Butterflies in manicured suburban habitats

Barb Beck barb at birdnut.obtuse.com
Fri Jan 11 14:11:16 EST 2002

Paul and the rest on leps-l

Maybe in the last few years you have seen what you consider to be lots of
Monarchs overwintering in the area but believe me it is nothing like the
numbers that were there in the 40s and 50s.  My father-in-law was a ranger
at Natural Bridges and my husband worked there some as a kid.  Of course at
that time Natural Bridges still had the bridges and Santa Cruz was still
miles away from the park.  We are talking about a time when California still
only had a few million inhabitants, crystal clear air and a lot of the San
Joaquin valley floor that was still in Oak Grass Woodland and rivers and
streams that had not been enclosed in concrete.  The agriculture practices
at the time were far different from the "better living through chemistry"
agriculture practiced on our ranch today.

The "hordes" of Monarch you see today are pitiful remnants of what flocked
to the wintering trees in those times.  Ten years ago we visited my home
state and Jim went to some of the parks he knew as a kid.  The docent that
guided us to the butterfly trees in Natural Bridges excitedly prepared us
for what we were to see by explaining how this was by far the best butterfly
year that had had.  We were astounded to see only a few branches of the
trees with butterflies... Grandpas photos showed trees completely covered
with butterflies.  She was not prepared for the looks on our faces when we
saw how few butterflies were on the trees.

No Paul - things are not surviving as well as you would like to pretend with
our development.  Are the current numbers of Monarchs adequate to maintain
the species - probably but we have certainly decreased their numbers.

As much as suburban sprawl has decreased the natural habitat  expanding
agriculture to feed the people of this planet has probably taken a far
greater toll.  Even agricultural practices have changed for the worse for
butterflies.  One can only imagine the undocumented wetland dependent
species that have disappeared in the state as it lost most of its wetlands.
The gardens around the house on our ranch are still there.  As a child in
the 40s I remember the great number of butterflies.  A few I could identify
with a child's butterfly book.  The book explained how to differentiate the
Monarch and Viceroy.  We had both.  The house was surrounded by olive
orchards under which was planted a cover crop - something like peas or
turnips.  Large areas of undeveloped valley floor Oak-grass woodland were
also near by as was our "swamp" - huge oaks covered by large vines (those
vines were collected by school kids and used in the original Tarzan movies).
The swamp is drained except for a postage size portion set aside by the
Nature Conservatory and that does not appear to be getting the water it
naturally got to survive.  The olive and orange orchards are still there but
herbicides kill anything green under the trees and the young orange trees
which have been planted are sprayed every several weeks for thrips.  The
roadsides which used to harbour wildflowers (weeds) are now sprayed with
herbicide to keep weeds from entering the orchards.  Jim and I found 5
species of butterfly in the area when we were there for several days a
couple years ago.  The gardens around the house yielded only Fiery Skippers
and one Anise Swallowtail.  We went to the Nature Conservancy plot and
worked along the St. Johns River checking the riparian area.  This yielded
three more butterflies of three species.  One was a cabbage and I have to
look up notes to see the other two.  These were the results we obtained for
about 15 hours of stalking these critters.  I do not think that even you
would consider this the diversity of butterflies we should have found in
this area.  This is what is hanging on.

As far as I know there is no record of what was in this area when I was a
kid.  Grandpa had photos and I am sure others had those of the butterflies
at those times in Natural Bridges.  I have asked Jims sister for the photos
but so far she has not found them. I see that Viceroys are not even on the
map of California in that area.  Does anybody even know their former range
in the state?  That is why the Becks push people in our adopted province to
get out and try to document what we have here in Alberta, that is why
Alberta holds more butterfly counts than any other area of North America.
That is why even though I really hate to collect a butterfly and count
mainly with binoculars, I also carry a net to make sure of some difficult id
and take specimens when absolutely necessary of those which need further
study.  I send them to qualified  people who are willing to work on them.
People do not realize how fast an area can change.  The population of
Alberta is about what the population of California was when I was a kid.

Barbara Beck
Adjunct Professor
Department of Renewable Resources
University of Alberta
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

-----Original Message-----
From: owner-leps-l at lists.yale.edu [mailto:owner-leps-l at lists.yale.edu]On
Behalf Of Paul Cherubini
Sent: January 11, 2002 5:52 AM
To: leps-l at lists.yale.edu
Subject: Butterflies in manicured suburban habitats

Ron wrote:

> I bet a lot of people in the Keys area who want to see
> the cute little blue protected are unknowingly killing them
> off by making sure the ugly Balloon Vine stays off their
> yard's fence, golf course, highway right of way, and any
> where else that might ugly up the renowned manicured look
> most of south Florida loves.

I agree Ron, in regard to the Miami Blue. Some other kinds of
butterflies, however, manage to do fine in manicured suburban
landscapes. Below, for example, are some photos I took a few
weeks ago (Dec. 26) at the famous monarch overwintering site
in Pacific Grove, California.

150 years ago relatively few humans lived in Pacific Grove and the
monarchs overwinterered in undeveloped Monterey Pine forests
that looked approximately like this:

In recent decades, Pacific Grove has been completely built out
yet the butterflies still come and "butterfly zone" signs are placed in
the streets: http://www.mindspring.com/~cherubini/butterflygroveinn.JPG

The monarchs cluster on the limbs of pine trees situated right
above the roofs of residential homes:

Here is a closer view of the butterflies clustering above the same roof
as in the last photo:

The monarchs also cluster in Australian eucalyptus trees
growing in the residential backyards of Pacific Grove:

Monarchs find an ample supply of nectar in the yards of the homes
and businesses of Pacific Grove:

Monarchs bask on the roofs and siding of the homes.
Here a front porch hanging planter has lots of monarchs:

Monarchs also obtain drinking water from the overnight dew
that developes on residential lawns:

Based on this evidence, I think it is reasonable to conclude the
original forests where monarchs overwinter can be radically altered
and developed without significant harm to the butterflies. Also it
seems obvious that overwintering monarchs can coexist with
intense human activity around them.

Butterfly conservation organizations don't see it this way. For some
unknown reason they are unwilling to publicly acknowledge that
real estate developement and other forms of intense human activity
are compatible with monarch overwintering.  Instead, they view
real estate development and human activity as a serious threat to the
overwintering monarchs.

Example: Dr. O.R. (Chip) Taylor  says:

"Monarch populations are even more vulnerable in their overwintering
sites.  In the coastal forests, Monarchs find forests with all the
right characteristics for overwintering. Many people, however,
would also like to live along the California coast, which raises
property values and increases the pressure to build, remove
trees, and otherwise develop the land. Although there has
been some progress towards protecting Monarch overwintering
sites in California, high property values and the resulting pressure to
develop land along the coast continue to threaten Monarch habitat."

In February this year I will be going to the monarch overwintering
sites in Mexico and hope to come back with alot of good photos
of the monarch situation down there.

Paul Cherubini
Placerville, Calif.


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