Monarch butterfly Valentine: how do we love thee?

NOTE: This post ran last year, but we feel the same way about Monarchs 12 months later. Enjoy this recycled love letter to our favorite butterfly.

My love affair with Monarch butterflies began in earnest in 2005. My friend Jenny Singleton had introduced us the year before. But the following October, on a warm Saturday afternoon, I stepped from my kayak in the Llano River and approached a stand of pecan trees bowed to the ground in submission from serial floods. My red rubber boots stuck for a moment in the mud, but when I looked up, I was struck. A silent eruption of Monarch butterflies wafted from the earth. Hundreds of them drifted skyward–floating, flitting, and fleeting before settling on bare tree limbs.

Yes, I’m smitten–how can you not be? That’s me at the 2016 Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival at the Pearl. Photo by Scott Ball

That was the day—the day I call my Magical Monarch Saturday–I fell profoundly, entirely in love with these insects. I’ve been reading and writing about them ever since, as well as raising them at home.

I’m not alone. Tens of thousands of people are smitten with Denaus plexipus. The species even has its own listserv, the DPLEX, with more than 800 subscribers.

Hundreds of websites and social media pages are devoted to Monarchs and their conservation, some of which flaunt tens of thousands of fans–Monarch Watch on Facebook with 38K+ followers, for example. Festivals celebrate Monarch butterflies in spring, summer and fall in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico.  The Monarch serves as the official insect of seven states in the U.S.  A 2013 survey published in Conservation Letters indicated U.S. households are willing to spend $4.78–$6.64 billion–yes, BILLION– for Monarch conservation through direct contributions and the purchase of milkweed and appropriate nectar plants. Monarchs are among the most studied insects in the world, with  multi-millions of dollars devoted to researching their life cycle, habitat and diseases/threats. Tens of thousands of Monarchs are also bred commercially and by hobbyists each year for use in classrooms and educational events to teach metamorphosis. Some folks even tap the Monarch to commemorate special occasions like weddings, funerals and life changes.

Monarch butterfly expert Dr. Lincoln Brower with overwintering monarch butterflies. Rosario overwintering colony, 4-6 February 1991. (Photo by Perry Conway.)

“I think of them as magical bottles of wine. You can pour it all out and when you go back, it’s full again. There is no end to the questions you can ask.”  That’s how Dr. Lincoln Brower, who has studied Monarchs for more than five decades, summed up the Monarch’s charms in the 2004 book Four Wings and A Prayer.

So why do we love Monarch butterflies so much? Lots of reasons.

First, they don’t sting or bite. Their bold, orange-and-black, stained-glass wings make them stand out and ward off predators. A dreamy flight pattern suggests confidence. Their elusive flits and turns connote flirtatiousness. Turning legs into wings—now that’s magical. And navigating thousands of miles “home” to a sacred forest never seen demonstrates tenacity and strength. It commands our admiration. Monarchs’ back story is also loaded with intrigue—scientific rivalries, mysterious chemical powers, a strong codependence on members of the milkweed family. All this makes for an incessantly interesting long-term relationship.

For Valentine’s Day in this year of such dramatic political change and on the heels of news that their numbers are down by almost a third, we thought it appropriate to ask Monarch butterfly lovers to articulate their feelings for the Americas’ most beloved insect. Their loving quotes follow, but perhaps more telling are the looks of pure joy on their faces in the photos they shared.

Nola Garcia of San Antonio, age 9, recalled receiving a gift of caterpillars on milkweed. She’s been raising and tagging Monarchs ever since.

“I remember the excitement of finding them all over my room when it was time for them to become chrysalises,” said Nola. “I saw one split its skin and pulsing as it changed. I love seeing them right after they come out when their wings unfold. My favorite part is letting them go and watching them fly off. I love how they look.”

Nola Hamilton Garcia with Monarch butterfly

Nola Garcia enjoys a freshly hatched male Monarch butterfly in her kitchen before releasing him to the wind. Photo by Tracy Idell Hamilton

Dara Satterfield of Georgia studies Monarch butterflies as a James Smithson Fellow at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. She sees a transformation myth in Monarch butterfly biology. “Monarchs grow up, reinvent themselves (in the chrysalis), and undertake a long journey that is all-at-once beautiful and treacherous and difficult,” said Satterfield, who has studied with Dr. Sonia Altizer, the foremost expert on the Monarch centric spore-driven disease, OE. “This story seems familiar, even personal, to us. It’s much like the human experience, in miniature. So we root for Monarchs. We want to see them thrive.”

Cathy Downs, Monarch Watch Conservation Specialist, welcomes a freshly hatched Monarch into the world. Courtesy photo

“As a child, I loved Monarchs because they were at times amusing, cartoonish and full of wonder and discovery,” explained Cathy Downs, Monarch Watch Conservation Outreach Specialist in Central and South Texas. “During career years, the sight of a Monarch took me back with a sigh, if only for a moment in a busy life, to my childhood. In retirement, Monarchs have opened thousands of doors for me to new people, new places and new passions.”

Drake White, founder of the Nectar Bar, a Facebook page devoted to educating people how to raise butterflies at home has a special greeting when she welcomes someone or signs off from her page: “Peace, love and butterflies.”  White manages the butterfly house at Phil Hardberger Park in San Antonio and does pollinator landscape consulting on the side. She loves all butterflies, but admits Monarchs are her favorite. Their metamorphosis “always makes me understand just how amazing nature truly is,” she said.  “I never want to lose that. It keeps me bonding with nature.”

Drake White

Drake White of the Nectar Bar’s signature butterfly greeting is Peace, Love and Butterflies. Photo by Drake White

Hope, beauty and perseverance are consistent themes among Monarch butterfly lovers. Jeanette LaVesque, who follows Monarchs from Minneapolis, said the butterflies “give me hope for a beautiful transformation for myself someday–either here or beyond. They prove to me that miracles happen in this world….Butterlies make my garden feel like a little paradise when they are present.”

Dr. Karen Oberhauser of the University of Minnesota and founder of the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project, has been studying Monarch butterflies and working to bring them to children and classrooms since 1984. And yet, ”I’ll never tire of bringing the eggs and larvae into my house and watching them undergo their amazing metamorphosis, or walking into my lab full of students helping to unravel monarch mysteries,” she said, adding that Monarchs are beautiful, familiar, interesting, and impressive. “They evoke deep connections between people and nature,” said Oberhauser.

Mayor Taylor wears Monarch butterfly wing bling earrings and releases another type of butterfly at the San Antonio Zoo Monarch Festival in 2016. Photo by Monika Maeckle

San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor became the first in the country to sign the National Wildlife Federation’s Mayor’s Monarch pledge in 2015. Taylor, who grew up in Queens, New York, was completely unfamilar with the Monarch migration until shortly before signing the pledge. But once she and Monarchs got acquainted, it was a pretty quick romance. “The story of the Monarch’s migration is what really caught my attention,” she said. “It’s amazing that such a fragile creature has the perseverance to travel thousands of miles every year.”

Anurag AGrawal, author, scientist, Monarch butterfly lover. Courtesy photo

Finally, Dr. Anurag Agrawal, conservation biologist at Cornell University and author of the soon-to-be-released Milkweed and Monarchs: A Migrating Butterfly, A Poinsonous Plant, and their Remarkable Story of Coevolution told us that while he is first and foremost a scientist, he sees beauty in biology.

He recalled seeing Monarchs in the fields of Pennsylvania as a child and attributes their magic to their transformative metamorphosis. “Who does that? Going from leaf-eating worm to flying machine. Going from Canada to Mexico. And going from a billion butterflies to too few,” said Agrawal. “Don’t leave us magnificent Monarchs. We need you for inspiration, for study, and to remind us of our place.”

