Project Description: 

The monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) is a milkweed butterfly (subfamily Danainae) and important indicator species that has historically made a spectacular annual migration to overwinter in forested groves along the California coast. However this migration is now in crisis, with the population dropping to less than 0.01% of the population’s historic size.

During the 1980’s, Xerces Society, an international nonprofit protecting invertebrates and their habitats, documented over one million western monarch butterflies overwintering along the Pacific coast of California and  Baja Mexico. By 2019, the western monarch population had dropped to a record low of less than 29,000 butterflies counted: a decline of over 99% since 1980. During the fall of 2020, under 2,000 butterflies were  documented in the entirety of California. This catastrophic decline shows that we are in grave danger of losing  the western monarch if we do not act now to protect them. The most significant problems facing the western monarch include habitat loss, pesticide use and climate change.

According to the Xerces Society, one of the most significant actions that can be taken by citizens to support monarch populations is providing milkweed host plants and nectar-rich flowers. Adult monarchs rely on diverse nectar sources for food during all stages of the year, from fall migration and overwintering, to spring and summer breeding.

We are conducting a citizen science research project at the Gill Tract to better understand why monarch butterflies are choosing to populate there. Last year (2020), Xerces Society documented Gill Tract Farm with the largest overwintering population of western monarchs in the East Bay Area of California. Gill Tract land is unique because of its history of limited pesticide use, which gives the farm an uncommon asset in a state dominated by industrial agriculture. The diversity of nectar and shelter plants that are planted inside the community farm greatly benefit western monarchs, and we would like to continue to expand our understanding of the site’s capacity to support this endangered native pollinator.

Undergraduate's Role: 
  • Learning how to count monarch butterflies present on the farm using binoculars and eventually leading/bottom-lining weekly citizen science monarch counts
  • Maintaining records of data collected from citizen science conducted on the farm
  • Exploring which nectar plants and in which combination are most beneficial to monarch butterflies
  • Planning crops in the Gill Tract research field (11 rows) that would best support monarch butterflies, and seeding, planting, etc. as needed
Undergraduate's Qualifications: 
  • Excitement to learn about monarchs butterflies and CA native plants
  • Interest in farming (experience with crop planning and knowledge of CA native plants a plus)
  • Must be able to travel to the Gill Tract in Albany 2 times/week, car preferred
  • As their website states, the Gill Tract’s vision is “return of land to its rightful stewards, practicing rematriation and reparations as modes of collective healing, and community-based land stewardship rooted in right relationship with poor, Black, Indigenous, LGBTQ+, unhoused, and landless peoples of the world.” Because the Gill Tract believes that these communities must be centered in their work, we strongly encourage people of these identities to apply!
Off Campus
6-9 hours
Project URL: