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Monarch Butterflies – Saving a Species

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I´ve never met anyone who disliked or was afraid of butterflies. These beautiful creatures are admired by all for their ethereal quality and amazing wing colorations. Being a native Californian, monarch butterflies have always been one of my favorite butterflies. I love being able to see them by the thousands when they come each year to overwinter in Pacific Grove and Natural Bridges in Santa Cruz. What a sight to behold!

Recently I became aware of a program that is working to save and ensure the survival of monarch butterflies—both western and eastern monarchs (easterns overwinter in Mexico). The Kansas Biological Survey under the auspices of the University of Kansas has a program called ‘Monarch Watch.´ Researchers have tracked the number of monarchs arriving at overwintering sites and have found that each year fewer monarchs are completing the cycle from breeding grounds to overwintering sites.

There was a time, 1980s and 1990s, when the Santa Cruz and Monterey populations were up to 80,000 monarchs, but now that number has dropped significantly….at the most 10,000! The cause of the decline is loss of food sources—milkweed and nectar plants. Because 90% of all milkweed/monarch habitats occur within the agricultural landscape, farm practices have the potential to strongly influence monarch populations. Farm and ranch lands are being developed into homes, shopping centers and parking lots. Herbicides are being used to control weeds. Milkweed can survive tilling but not the use of Round-Up. Roadside management—mowing and herbicide use—has converted much of this habitat to grasslands not suited for food and shelter for wildlife. Remaining milkweed habitats, pastures, hayfields, edges of forests, grassland, native prairies, and urban areas are not sufficient to sustain the large populations of monarchs seen in the 1990s.

What is the answer to saving these stunning animals? The folks in Kansas have developed a program they call, ‘The Monarch Waystation Program.´ A ‘waystation´ is defined as an intermediate stop between principal stations on a line of travel. So, if the breeding ground and the overwintering areas are the principal stations, then the waystations are stops in between where monarchs can find food and shelter to sustain them for their long treks in the fall and to produce the successive generations in the spring.

By creating and maintaining a Monarch Waystation you contribute to monarch conservation and help assure the continuation of monarch migration in California. You will also provide habitat for other species, including many pollinators, a very important group of species.

What is needed to create a monarch waystation?

1. A designated area in your existing garden approximately 15 square yards…135 sq. ft.

2. This area should receive at least 6 hours of sun a day.

3. The soil should allow good drainage for milkweed and nectar plants.

4. Plants should be close together to provide shelter as well as food.

5. There should be at least ten (10) milkweed plants of two or more species. The different species will allow monarchs to utilize the area for longer periods.

6. At least four (4) nectar plants in the area should bloom throughout spring and summer.


Once you have a Monarch Waystation up and growing, you can register your site at If your site meets all the criteria and is certified, Monarch Watch will send you a certificate designating your area as a Monarch Waystation and add you to their online registry. You may also order a ‘Monarch Waystation´ weatherproof sign [9”x 12”] to display in your garden.

On the website: you can purchase a monarch waystation seed kit for $16.00 which contains twelve (12) seed packs, including six (6) milkweeds and six (6) additional nectar plants as well as detailed instructions. Their supply of the kits is limited so if you are unable to purchase a kit, the Website also contains lists of nectar plants to have in your garden. The milkweed to grow in the Foothills would be Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) and Showy Milkweed (Asclepias speciosa). Ask for these plants at the local nurseries or purchase seeds. Most gardeners already have several nectar plants in their gardens, but the more the merrier! Monarchs are not picky about the source of their nectar, and will visit many different flowers. They use their vision to find flowers, but once they land on a potential food source, they use taste receptors on their feet to find the nectar.

You may also want to provide a water source not only for the monarchs, but for all the butterflies you attract to your garden. Butterflies drink water for the moisture it provides as well as for salt and minerals. Fill a clay saucer half full of sand and place it among the nectar plants in your garden. Keep the sand damp…do not fill it with water….the butterflies will land on the damp sand for their cooling drinks.

If every gardener planted a waystation just think how many monarchs we might save.

Carolee James was going to relate her sad tale of ignorance and the Pipe Vine Swallowtail caterpillar. But she´ll save that for another day. Until then she´ll be content to work on her monarch waystation!