The Time for Environmental Action is NOW!

The EFM Notebook

A Commentary on What’s New and Newsworthy

by Susan Holloway | Bio

NOTE: EFM Notebook is best viewed horizontally, when using your phone.                      EFM Notebook Index

The Disappearing Western Monarch: How Can You Help?

12 Jan 2021 9:54 AM | Gayle Marsh (Administrator)
  Monarch resting
on an Aster
Question: Bees, birds, bats, flies, moths, and butterflies…what do they have in common besides the ability to fly? 

Answer: They are all pollinators, and absolutely essential to the survival of plants throughout the world. 

In this post I focus on butterflies, particularly the Western Monarch. You may already know that the Western Monarch is on the brink of disappearing. The situation in Marin is particularly dire. An article in the Point Reyes Light recently reported on local efforts spearheaded by Mia Monroe and Morgan Patton to count the Monarchs at Marin overwintering sites: “So far this year, 150 monarchs were counted in Bolinas, five in Stinson Beach and two in Muir Beach.” In contrast, 22,253 Monarchs were counted in Bolinas, for example, in 2015.

Monroe and Patton cite a variety of general causes for the butterfly’s decline, including climate change, pesticide use and habitat loss. In Northern California, these environmental threats were compounded in the last two years by unusually hot and windy weather accompanied by massive wildfires. The result is a near total absence of Western Monarchs on our coast.

Alarming statistics  

The Life of a Female Monarch

To understand how to revive the Monarch it is a good idea to know something about the life cycle of these creatures. Let’s start with the birth of a baby Monarch (I know, that sounds like the first line of a BBC documentary on the royal family).

Summoning her energy, the female Monarch lays 300-500 eggs on the leaves of a milkweed plant, attaching each precious bundle to the leaf with a bit of glue she secretes. After anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks, the eggs hatch into larvae. The green and black striped babies eat milkweed and nothing else for about two weeks. Then they spin a chrysalis to protect themselves while they transform in a week or two into an adult butterfly.

Newly hatched Monarch larva Larva on a milkweed plant Adult emerging from chrysalis  


But the caterpillars aren’t just getting plump during their two weeks of munching on milkweed. In fact, the milkweed contains toxins that caterpillars are able to store in their bodies. These toxins render the adult butterflies poisonous to birds and other predators, who associate the distinctive orange and black color pattern with mortal danger and therefore leave the butterflies alone.


If adult Monarchs emerge in the spring or early summer, they disperse throughout the Western US to go through successive breeding generations. But if they’re born in the later summer or fall, they head toward warmer climes. Monarchs in the Western states generally migrate to the coast, while those east of the Rockies often fly all the way to Mexico to overwinter. For more information on this amazing journey, check out the website of the Xerces Society, an international nonprofit organization dedicated to pollinator conservation. 

How to Help the Western Monarch

  Everyone has
a role to play in supporting the Monarchs!

Activists nominated the Monarch to receive protection under the Endangered Species Act in 2020. The US Fish and Wildlife Service affirmed that protected status was warranted but did not take action at this time. However, there are a number of other national, state, and local groups dedicated to saving the Monarch. For example, the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies has established a Western Monarch Working Group to promote “unified, ecosystem-based management approaches at the landscape-level” to the protection of the Monarch. 

Individual citizens have an important role to play as well. In the Point Reyes Light article referenced above, Morgan Patton of the Environmental Action Committee of Marin (EAC) has noted that, “One of the most important things to emphasize is that individual actions for habitat support are just as important as large-scale habitat restoration. They are primarily migrating through private property, and the action people take in their own gardens has an impact.” 

Patton also emphasized the importance of making sure that we plant native species of milkweed (e.g., Asclepias fascicularis or Asclepias speciosa) and not tropical varieties (e.g., Ascelpias curassavica). Be careful because the tropical varieties can easily be found in garden centers. Also, if you live within five miles of the ocean you should not plant any milkweed at all. The presence of this plant in the "wrong" place throws off their reproductive and migratory activities.

If you want to learn more about the current status of the Western Monarch and what you can do to help, take a look at the EAC website. Or you can investigate the possibility of becoming a “Monarch Waystation” by planting milkweed, monitoring visitations, and reporting your observations to a portal that aggregates the data across all contributors. 

