Long May
They Reign

A butterfly named Flamingo, an epic migration, and the crusade to save one of America’s most iconic species.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 103



Nora Caplan-Bricker is a journalist, essayist, and critic whose work has appeared in Slate, Harper’s, The New Yorker, and The New York Times Magazine, among other publications. She teaches creative writing in Boston.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Adam Przybyl

Published in May 2020.

One

The phenomenon that some people in Brookings, Oregon, would later call a miracle began in early July 2019, when the same monarch butterfly appeared in Holly Beyer’s yard almost every day for two weeks. Beyer recognized it by a scratch on one wing. She and a friend named it Ovaltine, inspired by ovum, for the way it encrusted the milkweed in Beyer’s garden with eggs. Each off-white bump was no larger than the tip of a sharpened pencil. Clustered together on the green leaves, they looked like blemishes, as if the milkweed had sprouted a case of adolescent acne.

Brookings sits on Oregon’s rugged coast, and squarely within the monarch’s habitat. Every spring and summer, several generations of butterflies breed, lay eggs, and die, each in the span of about a month. The last generation of the year is different. Come fall, rather than produce offspring, it migrates south. Beyer, a petite retiree with a trace of red in her gray hair, is part of a local group who promote butterfly-friendly gardening practices—planting native flowers, for instance, and forgoing pesticides.

Most female monarchs disperse their eggs as widely as possible, but for unknowable reasons, Ovaltine laid almost 600 in Beyer’s yard. Under normal conditions, fewer than 5 percent of monarch eggs survive to adulthood. Beyer wanted the marvel she had witnessed from her deck to have a happier ending. She snipped the laden leaves and brought them inside, to shield the eggs from wind, rain, and predators. Before long she had hundreds of caterpillars, then hundreds of butterflies. She released them into the wild, and Brookings, with a human population of just 6,500, was suddenly ablaze with orange wings. A person could be taking the trash out or crossing a parking lot and see a flash, like a struck match, from the corner of their eye.

Soon the monarchs had blanketed Brookings in “the second eggsplosion,” as Beyer put it. “Every milkweed plant”—the only flora that monarch caterpillars eat upon hatching—“got egg-bombed.” Over the next several weeks, Beyer counted nearly 2,700 eggs in her yard. Based on other people’s reports from their own gardens, she estimates that there were 5,000 more across Brookings.

Beyer dutifully gathered the eggs laid on her property and put them in a maze of mesh crates she’d set up on the small deck of her 400-square-foot apartment. As the caterpillars hatched, she gave her life over to their care. The tiny creatures do nothing but eat and evacuate, and Beyer spent every day harvesting milkweed to go in one end and sweeping away the droppings that came out the other. “I would start at 10 a.m. and wouldn’t finish feeding them until six at night,” she told me. “I lost 15 pounds because I forgot to feed myself.”

A friend of Beyer’s sent out a grassroots SOS, begging anyone in Oregon with experience hand-rearing monarchs to come and take some of the remaining eggs off her hands. That’s how Amanda Egertson heard about the eggsplosion. A trained ecologist, Egertson is the stewardship director of a land trust in central Oregon. She lives in the city of Bend, almost 300 miles away from Brookings. She called her husband and asked if he could skip work for a day or two. They packed their kids into the car and started driving.

Waiting for them in Brookings was a makeshift incubator for 110 monarch eggs: a foil lasagna pan lined with damp paper towels to keep the milkweed leaves placed inside it from wilting. It would be up to Egertson to usher the butterflies into life. If she succeeded, the monarchs hatched under her care would be the first she’d seen that year. In the weeks leading up to her trip to Brookings, she’d scouted for flickers of orange as she traversed the land trust. For the first time she could remember, she hadn’t seen a single one.

A paperclip weighs a gram; a monarch weighs about half that.

While Egertson was retrieving the lasagna pan, I was a continent away, sitting for hours every day on my in-laws’ porch in Massachusetts. From there I could see thick patches of butterfly weed, a variety of milkweed that grows wild on their hilltop property. It was waist high in places, and covered in starburst bunches of brilliant orange flowers. Each tiny blossom had one row of tangerine petals stretching down and another row stretching up, like little dancers with raised arms. The plant is sometimes called orange glory, which suits it. When my husband’s father cut the field, he mowed carefully around the flowers. Once, he motioned me off the porch swing where I was reading to show me a monarch feeding on the blossoms.

The monarch (Danaus plexippus) is a large butterfly, and among the slowest moving in North America. It takes no special skill to spot one or to identify what you’ve seen. If you went to an American elementary school, you probably learned in science class how a monarch egg becomes a caterpillar becomes a chrysalis becomes a butterfly. Some lepidopterists (butterfly experts) disdain monarchs in the way that anyone with esoteric tastes looks down on what’s popular. “People call them the cockroaches of butterflies,” one scientist told me.

But the world has dulled your capacity for wonder if you cannot be awed by monarchs, which undertake one of the longest annual migrations of any insect on earth. A paperclip weighs a gram; a monarch weighs about half that. The thickness of a piece of paper is one-tenth of one-thousandth of a meter; the thickness of the monarch’s distinctive orange wings—veined in black and dappled with white spots at the edges—is measured in microns, or millionths of a meter. Monarchs can travel even on wings that appear too torn for flight, and scientists estimate that in good weather they can cover 30 miles or more in a single day. East of the Rockies, millions of butterflies migrate thousands of miles, from southern Canada to central Mexico, where oral traditions suggest that the incandescent insects have blanketed forests every winter for centuries. West of the Rockies, a smaller number of monarchs fly south as the weather cools and spend the winter huddled in trees on the central coast of California. No one knows how they find the groves to which they return every year.

