Monarch Butterflies and the Butterfly Effect

monarch on zinnia

Monarch visiting a Zinnia flower

My friend Candace shared an article this weekend from the New York Times on the shocking decline of the Monarch Butterfly. I’ve been following their plight, and blogged about it earlier this year.

Here’s a bit of background:

Unlike most migrating species, monarch butterflies employ an improbable strategy that splits their round-trip migration between generations. Their life cycles must be intricately synchronized with those of the milkweed on which they lay their eggs.

Monarchs returning from Mexico reach the Southeast soon after native milkweeds appear in spring, producing the first of up to three generations that breed on new milkweed through summer. When the perennials start dying back in the fall, a final generation of butterflies typically emerges in a sexually immature state. Rather than reproduce when food is scarce and caterpillars might freeze, they fly to Mexico, to wait out the winter.

In the Midwest, which produces half of Mexico’s wintering monarchs, the scores of wild milkweed species among grasslands and farms are fast disappearing.

Nearly 60 percent of native Midwestern milkweeds vanished between 1999 and 2009, the biologists Karen Oberhauser and John Pleasants reported in 2012 in the journal Insect Conservation and Diversity. The loss coincided with increased applications of the weed killer Roundup on expanded plantings of corn and soybeans genetically altered to tolerate the herbicide. Meanwhile, monarch reproduction in the Midwest dropped more than 80 percent, as did populations in Mexico. Source: New York Times

Like many backyard gardeners, I wanted to do something to help, so I bought a packet of Milkweed seeds advertised as Butterfly Flowers. They are the genus Asclepias incarnata. What I didn’t know is that Swamp Milkweed continues to grow past the time the butterflies should be heading south.

butterfly collage july 2014

Monarch sipping nectar from Statice

According to the article, our good intentions could be backfiring.  Here’s an excerpt:

There’s this huge groundswell of people planting tropical milkweed, and we don’t know what it’s doing to the butterflies,” said Francis X. Villablanca, a biology professor at California Polytechnic University. “We’re all in a rush to figure it out.”

Dr. Altizer fears that when monarchs encounter lush foliage in the fall, they may become confused, start breeding and stop migrating.

“It’s sad, because people think planting milkweed will help,” she said. “But when milkweed is available during the winter, it changes the butterfly’s behavior.”

The times article linked to additional reading including ways to create habitat for Monarchs. I also learned at The Exerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation that its important to plant Milkweed native to our area. I found a site called Larner Seeds and ordered a species of Milkweed better suited to San Jose.

The Butterfly Effect

The butterfly effect is a scientific theory put forth by Edward Lorenz. It’s described this way:

In chaos theory, the butterfly effect is the sensitive dependence on initial conditions in which a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state. The name of the effect, coined by Edward Lorenz, is derived from the metaphorical example of the details of a hurricane (exact time of formation, exact path taken) being influenced by minor perturbations such as the flapping of the wings of a distant butterfly several weeks earlier.

Ray Bradbury’s uses the butterfly effect in his chilling short story, A Sound of Thunder. Wealthy hunters pay a large sum of money to travel back in time to kill a dinosaur. They must stay on the approved path, and shoot the dinosaur, seconds before the animal dies from a falling tree. The hunter steps off the path and irrevocably alters time. When he returns to the present his reality is permanently altered. Devastated, he looks down at his boot and sees a crushed butterfly.

Could we be witnessing our own ‘butterfly effect’? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Additional Resources on the Monarch’s plight include:

Butterfly Chrysalis

Butterfly Chrysalis

Butterfly Habitiat

Butterfly habitat: My son raised and released five Monarchs several years ago

Happy Mail Times Two

Mailbox full of mailVal over at Nikitiland published a post of a similar name yesterday and included free, downloadable labels that say Happy Mail.  She went on to ask:

When was the last time you got something in the mail that wasn’t a bill?

Well. The funniest thing happened when I joined the world of blogging: My Happy Mail started to overflow. Treasures arrived from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other parts of the US. I’ve managed to surround myself with thoughtful, creative, talented people who share their talents with generosity.

