Mega Grower Color Spot Nursery to Consider Growing Clean, Chemical-free Milkweed

Color Spot Nursery, one of the top national wholesale growers in the country, said this week they will explore heeding the call for clean, chemical-free, preferably native milkweed plants.   The company said they are considering growing select Asclepias species, the only plant on which Monarch butterflies will lay their eggs, WITHOUT any systemic pesticides.  Thanks to Craig the Butterflyman for the tip.

Kevin Grossberndt, Colorspot Nursery

Kevin Grossberndt, Colorspot Nursery

The California-based mega grower, which has seven nursery locations in Texas including one in San Antonio, said they were responding to their customers, which include Lowes, Home Depot, Wal-Mart and hundreds of independent nurseries across the country. Color Spot does not sell directly to the public.

“Our customers got in trouble with the community,” said Kevin Grossberndt, Commercial Sales Manager for the Southwest Division of Color Spot.   “We all learned a lesson.”

Gorssberndt said Color Spot is well aware of Monarch butterfly enthusiasts’ dismay at buying milkweeds to feed hungry Monarch caterpillars, and being misinformed by retail nursery staff that milkweed plants had not been sprayed with systemic pesticides.

After customers purchased milkweed plants from local nurseries and later placed their caterpillars on them to feed on the milkweed leaves, the caterpillars perished within hours.   That’s because large growers like Color Spot often spray the plants with systemic pesticides early in the year and the poisons used can linger for many months.  The phenomenon has been well documented on these webpages.  We call it Desperately Seeking Milkweed syndrome.

Kevin Grossberndt Colorspot

Kevin Grossberndt stands in a quanset hut of Tropical milkweed and Butterfly weed at Colorspot Nursery in western San Antonio. The company is exploring cultivation of chemical free milkweeds. –PHoto by Monika Maeckle

Bernhardt, trained as a horticulturist, said Color Spot is considering which species to plant and is likely to go with Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, and Butterfly weed, Aslcepias tuberosa.

The Texas Butterfly Ranch and our hydroponic milkweed growing partner Local Sprout made a pitch to Bernhardt to consider cultivating Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, since it is relatively easy-to-grow, a great nectar and host plant and prolific pink bloomer native to the area.  Most native Texas milkweed species are famously persnickety to grow. Swamp milkweed is not.  Check out the Texas Butterfly Ranch milkweed guide for more info.

Dr. Chip Taylor, the founder of Monarch Watch, chimed in via email, suggesting that Color Spot might try Green Antelope Horn milkweed, Asclepias viridis.  “Viridis is probably the second most important plant on the Monarch’s menu,” Dr. Taylor said.  “It’s the main host for first generation Monarchs. It’s also the most abundant of the Texas milkweeds and survives in pastures quite well.”

Which is absolutely true, but it’s famously challenging to grow from pots and transplants.

“Texas is too dry and hot for syriaca,” Taylor added.

During a tour of Color Spot’s 400-acre growing facility in western San Antonio near Lackland Airforce base, Grossberndt described the special challenges commercial growers will face in growing chemical-free milkweed.

As we all know, milkweed is an aphid magnet, and many people will not buy plants with aphids on them.   Traditionally, Color Spot deals with aphids and other pests via pesticides in order to deliver pristine plants to retail outlets.

Swamp milkweed loaded with aphids this weekend on the Llano River.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Aphids and milkweed have a symbiotic relationship. Photo by Monika Maeckle

With labor one of their highest costs, hand removal of aphids may not be practical.    Color Spot already uses robots to move plants around.   The R2D2-like machines rearranged a plot of potted rose bushes as we all watched in amazement.  But since its doubtful that an aphid-squishing robot will be developed anytime soon, Color Spot will have to be resourceful.

“We might be able to do it with a soap knock-down or possibly explore using beneficials like ladybugs or parasitoid wasps,” said Grossberndt. “We’ll have to see.”

Video by Mitchell Hagney

Dr. Taylor also recommended beneficial insects.  “We are happy to recommend various biological control agents. They seem pricey until you see how effective they are but the grower has to have personnel that is alert to the build-up of pests so that the biologicals can be deployed effectively,” he said.    Grossberndt agreed that training of personnel, especially Color Spot’s technology services team, would have to be part of the plan.

Since the nursery typically sprays ornamental and other inventory with systemic pesticides, the growhouse would also need to be strategically placed out of any possible wind drift and would require polyurethane sides, versus less expensive shade cloth or plastic to assure no chemicals entered the clean zone.

Milkweed at Color Spot Nursery

To be sprayed or not to be sprayed? Milkweed plants at Color Spot Nursery. Kevin Gorssberndt is hoping the nursery can figure out a way to produce lots of milkweed without chemicals. Photo by Mitchell Hagney

Grossberndt showed us one quanset hut filled with a mix of Tropical milkweed and Butterfly weed–some newly sprouted from seed this year, others cut back and sprouting new growth from last season.   Aphids adorned the underside of the older plants, suggesting the plants had not been sprayed with pesticides.

Yet.

Will they be?  “I’m hoping they won’t,” said Bernhardt.  “These plants were in the middle of other plants, so we’ll just have to see how it goes,” said Bernhardt.  “I’m making the case.”

Grossberndt suggested that Color Spot might have some clean plants on the market by late summer or early fall–hopefully in time for the fall migration when those of us who raise Monarchs often run out of milkweed for those butterflies that break their diapause and reproduce here.  ” I can’t really guarantee a timeline,” said Grossberndt.

What milkweed species would you like to see commercial growers bring to market?  Leave a comment below and let us know.

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Q & A: Dr. Lincoln Brower talks Ethics, Endangered Species, Milkweed and Monarchs

At 83, Dr. Lincoln P. Brower has studied Monarch butterflies longer than anyone on the planet. He first became enamored of butterflies as a five-year-old in New Jersey and later

Dr. Lincoln Brower--photo via Monarch Butterfly Fund

Dr. Lincoln Brower–photo via Monarch Butterfly Fund

by Monarchs when he learned they don’t taste good to predators. His famous  “Barfing Bluejay” photo, below, proved their unpleasant taste to predators and always gets a chuckle when I share it in presentations.

Brower followed his passion and turned his attention to Monarch biology as a grad student at Yale in 1954. He has visited the roosting sites in Mexico more than 50 times since his first trip in 1977–15 years BEFORE Dr. Chip Taylor, the other grandpa of the Monarch community, started the citizen scientist Monarch butterfly tagging program, Monarch Watch, in 1992.