Why do YOU love Monarch butterflies? Leave a comment below to let us know.

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Eavesdropping on Monarch butterflies via live stream at Cerro Pelón, Mexico

Sound artist Rob Mackay and a group of academics, artists, scientists and technicians recently installed a streaming device at Cerro Pelón in the mountains of Mexico, one of four monarch butterfly sanctuaries open to the public.

Eavesdropping on monarch butterflies at Cerro Pelón. Photo by Rob Mackay

The result of that collaboration is that anyone, anywhere, can eavesdrop on the remote stretch of mountain plain where millions of monarch butterflies gather each fall to wait out the winter. You don’t even have to make the hike to 11,000 feet. Try it at this link on just about any browser but Safari, which seems to block the stream’s ability to load.

You’re likely to hear birds chittering, flies humming, the occasional whir of an airplane or engine, and the sometime sound of monarch butterflies moving through thin mountain air. The live stream makes for soothing, natural white noise and a welcome soundtrack for work, play or relaxation. It also helps scientists monitor changes over time which allows for useful assessment of the ecosystem’s health.

Monarch butterflies are the stars of the show at UNESCO’s Biosphere Soundscape project at Cerro Pelón, but the sounds of other creatures also contribute to the soundtrack . Photo by Rob Mackay

The project is an extension of Biosphere’s Soundscapes, an acoustic ecology initiative run in collaboration with UNESCO’s 669 biosphere reserves in 120 countries. The program aims to inspire communities to listen to the environment and explore the value of sound as a measure for environmental health, an idea posed in 1962 by Rachel Carson. Her landmark book, Silent Spring, put forth the notion that natural sounds can serve as indicators of environmental health. At the time of its publication, the book detailed the use of pesticides that were massively killing songbirds, a phenomenon that would some day lead to a “silent spring.”

Rob Mackay

Mackay, a composer, sound artist and senior lecturer at the University of Hull in East Yorkshire, England, spearheaded the project at Cerro Pelón.Mackay tripped upon monarch butterflies in March of 2015 when he was invited to present at the Mexican National Centre for Music and Sonic Arts in Morelia.

“One of my ecology colleagues mentioned to me that the monarch butterfly overwintering grounds were very close to Morelia,” Mackay said by email. “He told me about their amazing migration and life cycle. I was immediately intrigued and went online to do a little more research. A few links mentioned the sound made by their rushing wings, so I was inspired to try and capture the sound.” On that trip, Mackay visited El Rosario, the most frequently visited sanctuary in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve.

Later in 2015 at a conference, Mackay met Grant Smith from SoundCamp, the people who supply the streamboxes for streaming soundscapes in real-time over the internet. He also met Leah Barclay, a sound artist who oversees the Biosphere Soundscapes project.

The Biosphere Reserve Soundscape at Cerro Pelón is one of two streams in Central America featured on the Locus Sonus Soundmap. There are another eight streams in North America.

Mackay proposed installing a streambox in the Cerro Pelón colony to help scientists monitor the ecosystem there and engage people around the world with monarch butterflies through sound. He ran the idea by monarch butterfly expert Lincoln Brower in Virginia. Brower blessed it.

Mackay said the project accelerated once Pablo Jaramillo, a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Morelia, got involved. Jaramillo, as the local scientific advisor and contact, was able to rally forces and put the team in touch with arborists at Cerro Pelón as well as Franco Ramirez. Ramirez managed the practically impossible task of arranging an internet connection to the remote mountain village of Macheros, population 350. Solar panels also had to be installed to provide electricity.

How the magic happens: stream box and solar panel. Photo by Rob Mackay

A five-day trip to Cerro Pelón in January got the job done. It also produced enough material for the collaborators to assemble an album/DVD of the process and several spontaneous musical performances and poetry readings spawned by the adventure.

Once the live stream was activated, Jaramillo shared the news with Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas, the organization that orchestrates the wildly popular monarch butterfly tagging program for citizen scientists across the Americas. Taylor shared the development on the DPLEX list, an email listserv that reaches about 800 monarch butterfly followers including scientists, citizen scientists, hobbyists and commercial butterfly breeders.

Streaming the sounds of butterfly wings poses many technical challenges–special pre-amplification to the streamboxes, arranging reliable, affordable solar power and keeping the internet connection up and running. As the DPLEX community swarmed the sound map site, the connection failed, perhaps overwhelming it. But by week’s end, thanks to Team Monarca, it was back up.

Thanks to the hard work of Team Monarca, we can all eavesdrop on Cerro Pelón. L-to-R, Alice O’Rourke, Jeff Schults, David Blink, Rob Mackay, Jessica Rodriguez, Benny Talbot, Pablo Jaramillo, Liliana Arroyo  –Photo by Rob Mackay

How does acoustic artist Mackay describe the unique, subtle sound of millions of butterflies wings moving and what musical instrument would he use to replicate it?

“A little like a crackling fire, or crape paper being rustled,” said Mackay. Replicating the sound with instruments would be a challenge, but “working with a local choir and getting people to replicate the sound using their voices and bodies” might come close. “Perhaps several rain sticks and other percussion.”

UPDATE: Mackay and Jaramillo advise patience with the stream, as it is still in the pilot stage. If you click on the link and hear nothing, try again later. 

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At war with Agave Americana: tenacious plant resists chainsaw, digging, fire

“When the pups pop, get them out while they’re little.”

That’s good advice from Mr. Smarty Plants, a collective of volunteers who’ve answered thousands of questions posed to the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center over the years. The guidance would have come in handy before I planted several Agave americana more than a decade ago around our ranch house along the Llano River. Their blue-green fleshy leaves, exotic profile and reputation for low maintenance in brutal Texas summers seemed a perfect match for the rocky caliche soil and lack of water at the ranch.

Dr. Kelly Lyons, a grass expert and biology professor at Trinity University, stands victorious over an Agave americana. Brisket Rivard (left) assists. Photo by Monika Maeckle

But since we only visit the property every other weekend, some times less, my agaves became a nuisance. Too often I was absent. I failed at plant management. As Mr. Smarty Plants advises, thinning the pups early, while they’re manageable and have shallow roots, is imperative to avoiding an ornery agave cluster. I ignored the agaves entirely for more than a decade. The result? Several mean agave forests that pricked and poked anyone who dared approach.

Let there be no mistake: Agave Americana deserves our respect. The plant is a case study in self-reliance, asking for NOTHING in exchange for its reliable growth and eventual stunning presence. It demands no supplemental water, no fertilizer, no pruning, no prissing. It lives a dramatic semelparous life–that is, it enjoys a singular episode of reproduction. Then it dies.

Agave americana blooms only once in its lifetime. Photo via Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center

With a lifespan between 10 and 30 years, the agave shoots one dramatic stalk yards into the sky. The resulting candelabra-like branchlets sport clusters of yellow flowers. Hummingbirds and bats love this pollen trove. Agave americana, technically native to Mexico, also is found in South Texas. Climate change inevitably will extend its range north.

Dr. Kelly Lyons, a grass expert at Trinity University, suggests the plant be put on the “watch list” as potentially invasive. It’s already been labeled unwelcome and invasive in sand dunes, where it overwhelms all competitors.  Left to its own devices, the plant dominates, its rhizomes and pups forming dense communities around the mother plant. Each one has its own set of needle-tipped leaves and serrated blade-like fronds.

I stupidly imported Agave americana to our ranch a dozen years ago. I planted one each on either side of our front gate, thinking they would “welcome” visitors with their dramatic poise. Others I plugged in around the house, some along a much-used trail and a couple along our switchbacked main dirt road.

