This is a tale of inspiration and hope, of compassion and community. It is a tale of wings, brilliant and fiery—monarch wings taking flight.
It all began in Brookings, Oregon.
Located near the California border, Brookings would be the southernmost town on the Oregon coast were it not for a smaller neighbor, Harbor. Brookings’ population of roughly 6300 citizens enjoy more sun than any other coastal town in Oregon, giving it a banana-belt’ish reputation. This is the place the husband took me for birthday get-aways when we lived in Jacksonville, Oregon. The sunnier, warmer days of Brookings were a glorious retreat from the mid-December chill of the Rogue Valley in Southern Oregon.
In May 2017, Brookings was recognized as the first Monarch City USA in Oregon.
One Curious Summer Day in Brookings
On one morning early in July, Holly Beyer, cuppa joe in hand, stepped out onto her deck to soak in the dazzling sun. As the brilliant rays streamed through her garden indulging her senses with a palette of nature’s best splashes of colors and aromas, Holly’s eye caught something she hadn’t yet seen this year. Orange wings. Sure enough, it was a monarch butterfly, the first of the year.
That bright Brookings morning, Holly, already enthusiastic about seeing the first monarch, had no idea that she was witnessing the dawning of an event that I can call nothing short of miraculous.
Curiously, Holly noticed this particular monarch, a female, flying around the milkweed starts she germinated early spring. Much to Holly’s delight, this female began laying eggs! Understanding that intervention was necessary, Holly dashed inside, grabbed a container and scissors, dashed back out, and proceeded to snip off the leaves with eggs. By the end of the day, there were nearly 50 eggs to rear. Holly, a member of Brookings Oregon Monarch Advocates (BOMA), called her friend and fellow Monarchampion Dennis, and asked him to come over, because she had some eggs.
How it All Began – Three Years Earlier
Holly met Dennis in 2016 and was inspired by his stories of raising monarchs. She jumped in with both feet and hands joining BOMA, purchasing milkweed and nectar plants, and ultimately earning her monarch waystation certification and plaque. She was on her way to being a full-fledged
I visited Vicki’s (a BOMA founder) house on Father’s Day that year and as we came outside she saw a monarch flying above my head, so we followed her to the milkweed patch and watched her lay eggs. Vicki gave me my very first egg to raise, told me the how-to’s, and off I was. I was intrigued by this caterpillar who I named Henri until we found out Henri was Henrietta! We had a releasing party on my deck and that was the beginning.
The following year, one monarch returned to Holly’s organic waystation and laid about 27 eggs throughout her milkweed patch. She wondered if this was a great-great-great grandchild of Henrietta.
Back to the Present, Holly, Dennis, and Ms. O
Thus arrives this busy female, Ovaltine (Ms. O), a playful name offered by Dennis; ‘ova’ signifying this little lady’s incredible fertility. Brimming with questions, Holly reached out to the Pacific Northwest (PNW) butterfly specialist, Dr. David James, Washington State University entomologist and author of over 170 scientific papers and a book on the life histories of PNW butterflies that was lauded by my favorite naturalist, David Attenborough. Holly asked Dr. James if it was possible that Ms. O is a relative of Henrietta.
He told me it wasn’t too far-fetched, they do leave a scent in your yard that lasts several years.
Holly wistfully added, “If only we could do DNA testing.”
The next day, July 3, Dennis came over. Guess who joined their little party? Ms. O returned to lay some more eggs. Holly and Dennis were giddy with the joy of this spectacular natural world phenomenon literally unfolding in front of them. Dennis took home about 50 eggs to captive rear.
Over the course of two weeks ending July 13 and with only two non-laying days due to inclement weather, Ovaltine deposited 588 eggs on Holly’s milkweed plants. A female monarch lays between 300-500 eggs, making Ms. O a true record-breaker.
By this point, Holly was inundated, overwhelmed with the urgency of rescuing hundreds and hundreds of eggs. She did the one vital thing that any wise conservationist would do in this instance, she reached out to her community.
I put out an email to Vicki that we needed help! Vicki contacted Tom Landis (co-founder of SOMA and Ph.D. Forest Ecology), and the Ovaltine train began.
