Guidance on milkweed management confuses butterfly gardeners

Confusion reigns for gardeners and Monarch butterfly enthusiasts trying to “do the right thing” managing their late season milkweed, the host plant of Monarch butterflies.

monarch laying eggs on swamp milkweed

Monarch laying eggs on Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, in downtown San Antonio November 15, 2015. Photo by Monika Mae

For the last few years, scientists like doctoral student Dara Satterfield and Dr. Sonia Altizer of the University of Georgia as well as renown Monarch scientist Dr. Lincoln Brower have recommended slashing Tropical milkweed, Aslcepias curassavica, to the ground late in the season.  Studies suggest that the year-round availability of Tropical milkweed makes Monarchs more prone to contracting Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, a debilitating protozoan parasite commonly known in Monarch butterfly circles as OE.

Until recently, Tropical milkweed, technically nonnative, has been the only host plant available for butterfly gardeners hoping to lure the migrating butterflies to their yards.  The reliable bloomer will thrive year-round in warmer and coastal climates, especially in Texas and Florida.  Scientists believe this year-round availability creates a hotbed of nasty OE spores and spreads the disease.  Its presence can also encourage Monarch butterflies to break their diapause–or temporarily suspended non reproductive state–and lay eggs, thus unable to complete their migration to Mexico.

No doubt about it: Monarch caterpillars LOVE Tropical milkweed. Photo taken 11/24/2015 by Monika Maeckle

No doubt about it: Monarch caterpillars LOVE Tropical milkweed. Photo taken 11/24/2015 by Monika Maeckle

But now, for the first time ever, native milkweeds are more available.  And judging from the government funding pouring in to milkweed cultivation and the valiant Monarch butterfly habitat conservation effort, even MORE milkweeds will be coming to market soon.  Gardeners will soon have choices beyond Tropical milkweed.

“Plant only species of milkweed that are native to your region, whenever possible.”

That’s what the Monarch Joint Venture OE Fact sheet advises pollinator gardeners like me and you.

We did that.  And like good stewards, we’ve been cutting Tropical milkweed to the ground late in the season.

But guess what?  Those native milkweeds, which have recently become available because of all the attention on Monarch habitat restoration, are thriving late in the season, too.

Egg on Texana

Egg found on Texana milkweed, Aslcepias texana, 11/19/2015. Not sure if it’s a Queen or monarch (and it hasn’t hatched yet.)  Photo by Monika Maeckle

In my yard right now, for example, I have

  • Asclepias texana, Texana milkweed
  • Asclepias incarnata, Swamp milkweed
  • Aslepias curassavica Tropical milkweed
  • Aslcepias tuberosa Butterfly weed
  • Asclepias oenotheroides, Zizotes milkweed
  • Matelea reticulata, Pearl Milkweed vine.

I sought out these various milkweeds at native plant sales, the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower center, from our family’s Llano River ranch.  I also traded seeds with other pollinator fans, friends and butterfly breeders. At this moment, all but those I’ve cut back (tuberosa and curassavica) still flaunt green foliage, days before Thanksgiving.

Should I cut these native milkweeds to the ground as well?

The theory of OE spores building up over the season, possibly infecting migrating Monarchs would seem to hold true for other milkweeds available late in the year, not just Tropical milkweed.


“You’re right that it’s less about the plant itself and more about the seasonality of the plant,” wrote Satterfield via email.  “Any plant that grows 365 days a year in the southern U.S. and supports Monarchs year-round could lead to high levels of disease, as we understand it.”

Swamp milkweed seed pod

Drawback to cutting back native milkweeds: we then can’t harvest the seedpods. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“My personal leaning is that if the species are native, they don’t need to be cut back on a regular basis,” said Dr. Altizer via email.  “Any natives that routinely remain in lush green foliage into the fall and winter are likely going to be rare species, or it will be a rare year when this happens, whereas with the Tropical milkweed, these commonly remain in green foliage until they are hit by a hard frost or cut back.”

Dr. Lincoln Brower, always the purist, suggests even cutting late season nectar plants back–if they are growing in close proximity to Tropical milkweed.

“I have given some thought to your question of whether nectar sources might accumulate OE spores,” wrote Dr. Brower via email.  “I think the answer to this is one of probability and proximity to curassavica [Tropical milkweed]. I think that nectar sources are so diverse and abundant in the natural environment that the probability of Monarchs infecting the plants with spores is very small. …unless the nectar plant is growing adjacent to curassavica. Again, yank it out.”

Confused?  You’re not the only one.

Mary Kennedy, volunteer at the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project

Mary Kennedy, volunteer at the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project

Mary Kennedy, a longtime Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project volunteer and trainer said she is no longer going to advise folks to cut back their Tropical milkweed. “If milkweed is on the ground late in the season, I don’t see why it makes any difference what species it is,” said Kennedy, a former science teacher. “Grow up kids, and make your own decisions.”

One drawback to cutting milkweeds back late in the season is that we then are unable to harvest the seeds. I cut back a patch of Swamp milkweed in August as it was riddled with aphids and gangly.  The plants failed to produce any more flowers; thus, no seeds have been harvested from that patch to propagate future native milkweeds.

Satterfield insisted that the scientists’ statements are “still correct and not mutually exclusive.”

Swamp milkweed in the "wild" of the Llano River, 11/21/2015. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Swamp milkweed in the “wild” of the Llano River, 11/21/2015. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“Our research suggests that milkweeds that support Monarch breeding year-round in the U.S. could put Monarchs at higher risk of disease. The milkweeds enabling these non-migratory Monarchs are exotic species, like Tropical milkweed and Family Jewels milkweed. We are not aware of any native species supporting large numbers of Monarch caterpillars during the winter in the Gulf states. So, we do not have any scientific support right now that says we should cut back native milkweeds.”

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Late season Monarch butterflies create gardening quandary

It’s mid November and Monarch butterflies continue to visit my San Antonio pollinator garden.  Lighting on Cowpen daisy, Duranta, Gregg’s Purple mist flower and several kinds of milkweed, the butterflies have extended their visits long past their usual late October stay.

Monarch on duranta

Nov. 12,. 2015: Monarchs still visiting my San Antonio garden, this one on Duranta. Photo by Monika Maeckle

That’s not to say we don’t sometimes have Monarchs visiting this late in the season. We do.  In fact, we’ve had many questions from folks up north about what to do with late hatching Monarchs when the weather turns cold. A previous post addresses that. But I don’t ever recall having this many Monarch butterflies this late, and so consistently.

“Yesterday, I saw hundreds of Monarchs in Austin,” wrote John Barr of Native Cottage Gardens in Austin on November 1 in a post to the DPLEX list, the old school email listserv that reaches about 800 butterfly enthusiasts.  ” I saw more Monarchs in 30 minutes than I’ve seen all year. Bright, fresh, long-winged migrating Monarchs of both sexes.”

Monarchs were even spotted recently as far north as Lake Erie, according to Darlene Burgess of Point Pelee, Leamington, Ontario. “There are still Monarchs being seen in Ontario on Lake Erie’s north shore. This week’s warm temps up to 70° should get them south across the lake,” she wrote November 2 on the DPLEX list.


