In 1981 the Xerces Society, a non-profit environmental organization that focuses on the conservation of invertebrates, counted more than 1 million Western Monarchs wintering throughout California.
The group's most recent count, over Thanksgiving weekend, estimated 20,500 Western Monarchs in 2018, an 86% decline from the nearly 148,000 spotted the previous year, according to an annual census conducted by the Xerces Society, SFGate reported last Sunday.
Researchers with the conservation group called the number "disturbingly low" and potentially "catastrophic," in a statement.
Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus plexippus) are the most well-known butterflies species in North America. The Western Monarch typically migrates to California each winter, and researchers for the conservation group count its population in the state each November.
"A ubiquitous sight in gardens, prairies, and natural areas from coast to coast, their arrival in northern states and Canadian provinces is viewed by many as a welcome sign of the change in seasons from spring to summer.
Renowned for their long-distance seasonal migration and spectacular winter gatherings in Mexico and California, the Monarch butterfly population has recently declined to dangerously low levels," Xerces Society said on their website.
Biologist Emma Pelton, who oversees the November count, told The New York Times that the 2018 count is “potentially catastrophic” when combined with the 97% collapse in the overall Monarch population since the 1980s.
“We think this is a huge wake-up call,” Pelton said, adding that ecological changes impact the butterflies and serve as a forward leading indicator for the overall health of an ecosystem.
The volatile climate in California in the last decade has threatened the butterflies, the Times reported. The state also experienced the deadliest wildfire season on record, causing widespread smoke damage and poor air quality.
"The major stressors affecting Western Monarch include habitat loss (overwintering and breeding), pesticides (herbicides and insecticides), and climate change including increased drought severity and frequency," Xerces said in a statement.
If nothing is done to correct the trend, the Monarch butterflies could face extinction, Pelton warned.
“We don’t think it is too late to act,” she said. “But everyone needs to step up their effort.”
However, California’s monarch butterfly population is not the only insect in collapse; there are reports that the North American Honey Bee has experienced widespread Colony Collapse Disorder, a phenomenon that occurs when the majority of worker bees in a colony disappear and leave behind a queen.
While the exact cause of these die-offs is not entirely understood, a recent report has linked Monsanto's Glyphosates to the global decline in honey bees.
Monarchs and honey bees are critical components of the food chain, and if massive die-offs continue, well, it could disrupt the food supply for humans.