IH35 to become Pollinator Corridor for Bees, Monarch Butterflies, and other Pollinators

President Barack Obama has an exciting plan on the table with special meaning for Texas:  Interstate Highway 35, known as IH-35 or I-35 in the Lone Star State, will be the focus of a national strategy to bring back honey bees, Monarch butterflies and other pollinators.

Coming Soon:  IH-35 to become a pollinator corridor for Monarchs, bees and others pollinators. Video by Monika Maeckle

Starting in Duluth, Minnesota and ending in Laredo, Texas, the 1,568-mile-long highway links three of Texas’ largest metropolitan areas–Dallas/Ft. Worth, Austin and San Antonio. Soon it may be better known for an ambitious prairie restoration than for its famous traffic snarls and congestion.

The Office of the President announced the proposed pollinator corridor in the National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and other Pollinators, a 58-page document released May 19.  It continues Obama’s steady drumbeat on behalf of the insects responsible for pollinating 75% of all plants and making one of every three bites of food we eat possible.

In the past 12 months, President Obama has met with the presidents of Mexico and Canada to discuss a Pan-American strategy for saving the iconic Monarch butterfly migration; planted the first-ever pollinator garden at the White House with his wife Michelle; and announced the formation of a Pollinator Task Force that produced the National Pollinator Strategy document.  Obama will surely go down in history as the “pollinator president.”

The goals of the strategy are ambitious and far-reaching:

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

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

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

bee_pollen_macro

bees are master pollinators. –photo via http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/

Why the big focus on pollinators? Because they’re under siege.

Beekeepers lost 40% of their honey bee populations last year.  The beloved Monarch butterfly, whose iconic migration weaves together three countries, has also suffered enormously.  Their entire eastern population occupied only 1.65 acres at their roosting sites in Michoacán, Mexico in 2013–an area smaller than the average Wal-Mart store and representing a drop of 90% from their peak in the 1990s.   While the Monarch has made a slight rebound this last year, the general numbers continue to be worrisome, as the butterfly is also considered an indicator of general ecosystem health, the “canary in the cornfield.”

Bats, moths, beetles, birds and other butterflies all face the multi-whammy of habitat destruction, genetically modified crops reducing their wildscape habitats, pesticide abuse and climate change.  The myriad challenges are taking their toll as reflected in the submission of the Monarch as a candidate to be listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act last August.

Governments across the hemisphere are concerned about this loss of our natural heritage as well as the possibility of putting an affordable, diverse food supply at risk. Given that  the unpaid pollination services provided to the U.S. by the bees, wasps, flies, butterflies, moths, bats, beetles, and birds totalled $15 billion in 2009, the $82.5 million budgeted in the strategy for honeybee research in the coming budget year, up from $34 million, seems like a good investment. In China, for example, fruit trees and other crops must be pollinated by hand because of the loss of insect pollinators attributed to pollution and other factors.

Hand pollination in China

Hand pollination in China. Photo courtesy Oakland Museum of California

The strategy document’s third stated goal holds special meaning for the Lone Star State:  restoration of seven million acres of habitat focusing largely on federal lands and the IH35 corridor.

With almost 600 miles of IH35 here, almost double the I35 miles in any other state, “Texas is indeed poised to be a big player in this Federal Pollinator Strategy,” said Don Wilhelm, US Fish and Wildlife Region 2 Partners for Fish and Wildlife Coordinator, via email.

IH35 mileage by state

Texas has almost double the mileage of IH 35 of any other state. Graphic via Wikipedia

With its proximity to Mexico and status as the “Texas Funnel,”  through which Monarch butterflies, Mexican free-tailed bats, and myriad pollinators migrate south, Texas will be a big beneficiary of government funding and public-private partnerships focusing on the research, outreach, education and land restoration efforts outlined in the document, Wilhelm said.  It’s important to note that the IH35 “focus” does not translate literally to mean pollinator plantings adjacent to 70-mile-per-hour highway traffic.  While rest areas and area landscapes will include pollinator plantings, the “focus” references the general area surrounding the IH35, USFWS staff stressed.

Texas also is home to the premiere native plant center in the country, The Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin.  In fact, the Austin native plant paradise is already working with the Federal government on ways to increase native milkweed seed production species and prototypes.  Also involved: the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute at Texas A&M University-Kingsville.  And further south on the border in Mission is the National Butterfly Center.

Want native Texas milkweed?  Start with seeds.  Photo courtesy Native American Seed Co.

Coming soon: More native milkweed seed. Photo courtesy Native American Seed Co.

On page 26 of the document, another opportunity awaits Texas:   federal agencies will be working with the Edison Electric Institute, a trade association of electrical utilities, and the National Electric Reliability Council (NERC) on redefining the rules for transmission line rights of way (RoW) habitat.  “These RoWs can be cost-effectively managed to offer prime pollinator habitat of low-growing grasses, forbs, and shrubs, using techniques such as Integrated Vegetation Management (IVM).”

Texas is home to dozens of power companies including two of the largest publicly owned utilities in the country.   CPS Energy in San Antonio is the largest municipally owned electric and gas utility in the country;  Austin Energy is the eighth largest municipally owned electric utility.  These entities, lauded for their progressive policies on renewable energy by the Pew Center, own tens of thousands of acres of land and control thousands of miles of right of way (RoW) habitat under power and transmission lines.

More native milkweed and other pollinator plants will result from research and habitat restoration projects associated with the pollinator strategy. Photo courtesy Native American Seed Co.

More native milkweed and other pollinator plants will result from research and habitat restoration projects associated with the pollinator strategy. Photo courtesy Native American Seed Co.