The monarch was once as common as it is beautiful—the most ordinary of extraordinary things. As a child, I saw them all the time in the warm months, drinking from weedy flowers at the edges of cornfields. Now, though, the population is in precipitous decline. This is true all over North America, but especially out west, in places like Oregon and California. In 2018, a count of western monarchs turned up only 27,218, fewer than 1 percent of the number recorded in the mid-1980s. Worse still, that figure failed to clear an existential threshold of sorts: Ecologists had recently warned that the western monarch’s risk of extinction could intensify if the population fell below 30,000.

The causes of the decline are many and manmade: loss of habitat, increased use of pesticides, the acceleration of climate change. On the broadest scale, these forces overlap with the reasons that the island where my in-laws live floods more severely with every passing year. Visiting them last summer, I spent more time outside than I had since my childhood, but the pleasure of sunny days was darkened by dread. The monarchs in particular brought me back to a time before I knew about climate change or lived with the awareness that I might someday witness a mass extinction. The idea of a future without them started to represent everything I was frightened to live through.

The world has dulled your capacity for wonder if you cannot be awed by monarchs, which undertake one of the longest annual migrations of any insect on earth.

It’s not news that our impending environmental cataclysm requires urgent action, especially by world leaders and fossil-fuel companies—people and entities with the power to fundamentally change the way we use our planet’s resources. The steps we can take as individuals won’t be sufficient; they won’t even be significant unless millions of people follow suit. For me at least, this made it hard to commit to even small forms of environmental action. I would attempt something—composting, or taking the bus more, or cutting meat out of my diet—only to find that it didn’t allay my sense that I was doing nothing. It was like trying to ride a bike when the gears wouldn’t catch. I wanted to push the pedal down and feel myself move.

I envied my father-in-law’s steady sense of purpose as he mowed around butterfly weed so that monarchs could feed on the flowers. It was a modest act of stewardship that brought him great satisfaction when butterflies landed on the patches of growth he’d conserved. I, too, wanted to do something that mattered in ways I could see and feel.

Near summer’s end, I read a news article in which a biologist made a case for monarch conservation that went beyond butterflies. Karen Oberhauser of the University of Wisconsin–Madison described monarchs as a flagship species, an animal that captures imaginations and induces people to care about its fate. “We’ve surveyed people and asked, ‘How much would you pay to save monarchs?’” Oberhauser said when I called her. “It’s up there with whooping cranes, polar bears, and wolves—all these charismatic vertebrates.” When people like my in-laws protect monarch habitat, they assist other species they may never have heard of. By extension, they support entire ecosystems. “On some days, I feel like maybe we won’t save monarchs, but if we try to save them, we’re going to do good for the world,” Oberhauser said.

Was this what I had been looking for—an animal to lend its shape to my formless sense of environmental grief? In the book What I Don’t Know About Animals, novelist and essayist Jenny Diski observes that humans have been turning animals into symbols ever since the beginning of language, employing them as tools “to think about anything and everything.” Maybe I could make monarchs my personal shorthand for something otherwise too large to grasp. I didn’t yet know about Beyer and Egertson, who were upending their lives with a feverish energy that comes from believing you can make a difference, but I had arrived at a similar idea: I hoped that, if I trained my attention on a single creature, I would figure out what it meant to do my part. Maybe fear of a loss specific enough to imagine would impel me to act. And once I started, maybe I wouldn’t stop.

Two

Back home with the eggs, Egertson cut air holes in giant Tupperware bins, which covered the floor of her son’s bedroom. “He gets the best morning sunlight,” she explained. After the eggs hatched, the caterpillars grew quickly, sometimes doubling in length in the span of 48 hours. They molted their striped skin five times in two weeks. Egertson returned to the store for more bins, then more again. When she and her family ran out of milkweed to feed the caterpillars, they called on neighbors to harvest it from their yards.

Eventually, Egertson carried the Tupperware condominiums upstairs to the master bedroom and opened the doors to the deck to expose her charges to fresh air and light. At night, when the temperature dropped into the forties, she and her husband piled their bed high with blankets. During the day, when the sun heated the room to 90 degrees, they stripped down to tank tops.

After two weeks, the caterpillars started to crawl to the roofs of their enclosures and hang upside down in a J shape, like a collection of fishhooks. One by one, each creature began to pulse, and its skin went translucent. Slowly, its striped outer layer peeled back from its head, revealing a sticky, twisting green mass whose gyrations gradually stilled. Over the next day, it inflated and hardened into a perfect jade pendant adorned with gold flecks. This was the chrysalis, a shell that looks like a sarcophagus but is really a womb. Inside, a butterfly was taking shape.

Egertson tried to stay close to home so she wouldn’t miss the moment when a monarch emerged. She swims at 4 a.m. every morning, and she perched her cell phone on the edge of the pool so she could check it after each lap. One morning she got the text she’d been waiting for and “flew out of the pool,” she told me. She raced home, “wet suit and all,” and made it in time.

In the hours before a monarch “ecloses,” or emerges from its chrysalis, its wings become visible through the shell. The lacquer splits, and the butterfly pushes itself out on long black legs. It pumps fluid from its abdomen through the veins of its wrinkled, misshapen wings, which slowly unfurl into four fiery orange and black fans. Within a few hours, they harden and dry. If the process is interrupted and the wings remain crumpled, the monarch won’t be able fly.

Handling the new butterflies with great care, Egertson and her family affixed tags to their wings—lightweight but durable stickers bearing serial numbers that scientists use to track the insects’ journey if they are spotted again. Researchers have been tagging butterflies since the 1940s, when the zoologist Fred Urquhart decided to trace the until then unknown route of the eastern migration. The organization he founded, now called Monarch Watch, remains the largest tagging project east of the Rockies. Egertson had requested stickers from a lab at Washington State University that hosts one of several tracking operations out west. When she applied the tags to the butterflies, her fingers came away dusted with glittering scales.

