San Jose

Experience the butterfly effect

Oceano is close to one of America's largest butterfly groves

by Glynis Fediuk
Monarch butterfly on a flower
Monarchs are poisonous, giving them protection against predators — KPI file photo

Even the most entomophobic person could identify a monarch butterfly—their striking orange and black colouring makes them easily recognizable.

Every winter, huge flocks of monarchs migrate southward to warmer climates. Pismo Beach, located just minutes outside of Oceano, has one of the largest butterfly groves in the United States. Thousands of butterflies arrive every year, attracted to the eucalyptus trees in the area—and thousands of visitors arrive in turn, eager to see this natural wonder.

Orange you glad to be here?

“When they’re here, you see them flying all over,” said Danny Richards, an information specialist at the Pismo Beach Chamber of Commerce. “When it gets colder, then they’ll flock into bundles and hang from the eucalyptus trees in the grove. It’s a sight to behold—huge flocks of butterflies all clustered together.”

The insects begin arriving mid-November, with numbers peaking in late December. They stay until the following February.

“Afterwards, some die,” said Richards. “The ones that don’t either head back to Canada or go on to Mexico.”

Back in black

The grove itself is located just off State Highway 1, roughly five minutes from Oceano. Volunteer docents are on site to give tours of the grove and answer any questions.

Pismo Beach’s butterflies are unusual because they have a longer-than-average lifespan. Most monarchs only live about six weeks, but the variety at Pismo Beach can live up to six months.

Monarchs can be found throughout North America, provided their primary food source, milkweed, is available. Females may lay up to 1,000 eggs in their lifetime.

How monarchs navigate to the same areas every year remains a mystery. There are a number of other sites throughout California with butterfly groves; these are found in Santa Cruz, Pacific Grove and Long Beach, among other spots.

Richards said that several decades ago, hundreds of thousands of butterflies could be seen; now, there are approximately 25,000. The dwindling numbers are likely due to factors such as a decreasing food supply and human encroachment on monarch habitat.

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