The Plants that Monarch Butterflies Need

No more Natural BridgesThe famed and eponymous natural bridges at Natural Bridges State Beach at Santa Cruz no longer exist; a 1994 winter storm destroyed the last one. But no matter: what we recently went there to see was the over-wintering Monarch butterflies that cluster in its eucalyptus grove from November through January.

A boardwalk trail leads from the parking lot near the gift shop into a sheltered hollow with a number of eucalyptus trees. The butterflies hang in them like clusters of dead leaves. The last time we’d visited, on a cold gray day, the butterflies’ camouflage had been excellent, and it took careful observation to recognize the clusters for what they were.

butterflies looking like dead leavesOn this sunny afternoon, it wasn’t difficult to find the butterflies. They were in motion around the cluster, opening their wings for warmth, flying around and seeking nectar.

monarch butterflies in eucs

Monarchs on eucalyptus flowers -blurry

Blurry picture of Monarch butterflies on eucalyptus flowers

We’d read that Monarchs might feed from eucalyptus flowers, which provide a winter resource to so much wildlife. That proved to be true. Looking through binoculars, we saw the eucalyptus flowers far overhead were full of butterflies.

We knew, of course, that Monarchs depend on eucalyptus trees along the West Coast. What we also learned was that other so-called “invasive” plants also help Monarch butterflies to survive. The boardwalk trail has interpretive signs with infographics. We found this one, Nourishing Nectar, particularly interesting.

nourishing nectar sign about Monarch butterfliesEnglish ivy is one of the key plant species of Sutro Forest – and it’s under attack in both the old and new Plan for Sutro Forest. Since the Monarch butterflies found its nectar a nourishing snack, surely this would also be true of other nectar-feeders. Are UCSF – and the Sutro Stewards who do much of the actual work – aware of the habitat destruction killing this ivy causes?

cape ivy

Cape Ivy provides cover and habitat

We didn’t see English ivy in bloom at Natural Bridges State Park this December. Maybe as a fall-flowering plant, its season was over. But Cape Ivy around the tree trunks had small yellow flowers that offered the Monarch butterflies another snack.

monarch butterfly nectaring on Cape Ivy 2

Monarch Butterfly nectaring on Cape Ivy Flower

Cape Ivy is also one of the plants in the understory of Sutro Forest, and it’s being targeted for destruction along with English ivy. Yet its nectar clearly has nutritional value for insects and thus, it has a place in the food chain. And it’s obviously important as habitat and cover for small birds.

THE MONARCH’S WESTERN MIGRATION

We were interested to learn that, unlike the Monarchs east of the Rockies (which migrate from Canada to Mexico and back), the butterflies in the West migrate between the interior and the coast.  The butterflies east of the Rocky Mountains go south to Mexico in winter. The butterflies on the Western side come to the California coast.

fallmigrationmap usfwsThe Monarchs in the Western migration depend heavily on non-native, naturalized species of plants. Some 75% of the Monarch roosts are mainly eucalyptus. In fact, eucalyptus, Monterey Pine, and Monterey Cypress (which nativists consider an “non-native” species outside the Monterey Peninsula) account for around 90% of the tree species they use.

But as we saw, they also draw sustenance from Fall and Winter-blooming ‘weeds’ like English ivy and Cape ivy. This can be critical – the Fall generation of these butterflies is the longest-lived, and makes the migration to the Coast and back again that preserves the species. The extra nutrition improves their likelihood of surviving.

Western migration explanation

Of course, it’s not just naturalized plants. Milkweed is the Monarch’s nursery plant; that’s where it lays its eggs and where its larvae feed. The main threat to the Eastern migration – which has been declining sharply – is that farmers use more pesticides than ever to eradicate weeds, and the butterflies are simply not finding enough of it. There’s a move to grow more milkweed.

Meanwhile, it’s crucial to preserve the Western migration, which seems robust for now. What would happen if the eucalyptus that shelters these butterflies are felled?

It could happen. We don’t think that anyone would cut down trees that are well-known as Monarch roosts – as in Natural Bridges State Beach. But in some years, the butterflies spill out into other trees, and could potentially establish new overwintering sites. Two years ago, they even came to San Francisco.

NATURALIZED PLANTS – RESILIENT HABITAT

The whole area we visited was a lively habitat of naturalized plants. Eucalyptus. Ivy. Blackberry. Grasses. It was full of wildlife, and not just butterflies. We saw a lot of birds, and heard the rustles and twitters of even more. A Townsend’s warbler made a brief appearance before diving back into cover. And high above, we heard a woodpecker – maybe a Downy – in a eucalyptus tree.

woodpecker tree

maybe downy woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker?

Native plant advocates say that native plants provide superior habitat for native species of animal life. There’s no evidence that this is true. Some few species of insects are tied to particular plants, but even then, the rapid reproduction rates of insects suggests that they would evolve to use new plant species once they’re plentiful enough. A great example: How the soapberry bug adapted to use a new food source – in only 100 generations (about 20-50 years).

All the evidence is that naturalized plants provide a resilient and rich habitat for a range of animal species – and with no extra effort from land managers. We only have to avoid destroying them.

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One Response to The Plants that Monarch Butterflies Need

  1. carolee1945 says:

    I love Natural Bridges State Park. Thank you for this wonderful photo essay.

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