Egertson’s family gave each insect a name along with a serial number: Michael Phelps, for the Olympic swimmer’s butterfly stroke; Chopin, for one of Egertson’s favorite composers. Egertson’s 11-year-old son, who had shared his room with the caterpillars, named one monarch Flamingo, after the species for which he had dyed his own hair neon pink.

Egertson and her kids released Flamingo in a park in Bend on a sunny day in September. Afterward, Egertson went to a tattoo artist to have butterflies inked onto her foot and ankle. They were a 50th birthday gift to herself, a reward for making it through what she told me was a difficult decade. “I’ve been smitten with butterflies my whole life,” she said. “At first glance they seem so fragile, like the wind can just blow them any which way. Like they don’t have a lot of say about where they end up. But in fact they do. They’re incredibly resilient, powerful creatures.”

As Egertson gritted her teeth against the sharp scratch of the tattooist’s needle, she hoped that Flamingo was drifting southward—borne, at least that day, on a light breeze.

Monarchs migrate to the same groves year after year. 

It’s not strictly rational to devote one’s excess energy to protecting a species loved mostly for being beautiful, especially when so much of the world is dying. Insect populations in particular are in free-fall, and monarchs are far from the hardest-hit species among those that scientists are able to monitor. Entomologists estimate that humans have identified as few as 20 percent of all insect species, meaning that millions of unique creatures could be swept off the planet without our knowing that they existed in the first place. No one can make a case for ensuring the butterflies’ survival based on particular usefulness. Though they get lumped in with pollinators, they are bad at the job. They don’t even come close to rivaling bees, without which farmers would need to hire human workers to pollinate fruit trees.

Karen Oberhauser’s argument about flagship species helps explain a recent burst of interest in monarchs. Many conservationists choose to focus their efforts on keystone species, which anchor ecosystems (starfish, for example, keep tide pools from being overrun by mussels), or indicator species, which reflect the health of a landscape (dragonflies can’t live on polluted streams). But prioritizing flagship species like monarchs is a practical choice for advocates competing for the public’s attention. It helps that, unlike some endangered species, monarchs don’t require governments to set aside large tracts of land for them. They don’t need pristine conditions or continuous wilderness. What they need are options: milkweed on which to lay eggs, and nectar plants on which to feed all along their migratory path. An ecologist I interviewed estimated that monarchs might be able to pass through a landscape that is just 1 percent habitat—that is, it might be enough for an urban neighborhood to offer up a pot of milkweed or a flowering window box for every few hundred feet of concrete.

This fact—call it the allure of tangibility—has helped spur tens of thousands of people across North America to get involved in conservation efforts on the monarch’s behalf: people like Beyer, Egertson, and my in-laws. “Pretty much anyone can help,” said Emma Pelton of the Xerces Society, the leading advocacy organization for insect conservation. “This is an area where individuals can have an impact.” One activist I spoke to, a former fourth-grade teacher in Illinois, had converted an old school bus into a traveling classroom that she drove around the corn belt proselytizing about planting milkweed for monarchs. “It’s like Ms. Frizzle’s Magic School Bus,” she told me.

Hand-rearing, however, is a part of the crusade to save monarchs that most scientists reject. For starters, it can sow confusion among researchers. A bonanza of butterflies in a place like Brookings, where monarchs might have been scarce but for human interference, foil attempts to track—and thus support—the shrinking western population. “We can’t trust the sightings we have,” Pelton said. “In such a critical year, after the population collapses, it’s really frustrating. It’s a huge loss to our ability to understand where the population is so that we can help it.” Some experts also fear that butterflies hatched in captivity may be inferior navigators, making them less likely to survive their long migration. Other studies suggest they may be at higher risk of spreading disease. Most concerning, monarchs have evolved to produce hundreds of progeny that don’t make it, employing a different biological strategy than large mammals that lavish energy on each individual offspring. By protecting eggs and caterpillars that might have been picked off in the wild because of an inherent weakness—and by encouraging inbreeding, which reduces genetic diversity—the people hand-rearing monarchs almost certainly introduce inferior genes into a struggling population. “You need to be a really fit monarch to make it,” Pelton explained. “The last thing we want to do is make them weaker.”

Experts consider mass rearing a misdirection of energy: To save a species you must protect its habitat, not keep a few creatures alive on your porch or in your bedroom. Egertson, who oversees the planting of native flowers on her land trust, understands these concerns—to the point that she hesitated before taking the trip to see Beyer. Though she had raised a few butterflies in the past, just for the joy of it, she had qualms about hatching more than 100 in captivity. “Any time you tamper with nature, you have to wonder if you’re doing the right thing,” she told me. “But if you were to ask me, do I regret participating in captive rearing, the answer is absolutely not.” The severity of the crisis made her want to do something that felt more immediate. “The numbers are so low that, if we can boost them at all, maybe that will make a difference,” she said.

Pelton told me that she worries about quashing the energy of volunteers who are just trying to help. It makes sense that adding individual lives to a plummeting total seems like the best, most direct thing a person can do. “It’s hard for people to grasp whole ecosystems—that’s hard for me even in my backyard,” Pelton said. “We all pivot toward something we can grasp, like an animal. But the question is if we can look a little wider. People spend hours every day rearing caterpillars. If you spend hours every day doing anything, you could be a fantastic community organizer working to reduce pesticides, or have an amazing garden that helps lots of animals, not just monarchs.”

To avoid becoming paralyzed by the number and scope of the environmental problems we face, it’s often necessary to narrow our focus. How do we also keep a view broad enough to see how our actions fit into, and sometimes work against, a larger effort? It’s a difficult balance. To avoid losing hope, people need to experience their individual power to change things. But with the fight to save monarchs, as with so many crises, little of the work that needs doing can be done alone.