A huge opportunity exists to manage these areas as pollinator friendly areas of low growing grasses, forbs, and shrubs.    Federal agencies are revising the rules governing power line RoWs to further these beneficial pollinator practices.  Investor owned utilities can also get on board, but the public utilities will be more inclined to cooperate.  CPS Energy and Austin Energy have a unique opportunity to make pollinator power happen here.  (NOTE:  I work as a communications consultant to CPS Energy and have proposed a pollinator policy in the past.)   This federal nudge will likely get things moving.

The process has begun.  Dr. Julie McIntrye, USFWS endangered species ecologist in Albuquerque, New Mexico, relayed via email that a Monarch Outreach Specialist has just been hired by the agency to focus specifically on utilities and the IH-35 corridor.  One of the many priorities of this position: create more pollinator habitats with RoWs, pollinator habitats at rest-stops, and “getting the I-35 Monarch Prairie Passage initiated.”

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Eastern Black Swallowtail Butterflies Everywhere: Here’s How to Raise Them at Home

Monarchs generally make headlines, but the Eastern Black Swallowtail caterpillar and butterfly also merit attention.  Especially in this mild, wet year.

Swallowtail Monarch caterpillar

Frequently confused in the late caterpillar stage: Swallowtail, on the left on rue, Monarch, on milkweed on the right. Photo by Monika Maeckle

In my downtown plot, every fennel, dill and rue plant is loaded with Eastern Black Swallowtail caterpillars. Even along the Llano River, we’re finding hungry Swallowtail cats on wild carrot and parsley.  One hungry critter decimated three newly-planted Finochio seedlings down to the nub.  Yes, butterfly gardening is full of compromises–like sharing your herbs and edibles with a slew of hungry caterpillars.

Swallowtail fennel

Down to the nub! Swallowtail caterpillar devoured three new Fennel seedlings. Photo by Monika Maeckle

That said, just like Monarchs, Eastern Black Swallowtails wear black, green, yellow and white-striped suits in their later caterpillar stages, and are fun to raise at home.  Unlike Monarchs, they make an amazing saddle-type chrysalis, sport amusing tentacle-like “tubercles” that reveal themselves when disturbed, and are vexing in their unpredictability.   Since several readers haved asked about raising Swallowtails this season, we’re recycling a post from July, 2014, that offers tips on how to do it.

How to Raise Eastern Swallowtail Butterflies at Home

Monarch butterflies get all the press, but the Eastern or Black Swallowtail, Papillio polyxenes, a large blue, black and gold and cream-specked beauty, flies in our neck of the world from April through November.   The Texas native provides lots of action in the garden when Monarchs are elsewhere.

Eastern Swallowtail

Eastern Swallowtail, recently hatched, resting in the grass. Llano River, Texas Hill Country. Photo by Monika Maeckle

We’ve been getting questions about raising Swallowtail butterflies in recent weeks. The wet June has made for a long season for dill, fennel, parsley and rue the plants on which Swallowtail butterflies lay their eggs.  Below are tips for raising them at home.

Eastern Swallowtail egg on Dill Weed

Eastern Swallowtail egg on Dill Weed.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

First, locate the eggs. The tiny yellow spheres perch prominently on the leaves of dill, fennel, parsley and rue. Check your plants frequently, as wasps, ladybugs, spiders and others will slurp up these protein pops as soon as they are spotted.  When you’re looking, you may notice some clear, dry, empty spheres, exactly the size of the eggs.  Those are empty egg shells already visited and consumed by predators.

Swallowtail egg

Close-up of Swallowtail egg on dill. Photo by Monika Maeckle

I usually snap off a piece of the plant with the eggs on them and take them inside to rest in a jar with the lid loosely closed.  Don’t worry about “smothering” the egg.   They’ll do fine until they hatch, usually within four days.

Once the little guys hatch, you’ll want to provide fresh air to prevent mold from growing on the host plant.  Bring in some sprigs of fresh plant and put them in the jar. I usually leave the eggs alone until the caterpillars are big enough to spot with a naked eye–generally two days.   You’ll see they’re tiny and hard to monitor, so again, leave them alone and just provide fresh air and fresh host plant until they grow bigger.

After a few days, you’ll see a small black creature, perhaps 1/16th of an inch long.  If you look closely, you might notice a white or orange band in the middle of the body.  That’s your first instar, or stage, Swallowtail caterpillar.  They will eat quietly and consistently for several days before they morph to the next stage.   They’re rather nondescript and not yet as interesting as they will become.  Just wait.

Swallowtail

First instar Eastern Swallowtail caterpillar on rue. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Up until this point, I may have had the Swallowtails in a jar or container with a loose lid or netting.  But now it starts to get interesting and I like to watch them eat and grow, although it can make a small mess.

Usually I gather fresh host plant and put it in a vase with newspaper underneath so I can observe the caterpillars literally grow before my eyes. The newspaper catches the frass, or caterpillar poop, that the caterpillars produce in volume.  The small, black odorless pellet-like droppings may seem gross, but they’re actually not.  Well, maybe for some people.  Generally I will set such a vase in a highly trafficked place in my home or office so I won’t miss the action in the course of any day. (Yes, I’ve been known to take caterpillars to work.)

Swallowtail bouquet

Bouquet of Swallowtail caterpillars in vase on fennel. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The caterpillars will continue to eat and morph for about 10 days.   What’s amazing is how different they look at each stage.   As they move through their instars, they completely transform, going from the unremarkable black cat with a white band to a prickly orange, white and black form, then to a black, green, yellow and white-striped creature often confused with Monarch caterpillars.

Throughout the process these boys eat voraciously–lots of fresh host plant.  In our hot Texas summers, I find dill expires early in the season but that Swallowtails will easily transition to the more abundant and heat-hardy rue or fennel.   At the ranch we have wild parsley and I have brought that home for feeding.  Once I bought organic fennel or parsley at the grocery store to feed a slew of Swallowtails when I had run out of fresh host.  The caterpillars didn’t seem to like it much (like us, they prefer FRESH greens) but they at it in the later stages.

