Western Monarch Day on February 5 is transporting us — via the flutter of brightly colored wings — into another, more beautiful plane. This day was established to celebrate the Monarch butterfly’s epic, almost-3000-mile-long return back to California from all over the western U.S., as a part of their seasonal migration. A huge tourist draw, butterfly migration season sees countless visitors make their way to parks and areas where these winged insects collect.
The creature is never limited to one place, but this day is specifically about their return to the California coast. It is crucial that they return, as the monarch butterfly is terrifyingly decreasing in number.
History of Western Monarch Day
The Western monarch butterfly is a magnificent sight to behold — with their rich hues of red, orange, yellow, and gold, they gracefully fly across landscapes to perform their pollination duties. They migrate annually from all over Northern America and instinctively always know when it is time to move.
Originating in the American Tropics, this species gradually spread as its primary food source — the milkweed — spread. As the monarchs moved, their migration patterns changed too, becoming the highly sophisticated version it is now. The Monarch butterfly from western parts of the U.S. and Canada move south — to California — every time winter comes around because it’s better for their survival rates. There they have future Monarchs, who make the trip again the next year.
Scientists didn’t know this pattern earlier, although they had been studying Monarchs since the 1850s. It was only in 1930 that they were able to decipher that these winged wonders flew south for the winter and migrated north in the spring. Then, Canadian zoologist Frederick Urquhart led a team of 3000+ butterfly enthusiasts from North America, assigning them with tagging all monarchs across the continent. Using everyone’s data on where and when monarchs appeared, Urquhart noticed they seemed to gradually move south, going from Texas to Northern Mexico. Answers as to where the monarchs went in the winter were still elusive, until 1973. That’s when a businessman named Kenneth Brugger told Urquhart about seeing a ‘shower’ of monarchs rain down from the western mountains in Mexico City during a hail storm. Urquhart recruited Brugger to the monarch butterfly cause, and Brugger and his wife conducted a two-year expedition to find these elusive butterflies that only ended when they stumbled upon the butterflies’ wintering site — a patch of land on the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt.
Finally, the secret monarch butterfly’s migratory path was clear, and more people came to see their beauty in the wild. Given that the migration of the monarchs in such large numbers was a giant attraction (plus, they stay from October through March), the state of California declared February 5 as California Western Monarch Day in 2004. Their main goals were to increase tourism and educate people about this butterfly.
Unfortunately, the Western monarch butterfly has been gradually heading towards borderline extinction. The decline in the number of these species is due to deforestation and the degradation of land, the excessive use of pesticides, climate change, and other factors that may alter migratory patterns — many of these have yet to be explored.
Considering their pollination habits and that migration is challenging for the Western monarch butterfly population, it is important to understand what a decline in their numbers really means. The dip in the monarch population is an astonishing 90%. Several conservation groups are researching and working towards protecting the creatures from extinction.
Western Monarch Day timeline
Monarch butterflies originate from Northern America and are introduced in Australia.
American naturalist Kenneth Brugger and his then-wife, Catalina Aguado, find out exactly where Monarch butterflies go for the winter; their years-long search is made into a movie — “Flight of the Butterflies,” in 2012.
The North American monarchs are given the highest priority in butterfly conservation at the World Congress of Entomology in Washington, D.C.
The Xerces Society sponsors the first conference on Monarch Conservation and Biology (MonCon I) in the Mexican state of Morelos.
An experiment by the International Space Station proves two types of butterflies can grow and develop in space — the Painted Lady and Monarch; larvae are taken up, and fully formed butterflies emerge and fly around.
The world notices a significant decline in monarch butterfly population: almost 90%; reasons for this include habitat fragmentation, use of pesticides, and reduced milkweed growth.
The monarch butterfly population plummets below 30,000.
Monarch butterflies seem to bounce back from a record low the previous year, returning in large numbers to California during this period.
Western Monarch Day FAQs
How many western monarchs are there?
Certain conservation efforts put the estimated numbers at 30,000 during 2018 and 2019, down from the almost 1.2 million monarchs in 1997.
What do monarch butterflies mean to the Day of the Dead?
Monarch butterflies represent the souls of departed loved ones who visit on the Day of the Dead. The date for this festival coincides with the winter migration of these butterflies to Mexico, lending credence to this tradition.
What is the difference between Western and Eastern monarchs?
The difference is the locations — Eastern monarchs migrate from the U.S.-Canadian border to central Mexico, and Western monarchs go from the U.S.-Canadian border to the Pacific Coast.
What is so special about the monarch butterfly?
One of the most recognized butterflies in the world, the monarch has very distinctive colors — orange wings with black lines and white dots. They are well-known for their long-distance seasonal migration, going from the U.S. and Canada to California and Mexico in the winter.
Western Monarch Day Activities
See the butterflies
Check out the thousands of butterflies gathered in California during the summer, either in person or virtually. You could even plan trips to local butterfly sanctuaries and check out the monarchs there.
Participate in conservation activities
You can donate to the conservationists' cause, help them spread awareness, or even collect data to help scientists find out more about this species. If you live in California, visit your local parks and witness the thousands of butterflies that gather there frequently. Raise awareness by inviting family or your friends to join you.
Create a monarch-friendly environment
Make your garden inviting for butterflies. The main plant that monarch butterflies search for is milkweed. Provide a safe environment for them by using natural, eco-friendly gardening products and limiting the use of pesticides. Grow milkweed native to your region, and maybe other nectar-producing plants too, to attract monarchs and other butterflies. Stay away from pesticides, though, as they are harmful to monarchs (and other insects too).
5 Fun Facts About The Monarch Butterfly
What's in a name?
The scientific name of the Monarch butterfly — ‘Danaus plexippus’ — means 'sleepy transformation' in Greek; the species hibernates, then turns into the Monarch butterfly, just like the name suggests.
The longest life cycle of all butterflies
The Monarch can live for up to eight months, making it the only butterfly species with such a long life cycle.
Their color warns predators off
Monarchs can easily ingest the toxic milkweed, making themselves poisonous to predators; their colors do the job of warning birds and other predators about their toxic nature.
Every advantage for a long journey
The sun helps them stay on course, they know to follow the Earth's magnetic field for guidance during the occasional cloudy day, and they've got a special gene that toughens their muscles in preparation for the long flights.
A new generation each cycle
As they return from the winter, they stop to lay eggs, and the new generation continues, eventually laying eggs themselves — repeating until a brand new generation has reached their destination again.
Why We Love Western Monarch Day
They are absolutely beautiful
Western monarchs are among those most beautiful species. They're considered to be one of the greatest pollinators too, on account of their long journey around the U.S. The Western Monarch Butterfly is delicate, vivid, and strikingly beautiful. As one of nature’s wonderful gems, how can we not love and protect it?
Their mysterious migration deserves attention
They travel more miles than many humans do, and they keep doing it each year. We're thinking their efforts deserve all our respect. The Earth is not only home to humans, but also to hundreds of millions of animal and insect species. Western Monarch Day encourages people to reflect on their behavior and the over-consumption of natural resources that is destroying our environment.
A boost to conservation efforts
Recognizing this day will eventually help create a positive impact on conservation efforts too. We could raise enough public interest to increase results. It is saddening to see the numbers of this national treasure diminishing so rapidly. Western Monarch Day is important for raising awareness of this crucial phenomenon, and we must ensure its survival by supporting all conservation efforts.
Western Monarch Day dates