Dana Point community creates Monarch Waystation to save the nearly extinct butterflies

By ERIKA I. RITCHIE | eritchie@scng.com | Orange County Register
PUBLISHED: August 6, 2019 at 3:49 pm | UPDATED: August 6, 2019 at 11:07 pm

After Dayna Anderson moved to a condo in Monarch Beach four years ago, she became curious about how the community got its name.

“It struck me we didn’t have any butterflies around,” she said. “I did some research and found out that there were zillions of butterflies here before the construction on the cliff at Strand Beach and the cliffs over Laguna Beach happened. Those cliffs used to be covered in with sage and manzanita. The plants got ripped out and there go our butterflies.”

Anderson decided to do something to change that.

She got involved with her homeowners’ association and found a welcome ear in Ken Torbert, president of the Monarch Hills HOA. Torbert already had an interest in preserving monarch butterflies after taking part in a Science Night program about them at a Dana Point community center.

Together, Anderson and Torbert created the Monarch Hills Butterfly Committee and began formulating a plan to lure the orange and black insects to their community and create a waystation and butterfly sanctuary.

“If you’ve got lots of monarchs, you have pollinators and then songbirds come in and you develop an ecosystem,” Torbert said. “You’re not just saving the butterflies. It’s all part of improving the environment.”

Each fall, the Western monarch butterflies migrate from Southern California to Central California where they stay huddled by the thousands — with their wings closed — until February, when they mate and begin their migration back south. Eastern monarchs found outside the west, meanwhile, begin their migration to central Mexico in August where they stay for the winter and wait for better weather to return in the spring.

The migration of both species is threatened by habitat loss and the use of pesticides. In the last two decades, the monarch population has declined by about 98%.

Anderson, who heads up the Monarch Hills Butterfly Committee, with help from co-chairwoman Nancy New and Torbert, looked for the perfect grounds to create the waystation in their 350-unit community. The area needed to be sheltered, have at least six hours of sun exposure daily and include a mix of milkweed and nectar-producing plants.

The 1,100-square-foot area is the first of several. In the fall, the committee plans to sprinkle tens of thousands of seeds into a 5,000-square-foot area at the edge of the community. Ultimately, the hope is to work with the city and South Coast Water District to set aside at least an acre of land as a monarch sanctuary.

Recently, the HOA received its official waystation certification from the Monarch Waystation Program.

Waystations can be created anywhere. There are at least 90 in Orange County and more than 25,000 nationwide, according to the program. They can be set up at schools, businesses, parks, nature centers and even on balconies.

Monarchs need milkweed plants to go through their four stages of development and they need the nectar from flowers to fuel their long journeys.

“They have an enormous and complex process to become a butterfly,” said Susie Vanderlip, a nationally recognized monarch butterfly citizen scientist who met with Torbert and the butterfly committee to teach them about the complexities of an insect that is vital to the environment.

“What Ken and his group is doing is important,” she said. “Every single person who plants their garden is helping to keep our Western monarchs from going extinct. Every single person that has planted milkweed and nectar plants has fallen madly in love with the butterflies when they watch their whole life cycle process.”

Monarchs begin in an egg that hatches in two to four days. A colorful striped caterpillar emerges and grows 2,500 times bigger. As it grows, it will consume 32 milkweed leaves. It exists like that for about two weeks until it crawls to a spot somewhere on a milkweed plant, forms a chrysalis and undergoes a complete metamorphosis.

The caterpillar hangs upside-down, in a “J” shape, for two days, then the skin on its head begins to split open.

“It looks so alien and loses its eyes, feet, and mouth and sits in the chrysalis for about two weeks,” Vanderlip said. “An inch-long chartreuse jewel-like capsule begins to form. At the end of two weeks, the capsule gets thin and begins to look orange and black. It cracks open and a new butterfly slides out upside-down holding on to the chrysalis. It has to hang there for two hours because its wings are wet. It has to wait for them to harden before it can fly.”

Anderson said she can’t wait to see this process firsthand.

With the help of her grandson, Brixton Dawson, 6, she planted young milkweed and is anxious to the see community’s garden mature. On a recent day, monarchs fluttered near the entrance to the gated community.

“I’ve always had this love for nature,” she said. “My mom taught me a lot about gardening and looking out for those who can’t speak for themselves — like the monarchs. It’s important everyone does their part, even on a small level. I see this as a multi-generational thing. Like my mom taught me, I’m teaching my grandson. Little guys like him are the future of the planet. That’s what we all need to do.”

More information: monarchbutterflyspeaker.com