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We're in Pacific Grove, California, 120 miles south of San Francisco, and a short drive northwest of Monterey. "There's a $1,000 fine for molesting Monarch Butterflies here," says our taxi driver as he brings us to the Monarch Grove Sanctuary. "Unfortunately, one of them occasionally flies into my windshield."

Caution Butterfly Zone sign. Monarch Grove Sanctuary, California.
Caution Butterfly Zone sign. Monarch Grove Sanctuary, California.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

"We call Pacific Grove "Butterfly Town USA," because more than 25,000 Monarch Butterflies winter here every year, between October and March," he adds. "Monarch Grove Sanctuary is always open and admission is free."

"Pacific Grove School District even has a Butterfly Parade every October to welcome them back," he says.

"I remember my mother dressing me up with orange and black wings and antennae on my head so I could march in the parade," he recalls. "Now I do the same thing with my two kids."

Butterfly habitat

We arrive at a small grove of pine and eucalyptus trees. The trees provide the wind protection, humidity, light, shade and temperature that they need. An orange sign reads: Caution: Butterfly Zone.

Raising our eyes up, we see only clumps of dead leaves. "Look again," says Mary, a volunteer at the sanctuary. "Those 'dead leaves' are the grey undersides of the wings. The butterflies cluster in large masses to conserve heat."

Mary motions us over to where sunlight illuminates the trees. "When sun hits their wings, they wake up and begin flitting from flower to flower to collect nectar," she whispers. (Butterflies are sensitive to sound.) We now see the familiar orange-and-black colored wings.

Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History

"If you want to learn more about the butterflies, visit the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History," suggests Mary. "You'll learn how Monarch butterflies fly up to 2,000 miles from southern Alaska, Canada and the northern US to get here. Monarchs west of the Rockies migrate to the central California coast. East of the Rocky Mountains, monarchs migrate 3,000 miles to central Mexico."

We follow her advice and are amazed at what we learn. How much does a Monarch butterfly weigh? Just half a gram, less than the weight of a thumbtack.

How far do Monarch butterflies fly each day? They travel about 50 miles (80 kilometers) daily.

Monarch migration

The Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus) that migrate here have never been to their final destinations before. As Monarchs fly north (or south, depending if it's spring or fall) they stop to mate and nourish themselves on milkweed plants, where they lay their eggs.

Monarch butterflies mass together on a tree branch. Monarch Grove Sanctuary. Pacific Grove CA.
Monarch butterflies mass together on a tree branch. Pacific Grove CA.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Although many butterflies die before reaching their endpoint, their pin-head size eggs hatch, become caterpillars, and then butterflies, which continue the journey. (Eggs hatch in four to five days.) By the time the Monarch Butterflies arrive, they may be the fourth or fifth generation.

Scientists believe that inherited information transmitted by genetic coding enables the tiny creatures to navigate. They may use the earth's magnetic field or the position of the sun to guide them.

What Monarch caterpillars eat

Unfortunately, when herbicides are used to kill milkweeds, the Monarchs lose their food supply.

"They're also losing their winter homes," says our taxi driver as he picks us up. "There may still be thousands of Monarch Butterflies here, but they're only a fraction of the numbers that used to be here when Pacific Grove was all pine trees. Many butterflies moved south to the wooded canyons near Big Sur, as trees were chopped down to clear land for houses."

While it's too late to save many of the trees, Pacific Grove is determined to protect the Monarch Butterflies and their remaining habitat. Citizens voted to create an additional tax to create the Monarch Grove Sanctuary. Many of them work here as dedicated volunteers.


Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History: www.pgmuseum.org

More things to see and do in California:

California Wine Country Romantic Getaway

Kayaking with Otters in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary

Disney California Adventure

Alcatraz Cruises, Ferry Services and Alcatraz Island Tours

San Francisco Chinatown Walking Tour with Wok Wiz