Good luck getting your shovel through this. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Quiet and understated in their youth, the mature agaves seemed daunting. Their passel of pups defended each mother plant like a thorny army. Nothing could be less welcoming at our front gate than getting stabbed by these mean-spirited cacti. Needle-nosed agave fronds prickled and poked whoever was assigned to lock or unlock the gate; their barbed leaves snagged on your shirt and skin, often leaving a sticker behind.

I had been stabbed one too many times. I decided to tackle the out-of-control succulents, which by this time, stood taller than my five-foot-six-inch frame. Leather

Fleshy Agave leaves

Some of the agave leaves are almost a half-foot thick at their base. Photo by Monika Maeckle

gloves, long sleeves, thick jeans, a sturdy hat and glasses became my agave fighting uniform.

I started with a shovel on one four-foot specimen behind the house. Approaching the plant was practically impossible. The gnarly agave colony fended me off, aggressively protecting its mama with their intertwined roots and serrated leaves. As Mr. Smarty Plants says, agaves self propagate via rhizomes, sending shallow-rooted baby plants all around the base rosette. This helps absorb water in the dry climate in which it thrives. The roots become intertwined, knitted together like an impenetrable quilt. As dead agave blades die and dry out atop them, a sinewy mulch results. A shovel cannot penetrate the fibrous mass.

If you take on an agave, be sure to cut off the black needle-like tip from the Agave leaves before you start working.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Intrigued by this seeming fortress surrounding the agaves, I researched and learned that the thick agave leaves, plump with water, also contain stringy sisal fiber that native peoples and later Westerners used to weave baskets, rugs, ropes and blankets. Cutting these sinewy leaves to gain access to the soil to dig up the root becomes a separate challenge requiring sharp shears, a knife, nippers or a coba, a special tool from Mexico that a cactus grower friend supplied to us. Some of the fleshy leaves approach a half-foot girth at their base.

Frustrated, one day I convinced my older son Nicolas to get out the chainsaw. Even though we both wore long sleeves, hats and sun glasses, the agave juice spattered on exposed skin and caused painful welts and blisters that lingered for weeks. Nicolas had an allergic reaction that also caused a rash.

The leaves of Agave Americana are barbed and ornery. #watchout Photo by Monika Maeckle

Then I tried setting the agave on fire using kindling and later charcoal fire starter. Keeping the fire alive was a challenge given the agave’s high moisture content–like burning a watermelon. Eventually, the flame caught. The plant literally shed tears as water drooled down the sides of its sword like leaves. A sad sight, but I still had to dig the root rosette up with a shovel.

I even considered herbicides, but the mass of the plants would require such enormous doses, that just seemed wrong.

Finally, an experienced landscaper suggested I wrap a chain or towing strap around the plant’s base, attach it to a trailer hitch or truck axle and pull it out by its tap-root. This seemed like a brilliant idea. After clearing as many baby agaves as we could to gain access to the base, my friend Kelly and I wrapped a chain around the rosette and attached it to my Toyota 4Runner. With four-wheel drive engaged, I stepped on the

AGave graveyard

Agave graveyard: Discarded Agaves lay on the rocky watershed where they can’t make contact with soil and resprout. Photo by Monika Maeckle

gas and the agave released its grip on the rocks and earth holding it in place. We dragged the plant to the “agave graveyard’ on the karst watershed where it could not make contact with soil. Like its thorny sibling prickly pear, agave is famous for resprouting if any of its greenery touches the earth. Experts caution not to add it to the compost pile, either. It will quickly take root.

My husband Robert Rivard with his Coba, a tool provided from a horticulturist friend in Mexico to keep the agaves under control. Photo by Monika Maeckle

As a gesture of my respect for this plant, we’ve allowed two specimens to remain on site. We await their century plant spurt, the year when these mighty agaves will shoot their reproductive stalks skyward and grace us with pollen powdered yellow flowers that will attract bats and hummingbirds. In the meantime, we manage the plant aggressively, snipping its hefty mature leaves with the coba, and clearing the pups regularly.

Once these agaves springs their seeds, we’ll shut down agave production on the ranch.

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Q & A: Seed-balls.com founder says “throw and grow” gardening often doesn’t work

Blake Ketchum is JUST the kind of polymath we need in this epoch of science denial. The eco-entrepreneur has a PhD in soil science, a master’s degree in forestry, and a bachelor’s in visual arts. She lists JavaScript, web development, and e-commerce alongside forensic reconstruction and native plant ecology as skill sets on her resume. Oh, and she’s an accomplished artist–a sculptor who specializes in portraiture with commissions from Yale, Cornell, and the International Special Olympics. With her understanding of diverse disciplines, she can make the complex premises and processes of science understandable to the rest of us.

Seed balls: It’s more complicated than ” throw and grow,” says Ketchum. Photo courtesy Seed-balls.com

One of her most effective platforms is Seed-balls.com, a conservation start-up she launched in 2013 with her teenaged son. Its mission: biodiversity through green business.  “Educate people. Disperse seed. Be green.”

I caught up with Ketchum recently in the course of updating my annual post on seed balls. My research led me to the Seed-balls.com website where she and her small band of “mudslingers” evangelize and educate on the wonders of seed balls, tidy germination bombs which have the potential to transform vacant lots, degraded fields and blank areas in your vegetable garden.

I sought Ketchum’s expertise out of frustration. For a decade I’ve been making and dispersing seed balls, but have had very little success. Every autumn I collect local, native seeds from our property, throw them in a paper bag and save them for a seed ball  party.  Friends who don’t mind muddy hands help fashion hundreds of seed balls. We’ve thrown thousands of them on our family’s Llano River ranch over the years in an attempt to restore overgrazed pastures to former glory as prairies. We’ve also spent a substantial sum on native seeds broadcast directly onto the  soil.

Polymath Blake Ketchum works her magic making seed balls. Courtesy photo

My experience: seed balls do not live up to their hype. Our singular success has been in the Chigger Islands which dot our stretch of the Llano River.  There, we’ve thrown many Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata seed balls. A handful have grown into robust milkweed stands.

Yet the hands-on activity of molding soil, clay, seeds and water into seed balls has been touted as an effective way to plant wildflowers in hard-to-reach places. The act of tossing seed balls is often referred to as guerrilla gardening since you can plant flowers or edibles on property not rightfully yours. Seed ball making has also become increasingly popular as an activity at conservation and environmental events in recent years. Kids of all ages love getting their hands dirty while learning the importance of native plants and pollinators.

So, what am I doing wrong?

Apparently, not managing my own expectations. Tweaks to the seed ball recipe can help, says Ketchum. Adding mycorrhizal fungi or worm casings also boosts success rates. But Ketchum soberly explains that seed balls actually are better as an engagement tool than as tactical conservation. Throwing wildflower seed balls into an established landscape will likely not result in success. “Wildflowers are typically NOT fierce competitors and are easily outcompeted by weeds and turf grass,” says Ketchum.

The mudslingers at Seed-balls.com will make custom orders from specific seeds. Color coordinated, too. Courtesy photo

That shouldn’t stop us from making and throwing seed balls, however.  “Conservation is a multifaceted endeavor,” she says. “One part is transforming landscapes, another part is educating people about what that takes and getting people excited and enabled. Seed balls are really good at that.”

Read more of Ketchum’s insights on seed balls, below.

Q. What is the primary reason seed balls don’t germinate?

Ketchum: They are planted at the wrong time of the year. We see this a lot with milkweed. Well-meaning gardeners plant it in the spring assuming it will sprout. However, milkweed needs several months of cold, wet weather before it will germinate.

They are planted too deep. Seed balls should be pressed halfway into the soil so that they can get plenty of sun and moisture.

They are planted in the wrong location. Sometimes they are planted in the wrong climate or in the wrong landscape position. It’s important to know what plants are native to your region and where they like to grow.

