The Wrangler (#358)

Save the monarchs!

King Charles in a huge crown.

No, not that one.

This one:

Orange and black monarch butterfly

Most Americans are familiar with the monarch, the most photogenic of the butterflies.

The caterpillar is distinctive:

The monarch chrysalis looks like jewelry, complete with droplets of gold. (It’s not really gold, it’s a cool illusion—possibly one that makes other creatures think it’s a dew-covered leaf.) The monarch’s annual, multigenerational migration from Mexico to Canada and back again is a staggering achievement for such a small creature.

Mercury News

There are two groups of monarch butterflies: the eastern monarch and the western monarch. There might be some comingling at the Mexican wintering grounds, but mostly each group stays on its side of the continental divide.

I didn’t think much about monarchs until my niece in the east did a Boy Scout project giving out milkweed seeds to help increase the population. Monarch butterflies only lay their eggs on the milkweed plant (though there many, many types of milkweed). Once the eggs hatch, the monarch caterpillars only eat milkweed leaves. Milkweed is, according to most other species, nasty. Toxic, even. It makes monarchs more vibrantly orange, as well as unappetizing to predators.

The milkweed seeds my niece distributed probably wouldn’t thrive in Southern California, but her project got me googling. I learned that a) SoCal is part of the overwintering grounds for western monarchs, and b) western monarchs aren’t doing so well, either.

Since my husband’s garden had taken over the center of our backyard, I suggested we put a butterfly garden in next to the garage, where the vegetable garden used to be. Andy agreed and ordered some native milkweed.

Milkweed is known as a weed for a reason. Milkweed cannot be contained. Milkweed popped up all over our back and front yard. I potted extra plants and gave them away.

But it wasn’t until Christmas a few years ago that I found chrysalises all over our back patio. Chrysalises on our planters, our table, our bench, and even under the back step. Why so many? Why then?

Maybe it was because that particular Christmas was very cold, with snowstorms closing the freeways around Los Angeles. The tachinid flies, parasitoids who prey on monarch caterpillars, survive best in temperate weather; cold might have wiped them out before they could lay eggs on the milkweed.

Or it could have been because we had lost our remaining dog that fall (I’ll write that post when I can do it without crying so probably never). Without a big dog with big paws running around, the caterpillars could safely cross the patio and find more visible spots for their metamorphosis.

And so began my life as a caterpillar wrangler. I put wooden trellises in on the edges of the butterfly garden. From December to March, if I spotted a caterpillar motoring across The Patio of Death, I put the caterpillar on the trellis, lecturing said caterpillar: “The trellis is a safe place! Make your chrysalis HERE.” I often saved the same damned caterpillar repeatedly.

Sometimes I wondered if saving terminally stupid caterpillars would be detrimental to the species as a whole. Unfortunately, the western monarch population was decreasing precipitously. In the 1980s 4.5 million monarchs overwintered on the California coast. Overwintering monarchs declined to 1.2 million in 1997, which dropped to 293,000 in 2015. In 2019, the numbers fell to 30,000.

In 2020, less than 2,000 monarchs were counted.

So yeah, every caterpillar mattered. Even the idiots.

Despite my wrangling, I still found caterpillars building chrysalises in Very Bad Places.

Seriously, Mx Monarch Caterpillar, does this seem like a safe place?!
Chrysalis relocation in progress

I learned how to carefully scrape off the silk holding the chrysalis to the rocker (or the door, or the bench). The silk is incredibly strong; if I could scrape off enough, I could run a needle and thread through the silk and tie the chrysalis to a trellis. My sewing kit became a chrysalis-transplanting kit.

Not every monarch could be saved. Some caterpillars got stepped on. Some chrysalis stems or silk broke. Parasites were always a problem. Butterflies often fell while their wings were drying—either into a spiderweb, or on their backs where they were helpless. If I spotted them in time, I might be able to help them safely to a flower or trellis. Sometimes butterflies emerged with deformities. Then all I could do was get them to a patch of milkweed or a marigold and hope they enjoyed their short lives.