Several hundred eggs were dispersed beyond Brookings. By this point in the summer, local monarch enthusiasts were growing increasingly discouraged, because only a handful of monarchs had been spotted in the entirety of the Pacific Northwest. Upon learning about Holly’s situation, there were many eager and willing citizen conservationists to help
A Rare Phenomenon
Experts call Ovaltine’s behavior egg-dumping, a rare phenomenon with little scientific explanation. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes little sense for a female to drop all her babies off in one place given the ease of predation. One predator could wipe out the entire lot. According to Monarch Butterflies in the Pacific Northwest, natural mortality rates for developing monarch larvae are usually greater than 95%. With a 5% survival rate, only 29 of those eggs would have potentially made it to adulthood. I’ve heard the survival rate could be as low as 1-3% in the wild and that’s with females reducing the risk by spreading the eggs across an area of greater geographic diversity, not all at one place. Furthermore, dropping her eggs in one location lends itself to a dearth of food for the caterpillars, who are voracious eaters.
So, what would prompt a female monarch to put all her eggs in one proverbial milkweed basket?
My nonscientific theory is that given the dangerously low numbers of western monarchs due to decreased habitat, pesticides, and a negligible amount of milkweed available for the caterpillars, that these females are adapting their behaviors to lay where they find milkweed. It’s a “home is where you hang your hat” situation.
Let me explain. When I volunteered at Natural Bridges State Beach in Santa Cruz, California, I was taught that a female will die flying looking for milkweed. That’s 300-500 eggs lost. Zero chance at all of becoming adult butterflies. With egg-dumping, despite the females risking predation putting all their babies in one place, that behavior still minimizes the risk that results from not laying any eggs at all.
Dr. James validates this theory. Except for a few waystations like those of Holly and Dennis, he shared how milkweed is a rare commodity in Brookings. Even upon finding Holly’s waystation, he believes Ovaltine likely spent some time scoping out the area within a mile or two before settling on Holly’s milkweed oasis.
Ovaltine had probably flown some distance over forests etc. without finding milkweed, so once she did, she stayed. She ‘knew’ milkweed was a rare commodity on this landscape and adjusted her egg laying accordingly.
Milkweed is not only a rare commodity in Brookings. Dr. Landis added,
…several comprehensive studies of the western monarch situation have been done in the last year and they are all pointing to problems with overwintering and the first generation of monarchs ability to find milkweed in the coastal mountains and interior valleys of California.
This Story Gets Wilder and Wilder
August, 2019, Robert Coffan, co-founder of Southern Oregon Monarch Advocates sent SOMA members an email describing Holly and Ovaltine’s situation. Like a cluster of monarchs on a cool winter day, this plot thickens. No one tells it as well as Robert, so here is his version:
It’s now August 8th and Dennis is out watering his tiny Waystation (as a sustainable water-conservationist, he lets his grass die off, but had to draw the line when it came to watering his 95-square-foot patch of milkweed and nectar plants). And in flutters a female monarch who proceeds to dump her eggs, and just won’t leave him alone. She is tagged. It is one of Ovaltine’s daughters! Dennis is ecstatic because he had helped to raise and release some of them with Holly and friends.
Other monarchs arrive in the next few days, some tagged and some not, and they proceed to just hammer Dennis’ postage stamp waystation. Dennis counts and collects the eggs, and like Holly, he collects hundreds of them.
Only days later Holly also gets another egg dump. These two Monarchists are overwhelmed with an influx of eggs. But what to do? Robert’s narrative continues.
Many monarch enthusiasts from the Brookings Oregon Monarch Advocates (BOMA) rallied, and helped to raise many of the eggs and caterpillars safely and responsibly. But the numbers continued to grow, and all realized that if citizens were going to help, they had to do it right.
An all-out alert was dispatched among the channels of citizen conservationists throughout much of Oregon.
A contingency from both SOMA and Monarch Advocates of Central Oregon (MACO) from Bend thanks to Amanda Egertson and family showed up in Brookings on Aug 17th to help. A plan was made to collectively orchestrate a safe, healthy, and documented rescue taking place in Brookings, the Rogue Valley, and Bend.
