Eventually, Egertson carried the Tupperware condominiums upstairs to the master bedroom and opened the doors to the deck to expose her charges to fresh air and light. At night, when the temperature dropped into the forties, she and her husband piled their bed high with blankets. During the day, when the sun heated the room to 90 degrees, they stripped down to tank tops.
After two weeks, the caterpillars started to crawl to the roofs of their enclosures and hang upside down in a J shape, like a collection of fishhooks. One by one, each creature began to pulse, and its skin went translucent. Slowly, its striped outer layer peeled back from its head, revealing a sticky, twisting green mass whose gyrations gradually stilled. Over the next day, it inflated and hardened into a perfect jade pendant adorned with gold flecks. This was the chrysalis, a shell that looks like a sarcophagus but is really a womb. Inside, a butterfly was taking shape.
Egertson tried to stay close to home so she wouldn’t miss the moment when a monarch emerged. She swims at 4 a.m. every morning, and she perched her cell phone on the edge of the pool so she could check it after each lap. One morning she got the text she’d been waiting for and “flew out of the pool,” she told me. She raced home, “wet suit and all,” and made it in time.
In the hours before a monarch “ecloses,” or emerges from its chrysalis, its wings become visible through the shell. The lacquer splits, and the butterfly pushes itself out on long black legs. It pumps fluid from its abdomen through the veins of its wrinkled, misshapen wings, which slowly unfurl into four fiery orange and black fans. Within a few hours, they harden and dry. If the process is interrupted and the wings remain crumpled, the monarch won’t be able fly.
Handling the new butterflies with great care, Egertson and her family affixed tags to their wings—lightweight but durable stickers bearing serial numbers that scientists use to track the insects’ journey if they are spotted again. Researchers have been tagging butterflies since the 1940s, when the zoologist Fred Urquhart decided to trace the until then unknown route of the eastern migration. The organization he founded, now called Monarch Watch, remains the largest tagging project east of the Rockies. Egertson had requested stickers from a lab at Washington State University that hosts one of several tracking operations out west. When she applied the tags to the butterflies, her fingers came away dusted with glittering scales.
Egertson’s family gave each insect a name along with a serial number: Michael Phelps, for the Olympic swimmer’s butterfly stroke; Chopin, for one of Egertson’s favorite composers. Egertson’s 11-year-old son, who had shared his room with the caterpillars, named one monarch Flamingo, after the species for which he had dyed his own hair neon pink.
Egertson and her kids released Flamingo in a park in Bend on a sunny day in September. Afterward, Egertson went to a tattoo artist to have butterflies inked onto her foot and ankle. They were a 50th birthday gift to herself, a reward for making it through what she told me was a difficult decade. “I’ve been smitten with butterflies my whole life,” she said. “At first glance they seem so fragile, like the wind can just blow them any which way. Like they don’t have a lot of say about where they end up. But in fact they do. They’re incredibly resilient, powerful creatures.”
As Egertson gritted her teeth against the sharp scratch of the tattooist’s needle, she hoped that Flamingo was drifting southward—borne, at least that day, on a light breeze.
it’s not strictly rational to devote one’s excess energy to protecting a species loved mostly for being beautiful, especially when so much of the world is dying. Insect populations in particular are in free-fall, and monarchs are far from the hardest-hit species among those that scientists are able to monitor. Entomologists estimate that humans have identified as few as 20 percent of all insect species, meaning that millions of unique creatures could be swept off the planet without our knowing that they existed in the first place. No one can make a case for ensuring the butterflies’ survival based on particular usefulness. Though they get lumped in with pollinators, they are bad at the job. They don’t even come close to rivaling bees, without which farmers would need to hire human workers to pollinate fruit trees.
Karen Oberhauser’s argument about flagship species helps explain a recent burst of interest in monarchs. Many conservationists choose to focus their efforts on keystone species, which anchor ecosystems (starfish, for example, keep tide pools from being overrun by mussels), or indicator species, which reflect the health of a landscape (dragonflies can’t live on polluted streams). But prioritizing flagship species like monarchs is a practical choice for advocates competing for the public’s attention. It helps that, unlike some endangered species, monarchs don’t require governments to set aside large tracts of land for them. They don’t need pristine conditions or continuous wilderness. What they need are options: milkweed on which to lay eggs, and nectar plants on which to feed all along their migratory path. An ecologist I interviewed estimated that monarchs might be able to pass through a landscape that is just 1 percent habitat—that is, it might be enough for an urban neighborhood to offer up a pot of milkweed or a flowering window box for every few hundred feet of concrete.
