Every year, thousands of migratory Western monarch butterflies spend the winter months hanging out in Pismo Beach.
During that same time, hundreds of local schoolchildren also hang out at the butterfly grove along Highway 1.
The black-and-orange winged insects are wintering at the site; the young students are learning why the butterflies return to the small stand of eucalyptus trees every migration season.
State Parks Ranger Jenna Scimeca said vacation time is the theme of the school program offered at California State Parks Department/Pismo State Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove in Pismo.
The free program is aimed at second-graders because the youngsters study the life cycle of plants and animals as part of their science curriculum.
Rangers teach the kids what a monarch is, why the creatures are at the grove and why they pick Pismo Beach to spend the winter.
“In the summer, we go to warm places,” Scimeca said. “In the winter, the monarchs want to go to nice places, too. Monarchs take vacations, too, is the overall theme.”
The program draws one to two classes a week, and kids have come all the way from Porterville to visit the preserve and learn about monarchs. Nineteen different schools took field trips to the site last year, Scimeca said.
“This is the culminating point for them,” State Parks Recreation Specialist Dena Bellman said about the scores of students who annually visit the grove.
Dora Dubois teaches second grade at Manzanita Public Charter School in Lompoc, along with Norma Hornsby. The women’s classes recently visited the grove to participate in the State Parks hands-on interpretive monarch butterfly program.
“It’s applying what they learned to real life,” Dubois said about the Nov. 5 field trip.
The Manzanita students raised painted lady butterflies in the classroom this year, so seeing the monarchs at the Pismo grove brought the lesson home, the teachers said.
Madelyn Schock, 8, said the highlight of the field trip was getting to watch the butterflies fly around the grove and hang in clusters in the trees.
“They have orange and black (wings),” Madelyn said with wide eyes.
Her classmate, Eric Hill, 7, was equally excited about visiting the butterfly grove, grinning from ear to ear.
The second-grader said he really enjoyed the interpretive program that has student volunteers dress like monarchs to help facilitate learning about the winged insects.
“We learned the butterflies have antennas and use that for smell,” Eric said before he ran off to join his friends for lunch.
The stand of trees serve as a coastal wintering site for the new generations of monarchs, which instinctually know to return to the preserve, where they will stay until about mid-February.
They have a lifespan of six months, as opposed to that of common monarchs that live only six weeks. Their longer lifespan is attributed to a unique fat-storing system the Pismo monarchs possess, according to researchers.