Monarch Watch Update - December 15, 2003



1) Welcome!

2) Conservation Perspectives

3) Status of the Population

4) Western Monarchs

5) Day Length and the Monarch Migration

6) Introduced Predators and Parasitoids: Polistes dominulus

7) An Invitation: Video Conference with Monarch Watch

8) How to Unsubscribe from this Update


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2) Conservation Perspectives - by Jordi Honey-Rosés

Communal Lands and Community Organization

In the United States and Europe most of the land is privately owned by individuals. In contrast, Mexico distinguishes itself with a system of communal land tenure where rural groups called Ejidos and Indigenous Communities own most of the property. In fact, these communities own eighty percent of Mexico's forestland which harbors most of the countries biodiversity. The system of communal land tenure is unique to Mexico and has strongly shaped conservationists' protection strategy. Increasingly, those working to protect biodiversity and natural areas have become interested in supporting the internal organizational capacity of the rural communities who own the highly bio-diverse lands. Some conservationists have found that investing in the organizational capacity of these landowners can be even more effective than more traditional conservation initiatives.

The Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve is no exception when it comes to communal land tenure. Of the 40 properties of the core zone of the Protected Area, 33 are owned by Ejidos or Indigenous Communities, while only 5 are private properties and 2 are State or Federal Properties.

In light of the communal land system in Mexico, it is frequently suggested that the rural communities' ability to protect their forest is directly related to their capacity to organize as a group, to hold General Assemblies, to elect legal representatives, to determine community priorities, to manage funds transparently, and to respect internal codes of conduct. Without this organizational capacity, many claim that conservation cannot be achieved. Some take this even further by asserting that no project will be successful, be it related to health, education, gender equality or economic development, if the rural community is not well organized.

A lack of community organization often results in poor forest protection and high deforestation rates on communal lands. A clear example of this can be found in Monarch Protected Area along the Chivati Mountain range in the Indigenous Community of San Cristobal. San Cristobal has a history of poor community organization. Up until a few months ago San Cristobal had gone over a year without holding a General Assembly. When the former community leader's term expired, the date for new elections came and went without a community election at the General Assembly. Without a legally elected community leader San Cristobal had no one to represent them. There was no legal representative to seek community development projects, sign the papers, administer funds, or vouch for the communities' interest. This lack of community organization prevented San Cristobal from benefiting from different governmental and non-governmental programs.

In contrast, the neighboring Ejido of El Paso is an example of strong community organization. They hold regular General Assemblies and have created a community forest management plan. This year they used aerial photography to study their forest in addition to the field data they frequently collect to monitor forest growth. El Paso also has local community members watch after their forest on a regular basis. The result has been that illegal loggers never dare to encroach on El Paso’s timber.

The organizational capacities of El Paso and San Cristobal can been seen reflected on the conservation status of their forest. San Cristobal does not have a single hectare of high or medium quality forest in the Protected Area. Its entire 280 hectares in the core zone are classified as poor quality, with 176 of these hectares completely deforested looking more like a desert. This is especially sad considering that less than 20 years ago overwintering Monarch colonies were once found in San Cristobal. Much of this destruction goes back many years, but so does their history of poor community organization. In stark contrast, neighboring Ejido El Paso has 451 hectares of well protected forest.

Visitors can see the El Paso and San Cristobal boundary from the entrance of the El Rosario colony by looking southwest or by looking straight south from the top of the Chincua range. One should see El Paso’s patch of well protected forest bordering a flat, dry and dusty area that can be clearly identified as San Cristobal.

The contrast between El Paso and San Cristobal shows the results of strong or week rural communities. It also reinforces those who argue that conservationists must also work on community organization in order to protect the habitat of the Monarch Butterfly.

*** The Monarch colony monitored on November 15th moved rapidly down the south- western slope of the Chincua range in the second two weeks of November. The colony position on November 29th was 363498 East and 2175976 North, meaning it moved 531 meters to the West and 283 meters to the North. This placed the colony approximately 185 meters from the Llano del Toro on November 29th. Understanding exactly why the colonies move is a research question still left unanswered.

