Raising and releasing of monarchs locally make notable impact on West Coast

By Alicia Doyle | Photos by T Christian Gapen

As a child, Juliana Danaus spent endless hours playing with monarch butterflies in her grandmother’s tropical milkweed patch on Faria Beach in Ventura.

Danaus was mesmerized as she watched her grandfather relocate chrysalides from the outdoor plants to inside the home, where they would watch each one come out of its chrysalis, dry its wings and fly off.

“The monarch butterflies didn’t mind us grandkids putting our finger out for them and we would escort the flutter to the free skies outdoors,” recalled Danaus, of Ojai. “I was drawn to milkweed and monarchs because it was a safe place filled with love. What kiddo doesn’t want to surround themselves with safety, laughter and love?” 

Years later, after the death of her grandparents, Danaus picked up her grandmother’s torch.

Today she is known as the Monarch Mama and founder of Monarch Arc, a not-for-profit effort launched in 2014 that focuses on the needs of the monarchs and their essential milkweed required for survival. Monarch Arc is volunteer-based, and doesn’t sell anything or charge fees for services.

“I’m a monarch mama — I foster the monarchs until they’re ready to go. And if they can’t go, I either do the best I can to give them what they need or I help them along the way over the rainbow bridge,” Danaus said.

Monarch Arc’s slogan is: to help the monarchs thrive not just survive!

“It’s my way of honoring my grandparents and keeping my passion alive,” Danaus said. “As an adult, I just can’t break the magnetic attraction. I’ve seen thousands hatch, molt, pupate, eclose …, but the thrill of seeing another do the same thing is just as exhilarating as the first.”

In addition to her hands-on experience from nearly a lifetime of being surrounded by monarchs and milkweed, Danaus is certified in Lepidoptera disease prevention through the Association for Butterflies. She also has certification through the International Butterfly Breeders Association for the prevention of Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, a parasite that infects monarch and queen butterflies.

She is also a “citizen scientist” who reports to Journey North, Monarch Watch, the Monarch Larva Monitoring Program, butterfly farms and U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

Milkweed

Since Danaus started Monarch Arc, she has established monarch way stations in Ojai at the Ojai Valley of the Moon Community Garden, the Ojai Police Department, and her apartment in town. Each waystation is home to several different species of milkweed, the only host plant a monarch family member can munch as a larva or caterpillar. 

“There is no bad milkweed for a monarch unless the milkweed plant itself is ailing or otherwise unhealthy,” Danaus said. “If the plant is not healthy, the caterpillars won’t turn into healthy butterflies, if they turn to butterflies at all.”

Although most milkweeds are an Asclepias species, others are Cynanchum, Gomphocarpus and Oxypetalum, Danaus explained. Milkweed is named for the white, milky sap that oozes when the plant is damaged, cut, munched or otherwise “attacked,” as the plant perceives it.

“A lot of people are surprised to know that there are so many different species of milkweed,” Danaus said. “The only reason that monarchs exist is because there’s milkweed for their larva to host off of. If you don’t have any milkweed you won’t have any monarchs — that’s why milkweed is so crucial.”

She further emphasized the importance of knowing the source of milkweed before planting.

“If you don’t grow your own from seed, please purchase from a conscientious nursery,” Danaus said. “Many big-box stores and nurseries will say they don’t use pesticides, but the nursery … sometimes does not know that their distributor absolutely uses systemic poisons, which will kill your caterpillars. They will not mention how the nursery allows patrons to enter with their beloved pets that have poisonous flea medications on them.”

Danaus visits people’s homes for free to help them establish butterfly gardens, explain how to raise healthy “flutter-bys,” and help disinfect whatever needs to be disinfected if pathogens are a problem.

“I teach, demonstrate, and anything else that is needed to empower anyone with the desire to help the monarchs thrive, not just survive,” said Danaus, noting that volunteers with Monarch Arc are available via email, phone or face-to-face. “Many businesses charge fees for consulting, which is something Monarch Arc doesn’t do.”

Monarch Arc monitors and reports milkweed activity, actively searches for new milkweed patches in the wild for calflora.org and bonap.net, and harvests eggs and caterpillars to keep parasitoids and predators from making a meal out of the monarch.

Volunteers with Monarch Arc establish habitat activities and help plant milkweed, as well as educate students from preschool to high school, gardening groups and home-schooled students.

“If you see a monarch injured, broken wing or otherwise, Monarch Arc wants to help,” Danaus said. “Contact us and we will retrieve the monarch, repair its wings, and release to fly free once again.”

Education, inspiration, empowerment and conservation are the priorities of Monarch Arc’s purpose and mission.

“Through education many others are empowered to help the monarchs thrive, not just survive in their own yards,” Danaus said. “Inspiring minds encourages others to conserve habitats or establish new habitats to help the monarchs thrive, not just survive.”

Many hands-on hours are spent empowering and educating people, even when they won’t plant milkweed, she added.

“I’ve been to too many homes to count, either dropping off protective parasitoid-proof mesh enclosures, disinfecting outdoor areas, demonstrating disinfection methods for eggs or milkweed, and helping dig dirt to establish new habitat space in yards,” she said. “Whatever will help the monarchs is something that Monarch Arc wants to contribute in.”

Juliana Danaus checks milkweed growing at the Ojai Community Garden.

Juliana Danaus checks milkweed growing at the Ojai Community Garden.