Swamp milkweed pods, Asclepias incarnata, ready for harvest on the Llano River. We’ve made plenty of seed balls from these. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The seed balls are over-compressed and do not break down. Seed balls should disintegrate, allowing the seed to make contact with surrounding soil. If not, the seedlings can’t break free from the seed ball and will die.

The seeds were placed inside of the seed ball. Many seeds require sunlight to germinate and if they are placed on the inside of the seed ball, they will not grow.

The compost may not be sufficiently aged or the pH may not suit the seeds.

Q, Any tips for amateur seed ball makers/throwers? 

Ketchum: Do your research. Select the right seeds for your region and landscape position.

Manage your expectations. Seed balls planted where they can be cared for will do better than seed balls left to survive on their own. Many seeds need to stay moist throughout their germination. If left without rain or regular watering, they will die.

Avoid the ‘Throw & Grow’ Myth. Seed balls thrown into neglected landscapes will not likely survive. In these locations, seedlings are forced to compete with established and nonnative plants. For the best results, clear the area of competing plants, and press your seed balls halfway into the soil.

Swamp milkweed in full bloom, late summer. Thanks, seed balls! Photo by Monika Maeckle

Q. It seems seed balls have really taken off in the last few years. It used to be such a fringe thing. To what do you attribute that?

Ketchum: Seed balls are a fun, accessible introduction to gardening. They are easy to market and companies like ours and our competitors have done great work educating the public about Guerrilla Gardening and the need for native wildflowers.

We do a lot of work with wholesale companies whose businesses are driven by Millennial customers. As the fastest growing population in the US, this generation is shaping trends. What we have learned from these companies is that millennials care about saving native pollinators and they want to be good stewards of the planet. Seed balls give millennials a way to do both.

Q. The Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center says they’re really not effective for large-scale restorations. Would you agree?

While seed balls are a great introduction to native wildflower gardening, they are not an effective strategy for large-scale restoration projects. They require a sizeable investment of both time and money. Buying seed is a more effective and affordable option. We recommend conservation seed companies like Native American Seed or Ernst Conservation Seeds. They can help you select regionally appropriate species, as well as provide restoration advice to help achieve your restoration goals. Because restoring disturbed landscapes is nearly impossible, it’s important to be smart about your project.

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Winter Solstice signals time to make wildflower seed balls–here’s how

Feeling like there’s not enough hours in the day? That’s no surprise, since we’re quickly approaching the Winter Solstice. December 21 marks the shortest day of 2017–only 10 hours and 15 minutes in San Antonio, Texas, to be exact.

The celestial occasion celebrates the moment when, in the northern hemisphere, the earth leans furthest from the sun, resulting in short days and long nights. This makes for a great time to hole up by the fire, gather all those wildflower seeds you’ve collected all year and make seed balls.

Swamp milkweed pods, Asclepias incarnata, ready for harvest on the Llano River. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Introduced in the 70s, seed balls are a form of “guerilla gardening” whereby seeds, soil and clay are mixed with water into tidy bombs that are said to have an 80% higher germination rate than simply broadcasting seeds onto soil. Adding red potters’ clay to the mix protects the seeds from being blown away by wind or consumed by bugs or birds. A dash of chile pepper gives them an added dose of protection.

I’ve been making seed balls for a decade and had mixed success.This mirrors my years of  broadcasting hundreds of pounds of wildflower seed on the overgrazed acreage of our family ranch. Wildflowers are persnickety like that. They need an ideal combo of light, moisture, and temperature peculiar to their species in order to germinate. Both methods have left me baffled as to what combination of efforts results in success. I keep trying, and am especially motivated this year by a severe feral hog invasion along our river. The prolific wild pigs, which ranchers joke are “born pregnant,” disheveled a quarter-mile of our river road, undoing years of our  riparian restoration in progress. Unwelcome Johnson grass will move in quickly to fill the gaps. I’m tossing seedballs to compete with the invasives.

Feral hogs tore up our river front. Seed balls to the rescue. Photo by Monika Maeckle

My most successful seedballs germinated in the Chigger Islands that dot our stretch of Llano River. Laced with Asclepias incarnata, Swamp milkweed gathered from the same karst-riddled watershed, they grew into robust milkweed stands. They push out thin leaves that host arriving Monarch butterflies in the spring and pink flowers filled with nectar in the fall. By November, their plump seed pods invite another harvest. The late season caterpillar pictured below is noshing on a milkweed that started the year prior year as a seed ball.

This late season caterpillar noshes on swamp milkweed made possible by seed balls. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Seed balls have become popular in recent years and are often tapped as an engaging educational activity for children of all ages at conservation events and pollinator festivals like the one we stage in October. This hands-on exercise takes participants back to childhood escapades of making mud pies. Rolling mounds of wet clay, seeds and soil into tidy round spheres–well, it’s just fun.

My friend Diego Harrison Smith helped make seed balls. Photo by Lisa Marie Barocas

Let there be seedballs

Let there be seed balls! Mark the march toward spring and help make next year’s wildflowers happen by making seed balls.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

Our friends at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center told us a while back that seed balls used for large-scale restoration projects often have a low success rate. Assuring the seeds make soil contact once the balls fall apart is a hit-or-miss proposition. Our friends at Native American Seed in Junction, Texas, suggest that when it comes to seed balls, size matters. Most people make them too large to break down and sprout. “No bigger than the size of an Almond M&M is good–and only a few seeds per seed ball,” said the seed purveyors’ Emily Neiman.

LEFT: Properly tossed seed ball. RIGHT: Improperly tossed seed ball. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Seed ball recipes vary as much as those for Christmas cookies.  Some seed ball aficionados recommend a 3:2:1 ratio of soil, clay and seed, adding nutrient rich ingredients like worm casings or other natural fortifiers. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and Native Plant Society encourage a concoction that includes sand. The Seed Ball Project suggests soaking the seeds for 12 – 24 hours prior to adding them to the seed ball mix. That sounds like a good idea, especially for hard cased seeds like bluebonnets and milkweeds.

Got seeds? Use ’em up by making seed balls for next year’s wildflower meadow. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Our recipe includes three parts local or potting soil, one-two parts red potter’s clay powder (purchased from a pottery supply) and one part seeds. The clay binds the ingredients and keeps the balls intact. Add water until you get a workable dough that allows you to roll a spoonful of seed ball mix into a ball that doesn’t stick. If you find that your seed ball dough is too watery, just wait. The soil soaks up the excess liquid with time.

Seeds for Seedballs

Or: collect your own seeds locally for seed balls.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Put them on newspaper to set up and then add my secret ingredient: red chile pepper. The pepper discourages insects, birds and other critters from denigrating or eating the seeds, giving them a better chance to germinate  and become wildflowers for pollinators.

Once the seed balls set up, usually after 24 hours, store them in paper bags for later use or toss them right away.

Generally, seed balls don’t require watering and you should NOT bury or plant them.

Simply toss them in a vacant lot, your front yard, or a wildscape like a ranch or roadside. Make sure they land where they can make contact with soil, as in the photo above.  If the seedballs have to compete directly with grass, leaves or forbs, chances for germination decrease. Then, just wait for rain to melt away the clay casing, and nature will do the rest.

Mix well until you get a consistency that easily formed into seedballs.

Soil, seeds, red clay, water–and chili pepper. Mix until you get a consistency that is easily formed into seedballs.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Remember to use only native seeds for wildscaping situations. Good luck and let us know how it goes.