So it’s no surprise that after a lifetime invested in the dramatic orange-and-black butterflies, Brower takes Monarchs personally. When he recently lent his name to the petition to list the Monarch butterfly as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), few people were surprised. NOTE: The period to join 306 others who have commented on the petition closes March 1, 2015.

Barfing Bluejay

Dr. Brower’s famous “Barfing Bluejay” photo of a bird wretching after eating Monarchs, proved Monarchs don’t tast good. Photo courtesy Dr. Lincoln Brower

Dr. Brower graced the Texas Butterfly Ranch with a visit back in October of 2011 when he toured the Texas Hill Country during the peak of the historic Texas drought.

The man is amazing. Tromping across the limestone watershed, butterfly net in hand, we tagged dozens of butterflies that day for a study he was doing.  Between net swoops, Brower taught me how to identify male from female Monarchs without having
to open up their wings, a trick I still use today.

Brower can be a purist.  He’s said that Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, should only be planted in a laboratory or controlled environment because it might spread disease in Monarchs–a directive he recently amended. Now he advises the Monarchs’ favorite host plant be planted no further north than Orlando, Florida. Brower also called the recent 70% increase in Monarch numbers “catastrophic.” “That change is trivial,” said Brower. “We were thinking it would be more than two hectares. What we need is up to five hectares.”

Monarch Butterfly Texas Team

Monarch Butterfly Dream Team: Kip Kiphart, Jenny Singleton, Dr. Lincoln Brower, Monika Maeckle, Mike Quinn

Since the petition was submitted, much attention has been focused on our favorite migrating insects, who’s “canary in the corn field” status makes them pollinator decline’s apt and timely poster child. Climate change, overzealous pesticide use, genetically modified crops and general human domination of the planet all play their role in challenging Monarch butterflies and the entire food web.

Awareness of these critical issues is fundamental to addressing them and the ESA petition has raised unprecedented awareness. Some of us may disagree that ESA status for Monarchs is the best tool for the job, but it’s impossible to not recognize how the petition has served to raise the profile of Monarch butterfly and pollinator decline. So thanks to Brower and the petitioners for creating needed drama.

We recently chatted with Dr. Brower, who currently serves as Distinguished Service Professor of Zoology Emeritus at the University of Florida and Research Professor of Biology at Sweet Briar College. The conversation migrated from email to phone and back. Here, in his words, is how he sees the current landscape.

Dr. Lincoln P. Brower at Sierra Chincua in 201?.  Photo by Medford Taylor, courtesy Dr. Lincoln Brower

Dr. Lincoln P. Brower at Sierra Chincua in 2007, one of more than 50 trips he’s made to the roosting sites. Photo by Medford Taylor, courtesy Dr. Lincoln Brower

Q. Recent events, including your participation in filing a petition to list the Monarch butterfly as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, have brought unprecedented attention to the decline of the Monarch butterfly migration.    Was this the honest intent of filing the petition–to bring attention to the situation rather than actually list it?  Or do you still believe that listing the insect as endangered is the appropriate approach to conservation?

Brower: Those involved in writing the petition had, I think, two goals:  One, to raise public and government awareness; and two, to generate funding of varied mitigation programs, private and public.

Q.  Do you still believe that listing the Monarch butterfly is the best option or have you changed your mind?

Brower: I did when I signed onto the petition and the evidence I have seen so far seems to be supporting that contention. I think we will have to wait and see what happens. It is possible that nothing we can do will preserve the Monarch’s migration and overwintering biology spectacle.

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

Citizen scientists like Catalina Trail were instrumental in pieceing together the mysteries of the Monarch butterfly migration.

Q. If the Monarch becomes listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and milkweed and physical contact with Monarch butterflies will likely be controlled, do you share concerns about the disenfranchisement of the citizen scientists and Monarch butterfly enthusiasts that have for decades been instrumental in unraveling the mystery of their migration?

Brower:  Appendix B page 162 of the petition is worded in confusing legalese but states that citizen scientists’ participation and conservation efforts will not be restricted. I have recommended that the stated limit of ten butterflies per person be raised to 100.

Q. Recent studies link Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, to increases of OE in Monarchs. If other species of milkweed–Swamp or Common, for example–had been the species widely cultivated and made available commercially to gardeners, would we be having the same issues with those plants?

Brower: Curassavica likely would not normally have entered Texas from Mexico in the past or future even with global warming. It does not tolerate desert conditions in its natural geographic distribution. As I have stated elsewhere, I think it is a mistake to plant it north of the City of Orlando, Florida latitude in the US.

The recent paper by Satterfiled, et al, is relevant. Propagation of locally occurring native milkweeds and planting them widely in gardens along roads, etc., is what should be done.  The Monarch community needs to jump on this bandwagon and influence plant nurseries to do this for their sales. Bring everyone together to do the best we can to increase native milkweed habitat.

Got milkweed?

Tropical milkweed is technically not native but the most widely available species of Monarch host plant. Native milkweeds are best.

Q.  Is it at all arrogant of us, the human species, to insist that the Monarch migration continue as climate change, human impacts and other factors conspire to make it possible for Monarch butterflies to continue their life cycles and reproduce without migrating 3,000 miles? And if the need to migrate changes or no longer exists, who are we to say that it should continue? (I wonder what a Monarch butterfly would say if we gave them a choice of migrating or not?)

Brower: As we discussed at length, these are ethical questions. Should we try and preserve natural phenomena such as the Monarch migration? Analogously, should we try and save pandas, polar bears, endangered plants. etc.

Turn the question around: is it ethical to let these things go extinct when we have the ability to prevent that from happening? Are people the only creatures with a right to rich and natural lives on this planet?

You know my answer, it is dead wrong not to try to prevent loss of natural species and what they do from bacteria to humans. If rabies were to take over, the view of letting it be would mean the end of dogs. How can anyone even think that is tolerable. I feel the same way about the Monarch…In addition, preserving it is symbolically important:  it is the “canary in the corn field” telling us something very broad and serious is wrong with managing our planet.

Q:  Dr. Brower, I agree with you regarding species going extinct, however we are talking about the migration.  Few folks believe the Monarch butterfly will become extinct.  Do you make a distinction that some behaviours outlive their usefulness–such as, perhaps, the Monarch migration?

Brower: My colleagues and I have referred to the Monarch migration/overwintering behavior as an endangered biological phenomenon. My thesis above also applies exactly to this category of biodiversity.

Should we work to restore the bison migrations or just keep them in a few zoos and confined pastures? What about the bamboo forests of China: let them and the panda inhabitants be destroyed while keeping a few panda breeding programs going to make sure zoos are profitable? Bioethics again.