Three

Monarchs migrate solo. The first challenge facing the butterfly that Egertson’s son named Flamingo was likely crossing the Cascade mountains running from southern Canada to northern California. Clearing a 10,000-foot peak is well within a monarch’s capability; although the eastern and western migrations rarely mix, butterflies have even been known to cross the Rockies. On cool nights, finding shelter from the wind and other elements would have been imperative. Once the sun set and the temperature dropped below 55 degrees, Flamingo’s powerful wing muscles would become paralyzed; another 15 degrees and he would no longer be able to crawl. If he were knocked to the ground in the night, he could become prey for mice or voles. They would eat his narrow body and leave his wings in the dirt like a discarded costume.

There were also human dangers to contend with, starting with busy highways. Along the eastern migratory route, millions of Flamingo’s kind become roadkill every year; according to one study, collisions with cars in Oklahoma, Texas, and northern Mexico deplete the monarch’s numbers by as much as 4 percent. Out west, researchers see less evidence of significant losses along highways, but the smaller population can little afford any at all. It complicates the picture that one promising initiative to restore monarch habitat is to plant flowers on roadsides, since the land there has few other uses.

After a few weeks, Flamingo probably reached the wide, flat floor of California’s Central Valley. Most western monarchs are funneled through this corridor, which some 40 years ago was an inviting place: a rich patchwork of grasslands, dotted with bright blooms in all but deepest winter, threaded with streams and rivers, and soaked with sun almost 300 days of the year. John Muir famously described the Central Valley as “the floweriest piece of world I ever walked, one vast level, even flower bed.” But in recent decades, industrial farming has ironed out all but the last inches of wild land, replacing ungoverned prairies with perfect rows of produce. Roughly a quarter of America’s food comes from the Central Valley, including 40 percent of our fruit and nuts. The region is also California’s fastest growing in terms of population. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates that more than 99 percent of the valley’s standing grass consists of green lawns and cereal crops. Cultivation has crowded out native grasslands, with their goldenrod, milkweed, and thistle.

Water is also a scarce commodity. Vast wetlands once fed by the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers shrank by more than 90 percent in the past century as the water was diverted to irrigate fields. A seven-year drought, which ended in 2019, dried up even more marshlands, endangering birds as well as butterflies. The northern end of the valley is famous for vernal pools unlike any on earth: Rain fills them in winter, and they evaporate slowly in summer, leaving rings of wildflowers each time the water level drops. The WWF estimates that more than two-thirds of these unique ecosystems have disappeared, either drained for agricultural use or leveled to make way for pastures and fields.

Where Flamingo once would have found water and nectar there were instead gleaming cattle and tidy crops treated with pesticides. Crops like strawberries and almonds are rendered unsellable by even the slightest damage, so farmers make liberal use of chemicals to keep them pristine. When the Xerces Society tested milkweed across the valley, it found pesticide in every sample, including plants grown in private gardens by people who claimed they had never sprayed. Even if Flamingo managed to find food, he risked consuming poison along with his meal.

Monarchs migrate hundreds or thousands of miles every year.

Art Shapiro knows all about poison. He started counting butterflies in 1972. He was new to the West Coast back then—he’d moved for a job in the zoology department at the University of California, Davis, not long after finishing his doctorate at Cornell—but he was accustomed to spending long days searching for insects. Growing up in an unhappy home on the outskirts of Philadelphia, he would slip out the door with a field guide in his pocket and lose himself looking for flashes of color in an undeveloped expanse of land across the street from his house. As a college student in the 1960s, he studied phenology, the scientific term for biological seasonality: how subtle cues such as temperature and sunlight tell fruit trees when to bloom, insects when to hatch, and birds when to migrate. Shapiro began to dream of creating an enormous data set. If he could track many butterfly species over many years—wet years and dry ones, hot years and cold ones—he would be able to see which aspects of a climate exerted the most control over the life cycle.

In California, he selected five sites at various elevations, each with its own diverse ecosystem, and made the rounds every two weeks, weather permitting. He compiled a list of 160 species of native butterflies to monitor, monarchs among them. Unlike scientists who tag monarchs to track their migration, Shapiro’s goal was to compare the size of butterfly populations from one year to the next. The methodology could hardly have been simpler: He visited the same sites on the same schedule and noted the number of butterflies he saw. Since Shapiro didn’t drive, each location had to be accessible by public transportation; he sometimes hiked several miles from a bus stop to get where he needed to go. In those early days, he rarely failed to find his quarry. At a single stop, he would frequently see as many as 30 species. Along with monarchs, there were skippers and sulfurs, swallowtails and painted ladies, henna-colored lustrous coppers and periwinkle Melissa blues.

He planned to do the project for five years, since that was all the time he’d have if he didn’t get tenure. When he was offered a permanent place at the university, he decided to keep going. Gradually, Shapiro added five more sites, until his study covered a large swath of the Central Valley. As local bus systems grew less reliable, he asked graduate students for rides. He became a fixture at gas stations and dive bars all over his route, his annual arrival a welcome sign of spring. We spoke over the phone for this story, but in pictures Shapiro looks like a hermit in a Georgian-era painting—weathered face, wild hair, enormous white beard—except that he’s often wearing a Southwestern-patterned shirt.

After a few decades, he realized that he had inadvertently conducted what might have become the world’s longest continuous butterfly study, rivaled only by one of similar vintage in the United Kingdom. He soon noticed something else: The number of butterflies at his locations was declining. At first, Shapiro wasn’t too worried. Insect populations are naturally “bouncy,” meaning that numbers can dip in years with unfavorable weather and rebound quickly in good years, since each female lays hundreds of eggs. But in 1999, the populations of multiple butterfly species crashed simultaneously, their totals plummeting well below any natural ebb that Shapiro had witnessed before.   

