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Local monarch butterfly gardens support imperiled pollinators, community encouraged to help conservation effort


Volunteers have worked hard to plant – and re-plant – native gardens in Laguna Beach parks over the last few years to support the imperiled monarch, arguably North America’s most beloved butterfly. But the effort, which is starting to see some encouraging successes locally, hasn’t been without its challenges, and more help is needed.

A habitat in Heisler Park was installed in 2021 and the butterfly garden in Bluebird Park (planted in two sections, one by Cress Street and a second area at the back of the park) was planted in 2022. The Pollinator Protection Fund, which proposed the previous spaces for the monarchs, is raising funds for a new area, possibly near the gazebo at Heisler Park.

“If we could get the funds together to do that then we’re happy to do the work,” PPF Managing Director Laura Ford said in a recent phone interview with Stu News Laguna. “(It’s the next step for the) patchwork of habitat that we are trying to create across Laguna Beach to make it a monarch-friendly city.”

They’ve put a lot of time, energy and emotion into the project. Recently, they’ve been doing a lot of weeding, pruning and re-planting at the current gardens. There’s a lot of work to do and they welcome both donations and volunteers to help with the effort.

“We just need help, generally, with maintenance and replacing the plants. We appreciate any support that we can get to keep it going and keep everything growing,” Ford said.

Pollinator Protection Fund is also considering possibly hosting a butterfly festival or event to encourage local community involvement. It would be fun and educational, she said.

While the city maintains the park as a whole, Ford and other PPF volunteers take care of the butterfly habitats, which can be a bit challenging as some of their plants have been trampled or stolen (which shocked Ford the first time, but has unfortunately happened a few times since). As a nonprofit, they have limited funds to replace the native vegetation that is so vital to monarchs and other pollinators, she noted. They end up doing double the work to keep the garden healthy, and it can be harder for the plants to re-establish and grow back. They are also raising funds to fix a bent fence and upgrade a divider (but still low-key and unobtrusive) at the gardens to help keep the plants and caterpillars safe from people crushing or disturbing them.

Local monarch butterfly gardens support monarch flower

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Photo by Mary Hurlbut

The Pollinator Protection Fund is working to support monarch butterfly habitats in Laguna Beach

And the monarchs themselves need a lot of help, Ford said.

“They are in great need of habitat with their numbers dropping so desperately,” she said. “We’re trying to protect these imperiled creatures.”

Each fall, monarchs migrate to central Mexico and some parts of the Southern California coast, including Laguna Beach, where they overwinter in large clusters on trees. In spring, they return north and the females lay eggs on milkweeds, the only plant on which monarch larvae will feed.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced in December 2020 that monarch butterflies’ status warranted being listed as “endangered,” but was precluded by work on higher-priority listing actions. With this decision, the monarch becomes a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act, and its status will be reviewed each year until it is no longer a candidate. The monarch is currently slated to be listed in 2024.

While insect populations often fluctuate from year to year, the overall downward trend of monarch butterflies remains concerning for officials.

A stable population for western monarchs is closer to the historic averages that ranged between 1 to 4 million. In the 1980s, the California overwintering population was estimated at 4.5 million. By 1997, they declined to about 1.2 million and by 2019 officials counted fewer than 30,000.

Recently, the western population that winters along the California coast has experienced dramatic swings, from a low of about 2,000 in 2020 (a 99.9% decline since the 1980s, which indicates that it’s nearing collapse) to more than 200,000 in the 2021-22 count, according to The Xerces Society, a nonprofit environmental organization that focuses on the conservation of invertebrates. While those numbers signal the possibility of a rebound, the population is still drastically low and remains in serious danger.

The primary drivers of decline are loss of overwintering, breeding and migratory habitat in California and pesticide use, according to Xerces.

“Pollinators, in general, are essential to life on this planet. And we’ve done a very good job in our towns and cities of eradicating pollinator habitat,” Ford said. “Without them nothing would exist, we’d live in a barren landscape.”

Flowers, trees and other beautiful flora that people appreciate are able to grow because of pollinators. A pollinator garden with native plants creates healthier soil and encourages different species to bloom, creating biodiverse environment. They need to encourage all pollinators and birds in order to help the overall ecosystem, she explained.

People like to see parks tidy and leaf blown, Ford noted, but that’s not the best the way to encourage life in a healthy ecosystem. It’s ok for things not to be perfectly symmetrical, designed and sculpted, she said. Instead of formally styled landscapes that can become a bit sterile as a result of over-manicuring insects out of a habitat, they should create some spaces focused on restoring the wild and natural environment, which will rejuvenate the local ecosystem.

“It’s about encouraging life and seeing the beauty of how things can be slightly wild – and rewilded – and the different life that you can attract in that way,” Ford said. “We really, really want to protect the habitat and make sure that we have this lasting area that is like a little sanctuary for all these different species.”

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Local monarch butterfly gardens support caterpillars Bluebird Park

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Photo by Laura Ford/Courtesy of PPF

PPF counted more than 80 monarch caterpillars at Bluebird Park in late May and early June this year

Locally, all that hard work is starting to pay off.

“This year we were amazed. We were so happy,” she said.

In late May and early June, they counted more than 80 monarch caterpillars at the garden in Bluebird Park. All were in the late stage of development. Most were nestled in a space where grasses and bushes were surrounding them, protecting them from the elements and predators. Over time, Ford and PPF volunteers observed them go into a San Diego sunflower bush to pupate. They managed to see about half of them turn into butterflies (they likely didn’t see all of them due to timing and how well hidden some were).

“It was incredible,” Ford said. “It was such an uplifting experience.”

They also saw an influx of monarchs and chrysalises hidden within the bushes in the garden at Heisler Park this summer.

This is evidence that the local pollinator gardens are working, she added. Hummingbirds, sphinx months, different species of bees, hover flies, swallow tails and many other species have also been reported.

They have recently placed more than 200 native plants at the gardens at both parks. The growing fauna includes California buckwheat, goldenrod, yarrow, California fuchsia, seaside daisies, coyote mint, willowy monardella, California coastal sunflowers and more.

They had a setback in early spring with the Heisler Park garden when landscaping crews mistakenly cut it back to the ground, Ford said. That caused a lot of concern, she added.

“It was quite a shock to come and see much of the garden reduced to mud and stumps after so much work,” she said.

Fortunately, and with a big re-planting effort on PPF’s part, the garden has mostly grown back. They will assess the garden this fall as there are still areas they need to plant, Ford explained. Dr. Janet Chance, chair of the Laguna Beach Garden Club, was a great ally in liaising with city staff after the plant cutback occurred, Ford pointed out. The city provided some new plants and PPF bought 40 more from Tree of Life Native Nursery.

“Now the plants are growing well and we’re all on the same page again,” she said. “We’re looking forward to seeing how everything develops as it grows.”

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Sara Hall covers City Hall and is a regular contributor to Stu News Laguna.

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