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Survey: Monarch Butterfly Enthusiasts Will Pay More for Clean, Chemical Free Milkweed

A Texas Butterfly Ranch survey conducted in late 2014 found that Monarch butterfly enthusiasts are willing to put extra money where their beloved Monarch caterpillars mouths are:  on clean, chemical-free (preferably native) milkweed.

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed

Got clean milkweed?   Great, we’ll pay more.   Is it native?  Yes, please–even better.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Are you listening, American nursery industry?   You can make more money if you grow milkweed without chemicals.  Make them native and you can likely charge another premium.

“Truthfully, I’ll pay anything to keep my cats safe!”

Our online poll of 363 respondents found that 96% responded “Yes” to the question:  “Would you pay more for “clean,” chemical-free milkweed that is raised organically, sustainably and locally?”

wouldyoupaymoreyesorno

The survey, which ran in various online forums from September 24 through December 31, 2014, resulted from the annual angst that arrives with each fall migration.  Late in the season, when masses of Monarchs move through town and some lay eggs on local milkweed plants, those who hope to raise the caterpillars to the butterfly stage bring them inside for “fostering.” It’s not uncommon so late in the year for people to run out of milkweed for their hungry caterpillars.

This typically sends folks running to their local nursery to buy fresh host plant–most often Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, since that’s all that’s commercially available.  Typically, when asked the provenance of the milkweed, nursery staff tell milkweed buyers the plants have NOT been sprayed with pesticides.

“When my caterpillars are down to stems, I’m just happy to be able to get ‘clean and safe’ milkweed at almost any price….They will starve otherwise! I’ve bought ‘bad’ milkweed and lost thirty or more caterpillars… it was horrible.”

Yet, upon moving their Monarch larvae to the milkweed plants, the caterpillars perish within hours.   That’s because many commercial growers use systemic pesticides to keep the plants aphid-free before selling them to our local nurseries.  Often the local nursery staff is unaware that these pesticides have been sprayed on the plants.  Nor do they seem to know that the chemicals  remain active for months.

Boo-hoo! Dead Monarch caterpillars fall victim to pesticide laced milkweed

Always a bummer: dead Monarch caterpillars fall victim to pesticide laced milkweed.  Photo by Sharon Sanders

The syndrome has been dubbed by those of us who follow it Desperately Seeking Milkweed and has been well documented on this website as well as referenced in comments (some of which you’ll find throughout this post) in our recent milkweed survey.

So how much, exactly, are Monarch caterpillar foster parents willing to pay for clean, chemical free milkweed?

“I grow my own plants but when I run out of food I have to run to a garden center…I always ask, ‘have these plants been sprayed with insecticide?’ and the answer is always ‘No, ma’am.’ I buy the plants and my cats die when they eat it…very sad so I would definitely pay more to keep my babies alive!  :-)

howmuchmore

About 48% said “it would depend” on the time of year and how badly they wanted/needed the plant.  Another 21% of respondents said they would pay $5 more, 5.5% said $4 more would be their limit, 10.5% said they would pay $3 more and 16.5% said they would pay $2 more.

The geographic diversity of the respondents played out like this:
Where do you live?Missing from the survey was a question asking whether or not buyers of milkweed prefer that NATIVE species in addition to chemical free and clean.  My bad.  Of the 183 comments, many expressed a desire for NATIVES.  Here’s a sampling of comments:

“NATIVE, clean milkweed please.”

“Prefer the non-tropical, if possible… Native Texas milkweed would be preferred.”

“Is there any place to buy native milkweed plants?”

“Native milkweed is hard to find in the nursery trade. I’m  rich, but I would pay a fair price.”

“What about native milkweed?”

The survey launched about a month after an August 26  petition to list the Monarch butterfly as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act made its way to the Department of the Interior. That petition is under a 12-month review and has provoked many discussions about the gross loss of native milkweeds in our landscape in addition to a lack of available native milkweeds in commercial nurseries.

Since, interest in native milkweeds has ballooned, bringing much needed attention to Monarch butterfly native habitat restoration in our fields, landscapes, gardens–even in our caterpillar nurseries in the late fall during the migration as well as in the spring.

So listen up, commercial growers.   Native milkweeds are in high demand and short supply.  A business opportunity awaits those who pounce.   The Texas Butterfly Ranch is exploring such a venture with our hydroponic partner, Local Sprout. Stay tuned for details.

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FINALLY! Monarch Butterfly News Spurs Extreme Interest in Native Milkweeds

Last week, the Mexican government announced the number of Monarch butterflies counted at the ancestral roosting sites in the oyamel forests of Michoacán, Mexico.

The population grew by almost 70% since last year–from 34 million butterflies occupying 1.65 acres (.67 hectares) in 2014 (the worst year in history) to 56.5 million butterflies occupying 2.79 acres (1.13 hectares) in 2015.

Good news:  Monarch butterfly numbers up.  Bad news:  numbers still dangerously low.  Graphic via Monarch Watch

Good news: Monarch butterfly numbers up. Bad news: numbers still dangerously low. Graphic via Monarch Watch

Good news, right?

That depends on where you sit.   Dr. Lincoln Brower, perhaps the person on the planet who has studied the Monarch butterfly migration longer than anyone, called the 69% increase  “catastrophic” in a phone interview.

Dr. Lincoln Brower--photo via Monarch Butterfly Fund

Dr. Lincoln Brower–photo via Monarch Butterfly Fund

“That change is trivial,” said Brower.  “We were thinking it would be more than two hectares. What we need is up to five hectares.”

George Kimbrell, senior attorney for the Center for Food Safety, said in a press release posted on that organization’s website that despite the increase, the Monarch population is still “severely jeopardized by milkweed loss in their summer breeding grounds due to increasing herbicide use on genetically engineered crops.”

Kimbrell’s organization, with the Center for Biological Diversity, the Xerces Society and Dr. Brower, filed a petition in August to list the Monarch butterfly as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.  The petition is currently under review.

Swamp milkweed loaded with aphids this weekend on the Llano River.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

If only we could all grow native milkweeds like this Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, found on the Llano River in the Texas Hill Country. Aphids come with the territory. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“Extremely vulnerable” is how Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of the citizen scientist Monarch tagging organization Monarch Watch, categorized the increase in a January 27 blogpost.   While population increase represents improvement, “Winter storms or poor conditions for breeding in the spring and summer could have a severe impact on a population of this size,” wrote Taylor.  He added that if we can get through the winter with no major storms “the long-range forecasts suggest that the population has a good chance of increasing again next year.”

So…numbers up slightly, but still dangerously low.   Bad news, right?

FBCommentonmilkweed

Well, not entirely.

