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Specialized Gardens Offer More Than A Wing And A Prayer To Troubled Monarch Butterflies

A monarch butterfly sits on a flower at Butterfly Farms in Encinitas on May 2...

Photo by Erik Anderson

Above: A monarch butterfly sits on a flower at Butterfly Farms in Encinitas on May 24, 2019

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The last two years have not been kind to the monarch butterflies living along the West Coast. The population of the iconic insect may have fallen below a critical level.

Aired: June 10, 2019 | Transcript

A certified natural habitat sign is proudly posted in a flower-filled front yard in Normal Heights.

“If it’s not food, it’s not in the yard,” said Ramie Zomisky as she surveyed the different plants that are delivering a punch of color with a variety of blooms.

“It’s just my little 'everything is OK' spot,” Zomisky said.

Sprinkled among the colorful plants are different kinds of milkweed.

That’s important to Zomisky because, behind her home, she has a greenhouse devoted to raising and releasing monarch butterflies.

Inside there are different screened cages.

Zomisky separates eggs from tiny caterpillars. Then she separates tiny caterpillars from larger ones.

“They’re just ravenous. So if you have a little guy in there, there’s a chance he’s going to get a chunk taken out of him. So it’s best to keep them separate,” Zomisky said.

RELATED: Conservation Groups Seek Aid For Endangered Monarch Butterflies

Once the caterpillars have finally eaten enough, they look for a place to hang and form their colorful chrysalis. She isolates them as she waits for the orange, black and white butterflies to emerge.

Zomisky uses tweezers to pick up a chrysalis that appears close to opening. The colorful wing of the new butterfly is already showing through the glass-like cocoon.

“So, this guy’s got a little more ways to go and with the cooler, darker weather, he might wait a bit longer,” Zomisky said.

Zomisky welcomes a couple of hundred monarch butterflies into the world every month.

Caring for the iconic insects is a passion that consumes her weekends.

Monarchs are unique

“Monarchs are probably one of the most if not the most valuable insect in the world,” said Brice Semmens of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “Because people spend a lot of money to plant monarch gardens.”

Semmens helped develop a population model that charts the health of the species.

“It turns out the models that we use to describe how a population changes through time are the same as if we were modeling fish or monarch butterflies,” Semmens said.

The models show a steady and dramatic decline among both the eastern and western populations. The monarch population in the east is still in the millions, despite some recent severe declines. The western population topped 1.2 million in the 1990s, but it has steadily dropped to a critical level.

“What they used is an extinction threshold or a point at which the population would hit it and most likely would now be in a vortex, an extinction vortex, where it won’t be able to pull out. And they used, as a number, 30,000 individuals or monarchs. Just this last winter we were below that,” Semmens said.

Pesticides, storms, and now even climate change is posing problems for the colorful butterfly. What was once a friendly habitat is turning more hostile.

”Because in really dry hot years, milkweed doesn’t grow so well across the range of where it normally would,” Semmens said. “And they have to have milkweed in order to reproduce. And so wherever the milkweed isn’t, the monarchs can’t be.”

Photo by Erik Anderson

Monarch Caterpillars hang on the roof of a cage in a backyard greenhouse in Normal Heights on May 3, 2019.

In spite of the problems, the monarch is resilient. The migration behavior is at risk of going extinct, not the butterfly itself.

Volunteers typically count the migrating butterflies when they gather at overwintering sites, which are typically a grove of eucalyptus trees near the coast.

But many historic wintering spots in San Diego County and elsewhere no longer attract monarchs.

There is reason for hope

“The ones here, we’re pretty sure are not migrating at all,” said Tom Merriman of Butterfly Farms in Encinitas.

Merriman raises and displays monarchs to share their story with local children. He is aware that monarchs face challenges, especially early in their life cycle when other insects like flies pose a threat.

RELATED: Encinitas Farm Teaches Students About Threatened Monarch Butterfly

“And there are bacterial infections, there are viral infections,” Merriman said. “If they get into mold or mildew of fungus its probably going to kill them. So there’s a lot of things that can go wrong and that’s before any predators even.”

They are also good at survival. The milkweed the butterflies eat makes them noxious to most birds and the flying insects have an overpowering urge to propagate.

“It’s a really prolific butterfly,” Merriman said. “They’re serious about reproduction.”

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