Peril of the Monarchs

20 years ago, tens of thousands of Monarch butterflies migrated through Malibu annually, in 2017 less than 100 were counted. With countless of Painted Lady butterflies currently passing through town, MALIBU MAGAZINE takes a look at what’s going on with the Monarchs.


Written by Barbara Burke

Last year, the City of Malibu joined 400 other municipal entities and announced that July 23, 2018 to July 23, 2019 would be the Year of the Monarch Butterfly, a species that graces Malibu with its presence as it migrates each year. For centuries, Monarchs have captivated people, as evidenced by the fact that European settlers were so awed by them that they named the species “Monarch” in honor of King William III.  

Unfortunately, Monarchs have experienced an extreme decline in recent decades, so much so, that in June 2019, officials will determine whether to place monarchs on the threatened species list. Monarch butterflies are a kind of milkweed butterfly known for their tiger-like orange-and-black stripes and their large wingspan. They are larger than the Painted Ladies that recently passed through Malibu as they migrated.

Work conducted by Dr. Lincoln Brower, a world-renowned expert in studying Monarch butterflies, and other scholars establishes that the Monarch is the only butterfly known to have a two-way migration pattern, similar to a bird’s. Each fall, millions of Monarchs migrate more than 3,000 miles south from the Canadian border, ending their journey on the California coast, including here in Malibu, or in Mexico’s fir forests, where they rest during a process called overwintering. Young Monarch hatchlings start their lives as Monarch caterpillars and at that stage in their development, they can only feed on milkweed plants.  In Spring, after they emerge as butterflies, they join migrating Monarchs returning north for the summer, and, on their way, they lay eggs on only milkweed plants, which unfortunately are declining due to habitat destruction and climate change.

Individual Monarch butterflies do not live through the whole migratory cycle. Instead, the migration is an intergenerational journey - the insects that are born on the route north live for approximately one month and their offspring may also just make a month-long step in the long journey. However, there is a special group of butterflies that live for 8 months and return to Canada. “If you’ve ever looked inside the brain of a butterfly, it’s about the size of a pinhead,” Brower said in a New York Times article in 1990. “And yet the minicomputer inside that pinhead has all the necessary information to get them to Mexico without having been there before.” Scientists still don’t understand how they do it, but a number of theories have emerged, including butterflies following the sun, leaving chemical markers, or recognizing certain landscapes.

An Alarming Decline in Monarch Populations

Although the Monarch’s marvelous migration is mesmerizing, the species’ recent history has been troubled.  According to the mayoral declaration, “Monarchs overwintering in coastal California have seen a 95% decrease since the 1980s, and while tens of thousands of Monarch butterflies typically overwintered in Malibu 20 years ago, fewer than 100 were counted in 2017.”

Scientists across North America warn that the Monarch butterfly species is in peril. Because the Monarch’s migration spans the United States, Mexico, and Canada, the mayoral pledge to act, as Malibu is participating in, expanded to these countries through new tri-national partnerships in 2017.


The California State Legislature has also recognized the Monarch’s threatened status by enacting Assembly Bill 2421 in September, 2018. The legislation aims to address the Monarch’s precarious condition. First, it recognizes that more than one-third of the most promising California winter habitat for Monarch butterflies is on privately-owned land. Second, it establishes a Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Rescue Program aimed at recovering and sustaining Monarch butterflies and other pollinators. Finally, it permits the State’s Wildlife Conservation Board to provide grants to private landowners, nonprofit organizations and public agencies to help achieve those efforts and allows the Board to provide grant recipients with technical assistance.  

In the enactment, the legislature said: “Experts estimate that the probability of extinction of migrating Monarch butterflies in the western United States is 72 percent over the next 20 years.” In June, the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service will determine whether to categorize the Monarch as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.

