Photo credit/Kylee Baumle Monarchs have arrived at their winter locations and are roosting in the trees, shown here at one of their Central Mexico locations.

Last week was Día de los Muertos – Day of the Dead. On November 1st and 2nd, loved ones who have passed on are remembered and celebrated in a way that I used to think was just creepy, but I now embrace it and enjoy it.

I didn’t even know about Day of the Dead until I became a monarch enthusiast. It was then that I learned about the connection between the holiday and the butterflies. In a tradition that began in Central Mexico centuries ago, when the monarch butterflies return to their overwintering locations there, locals believe they are the spirits of their loved ones returning.

As it is with some other migrations, monarch butterflies begin arriving each fall around the Day of the Dead. This year was no exception, with the first wave arriving on October 30th. These are the monarchs that were born here about two months ago, now completing a journey of approximately 2,000 miles in about six weeks. If you do the math, that’s an average of 45-50 miles per day.

That’s a pretty incredible feat, considering a monarch butterfly weighs about as much as a paper clip. But thanks to thermals and wind currents, along with plenty of nectar plants along the way, they successfully complete the journey. In fact, most monarchs will weigh a little more at the end of their trip than they weighed at the start of it, even if their wings show some wear.

Monarchs need to store fat in their bodies in order to survive the long winter in the oyamel fir forests high in the Sierra Madre Mountains. Nectar sources are scarce there at that time, so the butterflies rest in large clusters in the trees to conserve energy.

They’ll do this until late February and early March, when they’ll come out of reproductive diapause, mate, and make the return trip to the US. Once they reach milkweed growing in the southern tier of states, they will lay eggs and die, having lived as long as eight months.

The decline in numbers of monarchs has been a concern for more than 25 years now and is thought to be caused by lack of sufficient habitat in their northern breeding range, the use of pesticides and herbicides, and climate change. Monarchs are specialists, using only milkweed for egg laying and it is the lone item on their caterpillar diet.

The group of monarchs east of the Rocky Mountains is the largest and are the ones who overwinter in Mexico. The smaller western population travels to various locations along the California coast. Their numbers have been even worse in recent years.

I visited three of more than 200 known locations utilized by the monarchs in January 2020, when I attended the Western Monarch Summit. It’s a beautiful area, mostly around Monterey Bay and Big Sur, but disappointingly, we saw very few monarchs.

Last year, two of the areas I visited recorded no monarchs at all. Zero. All of the other areas were sparsely populated, too. The decline there has been happening for several years and is due to some of the same reasons as the decline in the eastern population. Since the overall population in the west is much smaller than in the east, it is much more noticeable and dire.

Migrations are weather driven, for the most part, and climate change is believed to play a major factor in the decline, with California heating up at a faster rate than any other US states. There are some theories that the monarchs are utilizing some other unknown remote locations more suitable to them, but that has yet to be determined.

There is good news to report from California this year, however. Monarchs have returned to their traditional overwintering locations in much higher numbers. In Natural Bridges, they currently have about 3,000 monarchs roosting in the trees, which is 3,000 more than the last two years and 1,000 more than all monarchs counted last year in all locations combined.

It’s estimated that there 10,000 monarchs roosting in all locations, which is more than a 500% increase from last year’s 1,800. The population increase is being studied closely as to the reason for the rebound, but things are looking much better than in recent years, even if this rise in numbers is only temporary. An official count will be taken in late November, by which time most of the monarchs will have arrived and settled in.

Eastern monarchs are also still arriving in Mexico and an official count will be taken in late December/early January. Predictions are that the numbers will be up a little from last year, based on summer breeding reports and weather trends. Monarch enthusiasts are a little like Cubs baseball fans, always hoping for better the next year, so we’ll see.

Thank you to those who have added milkweed to their gardens and properties and farmers who are using conservation land to grow it. Thanks too for realizing that a garden isn’t just for show, but is a crucial piece of the environmental puzzle. This is a marathon, not a sprint, and what you do does make a difference.