*** As part of an environmental education program, twenty local landowners were flown over their properties and given an opportunity to see their forest from the air for the first time on November 27-30 by an organization (Lighthawk) of volunteer pilots.

A few photos are available at

Conservation Perspectives
Conservation Perspectives will provide regular and accurate updates on the local conservation issues at the Mexican overwintering sites of the Monarch Butterfly. This space will be a forum for discussion and sharing. The updates will serve as conduit for ideas and stories that are rarely heard from Mexican side of the border, especially those successes by local Mexican inhabitants to protect the forest of the Monarch Butterfly.


3) Status of the Population - by Chip Taylor

The migration should be over and all the monarchs should have arrived at the overwintering sites by the end of the first week of December - right? At least that’s what we have been telling people for years. Yet, on the 30th of November Harlen and Altus Aschen reported seeing a number of monarchs moving in a southwesterly direction near Port Lavaca, Texas. Harlen even saw a monarch heading in a SW direction (on a typical heading for migratory butterflies) as late as the 7th of December. Go figure! There is still a lot we don’t know.

The size of the overwintering colonies is usually measured in December and sometimes into early January. For now, all we can say is that the local residents claim that this is a good year for monarchs. Monarchs have returned to Altimirano this year. Atimirano is a somewhat degraded site that, in recent years, has only been used by monarchs when the overall population in sizeable. So, the appearance of monarchs at this location may be a good sign. We hope to have preliminary information on the size of the population for the January Update.


4) Western Monarchs

It is difficult to obtain a clear picture of status of the overwintering colonies in California. Monarchs overwinter in as many as 300 hundred sites along hundreds of miles of coastline. A number of groups, with a variety of affiliations, monitor many of these sites.

The following is a report from Mia Monroe who is coordinating the counts for the California Monarch Campaign sponsored by the Xerces Society. This initiative is important since changes in land use in California are a continuous threat to monarch breeding and overwintering habitats. The monitoring is desirable since it provides the information needed to determine if changes in the size of the population are due to climatic or anthropogenic factors.

A preliminary assessment of the overwintering monarch colonies in California
By Mia Monroe

Most county reports are in and it looks like a landslide at Central, not another California election but the early results of this year's Thanksgiving Count!

Every year in the weeks around Thanksgiving, citizen scientists visit overwintering sites up and down the California coast to note butterfly presence, conduct counts, describe the sites and share the information to help contribute to our understanding of the western monarch phenomenon. Started a number of years ago by the Monarch Program, the Thanksgiving Count continues to evolve and this year was again launched at Andrew Molera State Park. Monitors Sarah Stock and Jason Scott offered training in counting, site location and other techniques to standardize our methods. Others learned how to GPS sites. Dennis Frey and Shawna Stevens developed an improved database. Then, we all went out into the field and were amazed!

The colonies in the "core" area, from Santa Barbara to Santa Cruz Counties, have high numbers. Dennis Frey reported, "County-wide, greater than last year" with 14 out of 20 sites showing more monarchs than last year in San Luis Obispo County. This is also the word in Santa Barbara County with monitor David Lange starting his report with the observation "Ellwood Main continues to amaze!". His data also shows the value of repeat visits to sites since the Ellwood Main site had 13,400 monarchs on 11/22 and he then counted 18,400 on 12/05! Santa Barbara County has a preliminary total of 33,500 monarchs from 6 sites. David also states "Numbers point to substantial recovery from last year's low populations."

In California there has been much speculation on the impact of the October-November fires in San Diego County on the southern monarch overwintering sites. David Marriott and other Monarch Program monitors have spent a lot of time in the field and offer their thoughts on the effects of the fires on the program's web site at

Good news from Pacific Grove sites and others in Monterey County. The Monarch Sanctuary is an awesome place and reports 22,802 butterflies this year! They've returned to Washington Park (2,750) and the Jason/Sarah Team (Ventana Wilderness Society) report a total of 68,979 butterflies (now, that's an accurate count!) for their region!