Shapiro strongly suspected that the butterflies were suffering the effects of neonicotinoids, a class of insecticides that were introduced in the early 1990s and entered wide usage toward the end of the decade. Neonics, as they’re called, are systemic, meaning that plants absorb them into every cell from bud to stem, and they can be long-lasting, building up year after year and persisting in water and soil even if a farmer stops using them. A growing body of research would ultimately support Shapiro’s hypothesis, showing that even in doses too small to kill outright, neonics shorten the life spans of insects and make them weaker fliers and foragers. Because the pesticides attack a creature’s nervous system, they interfere with navigation, which matters for species like bees, which must find their way back to their hives. The major varieties of neonics are now banned for outdoor use in the European Union but remain popular in the United States, where they have been connected to the widespread collapse of bee colonies.

Art Shapiro became a fixture at gas stations and dive bars all over his route, his annual arrival a welcome sign of spring.

They also have especially pernicious effects on migratory species like monarchs. Karen Oberhauser of the University of Wisconsin remembers the world before butterflies began disappearing. In 1997, a boom year, she flew to Mexico to see eastern monarchs in their overwintering grounds. She witnessed millions of roosting insects, clustered on every inch of oyamel fir trees, their combined weight bending the boughs. Seeing them gathered together, Oberhauser felt a shiver of fear: They seemed so vulnerable, as if a single blow could erase them from the earth. In the years that followed, she noticed how much habitat monarchs had lost in the agricultural fields that form a large part of their summer breeding grounds. She realized that crops genetically engineered to be resistant to herbicides allowed farmers to blanket their land with chemicals, which eradicated millions of acres of milkweed that once flourished between the soybean plants and cornstalks. Monarch numbers had fallen in tandem. Oberhauser began raising money and advocating for conservation efforts. “A lot of what’s driving monarch loss is changing agricultural practices. Addressing that is going to require policy changes,” she told me.

In California, Shapiro continued to see worrying signs. Monarchs’ seasonal behavior seemed to be shifting. The last generation of butterflies that hatches each fall is called a super generation. During their migration, they enter a state known as reproductive diapause, conserving the energy that other generations expend breeding so they can live six months or more—enough time to make it through winter and breed first thing the following spring. But Shapiro started to hear stories of winter roosts breaking up earlier and earlier. Whereas they used to stay put until March, now they were disbanding in late January or early February. Were they taking their cue from the ever milder weather? Where would they find nectar and milkweed, when most native plants break ground in March at the earliest? Would a freak storm batter them to death or a cold snap freeze them? No one could guess how many migrators might be surviving the winter only to die without finding somewhere to lay their eggs in the spring.

As Shapiro described it, 2018 was the year when “everything went in the toilet.” He witnessed the worst butterfly season he’d ever seen. He counted only 12 monarchs in all of his stops, and for the first time ever he didn’t see a single monarch caterpillar. The once common species had become so rare so abruptly that every individual insect seemed to matter. Would the next year be the one when Shapiro finally saw no monarchs at all?

Four

By October 2019, if he survived that long, Flamingo might have faced fire. In Sonoma County, along the Central Valley’s western edge, the season’s worst wildfire consumed almost 80,000 acres. Acrid smoke blanketed much of the Bay Area. What does a monarch make of a forest fire? Does it waste precious energy flying around it, or risk getting caught in the conflagration? Still heading south, Flamingo might have ridden the same winds that carried embers across the landscape, wisps of fire that shone even more brightly than his vivid wings.

A few weeks after the Sonoma fire died down, I was preparing to fly to California, too. I had arranged to join an annual effort, organized by the Xerces Society, to monitor western monarchs in their winter habitat—groves where butterflies, in an unsolved mystery of migration, return to the same roosts year after year. Some coastal cities have built around these stands of trees, even if they’re in the middle of town. The first scheduled stop on my itinerary was Ellwood Mesa, a sandy bluff of eucalyptus groves just west of Santa Barbara. But by Thanksgiving morning, it too was in the path of a wildfire. Thousands of people in the surrounding county had evacuated. “There’s no way anyone can take you there,” a municipal employee told me when I called from my home in Boston. Ellwood Mesa was vulnerable to stray embers and to mudslides. When I asked if I could go alone, there was silence on the other end. “There are signs telling people to enter at their own risk,” the employee said finally.

I hung up feeling thwarted. My husband tried to comfort me: Even if the fire interfered with my plan to see a species imperiled by climate change, didn’t that only prove my story’s point? I packed a bag and boarded my flight. I landed in Los Angeles and turned on my phone to find a text from another city employee: A snowstorm had dampened the blaze. I could go to Ellwood Mesa after all.

Xerces calls its annual monitoring effort the Thanksgiving count because it takes place over three weeks in November and early December. More than 100 volunteers visit upwards of 240 sites where monarchs are known to roost. The count is not unlike Art Shapiro’s work—volunteers note every butterfly they can find, then tally the numbers into a single snapshot of the total population that made it to the coast for the winter. If they see any with tags—a rare, exciting event—they can compare the serial number with an online database and determine where the butterfly came from.

In 1997, its first year, the count recorded more than 1.2 million monarchs. Two years later, that figure fell to fewer than 250,000, despite an increase in the number of sites being monitored. Though the population still fluctuates, it hasn’t broken 300,000 since 2000. It plunged to the historic low of 27,218 in 2018. Volunteers visit most count sites only once; if a site is subject to more frequent monitoring, Xerces uses the highest number observed in a single day. Between this and the fact that some butterflies might be spotted twice if they move between neighboring groves, the final tally is more likely to overestimate the monarch population than to underrepresent it.