Thanks to all the angst and attention, awareness of the decline of the Monarch butterfly migration has reached unprecedented heights.  And everyone–even the folks at Monsanto– seems to agree on one point:  habitat loss, specifically restoration of native milkweeds, must be addressed on a grand scale if we are to keep the migration from becoming a memory.

We couldn’t agree more.  This website has documented and addressed the dearth of native milkweed over the years, answering many questions from readers who want to do the right thing.  Where to get them?  Should one plant seeds or seedlings?  What are the best practices for getting native milkweeds to grow?

The problem is that it’s near impossible to find native milkweed plugs locally. The only milkweed plants available in commercial nurseries each spring is Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, which some scientists have suggested might increase diseases in Monarchs. (I don’t necessarily buy this theory.) To play it safe, best practice suggests cutting Tropical milkweed to the ground in the winter in warmer climates so nasty OE, Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, spores, which infect Monarchs and other milkweed feeding butterflies, can’t collect on old plants and infect migrating Monarch butterflies.

MIlkweed seeds

So many milkweeds. Which ones to plant, and how to do it? Photo by Monika Maeckle

That said, we would all prefer to plant native local species–IF we could find them. Native seeds are relatively available, but getting them to germinate can be tricky. As George Cates, chief seed wrangler at Native American Seed in Junction, Texas, once told me, Texas milkweeds “may not lend themselves to mass seed production.”  Personally, I have spent hundreds of dollars and many many hours spreading native milkweed seeds and homemade native milkweed seedballs at our Llano River Ranch.  In 10 years, only three–count ‘em–Antelope Horns, Asclepias asperula, milkweed plants have taken root.

That brings us to plugs. I’ve tried those, too.   One year I finally coaxed some Antelope Horns seed to germinate after following these directions from the experts at Native American Seed, only to have the seedlings die once transplanted.

In response to a survey conducted by the Texas Butterfly Ranch in late 2014, we’re exploring the possibility of growing native Texas milkweed here in San Antonio with a hydroponic partner, Local Sprout.  We haven’t figured out all the details, but we’re working on growing Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, from seeds harvested on the banks of the Llano River.

Meanwhile, we challenge local nurseries and growers to rise to the challenge and make local, native chemical free milkweeds available for the spring migration as well as in the fall.

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Monsanto: “We are absolutely committed” to Monarch butterfly conservation

Almost a year has passed since Monsanto Corporation stated in its Beyond the Rows blog that it was “eager” to restore Monarch butterfly habitat along the iconic creature’s migratory path.

When it comes to Monarch butterflies, Monsanto is often the villain of choice.  But the company says they are committed to helping save the butterflies' migration.

When it comes to Monarch butterflies, Monsanto is often the villain of choice. But the company says they are committed to helping save the butterflies’ migration.

That blogpost appeared in the wake of an historic meeting of the NAFTA presidents last year, when Presidents Obama and Enrique Peńa Nieto, along with Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada gathered 75 miles from the Monarch butterfly’s ancestral roosting sites and committed to form a task force to “ensure the conservation of the Monarch butterfly.”

On February 24, 2014, Monsanto’s blogpost, generically labeled “The Monarch Butterfly” posed the question:  What can we do to help?

“We’re talking with scientists about what might be done to help the Monarchs rebound,” the unsigned post stated. “And we’re eager to join efforts to help rebuild Monarch habitat along the migration path by joining with conservationists, agronomists, weed scientists, crop associations and farmers to look at ways to increase milkweed populations on the agricultural landscape.”

Monarch on swamp milkweed

Native milkweeds like this Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, are harder to come by in the Monarch butterfly breeding grounds thanks to GMO corn and soybeans which allow for indiscriminate spraying of herbicides.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

In April, First Lady Michelle Obama planted milkweed on the White House grounds, thus creating the first-ever pollinator garden at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Then in August, debate ensued over whether the Department of the Interior should list the Monarch butterflies as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.

Monsanto, often vilified for its genetically modified corn and soybean seeds that have wreaked havoc on milkweed all along the insects’ primary breeding grounds from Canada south to Mexico, has remained relatively mum on the subject. They returned to the subject of Monarchs in a September 12, 2014 post headlined, “Helping Protect the Monarch Butterfly.” Here’s an excerpt:

“At Monsanto, we’re committed to doing our part to protect these amazing butterflies. That’s why we are collaborating with experts from universities, nonprofits, and government agencies to help the Monarch by restoring their habitat in Crop Reserve Program land, on-farm buffer strips, roadsides, utility rights-of way and government-owned land.”

So what, exactly, has Monsanto done for Monarch butterflies in the last year?

ERic Sachs, Monsanto

Eric Sachs, Science and Policy lead, Monsanto Corporation –Photo via LinkedIn

The Monarch community wondered exactly that this week on listservs, social media and via private emails.

As the news conference announcing the size of the overwintering population at the roosting sites in Mexico was postponed for the third time, efforts to restore milkweed by gardeners was taken to task by mainstream media, and comments on the Federal Register debating the insect’s ESA listing grew to more than 260, postings, conspiracy theories, impatience and indignation abounded.

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, has consulted with Monsanto on the topic. He sent an email Monday to the DPLEX list, which is read by hundreds of butterfly enthusiasts, with the subject line: “Take a deep breath – exhale slowly – relax – please.”

Eric Sachs, the top Science and Policy official for Monsanto, said the multinational corporation is serious about helping Monarchs. While the NYSE-listed chemical and biotech powerhouse has publicly stated it does not support listing the insect under the Endangered Species Act because it wouldn’t “do anything to help solve the problem,” Sachs noted in an email and later by phone that Monsanto has been working diligently with public and private sector partners to “enable greater numbers of farmers to integrate Monarch habitat into existing conservation, land management and habitat expansion efforts.”

A presentation Sachs made in November 2014 to the North American Entomological Society emphasized the company’s penchant for P3s–public-private partnerships.  Tools in the conservation arsenal, according to Sachs, include grants, incentives and collaborative projects to increase habitat.

Ed Sachs Monsanto presentation

Can habitat and agriculture coexist? Good question. Eric Sachs made this presentation to the North American Entomological Society in November 2014.

Monsanto is prepared to make financial contributions to habitat preservation, Sachs said, but he did not say how much or exactly when, because the company is still trying to gain consensus from the coalition of scientists, conservationists and others tapped via the Keystone Center in Colorado.  “Obviously that plan needs to be supported with funds, which will come from Monsanto and other organizations,” said Sachs.

Dr. Taylor seconded the motion in his email to the DPLEX list, encouraging patience and a positive attitude.  “It costs $100-1000 per acre to restore milkweed/Monarch habitats, depending on the situation (and maintenance), and we are talking about restoration of a least a million acres a year just to offset annual habitat losses,” Taylor wrote. “Getting the Monarch numbers back to where they need to be will require the restoration of many more millions of acres. The investment will be significant. Partnerships are in the process of forming. Whether significant funding will be forthcoming is still an open question. Please be patient.”