Swallowtail showing tubercles

Who goes there?!? Note the yellow “tubercles” which the Swallowtail shows off when bothered. Photo by Monika Maeckle

One of the most amusing aspects of raising Swallowtails is their interesting tentacles.  When they get to the last stages, they show distinctive yellow antennae when poked or bothered. This orange forked gland, called the osmeterium, shows itself when the butterfly perceives danger.  Upon the slightest nudge or threat, the yellow tentacles pop out of their head and emit a distinctive, sickly sweet odor. Kids are always impressed when you provoke the Swallowtail’s tentacles.

Swallowtail caterpillar sheds its skin.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

Swallowtail sheds skin. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The caterpillars will continue to eat, shed their skins and morph to the next stage over about 10 days until they get to the fifth instar at which time they will cease eating and seek a quiet place to form their chrysalis. Swallowtails are famous for wandering far from the host plant and taking their time to emerge from the chrysalis at unpredictable times.  Monarch caterpillars are generally reliable in taking 10-14 days to eclose, or make the transition from chrysalis to butterfly.

Swallowtails, in contrast, can take a few weeks to many months to emerge.  Their unpredictability is also manifested in the varied color of the chrysalis that results from the final morphing.   Sometimes brown, sometimes green, you just never know what color a Swallowtail chrysalis will be.

Swallotwails wear chrysalis coats of many colors.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Swallowtails wear chrysalis coats of many colors. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Because Swallowtails can wander, it’s smart to contain them in a cage when they get large enough to bust their stripes and go chrysalis.  I use a net laundry hamper and simply put the vase inside.

Swallowtail

The Swallowtail will bow its head and make a silk button and saddle before going chrysalis. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The Swallowtail, when ready, will stop eating.  He will bow his head in an upside down J-shape, and spin a silk button to attach itself by its head to a twig, branch or net siding.   He then makes a silk saddle to hold itself snugly in place for the time it takes to transform its DNA into a butterfly–again, an often unpredictable amount of time.   Some Swallowtails will overwinter to the next season, depending on the conditions present at the time of forming the chrysalis.

Newborn Swallowtail butterfly with sister chrysalis.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Newborn Swallowtail butterfly with sister chrysalis. Photo by Monika Maeckle

When the day finally comes, though, you will know because the chrysalis will turn dark, then clear. Thereafter, the Swallowtail will emerge when ready.

Give it a few hours to allow its wings to harden. When she starts beating them slowly, you know she’s ready for flight. Take her outside and send her on her way.

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Tropical Milkweed OK for Monarch Butterflies, “Just Cut the Dang Stuff Down”

“Can well-meaning people sometimes make things worse?”

That was the provocative subhead on an article by Dr. Jeffrey Glassberg, founder and president of  the North American Butterfly Association (NABA) in that organization’s most recent edition of American Butterflies Magazine.

Glassberg, who holds a PhD in biology, a law degree and credentials as an entrepreneur, author and butterfly advocate, challenged the recent scientific assertions made by Satterfield et al  that Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, is bad news for Monarch butterflies.

Tropical milkweed:  The debate continues.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Tropical milkweed: The debate continues. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Glassberg challenges the study’s claims about Tropical milkweed’s appropriateness in South Texas, where the North American Butterfly Center operates in Mission along the Texas-Mexico border.

Dara Satterfield

Dara Satterfield  Photo by Monika Maeckle

In case you missed it, Dara Satterfield, a PhD candidate at the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia, and her graduate advisor, Dr. Sonia Altizer, a disease ecologist at Georgia and one of the foremost experts on Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, a Monarch-centric spore driven disease known as OE, suggest in their research that sedentary winter-breeding butterflies are at increased risk of OE. They speculate that Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, 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.

Native to Central America and Mexico, Tropical milkweed grows well and sometimes year round in Texas and Florida.  Scientists worry that it might be confusing Monarchs, making them skip their migration and reproduce locally.  When they do that, spores from butterflies infected with OE build up on the plant and may transfer the disease to other caterpillars, chrysalises, and later, butterflies, resulting in crippling and even death.  Read the Tropical milkweed fact sheet.

Just to be clear:  Satterfield, et al DO NOT THINK TROPICAL MILKWEED IS EVIL.  In fact, they say exactly that in a statement issued by Monarch Joint Venture and shared via the DPlex, a listserv that reaches about 800 butterfly followers.

“Tropical milkweed itself is not ‘bad.’ (It provides larval food for Monarchs in many places where it occurs naturally, such as across the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central America.),” the scientists said in a statement released in January following the milkweed kerfuffle.

“The truth is that we don’t really know,” if butterflies infected with OE at winter-breeding locations will impact the Monarch population as a whole, the statement said.

So to be fair,  the scientists admit that much is still to be determined about the impact of Tropical milkweed on the Monarch butterfly population.   That’s why they suggest cutting Tropical milkweed to the ground over the fall and winter–so the OE spores can’t build up.

Glassberg takes the Satterfield et al. study to task, challenging the assertions with his own data fueled theories.

Monarchs and other milkweed feeders host on the evergreen Pineneedle milkweed in Arizona and have lower than average OE infection rates.  Courtesy photo via Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, Sally Wasorski

Monarchs and other milkweed feeders host on the evergreen Pineneedle milkweed in Arizona and have lower than average OE infection rates. Courtesy photo via Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, Sally Wasowski

Nonmigrating Monarch butterflies in Hawaii  and Arizona have lesser-than-average levels of OE infection, notes Glassberg, pointing out that some Monarchs overwinter and sustain themselves on evergreen milkweeds like Fringed twinevine and Pineneedle milkweed.

Such examples “suggest that the level of OE infection might not be as highly correlated with non-migratory behavior and that the presence of an evergreen supply of milkweeds doesn’t necessarily mean that OE levels will be high, as Satterfield et al. conclude,” he writes.