I relish the irony of the fact that we’ve all met online, but were quick to broaden and deepen our connections via snail mail. For as long as I can remember, I always loved ‘checking the mail.’ When I traveled to Europe in 1989, I obtained an American Express mailbox in Paris. After traveling for a month I arrived in Paris and took a subway to the AMEX office. Imagine my joy to receive six letters from family and friends back home. I ♥ mail!

She’s Here!

It’s true: one slim white envelope on your doormat can send your heart racing. Squee!

Earlier this week I re-blogged Pauline King’s post A Painting for Alys. Pauline blends paper and paint, and in this case, some of my father’s stamps, and gathers them into beautiful works of mixed media art.

The Wonderland of Alys

The Wonderland of Alys ©Pauline King

Rich color and texture

Rich color and texture

Flowers, hearts and postage stamps

Flowers, hearts and postage stamps

I knew she was working on something, but by the time she posted her blog, the beautiful painting was already making its way from New Zealand to California. It arrived yesterday. Thank you, Pauline!

Amber Leaf, Heart of Gold

I received this second precious gift from a regular follower. Mary Elizabeth’s life is full taking care of her disabled son. She faces challenging days, but does so with grace and love and heart. Thank you, ME. You’re an inspiration.

autumn leaf pin

Autumn Gold

To read more about Pauline’s process, check out her blog at The Contented Crafter.

Pauline offers some of her treasures through her Etsy shop at The Contented Crafter: Whimsical Art, Hand-Crafted Cards and Sparkly Things

You can also find her on Facebook

Seedy Business

California’s drought drags on. To that end, I’ve planned my seedy business judiciously. About two weeks ago, this sweet little box of seeds arrived in the mail, my modest order from Botanical Interests. They even included “thank you lettuce.” You don’t see that ever day.

Botanical Interests Box of Seeds

Botanical Interests Box of Seeds

When I first starting buying seeds, I didn’t pay much attention to the source. Now that I’m better educated, I prefer buying organic where possible, while supporting small, independent companies.

Cover Crop:

Once the unidentified behemoth, aka the pumpkin/zucchini mystery plant, dies back, I’ll plant both vegetable boxes with a cover crop. Purchased online from Botanical Interests,

This hardworking combination of field peas and hulled oats is a legume and grass cover crop that quickly benefits the soil with nutrients and green matter, while helping suppress weeds. A great cover crop for established gardens, the mix is also perfect for improving areas being turned into gardens such as lawns and vacant lots.

Pea plants fix nitrogen and condition the topsoil while the pea flowers attract bees and other beneficial insects. As an added benefit the young pea shoots and tendrils are edible and can be used in salads or as a soup topping. Oats hold nitrogen, provide green matter and provide support for the pea vines.

cover crop seeds

Cover Crop Seeds

When planted in the fall, the oats and peas benefit from the cool weather but are killed by the cold temperatures of winter and won’t regrow in the spring. The dead plant material provides a wonderful winter mulch that helps prevent soil erosion and is ready to be tilled into the garden as soon as soil can be worked in the spring

Not bad for $2.99 a packet! I bought three.


This is my only cool-season crop. I’ve grown it before and it got by on very little watering. I’m hoping for the same success to keep my water usage low.

Butterfly Flower:

After reading earlier this year about the decline in butterfly populations, I learned that one of the problems is the reduction in Milkweed. I’ve never seen it offered in our nursery centers, but found the seeds online.  It’s a perennial, and will replace the seasonal flowers I’ve grown for the past two years in the triangle near our front sidewalk.  The plant prefers swampy conditions, but they say it will do okay with ‘regular’ garden watering.

Butterfly Flower and Broccoli

Butterfly Flower and Broccoli

I’m trying not to get my hopes up, since San Jose is anything but swampy. I’ll be thrilled, though, if I can plant a healthy shrub that attracts Monarch’s and helps them on their way south.