Sachs said Monsanto is being “very deliberate” in developing their plan. “We want to make sure it’s robust, and measure the performance. Then we will essentially fund the program to make sure we get the bang for the buck,” he said.

How it all plays out remains to be seen. “We are absolutely committed,” said Sachs. “At the right time, people will shake their heads and say ‘this is good.’ But we’re not there yet.”

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Q & A: Edith Smith, Shady Oak Butterfly Farm, talks Endangered Species Act and More

When it comes to sharing the wisdom gathered over 15 years of breeding butterflies, few people rival Edith Smith as one of the most generous souls in the butterfly world.  Her family run Shady Oak Butterfly Farm ranks as one of the most successful commercial butterfly operations in the U.S., producing up to 6,000 butterfly pupae per week for exhibits, education and events across the country.   Through her Facebook page and myriad educational websites as well as active participation on butterfly email lists, Smith can be relied on to answer the many questions posed by novice butterfly breeders.

edithone

Edith Smith of Shady Oak Butterfly Farm

At 59, Smith recently announced her retirement from the day-to-day operations of butterfly farming  to allow her more time for educational endeavors, “experiments,” as she calls them, and writing books. Her daughter, Charlotte, is taking over the business and family members will continue to help.

Given her generous nature, it’s no surprise that Smith agreed to answer a few questions via email as part of our ongoing feature to post conversations with “butterfly peeps,” the folks that comprise the butterfly world.  She leaves the butterfly breeding business at a critical moment, just as the Monarch, the commercial breeding industry’s cash crop, is being considered for listing as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.  We talk to her about that and more in the Q & A below.

Q. You have been a butterfly enthusiast and breeder since 1999. What has been the biggest change in the butterfly world in general and the breeding business in particular?

Smith:  In general, more people say that they see fewer butterflies than ten years ago. Because of the lower numbers, many people are sharing on Facebook and through other avenues about butterflies and people are more interested in planting for butterflies than in the past.

In the breeding business, breeders are more unified. They work together to improve the business both individually and as an industry. There is, overall, more of an interest in educating people and improving and extending butterfly habitat than when we first began farming in 1999.

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

Got questions? Edith Smith has the answers. In this case, this is one fertile female Monarch laying LOTS of egg on milkweed. Photo courtesy Edith Smith

Q. 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?

Smith: Although I am thankful for protection for truly endangered species of plants and animals, the Monarch butterfly population can be more effectively grown by promoting habitat creation rather than rendering them ‘hands-off.’  Federal protection isn’t needed.

Instead, the government can encourage farmers and companies to plant and maintain milkweed. According to scientists, the two basic problems that have caused a decline in numbers are the destruction of millions of acres of milkweed and severe drought in Texas at critical times of their migration. There are other causes, such as extensive pesticide use.

A massive public education campaign in the U.S. would result in people using fewer pesticides and planting more milkweed. Counties and states could plant milkweed along major highways and interstates.* Counties and states should schedule mowing for times that would avoid damaging milkweed when it is being used by Monarch butterflies and their caterpillars. Railroad companies can plant milkweed and nectar plants along railroad tracks. Power companies can plant milkweed under power-lines. Farmers can be financially encouraged to plant and maintain one acre of pesticide free milkweed for, say, every 100 acres they own.

Once there is a financial incentive for companies and farmers to plant milkweed, it will be planted. The government owns a great deal of land that is not used. That unused land as well as areas where the land is used (such as at courthouses and other government buildings) could be planted with milkweed patches. All this could be encouraged by the government through tax deductions and/or financial supplements. (We would not encourage government financial support for planting milkweed in areas where there had not been massive loss of milkweed. Community education and efforts can replace milkweed in those areas.)

*NOTE:  Studies have shown that planting along interstates does not result in a substantial increase death of butterflies.

Edith Smith makes her self widely available to answer questions about butterflies.  Courtesy photo

Edith Smith makes her self widely available to answer questions about butterflies. Photo via Edth Smith

Q.  You have been one of the most generous people in sharing your knowledge and understanding of the butterfly world and business with the community, including your competitors. What has brought you to this generous place and do you ever worry about spilling trade secrets?

Smith:  I can’t imagine having a passion and not sharing it with others who are interested in the same subject. Most people know very little about butterflies. As a result, their yards are planted with plants that are not butterfly friendly. Many are eager to learn and as they do, they plant more plants for butterflies and begin to use fewer pesticides. The more people learn, the more they will make their little corner of the world safe for butterflies. Sharing about butterflies is part of our way of making the world safer for butterflies.

We have given away many thousands of packets of host plant seed, from milkweed to ‘weeds’ that can’t be purchased from any source. That makes us proud, to know that these seed will help butterfly populations throughout the United States.

Shady Oak has mastered breeding the uncommon Blue Buckeye.  Photo via Edith Smith, Shady Oak Butterfly Farm

Proudest accomplishment:  Shady Oak has mastered breeding the uncommon Blue Buckeye. Photo via Edith Smith, Shady Oak Butterfly Farm

We believe sharing information with other butterfly farmer/breeders brings the industry together and improves every farm that shares. As new techniques and methods that save time and money without compromising the health of butterflies in the farming operation are shared, everyone sees improvements at their own farms. This also results in a higher production of healthy butterflies, more families raising caterpillars in their homes, and more people ‘falling in love’ with butterflies.

We don’t create competitors when we share information. We create teammates. If we don’t have butterflies or caterpillars for a customer, we can contact another farmer who can ship to our customers for us–as long as they have the proper permits. Most butterfly farmers work as a team, independent yet together. As the industry grows and improves as a whole, it helps each one of us.

Q. What is your proudest accomplishment as a butterfly breeder?

Smith: That’s a hard one! For me, it has to be the Blue Buckeye. It took special breeding to create it. It has blue, green, or purple wings instead of brown wings. We bred these for years to bring out the color and were astounded at how bright and beautiful the color became.

Variegated milkweed

“Charlotte’s Blush” a new patented variegated milkweed, was developed by Smith’s daughter Charlotte and will be available next year. Photo via Edith Smith

In addition, Charlotte is responsible for the discovery of a new variegated milkweed. The paperwork is being processed for patent at this time. The plant itself should be released in 2016. It is named “Charlotte’s Blush” because of the delightful pink in the leaves.

