California Monarchs — Too Much Activism

Opinion by Kip Hansen  — 24 September 2022

The marvelous mysterious Monarch Butterfly has been getting too much of the wrong type of help in California.  Honestly, this does not surprise me, having been born, raised and educated there.   The state of California, whose state flag bears the words “California Republic”, has been slipping off the left edge of the political spectrum since the 1960s and like all things on slippery slopes, the state and its politics continue to slide, faster and faster,  affecting more and more areas of public and private life.

The latest little bit of madness there is a misguided effort to help the Western Monarch population by the banning the sale of tropical milkweed plants by several counties in the state.  Milkweed plants are an absolute necessity for Monarch butterflies to reproduce. 

The Western Monarch Migration (see down-page section on the Western Migration) has been seeing a very steep decline over the last couple of decades.  There are lots of theories as to the cause, from Global Warming through insecticides and onto the mowing of highway verges – including “all of the above”. 

The overwintering population was approaching  zero in the winter of 2020-2021 and then, in 2021-2022 skyrocketed with “an over 100-fold increase from the previous year’s total of less than 2,000 monarchs and the highest total since 2016” with the monarch census reporting over 250,000 monarchs in roosts along the California coastline. 

Truthfully, neither the sharp decline or the unbelievable (partial) recovery has been explained to anyone’s satisfaction.  It seems unreasonable that a population as small as 2,000 in the spring of 2021 could then produce the 250,000 overwintering Monarchs in a single season.  But that is precisely what appears to have happened.

Now we find ourselves — and the Monarchs find themselves — in the summer of 2022 with the environmental activists pitching in to help the California monarchs by banning the sale of tropical milkweeds by nurseries in Marin, Contra Costa, San Mateo and Ventura counties.  Why ban the sale of garden plants that monarchs need to reproduce? 

Because the California Department of Agriculture recategorized it as a noxious weed.  Of course, tropical milkweed is not a weed and it is not noxious.  There is something about the tropical milkweeds that is true however – it is a perennial.  That means it does not die off every winter but stays alive and re-greens and blooms the next year, especially in warmer climates like California and the American South.  And, because it does not die off, it is possible for these prettier varieties to “host to a protozoan parasite of monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) called Ophryocistis electroscirha (OE), which are carried on adult monarchs as they migrate. The dormant OE spores are then deposited on the leaves of the tropical milkweed and infect caterpillars that eat the plant. CDFA (California Department of Food and Agriculture) said that OE infections have been linked to lower migration success, reduction in body mass, lifespan, mating success, and flight ability.” [ source ]  

It is not that there is anything special about the tropical milkweeds that is different than the native milkweeds in regards to hosting the protozoan parasites…except that when native milkweed’s tops (above ground portion of the plant) die at the end of the season, the parasites on them die and the next year’s crop of native milkweeds that come up from seed or rhizomes start out not infected – though they soon become so, whereas the tropicals, in mild climates, continue to grow through the warmer winters hosting the protozoans continuously.

Tropical Milkweeds

So the whole banning of these beautiful tropical milkweeds and distributing native milkweeds to take their place is based on that little months-long lag. 

What do the entomologists (as distinguished from activists) say?  :

“Arthur Shapiro, a UC Davis professor who has studied monarch butterflies for the past six decades, described the rationale behind the bans as “hogwash.”


“Hugh Dingle, a retired University of California at Davis entomology professor who has studied monarch butterfly migration for more than two decades, said the bans are “basically a wasted effort” and that the focus should be on larger threats such as pesticide and herbicide use. All species of milkweed carry parasites that can affect monarch populations, Dingle said.

“Planting milkweed of any kind in your garden — tropical or native — there’s unlikely to be enough of it to do any good, but it’s not going to do any harm,” Dingle said. “If you like monarchs in your garden, go ahead and plant it. I didn’t want the information on tropical milkweed to cause the ladies of Marin (county) to go running out to their gardens and dig out all of their tropical milkweed because it’s supposedly bad for butterflies. It’s not.”

One more:

“David James, an associate entomology professor at Washington State University who has studied monarch butterfly breeding and migration in the [San Francisco] Bay Area, said there is a case to be made about the tropical milkweed as being a vital resource for the monarchs in a changing climate.

