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Monday, March 18, 2019

Dispatches from the Butterfly Boom

This was supposed to be my year for monarchs.

I'd driven up north to Pismo Beach and Morro Bay this winter to see their migration.

But this year, there wasn't anything to see. The monarch population is down 80% or more.

What used to be millions of butterflies has been reduced down to thousands.

I didn't even see hundreds along the Central Coast. I barely saw a few stray individuals.

So my butterfly dreams were dashed—or so I thought.

And then after the wettest (or maybe second-wettest) winter seemed to draw to a close, a different butterfly came up to SoCal to visit from Mexico.



It looks like a smaller monarch, but it's actually the painted lady butterfly, heading all the way up the West Coast to Oregon (though some say they've seen them as far north as Alaska).

There are millions—or perhaps billions—of them making their way through Southern California.

They're not as picky as the monarchs are when it comes to feeding time. Pretty much all that's green and yellow and white and blooming and dripping with nectar will do just fine for these little ladies.

On Wednesday afternoon, I was stuck in stop-and-go traffic heading south on the 405, just past the 101 interchange, when I saw a mass migration of them literally crossing the freeway.

I don't know exactly where they were going, but it appeared to be westward—maybe towards the Pacific Ocean.

It was the one time I was glad that freeway traffic was just crawling, because I got to actually see them and enjoy them from behind my windshield.

And I didn't have to worry about any of them smacking into my windshield as I cruised at a steady 72 mph. They can handle car speeds of around 40 mph and actually catch the updraft—but anything faster than that, and they're toast.



We witnessed that this weekend driving along Borrego Springs Road through Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, rising up and over the Texas Dip, yellow pollen streaks splattered on the windshield and the front bumper.

First there was one painted lady caught in the car grill, still alive. We tried to free her, but I think we just made it worse.

Then there were two.

This is the reality of nature. Millions may be migrating, but none of them will make it the whole way.

Even if they survive the traffic, their adult lifespan ouy of the cocoon is just two to four weeks (not days, thank goodness!). They've got to mate and reproduce as much as possible along the way.

And when the caterpillars get their wings, they've got to continue the relay.

The sight is both heavenly and apocalyptic. It's an in-your-face display of nature that you don't often get to see. And when you hear stories about mass migrations of insects—plagues of grasshoppers, the cicada season—it sounds like a horror story.

But these butterflies are beautiful. And they go where the flowers are.

The sight of them together is quite moving.

It's heartbreaking, however, to know how doomed they are.

And then you wonder what the point of it all is.

Why go up to Oregon at all? Just for more food? What's the point of eating if you're going to die in two days?

Is it really just about the survival of the species?

Leave it to me to overthink something like this and not just enjoy the show.

When something so unusual happens, it's hard not to try to find meaning in it. Of course people throughout history have seen events like this as a sign from God.

For me, it's just another way that California keeps me guessing. Just when I think I get it and I've got the routine down, the game changes.

But frankly, I'm grateful for something so beautiful to chase (and document).

And I know their populations will be thinning out here pretty quickly, but the onslaught sure was nice while it lasted.

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