“Perhaps the higher levels of infection that Satterfield et al. found to be associated with Tropical milkweeds were due to temperature effects or other factors not intrinsic to Tropical milkweed,” Glassberg writes, suggesting that global warning and higher temperatures beg the question: what is a native plant, anyway?

Climate change is already making the range for Tropical milkweed creep north and “if and when that happens, wouldn’t it be a good thing for there to be extensive areas in the southern United States that might serve as reservoirs for Monarchs that would then be able to repopulate more northern areas, much as Painted Ladies and American Ladies do now?”

Hardiness zones redefined by USDA

In 2012, the USDA redefined hardiness zones in response to climate change.  San Antonio moved to Zone 9a from Zone 8b.  Will Tropical milkweed eventually rank as “native”?  Screengrab via USDA

When asked about the article, Satterfield responded by email that “We do plan to address why our paper rules out effects of temperature and geography and points to year-round milkweed as the source of the high levels of disease.”

Glassberg makes a lot of sense here.   His characterization of Tropical milkweed as a “life buoy” for Monarchs until the commercial market for native milkweeds can be developed holds great appeal.  In a recent webinar staged by US Fish and Wildlife Service  on creating Monarch butterfly habitat in the U.S., experts stated that it will take a minimum of five years to create a commercial market for native milkweeds.   That’s a long time for Monarchs to wait around for the perfect locavore food, especially when Tropical milkweed is already on the market, easy-to-grow and very affordable.

Troipcal milkweed:  "Life buoy" for Monarchs and other milkweed feeders until the native milkweeds are available.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Tropical milkweed: “Life buoy” for Monarchs and other milkweed feeders until the native milkweeds are available. Photo by Monika Maeckle

My approach in the garden includes Tropical milkweed as a foundation, natives preferred, but more challenging to grow.  And I’m not alone.  Plenty of us who follow Monarchs believe the Tropical milkweed debate is bloated and misguided.

Here’s what Edith Smith, one of the most seasoned, experienced and thoughtful commercial butterfly breeders on the planet and owner of Shady Oak Butterfly Farm in Florida, thinks about the focus on Tropical milkweed:   “…They’re so fussy about that plant. If only they’d stop to think, they’d realize that if a couple of treaties had been written a bit different and the southern border of our country had been drawn a hundred miles further south, Tropical milkweed WOULD be a U.S. native.  SHEESH!”

Edith Smith

Edith Smith, Shady Oak Butterfly Farm

She adds:  “As far as it being good/bad for Monarchs … let’s remove all the Tropical milkweed from Mexico and see what happens to the Monarch population in the US. That in itself should answer the question.”

Another Monarch expert suggested everyone just chill on the Tropical milkweed fixation, pointing out that a better investment of time, energy and money would be replenishing the million-plus acres of pollinator habitat lost each year.  Arguing about narrow strips of Tropical milkweed along the coastline constitutes a huge misplaced priority.

“Just cut the dang stuff down at the end of the season–maybe twice. We’re wasting too much time on this issue. There are bigger problems,” said the source.

Monarch caterpillars tropical milkweed

Monarch caterpillars on Tropical milkweed, April, 2015  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Even Catalina Trail, the woman who discovered the Monarch butterfly roosting sites in Mexico back in 1975, plants Tropical milkweed in her Austin garden.  “I would prefer to have native milkweeds in my yard, but they’re impossible to grow,” she said by phone.  “I have two Tropical milkweeds in my yard.”

This website has reported repeatedly on this topic and I am at peace with my stance:   Tropical milkweed fills a gap for Monarch butterflies. Just cut it back.

Both early and late in the season, Tropical milkweed is often the ONLY milkweed available for migrating Monarchs.   The eggs of the caterpillars pictured above were laid in late March and because of our cool spring, no native milkweed was up and out of the ground yet.   My Tropical milkweed from last year, which had been cut to the ground in December as per best practice, had plenty of fine, tender new leaves ready for the hungry critters when they arrived.

Had I not this Tropical milkweed in my yard, the migrating Monarch who laid the eggs that became today’s caterpillars in my yard would have had to keep flying, seeking milkweed that in this cool Texas spring was mostly absent until now.  Who knows where/if she would have found a place to lay her eggs before perishing?

Meanwhile, in the Fall, the only native milkweed I see is Swamp milkweed along the Llano River, and it’s usually in bad shape, ravaged by aphids and the summer heat.   Tropical milkweed is the only food available for late season caterpillars, and the lack of available caterpillar food often results in a caterpillar food emergency, with folks calling around town to friends and local nurseries to see if anyone has clean, chemical free milkweed available.   Some breeders and enthusiasts have taken to offering pumpkin, cucumbers and other “alternative fuels” for late season Monarchs.

Monarch caterpillars eating pumpkin

In the fifth instar, Monarch caterpillars will eat a variety of pumpkins. Photo by Ellen Reid

Making an issue about Tropical milkweed reminds me of the locavore food movement: idealistic, admirable, but now always practical.   The caterpillars have to eat.

Imagine you’re driving cross-country with your family and you and the kids find yourselves famished. Sure, you’d prefer to stop at a local diner where good food was whipped up from scratch from local organic ingredients, responsibly harvested, lovingly prepared, delicious, nutritious and affordable.

But that’s not always possible.   Sometimes you have to hit the drive-through of a fast-food joint because that’s all there is.  And that will get you to the next place.

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Thanks, El Niño: Llano River Hosts Milkweed Buffet for Monarchs and other Butterflies

First I’d like to say, “Thank you, el Niño.”

I haven’t seen the Llano River or the milkweed and other wildflowers this robust since 2010, the year before the historic Texas drought hit our state.

Milkweed buffet

Decisions, decisions. What’s your pleasure, Monarch caterpillar? photo by Monika Maeckle

A weekend in the Texas Hill Country included a series of thunderstorms, warm temperatures and a bounty of roadside milkweed as well as a variety of Asclepias species on our property we haven’t seen in years.  Our caterpillars literally had a milkweed buffet awaiting them–four different Asclepias species, the Monarch butterfly host plant.

