If you visit Santa Cruz, California in the fall, Natural Bridges State Beach is a must-see. The park is home to a lovely rock bridge, which itself is home to a colony of pelicans. But in fall, the park’s most famous residents  make their appearance: monarch butterflies.

Natural Bridges is a wintering home for these migrating winged beauties. A short walk down a well-marked boardwalk takes you to a viewing platform of the monarch grove. Thousands – the park estimates nine thousand this year – of beautiful butterflies flit around, or cluster on branches of the trees, mimicking orange leaves.

 The dark clusters are actually monarch butterflies!

Friendly volunteers are all over the area, offering fun facts, and pointing out things visitors might miss. I was even able to view the clusters up close in a telescope set up by one!

Looking at the cluster up close reveals the butterflies.

Nine thousand monarch butterflies in a small grove sounds impressive, but in fact that number is only 10% of what the population looked like twenty years ago. So what happened? Why should we care? And what can we do about it?

Monarch butterflies only lay their eggs on milkweed, and it is the only thing monarch caterpillars eat. Loss of milkweed from herbicides has decimated the population. Many monarchs will never lay eggs due to not finding a patch. And pesticides sprayed on what milkweed does exist will kill eggs and caterpillars. This lack of milkweed, combined with loss of natural habitat from other factors, has led to this 90% decrease in the population in just a couple of decades.

Natural Bridges has a milkweed garden with a number of species. Some are really pretty!

Monarch butterflies play an important part in the ecosystem. As pollinators, they help flowers and food crops all over North America. Hand pollination is inefficient and expensive, and loss of pollinators like bees and monarchs will lead to a huge increase in food prices. 

More than that, though, we should care about the monarchs because of how truly amazing they are. Some migration paths are thousands of miles long, making these among the furthest migrating animals out there, and they are butterflies! How cool is that? 

Watching monarchs flit around the grove will put a smile on your face, guaranteed!

So what can we do? First off, please spread the word. Many people – myself included before this visit – don’t realize the plight these amazing winged beauties are in. 

Secondly, if you live in North America, plant milkweed. Natural Bridges sells seeds of several varieties, and I’ll be planting them this season at my home, giving monarchs a friendly place to lay their eggs. If you have some free space in your yard, I encourage you all to do the same. You may even end up with your own butterfly garden, and how could that be bad?

Natural Bridges State Beach in Santa Cruz, California is one of the places on the front lines of the fight to save the monarch butterflies. Let’s all make sure our grandchildren can visit and see them!

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