Following California's super bloom craze, painted lady butterflies reach Monterey County
Coinciding with the ever-popular super blooms across Southern California, the painted lady butterfly is migrating north from the U.S.-Mexico border en masse.
Monterey County has seen large swaths of them, scientifically known as Vanessa cardui, in the last two weeks.
"People are enthused about getting out there seeing nature," Laura Lee Lienk said. "Nature is bonking them on the head, saying ‘hey!’ with the beauty.”
As a California State University, Monterey Bay professor of natural science and head of the Return of the Natives ecological restoration and education program, Lienk said the painted ladies, plus the super bloom, get people outdoors.
But to be clear, painted ladies are not monarchs (Danaus plexippus) — the larger, slower and similarly transitory butterfly that travels from Mexico through the U.S. Monarch butterflies travel south in fall and their numbers have been declining dramatically in recent years.
With its world-renowned monarch habitat, Pacific Grove saw populations decline from 45,000 butterflies counted in 1997 to just 705 last November, according to data from the Xerces Society, a Portland-based nonprofit organization that does conservation of invertebrates and their habitats.
"They're not monarchs. People have been reading in the media they're nearing extinction in California," said Arthur Shapiro, evolution and ecology professor at the University of California, Davis. "Painted ladies have a much higher reproductive potential in California."
The painted ladies are programmed to migrate north in mid-March, zooming out of different areas in the desert, Shapiro said. On his UC Davis butterfly website, he notes they can make it from Bishop to Davis in just three days.
Those migrations occur each year, only more conspicuously with fewer butterflies. Evidenced by this year's desert super blooms, there is more vegetation for them to consume with more rain.
This leads to more caterpillars who then migrate up to the Pacific Northwest and beyond. They tend to fly parallel to the Sierra Nevada, on both sides and can follow patterns along the Pacific Coast, like Monterey County, as populations expand.
They vary by region and travel, too. Those northbound are small and pale, whereas those traveling southbound later this summer tend to be larger and richly colored.
The last big migration, Shapiro said, was back in 2005, one of the wettest years for California deserts. On his butterfly website, Shapiro says Sacramento recorded painted ladies in one's field of vision three per second at the height of that last migration.
While noting she took an unscientific approach, Lienk said she counted about 28 per minute on March 30 while hiking at the Fort Ord National Monument between Monterey and Salinas.
She also said seeing local wildflowers at Toro Regional Park, Fort Ord and Pinnacles National Park are great experiences, but these natural feats can also be seen along local roads.
"You don't even have to go for a hike, but you can see them with our wildflowers," Lienk said, adding butterflies act as pollinators, too. "It's all connected."
Painted ladies tend to go anywhere not wooded, which can include vacant lots, agricultural fields or any place that doesn't have an obstacle for their moving, Shapiro added. Painted ladies consume lots of weeds, too, including star thistle and borage herb.
But row crops are normally not impacted by them, so Shapiro says lettuce growers shouldn't be worried.
A plus side, though, is that they eat many of the weeds that can be harmful to produce; however, this is only for a few weeks when they're around. Growers and pesticide reform advocates shouldn't count them as a surefire weedkiller.
Matthew Shepherd, director of communications and outreach for the Xerces Society, pointed to efforts farmers are making to create butterfly habitats, incorporating them into ditches, riparian zones, and roadsides.
Still, he added they are a resilient butterfly species, living on most continents.
Breeding as they go, Shapiro said he just saw another group of painted ladies in Davis after a few days of large migration. Shepherd's organization in Portland is hoping to see painted ladies any day now.
"They’re a remarkable butterfly," Shepherd said. "People should just sit down and enjoy it. Too often, we get wrapped up in the horror stories and tragedy."
In late summer, they will return south from their northward migration.
Depending on their flight path, their offspring could be seen in Monterey County. There's no telling when another migration could come back.
Shapiro said, "Shoot a video, you'll enjoy looking at it later. That's my recommendation."