Late season blooms continue to attract Monarchs and other pollinators to my urban San Antonio garden. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Our friends at the Natural Gardener in Austin, which stocks several kinds of native milkweeds, said they’ve had a steady stream of Monarchs visiting as well. “They LOVE the Duranta,” said Curt Alston, buyer for the organic nursery. Alston added that he has plenty of caterpillars and chyrsalises on the native milkweeds, and that adult Monarchs are still breezing through the aisles.

What gives?

Climate change.  September 2015 was the hottest month in recorded history.  October ranked the fourth hottest.  Overall, 2015 is likely to be the hottest year ever, says the New York Times.

Warmer temps mean extended growing seasons.  Plants that typically wouldn’t thrive when fall arrives will continue to grow and bloom, creating more nectar for migrating Monarchs, and in some cases, host plant.

Increased temperatures also mean that Monarch butterflies will likely break their diapause–that is, their asexual state of resisting reproductive activities so as to conserve energy for migrating to Mexico.   Once Monarchs reproduce, they don’t migrate.

winter breeding map

Breaking diapause increases the chances of more year-round Monarch butterfly colonies. Map via Monarch Joint Venture

“We’ve got to get used to the late Octobers and Novembers as part of our future,” said Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, the citizen scientist tagging program operated by the University of Kansas at Lawrence.

Taylor predicts that a larger proportion of these late Monarchs will be unable to maintain their diapause and become reproductive.  “Their hormones work on the basis of temperature.  It’s very delicate and complicated,” he said via phone.  “The warmer it is, the more likely it is the Monarch will not be able to maintain a diapause.”

Hmm.  So where does that leave butterfly gardeners?  Should we encourage egg laying with native or clean Tropical milkweed, or just let all those good eggs go to waste?


Tropical milkweed: cut it to the ground in the fall to prevent build-up of OE spores. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Research from scientists like doctoral student Dara Satterfield and Dr. Sonia Altizer out of the University of Georgia indicates that the year-round availability of Tropical milkweed makes Monarchs more prone to contracting Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, a debilitating protozoan parasite commonly known as OE in Monarch butterfly circles.  Since OE spores transfer via physical contact between creatures or the plants on which they rest or eat, having year-round milkweed which is visited repeatedly by Monarchs and other butterflies creates a hotbed of these nasty spores and spreads the disease.

Satterfield, et al, suggest hard-to-find native milkweeds should be planted rather than the technically nonnative Tropical milkweed, which is widely available and easy to grow.  Best practice dictates close management of Tropical milkweed.   Cut it to the ground late in the season so OE spores don’t build up and infect migrating Monarchs.

Cowpen daisy

Cowpen daisy: Monarch and pollinator favorite and blooms into fall. Photo by Monika Maeckle

But what about all the other plants that Monarchs frequent?  In my yard, the native Swamp milkweed continues to thrive and various nectar sources have been repeatedly visited by Monarchs and other butterflies since April.  As the Natural Gardener’s Curt Alston said above, Monarchs are loving the lush, purple bloom of Duranta that laces my fence perimeter.  They also repeatedly visit my golden-yellow, late season Cowpen daisies.

Wouldn’t these plants also host the same debilitating OE spores so closely associated with late season Tropical milkweed after so many return visits from Monarchs?   Should we cut those plants down as well, to avoid infecting visiting flyers?

Scientists, what say you?

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Mighty Monarch butterflies brave south winds, Hurricane Patricia to arrive in Mexico

Those of us who tag Monarch butterflies often compare the activity to fishing: you just never know what kind of day to expect.

Monarch cluster

South winds kept Monarchs in place the week of October 19. Cluster in Texas Hill Country. Photo by Jenny Singleton.

That pretty much describes this peak Monarch migration season. We anticipated a huge rebound with thousands of Monarchs gathering at their usual roosting spots along the streams and pecan groves of the Texas Hill Country.

Instead, upon entering the Texas funnel this season, the Monarchs veered west of their usual Hill Country trek. By Thursday of last week, they were arriving in Coahuila, Mexico, about 650 miles from their destination in Michoacán.  Then in a surprise twist, the migrating insects faced the prospect of a supposedly historic Category 5 Hurricane Patricia that delivered big worries, winds and rain–but ultimately fizzled fast.

Coahuila Monarchs

Journey North reported Monarchs arriving in Cuatrocienegas, Coahuila, Mexico on Thursday of last week. Photo via Journey North.

We had planned back-to-back tagging outings with a special group of butterfly enthusiasts to take advantage of the predicted peak migration weekends, October 16 and 23.  In August, 500 tags from Monarch Watch were ordered.  In mid October, nets were bleached and readied, picnics and campfires planned, and supplies secured.  In an overly optimistic move, I even retrieved unused tags from previous seasons–in the event that we ran out of our 2015 stash.

We knew that the major migratory wave had moved west of our Texas Hill Country because of more recent rains in that part of the state. One roost in Midland-Odessa hosted 20-25,000 Monarchs, according to Steve Schafersman, who posted to the Texas Butterfly Listserv on October 17. “Several experienced butterfly counters observed this concentration. The Monarchs were watched as they took off in great clouds when the temperature warmed,” he wrote on October 17.

Hurricane Patricia path

Thanks, Hurricane Patricia! You messed up our peak Monarch tagging weekend. Photo via

That same weekend, our tag team netted 137 tagged Monarchs–a small showing for peak migration week. Last year we tagged three times that many, and our record in 2008 was almost 500 in just a few hours.  We cancelled this past weekend’s outing because of the dramatic weather predictions that made the two-hour drive to the ranch appear a dangerous insanity.

As Hurricane Patricia approached Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, on Friday, October 23, Monarch butterfly social media and email lists ignited with concern.

“My heart was well and I felt so good that the Monarchs are about to reach their overwintering site,” wrote Michelle Nystrom of Minnesota on the DPLEX list, an email subscriber list of about 800 Monarch butterfly enthusiasts, scientists and citizen scientists.

Monarch on daisy

Prior to Hurricane Patricia, south winds in the Texas Hill Country made for great photos as Monarchs were held in place. Photo by Jenny Singleton

“Any news on how Hurricane Patricia is affecting the Monarchs?” asked Colleen Glass Smith on the Monarch Watch Facebook page.

Journey North, which tracks the migration in real-time with reports from citizen scientists from all over North America, posted this on October 23:

Many people are worried about the effect of Hurricane Patricia on the Monarch migration.
We don’t have any information at this time but we are in touch with people who will share what they know. We’ll be sure to include any news in next week’s monarch migration update.
The landfall for Hurricane Patricia is west of the monarch overwintering region; its path is predicted to stay to west and north of the region. By Sunday, the downgraded storm may reach the monarch migration pathway near Monterrey but presumably the winds will not be too strong by then.

“The bottom line–for the moment at least–is that there doesn’t appear to be any evidence that Monarchs have been adversely affected by the winds and rains that have accompanied Patricia,”  said Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch, answering repeated questions on the DPLEX list late Saturday.  “That said, Monarchs roosting in trees in areas

Monarchs Alpine

Monarchs filled the skies in Alpine, Texas October 21. Photo via Borderlands Research institute for nature Resource Management

with high winds and torrential rainfall, such as the four inches per hour reported for San Antonio, might well have been blown out of trees and drown.”

