Scores of eligible young male and female butterflies flock to the nature preserve in Ellwood Main each year, all in the hopes of attracting the attention of that special someone. The preserve, which is located just a few miles northeast of Isla Vista, is currently home to thousands of Monarch butterflies who are just beginning to mate or concluding their romps.
In late October of each year, butterflies migrate from an area west of the Rocky Mountains to the California Coast, where they wait out the winter in preparation for mating season, Friends of the Ellwood Coast president Chris Lange said. The process is called “overwintering.”
“I visited toward the end of the overwintering season, so there weren’t as many there, but it was still really beautiful to look up and see all the butterflies flying in and out between the trees,” Bridget Bissell, a first-year undeclared UCSB student, said.
With large branches of old-growth Eucalyptus trees forming a canopy of warmth and protection, it is easy to see why Ellwood Main is one of the two most popular overwintering sites in California.
“Desirable sites usually include some source of water, sources of nectar, trees that provide protection from winter storms but allow warming sunshine to penetrate and a higher level of humidity than the surrounding area to keep the butterflies from desiccation,” Friends of the Ellwood Coast member Cynthia Brock said.
The Main gets its name from Ellwood Cooper, the owner of the property during the 1870s. During his ownership, Cooper planted the numerous eucalyptus trees that dot the field and feed the butterflies with their nectar.
The land eventually passed from Cooper’s possession and into the hands of a land developer two years ago. After a protracted battle over the future of the area, the city of Goleta purchased the land from its owner using money collected through several charity fundraisers.
As a newly acquired nature preserve, Ellwood Main attracts not only butterflies, but also community members, said Morgan Coffey, development director of the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County.
“It provides a beautiful open space for the entire community and it is an excellent place for thousands of school children and other nature lovers to witness the wonders of nature for free,” Coffey said.
Without commenting on the human species, Lange said the main purpose of a butterfly’s life is to reproduce. Fortunately for adult butterflies, the likeliness of finding a mate in Ellwood is easy.
There are no specific factors that attract one Monarch to another – it just needs to be a Monarch, Lange said.
Monarch butterflies mate facing opposite directions and attach at the abdomen. The male’s sexual organ enters the area where the female releases her eggs, and the semen from the male is then contained in a small storage pouch in the female’s abdomen. Part of this process is done mid-flight.
“The male often just lifts off with her in tow in spectacularly high flight,” Lange said. “In January and February, look for thousands in flight and pairs falling like snow all around the Ellwood Main interior.”
Once pregnant, the female self-fertilizes by releasing an egg onto a host plant. As the egg is passing out of her ovipositor – an egg-laying organ – the host plant brushes past the pouch and fertilizes the egg with a spermatozoa.
When looking for a love potion to attract the opposite sex, the male Monarchs turn to the damp ground, where they drink minerals from the creek beds.
This activity, known as “puddling,” keeps the males’ energy and pheromones in top shape, Lange said.
Lange said the number of adult monarch butterflies that migrate to Ellwood Main differs greatly every year.
“The annual count varies widely from season to season, ranging in recent years from 18,000 to 60,000, peaking around ten years ago at 100,000,” she said.
Although the number of butterflies overwintering in California as a whole is lower than usual this year, Lange said the Ellwood preserve has maintained an average count. However, the romance of Valentine’s Day proved to be irresistible for butterflies – reports show that mid-February was a popular mating time.
After the copulation concludes, butterflies fly away and the females lay eggs in areas with an abundance of milkweed, such as the foothills of Santa Barbara, in order to provide the soon-to-emerge caterpillars with sustenance, Coffey said.
Although the migration this year at Ellwood was back to normal, Brock said there are still many risks that could potentially threaten the Monarch population as a whole.
“The risks to the western Monarch butterfly population include the loss of overwintering habitat to coastal development, the loss of summer breeding habitat to industrial farming, grooming along highways and other areas where the Monarch’s host [milkweed] plants grow, pesticides and the use of genetically engineered crops,” Brock said.