple pleasures of walking in the sunlight alongside the occasional boisterous bursts of color high up in the trees. This is a space for everyone to enjoy, and a place where curiosity and fascination can flourish.
Between organized scientific efforts, community conservation, and personal enthusiasm, there is a growing accessibility to the knowledge and appreciation of these incredible creatures that travel far and wide across the western United States. Perhaps there is something to be said of the small gestures we make for one another, human, insect, or otherwise.