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Nov. 3, 2022

Monarch Butterflies with Natalie Johnston

Monarch Butterflies with Natalie Johnston

What makes butterflies so magical? They are a wonder and a delight, and I’m so excited to be diving into a full episode about what is possibly the most iconic species of butterfly in the world: Monarchs. Have you ever wondered why they’re bright orange, how far they migrate, or why they capture our collective imagination? I have! Come with me to the Pacific Grove Monarch Sanctuary to find out more about these creatures that are as graceful as they are legendary.


Monarch Joint Venture 

Monarchs and The Day of the Dead 

Xerces Society 

Western Scrubjays are Capable of Metacognition 

Store-Bought Milkweed and Pesticides 

Interview with Dr. Richard Stringer 

Monarchs on Eucalyptus Trees 

Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History 

Pacific Grove Monarch Sanctuary

You can find me @goldenstatenaturalist on both Instagram and TikTok

My website is

You can support the show on Patreon here:

The theme song is called "i dunno" by grapes, and you can find the link as well as the Creative Commons license here


Monarch Butterflies with Natalie Johnston


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Note: This transcript was made by robots and may be a little wonky. 

Profile icon of Michelle Fullner
Michelle Fullner
Hello and welcome to Golden State naturalist, a podcast for anyone who's ever forgotten to bring their binoculars on a trip that was specifically about looking at tiny creatures in a far off tree top.