Our friend Jenny Singleton of Grapevine, who introduced me to the magical world of Monarch butterflies back in 2005 (thanks, Jenny!), was lucky enough to spend an entire peak migration week out in the Hill Country.  She left her ranch in Hext near Menard, Texas, on Friday, just as Hurricane Patricia made its approach to Mexico.  Her tally:  257 Monarchs–a fraction of her 2008 weekend record of 1200+.

“No rain right now,” Singleton texted me on Thursday.  “Kinda misty all AM….Still a strong southerly wind…they don’t want to be blown north so they just stay in the trees.  But they are very hard to catch.  Very wary and seem to see me way before I see them.”


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Monarch weekend 2015 slideshow photos by Nicolas Rivard and Monika   Maeckle.  Video by Nicolas Rivard.

Yep.  That sounds like what we encountered the prior weekend. One unusual observation: a Monarch butterfly puddling, or drinking, from a mud puddle along the Llano. Never seen Monarchs do that in Texas before–only Mexico ( see photo in slideshow). I can only imagine the creature was dehydrated.

Other than that, it was winds from the south, skittish butterflies, and glorious sunsets with the late fall light beaming across the river bottom. Totally lovely.

Our tagging team spanned multiple generations this year with our youngest tagger, Nola Garcia Hamilton, age 8, personally orchestrating a catch-and-release program that concluded our tagging adventure with a dramatic release on the Chigger Islands platform right as the Saturday night sun set.  Check out the video below.

Butterfly tagging teammates included: Victoria Echeverri, Allison Hu and Nicolas Bradshaw, Nicolas Rivard, Alexander Rivard, Nola Garcia Hamilton and her mom, Tracy Idell Hamilton of San Antonio; and Leyla Shams and Chris Gannon of Austin.  Also in attendance, canine partners Cocoa, Brisket, Porsche, Gus and Walter, as well as one five-week-old kitten, Snowflake.

Thanks to all for participating.  Next year, perhaps, a less volatile season.

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Q & A: Journey North’s Elizabeth Howard talks tech, citizen science, mass butterfly releases

We’ve all read her bulletins.  From the appearance of the first eggs in March and April to the massive wave of Monarchs pulsing through the Texas funnel in the fall, Elizabeth Howard, 60, keeps Monarch butterfly aficionados apprised of the whereabouts and status of our favorite migrating butterfly.

In 1994, the educator, conservationist, and citizen scientist pioneer founded Journey North, a website and program funded by Annenberg Learner, a division of the Annenberg Foundation devoted to advancing excellent teaching in American schools.  The site offers an app, tracking maps, teaching and curriculum tips, and the call to “Go outside. Explore your own backyard. Get ready to share what you see!”

Monarch roost near Junction

Monarch butterflies roost near Junction, Texas in early October 2015. Photo by Judy and Tony Hall

Journey North has embraced that creed for decades, engaging 60,0000 students, citizen scientists, and naturalists of all ages in tracking seasonal change and wildlife migrations around the world–Monarchs, hummingbirds, whales, eagles and others.  The program encourages people to report sightings of eggs, caterpillars and adults through its website or via the Journey North app.

Howard directs the effort with a fluctuating staff of up to six during peak season from her office in Vermont.  Each week during migration season she spends a day and a half crafting the Thursday Monarch butterfly migration bulletins.  The most time-consuming part, she says, is managing the data which is expertly done by her Journey North colleague, Cindy Schmid.

“With a gentle push from the north wind, the migration began to flow into Texas this week,” wrote Howard in the October 8 newsletter.  “The average roost-size in Texas has been 1,000 Monarchs so far, and numbers should build to peak over the coming week.”

I’ve admired Howard from afar for years, impressed by her relatively early embrace of technology in the service of nature. The celebration of all things tech sometimes seems to steamroll the importance of the natural world.

Trained as a biologist, Howard holds special status as a citizen scientist and advocate.

“I consider myself a citizen scientist — and also a ‘real scientist.’” she said via email. “I’m someone who has learned on the job (and I’m secretly proud of that). I think it’s great that the scientific field can make room for people who take the route I have; experience must be at least as valuable as advanced degrees.”


Elizabeth Howard, founder of Journey North, directs the citizen science program from Vermont. Photo via Journey North

That attitude has afforded her special stature with many of us. When Howard speaks, citizen scientists listen.

Her newsletter’s recent inclusion of a press release announcing a statement authored by 10 scientists discouraging the purchase of commercially bred butterflies for fear of unleashing the debilitating Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE) spore on the wild population gave many of us pause.

Under the headline, “Concern about Monarch releases,” Howard included the press release with a link to the statement accompanied by a quote from Sarina Jepsen, Endangered Species Program Director of The Xerces Society in her weekly newsletter.

“Breeding and releasing monarchs might seem like a harmless activity, something that might even help struggling populations. Unfortunately, the practice holds the potential to actually harm wild monarchs and disrupt research that is critical to their conservation,” said Jepsen.

The Xerces Society, along with the Center for Biological Diversity and Dr. Lincoln Brower, submitted the petition last August to list the Monarch butterfly as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.

Howard touches on that and more, below.

1. How did you arrive at the notion of crowdsourcing information about the Monarch butterfly and other migrations?

As a winter-worn resident of the northern US, waiting for spring was always a challenge. Toward the end of winter, I’d follow bird migrations by listening to ‘rare bird alerts’ from the states to my south. (At the time, bird sightings were compiled on telephone answering

machines.) So, when I heard about ‘the internet’ — and how it could connect people — it struck me immediately that the technology could be used to track migrations. I actually remember the instant the idea occurred to me; I pictured a map with lights turning on as migrants arrived successively across the landscape.

2. When you started Journey North in 1994, that was extremely early Internet. Obviously, much has changed since then, but what has been the most astounding or impressive change in the technology and in citizen science?

What’s been most impressive is the pace of change. When we began in 1994 e-mail was new and there was no web. Now we have images, voice, video, social media, apps, ever-increasing band-width and immediate access to people across the planet. I love having had a job that incorporates these advancements so closely and directly. Truly, not a week goes by where we don’t see new and creative applications – and we can build them right into our work.

Follow the migration at Journey North.

As for citizen science, I’m still impressed that we can track butterflies across the continent simply by sharing sightings and that the information is so valuable. For example, we now know that even weekly differences in spring temperatures can impact the subsequent size of that year’s population. Who knew?

3. Are you generally optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the Monarch butterfly migration? Do you think your great-grandchildren will experience it?

I guess I’m optimistic in the short-term but I hate to think about the long-term because conservation work is going to get even harder. The pace of habitat destruction is projected to accelerate and, on top of that, there’s climate change. At a recent meeting scientists were grappling to determine the migration’s “extinction threshold.” We know we’re flirting with it and we don’t know the tipping point.

What’s heartening is the outpouring of support for Monarchs. If people decide it’s important, maybe we can save them.

4. The Monarch butterfly community has been “aflutter” about the possibility of the Monarch’s possible listing as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. Where do you come down on this?

