The Butterfly 'Apocalypse' May Not Be Upon Us After All

After monarchs' migration numbers plummeted drastically last year, we may be seeing a 'comeback'
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 22, 2021 11:41 AM CST
After a Distressing 2020, 'the Butterflies Are Back'
Stock photo of a monarch butterfly.   (Getty Images/Jeff Stefan)

California's Pacific Grove Monarch Sanctuary didn't have a single sighting of its namesake black-and-orange butterfly last year, so no one knew what to expect for this year's migration. The pleasant surprise, per SFGate: "The butterflies are back in town." More than 13,700 of them, per the sanctuary's count as of Saturday, with the peak of the overwintering season—which runs from October through March—not even set to hit for several more weeks. The Guardian notes this year's numbers might suggest the start of an overall "comeback" for the milkweed-loving insect after decades of population decline.

The butterflies typically head west from the Rocky Mountains each year to spend the winter along the Pacific coast; on the other side of the country, meanwhile, butterflies from the East Coast and Canada head to Mexico before the cold weather hits. The population decline over the years has been significant: For example, between 4 million and 10 million butterflies spent the winter in the Golden State in the 1980s, though by the late '90s that figure fell to just over 1 million. By 2018, the butterflies numbered about 30,000, and last year, there were only about 2,000 seen across the entire California coast.

Researchers believe a variety of factors have led to the butterflies' population decline over the years, including climate change, use of pesticides, and habitat loss, which in California has been exacerbated by recent wildfires. Scientists say the public can help by planting milkweed (the butterflies lay their eggs on the plant, and their young feed on it); cutting down on pesticide use; and assisting in monitoring them. And it's not just California where scientists are recruiting amateur watchers: Sighting reports are also being requested in at least eight Southern and Gulf states, including Florida, so that researchers can gather info on how their breeding habits affect their migration, per the Tampa Bay Times.

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Still, even though last year's numbers were distressing, some experts say it may not be as dire as it seems, especially after seeing the bounce back this year. David James, an entomologist at Washington State University, notes to SFGate that the butterflies seem to be adaptable, based on a recent study he led, and that he's "confident" they'll avoid extinction. Xerces Society conservation biologist Emma Pelton agrees, telling the Guardian that even though "the insect apocalypse narrative ... can feel really dark, we can make a difference. There is still time to act." (More monarch butterflies stories.)

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