Antelope horns, Asclepias asperula, made a hearty showing in front of our porch.  Under the breezeway deck, a lone Texas milkweed, Asclepias texana, was already sporting blooms.  Down the trail, Pearl milkweed vine, Matelea reticulata, the lovely climber that boasts an attractive pearl-dotted flower, snuck up a nearby pencil cactus.  Along the banks of the Llano River, Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, the pink-blooming host plant offered hearty stalks, broader-than-usual leaves and new stands in places we’ve never noticed.

Antelope horns and Indian blanket

Antelope horns and Indian blanket dotted Highways 1871 and 87 in the Texas Hill Country this weekend. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Texas milkweed

Texas milkweed, what a trooper–no water, little light, growing under the breezeway. Haven’t seen this one in years. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Along the trail, this Pearl milkweed vine peeked above the mulch to climb a pencil cactus.  Can't wait for the flowers.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Along the trail, this Pearl milkweed vine peeked above the mulch to climb a pencil cactus. Can’t wait to see the flowers. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Robust stands of thick Swamp milkweed in new places along the River.  Gotta love it.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Robust stands of thick Swamp milkweed in new places along the Llano River. Gotta love it. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Only the Swamp milkweed hosted caterpillars and eggs.   The chubby chutes reached out of the Chigger Islands like thin stalks of asparagus.  What a heartening improvement over the scrawny plants of the past few years.

Only one Monarch was spotted flying this weekend, but others had obviously passed through since their offspring were observed in various stages–eggs, just-hatched cats,  second instar larvae and fifth instar caterpillars ready to bust their stripes and go chrysalis.

Two Monarch eggs over easy--well, under the leaves of Swamp milkweed on the Llano.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Two Monarch eggs over easy–well, under the leaves of Swamp milkweed, on the Llano. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Two stages of Monarch caterpillars munch on Swamp milkweed.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

Two stages of Monarch caterpillars munch on Swamp milkweed. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Anybody recognize this bloom?  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Anybody recognize this bloom? Photo by Monika Maeckle

The wildflower display along Highways 1871 and 87 around Mason and Fredericksburg was among the most spectacular I’ve seen in recent memory. Some mysterious (to me) newcomers joined the bouquet, like the white flower above showing in our watershed. Anybody know what it is?

Prediction:  2015 will be a fantastic year for butterflies, Monarchs in particular.   While the first three months of 2015 clocked as the hottest first quarter in history, it’s been mild and wet in our neck of the woods   And that bodes well for butterflies and other pollinators.

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Coming soon: LIVE from the Mariposario, Dispatches from my Butterfly House

Almost four years ago our family began its own amazing multi-generation migration:  we moved from the homestead where we raised our two sons in a protected enclave of San Antonio to a downsized contemporary compound in unruly downtown.

Look for LIVE from the Mariposario updates coming your way.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Look for LIVE from the Mariposario updates coming your way. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Our Alamo Heights home had a beautiful half-acre lot with a magnificent butterfly garden that took years to nurture.  It was sad to see the new owners rip out its specimen native plants and return it to its former state as a St. Augustine lawn.  Part of the trade-off of making the traumatic move was that someday I would have a new wildlife garden and my own space to rear caterpillars and native plants, as well as a home more suited to our empty nest lifestyle.  I’m glad to say that day is here.

On top of that, we needed a place for my 93-year-old father and 82-year-old mother.  After researching the exorbitant costs of assisted living, John and Hilde Maeckle agreed to leave their tract home on the north side of San Antonio and join us at the family compound we now call Arsenal.

frontyardrendering

Rendering: Front yard vision, drawn sometime in 2013. Photo by Nicolas Rivard

We sold our house in 78209 and bought an empty lot in 78204, just a block from the San Antonio River across from HEB world headquarters at the historic San Antonio Arsenal, a limestone compound that housed munitions for wars from the Confederacy through World War II.  Then we began the arduous process of building a house–actually, two of them–from the ground up.

Our son, Nicolas Rivard, had just graduated from the University of Texas architecture school.  Since we needed someone to design our future two-home complex, we figured, naively:  how could we NOT use our own son as the architect?  It’s amusing, gratifying and sometimes aggravating to see how the reality has departed from the vision Nicolas and our family imagined.

Front yard garden

Reality:  Our front yard downtown garden, April 2015. Watch this space! Photo by Monika Maeckle

The design-build process began in late 2011.  The tight, alley-lined lot in downtown San Antonio created special challenges of staging and parking.   A newbie architect and unusual design and materials made for slow progress.  The public living area of our home is crafted from compressed earth block–that is, bricks made from soil.  The extraordinary building material created its own obstacles, but ultimately was worth it.  The place has the vibe of an ancient mission.

And then good fortune threw us a wild card.  Nicolas was accepted to graduate school at Harvard, then to an amazing fellowship in Rwanda.  For two-and-a-half years, these exceptional learning opportunities took him far from home and the project we had started.   It forced us to make many decisions via Skype and email rather than in-person and on site.  We made many mistakes.

Rendering:  backyard butterfly garden.  Photo by Nicolas Rivard

Rendering: backyard butterfly garden. By Nicolas Rivard

But that was all part of the adventure, as were the twists of life and unanticipated turns in our careers. During this time, my husband and I both left our jobs and started a communications consulting firm, The Arsenal Group. We launched a local news website, The Rivard Report. None of these career moves were planned when we launched the complex construction of our new home.

I kept sane by continuing to pursue my outdoor passions and working on this website, the Texas Butterfly Ranch. More change erupted as I rejoined, then left, the full-time workforce, only to return to consulting again. Meanwhile, our other son, Alexander, returned from a two-year job in Boston where he learned how to cook, and Nicolas also came home to roost–just as the home he had imagined in blueprint was nearing completion.