Once upon a time, Ellwood Mesa attracted more than 100,000 butterflies each year. When I pulled into the site’s parking lot on a Tuesday morning, the sky was overcast. The clean, sweet smell of eucalyptus washed over me. Ellwood Cooper, who once owned this land and for whom the site is named, was a rancher and horticulturalist who helped introduce eucalyptus to the United States. He raised his first trees here in the 1870s. Cooper envisioned the quick-growing eucalyptus as an invaluable source of lumber. It turned out to be brittle and prone to decay, but it did provide an ideal winter home for monarchs, which were observed on the West Coast in growing numbers as eucalyptus spread in the late 19th century. Today, the tree is widely considered a scourge on the landscape. With its shaggy bark and fragrant oil, it is quick to catch fire. But it is also monarchs’ preferred home for the winter; though the insects roost in other trees, such as cypress, they choose eucalyptus groves over forests with exclusively native species. This has put monarch advocates in the odd position of trying to protect a beloved native butterfly by fighting to plant a despised invasive tree. 

What does a monarch make of a forest fire? Does it waste precious energy flying around it, or risk getting caught in the conflagration? 

The volunteer coordinator for the monarch count in Santa Barbara County was a woman named Charis van der Heide, a monarch biologist and environmental consultant for the city of Goleta. She wore a straw hat and hiking boots, and the rest of her attire was dotted with images and emblems of butterflies: a patterned scarf at the neck of her purple parka, a crocheted keychain dangling from her backpack. I followed her down a sandy path into a grove of trees, where the light grew dimmer and the smell heavier and loamier as we followed a muddy streambed. The ground was blanketed with strips of gray bark—“eucalyptus are messy,” Van der Heide said—but many of the branches above us were bare. According to Goleta officials, one in five trees here died during California’s long drought. Of those that remained, many were ailing. Giants 180 feet tall leaned against their neighbors or bent into archways over the path.

Changes in the grove have profound consequences for monarchs. Butterflies choose where to roost with extreme sensitivity. New generations not only go to the same groves and trees as the previous year’s butterflies—they alight on the same branches. They seek a precise microclimate, a perfect alchemy of humidity, temperature, wind speed, wind direction, and light. Every time a tree falls, the delicate balance shifts.

We entered a clearing. Van der Heide, who is in her late thirties, with wavy chestnut hair and a broad, friendly face, pointed out the features that once drew monarchs here. Perhaps because they are meandering fliers—they flap-flap and glide, flap-flap and glide—they choose groves with high, vaulted ceilings that are “cathedral-like,” Van der Heide explained, gesturing upward. The natural architecture gives them space to flit and float. But a thinning canopy may not provide sufficient protection from winter storms. The grove we stood in was once enclosed on three sides by thick walls of trees; now trunks crisscrossed the forest floor, leaving openings everywhere.

Van der Heide told me that she wanted to plant more eucalyptus where we stood. The controversy surrounding that approach didn’t bother her. “We conserve what we love,” she said—even if a favorite natural phenomenon might not exist as we know it without human influence. She echoed Oberhauser’s point about flagship species, arguing that fighting for monarchs could help a wide array of pollinators that share their habitat. “Having a little pragmatism about what people can get behind can serve you in a larger way,” she said.

But even with new eucalyptus to draw them, would the butterflies return in large numbers? As the climate changes, many species are expected to shift their habitat ranges northward and upward, to higher elevations, chasing the conditions for which they’ve evolved. Monarchs might soon abandon the known groves altogether. Maybe they already have. Some count volunteers told me that, in their most optimistic moments, they imagine the butterflies aren’t declining—they’re hiding, and we just have to find them. But it’s not clear where exactly they could have gone. “If you look in the hills, we don’t have trees up there,” Van der Heide told me. “They’ve all burned.”  

 Charis van der Heide

Van der Heide scanned the trees around us, looking for monarchs. “OK, so we have a few,” she said, handing me her binoculars. I looked and looked, but I couldn’t see them. Van der Heide set up a scope and showed me a cluster of 27. The outsides of their folded wings were tawnier than I expected, muted enough to blend in with dead leaves. Somehow they all knew to hang at the same angle, so that their identical wings formed an intricate pattern. Occasionally, a pair of wings opened, looking almost red in the deep gloom of the grove, then closed back into the tessellation.

We followed a path deeper into the woods. Two weeks earlier, Van der Heide had counted 250 butterflies on the mesa, most of them concentrated in the single grove we were now headed to. That wasn’t many for a site where she, along with other volunteers, had counted 47,500 butterflies in 2011. But it beat finding only 27. Van der Heide seemed optimistic that she could show me more.

We reached a small overlook. In past years, volunteer docents brought tours here to gaze into the grove below, as if it were an amphitheater. Van der Heide opened her backpack and pulled out a binder, opening it to a picture taken on this spot in 1975. The photographer had aimed a lens up the trunk of a tree entirely concealed beneath thousands of butterflies, a carpet of orange wings that led straight to the sky. People who rode horses here decades ago have described similar scenes—of sitting, frozen in awe, as butterflies descended on their mounts, drawn by the smell of sweat. Imagine a horse that looked for an instant as if it were made of butterflies, at risk of dissolving into a flurry of wings.

Van der Heide raked the branches with her binoculars. We stood there for a long time. She didn’t move to take out her scope or fill the silence with effusive talk. She just looked, swung around, and looked again. “Wow, I’m not seeing any right now,” she said. “That’s really hard.” The hundreds she’d seen here before the snowstorm that put out the fire were gone, possibly washed away. She turned from the empty grove. “That’s really hard,” I heard her repeat under her breath.

As we emerged from the woods, we ran into a group of teenagers on a field trip, led by members of the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, one of whom conducts the Xerces monarch count in nearby Ventura County. “Did you see any?” the group asked as we drew level.

“I saw 27,” Van der Heide told them.