This fact—call it the allure of tangibility—has helped spur tens of thousands of people across North America to get involved in conservation efforts on the monarch’s behalf: people like Beyer, Egertson, and my in-laws. “Pretty much anyone can help,” said Emma Pelton of the Xerces Society, the leading advocacy organization for insect conservation. “This is an area where individuals can have an impact.” One activist I spoke to, a former fourth-grade teacher in Illinois, had converted an old school bus into a traveling classroom that she drove around the corn belt proselytizing about planting milkweed for monarchs. “It’s like Ms. Frizzle’s Magic School Bus,” she told me.
Hand-rearing, however, is a part of the crusade to save monarchs that most scientists reject. For starters, it can sow confusion among researchers. A bonanza of butterflies in a place like Brookings, where monarchs might have been scarce but for human interference, foil attempts to track—and thus support—the shrinking western population. “We can’t trust the sightings we have,” Pelton said. “In such a critical year, after the population collapses, it’s really frustrating. It’s a huge loss to our ability to understand where the population is so that we can help it.” Some experts also fear that butterflies hatched in captivity may be inferior navigators, making them less likely to survive their long migration. Other studies suggest they may be at higher risk of spreading disease. Most concerning, monarchs have evolved to produce hundreds of progeny that don’t make it, employing a different biological strategy than large mammals that lavish energy on each individual offspring. By protecting eggs and caterpillars that might have been picked off in the wild because of an inherent weakness—and by encouraging inbreeding, which reduces genetic diversity—the people hand-rearing monarchs almost certainly introduce inferior genes into a struggling population. “You need to be a really fit monarch to make it,” Pelton explained. “The last thing we want to do is make them weaker.”
Experts consider mass rearing a misdirection of energy: To save a species you must protect its habitat, not keep a few creatures alive on your porch or in your bedroom. Egertson, who oversees the planting of native flowers on her land trust, understands these concerns—to the point that she hesitated before taking the trip to see Beyer. Though she had raised a few butterflies in the past, just for the joy of it, she had qualms about hatching more than 100 in captivity. “Any time you tamper with nature, you have to wonder if you’re doing the right thing,” she told me. “But if you were to ask me, do I regret participating in captive rearing, the answer is absolutely not.” The severity of the crisis made her want to do something that felt more immediate. “The numbers are so low that, if we can boost them at all, maybe that will make a difference,” she said.
Pelton told me that she worries about quashing the energy of volunteers who are just trying to help. It makes sense that adding individual lives to a plummeting total seems like the best, most direct thing a person can do. “It’s hard for people to grasp whole ecosystems—that’s hard for me even in my backyard,” Pelton said. “We all pivot toward something we can grasp, like an animal. But the question is if we can look a little wider. People spend hours every day rearing caterpillars. If you spend hours every day doing anything, you could be a fantastic community organizer working to reduce pesticides, or have an amazing garden that helps lots of animals, not just monarchs.”
To avoid becoming paralyzed by the number and scope of the environmental problems we face, it’s often necessary to narrow our focus. How do we also keep a view broad enough to see how our actions fit into, and sometimes work against, a larger effort? It’s a difficult balance. To avoid losing hope, people need to experience their individual power to change things. But with the fight to save monarchs, as with so many crises, little of the work that needs doing can be done alone.
By:By October 2019, if he survived that long, Flamingo might have faced fire. In Sonoma County, along the Central Valley’s western edge, the season’s worst wildfire consumed almost 80,000 acres. Acrid smoke blanketed much of the Bay Area. What does a monarch make of a forest fire? Does it waste precious energy flying around it, or risk getting caught in the conflagration? Still heading south, Flamingo might have ridden the same winds that carried embers across the landscape, wisps of fire that shone even more brightly than his vivid wings.
A few weeks after the Sonoma fire died down, I was preparing to fly to California, too. I had arranged to join an annual effort, organized by the Xerces Society, to monitor western monarchs in their winter habitat—groves where butterflies, in an unsolved mystery of migration, return to the same roosts year after year. Some coastal cities have built around these stands of trees, even if they’re in the middle of town. The first scheduled stop on my itinerary was Ellwood Mesa, a sandy bluff of eucalyptus groves just west of Santa Barbara. But by Thanksgiving morning, it too was in the path of a wildfire. Thousands of people in the surrounding county had evacuated. “There’s no way anyone can take you there,” a municipal employee told me when I called from my home in Boston. Ellwood Mesa was vulnerable to stray embers and to mudslides. When I asked if I could go alone, there was silence on the other end. “There are signs telling people to enter at their own risk,” the employee said finally.
I hung up feeling thwarted. My husband tried to comfort me: Even if the fire interfered with my plan to see a species imperiled by climate change, didn’t that only prove my story’s point? I packed a bag and boarded my flight. I landed in Los Angeles and turned on my phone to find a text from another city employee: A snowstorm had dampened the blaze. I could go to Ellwood Mesa after all.