Texas Butterfly Ranch Seedball Recipe

  • 3 parts local soil or potting soil
  • 1 – 2 parts red potter’s clay powder, also known as “terracotta powder” at pottery supply stores
  • 1 part native wildflower seeds
  • Water, as needed.
  • Newspaper and cookie sheets for drying seedballs
  • Stainless steal bowls or pots for mixing
  ****
1.  Assemble ingredients.
2.  Mix soil, clay and wildflower seeds together in bowl.  Mix well.
3.  Add water to attain dough-like consistency, much like tart or pie dough
4. Pinch off or use spoon to grab gumball-sized amounts of the mix.  Roll between your palms to get round form.  Drop onto newspaper covered cookie sheet to dry.
5.  Sprinkle generously with red chile pepper.  Let set for 24 hours.
6.  Toss and wait.  Nature will do the rest.

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Dreamy visit to Mexico’s Monarch butterfly roosts ends in rabies shots, credit card fraud

The Monarch butterfly roosting sanctuaries in Mexico opened to tourists this weekend. The 13 protected areas that host tens of millions of eastern migrating Monarch butterflies each winter open their gates to the public in the latter half of November. That gives the butterflies, which typically arrive by Day of the Dead on November 2, time to settle in to their Oyamel tree roosts before the tourists show up.

A sojourn to the roosting sites is a bucket list item for many. I’ve been lucky to make the trip four times, and encourage anyone so inclined to do so. If and when you go, however, watch out for street dogs and keep an eye on your credit cards. While we won’t let it tarnish our memories of an amazing adventure, a dog bite resulting in rabies shots combined with credit card fraud put unpleasant footnotes on our recent trip. You would think us unlikely victims, given that my husband Robert Rivard and I both speak Spanish, lived in Central America for years and have traveled in Mexico for decades.

We had been planning the trip for months and even secured a special permit to visit the sanctuaries before their official November 18 opening from CEPANAF, the state commission on natural parks and fauna. My goal was to “see the Monarchs come home” for a book I’m writing. All previous visits had occurred in the spring, when the iconic insects start their months-long, multi-generation migration north.

When there’s sun, the Monarchs fly. Mural at entrance of El Rosario sanctuary. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The return of the late, great 2017 population to the site of their ancestors’ departure in the Mexican mountains did not disappoint. We had an unforgettable visit to El Rosario, the most visited sanctuary. Our guide, Manual Cruz Posadas, led us on an hour-long climb up to 10,000 feet, where Monarchs gathered in tentative roosts. The folk art mural at the entrance of El Rosario accurately sums up the insects’ behaviour: “When the sun shines, the Monarchs fly; when it’s cloudy, the Monarchs rest.”

Legions of butterflies lilted from the trees each time the sun peaked from the clouds. Often they dipped to the ground for nectar or drops of dew. As soon as clouds shielded the sun, they instinctively gravitated to a designated tree. The Oyamels welcomed them with open limbs.

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On Saturday, we vacated our room at the Casa de los Recuerdos in Zitácuaro, our base the first two nights, and took a taxi to the small town of Macheros, population 350. There, Ellen Sharp, co-owner of JM’s Butterfly B&B, arranged for her brother-in-law, Vicente Moreno Rojas, to guide us on an ambitious climb up Cerro Pelón. The “bald hill” was the site of the initial “discovery” of the roosting sites back in 1975.

We started on horseback and it wasn’t easy. A steep grade, rocky, slippery trail, and thin mountain air conspired to make the trek a serious challenge–even as Vicente prodded our horses. After an hour, we arrived at the Llano de Tres Gobernadores, a flat plain between two stands of Oyamel and pine forest. There, we enjoyed a picnic lunch packed by Moreno’s sister–ham sandwich, chips, apple and pedacito de chocolate, a small bite of chocolate.

Francisco Moreno Hernandez, an arborist for Butterflies and their People, AC, a Mexican nonprofit started by Sharp and her husband to protect the forest and its inhabitants, sallied up on horseback. He advised that the butterflies were gathering another 45-minutes up the mountain, above 11,000 feet. CEPANAF Forest Ranger Javier Moreno was patrolling the area and agreed to lead us to the roosts after inspecting my permit.

Butterflies & Their People arborist Francisco Moreno Hernandez,  Monika Maeckle, CEPANAF Forest Ranger Javier Moreno and JM Butterfly B&B Guide Vicente Moreno Rojas. And yes, they’re all cousins. Photo by Robert Rivard

Never have I endured a more literally breathtaking hike. Relatively fit for my 61 years, I panted like a dog on the rigorous 45-minute climb, stopping every few minutes to absorb the magical sight of an increasing number of butterflies flitting above. As I paused every few footholds to catch my breath, I thought of my friend Catalina Trail, the first Westerner to the roosting sites. How did she ever find her way to this impossibly remote and majestic place? Ah yes, she had gone with a local the day of her momentous discovery.
The historic account by Canadian scientist Dr. Fred Urquhart, who spent decades piecing together the mystery of the Monarch butterfly migration with the help of Catalina and other volunteers, also crossed my thoughts. In a famous August 1976

A dreamy day I’ll never forget in Cerro Pelón–Photo by Robert Rivard

National Geographic cover story headlined “Discovered: the Monarch’s Mexican Haven,” Urquhart bemoaned his advanced years and leaden feet. “Our hearts pounded…” he wrote.  “The rather macabre though occurred to me: Suppose the strain proved too much?”

By late afternoon, we arrived at the trees the Monarchs had chosen. Seeing them saunter and flit against the cottony clouds and bright blue sky somehow reassured me. I sat on the ground, removed my hat, leaned back on an Oyamel stump and enjoyed the natural spectacle.

That evening, we savored a delicious trucha en papillote, trout cooked in paper. Sharp’s mother-in-law, Rosa Rojas Sanchez, 56, harvested the fish that afternoon from the Moreno family trout farm. She and her husband, five daughters and five sons, their spouses and offspring number 23, and comprise more than 6.5% of Machero’s population.

Enjoy the flowers in Macheros, but watch out for street dogs. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The next morning before returning to Zitácuaro to catch our bus to Mexico City, I ambled up the hill from the B&B while one of the Moreno sisters gave Bob a hot towel shave. A champagne-colored Chihuahua mix approached me nervously, yapping loudly. I shooed him away. The ruckus roused his sleeping friend, a 40-pound mutt with a short white coat and black spots. The dog rose from his street slumber, and with no provocation or warning, charged me, sinking his jaw into my left calf. YEOW!

I kicked the beast and he retreated. Then I remembered “the cave man trick” Bob taught me when we lived in El Salvador years ago, where encounters with canines de la calle were common. Lean down and grab a rock. If no rocks are available, PRETEND you have one. Stooping in such a manner seems to signal to dogs a potential stone coming their way. They almost always retreat. The cave man trick worked when the spotted dog approached me again.

Dog bites are no fun. Use the caveman trick. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Sharp helped me dress the wound, which later measured 12 mm in a San Antonio hospital emergency room. Researching and undergoing rabies shots consumed two days of my time upon my return. I agreed with the ER doctor who assessed the odds of me having rabies as “extremely low.” “But if you do,” he said, “it’s 100% fatal.”

I’m getting the shots. They’re not the horrid series of a dozen injections administered in the stomach with nine-inch needles of days past, however. That practice ended in the ’80s.

Now, the first round consists of four shots, including an intense injection of immunoglobulin into the actual dog bite. The thick liquid must be spread around the wound area—that is, the needle is inserted deeper than usual and moved in a circular motion under the skin—to deter the virus, if present, from migrating to the brain. All other shots are pretty routine.

Two days after arriving home, Bob received alarming text messages and phone calls requesting strange authorizations for luxury purchases.  “Mr. Rivard, we’re calling to authorize the recent Neiman Marcus online charge for $5,370.47.”  Someone had hijacked Bob’s Visa card for a luxury spending spree.