If this is what it will take to protect the Monarch migration, I’m all for it. However, I do have questions about how and whether this approach would work.

For example, a landowner might rid his/her property of milkweed out of concern that he/she won’t be allowed to do so later. Any regulation should be written so we can learn as we go and make sure unintended consequences don’t make matters worse.

5. You told me via email once that your favorite migrating creature is a toss-up between hummingbirds and Monarchs. Do you still feel that way, and if so, what is it about one or the other that is most interesting? Also, which species garners the most attention/views on the Journey North site? ( I bet I know the answer to that one.)

That’s right, I can’t choose. Monarchs are perhaps more awe-inspiring; I mean, how DO they migrate to a place they’ve never been? But we can experience hummingbirds on a more individual, personal level. I love their chutzpah; they’re so much fun to have around. Plus, they make me laugh which a Monarch never has.

Hummingbirds surpass Monarch in popularity on Journey North and that fits. Google “hummingbird” and you’ll get 31 million hits compared to the Monarch’s meager 1 million.

Future citizen scientists

Howard is most proud of engaging future citizen scientists like these boys discovering some Monarch eggs on milkweed. –Photo via Journey North

6. What is your proudest moment as the founder of Journey North?

I’m proud that Journey North provides such an easy entry point to citizen science, and that we have brought so many people into the fold. We now have 60,000 participants spread across Canada, the US, and Mexico. People are telling the Monarch’s story, right down to those who live near the sanctuaries in Mexico and announce the butterflies’ arrival. How neat is that?

7. You recently issued a news release discouraging people from buying Monarch butterflies in any form from mass breeders for release in the wild. Do you honestly think that commercial butterfly breeders have no place in Monarch conservation?

In my view, this is about what the monarchs need — we have to put their needs first. The surest way to help monarchs is to provide healthy habitat and leave the breeding to them. If nature’s taught us any lesson it’s that ecological systems are always more complex that we expect. Think of the pictures of millions of monarchs overwintering together — having come from across the continent — and then imagine some carrying a communicable disease. There’s so much we don’t know. I don’t think we can be too cautious.
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How to tag a Monarch butterfly in six easy steps

NOTE:  The following post ran in September of  2012, but warrants reposting today.  Happy tagging!

One of the most common questions we get at the Texas Butterfly Ranch is how the heck do you tag a Monarch butterfly?

Ready to tag some butterflies?

Ready to tag some butterflies?

It’s pretty straightforward, really.  You’ll need a butterfly net, a clipboard or mini notebook and a writing utensil to record your findings.   You’ll also need tags issued by Monarch Watch ($15 for 25 tags).    I recommend a hat and camera, too.

Before you go, apply sunscreen or insect spray if you use them, then wash your hands thoroughly.   Monarchs and other butterflies are more resilient than we think, however, Deet, Paba  and other chemical contact with their scales, wings and bodies should be avoided.  There’s no need to sterilize your hands or wear gloves.  Just wash your hands.

Monarch Watch tags and data sheets

You’ll need Monarch Watch tags and data sheets to tag Monarch butterflies. And a butterfly net.

When should you go tagging?  I like late mornings after my second cup of coffee.   By then, the butterflies have had a chance to warm up their bodies and are out flying and nectaring.  Remember, butterflies won’t fly if the temperature is less than 60 degrees, so late mornings and afternoons on sunny days are ideal.   Right before sunset is good, too, especially when they’re migrating.  In the Hill Country in October, masses of Monarch butterflies will often drop from the sky around dusk and look for roosting spots—usually in protected tree limbs and often near water sources.

Ready for some tagging?  Here’s how to do it.

  1. Locate butterfly

Millions of migrating Monarch butterflies will pass through the “Texas funnel” on their way to their ancestral roosts in Michoacan, Mexico, over the coming weeks and months.    According to Monarch Watch, peak migration for San Antonio and Austin will be October 2 – 22.

Frostweed is a fall favorite nectar source for Monarch butterflies.

Frostweed is a fall favorite nectar source for Monarch butterflies. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Typically, we see a first pulse of vanguard Monarchs around Labor Day in the Hill Country and in our San Antonio and Austin gardens.  In September we’ll consistently see individual Monarchs trickling through town.  By October, groups will show up and form evening roosts in trees and large bushes like Poverty Weed along our rivers and other protected locations.

The best places to see them are along our streams and rivers where late season blooms offer a nectar rich rest stop.  Monarchs fuel up on their journey south, so anywhere with late season butterfly-friendly flowers—native and Tropical milkweeds, Gregg’s Purple mistflower, Cowpen daisies, Frostweed, Goldenrod, lantana, for example—should draw them, as well as other butterflies.

Your own garden, if it has butterfly-friendly flowers blooming, should draw Monarch butterflies.  Look, observe, wait.   And be patient.  For some prime Monarch butterfly spotting, stop by the Milkweed Patch along the Museum Reach of the San Antonio River this fall.

2.  Net butterfly

Netting a Monarch butterfly—or any butterfly for that matter—is more challenging than it looks. The flitting creatures exhibit extreme skittishness and their compound eyes afford them a 360-degree field of vision. The slightest movement can send them sailing.

When I first started tagging Monarchs, I diligently chased them in flight. After slipping in the river more than once and skinning my knee after tripping down the steps at my house while in hot pursuit, I resolved to only try and net Monarchs when they’re roosting or nectaring. I’ve witnessed several ace netters with excellent hand-eye coordination, quick reflexes, and a sniper’s aim nab butterflies in flight, but I’m not among them.

Monarch nectaring on swamp milkweed

It’s easier to net Monarch butterflies when they’re nectaring. Sneak up on them from behind.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Suggestions:  wear low-key clothing that blends into the environment, move slowly, keep quiet and sneak up on them from behind.  Once you swing your net, the butterflies will scatter.  It resembles fishing in that sense;  when you cast your line, the fish get spooked and flee, but they’ll be back. After a few minutes, the butterflies will resume their activities—nectaring, resting or roosting.  Or they may fly out of your reach.

Once you get a butterfly in your net, be sure to flip the net sock over the circle of the rim—otherwise the clever insects can slip out.   With the net sock folded over the net structure, they will remain in your net.

Annie Schenzel demonstrates proper net technique

Annie Schenzel demonstrates proper net technique. See how the net sock is draped over the rim? No butterflies can escape.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

Some folks take the net down to the ground after they swoop the butterfly into the net to ensure the butterfly doesn’t escape.   This is especially helpful when you capture many at once.

3. Collect butterfly/butterflies from net

Once the butterfly or butterflies are in the net, gently reach in and clasp an individual in your cupped hand, wings folded together if possible.  (No insecticides or sunscreen on your hands, please.)  The butterflies will flail around in the net, so try to calm them by folding their wings closed and gently pressing the net fabric on them. Also, try holding the butterfly upside down;  it seems to calm them.

Keep the net closed so that other butterflies don’t fly out as you remove the one in your grasp, then pull out your catch and take a look.

Tracy Hamilton shows how to retrieve a Monarch from the net.

