How do you count monarch butterflies?

       Every year thousands of butterflies spend their winters on the California Central Coast. The monarchs have just begun to arrive in Pacific Grove, and our first count of the season was conducted earlier this week. There are currently 200 monarch butterflies in the Pacific Grove Monarch Sanctuary. More and more monarchs will continue to arrive each day until the population peaks around Thanksgiving. Last year our count at the peak of the population was over 13,000 monarchs.  One question both staff and volunteers are often asked is, How do you count them all? It seems like an almost impossible task, however, hundreds of people throughout California, spend time counting these butterflies at their different wintering sites every year.

      If we were to capture and count every single monarch butterfly, it would take all day, and we would be disturbing the butterflies and their habitat. Instead, we use estimation. To count the monarchs, we follow the counting protocols that were not only taught to our organization, but to anyone who wishes to help count the monarchs at any of the wintering sites from San Francisco to San Diego. The Xerces Society, an organization that promotes the protection and conservation of invertebrates, and California Polytechnic State University’s Monarch Alert program are two organizations that help train California volunteers.

        So, how do we count? We look at the monarchs in small clusters. A cluster is a group of 3 or more monarchs that are close together. A cluster can be large, and it can be difficult to see the individual butterflies within a cluster without the help of binoculars or a scope. Clusters can range in size from 30, to a few hundred or even a thousand monarchs. We do not count every monarch in a cluster, as this would take too much time and lead to fatigue of the counter. Instead, we count a small section of that cluster and use it to estimate how many total monarchs are in a particular cluster.

Monarch Cluster

      For example, if we were to count the cluster pictured above, here’s how we would go about it. It’s rather large, so we would count an area of 10 monarchs – which we’ve gone ahead and highlighted in red below.

Monarch cluster count of 10

           After we’ve counted 10 individual monarchs, we look at how big of an area 10 monarchs takes up in that cluster.

Monarch Cluster group of 10

         Then we estimate how many times that group of 10 would fit throughout the rest of the cluster.

Monarch Cluster 30 groups of 10

           For this cluster we estimated that our original group of 10 fits in this cluster a total of 30 times, which means we estimate there to be 300 monarchs in this particular cluster. Wow. That’s a lot of monarchs in one small area. We would then go and count the rest of the clusters found in the Sanctuary.

            The largest cluster we had to count at the Sanctuary last year was one that took up an entire branch of a pine tree and have over 4,000 monarch butterflies.

            As you can imagine, it still takes a while to count the monarchs this way. When you stop by the Sanctuary later in the seaon, you’ll see there are lots of monarch clusters to count. Also, if you’ve been there on a warm afternoon, you’ve seen the monarchs flying around everywhere. There’s no way we can count the monarchs if they’re flying around, so counters have to get up early, and arrive at the Sanctuary at sunrise, when the monarchs are still too cold to move. If the counters aren’t properly equipped with enough coffee, sometimes they can be just as immobile as the monarchs they're there to observe.

        It’s a lot of work, but it’s really rewarding to get to spend the early morning hours with the monarchs.

Cataloging Objects

Throughout the life of the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History, many people have brought in a great variety of objects as donations to help build the Museum’s collection. From Arthropods to Zuni pottery, the generosity of these donors has created the strong collection that exists today. I am often asked how the Museum tracks the information of these objects.

When these objects are given to the Museum, any information regarding the object is recorded in a catalog. Originally, our catalog was a card catalog with hand written entries. In 2009, this card catalog became entirely digitized into an online database. This information includes answers to basic questions such as: Who gave it to the Museum? What is it?  How old is it? Where did it come from?  How big is the object?  What materials is it made from?  These are but a few of the pieces of information the Museum wishes to record about any given object.  In almost all cases, this information is regarded as equally important as the object itself.  The Museum is currently upgrading this catalog information with photographs of the objects and working on sharing our heritage photography on the Museum website. It is our hope that more of our collection will be visible online in the coming years as this effort proceeds.

If a Child was Amazed in a Forest... Would It Make a Sound?

My 12 year old son is a full-time matriculated student at the University of YouTube.

No joke.

He needs to learn something? He knows where one million Professors are waiting. ...all aiming to teach and entertain with the ingenuity and brevity that draws large, broad audiences. Within limits, this "just-in-time", self-directed access to content and concepts has to bring some good.

My son's generation definitely has it's own pace. Today's Digital Revolution is changing every aspect of our society. Entire industries have been created and dissolved in my lifetime (Blockbuster anyone?)

I find small comfort knowing that this dizzying rate of change has been experienced previously. The Industrial Revolution brought people together in urban settings in a way that made people feel more isolated. The counter-pulse was a return  to nature. The National park Movement. The Conservation Movement. (Thank you Audubon Society.) The Arts & Crafts Movement. The Louis Agassiz Nature Study Movement. Our Natural History Museum was one of the first to open in the nation in 1883.

...and here we are again. Today's Digital Revolution is connecting people in ways that can also feel isolating -and again we see a rebirth of the Natural History movement.

Bear paw.jpg

Something else my son loves? Our little low-tech Museum. He can see a bear on the computer, but he can have a bear experience (safely!) in the Museum. He holds his hand up to the bear's paw, then raises his hand to his eyes to examine his finger nails. "I need better claws." he declares before running to a case with eggs neatly lined up in a row.

Last year I announced that we were going on a camping trip ...NO electronics allowed. You would have thought that I had cut him off from a safe water source. Complaints and whines all the way until we pitched our tent. During a walk through a forest he had to carefully teeter across a log over a brook. "This is the best day of my life Mom."

Mine too.

Meet the Team

Our museum opened its doors in 1883. For 130 years this museum has been helping people explore and appreciate nature in the California Central Coast. Continuing this tradition is our Museum team; the most dedicated, passionate, and creative group I've ever worked with.

The Museum Team took selfies by our favorite Museum object.
Can you guess where each picture was taken?

We started this blog to extend the conversations that we’re having within the museum walls out to our friends, colleagues, members, and anyone interested in nature and the California Central Coast. 

The Museum Bloggers

I'm Lori Mannel, the Museum’s Executive Director, and I will showcase the importance of natural history today and the critical work of our partners.

Paul VandeCarr, the Museum Collections Curator, will tell the stories of the Museum’s collection of over 50,000 objects.

Annie Holdren, Ph.D. is the Museum Exhibitions Curator and will provide deeper insights into our museum exhibitions and how they connect with the Central Coast.

Learn more about citizen science with Ann Wasser, the Museum Education Manager.

As the Museum Outreach Program Manager, Allison Watson loves to promote science, nature, and culture through hands-on creative activities and events. 

Please join us as we share our interests in and passions for this incredible region.

Sincerely,
Lori Mannel
Executive Director
Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History