In December 2021, the western monarch overwintering population rebounded to an astounding count of 250,000. It’s not possible for the 2,000 butterflies counted in 2020 to have created such a population explosion; biologists speculate that uncounted monarchs must have found many different overwintering sites, perhaps created deliberately by newly aware, backyard conservationists (and some created accidentally by milkweed doing its weed on speed thing).

In 2022, the winter monarch butterfly count climbed to 335,449.

I like to think some of those monarchs had ancestors that survived The Patio of Death and emerged from a chrysalis in my backyard.


Published by

Autumn Ashbough

WF writing about the humorous perils of life with Chinese-American significant other.

21 thoughts on “The Wrangler (#358)”

    1. We did lose Fey. I’ve got a whole post/ short story about it written in my head, but I have’t been able to write it. Not for years. I just don’t want to cry that much!

      My guess is at least 100 monarchs emerged successfully over the last few years. Hopefully we increased the population’s genetic diversity (and not stupidity).

  1. I’ve enjoyed your photos on IG about your activities as a caterpillar wrangler. I do love that job title, btw. I’ve been doing what I can here to attract butterflies but this summer our milkweed hasn’t bloomed and there seem to be fewer butterflies of all kinds than usual. I’m bummed about it and have been thinking about replanting our butterfly garden with some different plants. In the research stage right now.

    1. Thanks, Ally! IG really does lend itself to the photogenic monarchs, and it gave me something worthy to do outside during the first year of COVID. We had a cold (for us) spring here, which apparently delayed the the migration north, but I think my yard must’ve have more than 50 chrysalises. Maybe the weather delayed your milkweed also?

      One of my favorite types of reels on Instagram this year has been the folks turning their lawns/ lots/ meadows into pollinator paradises with wildflowers and native plants. Look forward to seeing what you do with your garden.

  2. It’s a good thing you’re doing, and I too enjoy your IG posts. I’m happy to report that there is abundant milkweed in our front yard (I almost yanked it out before I realized what it was), and it does indeed attract monarchs. Here’s hoping for a continued rebound for both species!

  3. What a fantastic story! Good for you. I didn’t realize the population out west had declined so precipitously. But then I’ve seldom seen a monarch. They don’t usually get this far north. In fact, I’ve never seen the caterpillar. I was surprised by its beauty.

    Is your niece proud of her part in saving the monarchs?

    1. I hope so! She’s now in high school working with data-driven ways to get out the vote (she’s a genius, honestly) and machine learning, so my sister has taken over maintaining their milkweed. We share our highs and lows and tips on saving caterpillars.

  4. Wow, this is really amazing! I’ve seen your butterfly pics on social media but it’s great to get the whole story. Well done. And I’m so sorry about the pup 🙁

  5. I first came across the Monarch butterfly situation when reading the Barbara Kingsolver book “Flight Behaviour” and I have also been enjoying your IG photo series. You’ve done amazing work (doffs hat) and should most certainly take huge kudos from being part of the numbers increasing once more.

    So sorry to hear about your dog. Maybe you’ll be able to write the story when you’re at the stage that a massive crying jag would be cathartic. Till then, sending much love and a big hug x

    1. Thanks, Deb! There are so many conservancy groups now, all able to share and learn from each other on social media. Social media has its problems, but it can also be an amazing tool for saving a species.

      When it comes to death, every loss feels cumulative, at least to me. Each new one triggers brings back sorrow from each previous loss. I’m rubbish at memorial services.

  6. Fascinating post and well done you. Why’s it the “patio of death”? And some pics of milkweed would be welcomed

    1. Oh, I call it the Patio of Death because a little caterpillar can easily be run over by big dogs or Baby D’s feet or even Andy’s feet. I have a lot of milkweed in videos on my Instagram page, but right now the plants have almost no leaves because of the caterpillars munching this spring!

  7. This explains all your amazing monarch butterfly photos on Instagram!!! I’m so impressed your background became a monarch sanctuary habitat. You should be proud! I bet that’s a highlight of your year to see them spring to life with their wings. Look forward to seeing more pics on Insta!

    1. It is a highlight–every time I see a butterfly take off, with perfect wings, my heart lifts with it. I have some fluttering around the back and front yard right now, but no chrysalises until winter, most likely.

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