Backyard garden with screened porch

Reality: screened porch, rain garden, butterfly habitat coming soon. WATCH THIS SPACE.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

First came the Casita for my parents. My father’s health continues to decline, and my mom, Oma, as we call her, holds down the fort.  She has been a trooper to endure this years-long building process while also caring full-time for Opa.

Next, we crafted our house–two structures divided by a lovely atrium and connected with a two-story screened-in porch. My parents made their move in March of 2013. We finally made the Arsenal home in November of 2014 even though it is still a partial construction site.  The final phase includes a car port and my much-anticipated Mariposario, or butterfly house.   (For those unaware, mariposa means butterfly in Spanish.)

Backyard garden

Backyard wildscape and butterfly garden has just been planted. That’s pecan shell mulch. Photo by Monika Maeckle

For years my husband has indulged my affinity for insects in the kitchen and living room. When we lived in Alamo Heights I would bring potted milkweeds in for prime placement near windows. When the caterpillars were about to go chrysalis, they would be elevated to the coffee table for prime viewing so we wouldn’t miss the moment, often toasting the occasion with a sip of wine.

More recently, while living in multiple rental apartments with little outdoor space, we’ve had caterpillars marching across the rug, Monarchs hatching on curtains, and even a Black Swallowtail forming its chrysalis on the electrical chord of my flatiron–25 feet from its host plant. A lesser man would have shut this down, but my husband, Bob Rivard, has been extremely patient. Thanks, honey!

Monarch chrysalis  on napkin

Not any more: Monarch chrysalis on napkin. Now my caterpillars will have their own place to go chrysalis. Photo by Monika Maeckle

My Mariposario and new wildlife garden has made the long, circuitous, multi-generation trip worthwhile.   As we finish up the landscaping with help from Charles Bartlett and Albert del Rio of Green Haven Industries, I am FINALLY getting my own place to do my butterflying.

In the coming months, I’ll be posting photos and dispatches from the garden and my spanking new Mariposario–a fancy potting shed made literally from river rocks and hog panel.  Architects are not keen on showing a project when it’s not-quite-finished because often the photos don’t do their work justice.  I can’t resist offering a quick peek, though, as I know that fellow gardeners much appreciate how projects grow and evolve.   So here you go.

Mariposario April 2015

Mariposario: This is where the caterpillars will live. Can’t wait to install some milkweed and passion vine along the gabion wall of this final butterfly garden at our downtown home. Photo by Monika Maeckle

It’s almost done, and it’s quite special.  Our son chose gabion panels as the building material, a riff off the style fencing we used for our new home.  Made of metal, Texas river rocks, and hog panel, it creates privacy and security in an area of San Antonio riddled with vandalism and revelers.

This special place made of earth, rocks and metal will serve as a place for my tools, for my caterpillars, my family and for me. It joins our Llano River ranch and all wild spaces in between as the collective location of the Texas Butterfly Ranch.

I look forward to sharing it with you.

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Let the Migration Begin: Milkweeds Sprout as Monarch Butterflies Arrive in Texas

Monarch butterflies left their roosts in Michoacán, Mexico, on March 24 in what appears to be their latest departure on record, citizen science organization Journey North reported this week.   “”Hundreds of Monarchs are flying over Angangueo—right now—with a clear direction northward!” the organization’s Michoacán-based correspondent Estela Moreno  relayed in their weekly migration newsletter.

Worn migrant Monarch

Migrant Monarch on verbena. Note how the tattered wings and faded color. Photo by Carol Clark

As is their fashion, the butterflies typically leave their roosts around the Spring Equinox and head north, making initial migratory stops in Texas.   Since the butterflies will ONLY lay their eggs on Asclepias species, that is, various milkweeds, conditions here determine  future generations’ success.   This year, with a late start following a wet, mild winter, they’ll find a bounty of wildflowers waiting and milkweed just beginning to sprout.

“I just returned from outdoors and checking my pots,” Carol Clark, a Monarch butterfly follower in Dallas relayed via email on Thursday.  “My large potted Asclepias viridis from last year finally has sprouts today–just in time.”

Monarch on lantana

Wildflowers besides milkweed like this native lantana are also important to Monarchs and other pollinators as nectar sources. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Mary Kennedy, a longtime volunteer for the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project (MLMP) here in San Antonio, provided this report: “I spotted the first milkweed in my yard day before yesterday. If I have 20 milkweed plants, see 10 monarchs, find 15 eggs, and see any of them make it to fifth instars without being eaten by fire ants, that will be a great year!”

Kip Kiphardt, MLMP volunteer in Boerne, offered that the first milkweeds were sprouting at the Cibolo Nature Center just outside San Antonio on March 28.  “Just came up,” he said.  And Chuck Patterson, from Driftwood, Texas, reported that Antelope Horns milkweed, Asclepias Asperula, was three – four inches tall in some locations.

Antelop Horns, Asclepias asperula

Milkweed in Driftwood, Texas was three-four-inches tall on March 28. Photo by Chuck Patterson

While Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, said it was too early to make predictions about the 2015 Monarch season, Austin entomologist and Austin Butterfly Forum president Mike Quinn reminded us that that cool weather in Texas usually benefits Monarchs. “This should be good news,” he said.  He explained that mild temps “slow down their larval predators and the exhaustion of their adult lipid reserves.”

If 2015 turns out to be a good year for the Monarch population or not remains to be seen. There’s no doubt, however, that this year will reap continued political tumult.