“The Monarch is adapting to our warming climate and in doing so a proportion of the population is now spending winters breeding in urban near-coastal California,” James wrote in an email. “And what host plants are there? Some limited native milkweeds but a whole bunch of tropical milkweed! Taking tropical milkweed away will just make it harder for the population to survive.” [ source for all quotes above ]

Say what?  California’s entomologists quoted all disagree with the ban and at least one says the ban will have negative, not positive, effects.  So where did the idea come from?

It comes from the Xerces Society, “Protecting the natural world through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitats.” Which supplied their expert’s opinion:

“Stephanie Frischie, an agronomist and native plant specialist with the Xerces Society, said there are many purported causes for the decline in monarch butterfly populations. The buildup of pathogens on the tropical milkweed during the winter months is one of these pressures, which can be prevented by having residents plant the readily available native milkweed.

“There is really no single cause and therefore there is no silver bullet to solving monarch decline,” Frischie said. “Where we are right now with current research, there are concerns with tropical milkweed with disease and interrupting migratory behavior. In general, as a conservation organization, we support native plants in their native ranges as habitat for invertebrates.”

The Xerces Society’s concerns have won out in the political battle over the more scientifically-based opinions of monarch-specific experts from academia. 

Will it make a difference?  Will it improve the lot of the Western Migration of Monarchs?  Will it harm the migrating population?  No one really knows.  No one knows because they do not know what — if anything specific — is causing the shifts in that particular segment of the overall population of Western Monarchs. 

“The overall population of Western Monarchs?” you might ask.  Yes, you see, not all the Monarchs living west of the Rocky Mountains migrate to the coast and overwinter in collective roosts.   Many, and no one knows how many monarchs we are talking about, migrate to the urban and suburban neighborhoods along the coast of southern California, continuing to live, breed, and die in their normal pattern and not entering a period of  reproductive diapause or forming collective roosts, like their “migrating and overwintering” fellows. 

The environmental entomological activists are not trying to save the Western Monarchs, they are trying to save the behavior, the phenomenon,  known as the Western Monarch Migration.  To the left of the word SUMMER we see the western migration as red and yellow arrows.  You can see that some migrate to the same areas in Mexico as the Eastern Monarchs.  Others, from the deserts of southern California and western Arizona migrate to and from the southern-most coasts of California and do not form overwintering roosts at all.  According to David James (quoted above) some may even just move to coastal Marin County for the winter and carry on living and breeding. 

It is mostly those flying down from eastern Washington, eastern Oregon , northern and central California  and the western slopes of the Rocky Mountains that form overwintering roosts along the coasts of California, north of Ventura.

It is a matter of opinion as to whether or not the Western Migration is something that must be saved, that must be prevented from disappearing. There is not now, nor has there been in the past, any danger of the Monarchs west of the Rockies going extinct.  The only real possibility is that they will cease that particular behavior. 

Bottom Lines:

1.  Monarch Butterflies are found in many parts of the world and it is extremely unlikely that they will go extinct.  

2.  The Monarchs west of the Rockies in the United States are going strong but many of them have ceased the pattern of winter diapause and associated roosting – the phenomenon called the Western Monarch Migration. 

3.  It is extremely unlikely that the population of monarchs west of the Rockies will go extinct but rather highly possible that the general population will continue to occupy suitable niches in urban and suburban coastal California during the mild California winters and then disperse out into the rest of their western range each Spring, foregoing the diapause stage.

4.  Efforts by activist groups to force their human preferences on the Monarchs are not likely to be successful particularly because we do not understand the causes of the changes we are seeing.

5.  Finally, the banning of tropical milkweeds is not only unnecessary, but is likely to have the opposite of intended effect, harming the Monarch population instead of helping it. 

# # # # #

Author’s Comment:

Like many other interventions in the past, taking action before understanding the causes of what seem to be undesirable changes in some part of the natural world, this intervention will either fail to improve things or will actually make some things worse.  We never seem to learn this lesson.

And while the Xerces Society’s recommendation on this topic was undoubtedly been made in good faith, the California policy setters should have listened to a wider variety of experts from their own universities, those that have studied this particular species, in this particular area and have concerned themselves with this particular phenomenon for decades before recommending any action. 

Even time will not tell in this case.   There are far too many variables to be able to determine success or failure of this odd little decreed interference in the natural order.

In the end, I ask that you be a Butterfly Friend.  Plant butterfly friendly flower gardens, plant milkweeds — yes, preferably but not exclusively, native milkweeds, though even this recommendation depends on where you live — and participate in public meeting that advise state and county road maintenance crews to leave stands of roadside milkweed rather than mowing them. 

Thanks for reading.