Tracy Hamilton shows how to retrieve a Monarch from the net.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

4.  Examine butterfly, establish its sex.

This is when you examine the butterfly to determine its sex.   Open the wings gently and look for the two pheromone sacs on the lower half of the butterfly’s wings.  If you see two black dots, it’s a male.  If not, it’s a female.   Also note the state of the butterfly—is it

Male Monarch Butterfly

Male Monarch Butterfly: it’s a boy! See the two black dots on the veins of his lower wings? Those are pheromone sacks–supposedly they drive the lady butterflies CRAZY.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

weathered and raggedy, or fresh and healthy?  If the butterfly is extremely worn out and highly unlikely to make it to Mexico, refrain from tagging it.  Let the poor creature fly off.  Note the info on your data sheet or notebook, as well as the tag number.

Raggedy Monarch butterfly

Raggedy Monarch butterfly. I don’t tag beat-up butterflies like this. Doubtful she’ll make it to Mexico. Plus, don’t want to waste tags.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

5.  Remove tag from sheet and adhere to butterfly

Holding the butterfly between two fingers with wings closed with one hand, remove a Monarch Watch sticker from the tag sheet.  I like to use my thumbnail and get them on the tip of my nail so they’re easy to slip onto the discal cell of the butterfly’s wing. Some people like to use a toothpick to lift the tag from the paper.

Use your thumbnail to lift tag from sheet and transfer to butterfly.

Use your thumbnail to lift tag from sheet and transfer to butterfly. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Place the tag on the discal cell, as illustrated in the tagging sheet sent to you by Monarch Watch.  Press gently, but firmly.  Congratulations!  You’ve tagged a Monarch butterfly.

Press the tag onto the discal cell in the middle of the lower wing, as shown.

Press the tag onto the discal cell in the middle of the lower wing, as shown. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Make sure you’ve noted the tag number, butterfly’s sex, any other useful data, on your data sheet or notebook.

6.  Release

Open your grasp and let the butterfly go.  If you’re so inclined, send her off with a kiss and best wishes for safe travels to Mexico.

Off she goes!

Off she goes!   Photo by Monka Maeckle

After the Monarch migration season, send all your data to Monarch Watch by December 1 so it can be entered into the online tag recovery database.   In the spring, you can check  to see if any of your Monarchs were recovered in Mexico.

Monarch butterfly recoveries

Of about 2400 Monarchs tagged, we’ve had 28 recoveries in Mexico.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

Good luck with your tagging.  Please let us know how it goes.

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Butterfly FAQ: How to move a Monarch butterfly chrysalis

One of the most frequently asked questions we get this time of year, especially in a rebound season like 2015, is how to move a Monarch chrysalis.

Janine Robin wrote via email last week that she found six Monarch chrysalises in her backyard in Folsom, Louisiana.  “Most are in a safe spot, but two are on a large clay pot. They are secure, but in the afternoon sun for about three hours.  Should they be moved?”

Monarchs on pot

Two Monarch caterpillars made their chrysalis on Janine Robin’s outdoor pot. Photo by Janine Robin

Good question.   That’s a judgement call.   Caterpillars are pretty intelligent about locating their chrysalises in safe places.  But like all of us, sometimes they misjudge.

For example, the Queen chrysalis pictured below formed on the edge of my kitchen door.

Queen chrysalis on door

Queen chrysalis on door. Not a good spot to hatch a butterfly. Photo by Monika Maeckle

I didn’t even notice until today (and I looked for her!) when I found a smashed newborn Queen caught in the door.  Sadly, she perished.

So if the chrysalis is in a dangerous or inopportune spot–or, if you just want to witness the magical moment of eclosure, when it hatches–then yes.  Move it.

The tricky part is often getting the chrysalis OFF of the surface to which it is attached without damaging the chrysalis itself.

You may have noticed that before caterpillars make their chrysalis, they are very still and quiet for about a day.  I like to think that they are deep in thought during this transformative stage.  It must take a lot of concentration and mindfulness to morph caterpillar legs into butterfly wings.

But what’s actually happening is they are spinning a vast silk web that you often don’t notice.  If you rub your finger on the surface around the stiff, black cremaster, which serves as a hook to hold the chrysalis in place, you’ll feel a thin, soft layer of silk.  That’s what you need to gather up to remove the chrysalis safely.  See the slide show below to learn how.

How do you know if the chrysalis is in a dangerous spot?

Newborn Monarch butterfly

Newborn Monarch butterfly will hang for about two hours before ready to fly. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Consider that the newly hatched butterfly will spend about two hours hanging from its empty chrysalis shell while it’s wet, crumpled wings drop and form properly. It’s advantageous for the butterfly in this delicate state to have something to climb on or cling to–a stick, netting, paper towel, leaves.

Winds blow. Animals or people walk by and brush up on the butterflies–possibly knocking them off. As Janine Robin wrote today, “Of the two chrysalises on the large clay pot, the lower one either fell off or was brushed off by an armadillo, possum or raccoon….I think it’s damaged.” Robin said she was able to reattach the cocoon with a spot of glue.

Also, if after hatching the butterflies fall and can’t climb back up (which seemingly could happen in the above pot and appears to be what happened with my Queen), their wings will dry crumpled and they will die. Having an easy-to-grab surface or twig/branch/leaf to grab would definitely help hoist heavy, damp wings in the event of a fall.

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                     All slide show photos by Monika Maeckle

For more on this subject, see our previous post: Is moving a Monarch chrysalis OK? Yes, and here’s how to do it.

Meanwhile, check out the slide show above to master the tricky task of getting a chrysalis off the surface to which it is attached.  Good luck, and let us know how it goes.

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Q & A: Catalina Trail, founder of the Monarch butterfly roosting sites

None of us who care about Monarch butterflies can ever forget the image of the beautiful, intrepid young woman busting through a wall of Monarch butterflies on the cover of the August 1976 National Geographic Magazine. “Discovered:  the Monarchs’ Mexican Haven,” read the headline.

Catalina Trail, then known as Cathy Aguado, was the woman on the cover of National Geographic in 1976

Catalina Trail, then known as Cathy Aguado, was the woman on the cover of National Geographic in 1976.

The woman, Catalina Trail, known as Cathy Aguado at the time, lives in Austin, Texas. She and her husband Ken Brugger were the first westerners to “discover” the Monarch butterfly roosting sites.  Before meeting Trail, I would sometimes gaze at the cover photo and wonder:  Wow, who is she? What was she thinking? She’s so lucky.  

In the summer of 2012, I had the opportunity to meet Trail.  She reached out to me here at the Texas Butterfly Ranch.  I was astounded she lived 75 miles up the road from me and told her so.  Would she agree to an interview?   She did. Over several weeks, we met, talked by phone and corresponded by email.href=”” target=”_blank”>The untold story of her role in discovering the Monarch butterfly roosting sites posted on July 10, 2012.  We have stayed in touch.

For various reasons, Trail parked her interest in Monarchs and role in the discovery of their roosting grounds shortly after the news went public in the summer of 1976. “My priorities were elsewhere at the time,” she said, adding that she also was disappointed in how the story was being told.  But when the Canadian producers of Flight of the Butterflies tracked her down via private investigator to work as a consultant on the making of their IMAX film in early 2012, she felt the need to re-engage–perhaps to set the record straight.

