Intern working on habitat

Environment for the Americans Intern, Jansy, and community members volunteers helping care for the narrow-leaf milkweed planted at the Audubon Center Debs Park, Monarch Alley.


Planting Narrow-leaf Attracted More Monarchs to the Audubon Center at Debs Park

If you plant it they will come!

The Audubon Center at Debs Park is no stranger to all different types of creatures. We are so fortunate to call these different creatures our neighbors, and a more recent neighbor spotted is the Monarch Butterly which has been seen fluttering through the Center, specifically in Monarch Alley and down by Los Nogales Nursery. Here at the Center, our mission has always been to inspire people to experience, understand, and care for the local natural world. In addition, Debs Park promotes habitat restoration for birds and other wildlife at the Center and along the L.A. River. The primary focus is to restore the connection between people and land. I am excited to work alongside The Audobon Center as an Environment for the Americas Intern this summer. I will be monitoring and assessing the habitat for monarch butterflies while overseeing and designing the outreach and educational programs to foster a cultural connection and awareness of monarchs, pollinators, and migratory species found throughout diverse communities in California. 

The Life of a Monarch Butterfly

We can begin to observe the monarchs in their early stages as an off-white, yellow egg. In this larval stage they will soon emerge after 3 days with a sole purpose: eat, eat, and eat some more milkweed. The monarch butterfly exclusively lays her eggs on milkweed plants since the larvae  depend on this plant for sustenance and protection. From here, the larvae will experience 5 different larval stages that eventually transform into the adult butterflies we all recognize. These larval stages are known as instar larvae and can be distinguished by of their white, yellow, and black stripes. The instars are typically in this stage for 14-16 days and then will enter their pupa or chrysalis stage. The pupa stage is a vulnerable stage for them since they are immobile, however, it has developed a green-colored camouflage technique to help protect them from predators. Interestingly, is it rare to see a monarch pupate on milkweed, rather they will wander off and find a spot to pupate that has a stronger foundation. The chrysalis stage will last 8-15 days as the metamorphosis completes itself into delicate orange, black, and speckled white wings that emerge as the recognizable monarch butterfly. Those alluring bright orange monarchs have entered the adult stage in their life cycle.

The Monarch Butterfly: A Mystical Spirit

The monarch's life spans four generations and consists of eastern and western populations in North America that are separated by the Rocky Mountains. The eastern population of monarchs overwinter in Mexico and Michoacan, from October to late March. Monarchs can be found roosting for the winter in oyamel fir forests. The western monarchs overwinter in California along the Pacific coast near Santa Cruz and San Diego. Monarchs are found roosting in Eucalyptus, Monterey pines, and Monterey Cypresses here in California. The climate conditions are very similar to central Mexico. These migration patterns have been observed and absorbed into different cultures giving rise to the mythical spirit of the monarch butterfly. For many cultures the monarch is more than just a butterfly, it is a sign of transformation and rebirth. Other cultures, like in Mexico, consider monarchs to bring the souls of their relatives to the living world for one night, known as the Día De Los Muertos, the “Day of the Dead.” For me, the monarch signifies full-circle moments and an opportunity to serve and share in my community.

Fall and Spring Migration of the Monarch Butterfly - U.S. Fish and Wildlife



Monitoring the Monarchs: Little Wings Big Impact

Although it is important to learn about these mystical creatures it is also important to monitor them also. My team and I created habitats for the monarchs and other pollinators in order to monitor their density more closely. In June the Audubon Center partnered up with Santa Monica Mountain Funds for a milkweed giveaway and planting event in hopes of attracting monarchs to promote breeding. I led the community in planting over 70 plants, enabling us to distribute over 800 milkweed plants throughout Northeast Los Angeles. The following week we had already spotted our first monarch egg.

We are overjoyed to report that the narrow-leaf milkweed we planted is thriving with monarch eggs. During the first week of surveying the newly planted narrow-leaf milkweed, I found 55 monarch eggs. The following week I was able to observe the different stages of the larval instar. The narrow-leaf milkweed has been strategically planted next to other native plants, forming a pollinator garden, we named Monarch Alley. It is crucial to create pollinator gardens as habitats for the emerging monarchs but also for our other pollinators like bees and birds.

In July, I partnered with Heart of Los Angeles (HOLA) and planted 17 new narrow-leaf milkweeds on our hummingbird path. This is another site that I will be surveying and caring for that is filled with many nectar-rich plants for monarchs. Monarchs are not just effective pollinators they are also considered indicator species, a species that reflects the health of its ecosystem and can be studied to monitor environmental conditions and changes. In recent years the declining populations of monarchs have been linked to deforestation, climate change, and pesticide use. This is why it is important to monitor them and understand their life cycle for conservation efforts. Showcasing the monarch butterfly is the catalyst of awareness for the community to take an interest in monarchs and other threatened species.

Challenges and Rewards

The process of monitoring the life cycle of the monarch butterflies has been a rewarding and challenging one. When I began my internship at the center there were less than five milkweeds at Debs and I didn’t have high hopes of seeing any monarchs. But after planting the host plant, milkweed, the monarchs successfully began to populate them. As the summer days flow, and each day gets hotter, the milkweed begins to grow, creating thriving breeding grounds for our pollinator neighbors. Unlike myself, milkweed thrives in full sunny conditions.

Apart from the extreme heat, I am so grateful to be part of this project and am honored to be the steward of the milkweeds - the lifeline for the many instars that have been spotted chomping away to the milkweed’s stem. It is a bittersweet journey knowing that the monarchs are only passing by.

Engaging the Community

The Audubon Center at Debs Park has many restoration events and opportunities for the community to get involved, this project being one of them. By creating a habitat for the monarch butterflies, Debs is now considered an official monitoring site. Northeast Los Angeles is able to become part of a community science project as I survey the monarchs throughout their life cycle.

Being able to partner with many organizations so far such as Santa Monica Mountain Funds, Heart of Los Angeles, Monarch Larva Monitoring Project, and Monarch Joint Venture on this project reinforces my connection to the land and the community. A lot of these organizations are also working on projects of their own in hopes of boosting the monarch population. We hope to get everyone excited about monitoring, habitat building, or helping monarchs in any way they can. All this work could not and can not be done without the help of volunteers and community members.

The Future of Monarchs

Hope is not lost for the monarch butterflies since there are so many partners eager to help. Although they face many challenges such as habitat loss, climate change, and the use of pesticides the monarch is fighting to stay alive. Many organizations are helping to create habitats and bring awareness of their declining numbers. We are also calling on the help of communities to spread the word and bring awareness. One of the many ways to get involved is by creating habitats for these beautiful creatures or starting pollinator gardens. Another way is to find a site nearby and help monitor milkweed and monarch density. The Audubon Center at Debs Park officially has two monarch sites that I encourage the community to help with in monitoring the monarchs and caring for the recently planted milkweed. Other organizations such as Monarch Joint Venture, Monarch Larva Monitoring Project, and Xerces all have great information on their website on how to get involved and educational information on how to become an involved wildlife neighbor for the monarch butterflies.

With all the awareness coming to the monarch's ways we hope to have them officially recognized on the Endangered Species list in order to further protect them. This is also a call to action from me to you to be part of the change we hope to see for this species and others alike.

How you can help, right now