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Monarch Butterfly Inches Toward “Threatened” Status under Endangered Species Act

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced this week it will conduct a status review to determine whether or not the Monarch butterfly should be listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  The conservation arm of the U.S. government has been considering the matter ever since the Xerces Society, Center for Food Safety, Center for Biological Diversity and Dr. Lincoln Brower submitted this petition to the Secretary of the Interior on August 26.  Read the press release.

Soon to be "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act?  --Photo by Monika Maeckle

Soon to be “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act? –Photo by Monika Maeckle

The petition caused quite a flutter in the Monarch butterfly community over the past few months.   Listservs and social media outlets mulled the possibilities inherent in a threatened status listing.   Hundreds of scientists and enthusiasts signed letters and petitions of support, yet others took issue with the 159-page petition.

Professional butterfly breeders and some citizen scientists (including yours truly) expressed concerns about the petition’s final sentence, which described how people like me and you will only be allowed to raise 10 or fewer Monarchs per year–unless that activity is “overseen by a scientist, conservation organization, or other entity dedicated to the conservation of the species.”

If the Monarch butterfly is declared threatened under the Endangered Species Act, will it be illegal to take this boy home and get him to the next stage?   Photo by Monika Maeckle

If the Monarch butterfly is declared threatened under the Endangered Species Act, will it be illegal to take this boy home and get him to the next stage? –Photo by Monika Maeckle

Commercial butterfly breeders, who supply the exhibition, natural history, education, and special event businesses with butterfly stock, strongly objected to the petition, suggesting it could jeopardize their businesses.  At its core, the petition does strike at the heart of what has made the Monarch butterfly so iconic, widely embraced, and understood–the crowdsourcing utilized to unravel its mysterious migration and the resulting groundswell of interest in conserving it.

Reactions to the move toward threatened status were mixed.

“Could have gone either way,” said Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, the citizen scientist program that tags thousands of Monarch butterflies each year. “This finding just means it advances to the review stage and these reviews can be repeated year after year after year for decades. If the current population is as large as I think it is and there is no catastrophic mortality in Mexico this winter, support for the petition could fade. Successful large scale restoration efforts with lots of attendant publicity could also weaken the case for threatened status.” he added.  Taylor has stated his opposition to the petition, calling for an apolitical approach and expressing concerns about landowner backlash if milkweed–the Monarch butterfly’s host plant–is declared critical habitat.

xerceslogo“We are extremely pleased that the federal agency in charge of protecting our nation’s wildlife has recognized the dire situation of the Monarch,” said Sarina Jepsen, endangered species director of the Xerces Society, one of the organizations that submitted the petition. “Protection as a threatened species will enable extensive Monarch habitat recovery on both public and private land,” she added.

Tierra Curry, a senior  scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity echoed those sentiments in this statement posted on the organization’s website:  “The Endangered Species Act is the most powerful tool available to save Monarchs so I’m really happy these amazing butterflies are a step closer to the protection they so desperately need.”

Commercial butterfly breeders were not so thrilled.

ibba“The IBBA does not believe that a status of threatened is appropriate or warranted at this time for the Monarch butterfly,” said the International Butterfly Breeder’s Association president Kathy Marshburn in response to the news. She added that habitat conservation is necessary to support and promote the survival of the Monarch and the IBBA will continue to support these efforts.

The Association For Butterflies, a butterfly education and advocacy group for farmers and hobbyists, issued the following statement:   “The Association for Butterflies is saddened to hear that Fish and Wildlife has decided to move ahead with the process of listing the Monarch butterfly as a threatened species. There is clear evidence that the butterfly itself is not threatened, only the migration phenomenon. Monarch Watch and other organizations are on the right track to help increase the migration numbers by encouraging private citizens and others to plant milkweed, which AFB will continue to support as we work towards helping all pollinators.”

Endangered Species Act Process

This is the process. We are entering the second blue bubble from the top. Stay tuned. –Courtesy graphic

So what happens next?

The USFWS will continue to review information, including public comments submitted in the next 60 days. Stakeholders and organizations have two months to express concerns and get them on the public record.

After two-months of public comment, the petition will be considered and evaluated until August 26, 2015 (12 months from the initial filing of the petition) then result in one of the following:

1) USFWS proposes the Monarch for listing
2) USFWS declines to list the Monarch
3) USFWS decides that listing is warranted but precluded by higher priorities, and the Monarch then would be added to a waitlist of candidate species.

 

Government regulation comment page

Let your voice be heard! Starting tomorrow, post comments at the page above. Just click on the picture above and Insert docket #FWS-R3-ES-2014-0056 into the search box.

“The public is key right now,” said Vanessa C. Kauffman, spokesperson for USFWS.  “We value their input during the status review period.”

So gather your thoughts for posting to the public record, and let your voice be heard.   The notice will be published in the Federal Register tomorrow, December 31, 2014, and the public comment period will end March 2, 2015.   Starting tomorrow, you can view the notice and submit information by visiting www.regulations.gov and typing docket number FWS-R3-ES-2014-0056 into the search box.

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2014: From Worst Year for Monarch Butterflies to Rebound, Increased Pollinator Awareness

The end-of-the-year provokes a look back to assess progress–if any–on the pollinator front.   2014 held a mixed bag of good and bad news with occasional surprising twists.

We started out thinking 2014 might be the worst year in history for Monarchs given that the 2013 migration ranked lowest in population numbers ever. Remember the headlines?  “90% drop in Monarch butterflies,” read Newsweek, the Washington Post, the New York Times and other media outlets.  But the season surprised us.

Llano River picnic spot kayak rock

Increased, well-timed rains helped pollinators and other wildlife and assuaged–for now–some drought fears, but we’re not able to be complacent. This photo, of the Llano River, was taken in late April. Photo by Monika Maeckle

A reprieve from the drought, well-timed rains in the Midwestern breeding grounds and milder temps in Texas made for a late summer surge, and an exceptional year for Monarch.  We look forward to hearing the numbers observed in Michoacán this winter.  While this temporary boost won’t fix the longterm, persistent declines caused by pesticide use, genetically modified crops, climate change and general habitat loss, it’s a welcome, unexpected turn.

On the PR front, 2014 couldn’t have been much better in terms of raised awareness.  Pollinator peril has gone mainstream.

The First Lady of the United States planted the first pollinator garden at the Whitehouse.  The presidents of Mexico, the U.S. and Canada agreed to work together to restore Monarch and other pollinator habitat, and some of the top scientists and pollinator advocacy organizations in the country submitted the Monarch butterfly for consideration as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.

Simultaneously, professional butterfly breeders gathered to create programs to systematically combat OE, the Monarch-centric spore driven disease that attacks Monarchs and other milkweed feeders.   And a lively debate continues about the appropriateness of planting Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, the only Monarch host plant commercially available.