Much has changed in the three years since.  The Monarch butterfly has attained status as the poster child for pollinators.  And Trail has become a Monarch butterfly celebrity.  Shy, thoughtful, soft-spoken and unassuming, she typically shuns the limelight but makes occasional appearances on behalf of Monarchs and pollinators.

A Butterfly Haven somewhere in Michoacan

The SK Film, Flight of the Butterflies, tapped Catalina Trail as a consultant.  –Photo courtesy SK Films

Trail will appear at the upcoming Pollinator Powwow in Kerrville this Sunday and will also be on hand at a FREE screening of the Flight of the Butterflies organized by the National Wildlife Federation at the Mexican American Cultural Center in Austin September 30.

Trail and I shared a bahn mi sandwich and caught up at a favorite Austin eatery recently.  Here’s what she had to say.

Q. How has your life changed since you “came out” as the person who discovered the Monarch butterfly roosting sites?  And what are the best and worst parts about your newfound fame?

Since it became known that I was instrumental in the discovery of The Monarch overwintering sites in Mexico, my life has changed only in that the discovery story has been told in a way that is closer to the truth.

I have been acknowledged by SK films of Canada with the release of the film Flight of the Butterflies, and, of course, Monika Maeckle who wrote the first article in this country about my role in the discovery of the Monarch Overwintering Sanctuaries.  Many more people have recognized my work in the discovery and that lead to receiving The 2012 Gold Medal Award “Jose Maria Luis Mora” presented to me by the government of The State of Mexico for “relevant and eminent merits and conduct of notable service to humanity, Mexico, and The State of Mexico” which lead to the conservation of the Monarch Butterfly.

Catalina Trail and Shaun Benson

Catalina Trail with Shaun Benson, the actor who played the role of her husband Ken Brugger in the IMAX movie Flight of the Butterflies. Photo by Catalina Trail

The best part of being recognized is meeting people, especially children, who are passionate about the life cycle of the Monarch Butterfly, their epic migration, and their fascinating behavior. Another important part is also being able to participate in the story and let the World know that in the early 1970’s in Rural Mexico a young woman was looking to the sky and was doing fantastic things. The worst things about being known are that people wonder where I was for 38 years and why I did not participate in Monarch conservation activities. I hope to answer those questions in the future.

A. Do you feel that your role in Monarch butterfly history has been fairly and accurately portrayed?

Since the beginning, my role in Monarch butterfly history was unfairly and inaccurately portrayed.  We’re getting closer. The current version is more accurate but so many decades have a way of eroding the truth.

3. What has been the most exciting/rewarding thing to come out of your debut as the woman who led the expedition to the roosting spots?

The most exciting and rewarding thing is the realization that the truth still matters and that we as human beings appear to have an inherent need for honesty and truth in all aspects of our lives. Of course, it is also rewarding to be placed back where I belong in the discovery story of the Monarch butterfly overwintering home and not be seen only as the young woman on the magazine cover.

4. You told me a few years ago that you were back at the roosting sites in 2012. Have you been since then? If so, what were your impressions? If not, why not, and do you have any desire to return there?

I have not been to the Monarch overwintering sites since 2012. Some of the reasons I have for not going to the Monarch overwintering sites are that my job and personal situation have not allow me the freedom to go.

Catalina Trail, January 2, 1975, the day she and Ken Brugger "discovered" the Monarch butterfly Overwintering Sites

Catalina Trail, January 2, 1975, the day she and Ken Brugger “discovered” the Monarch butterfly Overwintering Sites –Photo copyright Catalina Trail

My desire to return to the sites to see the Monarchs is so strong that it overwhelms me every year when I see them going south. I find myself talking to them like a fool and wishing aloud that I could take to the sky and fly with them to spend the winter in their amazing company.

5. What are you doing these days, and what would you like people to know about you that they don’t already know?

These days, I spend my time at home growing vegetables, reading, looking up to the heavens, and making my yard more attractive for pollinators. Since I quit my job, I joined a gardening club and I am also beginning to attend Monarch butterfly and or pollinator related events with hope of becoming more active in conservation efforts.

What I would like people to know about me is that I spend a lot of time thinking about and admiring life in general.  I choose to not consume any animal products due to my affection and empathy with their struggles for survival. More important, I want people to know that I have great admiration for the superior human intelligence–especially when it is coupled with the ability to respect and see oneself as no more or no less than the (lesser) creatures living with us on this beautiful earth.

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2015 a banner year? Monarch butterfly migration heading our way

Monarch butterflies are heading our way, making their way south from the northern reaches of their migration toward Mexico in what looks to be a banner season.

Monarch roost

More than 1,000 Monarchs formed a roost in Perrysburg, Ohio this week. Photo via Journey North

It’s too early for those of us who live in the “Texas funnel” to see masses of Monarchs moving through town, but we should be able to witness a trickle of the migrating butterflies in the coming weeks.

Typically for Labor Day, we see a “pre-migration migration”–that is, a vanguard arrival of reproductive Monarch butterflies that lay eggs which will hatch and become the final generation of migrating adults.  That didn’t happen this year, but then everything in 2015 has run about two weeks late.  The next two weeks should bring early moving Monarchs to town.

Further north, the butterflies are making their presence known and suggesting a banner year.

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, the citizen science tagging program that tags the butterflies each fall, revised his forecast in August based on evidence of robust egg laying and suggested that 2015 might double the mild rebound of 2014.

skipper on swamp milkweed llano

Skippers and other pollinators enjoyed the Swamp milkweed last weekend on the Llano. No Monarchs. Yet. Photo by Monika Maeckle

In her weekly migration bulletin from citizen scientist website Journey North, founder Elizabeth Howard wrote on September 10 that the first cold fronts of the season were sending Monarchs “sailing southward.”

“It’s two weeks before the Equinox,” wrote Howard. “Fall conditions are setting in as the jet stream dips south…. People are counting Monarchs roosting by the hundreds, feeding by the dozens, and flying overhead at rates up to two per minute.”

Generally the Fall Equinox, which takes place September 23 this year and marks when days get shorter, signals to Monarchs it’s time to hit the trail to Mexico. As they start moving south, they migrate alone during the day and gather at night at hospitable places, general somewhere with nearby nectar, moisture, and protection from wind and extreme temperatures. Usually they will only occupy a roost for a day or two, but if winds or weather are disadvantageous, they might linger longer.

In October of 2014, we had many Monarchs stranded on the Llano River in the Texas Hill Country for a long weekend. Ferocious winds out of the South held them in place. While the situation was great for tagging (we tagged more than 300), it was slightly disconcerting to see the tenacious travelers stymied in their quest to keep moving. Once the wind shifted, the butterflies caught the wave, riding it to Mexico or as far as the wind and their wings would take them.

Monarch roosts

Monarch butterfly overnight roosts September 20, 2015. Map via Journey North

Howard shared news of dozens of reported overnight roosts (see map above) in and around the Upper Midwest, including one of 1,000 Monarchs on Tuesday night in Perrysburg, Ohio.

