Making Sense of Monarch Migration

As she walked through neighborhoods in and around her hometown of Oakland, Calif., toting a butterfly net and wearing a safety vest, Emily Erickson got used to the questions. When she told people that she was doing research on monarch butterflies, she learned that many people had an emotional connection to the monarch—which was not something she could say about her previous research on bees and other pollinating insects.

“Monarchs have this huge cultural importance,” says Erickson ’21 PhD Agr. “Conserving and maintaining that is a really special thing that inspires so many people.”

After attending UC Davis as an undergrad, Erickson got her doctorate in entomology from Penn State, with a focus on pollinators such as honeybees and the impacts of urban gardens on biodiversity. Erickson returned to Davis to do post-
doctoral work and zeroed in on a unique sub-population of monarchs: those that don’t migrate, as monarchs traditionally have done, but stay in areas such as northern California year-round, attracted by evergreen food sources in urban gardens.

What, she wondered, could we learn about these nonmigratory monarchs—and how did they relate to migratory monarchs, whose population has dwindled precipitously over the course of the past couple of decades? “Can we kind of make some broad hypotheses about their relative independence from the migratory population, or are urban gardens a sink for the migratory population?” Erickson asks. “It’s really a first look at this emerging resident population, but hopefully it can be used to kind of ask some of these bigger questions about how we can manage urban gardens to support conservation.”

And while Erickson is ultimately interested in larger ideas about the impacts of pollinating insects and gardening, zeroing in on the monarch does have certain advantages.

“They’re beautiful, and they don’t sting you,” she says. “I think there are a lot of ways that we can use monarchs as a flagship for supporting other insects that may be a harder thing for the public to grasp.” —Michael Weinreb '94 Com