One of the most often-asked questions I get has to do with the best time to view monarch butterflies. This year, I started receiving emails and phone calls to that effect as early as August.
Although this question seems simple, the answer is actually complex. To help you make the most of your visit to the Pacific Grove Monarch Sanctuary, here’s everything you need to know about monarch season in Pacific Grove:
The monarchs begin to arrive in October. A few have already been spotted inside the Sanctuary. The first cluster, and a count of just over 500 butterflies, occurred Saturday, October 10th.
When you visit the Sanctuary during monarch season, make sure to arrive between noon and 3 p.m. when our Monarch docents are on site. These friendly volunteers can provide additional information and help visitors spot elusive butterfly clusters. When monarchs cluster, they’re masters of camouflage and can look exactly like dead leaves.
To see large groups of butterflies
The monarch population typically peaks in late November and early December. In 2014, local monarchs totaled approximately 24,000. Monarchs are relatively inactive when the temperature is below 55 degrees and often form clusters at the beginning of the season. While a cloudy day may not be the best time to visit the beach, it’s ideal weather to see clusters of monarchs in the Sanctuary.
To see flying butterflies
An increase in temperature in January and February, near the end of the season, means an increase in monarch activity. On warm winter days, visitors will see a flurry of butterflies around the Sanctuary’s flower beds. Migrating there took an enormous amount of energy, as does flying around on warm days, and the butterflies need to fuel up on nectar. Clusters will still be visible at the Sanctuary, but as winter winds down, more and more monarchs can be spotted flying solo.
Don’t wait too long to visit
In January and February, the butterflies will mate in the Sanctuary. After mating, as winter ends, the monarchs will head inland, away from the coast, in search of milkweed. Milkweed is the host plant of the monarch butterfly and it’s the only plant on which females will lay eggs, not to mention the only plant monarch caterpillars will eat. By March, the monarchs will have left Pacific Grove.
If you missed them
If you don’t have a chance to visit the Sanctuary this winter, and you live 10 or more miles inland, have the monarchs come and visit you by planting native milkweed in your garden. When the monarch butterflies leave their coastal winter habitat, they’re looking for one plant, and if you provide a pollinator buffet of native flowers and milkweed, how could a butterfly turn that down?
I encourage everyone to visit a monarch wintering site. The opportunity to see thousands of monarchs clustered together is too beautiful to miss. In addition to the Monarch Sanctuary in Pacific Grove, Natural Bridges State Beach in Santa Cruz, Ardenwood Historic Farm in Fremont, and Pismo State Beach are a few additional monarch butterfly wintering habitats on the California Coast – although there are many more.
Additional Information: Helping Monarchs
Although thousands of monarchs arrive in Pacific Grove each year, the total population of western monarchs is much lower than it has been historically. Monarchs need help, and they need help from people like you. Their summer breeding habitat needs to be restored. Milkweed, the host plant for monarch butterflies, is less abundant due to development. We’re encouraging everyone who lives in areas where native milkweed stands once grew, 10 miles or more inland from the coast, to plant native milkweed. Planting more milkweed will help support the monarch population and their migration. If you live in a coastal zone, although we recommend against planting milkweed, you can help monarchs and other pollinators by planting native flowers. The Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History offers free milkweed seeds, as well as native flower seeds, to those interested in adding pollinators to their garden. Visit the Museum’s website here for more information.