Roosts are weeks away for those of us in Texas, but as mentioned, we should start to see early arrivals in the next two weeks.   Meanwhile, we can enjoy the migration via social media.

“Check your local field or meadow, #Monarch Butterfly migration is underway,” wrote Paul Roedding, of London, Ontario, on Twitter.

“Look what stopped by the yard this afternoon,” posted Joe Orsolini of Lombard, Illinois. His tweet was accompanied by the photo below of a perfect female Monarch nectaring on pink Buddleia.


“Look what stopped by the yard this afternoon.” Joe Orsolini via Twitter

Monarch roost in Iowa

Terry Pease of Sioux Falls, Iowa, had a roost of Monarchs grace her family farm this week. Photo by Terry Pease via Facebook

On the Monarch Watch Facebook page, Terry Pease of Sioux Falls, Iowa, posted that in the past month, Monarchs at her family farm’s 100-year-old grove were decimated by crop dusters in the area. “But this morning when I came home, there were Monarch’s everywhere!” wrote Pease. “It was like being surrounded by angels….”

A look at the locations of the above social media reports from London, Ontario (42.98 latitude), Lombard, Illinois (42.87 latitude), and Sioux Falls, Iowa (43.58 latitude), suggests the Monarchs are on track. The Monarch Watch Peak Migration schedule says southbound butterflies should hit latitudes 42 and 43 right around September 11. And so they have.

Peak Migration dates

What’s your latitude?  Peak Migration dates according to Monarch Watch

For our area, latitude 28, the peak migration will occur somewhere between October 10 and 27.  I’m betting it’s late this year. Check the chart above to see when peak migration arrives in your neighborhood–or goto the Monarch Watch website.

When they arrive, an ample nectar buffet awaits.  A ranch tour last weekend included a kayak tour of grand stands of Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, and Goldenrod, Solidago, and about to bust-into-blooms Frostweed, Verbesina virginica.   Bees,


This Frostweed should be just about prime when Monarchs arrive to fuel up next month. Photo by Monika Maeckle

wasps, ants, and of course, aphids enjoyed the bounty.   A few Queens and Swallowtails, too, plenty of Skippers and Sulphurs, but no Monarchs yet.   Soon enough.

To see Monarchs in the next few weeks, seek out nectar destinations like pollinator gardens, wildflower patches on roadsides–any place with flowers that will draw the migrants on their journey south.  Remember, the primary goal when migrating is to fuel up on nectar and store fat for the long winter.

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Increased cash, awareness, rain, egg-laying: good news for 2015 Monarch butterfly migration

What a difference a year makes.

At the end of 2014, we were hanging our heads contemplating the end of the Monarch butterfly migration.  The 2013 -2014 season was the worst in history, with roosting populations numbering the lowest since records have been kept.   The entire Monarch breeding population had fallen from highs of more than half a billion 20 years ago to only 34 million in 2014.

Got questions? Edith has the answers. In this case, this is one fertile female Monarch. Photo courtesy Edith Smith

Dr. Chip Taylor released an upbeat revision to his Monarch population status report based on increased egg laying in the summer breeding grounds. Photo of captive Monarch in egg-laying mode.  Courtesy Edith Smith

But then in February of this year, scientists reported a bit of rebound. The population of roosting Monarchs climbed to about 56 million. Still a long way from its peak, but progress. NOTE: For those unaware, scientists measure the number of hectares Monarch butterflies occupy at the roosting sights in Michoacán, Mexico, each winter to calculate their population. Each hectar (about 2.5 acres) occupied represents 50 million butterflies.

The good news continues. On August 6, Dr. Chip Taylor released an upbeat Monarch population status report, based on robust egg laying in the Dakotas to Michigan this summer. “I’m encouraged by the egg data,” Dr. Taylor wrote on August 6. “The size of the migration is strongly influenced by the number of eggs laid between 20 July and 7 August.”

Taylor revised a previous forecast upward, stating the population might jump to occupy 1.8 – 2.3 hectares in Michoacán.  That would translate to 90 – 115 million Monarchs–continuing the rebound and doubling 2014’s numbers.

Monarch butterflies nectaring in the Chigger Islands in the Llano River on Frostweed

Late summer rains will help sustain nectar sources for migrating Monarch butterflies, like these nectaring on Frostweed on the Llano River  in 2013. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The weather and political climate both seem to be cooperating.   Texas, home to the “Texas  funnel” through which all migrating Monarchs pass each spring and fall on their way from and to their roosting spots, has had a delightfully wet spring and relatively mild summer.  An end-of summer dry spell has been broken by periodic thunderstorms that can hopefully keep nectar sources viable for Monarchs when they cruise through the strategically situated Texas Hill Country later this season.

The drought has seen relief and meteorologists are predicting a “Godzilla el Niño” this winter, which conceivably could return our rivers and springs to their former free-flowing status.

Texas drought monitor, mid August 2014 and same time 2015. via

On the public awareness front, concern, understanding and resources directed at the Monarch butterfly migration and pollinator advocacy have never been stronger or more dedicated.

President Obama used his office to call attention to pollinators with his visit to Toluca, Mexico in February of 2014, where he and the Presidents of Canada and Mexico vowed to protect the Pan-American Monarch migration.   Two months later, First Lady Michelle Obama planted the first pollinator garden at the White house.  In June of 2014, Obama issued a Presidential memorandum calling for a National Pollinator Strategy, which was delivered in May of 2015.  The goals of the strategy are ambitious and far-reaching:

1. Reduce Honey bee colony losses by more than 15% within 10 years.

2. Increase the migrating Monarch butterfly population to 225 million (their historic average), with an occupation of 15 acres in Michoacán by 2020.

3. Restore or enhance seven million acres of pollinator habitat over the next five years.

Just in the last 18 months, millions of dollars have poured into Monarch butterfly and pollinator research and restoration efforts–from US Fish and Wildlife Service, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, US Department of Agriculture–even the Texas State Comptroller’s office.  As one federal employee stated, “Every department of the federal government has been tasked to contribute [to Monarch conservation] in some way.”  Monsanto Corporation, oft-vilified makers of Round-Up and neonicinitoids, has contributed millions to research–more than $4 million in matching grants and other support over three years.

Here’s just a 2015 sampling of Monsanto’s and your tax dollars at work on behalf of Monarch and pollinator restoration:

US Fish and Wildlife Service                 $2 million

Texas State Comptroller’s Office           $300,000

National Fish and Wildlife Fdn.            $1 million

Bureau of Land Management               $250,000

US Dept. of Agriculture National         $250,000
Resource Conservation Svce.

US Forest Service                              $100,000

Monsanto Corporation                         $4 million

Thanks to all the newfound attention and investment–about $8 million from the incomplete list above–butterfly and pollinator advocates have been able to partake in a free webinar series on Monarch conservation staged by US Fish and Wildlife.  Private landowners (including

President BArack Obama

Thanks, Obama! For raising pollinator awareness. Courtesy photo

yours truly) have the option to work with the federal government to be reimbursed for pollinator improvements on private land throught the Partners for Wildlife program.  And greater understanding of milkweed types and Monarch diseases is resulting from work being done at Monarch Watch, the Monarch Joint Venture, Journey North, and the recently established Monarch Conservation Fund as well as higher learning institutions like University of Texas at San Antonio.