Again, while the facts still spell general decline and danger for pollinators, the awareness of the problem has been elevated like never before.  That’s all good.

Below are some of the Texas Butterfly Ranch’s top posts written in 2014 that should give you a good perspective on the year.

The decline of the Monarch butterfly population.  In the 90s, their roosting grounds averaged 22 acres.  Graphic via Monarch Watch

The decline of the Monarch butterfly population. In the 90s, their roosting grounds averaged 22 acres. Graphic via Monarch Watch

Wake-up Call: Monarch Butterfly Numbers Plummet

In February we wrote the dreary news that for the 2013 season, the entire migrating Monarch butterfly population occupied only .67 hectares. That’s 1.65 acres, 72,000 square feet–or about 35 million butterflies, down from highs of 450 million in years’ past. Think about it: the entire population of migratory Monarch butterflies could easily fit into the average Walmart store, with 30,000 square feet to spare.

First Lady Michelle Obama Gets Milkweed, Plants Pollinator Garden

On April 2,1600 Pennsylvania Avenue added Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata and Butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa to its 1500-square-foot vegetable garden. The milkweed species will serve as Monarch host plant as well as a favored nectar source to bees and other butterfly species.  The milkweeds also marked the first time in history that a pollinator garden had been planted at the White House.

First Lady Michelle Obama busy at the White House Kitchen Garden where she recently added pollinator plants, including two species of milkweed.  Photo via Obama Foodorama

First Lady Michelle Obama busy at the White House Kitchen Garden where she recently added pollinator plants, including two species of milkweed. Photo via Obama Foodorama3.

Monarch Butterflies Headed our Way in Promising Rebound Season

This year’s migration seemed to start early and end late, with the Monarchs taking their time and reproducing profusely along the way with optimal conditions in their favor.  Here in Texas, our season was 7 – 10 later than usual for peak migration.

Monarch on the Llano

Monarch butterfly resting on Frostweed on the Llano River. Photo by Monika Maeckle

 How to Track the Monarch Butterfly Migration from your Desk

Not everyone can access the Great Outdoors on Demand, especially during butterfly season.  This post details how you can track the migraiton from your desk using crowdsourced social media tools and apps like Twitter, Facebook, Journey North and Monarch Watch.

twittermonarchs

Endangered Species Act:  Wrong tool for the Job of Monarch Butterfly Conservation?

Several pollinator advocacy organizations and many famous PhDs support the listing of the Monarch butterfly as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.   I, along with many others, do not.   Read this post to decide for yourself if you think it’s truly the right tool for the job.

Monarch butterflies along the Llano River fought the wind this weekend as the migration kicks into high gear.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch butterflies along the Llano River fought the wind this weekend as the migration kicks into high gear. Photo by Monika Maeckle

And just so you don’t think that we’re species-ist at the Texas Butterfly Ranch, I’ll mention that the number one post at the Texas Butterfly Ranch in 2014 was NOT about the Monarch butterfly.  Rather, the mysterious, ubiquitous Black Witch Moth, took the top spot in 2014 for the second year in a row.

Judging from my professional experience in online marketing, I’m betting the popularity of this post, first written in 2012, and updated in 2013, can be attributed to the fact that no one is writing about Black Witch moths–and yet they are amazingly interesting.   Blog posts, like Eastern Swallowtails, have what are called “long tails“–meaning that they generate many views over time.   The longer they are on the web and the more that people read and share them, the more popular they get and the higher they climb in search engine rankings.

This post, smartly headlined, Large, Batlike and Harmless:  Black Witch Moth

Black WItch Moth Huatulco

Black Witch Moth: large, batlike, totally harmless–and the source of much curiosity.    Photo by Monika Maeckle

includes many keywords that people type into the Google search box, wondering what the heck the enormous moth is doing hanging out in the rafters. It has generated more views than any other this year. The reason it is not featured as a top post is that it wasn’t written in 2014.

Other posts from the archives that ranked in the Top 10 in readership but were drafted in previous years:

Have a great rest of the year.  And thank you for reading the Texas Butterfly Ranch.  We’re taking our Winter Solstice break effective this week, so best wishes for good luck, good health and prosperity in 2015–and may many butterflies, moths and wildflowers grace your path in the new year.

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Texas Parks and Wildlife Launches Milkweed Monitoring Project

The intersection of technology and Nature continues as the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) announced a program to monitor milkweed stands throughout the Lone Star State this week.

milkweedmonarchstpwd

 

The program, Texas Milkweeds and Monarchs, will be housed on the iNaturalist platform and launches as debate heats up about the wisdom of planting the technically nonnative but widely available Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, to help restore Monarch butterfly habitat in the face of the insect’s possible listing as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.  iNaturalist, a crowdsourced species identification system, declares its mission as “connecting people to nature through technology.”

The crowdsourced Texas Milkweeds and Monarchs project will document and map via observations made by citizen scientists where, how much, and what species of milkweed exists in Texas and whether or not Monarch butterflies are using it.

Monarch on Tropical Milkweed

Monarchs love Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, but the plant is somewhat controversial since it is technically a nonnative yet widely available. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Since milkweed–that is, any plant in the Asclepias family–is the only host plant on which Monarch butterflies will lay eggs, its presence or absence in our landscape is critical to the migrating butterflies.  Increased use of herbicide tolerant crops and general habitat loss have spelled decline for the once pervasive wildflower.

Mark Klym, Information Specialist in Wildlife Diversity for TPWD, said the project came to fruition because education and outreach folks at the department received “multiple questions per week … about what was happening to the Monarch population, why Texas Parks and Wildlife Department was not treating them as a priority.”  California-based iNaturalist.org ” is quickly becoming the go-to platform for citizen science around the world,” he said.

TPWD began working with iNaturalist about two years ago with a herpetology  tracking project, Herps of Texas,  which now boasts 11,000 observations by more than 500 citizen scientists who’ve documented 95% of the species in Texas, said Cullen Hanks, Texas Nature Tracker Biologist for the department.  Hanks, who manages the relationship with iNaturalist, said the platform was chosen because it had a lot of the functionality needed to track and harvest “taxa data,” which is information about classifying species via their taxonomy.  (NOTE:  If you’re wondering, herpetology is the study of amphibians and reptiles.)

TPWD already has the herps project, and also a Mammals of Texas, Birds of Texas and now their first plant-tracking project, the Milkweed and Monarchs project.  Check out all the Texas iNaturalist projects.