In January 2019, the Xerces Society released a call to action for addressing significant declines in the western Monarch population. The Society noted: “The California overwintering population has experienced a 99.4% decline since the 1980s, dropping from a population of 4.5 million (larger than the current population of Los Angeles) to a population of 28,429 as of January 2019 (smaller than the current population of Monterey). The Society noted: “It can be hard to wrap one’s mind around the scope of this decline. For every 160 monarch butterflies there were in the 1980s, there is only one left today. For a different sense of scale, the decline from 4.5 million to 28,429 monarchs is similar to the difference in size between Los Angeles and Monterey.”

What Went Wrong?

Monarch butterflies face a variety of threats, including loss of breeding and overwintering habitat, effects of climate change, pesticides, and disease, according to the state legislation.

Kian Schulman, RN, MSN, Director of Poison Free Malibu, an advocacy group fighting against the use of Monsanto’s Roundup and other pesticides to combat pests, explains that “The catastrophic decline of Monarch butterflies has been driven in large part by the widespread planting of genetically engineered crops in the Midwest, where most Monarchs hatch. The vast majority of genetically engineered crops are made to be resistant to Monsanto’s RoundUp, a potent killer of milkweed, the Monarch caterpillar’s only food source.” The dramatic surge in Roundup/glyphosate use and “Roundup Ready” crops has virtually wiped out milkweed plants in Midwestern corn and soybean fields, Schulman noted. It is estimated that in the past 20 years, these once-common butterflies may have lost more than 165 million acres of habitat — an area about the size of Texas — due to pesticides and loss of breeding grounds.”

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Pepperdine University Biology Professor Stephen Davis concurred with Poison Free Malibu’s analysis. “There’s a very solid study in the journal Ecography published in 2017 that links the decline in Monarchs with glyphosate use as well as climate change in agricultural areas of the Midwest,” He said.

Plans for the Future

Malibu Methodist Church is revamping its labyrinthian garden so that it will have milkweed plants that nurture the migratory butterflies. “Planting the milkweed garden can help to defend the Monarchs against extinction and that will help make for a better Malibu and a better world.” Pastor Sandy Liddell said.

Malibu resident, Suzanne Guldimann explained the project to Malibu Magazine. “This is a very special project for me.  One of my first feature assignments for the Malibu Surfside News back in 2007 was on labyrinths in Malibu,” Guldimann said. “The labyrinth garden has become a little overgrown, but it’s still beautiful. When the City of Malibu announced the Year of the Butterfly, I thought how perfect it would be for a butterfly garden,” Guldimann said. “I approached Patt Healy at the Malibu Monarch Project and Rev. Liddell at the Church and they were enthused about the project, which includes restoring the labyrinth, and adding milkweed and other nectar plants for the butterflies.”

Guldimann also noted “The garden at the church is already a flower-filled haven for birds, butterflies and anyone seeking peace and beauty. The goal is to enhance the existing labyrinth garden area with the milkweed that essential for the Monarch butterflies, and nectar plants for all pollinators.” The planting party for the new butterfly garden occurred on May 11.

The recent super blooms in Malibu also may help the Monarchs, according to Dr. Stephen Davis, a plant biology professor at Pepperdine University. “The large burn areas of the Woolsey fire have exceptional postfire super blooms resulting from exceptional rain this last winter,” Dr. Davis said. “There is an increased milkweed abundance due to the invasion of exotic milkweed, which is considered a “weed” in Southern California that supplement native milkweeds.”

That there are more milkweed plants in Malibu after the fire sounds positive and may lead people to wonder whether something good actually come out of the Woolsey Fire. Unfortunately, not all milkweed is created equal in the context of Monarchs surviving to adulthood. Entomologists continue to evaluate various milkweed species’ effect on Monarch butterflies’ ability to grow to adulthood.

Armed with local and state legislative bodies recognizing how pivotal it is for the Monarch butterflies to revive and thrive, many Malibuites are committed to ensuring that their habitats are restored. MM

Holly Bieler