“How have your numbers been?”

“So low.” “So low,” the woman from Ventura echoed sadly.

“Two weeks ago, I saw 250 across Ellwood Mesa,” Van der Heide said.

One of the Fish and Wildlife employees whistled. “That’s crazy,” he said. “Two years ago, there were literally thousands.”

As the kids started down the path, Van der Heide’s Ventura counterpart lingered with us to talk about her cadre of volunteers, who were finding so few butterflies that their work took almost no time. To keep them engaged, she kept sending them to reconfirm what they’d seen, or rather what they hadn’t. “I feel like I should do something,” she said as she took off after her group. “But I don’t know what to do.”

Five

I was struck by the strangeness of the assignment I’d made for myself: I’d come to observe an absence, to look at the lack of what used to be. In Pismo Beach, another count site, people described the nadir of 2018 in anguished terms. “It was like, uh-oh, where are they?” count coordinator Jessica Griffiths recalled. Sites that had hosted thousands of monarchs the year before had only a few hundred, or a few dozen. So far in 2019, Griffiths had seen more than she did the year prior, but nothing approaching what, until recently, she’d considered normal. “I’m surfing the line between relieved and bummed,” she told me.

As we spoke, we walked a serpentine path through a eucalyptus grove where she had seen a cluster of monarchs two weeks earlier. Now all we found were pairs of wings, left behind by whatever had eaten their owners. None of the wings had tags. None of them had flown here from a makeshift nursery in Oregon.

I did see a tag in another part of Pismo Beach, on a tree blanketed with more than 1,000 butterflies, a big cluster by California’s new standards of scarcity. I was visiting the city’s monarch sanctuary, a tiny park in the dunes where tourists stroll around a viewing area smaller than a city block, sturdy fences separating them from the trees. My guide at the site, a California State Parks employee, beckoned me under a barrier to see the monarchs huddled on the leeward side of a cypress tree.

I willed myself to feel wonder and failed. I couldn’t help but compare what I saw before me with the images I’d seen in photographs, of the same site shrouded in more than 100,000 butterflies. It’s the abundance—the mysterious gathering of monarchs that flew hundreds of miles alone—that makes the migration astounding. One butterfly can make your breath catch; a roost of 100,000 can transport you into a dream. For me the diminished cluster did neither. The monarchs looked drab and windblown. They reminded me of a tattered piece of cloth torn from a quilt, a sign of the undamaged thing that should have been.      

Then I saw a flash of orange too bright to be natural. I squinted and found it again, a neon spot on a wing at the heart of the cluster. I shouted for the State Parks employee. “Look, I found a tag,” I said, too excited to care that I was being pushy. My heart was suddenly beating very fast. “I’m pretty sure it’s a tag.” We took turns pressing an eye to the lens of a scope, struggling to find the right butterfly. When we did, neither of us could make out the minuscule numbers that would tell us where the monarch had come from—who had tagged it and sent it on its way.

It started to rain, first a few drops, then harder. The wind picked up, ruffling the branches so that the monarch swayed in and out of the scope’s view. My guide warned me that we didn’t have much time; the equipment could be damaged if it got too wet. I wanted to stay. I told myself I would stand there as long as it took—never mind the equipment, or interviews, or getting soaked. I felt a wild excitement at the chance to be part of something, to finish what whoever had tagged the butterfly started, to add a data point to the store of common knowledge. I wanted this creature, which had worked so hard to sustain a dying migration, to accomplish something more than its own survival.

Eventually, we made out most of the number, through the zoom lens of a camera. We climbed into a State Parks truck, wet and shivering. Back at her office, my guide checked the tag’s digits and discovered that the butterfly had already been sighted a few weeks before. So much for my contribution.

Sitting in my rental car with the heat on blast, I asked myself why I had crossed the country, trailing my invisible cloud of carbon emissions. For a moment, I’d been sure that my presence mattered—that I’d landed in the right place at the right time. As my sense of significance ebbed, I thought of Emma Pelton, urging me to think about western monarchs as a whole population, not to fixate on particular butterflies. Was there a corollary, one having to do with accepting that my individual impact might be beyond my reckoning or take place outside my view?

I had assumed that monarch advocates found motivation in seeing the imprint of their efforts, but that turned out not to be entirely true. During our time together, Van der Heide brought up her anxieties about climate change, her uncertainty about the world her young children would live in as adults. I asked if devoting her days to butterfly conservation made her feel that, in some way, she was helping stave off that dark future. Not really, she replied. “I feel like I’m at the tail end of something amazing,” she said of the monarchs’ migration to California. “I feel like I’m recording the end of something, and in twenty years people won’t even know that there used to be monarchs here.” 

Volunteers count monarchs at sites along California’s central coast.

When the Xerces Society tallied the final numbers, it found that the 2019 monarch count had barely improved from the year before. Volunteers had seen 29,418 butterflies, still below the estimated extinction threshold of 30,000. When I spoke with Pelton, she told me that she and her colleagues were focused on figuring out where monarchs go if they are indeed leaving their winter roosts early, and how to get milkweed and nectar plants into the ground in those places. The size of each year’s first generation of monarchs matters exponentially for the number of butterflies that will set off on the migration come fall.

A familiar monarch might have been among those that emerged from the roosts. In late fall, a researcher in Santa Cruz spotted a monarch with a white sticker—a Washington State University tag—on its wing. It was perched on a twig of a Monterey cypress tree. The serial number indicated that the butterfly had flown roughly 500 miles, all the way from Bend, Oregon. It was Flamingo—he’d survived the migration.

