February is here, so let the “Fertility Fest” begin! I’m talking about the Monarch Butterfly “fertility fest.” I visited the Monarch Butterfly Grove at Pismo State Beach in November, wanting to find out more about these fascinating creatures. I’ve been thinking about them again because this month they’ll leave California and by next September only their great grandchildren will return.
The Pismo Beach Monarch Grove is free to the public and has approximately 20,000 butterflies from October to February who cuddle tightly together in the foliage of the Eucalyptus trees. (The Eucalyptus is incidental. Monarch Butterflies find their home in any dense foliage.)
So what’s the big deal? First of all, these small creatures traveled over 1,000 miles from as far North as Canada. They came down to the coastal areas of California to keep warm for the winter and although you can find their groves from San Francisco to San Diego, Pismo has the largest population in the United States. It’s free and the State Park has displays as well as many volunteers who tell the story of these winged inhabitants.
Monarch butterflies are unable to fly if their body temperature goes down below 55 degrees, so they must migrate south for the winter. In February they know spring is near, so the mating season begins. Males grasp onto any female they can find, latch on and carry her up into a tree where they mate for hours, going on even through the night. Once the male, with his two dots on either side of his wings, feels complete, he drops the female and then searches for another. This fertility fest lasts until the pregnant females want to get out of dodge — and the migration begins.
The female must find milkweed that only grows throughout the colder Northern climes. Once she finds the toxic plant, she lays around 200-400 eggs that are the size of pinpoints. After laying her eggs, she leaves them and dies.
Her children hatch and commence eating milkweed for fifteen days, growing into about two inch caterpillars. Their bodies fill with milkweed, an important fact because milkweed is toxic to other animals, such as birds, which guarantees that the butterflies will survive. The Monarch Butterflies’ skin then turn into hard chrysalises, which they stay inside of for another 15 days. When they are ready to become butterflies, the chrysalis first turns transparent. Then they lift out their wings and their bodies are filled with liquid. The baby butterfly monarch sprays the liquid on its wings, which dries and the wings become something like a hard fingernail, except thinner.
These spring monarch butterflies stay in the Northern habitat where they were born, they mate, they lay eggs in the milkweed and they die. Their total lifespan, then, is approximately 8-10 weeks long. Their children — the summer monarch butterflies — go through the same process as their parents, living, mating, and dying in their habitat within an 8-10 week period.
Come September, the children of the summer monarchs know instinctually that they can’t mate in this milkweed because it will get too cold. Known only through the wisdom passed down by their great grandparents, they fly a thousand miles back to Pismo beach to the groves where they stay warm for the winter — and live much longer than their parents and grandparents (anywhere from 8-10 months). They again inhabit the area that only their great grandparents inhabited — a year ago in human terms.
How do they know to migrate? Scientists say it’s a mystery.
After a visit with these winged neighbors, you can take a nice stroll down the Pismo pier with lively restaurants and then walk along the 18 mile stretch of sand dunes. More on Pismo to come, but suffice to say, kids and adults will share wonder and smiles over these little friends.