# # # # #

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Steve Case
September 24, 2022 2:17 pm

“Like many other interventions in the past, taking action before understanding the causes…”

The old saw, if all you have is hammer everything looks like a nail. comes to mind. Some people learn some new word or factoid and apply it to everything.

September 24, 2022 2:57 pm

Typical ‘shoot-ready-aim’ by the environmentalists.

Random Numbers
Reply to  markl
September 26, 2022 4:51 pm

They aim?

R Taylor
September 24, 2022 2:58 pm

Some people just like banning things.

another ian
September 24, 2022 3:26 pm

The slippery slope illustrated

comment image?resize=600%2C529&ssl=1

Nicholas McGinley
Reply to  another ian
September 25, 2022 2:28 am

Are you implying that just because someone is a very obviously a freakish mentally ill pervert sicko, he should not be allowed within 5000 yards of a child, let alone teach them, alone, in a classroom, all day every day for years on end?

Reply to  Nicholas McGinley
September 25, 2022 4:36 am

well YES!
how unwoke of me huh

Reply to  Nicholas McGinley
September 25, 2022 6:12 am

He wouldn’t be teaching my children.

Reply to  BobM
September 25, 2022 4:17 pm

[invalid email-mod]

Reply to  BobM
September 25, 2022 6:20 pm

I felt the same way until I read this tweet. If true he is making a point re our woke system. Please read the comments

Rud Istvan
September 24, 2022 3:41 pm

California seems to have a VERY wide ignorant do-gooder streak.
Ban tropical milkweed.

Ban natgas heaters and water heaters.
Ban gasoline powered lawn equipment.
Ban gasoline powered cars.

Don’t ban homelessness on the sidewalks.
Don’t ban public drug use; rather, give out free supplies.
Don’t arrest under $1000 property theft criminals.

Proving the wisdom of the old adage, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Reply to  Rud Istvan
September 24, 2022 7:53 pm

Which one on your list is the good one?

Nicholas McGinley
Reply to  AndyHce
September 25, 2022 2:32 am

I think the point is that those in favor of such insanity imagine themselves to be doing good and right.
At least, ostensibly. I myself am not so sure that at least a lot of them are not fully aware of how destructive such policy choices are bound to become.

September 24, 2022 3:45 pm

What a fascinating and informative article! Thank you for educating me.

It doesn't add up...
September 24, 2022 3:48 pm

Here was I expecting another article about Harry and Meghan.

Joao Martins
Reply to  It doesn't add up...
September 25, 2022 3:07 am

Are they also migrating butterflies (or any other kind of migrating life forms)?

Last edited 2 months ago by Joao Martins
September 24, 2022 4:44 pm

Californians always take action before they know what the effects are. They can’t help it because their urge to do something immediately overpowers reason and evidence. Once they get it in their heads that a certain action is necessary, its Katie bar the door when anyone says “wait a minute”. As California politicians love to brag, “California is leading the nation” with policy. The fact that the chosen policies may be bogus is the leading reason that Californians also are the leader in mitigating it’s own mitigations. They excuse this folly by claiming that it takes time to “Get it right”.

Reply to  Kip Hansen
September 24, 2022 7:56 pm

The obvious, and probably well planned, solution has already been tried out. Prohibit charging the wretched things. This get people off the street altogether. Problem solved.

Reply to  AndyHce
September 25, 2022 8:25 am

That’s the plan, Andy. Get everyone into EVs, then cut the electric supply. To the Regressives and our billionaire elite wannabe World Rulers, personal mobility is a no-no, a problem that needs to be addressed.

You will have to walk, or if ‘wealthy’ bicycle your way to work on the organic all-manual-labor farms near your 6′ x 10′ living space.

But on the bright side, shopping will be easier as you will only be allowed to buy the sparse goods, if and when available, on the shelves at the ‘company store’ right next to the barracks.

Shopping decisions are easy when it’s a choice between nothing and pair of two left shoes in the wrong size. So it’s not all bad.

Nicholas McGinley
Reply to  Kip Hansen
September 25, 2022 2:37 am

It will never come to all of that because the number of electric cars that are able to be manufactured will never allow anything close to widespread adoption…even if it was only one or another state or country mandating them.
Besides for the raw materials required, there is nothing close to enough EV manufacturing capacity for even one fifth of the number of cars and light trucks that need to be replaced every year in the US, let alone the world.

At the same time they mandate something, they also impose policies that prevent it from ever being possible.