On the Somewhat Brighter Side: Other Butterflies in Marin

Compared to the plight of the Monarch, many species of butterfly are doing relatively well. Marin County is home to more than 70 butterfly species, and all of them would love to stop by your yard for a sip of nectar. 

Satyr Anglewing California Tortoiseshell

Coastal Green Hairstreak

Common Buckeye

The best plants for butterflies are California natives. Having evolved together, native plants can provide native butterflies the nectar they need to thrive and the leaves required by their larvae. Butterflies are picky about where they lay their eggs because, as we saw in the case of the Monarch, caterpillars can eat only certain plants. 


Another reason to look for native plants is that when non-natives travel across state boundaries they are treated with pesticides. These toxins persist as the plant grows and can be ingested by pollinators. 

We are lucky in the Bay Area to have many great sources of native plants, whether it be in the form of seeds (e.g. Larner Seeds in Bolinas) or plants (e.g., Bay Natives Nursery in San Francisco; Mostly Natives Nursery in Point Reyes Station). Another resource for native plants is the website of the Marin Chapter of the California Native Plant Society. And be sure to check out the beautiful and informative website of Home Ground Habitats, a native plant nursery and educational organization where volunteers propagate native plants for a variety of restoration projects. They also provide many plants for sale by the California Native Plant Society Marin Chapter, and for installation in local school gardens. 


Pipevine Swallowtail


What inspired me about Insight Garden Program was it was a safe place where I learned to meditate and discover my reconnection to nature and the gardens. This has allowed me to successfully transition to a stable job and be present with my family and community in a way that I never have before. I have a different way of being in the world and the space that I hold in it.

-Bilial Coleman, IGP graduate 

Within the Prison Gates: Environmental and Social Justice

It’s one thing to encourage privileged citizens of the Bay Area to establish pollinator gardens. But what about residents who do not have space to plant a garden, who may have had little opportunity to learn about horticulture, or who are living with pressing financial concerns?

In the course of my research for this post, I came across two inspiring programs that seek to support environmental as well as social and criminal justice for residents of marginalized communities in the Bay Area. 

In 2002, Beth Waitkus founded the Insight Garden Program (IGP) at San Quentin State Prison. Waitkus and her colleagues developed a curriculum focused on vocational gardening and landscaping training. In 2003, IGP built a 1,600 square foot native plant and flower garden in the prison yard. In addition to learning about horticulture, IGP participants learn strategies to reconnect to the self, the community, and the natural world. The IGP program calls this an “inner” and “outer” gardening approach. The IGP program is now being implemented in eleven prisons in California as well as in a number of other institutions throughout the US.

Planting Justice is another impressive local program focused on environmental, social, and criminal justice. Haleh Zandi and Gavin Raders co-founded the organization with four programs in mind: landscaping, education, grassroots fundraising and urban farming training. Their program draws on the permaculture model of sustainable design. 

Catchment system designed by Planting Justice staff  
Planting Justice has been collaborating with the Insight Gardening Program (IGP) since 2009, expanding the garden at San Quentin and participating in IGP’s education and training efforts. Planting Justice also employs teams of gardeners and landscapers – most of them formerly incarcerated people -- who plant edible permaculture gardens in the Bay Area, encouraging people to grow their own food. They can help home gardeners plan a garden, build a chicken coop, establish a beehive, or design a rainwater catchment system. 

Planting Justice also runs a large organic nursery in Oakland, with proceeds benefiting local communities and formerly incarcerated citizens. They are oriented toward mail order business, and their extensive stock is truly impressive, with many varieties of rare and heirloom plants. They are also developing a retail-oriented site in El Sobrante, where customers will be able to obtain high quality organic plants as well as support formerly incarcerated individuals’ successful transition to life in their community. 

That’s it for this installment of the EFM Notebook! Thanks to Christopher Jadallah for sharing his knowledge of pollinators, and for introducing me to the Insight Garden Program. 

As this post comes out, appalling political events are taking place across the country. Nevertheless, I continue to hope and believe that the incoming government will be far more proactive than the outgoing one on environmental issues. 

The events of the last years, months, and days have shown me how important it is to advocate for environmental and social justice. I am truly grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the EFM and for your interest in the Notebook.

Banner photo credit: Thanks to Rob Badger and Nita Winter for sharing Rob’s beautiful image. 

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