“Sounds like a neat effort to identify key milkweed habitats in Texas,” said Monarch and milkweed scientist and PhD candidate Dara Satterfield, whose dissertation includes research on the relationship between Monarch health and Tropical milkweed, upon hearing about the partnership.  Satterfield cited milkweed mapping as a long-term goal of the conservation plan being developed by Monarch Joint Venture.

To participate, volunteers can download the app on their phone or computer. After creating a login, choose the Texas Milkweeds and Monarch project, and start contributing observations in the form of text, photos, video–even audio clips.

The process works a bit like the Journey North program which invites volunteers to contribute observations of Monarch eggs, larvae, butterflies and roosts, geolocates the observation, and maps them in real-time resulting in a constantly updated map/picture of Monarchs in all their stages.

Texas Parks and Wildlife hopes to map milkweed throughout the Lone Star State via the iNaturalist app.

Texas Parks and Wildlife hopes to map milkweed throughout the Lone Star State via the iNaturalist app.

Contributors will be asked four brief questions about their observations, but don’t need to know specifics of the 40+ milkweed species found in Texas.  They can simply type “milkweed” and ask for assistance in identifying the plant, states the news release.

Ready to sign up?  You can do so here.

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Q & A: Grad Student Dara Satterfield on Tropical Milkweed and Monarch Butterflies

Graduate student Dara Satterfield caused quite a flutter recently when she was featured in the New York Times as the co-author of a study looking at how Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, may be effecting the health of Monarch butterflies and their Pan-American migration.  Her dissertation focuses on the relationship between migration and infectious disease in wildlife, with Monarch butterflies as her species focus.

Dara Satterfield

Dara Satterfield, PhD candidate at the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia.. Photo by Monika Maeckle

In the article headlined For the Monarch Butterfly, a Long Road Back, and promoted heavily online as “Monarch Butterflies:  Loved to Death?” science journalist Liza Gross explored the pros and cons of planting Tropical milkweed.   To read our original story on this topic, check out Tropical Milkweed:  To plant it or not, it’s not a simple question.

Satterfield, a PhD candidate at the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia, and other scientists speculate that Tropical milkweed, the most widely available but technically nonnative milkweed and favorite host plant of the Monarch butterfly, may be damaging the Monarchs’ abilities to stay healthy, on track and make their way to Mexico.

“She and her graduate adviser, Sonia Altizer, a disease ecologist at Georgia, fear that well-meaning efforts by butterfly lovers may be contributing to the monarch’s plight,” said the article.

I caught up with Satterfield recently to ask questions that have arisen since the article posted on November 17.   She expressed concern that the NY Times article might have confused some readers–and no doubt the issue is confusing and complex.   Hopefully the Q & A below will clarify matters a bit.

Q: I’ve talked to several scientists that insist that Tropical milkweed is the plant on which Monarchs evolved. Do you agree with that?

DSC00048 - Copy

PhD candidate Dara Satterfield doing field work on Tropical milkweed and the Monarch butterfly migration. Photo courtesy Dara Satterfield

A:  Good question. From what I understand, the historically held view was that Monarchs evolved from a tropical ancestor from Central or South America, and so some scientists have said they must have used Tropical milkweed and other exotic milkweed species early in their speciation.

New evidence suggests a different story. The recent Nature paper examining Monarch genetics revealed that, actually, Monarchs appear to have originated in North America (and would have evolved on native North American milkweed species) and the other Monarch populations in Central America, South America, the Pacific, etc. (some of which would use Tropical milkweed) came from the North American population.

Q. You have said that Monarchs are much more likely to be sick in places where Tropical milkweed grows year-round–but is it really Tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) that is the problem? If Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) or Swamp milkweed (Asclepias Incarnata) also survived a winter and were available, would the same tendency apply?

A. You are correct, I think. The same disease problem would probably occur with any milkweed species that grew year-round in warm areas and was attractive to Monarchs. It just happens that Tropical milkweed is the species that does stick around. We don’t think Tropical milkweed itself is bad; it’s the year-round growth that is harmful because it promotes disease.  Also, I’d just like to add that we would not even understand this problem without the help of dedicated volunteers and citizen scientists who share observations and collect data. Much of what we know about Monarch ecology can be attributed to the help of citizen scientists.

NOTE from Texas Butterfly Ranch:   Thus, best practice suggests slashing all milkweeds to the ground in late fall if they do not die back from freeze.  This prevents OE spores from building up and spreading disease.

719

Satterfield in the lab, checking for OE spores. Larvae can acquire OE infections by eating parasite spores on milkweed leaves, left there by an infected butterfly (often, the larva’s mom). Courtesy photo

3. What is the purpose of a migration? If everything an insect needs to complete the life cycle is available locally, what interest is there for the insect to migrate?

For most migratory species, the purpose of migration is to track seasonal changes in climate or resources needed for survival and reproduction. Without human interference, migration as a strategy can often support large numbers of animals, because migratory animals may take advantage of the best resources–in different parts of the world at different times of the year (e.g., red knots that travel from the North Pole to the South Pole to experience summer in both hemispheres).

DSC00035

Monarch caterpillar on Tropical milkweed. The larvae can pick up OE spores through contact with other creatures or from plants on which the spores rest. Courtesy photo.

But some migratory populations including birds, bats, fish, and hoofed animals are altering their migrations–shortening or halting their journeys–in response to human activities like barriers in their migratory pathways (e.g., dams), changes in climate, and human-provided foods. Examples of this abound (No Way Home, by David Wilcove). Of course some of these newly non-migratory animal populations will be just fine and learn to adapt to new circumstances, but others will not.

Consequences will include changes in infectious diseases, loss of ecosystem services associated with migration (e.g., nutrient transfer between ecosystems by salmon, control of insect populations by birds), and in some cases, species extinction.

For Monarchs specifically, their migration allows them to have a large population capacity. If Monarchs solely engaged in winter-breeding, rather than overwintering in Mexico, this strategy could likely only support a much smaller population. So we try to conserve the abundance of migration.

Of course, individual animals operate on an individual basis and do not make choices based on what is best for the population at large, so individual animals will often take advantage of resources that are available to them–for example, why go to Mexico when I have everything I need here?

The problem with that, in this case of year-round milkweed and year-round Monarch breeding, is extremely high levels of protozoan disease as well as risks of winter starvation (running out of Tropical milkweed) and freeze events that kill caterpillars. The concern is also that migratory Monarchs (or their offspring) might be exposed to parasite-contaminated milkweed in the spring.

All of that said, Dr. Chip Taylor is correct that the link between year-round milkweed and disease is by no means the largest threat to Monarchs. However, given what we now know about this problem, we have the opportunity to reduce disease in Monarchs by keeping milkweed seasonal rather than available all year.

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