Regional educational conferences like the upcoming Texas Pollinator Powwow are also reaching new audiences, taking pollinators mainstream.   The private sector is also responding.   From mega grower Colorspot Nursery to boutiques like the Natural Gardener in Austin–which had five different native milkweeds available last weekend–nurseries are offering more clean, chemical free milkweeds and other pollinator plants to the gardening public.

Tagged Monarch butterfly

Monarch butterflies are on the move. Should be a banner year.  Get your tags soon from Monarch Watch.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

While the millions being directed to pollinator conservation are minuscule compared to the billions directed to farm subsidies each year, it’s still good news and more than has ever been focused on the issue.  We expect more as the grants mentioned above are executed, more data is collected and ways of restoring our native landscapes and milkweed stocks are researched and shared.   Whether or not the Monarch butterfly migration will continue as a natural phenomenon to be enjoyed by our grandchildren is an open question.

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Monarch Butterfly Release “Better than any church service”

My 93-year-old father John Maeckle passed away August 2 after a long battle with dementia.  An avid hunter and fisherman, “Opa” disdained organized religion even more than politicians and preferred Sundays at the deer lease or the lake over church.  He taught me to waterski, fish and garden, to find solace and adventure in the great outdoors, and that “life is full of compromises.”

Opa butterfly release

On the count of three–Eins, zwei, drei–and off they went. Photo by Scott Ball

After serving as a Luftwaffe pilot in the German Air Force and as a prisoner of war in England until 1947, he and my mom Hilde immigrated to the U.S from Germany in 1953 after humble, difficult beginnings in southern Germany.   Not unlike migrating Monarchs each fall, they left unwelcoming circumstances to build a better life.  My dad become a custom home builder in the Dallas area during the 1960s building boom, supported his family, and sent me to college to become the first Maeckle to ever earn a degree.  He and my mom lived the American Dream. Read his full story here.

John Maeckle 1921-2015

John Maeckle        1921-2015

Given that profile, and my passion for butterflies, our family thought it appropriate to celebrate my father’s life with a butterfly release.  A church service or funeral home reception simply wouldn’t fit.

I thought long and hard about it.  Some people I respect think that butterfly releases are wrong and I appreciate their point of view.

In our case, a butterfly release was the perfect gesture for celebrating my father’s life.  I ordered 93 butterflies from my friends Barbara Dorf and Tracy Villareal of Big Tree Butterflies in Rockport, Texas.  I’ve come to know them through my memberships in the International Butterfly Breeders’ Association and the Association for Butterflies.   Barbara and Tracy are both scientists and butterfly breeders who follow best practices and run a professional breeding operation.

It was the right move.

Following a poem by our neighbor and renown poet Naomi Nye, a duet sung in German by family opera singers Melinda Maeckle Martin and her husband Robert Martin, and fond memories recalled by family members, we moved from the air-conditioned living area of our downtown home into the late afternoon sun of the butterfly garden.

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Each of about 50 friends and family received a healthy Monarch butterfly in a glycine envelope–the same type of envelope Dr. Lincoln Brower used to store butterflies when he came to visit the Texas Hill Country during the horrific 2011 drought.

The rest of the butterflies were safely secured in a pop-up cage (actually a converted laundry hamper) until the appropriate moment, which in this case, was the finale of our gathering. Following Robert Martin’s beautiful baritone rendition of the German version of Taps, we released the butterflies.   On the count of three, in German:  “Eins, zwei, drei!” off they went.

day of dead mask

The return of Monarchs return to Michoacán, Mexico, early each November made indigenous peoples believe their ancestors were coming home to visit.  Courtesy photo.

Ooos and ahs filled the yard as guests aged six to 82 marveled. The Monarchs lilted on guests’ shirts and shoulders, danced on Cowpen Daisies and milkweeds, and drifted around the yard in their dreamy flight pattern–floating, flitting, fleeting, like so many old souls. You could easily understand why the indigenous peoples of Mexico thought Monarchs were their ancestors returning to visit each fall for Day of the Dead in early November.

“It was better than any church service,” said my 82-year-old mother Hilde.

Because I have a magnificent butterfly garden with plenty of nectar sources including five different types of milkweed, the Monarchs have stuck around.   One week later, I’m still enjoying a half-dozen of them, nectaring on late summer blooms.

Monarch on swamp milkweed Arsenal

A week later, Monarchs are still nectaring in our butterfly garden. Photo by Monika Maeckle

I’ve gathered dozens of eggs and found several first instar caterpillars, too.  In fact, my partner Local Sprout founder Mitchell Hagney and I hope to raise the caterpillars and offer them as Milkweed and Monarch rearing kits at a future pop-up plant sale in about a month.  I can’t imagine a better way to honor my father and celebrate the life cycle.  Opa would approve.

First instar caterpillar and egg

First instar Monarch caterpillar and egg. The life cycle continues. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Upon considering writing this post, I revisited some of the negative press on butterfly releases.   They “turn butterflies into baubles.”  They might “mess with the migration” or “pollute the gene pool.”

It’s true that a handful of shoddy breeders have damaged the commercial butterfly breeding business by sending unhealthy livestock out into the universe while ignorant customers take the blame for mishandling precious butterfly livestock.  Here’s a tip for a successful butterfly release:  Read the handling instructions and don’t leave live butterflies out in the blazing sun while you touch up your wedding make-up, people.

For those of us who know what we’re doing and which breeders are reputable, I cannot fathom how any of this can be bad or wrong.

Opa butterfly Nola's

“Opa butterfly” collage by family friend Nola Grace Hamilton Garcia, age 8, assembled at Opa’s gathering. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Fifty people who had never thought twice about butterflies have now had a tactile experience with them and will view them forever differently.   My niece and nephew Amara, 8, and Alaric Martin, 6, and good friend Nola Grace Hamilton Garcia, 8,  chased butterflies around the yard for hours following the release, completely enchanted and forever touched by them.

Conservationists will tell you the most effective path to protecting a species or an ecosystem is engagement.   A butterfly release does that.

“A physical connection is absolutely crucial to getting people to care about something,” said Jim Lovett of Monarch Watch, the citizen scientist Monarch butterfly tagging and advocacy organization based at the University of Kansas.  “You’ve got to have face time with the species.”

As for speculative claims that thousands of commercially raised butterflies released into the ecosystem will “pollute” the gene pool, there’s no evidence of that to date.   And the numbers just don’t add up.

One source close to the industry said an internal survey of breeders suggested fewer than 250,000 Monarch butterflies are released each year around the United States–less than a half a percent of the 57 million Monarch butterflies that migrated last year.   On top of that, those butterflies are released at different times and dispersed throughout the 3.8 million square miles of these United States.  As Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch has said repeatedly, “Releases, in the present form, are a minor issue but they sure generate a lot of heat.”

But this post is not meant to argue that point.  It hopes to celebrate the life cycle we all share.   And to acknowledge, as my wise father would often say, that “life is full of compromises.”  In this case, the engagement with butterflies and the resulting embrace of their conservation far outweigh the unproven risks claimed by butterfly release detractors.

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