Monarchs in the eco-system

Monarchs and other butterflies are more than just a pretty sight. They are in fact essential pollinators in the ecosystem, especially of North American native flowers that only butterflies with their long proboscises can reach deep enough into the blossoms to pollinate them. Also, because bees are generally restricted to a local area, many butterflies are able to cross pollinate over a larger area to improve the genetic mix of genes among the flora.

The United States Department of Agriculture has permitted the interstate shipment of two species of butterflies for release — the monarch and the painted lady butterflies. Because the two types are both migratory, they move pollen grains among blossoming plants both in the spring and the fall.

While monarchs and the painted lady butterflies are not endangered, their migratory environments have been considered threatened. The release of butterflies is a proactive effort to ensure a stable and growing population of the species.

Monarch Way Station #10146

In the spring of 2014, the Ojai Police Station, in partnership with Monarch Arc, planted several different types of milkweed in various planter beds surrounding the station. Within a week, the first monarch caterpillars appeared.

“It was a great experience to partner with the monarch butterfly program that Juliana is running,” said Sgt. Kevin Donoghue. “We have some of them in cocoons in net baskets that Juliana provides. And when they’re ready to be released we get to see that.”

The Ojai Police Station was designated as Monarch Way Station #10146 by MonarchWatch.org.

The project was made possible through local donations, and there were no expenses paid from taxpayer funds, Donoghue noted.

He emphasized that the effort is also environmentally sound because the milkweed plants are drought-resistant.

“When Juliana approached us with this idea and how it would be a win-win by planting plants that were sustainable in a drought and facilitate the monarch butterfly population, it was a really easy thing to accommodate and be a part of — so we’re proud of that,” Donoghue said. “We hope that this way station serves a conservation model for other local citizens to follow and to learn more about sustainable landscaping that benefits the environment.”

According to the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, monarch butterflies of North America are renowned for their long-distance seasonal migration and spectacular winter gatherings in Mexico and California. The monarch butterfly population has recently declined to dangerously low levels. In the 1990s, estimates of up to 1 billion monarchs made the epic flight each fall from the northern plains of the U.S. and Canada to sites in the oyamel fir forests north of Mexico City, and more than 1 million monarchs overwintered in forested groves on the California coast. Now, researchers and citizen scientists estimate that only about 56.5 million monarchs remain, representing a decline of more than 80 percent from the 21-year average across North America.

“This is an alarming statistic,” said Donoghue.

A press release prepared by Donoghue in April 2015 noted that habitats typically consisting of various types of milkweed have been destroyed on a massive scale. Now, patterns of climate and weather are shifting unpredictably in response to pollution of the atmosphere — but the disappearance of these beautiful creatures is more serious than just a loss of color in the countryside. 

“Monarch butterflies are indicators of a healthy environment and healthy ecosystems. Areas rich in butterflies are rich in other invertebrates,” the press release noted. “These collectively provide a wide range of environmental benefits, including pollination and natural pest control.”

The Ojai Police Station accepted an invitation to be the first police station — and currently the one and only — to certify and register as a Monarch Watch Way Station, Danaus said.

“There are well over 10,000 way stations, but only one is also a police station,” she said.

Ojai Valley of the Moon Community Garden

The community garden waystation was established in 2014 by numerous volunteers who dug and schlepped dirt, stapled hardware cloth in the bed frames and donated supplies. One volunteer even disassembled the bed frame at his home and reassembled it as the big bed frame for the milkweed.

“When I teach classes and I can’t come up with enough supplies on my own, the community of Ojai has been extremely generous, sharing with Monarch Arc,” Danaus said.

The Ojai Valley of the Moon Community Garden is a project under the Ojai Valley Green Coalition, whose mission it is to advance a green, sustainable and resilient Ojai Valley, said Heather Mohan-Gibbons, garden manager. The garden is private property and access to the land is possible by becoming a member of the garden.

“The garden is just one way the coalition meets their vision by being an educational resource for the community for the natural world and local food as well as skill-building, public service days and wellness,” said Mohan-Gibbons. “Given the nature and sensitivity of some of the plants she has been cultivating, it may take a couple of years before the way station is considered established.”

The monarch way station is beneficial for both the garden itself and the community, Mohan-Gibbons noted. For instance, the plants serve as consistent pollinator sources for many butterfly species, bees and hummingbirds. Additionally, the garden is organic and there are no citrus trees on the property so it creates a safe oasis for pollinators.

“Pollinators have intrinsic, aesthetic, educational, scientific value, are indicators of a healthy ecosystem, and can help scientists track climate change,” Mohan-Gibbons said.

The monarch way station also allows educational opportunities for the community, school groups, research and plant cultivation and seed-saving of rare California native milkweed plants.

“We have a vision of creating a more sustainable, even regenerative community garden, based on a permaculture design,” Mohan-Gibbons said. “The perennial plants that Juliana has planted are an essential foundation towards the regenerative model. We want to support pollinators to the best of our ability, continue to have school groups visit, and offer more educational opportunities in the future to the public.”

Mama

A single mother, Danaus said she is first and foremost a mom of a 3-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son, who live with her in Ojai.

“I want my kids to have the safe, loving, happy spot I had growing up,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons why I started my at-home operation. The other was to honor my grandparents.”

“I hope my littles will want to continue their great-grandmother’s work with milkweed and monarchs,” she added. “Isn’t it the hope your kids will exceed the previous generation? I can only imagine what my littles will do with this when I’m no longer walking this earth.” 

For more information or to contact the Monarch Mama, Juliana Danhaus, see Monarch Arc on Facebook at www.facebook.com/Monarcharc/ or call her at 798-5650.