Insects are like the canaries in the coal mine in regards to how we can assess the health of ecosystems. When these invertebrates are in healthy, balanced numbers, it’s a sign that said environment is chugging along nicely; conversely, if their numbers are declining rapidly or are ballooning uncontrolled, something’s out of whack.
And something is indeed not right with the migratory monarch butterfly as its population counts continue their downward trend. It’s why the species was declared “endangered” back in July by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the global leading authority on the status of biological diversity.
Why? Well, populations of the butterfly— which is famous for its twice-yearly, 2,500-mile journey across the continent between its summer and winter grounds — have dropped by between 23% and 72% in just the past decade, according to the IUCN.
The monarch butterfly isn’t a stranger to the perils of habitat loss and the climate crisis, mind you; monarchs were first listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act in August 2014. However, this makes the first time the IUCN Red List — the inventory of species’ conservation status — has officially labeled the species at risk of extinction.
“It’s hard for people to imagine that something that shows up in their backyard is threatened,” says Anna Walker, who led the monarch butterfly assessment. She’s a member of the IUCN Species Survival Commission Butterfly and Moth Specialist Group, and species survival officer at the New Mexico BioPark Society, to National Geographic.
But as science can attest to: Interacting with the natural world is one of the best ways for us humans to understand why we need to protect it. Much like how zoological facilities can help facilitate conservation — by both creating breeding stocks of vulnerable species and introducing the public to rare, at-risk species, so they can understand how human-caused climate change could wipe them out — seeing animals in the wild (from a safe distance) can reinvigorate our passion to protect them.
These same above-mentioned notions also pertain to the monarch butterfly.
Lucky for us Bay Area locals, these increasingly rare-winged insects pass right through our region. Here’s where you can see them IRL within a (for the most part) short drive away from San Francisco.
Monarch Bay Golf Course and Marina in San Leandro
Thie slice of the East Bay is one of just a few places in Alameda County where monarch butterflies hunker down to ride out the winter. While the species’ caterpillars rely on clusters of milkweed to feed and cocoon, fully-fledged adults are known to frequent the eucalyptus trees on the Monarch Bay Golf Course.
Natural Bridges State Beach’s Monarch Grove in Monterey
Natural Bridges State Beach’s Monarch Grove is perhaps one of the most picturesque temporary homes of monarch butterflies anywhere along the west coast. Each year, an estimated 100,000 of the flying insects — the largest number of them observed in a single place near the Bay Area — land in the area, taking advantage of the mild seaside climate and tall, dense trees that offer safety and respite from strong winds, as well as predators.
Pro tip: Your best of seeing the overwintering monarchs is by walking down the park’s boardwalk toward the observation deck in the eucalyptus grove.
Coyote Hills Park Nectar Garden in Fremont
You can’t just access this small acre of land in the East Bayt; it’s fenced off to the public to offer shelter to small migratory visitors — like monarch butterflies — from the wind. The space is filled with nectar-rich flowers… and watching butterflies, including the occasional hummingbird, sip nectar is an incredibly calming, centering experience.
FYI: The Nectar Garden is open to the public Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Pismo Beach Monarch Grove in… well, Pismo Beach
Another beachside oasis to these (unfortunately) rare butterflies sees, on average 25,000 of them find respite on this grove that sits right off scenic Highway 1. While not exactly a stone’s throw from San Francisco — you’re looking at four-ish hours drive to the Beach North Beach Campground located near the grove — this grove is a key stop on the Western migration for these ecologically valuable butterflies.
Feature image: A monarch butterfly reproduction orgy. (Courtesy of Unsplash)