Xerces calls its annual monitoring effort the Thanksgiving count because it takes place over three weeks in November and early December. More than 100 volunteers visit upwards of 240 sites where monarchs are known to roost. The count is not unlike Art Shapiro’s work—volunteers note every butterfly they can find, then tally the numbers into a single snapshot of the total population that made it to the coast for the winter. If they see any with tags—a rare, exciting event—they can compare the serial number with an online database and determine where the butterfly came from.
In 1997, its first year, the count recorded more than 1.2 million monarchs. Two years later, that figure fell to fewer than 250,000, despite an increase in the number of sites being monitored. Though the population still fluctuates, it hasn’t broken 300,000 since 2000. It plunged to the historic low of 27,218 in 2018. Volunteers visit most count sites only once; if a site is subject to more frequent monitoring, Xerces uses the highest number observed in a single day. Between this and the fact that some butterflies might be spotted twice if they move between neighboring groves, the final tally is more likely to overestimate the monarch population than to underrepresent it.
Once upon a time, Ellwood Mesa attracted more than 100,000 butterflies each year. When I pulled into the site’s parking lot on a Tuesday morning, the sky was overcast. The clean, sweet smell of eucalyptus washed over me. Ellwood Cooper, who once owned this land and for whom the site is named, was a rancher and horticulturalist who helped introduce eucalyptus to the United States. He raised his first trees here in the 1870s. Cooper envisioned the quick-growing eucalyptus as an invaluable source of lumber. It turned out to be brittle and prone to decay, but it did provide an ideal winter home for monarchs, which were observed on the West Coast in growing numbers as eucalyptus spread in the late 19th century. Today, the tree is widely considered a scourge on the landscape. With its shaggy bark and fragrant oil, it is quick to catch fire. But it is also monarchs’ preferred home for the winter; though the insects roost in other trees, such as cypress, they choose eucalyptus groves over forests with exclusively native species. This has put monarch advocates in the odd position of trying to protect a beloved native butterfly by fighting to plant a despised invasive tree.
The volunteer coordinator for the monarch count in Santa Barbara County was a woman named Charis van der Heide, a monarch biologist and environmental consultant for the city of Goleta. She wore a straw hat and hiking boots, and the rest of her attire was dotted with images and emblems of butterflies: a patterned scarf at the neck of her purple parka, a crocheted keychain dangling from her backpack. I followed her down a sandy path into a grove of trees, where the light grew dimmer and the smell heavier and loamier as we followed a muddy streambed. The ground was blanketed with strips of gray bark—“eucalyptus are messy,” Van der Heide said—but many of the branches above us were bare. According to Goleta officials, one in five trees here died during California’s long drought. Of those that remained, many were ailing. Giants 180 feet tall leaned against their neighbors or bent into archways over the path.
Changes in the grove have profound consequences for monarchs. Butterflies choose where to roost with extreme sensitivity. New generations not only go to the same groves and trees as the previous year’s butterflies—they alight on the same branches. They seek a precise microclimate, a perfect alchemy of humidity, temperature, wind speed, wind direction, and light. Every time a tree falls, the delicate balance shifts.
We entered a clearing. Van der Heide, who is in her late thirties, with wavy chestnut hair and a broad, friendly face, pointed out the features that once drew monarchs here. Perhaps because they are meandering fliers—they flap-flap and glide, flap-flap and glide—they choose groves with high, vaulted ceilings that are “cathedral-like,” Van der Heide explained, gesturing upward. The natural architecture gives them space to flit and float. But a thinning canopy may not provide sufficient protection from winter storms. The grove we stood in was once enclosed on three sides by thick walls of trees; now trunks crisscrossed the forest floor, leaving openings everywhere.
Van der Heide told me that she wanted to plant more eucalyptus where we stood. The controversy surrounding that approach didn’t bother her. “We conserve what we love,” she said—even if a favorite natural phenomenon might not exist as we know it without human influence. She echoed Oberhauser’s point about flagship species, arguing that fighting for monarchs could help a wide array of pollinators that share their habitat. “Having a little pragmatism about what people can get behind can serve you in a larger way,” she said.
But even with new eucalyptus to draw them, would the butterflies return in large numbers? As the climate changes, many species are expected to shift their habitat ranges northward and upward, to higher elevations, chasing the conditions for which they’ve evolved. Monarchs might soon abandon the known groves altogether. Maybe they already have. Some count volunteers told me that, in their most optimistic moments, they imagine the butterflies aren’t declining—they’re hiding, and we just have to find them. But it’s not clear where exactly they could have gone. “If you look in the hills, we don’t have trees up there,” Van der Heide told me. “They’ve all burned.”