I promised an update on the state of the monarch when the World Wildlife Federation released the official count of monarchs in their overwintering location in Mexico. That news came on Friday and it was not what we’d expected or hoped for.

The monarchs are counted in the coldest part of the winter there, when they are the most tightly clustered for warmth from the trees. It’s impossible to count individual monarchs, so they measure the acreage they occupy. It’s not a perfect method, but for now, it’s the best we’ve got.

The count this year was 53% lower than the year before. Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch was not surprised that the count was lower, although he didn’t expect it to be as low as it was. According to him, the biggest factor (among others) was drought in Texas during migration, reducing nectar sources the monarchs needed.

A lot of us were puzzled by the lower count, because it seemed like last summer the numbers were higher or at least robust in the summer breeding grounds of the US and Canada. So what happened? Is what we’re doing here not working? Are we fighting a losing battle? Not at all.

First of all, it’s a fact that insect populations all wax or wane over a period of time. Yes, the monarchs have been in decline for the last 25 years overall, but they will still experience years of ups and downs, whether they’re in decline or not. We don’t yet know if we’re seeing an overall positive turnaround, and this year may be a waning one.

So what about all those monarchs we saw last fall as they were migrating through? And believe me, we had a LOT. A lot more than I’ve ever seen in the 14 years I’ve been observing such things. The mega-roost near Woodburn was amazing and unusual. We may never see such an occurrence again for many years to come.

Having gone to Mexico to see the monarchs there during their winter months for four years in a row now, I’m asked what I thought about how they appeared this year when I was there, compared with previous years. Did I see more than last year? Did I see fewer?

The fact is, I can answer that question, but my answer is of no importance. And here’s why. During late winter, the monarchs are active, as it’s warming bit by bit and they’re coming out of reproductive diapause and mating. The colonies change their locations often, according to the weather and they’re feeling the urge to leave the sanctuaries on their northern migration.

The monarch biosphere occupies 139,000 acres of heavily forested mountains in Central Mexico. The monarchs choose their winter locations in various spots within the biosphere, and all locations don’t experience the same density every year. Only a small number of those sanctuaries, as they’re called, are open to the public.

So when I visit any sanctuary on any given day, I’m only seeing a very minute part of the big picture. When we visited Sierra Chincua this year, we had been told that more monarchs chose that location than had chosen it the year before, and I expected to see more clusters than I did.

Oh, I saw plenty, but my expectations were to see more than I did last year. But when we got there, we were immediately told that just two hours before we arrived, the monarch colonies had started to relocate. It’s not that the entire colony just picks up and moves all at once, but enough did so for the guides to know that movement was occurring. Where did they go? To another location more than a mile away. If we had visited just the day before, we would have seen many more.

It’s the same way with what we see here in the summer. The monarchs are only generally predictable. This happens in our own gardens as well as during migration. We know they take certain general pathways during migration and we’re lucky enough to fall within one of those. But the pathways are wide, and this year, we just happened to be in the sweet spot. It didn’t mean there were more monarchs overall; it meant that we were in the right place at the right time. Nothing more.

I’ve often said this is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s like losing weight. It can be discouraging if you reach a plateau or even experience some weight gain. That doesn’t mean you give up. You keep doing what you know to turn things around and if you persist, you’ll be rewarded. I have to believe this is the same.

Plant milkweed, yes. Monarchs require it for reproduction. But give equal attention to reducing or eliminating use of herbicides and pesticides. And absolutely plant more nectar plants, especially those that bloom late in the season during migration. More monarchs will have a successful migration if they have plenty of fuel for the journey and can build their fat reserves for the winter.

The news can be discouraging at first, but let’s not let it get us down for long. Did the Cubs give up? No, they just said, “There’s always next year,” and “next year” happened in 2016. It took 109 years for them to win the World Series again. Let’s hope it doesn’t take that long for the monarchs (and other pollinators) to once more reach healthy numbers, but in order for that to happen, we have to keep up the effort. Let’s do it.

Read more at Kylee's blog, Our Little Acre, at www.ourlittleacre.com. Contact her on Facebook or by email at pauldingprogressgardener@gmail.com.