I'm Michelle Fullner. And today, we're talking about what is possibly the most iconic butterfly in the world. In this episode, you're gonna hear my conversation with Natalie Johnston about monarch butterflies, including why they're orange the plants they rely on the difference between a chrysalis and a cocoon how far monarchs travel, why they clustered together in the 1000s. During the winter historical accounts of air that was alive with butterflies how to design a monarch sanctuary, the best time of year to see monarchs how many paperclips it would take to pull down a tree, multigenerational migration places in the world where monarchs can be found their endangered status, how you can help the monarchs and a bunch of other pollinators at the same time, and a little about what these butterflies have come to symbolize today. Really quick before we dive into all of that this is the second episode in Season Two. I've already recorded most of the interviews for this season, which is going to be loaded with so many good topics like dark desert skies, native plants, urban nature, amphibians, the La Brea Tar Pits and the height of the last ice age in California, and so much more. If you're interested in the natural world, especially here in California, make sure to subscribe to this podcast so you get notified about new episodes as soon as they release. If you're in Apple podcasts, you can do that by hitting the little plus sign at the top right hand corner of your screen, it should look like a little checkmark if you've already subscribed, and if you're enjoying the podcast and want access to things like video and audio extras behind the scenes updates and AMA's I can't tell you how much I would appreciate it. If you consider becoming a patron by donating as little as $4 a month to the show that helps me so much as an independent podcaster. And it covers things like audio equipment, gas money to get me to interviews the necessary subscriptions for making the show. Just last week, I hosted my first zoom AMA on Patreon. It was so fun and I feel so fortunate to be supported by such wonderful, knowledgeable, generous, fun human beings. If you want to be one of them. You can find me on Patreon at Fullner. That's Michelle with two L's and Fullner is fu ll en er if you want to keep up with me on social media, you can find me at Golden State naturalist on Instagram and Tiktok. My website is www dot Golden State One last thing before we get to the episode, if you listen to the end of each episode, I always say something either embarrassing or funny or in some way interesting from my week. I'll do that today. But then keep listening until the very end to hear some very minor drama that unfolded as Natalie and I recorded this episode, which gives some insight into what it can be like recording in the field. But now let's get to the episode. Natalie Johnston got her bachelor's degree in biological sciences from UC Davis in 2011. And she spent the past 10 years working for nonprofits and conservation organizations in and around Pacific Grove. She's a certified California naturalist and now the community science coordinator and resident monarch person for the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History. So without further ado, let's hear from Natalie Johnston about monarch butterflies on Golden State naturalist.
How many do you think are in this single tree right here? Oh,
so it was 1500 on the right and plus 1100 On the left, plus another couple 100. So maybe about 3001 on one tree here.
Natalie and I met up at the monarch sanctuary in Pacific Grove on an afternoon at the end of October. On the day we met the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History counted 11,213 monarchs in this small sanctuary. And even though there were so many of them in the Monterey pine, Natalie and I were standing beneath, I saw several people walk right up to the tree without noticing that they were there.
When they're clustered, they can be hard to see because with their wings folded, they lose that bright orange vibrancy and they resemble more of a pale gray color. So some people will come through the sanctuary and at first they won't see any monitors. They're like what's going on? I thought they were supposed to be here. But then once they see one when the triangle shape and you can still see the black stripes along their wings, the veins. Once you see them, then suddenly you start seeing them everywhere.
Or yeah, what's your tip for somebody you have any tips for somebody who's just seeing them for the first time and doesn't really know what to look for? Like, how do you get your Monarch eyes on,
I recommend a pair of binoculars is handy, we got the shame, I also recommend looking out for small, what look like small triangular pine cones, or what may look like triangular folded leaves. Some of my volunteer docents will call them like gray potato chip. Yeah, just look out for those tiny triangles. And when we first get here, to count them, we'll first do a scan, like looking over every single tree. And then you find them. And then suddenly, they're everywhere. And also, if you want to see them in flight, then come when the weather's a bit warmer, like maybe around over 55 degrees. And there's also going to be down towards the lower end of the trail, a bed of nectar plants, which are very popular for them to feed off of. So that's a good place for people to see the monarchs as well.
Nice. And so here, when they're clustering like this in the trees, they're just resting is that the idea?
Exactly. For the monarchs, their idea is just to have a safe space to stay throughout the winter, before they head back to their homes, which for this population will be Oregon, Washington, Idaho or so once their weather start getting warm in around the spring time. That's when they'll head back north. So just hunker down, stay safe shelter from the elements. And of course, you know, get some food while you're here.
So basically, monarchs are like well to do retirees who go south for the winter, except they have to do this to survive. Also, the whole round trip journey spans multiple generations, which Natalie and I will talk more about later. Do you
see that light green substance and draping from the branches like a net? Yeah, that's lace like in the fungus, algae symbiosis. And monarchs are so lightweight, they're only weigh about half the size of a paperclip or half of dollar bill. And so they'll just clean to that least like in like a net. And it's pretty great to watch.
Wow, are some of them doing that right now?
Some of them are and some of them are even clinging to each other because they are lightweight enough to do that. Or just hanging on to a pine needle or the branch itself.
One of the things I've heard about monarchs is and I don't know if this has ever happened here is that sometimes there have been cases where so many have been on a tree that they've pulled the tree over. Is that true?
