The monarch butterflies have made a comeback to California's Central Coast, giving a sense of new hope with each flutter of their orange and gold stained-glass-like wings.

LA Times staff writer and Pulitzer Prize winner Diana Marcum has seen the monarchs firsthand. In an interview for "LA Times Today," Marcum told host Lisa McRee about the optimism they're creating. 

What You Need To Know

  • In 2021, scientists reported 247,000 overwintering butterflies along the Central Coast, and only 2,000 a year before

  • Scientists have many ideas on why the monarch population declined and then rebounded so steeply, but no definitive answers

  • There are two main monarch butterfly populations, and the ones on the Central Coast are usually from Canada and roost in California

  • To help butterfly populations, planting flowers and milkweed to sustain in a butterfly garden is a good place to start

There are two main monarch butterfly populations. Marcum explained the difference between them and which ones make their home in California's Central Coast. 

"There's the monarchs that live east of the Rockies and the monarchs that live west of the Rockies. Most people know about the ones that go to Mexico, and sometimes they get confused and think that the ones on the Central Coast are on their way to Mexico. But they're ours. They're coming from Canada and they're roosting along the Central Coast," Marcum said. 

In recent years, the monarch population in California dwindled to a fraction of what it once was. In 2020, scientists reported fewer than 2,000 overwintering butterflies along the Central Coast. A year later, they reported more than 247,000. Marcum said there are several factors behind the steep decline. 

"They were basically gone. We've lost habitats. They don't have the access to milkweed. They don't have the places that they usually overwinter. So, the numbers have been dropping for a long, long time. Then the last two years, they were just gone, and we were waiting to see what would happen. And then, you know, this year they just magically returned. I would argue people most needed to see them," she said. 

Monarch butterflies overwinter in many different places on their way up the coast. Marcum visited one called Los Osos to observe the butterflies. 

"There's more than 300 overwintering sites along the coast. They're everywhere. They can find a little place that has the right amount of warmth and dappled sunlight and the right breeze. I went to one in a housing tract. A man named Kingston Leong had made a deal with the developer to keep a little bit of open space. We just happened to have the right timing. We got there on a day where everything was butterfly perfect. And they had started mating a little bit earlier. One of the ways that Monarch butterflies mate is that the male will get over the female and push her to the ground. So there were butterflies just hitting all around me," Marcum shared. 

Leong, who observes and educates people about the butterflies in his neighborhood, is a retired professor. He has worked with developers to try and preserve the butterflies' habitats. Leong and other entomologists have a few ideas of monarchs made a comeback this year, after years of dwindling numbers. 

"Kingston has an idea. He did a small study and found out that butterflies are really sensitive to smoke. It was a really small study, so at this point, it's kind of a guess on his part, but he does think that it was the wildfires. We had these terrible wildfires over two years. The interesting part is that we have more butterflies now than could possibly have come from the minute population that we had the last two years. He's thinking that maybe some of the butterflies from Mexico crossed over. [Scientists] used to think they were two different species, but they're not. They appear to be the same butterflies. So, we may have gotten some newcomers to come in and up the numbers a bit," Marcum explained. 

Marcum also has written about butterflies when not hunting for a news story. Last year, she wrote a book after taking a year away from the LA Times. 

"It's called 'The Fallen Stones.' It comes out in March. It's mostly about the morphos. I lived on a butterfly farm in Belize in the jungle, and a lot of things happened during that time, including a global pandemic and a hurricane and a lot of stuff. But the book is kind of about resilience and finding hope, finding a way forward," she said.

At the end of "The Fallen Stones" is an afterword by one of Marcum's childhood friends with tips on how to contribute to and help butterfly habitats. 

"There's a chapter on how to plant a butterfly garden. You don't really have to have a big yard, even if you have just a little patio, if you plant some herbs and let them go to flower, that'll help. I'm in the Central Valley, so we're on the migratory route and we have lost lots and lots of fields. The butterflies need more milkweed in our area. [In Southern California], you need more flowers, more nectar and more ways to feed them. Nature's a little bit messy. So, when you're cleaning up your yard and getting rid of everything, you're probably throwing out butterflies or cocoons or taking away their food. So, just kind of let it be a little bit," she said. 

"The Fallen Stones" will be available on March 1. 

Watch "LA Times Today" at 7 and 10 p.m. Monday through Friday on Spectrum News 1 and the Spectrum News app.