No permanent harm done, except for an interesting future scar on my leg. New Visa cards arrived yesterday and my sixth shot in the rabies series of seven is set for Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving. I am grateful to have access to good medical care and insurance. And to have had the magical experience of seeing the Monarchs come home.

Future Monarch roosting site visitors, I encourage you to go with a local. You’ll have an unforgettably authentic experience. Keep an eye on your credit cards and save all receipts. And don’t forget the cave man trick. Buen viaje.

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Monarch butterfly expert Dr. Karen Oberhauser to speak in San Antonio Nov. 8

Didn’t get enough of Monarch butterflies at our Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival last month? Well here’s your chance to learn even more about the hemisphere’s favorite insect.

Dr. Karen Oberhauser, Monarch Joint Venture and the University of Minnesota –Photo via Oberhauser Lab

Dr. Karen Oberhauser, one of the top Monarch butterfly experts in the world and founder of Monarch Joint Venture, will share the state-of-the-union of North American Monarchs at a Celebrating Monarchs event next Tuesday, November 7, at the San Antonio Zoo.

The presentation should be an interesting one, given this year’s odd, mega-late migration. Monarch butterflies continue to gather in tardy, record numbers along the Atlantic coast while simultaneously arriving en masse at their roosting sites in Michoacán. We’ve never seen anything quite like it. Scientists are concerned that the long, drawn out journey south will burn up the Monarchs’ stored fats, possibly jeopardizing their ability to make it through the winter and start the cycle again in spring.

Oberhauser is well-known for spearheading Monarchs in the Classroom, an initiative she launched in 1992 at the University of Minnesota Monarch Lab, and as the co-chair of Monarch Joint Venture (MJV).  With more than 65 organizations under its umbrella, the MJV functions much like a United Way for Monarch butterfly oriented nonprofits and NGOs, lending credibility and sometimes funding to research, conservation and education of Monarchs and their migration. Grants are

Biologist David Berman noticed this female, XSC 637, released at our Festival on Oct. 22 laying eggs at the Nueva St. pollinator garden along the San Antonio River Oct. 30. Photo by David Berman

awarded through a collaborative process overseen by a steering committee and board made up of academics, citizen scientists and government and agency representatives.

Oberhauser’s Monarchs in the Classroom program came about after she supplied surplus caterpillars from her research at the University of Minnesota to her daughter’s elementary school classroom. Once she saw the positive reaction by children and teachers to the critters at school, a pilot program evolved to use Monarch butterflies to teach science.

That program became a flagship, the first of dozens to result from Oberhauser’s penchant for collaboration and public-private partnerships. In 2008, Oberhauser and other Monarch conservation organizations joined forces with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the University of Minnesota to form MJV.

Among the  MJV partners: our good friends at Journey North and Monarch Watch;  the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project, which monitors milkweed patches across the country for Monarchs in all their stages and reports the data;

the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary Foundation, which focuses on conservation and education efforts in Mexico; and Monarch Lab, a University of Minnesota-based research effort focused on the iconic migrant.

Oberhauser’s talk, which will take place at a reception and dinner called Celebrating Monarchs, will kick off the annual MJV conference. The two-day meeting takes place at the downtown University of Texas campus November 8 and 9, but is closed to the public.

Oberhauser’s first trip to the roosting sites in Mexico occurred in 1992. By 1997, she led her first crew of graduate students on a tour to Michoacán. That was the year the Monarch butterfly population peaked at almost a billion butterflies, occupying 18 hectares of forest–almost 45 acres. Last year, the migrating Monarch population numbered only 146 million, occupying less than three hectares–about seven acres.

Monarch butterfly population numbers. Graphic via Journey North

“I’ve seen that whole decline,” Oberhauser said in an interview earlier this year. “I’ve seen it up here in the summer and down there in the winter,” That perspective drives her today.

A silent auction, dinner, and the chance to visit the Zoo’s butterfly house will also be on the program with Oberhauser’s talk, 6:30 – 8:30, Tuesday, November 7. Tickets available here.

See you there.

Did you attend our Festival in October? Please take our survey! GRACIAS!

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Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival soars in San Antonio

Musicians, artists, advocates and educators were setting up their displays around 8:30 AM on Sunday when an aggressive storm suddenly blew through the Pearl complex, dramatically dropping temperatures and rain. Mother Nature was strutting her stuff for the final day of the 2017 Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival, San Antonio’s unique celebration of the Monarch butterfly migration.

Monarch butterfly takes a break on bouganvillea at the Historic Pearl. Photo by Monika Maeckle

But like a rabble of migrating Monarchs, the storm dissipated as quickly as it showed up. Within 15 minutes, the clouds parted, blue skies returned, and music, laughter and thousands of people filled Pearl Park. They came “with their wings on.”

By 10 o’clock, Adam Tutor, musician and Community Outreach Director for San Antonio Sound Garden, whipped up the crowd as percussionists Michael Madison and Thibeaux led a drum procession down Pearl Parkway.  A merry band of butterfly aficionados followed. Up  front, the Earnabike Coop’s Pedaling Pollinators’ butterfly bikes escorted our custom-made “mariposa pyramid” set atop a colorful gardening wagon bedecked with late season nectar plants and Fiesta fringe. We made our way to Pearl Park where cantora Azul Barrrientos plucked her guitar and sang indigenous musica folklorico.

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At noon, a trinational cast counted down from 10 in French, Spanish and English. As we reached “four, three, two, one,” much of the crowd joined in and hundreds of Monarch butterflies erupted from the “mariposa pyramid” designed by our friends at TBG Partners and built by German Morales, a master carpenter at the Mexican Cultural Institute San Antonio.

Spectators sighed as wafts of the orange-and-black insects soared to the sky, some lighting on surrounding sycamore trees where hummingbird feeders filled with fructose nectar offered a fuel stop for their long journey south. “We want them well fed and fat so they make it through the winter,” said Drake White, Chief Docent for the Festival, who organized the volunteers.

Some folks were moved to tears. Others danced, swayed and spread their wings.

A dozen docents, many Alamo Area Texas Master Naturalists, performed more than 500 one-on-one tagging demonstrations with children of all ages. Those who tagged a butterfly and  learned about the Monarchs’ amazing life cycle and migration were also “tagged” with an official Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival butterfly-shaped sticker.

“I got tagged at #samonarchfest!”

Twenty educational partners explained, educated and enlightened the crowd about the magical Monarch butterfly migration, native and host plants, and how insect pollinators make one of every three bites of our food possible. Our award-winning water utility, SAWS, staged multiple butterfly gardening workshops at the Pearl Studio led by botanist Charles Bartlett and Albert del Rio of Greenhaven Landscaping.  TBG Partners set up a Papalotl art installation at the Pearl courtyard where children could draw wishes on a ribbon which will be sent to Mexico.

“It was a beautiful day and a ton of fun,” said Gabriela Santiago, a local educator and artist who attended the Festival and served as a docent.

The Sunday parade, butterfly release and educational events consummated a week in which thousands of people joined together online and in person to celebrate the Monarch butterfly migration during peak Monarch migration season in San Antonio, the country’s first Monarch Butterfly Champion City.

Avery Roan shows off her educational  Monarch migration poster at the SAWS butterfly landscaping workshop. Photo by Monika Maeckle

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg set the stage for the festivities by renewing the city’s Mayor’s Monarch Pledge to the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) on October 16th. Standing on the west bank of a new pollinator garden along the San Antonio River, Nirenberg pointed out how San Antonio’s unique geographic location is strategic to the Monarch butterfly migration route. Read full coverage by Nicholas Frank in the Rivard Report.