These monarch conservationists of Oregon rallied together making trips back and forth to Brookings picking up eggs and delivering milkweed. This is no easy journey. From the Rogue Valley, it’s about six hours roundtrip and farther for the other places mentioned. Everyone involved realized just how vital their roles were in this rescue operation. All year we’ve been hearing and reading about how the western monarch could be at the threshold of extinction. These folks all rose to the call of action and together adjusted their lives to help restore the failing and flailing western monarch population.
Is It Possible Ovaltine’s Story Can Get Any Better?
And it does.
It’s now September and Holly is dog and chrysalis sitting for Dennis. Side note: Only those who have reared butterflies understand the importance of getting a good chrysalis sitter!
On the 13th, Holly tags and releases one of Dennis’ newly eclosed butterflies. Nearly two weeks later, on September 25th, Holly ran home to feed her hungry bunch when she noticed a tagged female laying eggs on the milkweed that had been delivered from Medford. This milkweed, still in buckets, was specifically designated to feed hungry caterpillars.
Who is this new female laying eggs? Holly cornered her and got the tag number G0554.
I put out a query asking who the tag belonged to and no one answered. When I got back to Dennis’, I checked the butterflies I had released and low and behold, it was one I had tagged on September 13th. So this grandkid of Ms O, who by the way was supposed to migrate, decided to mate and lay another 200 eggs. Why she flew from Dennis’ house to mine [about 2-3 miles] we will never know, but Ms. G0554 followed me home to gift me more eggs.
More Help on the Way
Another SOS to BOMA and SOMA, and another three milkweed runs from Medford and one from Riley Creek School in Gold Beach ensued. This time only about 50 eggs were sent off to Medford and only three Brookings locals (Patsy Haggerty, Candice Michel, and Holly) mustered up the capacity to help; understanding that this had essentially become a full-time job for all folks involved. So Holly and the triage team are raising Ms. O’s great-grandcats (that’s a Hollyism).
Is it too late for this brood to migrate? Will they survive the journey at this late stage? Is migration simply being pushed to later in the fall? I recall having a fairly late October release in Jacksonville. But perhaps, given the more temperate climate, Ms. O’s great-grandcats will overwinter in Brookings? These questions can only be answered by time.
How Many Eggs?
Holly’s total count this year from her monarch waystation is 3282 eggs – many the offspring, some great-grandchildren, from one busy female, Ovaltine. According to Robert Coffan (SOMA), as of the publishing of this post, the near-final count for just a few locations in Brookings is roughly 4800 eggs!
Robert told me they are collecting data that will be aggregated in a full report. We’ll have the final tallies of how many eggs survived to adulthood. I’ll be sure to update this post with the link when it becomes available.
In the greater scheme of things, how is it that Holly was chosen to be the one to receive this abundance of monarch activity? Was it merely because she planted a monarch waystation or is there something greater at work?
Just a small handful of monarchs were spotted in Pacific Northwest this season, and according to Holly, Brookings was ground zero.
There are some who think with the climate changing and the destruction of habitat thus impacting California’s overwintering areas that Brookings could be the next place in several decades. My crazy brain says Ovaltine was sent out as a scout to find the next place and my wooded ½-acre was it. Even David James came down and as he walked my property said my spot was ideal! Time will tell!
She believes it all started with Henrietta. Now Holly is already preparing five new beds in her garden with milkweed and meadow pollinator seeds, the latter to provide some forage in case Ms. O’s great-grandcats decide to overwinter in Brookings.
Tossing Around the Numbers
Four thousand eight hundred eggs. In one small town, 4800 eggs were collected.
I worked some mathematical wizardry using my handy-dandy computer calculator to see how these numbers may impact future western monarch generations. Disclaimer: This information may only be mildly accurate keeping in mind the following factors:
- With captive rearing, one could expect a roughly 40-55% survival rate of eggs to adult butterfly. I applied a conservative estimate, 40%.
- I assume 50% of all broods are females.
- I assume each of those females laid an average of 300 eggs (lowball number).
- The metamorphosis of eggs to adults in the wild has 1-5% survival rate. I took a conservative path of 1%.