After their worst year in history followed by a 70% rebound in 2014, the butterflies have taken center stage in pollinator advocacy and habitat restoration circles in recent months. A petition submitted last August requesting they be listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act continues to be debated.  Strong reactions have resulted–from lawsuits by the National Resource Defense Council taking the EPA to task for dragging its feet on Monarch protection to admirable public-private partnerships like the $3.2 million in federal grants announced recently by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Here in Texas, the State Comptroller’s office recently announced the appointment of San Antonio water hero and endangered species expert Dr. Robert Gulley to head a task force that will assess the financial consequences of endangered species listings on the state.   The Monarch butterfly will be one of five species on which the task force will focus.

Swamp milkweed

Who’s winning? Soil grown Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, on the left. Hydroponic milkweed on the right. Photo by Monika Maeckle

In the meantime, scientists, citizen scientists, nature lovers and gardeners have all awakened to the fact that we can each help sustain the Monarch butterfly migration by planting clean, chemical-free, preferably native milkweeds. Asclepias as a native wildflower is considered undesireable by some, and not everyone agrees on the appropriateness of the Monarchs’ favorite, Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica. No one, however, contests the fact that pollinator habitat in the form of native and pocket prairies featuring appropriate indigenous plants must be made a priority.

Here at the Texas Butterfly Ranch, we’ve been experimenting with Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, with our friends at Local Sprout to assemble Monarch and milkweed kits for sale later this spring. Our friend Mitch Hagney and I have waged a contest to see who could get Swamp milkweed growing faster, better, soonest.  Scarified seeds were planted hydroponically by Hagney and in soil by me on February 10. Hard to say who’s winning the growth contest–you decide, see above.

Like many, as a safeguard, I have planted and overwintered the reliable Tropical milkweed.   Detractors have their concerns, but I’m a huge fan and provide the host plant in my downtown San Antonio garden.  Leaves are lush on those I overwintered, after slashing them to the ground in December as recommended.

Tropical milkweed

Tropical milkweed looking good, ready for Monarch butterfly eggs. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, Native Plant Society, San Antonio Botanical Garden and your local gardening and conservation organizations will be staging plant sales in the next few weeks.   These pop-up plant sales often feature the hard-to-find, coveted native milkweeds.   Keep an eye out for the sales and grab them while you can.  Like the Monarchs, we have to take what we can get.

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Late-but-Great Wildflowers to Greet Monarchs and other Pollinators

A banner wildflower season will greet Monarch butterflies when they begin their migratory trek north later this month. The slow soak of winter has set the stage for a late-but-great bloom season. According to Journey North, a citizen scientist organization which tracks the migrating insects, roosting Monarchs are unlikely to leave their roosts in the forests of  Michoacán until March 29, about two weeks behind schedule.

Monarchs in MIchoacaán

Monarchs are taking their time leaving their roosts in Michoacán. Photo via Journey North

That’s probably a good thing, since  the Monarchs’ host plant, milkweed, is JUST beginning to sprout in Texas.  Texas is the Monarchs’ first stop on their multi-generation, Pan-American migratory journey north and typically the first generation in the butterflies’  spring migration is born in the Lone Star State.

The Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center released its annual wildflower forecast last week, predicting a delayed start to a “stunning” season.

bluebonnets

Won’t be long and bluebonnet stands like this one in Big Bend will dot the Texas Hill Country. Give it two weeks. Photo via Ladybird Johnson Wildfower Center

“It’s going to be good,” said horticulturist Andrea DeLong-Amaya, Senior Program Coordinator for the Center. DeLong-Amaya cited well-paced rains that benefit all wildflowers, especially annuals with shallow roots. Some plants will be “a teeny bit late, others right on time,” she said, adding “as soon we get some warm days with full sun, we’ll be cooking with gas.”

On a recent bike ride on San Antonio’s Mission Reach, bluebonnet rosettes were abundant but not quite showing. “At this point there are no large patches,” said Lee Marlowe, sustainable landscape superintendent at San Antonio River Authority (SARA), which manages the linear park. “We’re seeing some good bluebonnet stands that should be really nice, probably in April,” she said.

Over at the San Antonio Botanical Garden (SABOT), horticulturist Amanda Wielgosh also predicted a great wildflower season. She credited ideal precipitation and cool temps as reasons. “We’re already seeing a nice display of wildflowers here at the garden,” she said.

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“It’s looking absolutely spectacular,” out in Bandera County outside San Antonio, said botanist and horticulturist Charles Bartlett, president of Greenhaven Industries, a San Antonio landscaping company. Bartlett visited his ranch in Bandera County last week and reported fields of three-five acres of Indian paintbrush with grand stands of bluebonnets in the bud stage. He also mentioned that the Texas buckeyes in Medina County are gorgeous, but that milkweed is taking its time.

Both DeLong-Amaya and Marlowe reported that milkweed is not quite ready and a weekend HIll Country outing to the Llano River confirmed the laid-back growth pace of the Monarch’s host plant.

Monarch butterfly, recently hatched, readies for flight on mulch at the Museum Reach Milkweed patch. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch butterfly, recently hatched, readies for flight on mulch at the Museum Reach Milkweed patch. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“It’s still pretty early for milkweeds to come out–they don’t have a rosette in the spring like others, they just come up,” DeLong-Amaya said. At Cibolo Nature Center in Boerne, Ben Eldredge reported that no milkweeds were up yet, but plenty of nectar plants are available. Bartlett cited four-inch tall Antelope Horns, a Texas native milkweed found out in the campo, but mentioned it was just beginning to bud. The more refined atmosphere of the SABOT coaxed milkweeds to show early. SABOT’s Wielgosh said “a plethora of milkweed” will be ready for Monarchs when they arrive later this month.

Trimmed Tropical milkweed at the Milkweed Patch on the San Antonio River Museum Reach.  Not much flying--yet.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Trimmed Tropical milkweed at the Milkweed Patch on the San Antonio River Museum Reach. Not much flying–yet. Nice lantanas there on the sidewalk.Photo by Monika Maeckle

At the Milkweed Patch at San Antonio’s Museum Reach, a favorite gathering spot for Monarchs and other butterflies, the Tropical Milkweed stand got a trim this winter and has not fully recovered. Marlowe said the plant, while technically not native but a preferred host plant to Monarchs and other milkweed feeders, was cut back in February to stimulate healthy growth. A recent visit there found a freshly hatched local Monarch resting in the mulch getting ready for her first flight.