It is true. But because this is an endangered species, and their numbers have been drastically declining. It has not happened in a while, at least not here. But yes, that has been known to happen. So
yeah, how many paper clips would that take? clips to pull a tree down?
I feel like that could be a science experiment.
Yeah. That's a good math problem. group of kids or something. Okay, I realize there are a lot of variables in a problem like this, and probably a near infinite number of correct solutions. But it sounds like a fun thing to play around with. My next question is something that also involves a lot of variables. Okay, one thing I'm wondering about is what makes a good sanctuary like you've got all of these different types of trees and, and what kind of goes into planning an area like this?
That's a really excellent question. One of the things is for them to have good protection from the elements. The temperate climate that's in that Pacific Grove and other parts of coastal California, makes this a good spot for them to winter. Then we have different trees that allow them both to get shelter from the elements.
Three types of trees that we saw in the sanctuary that day were Monterey pines, Monterey, Cypress, and eucalyptus trees. And I know that there were others too. But those were three of the ones that Natalie specifically mentioned, the monarchs overwintering in. Now if you know native plants, you know that eucalyptus are not native plants and the eucalyptus trees around the sanctuary were planted as a windbreak so that the butterflies will be able to find shelter more easily. I'm not here to get into the middle of a debate about whether or not eucalyptus trees which are invasive in California should be planted to protect monarchs, which are endangered in a native species. So I'm just going to kindly refer you to a bay Nature article on this topic, which I'll link in the show notes. Monterey pines in Monterey cypress both have a pretty limited distribution. So it was pretty cool to see those growing in the sanctuary,
but also give them access to sunlight so that they can warm up and then fly later on. It's a pretty good balance between access to sunlight, but also protection from the elements. Then, in addition to the different trees, there's also the nectar beds, these places where monarchs can feed from they should mostly be resting during the winter, but it's still good for them to have a food source that is things that flowered during the winter time. California has cool Mediterranean climate does mean that we have a good number of native flowering plants in here and then this sanctuaries supplements those native flowers with some non native ones as well. But then, in addition to all of that, you also have the underbrush and the grasses and the shrubs. In case a monarch does fall down from its tree onto the ground, it can climb a bush, a shrub, to get access to sunlight be away from the ground until its wings can warm up, and then it can fly back up to one of those trees.
Is it hard for them to take off if they're too cold,
they cannot take off if they are too early. That's a funny thing about monarchs. They are exothermic. That is they are cold blooded creatures. And while monarchs can walk around in a colder temperature, they can't really move their wings when it gets to kind of around under 55 degrees Fahrenheit or so. So it only is above those temperatures that they can really fly, you might see monarchs just when it's getting to that time seeing what looks like like they're shivering, they're just moving their wings back and forth, trying to get some warmth into there so that they can take off.
Wow. And so it would be bad if they fell to the ground somewhere completely shaded, because then they would never potentially be able to warm up
precisely. And that's why they would then walk around which they can still do trying to find a shrub or a grass or something that can take them someplace where they can access sunlight.
This vulnerability to the elements relates to the reason why monarchs clustered together in the 1000s. Like we mentioned earlier, I'll let Natalie explain a little bit more about that.
If you have one monarch by itself, it's like a boat with a sail, the wind is just going to hit it. Yeah. But if you have a bunch of monarchs together, instead, it's more like shingles on a roof, where the wind and the rain would more cascade down on all of them, lessening the effect than one would have by itself,
which is probably why overall population numbers are also so important, right? Like, yes, having a larger population allows them to congregate. That's true that
and then monarchs can help the pollinators to help plants around as well. And they're just good for the ecosystem. So yes, we track the population in California during the winter time, because they are clustering which means that they're all close together and not moving so that way we can get accurate numbers.
After we spent some time admiring the butterflies in the trees above us, Natalie and I walked a little ways down the path and found a place to sit down for the full interview, stick around to hear about milkweed how different generations of monarchs live for different amounts of time, monarchs around the US and the world. lifecycles monarch lookalikes shifting baseline syndrome monarch conservation the toxicity of monarchs clever corvids, raising butterflies in captivity, Monarch myths beginning journeys that we ourselves will never finish and how we can help both monarchs and our extended family of creatures all around us all of that in just a moment.
And now, on to the full interview, how did you get interested in being a naturalist? And how did you get interested in monarchs in particular?
Oh, thanks. I've always found the study of biology and animal ecology to be really interesting, because other things, other sciences follow exact equations. But biology is the science where you have so many different factors at once, that you start getting into trends, you start getting into probabilities. And I find that just so fascinating. I've been with the marine ecology world for a while, and all of the invertebrates that kind of dominate this planet, and they're so fascinating. They have such a very different life cycles from us. And I feel like the monarch butterfly takes that just extreme life a step further. But then again, I've also grown up in this area, so it was amazing growing up and just kind of taking butterfly Town USA Pacific Grove for granted that yes, Monarch butterflies. Monarch Butterflies are so iconic, that they are generally the default butterfly emoji on your phone, and yet, they're so different from all other butterflies. They are larger, they live longer, they have a different flight pattern they migrate. And so monarch butterflies, I think are the exception That makes the rule
because they are so distinct, they become iconic. And then we kind of maybe even make incorrect inferences about other butterflies based on based on what we know about monarchs kind