Cat Grass Oats:

My sister’s indoor kitty, KT loves his greens. He prefers home-grown to what’s available at the market and I can grow it for a song year round. Pretty cool, eh?  So I plant a pot every few weeks and place it near the kitchen window. My sister brings me the empty pot, and I start a new batch so we always have them in rotation.

I tried to get Mr. Personality to pose for these pictures, but we wasn’t having any of it. He eventually nibbled on the corner of the envelope, before jumping down and moving on.

cat with grass seeds

“Clever” Photo attempt Number One

cat with seeds

“Clever” Photo attempt Number Two

Here is the lovely KT moving in for a nibble. Isn’t he the sweetest? KT started out as a foster cat, but she couldn’t let him go.

KT Loves his Greens

KT Loves his Greens

So, that’s my seedy business this fall. How about you? Are you dropping a seed or two into the earth, a greenhouse, or the time-honored pot in the windowsill?

Things With Wings

Lift, gravity and thrust. It’s not the latest dance craze, but a short list of what things-with-wings need to fly.

Wouldn’t it be thrilling to have wings?  I remember an episode of Gilligan’s Island years ago that always made me chuckle. In one attempt to get off the shipwrecked island, Gilligan donned wings and jumped off a cliff.  He momentarily flew until the Skipper shouted “You can’t fly!”  Gilligan replied, “Oh’, and only then did he drop to the ground.

I love watching things-with-wings flying in and out of my garden. They move with speed, efficiency and agility like a well-trained gymnast flying over the bars. What a thrill.


bird collage july 2014

Visiting birds

I worry about the birds as our drought drags on. They’re traveling in circles, searching for food, water and seed. Reservoirs are low and plants are under a lot of stress.

I keep our bird bath topped off so that our visitors can quench their thirst. The garden takes care of the rest. It’s satisfying watching birds sip nectar from a flower or pilfer seeds from the compost bin. They sing, trill, hum and yes shriek but it’s all a reminder of our garden diversity.

According to

{birds} can play any number of roles in a given ecosystem, most of which fall into four main categories: provisioning, regulating, cultural enhancement and supporting services. Supporting services, for example, include tasks such as predation, pollination and seed dispersal.

All that and they’re cute, too.


bee collage july 2014

Bees pollinating sunflowers, pumpkins and Salvia

Through the camera lens, I’ve witnessed the extraordinary movement of bees gathering pollen. Shiny black bodies lift in and out of the pumpkin flowers, coating themselves a golden-yellow. The buzzing sound stops when they land, and within seconds they lift off again They are all business. If another bee is in the center of the flower, the second bee backs up and continues on. What they accomplish is extraordinary and relevant to our survival.


butterfly and statice

Butterfly and Statice

This beauty landed in the flower bed sending me racing indoors to grab my camera. Who doesn’t love a butterfly? When my boys were young, we visited the ‘caterpillar tree’ at our local park. One particular tree would be laden with cocoons. It was a yearly treat.  After a few years we stopped seeing them.

I’ve since learned that in the United States, Monarch butterflies have declined for the last twenty years. In the UK, certain species of butterflies are down by 50%. From an environmental perspective, butterflies are a bit like the canary in the coal mine. They’re extraordinarily sensitive to environmental changes around them and are apparently the most closely watched insect in the world.

I’m glad this special guest found something to eat in my garden.

Further Reading:

Declining Monarch Populations in the US

Habitat restoration efforts in the UK to combat butterfly decline

Butterfly Sips from the Nectar Bar

I spotted this little lovely on the pansies this morning as I was sweeping the walkway. What a striking contrast against the purple flowers.

Initially, I thought it was a moth, but upon reading, it has the characteristics of a butterfly.  I’ve seen butterflies alight before, but this is the first time I saw one drink nectar from the flower.  How charming!

It’s a pleasure sweeping and raking pine needles after a storm, at least until the blisters form. Everything smells of nature’s musk.  There is nothing quite like it.  Do you think my little visitor agrees?
Orange butterfly

Orange butterfly on pansy

closed wings

PJ’s Nectar Bar at The PyjamaGardener