Last edited 2 months ago by Nicholas McGinley
Reply to  Nicholas McGinley
September 25, 2022 8:37 am

Not enough materials? The EV manufacturers will switch over their lines to make Electric Roller Skates.

Problem solved.

Best Electric Roller Skates for Entry Level – Hello Roller Girl | Your Guide To Skating Fun & Fitness

Reply to  Kip Hansen
September 25, 2022 12:24 pm

It was humorous to see Gavin Newsom plead with PG&E to keep Diablo Canyon nuclear power on the California grid for longer than they had planned. It supplies 10% of California’s power which if taken offline would require a 40% importation of out of state power just to remain even with current supplies.

This is the prime example of mitigating mitigations as the plant has a design lifetime of another 20 years, but opted to close early rather than bother with political re-license.

D. J. Hawkins
Reply to  Kip Hansen
September 26, 2022 6:06 am

It will be interesting — America’s own German-style disaster.

One of the strengths of the American republic is the capacity for states to experiment to determine what works best for them. Or likewise, to serve as a warning to others.

Reply to  Doonman
September 25, 2022 9:23 am

Too right! Here is another overlooked aspect of Cali Folly: They have ZERO means of enforcing many of their bans! So law abiders of course abide, that is what they do, and the scofflaws go scott free. It leads to anger and ultimately to anarchy. And we are right in the midst of it in Cali. (Viz: You can still buy tropical milkweed in Ventura County, mostly because so many nurseries can’t tell the difference and/or do t want to just toss their supply. But we all feel so good about the ban and our butterflies!)

John Hultquist
September 24, 2022 9:03 pm

The map (note Washington State) shows a north-south border of blue and striped, this is an ecotone, a transition area between two biological communities. Therein, I live.
I have a few native Milkweeds, but I rarely seen a Monarch. I see a few Western Tiger Swallowtail and an abundance of other smaller butterflies. I have lots more Rabbit Brush that others prefer this time of year.

John Hultquist
Reply to  John Hultquist
September 24, 2022 9:12 pm

Oops! An extra ‘n’. Day is over.

David James is known to me, but my go-to butterfly person in WA State is Caitlin LaBar.
She takes great photos.
Northwest Butterflies

Thanks, Kip.

September 25, 2022 4:35 am

hmm like the uk zealots banned sheep from wild areas then when the butterflies dropped like stones they worked out they NEEDED short grass to lay eggs into NOT long wild pastures

Andy Pattullo
September 25, 2022 8:46 am

It is the nature of modern environmentalism to act first and think later (if ever). The habit is to let your emotions and beliefs carry you forward on a virtuous campaign for righteous deliverance of the natural world from any possible influences of Homo sapiens. When “truth” is on your side all unintended casualties are not just justified but even desirable.

Nolan Parker
September 25, 2022 10:45 am

Ohh,Look!! If we start raising hell and Doing something, we can get donations!

September 25, 2022 12:12 pm

“the Xerces Society’s recommendation on this topic was undoubtedly been made in good faith”

I’ve gotten to a point, having seen so many of these efforts backfire, that I don’t so willingly accept that anymore.

Michael S. Kelly
September 25, 2022 4:04 pm

My wife always kept milkweed on her property when she lived in Southern California, the only person in her neighborhood to do so. Driving home from work, she’d often see a Monarch flying down the side of the road, and she knew where it was headed.

Now we live in Northern Virginia. The house we bought had two enormous butterfly bushes among its flora already, and we’ve consistently had droves of Eastern Dragon Swallowtails summer here. This year we replaced an ugly hedge with a bunch of dwarf butterfly bushes. The Swallowtail population is record-breaking – in fact, they are still hanging around at the end of September (and we have at least two of their enormous caterpillars in our greenhouse).

Our attempts at cultivating milkweed fell flat, though. For a “weed,” it really didn’t seem to like the environment. But this year, I found a local nursery that stocks swamp milkweed. I bought one as a trial, and as soon as it was liberated from the pot and in the ground, it flourished. My wife isn’t certain, but she thinks she has spotted one Monarch since then.

Next year, I’m going to get more aggressive with it.

Last edited 2 months ago by Michael S. Kelly
September 25, 2022 9:16 pm

Imho, the greatest threat to benign and beneficial insects, other small animals, as well as plants, in an urban and suburban environment is the indiscriminate application of chemical cocktails by yard service companies. It’s not particularly healthy for humans, small and large, benign, beneficial or not, either.

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