- From the PNW full circle to the California overwintering sites and back is about six generations of monarchs including the overwintering super generation which can live up to nine months. Generally, the first generation begins after overwintering, but for this example, I consider Ovaltine’s first brood the 1st generation.
Looking at the table, it’s possible that Ms. O’s progeny could result in 14,880 adult butterflies returning to the Pacific Northwest. If this is the case, and since they may return to where their heritage began, Brookings is going to be a very busy place next year!
Dr. Tom Landis is calling this event the Brookings Effect named after this coastal town’s weather phenomenon. Could it also be the Brookings Butterfly Effect like how a small change (a waystation where there was once a yard) in one place or circumstance can result in a large and lasting outcome (thousands of monarchs)?
Sharing the sentiments of Robert Coffan, this Brookings Effect is unprecedented—for the remarkable number of eggs deposited and for the well-coordinated outreach that lead to an outpouring of enthusiastic and dedicated humans who swooped in to rescue the eggs.
What will happen next? Stay tuned, because as the overwintering numbers unfold, we’ll have a better picture. I’ll post updates, but you can also join two Facebook groups to follow this story: Monarch butterflies in the Pacific Northwest and Western Monarch Advocates.
And Yet Even More Good News
According to Dr. James, the number of monarchs recorded during the 2018 Thanksgiving count at overwintering colonies in California was 28,429. That is not the good news part. This is the kind of number that wrenches the hearts of all those who adore the western monarch.
Considering the 2018 western monarch numbers showed a precipitous decline to 28,429 from 148,000 in 2017 and those numbers are down from nearly a million in the late 1990s, the Brookings egg-dumping and ensuing conservation efforts have not only been vital but are also promising. The eggs from this one town could feasibly result in 4410 of the 2019 adult overwintering butterflies, which in turn could result in another roughly 7,400 returning females to Brookings summer of 2020. Overall, given predation, diseases, and habitat loss, it’s a slow climb back up to stable numbers, but now I have a restored hope that the survival of the western monarch is possible.
Dr. James shared (here is the good news),
This year already, signs are promising for an improvement on [last year’s overwintering] numbers. There are already ~2000 monarchs roosting in Santa Cruz which is a decent number for mid-October.
A Community to the Rescue
While captive rearing may not be the ideal conservation approach for monarch butterflies, this year’s situation in Brookings called for out-of-the-box strategies.
In a flurry of activity and coordinated efforts, dozens of citizen conservationists extending from Brookings to Northern California to throughout the rest of Oregon including Elkton, the entire Rogue Valley, Bend, Salem, Portland, and Corvallis joined together to rear these eggs and share milkweed for one common cause: saving this iconic beloved winged beauty, the monarch butterfly.
Monarch butterflies know no political, racial, or religious boundaries. They are simply a species trying to survive despite immense, human-caused obstacles. The people of Oregon (and Northern California) who helped this summer, in any capacity, deserve a standing ovation (seriously, unintended pun). Without this community effort, thousands of monarch eggs would have perished.
In Part II of this post, I am thrilled to share some captivating stories of foster parents who helped raise Ms. O’s progeny. Already, some of Ovaltine’s offspring have been recovered (spotted) in California overwintering sites—hundreds of miles from their release sites! Californians, keep your eyes open for tagged monarchs! Alert the below Facebook pages when you see one.
PLUS I was gifted an outstanding surprise. Stay tuned for the next post. Positive things are happening. Oregon’s Great Monarch Rescue Operation continues and Ovaltine’s legacy carries on.
Check out Dr. James’ Facebook page, Monarch butterflies in the Pacific Northwest and SOMA’s page, Western Monarch Advocates to learn more! You can also sign up to be a part of the first-ever Western Monarch Summit in Pacific Grove this coming January10-12, 2020. This is a must-attend event for anyone and everyone who is passionate about protecting our precious western monarchs.
“On the wings of monarchs, shall our journey begin.”
~ Holly Beyer, Monarchist and Cattist
I’m sending out a big thank you to everyone mentioned in this blog post particularly Holly Beyer, David James, Robert Coffan, and Tom Landis. All were incredibly patient with my many questions and very generous with sharing knowledge.
Grazie mille tutti!