Continuing north, visitors are experiencing the wonder of monarchs at Natural Bridges. And Ardenwood holds steady, says Jan Southworth with 900-1000 butterflies (same as last year). San Francisco, Marin and Sonoma Counties show low numbers (most sites unoccupied) this year but Dave MacKenzie did locate small clusters at Muir Beach and Mia Monroe found overwintering clusters only at Chapman House in Stinson Beach (5,000) and a site in Bolinas (10,000).

Interested in viewing monarchs in California this winter? Best sites to visit are Natural Bridges, Pacific Grove, Pismo Beach and Ellwood Main. You can view, while having minimal impact on the butterflies, and often there are docents on hand. Also, check out Hilary MacGregor's "Orange Crush" report in the LATimes, complete with a video clip of Sarah and Jason in action at

Other News from California

The following article deals with the efforts by the city of Goleta, CA and resident monarch enthusiasts, such as Cynthia Brock, mayor of Goleta, and Chris Lange to save one of California’s largest monarch overwintering sites.


5) Day Length and the Monarch Migration - by Chip Taylor

What is the relationship between changes in day length and the timing of the monarch migration?

The change in day length that occurs in the fall is the first thing most of us think of to explain the monarch migration. Many insects and other organisms have been shown to respond to changes day length so it seems likely that monarchs might initiate the migration, i.e. directional flight accompanied by other behavioral and/or physiological changes, in response to either a specific day length, or the rate of change (minutes per day) in day length. Although this is an attractive hypothesis, it doesn’t seem to fit well with what we know about the timing of the migration.

Monarchs are recruited to join the migration over at least 25 degrees of latitude from 50 degrees north (e.g. Winnipeg) to 25 degrees or less in Texas and northern Mexico. A buildup of monarchs was noted by several observers (Wanke, Lizard, Goodwin as reported to Dplex-L) in the vicinity of Winnipeg, from 30 July to mid-August 2001. Large numbers of monarchs were seen feeding and clustered on trees but no directional movement was reported. Subsequently, Goodwin, and others, indicated that most of the monarchs had left the area by the 17th of August. The day length for 30 July in Winnipeg is 15:19 hrs and for the 16th of August it is 14:25 hrs. At this latitude and time of year, day length decreases 3.2 minutes per day. In Lawrence, KS (38:57 N) we don’t see directional movement by local monarchs until the first wave of monarchs arrives from the north and east 8-11 September. The day length at this time is 12:40 hrs and the rate of change is 2.2 minutes per day. Similarly, when the front of the migration reaches Uvalde, Texas (29:12 N), usually around 5-8 October, the day length is 11:46 hrs and the rate of change is 1.5 minutes per day. Monarchs that join the migration in October and November, after the main wave of migrants has passed a specific latitude, do so when the days and rates of change are even shorter.

As you can see from this pattern, the migration starts when days are long in the north with butterflies being recruited to join the migration at shorter day lengths as the migration progressively moves S-SW. Further, the rate of change varies across latitudes such that at the highest latitudes the rate changes fairly rapidly at the time of earliest recruitment but more slowly at lower latitudes. So, given this pattern, there is no specific day length or rate of change in day length associated with the beginning of the migration across all latitudes. From this we can see that fall monarchs are flying toward the sun from regions of longer days to areas of shorter days. The reverse is true in the spring. By the time monarchs arrive at the overwintering sites (19.5 N), day length is only changing a few minutes per week.