Egertson indulged in a moment of pure joy when she heard the news, jumping up and down in her office. “For me, that was one of the most profound experiences,” she said. She compared the feeling to giving birth to her children, or to the rush that comes from doing things that scare her. “If this tiny creature that weighs no more than a paperclip can fly from Bend to Santa Cruz, then I most certainly can do whatever it is that I’m facing,” she told me. Recently, she’d been trying to overcome a lifelong fear of public speaking. She agreed to address a room of 500 people about monarch conservation. To get through it, she made hundreds of pairs of antennae and asked the audience members to wear them. She told me it was the hardest thing she’d ever done.

By February, 22 of Ovaltine’s descendants had been sighted in California. Holly Beyer, in whose yard all this began, hoped that the number of survivors was evidence that hand-rearing doesn’t necessarily produce monarchs with diminished navigation instincts. For Pelton, the news didn’t allay her concerns. If the monarchs raised in Brookings were genetically inferior, and enough of them survived the winter to pass their weaker traits to a new generation, that could make matters worse for the species in the long run. What looked on its face like a small success could pose a danger to the entire monarch population out west.

For the time being, Egertson was avoiding the controversy, devoting her energy instead to interventions she felt sure about. When we spoke, she’d recently placed an order for thousands of native flowers and plants, including milkweed, to brighten her land trust. She described with relish the exhaustion that descends during a day of hard work outside. “I love that feeling,” she told me. “When your back is sore, and you’re looking at an old roadbed that has now come to life as a meadow. It feels really good.”

Six

By the time I sat down to write this story, the world was facing a faster-moving disaster than the monarchs’ decline. People everywhere were sheltering in their homes to avoid catching the novel coronavirus or spreading it to anyone else. Some environmentalists saw cause for hope in the speed with which ordinary people took action and in the vivid illustrations of our interdependence across the planet. The question seemed to be whether we would succeed in maintaining a sense of urgency once the present danger had passed.

The response to the COVID-19 crisis suggests that we are capable of the kind of collective action that could slow the advance of climate change and repair other forms of ecological devastation. But it also illustrates the limits of what we can do as long as our leaders keep denying reality—as do most politicians, on both sides of the aisle, when it comes to the enormity of the environmental catastrophe before us. Without political action and economic reforms, the world will keep growing warmer, until monarch butterflies, like so much else, disappear for good.  

Karen Oberhauser has provided input for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as it considers whether to list the monarch as a threatened species, which would expand the regulatory protections and funding sources available for its conservation under the Endangered Species Act. A decision, now several years in the making, is expected by the end of 2020. “We can try to get as many people as possible doing things that will support monarch conservation, but I believe, in the long run, it’s going to take regulation,” Oberhauser told me. She wouldn’t share her opinion on the specific matter before the government, but she talked about reversing the fortunes of monarchs by limiting herbicide and insecticide use and by paying farmers to devote parcels of land to conservation instead of agriculture. Meanwhile, the Xerces Society has helped at least 30 local governments pass policies protecting insects from neonics and other pesticides—a modest start, but perhaps a model for the future.  

As long as the coronavirus traps us at home, the only environmental actions within reach for most people may be the smallest ones. In March, I got a message from an ecologist via an email list of monarch enthusiasts. “We appear to have entered a new era of uncertain duration,” Chip Taylor wrote of the lockdowns beginning in many U.S. states. “Yet, we must carry on with monarch conservation—somehow.” He urged everyone to order flats of milkweed and flowers.

“Gardening gets you out of the house,” he wrote. “Social distancing and quarantines will ground many of us, confining us to our properties yet giving us time to garden for monarchs.” I forwarded the email to my in-laws, who were hunkered down on their hilltop, and called local hardware stores to find flower seeds that I could plant in pots on my fire escape.

I knew that I could faithfully water my flowers and still the summer could pass without a single monarch finding them. Maybe, if that happened, I would once again feel like I had done nothing. But it felt like doing something to cover my face with the cloth mask a friend had made me and walk to the store in a light April drizzle. Maybe, like Egertson, I had looked to the monarchs for courage—a sense of steadiness that would permit me to act without knowing whether what I did would matter, or how.

I bought seeds to grow dusky purple lavender, mauve coneflowers with glaring red eyes, and pom-pom-shaped Lilliput zinnias in orange, yellow, and pink. And even though the packet said they would take at least a year to bloom, I bought the seeds for orange glory. At home, in the closet, I had a stack of clay pots. I would fill them with soil as soon as the weather turned.

Maybe I had looked to the monarchs for courage—a sense of steadiness that would permit me to act without knowing whether what I did would matter, or how.

How long did Flamingo live? There were no sightings to tell us that he made it through the winter. If he survived long enough to find a mate, the female butterfly would have had to locate milkweed on which to lay her eggs. As I write this in early May, it’s possible that Flamingo’s descendants are retracing the path of his migration, fanning north and east in successive generations. If they are sufficiently numerous, maybe a few will survive to reach Oregon.

I’m still chasing a sense of satisfaction in the small things I can do. It feels like the only way to face the possibility of their futility. In California, I tried to find pleasure in wending through forests, scanning patches of sky for flying monarchs, even as I braced myself to see empty blue. I noticed myself getting better at looking for butterflies. At Ellwood Mesa, I’d struggled to pick them out of the gloom, but in the groves of Santa Cruz—my last stop, like Flamingo’s—my eyes went right to them. At the very least, I was learning how to bear better witness. And what I saw was not entirely absence.

I didn’t see Flamingo, but I did see a cluster of perhaps 2,500 monarchs on a towering cypress tree. I was in a field near Lighthouse State Beach, and the air smelled of salt and rang with the cries of seagulls. At first the tree was in shadow, and every monarch sat folded. But then a cloud moved. When sunlight slanted across the upper branches, the monarchs opened their dazzling wings one by one. They blazed like little lanterns. I watched one drift up into the sky, weightless, and I felt it: the joy of living on this damaged planet, and a will to witness whatever comes next.


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