As my husband and I took our daily walk around our neighborhood this weekend, we were enjoying the mid-autumn day as if it were summer. It was summer of a sort – our Indian summer, that short period of unseasonably warm weather following a killing frost. It was a definite positive following a stressful week.

The warm weather brought the insects out to play, too. Stink bugs buzzed us, mosquitoes were plentiful, a cabbage white butterfly sought nectar from anything still blooming, and even swarms of gnats could be seen congregating in the air. It was all such a contrast to Novembers in the past when temperatures were frigid and we had snow on the ground.

The monarchs are mostly gone though, with an occasional sighting of a late straggler being reported here and there. In fact, the monarchs began arriving at their overwintering sites in the Sierra Madre Mountains in Central Mexico the last week of October. This year, they arrived prior to Day of the Dead celebrations, held on November 1st and 2nd.

Some years, the monarchs don’t start arriving until a few days after the holiday, when many locals believe they represent the spirits of their loved ones who have passed on, coming back to pay them a visit. It’s a beautiful sentiment.

They will continue to stream in throughout the month of November, then going about the work of choosing where the colonies will settle in for a time. According to weather throughout the winter, the colonies will move about the oyamel fir forests in the biosphere that is a recognized UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Populations throughout their summer breeding grounds in the U.S. and Canada in 2020 were a bit lower than last year, at least as reported by citizen scientists. It seemed spotty, with some seeing an abundance and others much fewer than usual.

The Western population – those west of the Rocky Mountains – is experiencing its own crisis, as numbers have been in severe decline there for the last several years. Dwindling habitat along their coastal California overwintering locations is part of the reason, but as in the east, fewer milkweeds is also thought to be a contributing factor.

It’s a constant study in both populations as to the reasons for lower numbers. What is being studied with some intensity currently is whether or not something is happening during the migration itself, leading to lower winter counts.

Nectar plants which provide fuel for the journey as well as the storage of fats for the winter have always been important. The abundance of those, especially in the last segment of the journey, in Texas and south, are perhaps most affected by weather. Droughts, which that part of the continent seem to be more susceptible to, greatly reduce the opportunities for nourishment as the monarchs pass through.

When the monarchs funnel through Texas, their density in number increases, as different groups merge on their way to a very specific common location. Vehicle strikes take out large numbers at once, as the monarchs descend to nectar. In northern states of Mexico, along the migration route, road signs warn motorists to slow their speed during the time the monarchs are passing through.

The overwintering sanctuaries will be opening to the public on Monday, November 16th, but as you might expect, the coronavirus is taking a toll on tourism. Not only are fewer people traveling, but two of the sanctuaries have decided not to open at all for the year. Tourism is economically critical to these poor areas and they are already seeing an increase in illegal logging of trees in the forests that protect the monarchs.

In the two sanctuaries that still plan to open, El Rosario and Sierra Chincua, procedures have changed. Only 20 people at a time will be allowed to enter, and social distancing and masks will be required. Of course, as the virus is monitored, this is subject to change.

In the meantime, back home here, now is the time to plant your milkweed seeds. If you don’t have any, it’s still fairly easy to find seed pods on plants along the roadsides. Since the seeds require cold moist stratification to aid in germination, Mother Nature provides this naturally throughout the winter.

Scatter the seeds where you want the plants to grow and cover very lightly, if at all, since they also need light to germinate. Overseed, if possible, since rodents and birds may help themselves to some of the seeds. This winter, while you’re waiting on spring and the monarchs’ return, you can plan the rest of your garden to include an abundance of flowering plants to attract them and other pollinators.