Former Mayor Hardberger joined current Mayor Nirenberg to tag and release a butterfly. The joy on their faces set the tone for the week. Thank you, Mayors!

Monarch Butterfly Champions: San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg watches as former Mayor Phil Hardberger releases a tagged Monarch Butterfly on the San Antonio River. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Nirenberg’s predecessor Mayor Ivy Taylor signed the NWF initiative in 2015.  It commits cities across the country to increase Monarch butterfly and pollinator habitat. San Antonio became the first city in the country to become a Monarch Champion and commit to all 24 action items recommended  by NWF. One of those items: stage a Monarch butterfly festival.

Thanks to widespread community support and collaboration, we have.

On Friday, Monarch butterfly experts from across the continent–Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, Elizabeth Howard, founder of Journey North, Dr. Carlos Galindo Leal, Director of Scientific Communication at the National Commission of Biodiversity in Mexico  (CONABIO), and Louise Hénault-Ethier, Director of Science, the David Suzuki Foundation, Montréal–gathered at the Pearl Stable to discuss atmospheric and political climate change and its impact on the Monarch migration.

Louise Henault Ethier, Carlos Galindo Leal, Chip Taylor and Elizabeth Howard discuss climate change and the Monarch migration with moderator Dan Goodgame. Photo by Bonnie Arbitier, Rivard Report

The takeaway: citizen science holds the keys to conservation success. Politicians come and go, but we, the people on the ground who elect them, must keep pushing for fewer pesticides, more pollinator habitat and conservation minded land management–as well as resources for education and outreach. Read full coverage of the event by Rocio Guenther of the Rivard Report here.  

Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch leads a butterfly walk and talk at San Antonio Botanical Garden. Photo by Veronica Prida

On Saturday, art, science and education activities filled the calendar. Public school teachers learned how to use Monarchs in the classroom from Journey North’s Elizabeth Howard at the San Antonio River Authority. Louise Hénault Ethier, an expert in entomophagy, the eating of insects as food and feed, hosted a bug lunch at the Witte Museum while Monarch Watch’s Chip Taylor led a butterfly walk and talk at San Antonio Botanical Garden. Several events included yummy insect snacks–seasoned, dehydrated crickets, grasshoppers and mealworms provided by our friends at Little Herds. Recipes coming soon.

In the afternoon, children tagged Monarchs at Yanaguana Gardens in downtown San Antonio’s recently reimagined Hemisfair Park while Mexican artist Luis Moro conducted a Tree of Life drawing workshop. Saturday evening, CONABIO’s Carlos Galindo Leal gave a lecture on Mexico’s biodiversity at the Mexican Cultural Institute San Antonio. Moro’s beautiful watercolor paintings, a mezcal tasting and chapulines (dehydrated, seasoned cricket snacks) followed.

For an inspiring overview, check out the video below assembled by our friends at the Rivard Report.

Merci, gracias and thank you to all our sponsors and partners. We look forward to seeing you next year.

Got photos of this year’s Festival? We’d love to see them! Please share them on our Facebook page or send them to butterflybeat@gmail.com

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Happy Monarch butterfly birthday suggests spectacular 2017 migration season

My Friday the 13th birthday arrived with a weekend of good luck this year.

Family and friends gathered at the ranch for the ritual birthday tagging outing as clusters of Monarch butterflies appeared for a birthday chorus sung by chittering cicadas. A fifth instar caterpillar greeted me on my kayak rounds. Swamp milkweed pods, plump with seeds, perched ready to spread their wealth. And Monarch eggs, gathered from native milkweed stems, hatched within hours of collection.

Happy Monarch birthday weekend suggests a spectacular season. Photo by Monika Maeckle

All the good fortune bode well for my next twirl around the sun–and suggests a spectacular 2017 Monarch butterfly migration.

Plenty of nectar pitstops await. A variety of insects and butterflies, including hundreds of migrating Monarchs, enjoyed late season blooms that lined the Llano River banks in the glorious Texas Hill Country.

Elegant Swallowtails on Frostweed. Spangled Gulf fritillaries on Cowpen Daisy. Lemon yellow Sulphurs on past-their prime Goldenrods. Golden brown Queens fluttering on Late flowering boneset. Crickets, cicadas, gnats, and diverse bees populated the riverbanks. And Monarchs, pushed down from a cold front earlier this week, floated between pecan trees before gathering in small clusters. There, they awaited the next southbound wind that would give them a lift home.

With peak Monarch migration time for our latitude forecast for October 10-22, this is just the beginning. Many more Monarchs are heading our way.

The headwinds that have been holding butterflies back yielded in the Midwest this week, according to Journey North, the wildlife tracking initiative that keeps tabs on Monarchs and other wildlife. In her Thursday, October 12 bulletin, founder Elizabeth Howard noted “The migration’s leading edge advanced across Texas” this week. Howard will join us this Friday for our Butterflies Without Borders Symposium. (Tickets still available.)

“We live on Lake Travis in Austin, Texas,” Tammy Marshall told Journey North on October 10th.  “We looked out the window and saw hundreds of butterflies right before sunset. They formed roosts in the trees. This morning we looked again and they were gone. What an amazing sight!”

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Journey North reported migrating rabbles (yes, that’s the official word for groups of butterflies) in Canada, Kansas, the Atlantic Coast–even in the Big Apple.”In New York City this week, an incredible 600 monarchs were sighted in LaGuardia Corner Garden in the heart of Greenwich Village. Others were counted as they traveled by an office window on the 39th floor of a skyscraper.”

Throughout the Texas Hill Country, Monarchs were spotted in small clusters, a good sign for the next few weeks. On Friday, temperatures peaked in the 90s when we gathered for a birthday celebration. A quick hike to the river yielded hundreds of Monarchs settling in for the night. Gabriela Santiago and I netted and tagged about 40 in quick swoops and tagging sessions before the sun set. Gabriela even netted a Monarch pair locked in their impressive courtship flight.

Journey North has the peak migration moving into Texas this week. Graphic via Journey North.

On Saturday, the Rivard boys joined us with a custom net extender. Nicolas Rivard rigged a 16-foot tree trimming pole with a butterfly net that reached well into the tall pecan tree limbs. Soon the men were competing to see who could net the most butterflies in one swoop. The record: 16 butterflies–one butterfly netted per foot of pole. A coincedence?

With a dreamy sunset as a backdrop, 169 Monarchs were tagged by day’s end. By Sunday morning, a cold front that would drop temperatures into the 40s arrived with a dramatic rain shower. By the afternoon as winds picked up, the Monarchs were on their way again. We look forward to the next round of visitors.

Scientists and Monarch followers have been predicting a spectacular rebound season for 2017. Judging from everything witnessed on the Llano River this weekend, it appears the Texas Funnel is in for a big showing.

Hundreds of Monarchs will also make an appearance this Friday – Sunday at San Antonio’s 2017 Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival. Three days of art, science, education and celebration of our most iconic species will take flight at the Historic Pearl and around town. Please join us, details here.

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Happy Equinox, ya’ll: here’s how to track the Monarch migration from your desk

Sometime today, at 3:01 PM Central Standard Time in San Antonio, the earth will reach the point in its orbit when, for a few short moments, the sun shines directly on the equator. This results in the Fall Equinox, the celestial milestone that makes for a day of equal parts light and dark. As we march into Fall, the days get shorter, the nights grow longer and temperatures drop.

Monarch butterflies pick up on these cues. Using solar receptors in their antennae, the migrating orange-and-black insects start moving south in “directional flight” toward their winter home in Mexico. Most butterflies east of the Rocky Mountains will arrive in Michoacán by the first week in November where they overwinter until spring to start the life cycle anew.

