How Venice residents turned a neighborhood eyesore into a way station for migrating butterflies

Story and photos by Paul M. J. Suchecki 



Now that the annual Monarch butterfly migration to Mexico is peaking, one of the best places to view this plucky but threatened species is Monarch Manor, a pocket park in Venice that used to be a rundown public lot.

The bright orange butterflies are more than just a delight to the eye. Though not as efficient as bees, monarchs are also plant pollinators — and, unlike bees, travel great distances in doing so.

Groups of monarch butterflies make annual journeys as far as 2,500 miles, the lengthiest insect migration on Earth and a pattern that scientists believe has continued for thousands of years. But due largely to human impacts on the environment, last December’s monarch population in Mexico was the sparsest since the butterflies were first monitored in 1993, according to the World Wildlife Foundation.

In the U.S., indiscriminate use of herbicides has been killing off milkweed, the monarch’s primary food source. In Mexico, illegal logging has decimated the butterflies’ winter habitat. According to a report by Monarch Watch founder and University of Kansas biology professor Chip Taylor, 167 million acres of monarch habitat has been lost in the past 10 to 15 years.

Global warming also plays a role. Though monarchs flee south to avoid winter’s chill, temperatures above 95 degrees Fahrenheit can kill their larvae.

The miniature Monarch Manor ecological preserve in Venice — east of 29th Avenue between Pacific Avenue and Strongs Drive — offers an encouraging sign that the monarch population might be inching upwards, at least locally.

The city-owned lot is now designated an official monarch way station by Monarch Watch, the fruits of work that began in 2008 by neighborhood residents Grace Godlin and Darryl DuFay.

“The lot had developed a homeless problem. Locals were approached by [LAPD] Pacific Division police to help,” explained Godlin. She reached out to DuFay, president of Voice of the Canals (VOC), the Venice canals residents’ association.

“Darryl and I thought that cleaning up the property and creating a garden would discourage the homeless from camping there. At a meeting of the VOC, one of the members suggested turning the lot into a monarch butterfly sanctuary,” she said.

DuFay and Godlin spent an entire month cleaning out debris and weeds. The sloping lot had been tough to climb, especially in rainy season, so DuFay procured railroad ties and paving stones to lay out a path and install steps.

“The VOC put up a wooden, green fence along Pacific Avenue and has contributed money. Since I owned the lot next door, I donated water for the plants,” she said.

Dufay and Godlin chose drought-tolerant, native plants — along with plenty of monarch-nourishing milkweed, of course. They even installed shaded overhangs throughout the garden so that monarchs could lay their eggs where the larvae could develop in areas shaded from the heat.

Along the garden’s fence, a series of signs shows the lifecycle of the Monarch butterfly, each of which lives only about five weeks.

Most striking about Monarch Manor, though, is that in a city with only 7.9% of its 300,201 acres dedicated to park land — a percentage far behind New York, Washington D.C., San Francisco and other densely populated U.S. cities, according to The Trust for Public Land — this new park has been built and sustained as a grassroots community project without the use of public funds.

And it isn’t the only local haven for monarch butterflies.

Charlotte Purein is another Venice resident whose heart went out to the monarchs’ struggles.

“In 1996, wintering monarchs in Mexico covered approximately 45 acres of forest. Today it is less than 2 acres. How scary is that?”

Purein has planted milkweed on the small curbside lawns along her block of Market Street, between Main Street and Riviera Avenue. She stresses to neighbors that no pesticides, fatal to monarch larvae, should be used near the milkweed.

“Seeing the butterflies feed and move on makes me happy and justifies the work I’ve done,” Purein said.

Currently writing a book on sustainability for children, Purein is also involved in planting a community garden at Beyond Baroque. There, “milkweed will be planted in a section for children so that they can get to see monarch butterflies for themselves,” she said.

So if you catch yourself smiling at a regal, orange butterfly flitting against our blue sky this month, you have local volunteers to thank.