The best site we found for day length is


6) Introduced Predators and Parasitoids: Polistes dominulus - by Chip Taylor

We live on a changing planet and many of the changes are related to the intentional and accidental introduction of species into new areas. Fortunately, most introductions fail. However, the number of successful introductions is still substantial and the introduced species often affect populations of local species. Such effects are often subtle and difficult to measure and it sometimes takes decades to establish the impact of an introduced species on the native fauna or flora. I am aware of 5 introduced predators and parasitoids that have the potential to have an impact on monarchs and butterfly populations in general. Three species, the multicolored Asian lady bird beetle (Harmonia axyridis), the seven-spotted lady beetle (Coccinella septempunctata), and the tachinid fly (Compsilura concinnata), were intentionally introduced to control herbivorous insects, the latter to control the gypsy moth, Lymantria dispar. Harmonia and Compsilura are known to feed on monarch larvae and the seven-spotted Coccinella is likely to do so as well. The German yellow jacket (Vespula germanica) and the European, or Old World, paper wasp (Polistes dominulus) appear to be accidental introductions. Both species feed chewed up pieces of soft-bodied insects, particularly caterpillars, to their larvae. Their food preferences can be seen as beneficial if the prey are important pests of food or ornamental plants or detrimental if the prey are desirable species such as most butterflies and some moths. The following text deals with the most recently introduced species, Polistes dominulus. Write ups on the other species will be prepared as time permits.

Polistes dominulus ( was first reported in Massachusetts, near Boston in 1981. It is now known from Massachusetts, Maine, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, California, Washington and most recently Colorado (2003). The manner of spread, with new populations appearing in areas hundreds of miles from other known populations, suggests that mated overwintering queens (the nests are annual and only the queens overwinter in Polistes), or perhaps intact colonies nesting in cavities, are being inadvertently transferred in interstate commerce.

P. dominulus has the potential to colonize much of North America. This species ranges through most of Europe and south to the Mediterranean including North Africa. It also is known from much of Eurasia and reaches China. The range of climates and habitats in which this species is found in the Old World suggests that it will eventually colonize much of the United States, parts of Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritimes as well as northern Mexico. P. dominulus has also become established in parts of South America (Chile) and Australia. Its success in these areas may also signal the potential distribution of P. dominulus in North America.

Introduced species seem to require a number of characteristics that allow them to "fit in" in new communities. Among these attributes are high reproductive rates, various reproductive or seasonal advantages relative to native species, and the ability to compete for space and food. P. dominulus has all these features and more. This is a species with a high reproductive rate, an advantage that is enhanced by the tendency to establish nests earlier than native paper wasps, to nest in cavities, and use nests from the previous season. P. dominulus also utilizes a broader range of nest sites and prey than the native species. These characteristics have led to the rapid establishment of P. dominulus in a number of areas, particularly in cities where remarkably high densities have been observed. Rapid increase in P. dominulus has been associated with a decline in the native species P. fuscatus and P. metricus. However, the experts can’t agree on whether the decline in these species is associated with the increase of P. dominulus or might be ascribed to other factors. Curiously, P. dominulus appears to be less successful in colonizing rural areas than cities and their suburbs. If this pattern persists in the future, negative impacts of P. dominulus will be limited to those areas in which the local conditions allow it to flourish.

The inclination for P. dominulus to colonize bird boxes has brought it into conflict with bird lovers. The species is proving to be a serious pest for those who manage purple martin houses and bird-houses in general. P. dominulus frequently colonizes the boxes before the birds arrive to nest causing birds such as tree swallows and bluebirds to be excluded. The wasps also constitute a management problem, often leading to some stings, since the wasp nests have to be continually removed.

I wish to thank Rudy Benavides, National Wildlife Visitor Center in Laurel, Maryland; Bob Matthews, University of Georgia, Eugene S. Morton, Smithsonian Institution, Front Royal, VA; and John Wenzel, Ohio State University for providing information used in this account.


7) An Invitation: Video Conference with Monarch Watch

In October we asked if any of you use Mac OS X and have the capability of using iChatAV, Apple Computer's personal video conferencing software for OS X (please see the October update for further details). Our intention is to use this system to video conference with classrooms and to develop a list of teachers who would be interested in communicating school to school with this technology.

As we mentioned in the November update, we posted a portion of our first video conference with Karen Vitek and her students at Nassau Spackenkill School in Poughkeepsie, New York at

We are really impressed with this technology as it is far easier to use than most of the other video conferencing options available to schools in recent years. If you are a teacher and would be interested in having a direct video conference with Monarch Watch or with other schools, please contact us at

For more information on iChatAV visit


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