Scientists and those who follow Monarchs are anticipating a rebound population this year, and we’re already seeing the famous international travelers in random sightings here in San Antonio and elsewhere in the Texas Funnel. We expect the big pulse of Monarchs, what is typically called “peak migration” weeks, to arrive the last half of October, right in time for our Second Annual Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival, October 20 – 22.

To figure out peak migration time in your neighborhood, check out this calendar assembled by Monarch Watch, the citizen science initiative that tracks the migrating insects. The calendar uses tagging data collected over decades to predict when the masses of Monarch butterflies are likely to move across specific latitudes on their way to Mexico.

The best way to enjoy the magic of the Monarch butterfly migration is to get outside as much as possible to see what’s going on with the famous flyers. But that’s not always possible. Work, school and/or other obligations always seem to get in the way.

Tagged Monarch butterfly

Won’t be long and Monarch butterflies will be passing throughout the Texas Funnel.  Check out the online tools that will help you track the migration.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Not to worry. By tapping the resources below, you’ll be able to stay on top of the migration right from your desk or mobile device.  Check out the tools available at the intersection of technology and (citizen) science listed below.

Journey North

First stop should be the Journey North website.  A free internet-based program that explores the interrelated aspects of seasonal change, Journey North tracks wildlife migrations including hummingbirds, whales and bald eagles.   This time of year, the Monarch migration gets top billing.  Journey North founder Elizabeth Howard told us that hundreds of thousands of people per month visit the site during Monarch migration season.

And with good reason.  Journey North offers constantly updated maps showing where adult Monarchs, eggs, caterpillars, and roosts have been spotted.  Photos and reports from citizen scientists, butterfly enthusiasts, professional photographers and academics populate the site, along with training and resources for teachers and others.

The Monarch migration is moving south from Canada and is stalled in the midwest by strong winds, according to Journey North. Map via Journey North.

Journey North also publishes a weekly migration update on Thursdays, often written by founder Howard, like this one from September 21. “Strong and persistent south winds across the Central Flyway have held the migration in place for the past week.” Meet Howard at our  scientific symposium, Butterflies without Borders: the Monarch Migration and our Changing Climate, a discussion of atmospheric and political change and how it affects pollinator advocacy during our Festival. The panel takes place Friday, October 20.  Tickets available here.

 Twitter

Using Twitter as a search engine is another great Monarch butterfly tracking tool. It provides real-time updates of Monarch butterfly sightings and offers a timely feed on Monarch butterfly news, from many favorite sources, including Journey North and Monarch Watch.

Granted, not everyone uses Twitter, but an estimated 328+ million people and myriad organizations tap the free, real-time application as a search engine and personal or professional broadcast outlet.

That means you can visit http://search.twitter.com and punch in “monarch butterfly sighting” or “monarch migration” or “tagged monarch butterfly” and dozens of hours-old “tweets”–brief 140-character updates—will be returned, telling you where Monarchs are flying RIGHT NOW.

For example, this search of “monarch butterfly sightings” on Twitter today, retrieved a feed that included the  reports at pictured at right.

 

Wind Map

For those of us who live in the Texas funnel, the wind plays an especially significant role in planning for Monarch tagging outings. During Monarch season, I plot each weekend for maximum Monarch activity.

Before leaving town, I check the Wind Map, a fantastic tool that shows which way the winds are blowing.  If winds are coming out of the North, that means Monarchs will be riding the wave and we could have a big mass when they drop from the sky at sunset and roost for the night.

Wind map gives a glimpse of what resistance Monarchs will encounter. Photo via Hint.fm

If winds are coming from the South, Monarchs won’t be moving much. That could mean they’re stranded in place, which could also make for good tagging since they will likely hang out and nectar on late-blooming flowers.

Either way, the map lets us know what’s coming.  Plus, it’s simply a dreamy tool, with it’s  visual articulation of nature’s breath expressed in real-time.

As the site descriptor says: “An invisible, ancient source of energy surrounds us—energy that powered the first explorations of the world, and that may be a key to the future. This map shows you the delicate tracery of wind flowing over the US.”

Wind map creators

Wind map creators Martin Wattenberg and Fernanda Viégas. Courtesy photo

The wind map is an art project of Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg who lead Google’s “Big Picture” visualization research group in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The talented team are committed to a “rigorous understanding of visualization” informed by their Ph.Ds–Viégas’ graduate degree from the MIT Media Lab; Wattenberg’s in mathematics, from U.C. Berkeley.

LOVE this project.

Monarch Watch and Journey North Facebook Pages

If you’re reading this and you’re on Facebook, then you likely have already “LIKED” the Monarch Watch and Journey North Facebook pages.  If not, go ahead, do it now, and join the party.  (And while you’re at it, why not LIKE the Texas Butterfly Ranch Facebook page?)

With almost 42,000 fans, Monarch Watch’s page serves as a delightful online plaza where the Monarch Watch team from the University of Kansas engages with the rest of us to share information, photos, and wax passionate about Monarch butterflies and their migration.   Citizen scientists, recreational observers, professional and amateur biologists and entomologists all join the conversation.

The Facebook page, Migrant Monarch Tag Reports, allows you to post a notice or photo of a tagged butterfly to figure out its provenance. Photo via Facebook

The Journey North Facebook page, with more than 28,000 fans, is equally engaging.  Journey North posts regular updates and from visitors and citizen scientists. Numerous other Monarch butterfly pages have cropped up on Facebook in recent years, including this one that tracks Migrant Monarch Tag Reports. The page is a closed group, meaning you have to request access. It describes itself as a page “created for those people who find tagged monarch migrants. Take a picture if you can of the tag number or post the tag number so people can track their tagged monarchs. Please only post about tagged monarchs you’ve witnessed or found.”

Monarch Watch Website

Journey North devotes itself to wildlife migrations besides Monarch butterflies, but the Monarch Watch website brags Monarch butterflies, all the time.

Monarch Watch website offers Monarch info 24/7/365

Based at the University of Kansas at Lawrence, Monarch Watch founded the citizen scientist tagging program embraced by thousands of us who tag Monarchs each fall.  Its comprehensive website offers information on how to tag a Monarch, raising milkweed, rearing Monarch caterpillars, and a database of all the Monarch tags recovered in Mexico, so those of us who tag can find out if any of our butterflies made it home.

tagged recovered Monarch

Thanks to Monarch Watch and the miracles of social media, I was able to determine that this ragged fellow, netted at the Texas Butterfly Ranch on October 1, 2016 on the Llano River near London, Texas, was tagged in southern Oklahoma. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Thanks to Monarch Watch, I was able to determine that the butterfly I netted on October , 2016, had been tagged in Tishomingo, Oklahoma nine days earlier.  Pretty cool story–read it here.

The site posts predictions for when the peak migration will occur at your latitude based on Monarch Watch scientists’ well-researched opinions.  The Monarch Watch blog is also worth a look and you can join thousands of others to get on the mailing list.

D-Plex List

If the above won’t sate your migration curiosity, then consider signing up for the D-PLEX list,  an email exchange that includes about 800 scientists, conservationists, enthusiasts, and others, including some very interesting characters.

Named after the Monarch butterfly’s Latin designation, Danaus plexippus, the D-PLEX is an old-fashioned email listserv started by Monarch Watch founder Dr. Chip Taylor and invites the public.  Sign up to receive D-PLEX emails on the Monarch Watch webpage.

Careful, though.  The D-PLEX can overtake your email inbox.   Conversations can escalate, generating dozens of emails a day, many of which you may not find useful. Sometimes exchanges devolve into rude online arguments. I’ve set up all D-PLEX emails to forward to a special email box that I check periodically, so as not to be overwhelmed.

Don’t forget to check in with us here at the Texas Butterfly Ranch, too.  We’ll do our best to keep you posted.

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