Save the monarch butterfly, plant pollinators

Fairbanks Ranch resident Lola Langner converted her yard to a pollinator garden.
(Lola Langner)

Fairbanks Ranch resident Lola Langner is doing her part to help conserve the monarch butterfly population, encouraging her neighbors in Rancho Santa Fe and beyond to turn their yards into a friendly pollinator habitat and a welcoming migratory corridor for monarchs on the move.

Each fall, the monarchs migrate from the United States and Canada to central Mexico where they wait out the winter until they return in the spring. The monarch, with its distinctive bright orange, black and white markings, is at risk. The most recent survey of western monarchs showed that the population has declined more than 99% —a population once estimated at 4.5 million in the 1980s dropped to fewer than 30,000 in 2019.

“There are things all of us can be doing right now in our backyards,” Langner said.

Langner, a former attorney for Paramount Pictures, has been interested in the butterfly for quite some time.

After leaving her job last year she had more time to exercise her green thumb, not only exploring planting all kinds of foods like artichokes and potatoes but also converting her yard into a palace for monarch butterflies. The more she learned about pollinator gardens, the more she really began to rethink the role of her yard.

In addition to transforming her yard into a pollinator’s paradise, this last year she has been working to raise awareness and spread the word as much as she can on what individuals can do to help make a difference.

What Langner has learned about the population decline has been worrying. The Xerxes Society for Invertebrate Conservation counted just 1,914 monarchs during the 24th Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count in 2020, a 99.9% drop from 1997.

The butterfly’s decline is attributed to several factors, including the increased use of herbicides and insecticides and the widespread loss of habitat and native milkweed. Monarch butterflies are dependent on milkweed —they exclusively lay their eggs on the plant and hatching caterpillars eat the leaves.

In the United States, an effort has blossomed to provide habitat for monarch butterflies.

San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria declared May 1, 2021 Monarch Day at the San Diego Zoo’s native pollinator garden. Earlier in the year, the city signed the Mayoral Monarch Pledge, a National Wildlife Federation campaign with the goal to have cities commit to creating essential habitat for monarch butterflies and to educate residents about how they can make a difference at home and in their community.

The City of Solana Beach also signed the pledge in March with a list of actions they could take to help restore the monarch habitat including planting monarch-friendly habitats on pockets of city property and giving away free milkweed to residents. In April, the SeaWeeders Garden Club in partnership with the city, distributed more than 350 native milkweed plants and 1,430 seeds.

As an individual, Langner was determined to do her part to help save the monarch.

Langner, who grew up in New York and Connecticut, said her Fairbanks Ranch yard used to resemble the traditional garden her grandmother used to plant, filled with mostly roses.

“What I had in mind in California was palm trees and rosebushes and grass, I didn’t really have much more knowledge than that,” she said.

She found transforming her backyard into a pollinator garden was a “delightful and easy” change. She was thrilled when it became a haven for visiting monarchs.

“Last year we had as many as eight of them flying around, I was so excited,” Langner said. “The more I did, the more I wanted to do.”

In addition to seeing the joy of visiting butterflies, Langner said kids can learn about monarchs in their own backyards as they watch the caterpillars on the leaves, cocoon in chrysalis pods and the excitement of seeing a butterfly emerge.

Butterfly Farms in Encinitas, a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to education, conservation and research of native butterflies and pollinators, produces a list of plants that make up a good pollinator garden.

Owner Pat Flanagan said a good pollinator garden needs two types of plants to get butterflies to come to the yard and stay: nectar plants and host plants. The flowering nectar attracts adult species to visit and reproduce and the host plant, the milkweed, is where the female will lay its eggs and where the caterpillar will eat its leaves.

Anyone can start by just planting milkweed.

“We grow and sell native narrow-leaf milkweed,” Flanagan said of Butterfly Farms’ milkweed offered in different configurations for all kinds of different projects from those just starting out to the butterfly garden they recently helped plant at Seasons Restaurant at the Park Hyatt Aviara in Carlsbad.

Flanagan said good plants to accompany the milkweed include those from the salvia or sage family.

Lola Langner's pollinator garden seeks to welcome visiting butterflies.
(Lola Langner)

“They’re what we consider water-wise, the flowers are in every color and they bloom early,” Flanagan said. “The butterflies love them, the hummingbirds love them and the bees love them.”

Other plants on the list include snapdragons and buddleia, also known as butterfly bush, and colorful and nectar-rich pentas (sometimes called Egyptian star flowers) that bloom all summer.

“Every garden is different,” Flanagan said. “We really just encourage people to start where they feel comfortable. We share with people how to look at their yards differently, as a habitat, to stop using pesticides and let their yard be more natural. It’s healthy for all the little things that you have in your garden.”

Flanagan said people new to planting pollinator gardens are welcome to visit the farm, which includes a 3,000-square-foot Vivarium (butterfly free flight house) to learn more and get their questions answered. He said he has met so many people like Langner who have developed a true interest in doing their part to save the monarchs and being an advocate for the overall environment around them.

“We see it a lot and it’s pretty cool,” said Flanagan, who got into the field himself to help make a difference in butterfly and pollinator conservation. “We’re happy to be there to provide that service.”

Despite the dramatic drop in the monarch population, in December the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the monarch won’t be listed as an endangered species until 2024. While the organization acknowledged that listing the monarch as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act is warranted, it is at this time precluded by higher priority candidates.

“With .05% of the population left, we don’t have a lot of time to spare,” Langner said. “If we sit around and don’t try to help, 2024 could be too late.”

Langner said it shouldn’t take an act of Congress to help this special species—if everyone just pitched in to plant milkweed, it could help the issue: “One pollinator plant helps,” she said. “Five helps even more.”

Steps that Rancho Santa Fe homeowners can take to help the monarchs:

  • Plant milkweed
  • Plant other pollinators
  • Use friendly pesticides, not the harmful ones
  • Tell your friends and neighbors