Bastard Cabbage

Damn you, bastard cabbage! This invader displaces wildflowers and other native vegetation. Photo courtesy SARA

One plant that’s pervasive but unwelcome is the ubiquitous “bastard cabbage.” You’ll see this yellow blooming member of the mustard family all over Central Texas and in select spots along the river. According to Dr. Kelly Lyons, a native grass and invasive species expert who teaches plant ecology at Trinity University, our warmer winters make plants like bastard cabbage flourish.  “As our climate gets more Mediterranean, we’ll see more of it,” she said.

Marlowe said she would even look the other way if someone yanked it out when strolling the river. Managing bastard cabbage continues to vex SARA’s landscape managers.

While the yellow blooms are attractive enough, don’t be fooled. This extremely aggressive invader can grow five feet tall and will take over and displace native vegetation.

As the sun comes out we’ll be in for the Big Bloom of 2015.  In the meantime, keep in mind that Texas is still in a drought.  Summer will be here soon enough, so enjoy the mild weather–and the wildflowers–while you can.

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Marine Biologist Launches App to Track Monarch Butterflies on Oil Rigs in Gulf

monarchsonrope

Monarch butterflies resting on an oil rig rope in the Gulf of Mexico in Oct.-Dec.  1993. Photo courtesy Dr. Gary Noel Ross

“The experience on the rig was certainly an unforgettable one…to see the cloud coming from all around in a mass that settled on every available space from the top of the derrick to the floors. Everything was covered…. There were butterflies on top of butterflies. The deck hands were busy with wash-down hoses and had to keep it up to be able to handle the gear while drilling. Some of the older hands said it was a yearly occurrence in the area.”

 –Mrs. Hylma Gordon of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, as told to  Bryant Mather and published in News of the Lepidopterists’ Society (July/August 1990), No. 4, page 59:

Dr. Tracy Villareal is atypical in the butterfly world.   He’s a PhD–but not in entomology.  He’s a butterfly breeder–but as a marine biologist at the University of Texas at Austin, he spends his days looking at small marine plants called phytoplankton
rather than coaxing caterpillars to morph to the next stage. Dr. Villareal and his partner Dr. Barbara Dorf, who serves as a Fishery Biologist at

Dr. Tracy Villareal, courtesy photo

Dr. Tracy Villareal, courtesy photo

Texas Parks and Wildlife Dept. along the Gulf, operate the Big Tree Butterflies farm in Rockport, Texas, when they’re not pulling duty at their full-time jobs.

So it seems the perfect marriage of passion and profession for Villareal to develop an app to track Monarch butterflies crossing the ocean–that is, the Gulf of Mexico.  “As an oceanographer I can’t bring much to bear in the terrestrial world, but this is flying over water,” he said in a series of conversations discussing his latest project.

As if migrating 3,000 miles were not impressive enough, evidence suggests that Monarch butterflies, like the ruby-throated hummingbird, cross the vast 450+ mile expanse of the Gulf of Mexico each year to make their famous trek to Michoacán in the mountains of Mexico.   Another scientist, Baton Rouge-based Gary Noel Ross, who holds a PhD in entomology,  documented the existence of myriad Monarch roosts on oil rigs as late as 1993.

Dr. gary Noel Ross, courtesy photo

Dr. Gary Noel Ross, courtesy photo

Dr. Villareal heard about the ocean crossings via the DPLX list, a listserv for butterfly enthusiasts, and began researching the idea of verifying whether or not the phenom continues today.

Given the lack of population on oil rigs, Dr. Villareal figured the best way to collect data would be to develop a very simple app that oil rig workers, fisher persons, even helicopter pilots might use to collect data on the whereabouts of Monarch butterflies. The app would register and automatically geolocate the datapoint, which would load to the cloud and populate a map, providing a real-time picture of where Monarchs are congregating at sea.  The app would work in a similar fashion to the well-utilized Journey North app, but it could go global and would be cloud-, rather than server-based.

“This needs to be as simple as possible,” said Dr. Villareal by phone.  “I don’t want (oil company) management out there telling people this is too distracting.”

But will oil rig workers take the time to contribute citizen science data? It wouldn’t be the first time.

Photos published in the Southern Lepidopterist Society newsletter by Dr. Ross, taken in the 90s, show oil rig workers netting butterflies. See below.

Oil rig workers tagging Monarch butterflies

Oil rig workers netting and tagging Monarch butterflies in October 1991. Photo via Southern Lepidopterist Society Newsletter

Dr. Ross supports the introduction of technology to the phenomenon he labeled the “Trans Gulf Express.”

“Technology has a lot to offer for field biologists,” said Dr. Ross via email, adding that if Dr. Villareal’s project gets underway and the app widely embraced, good data will be harvested that can be easily analyzed using digital tools.  “At the time of my work I had to rely on helicopter pilots and rig workers calling in to me at my location,” he recalled.  Dr. Ross offered that he personally thinks that Monarchs continue to cross the Gulf.

Monarch butterflies resting on oil rig rail in Oct. - Nov. 1993.  Photo courtesy Dr. Gary Noel Ross

Monarch butterflies resting on oil rig rail in Oct. – Nov. 1993. Photo courtesy Dr. Gary Noel Ross

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, the University of Kansas-based citizen scientist program that tags Monarch butterflies, agrees.

“As long as there are Monarchs, they will appear from time to time on rigs in the Gulf,” said Dr. Taylor.  Dr. Taylor and Monarch Watch are partners in the venture, kicking off a fundraising effort to raise $8,000 for Villareal’s app with a $4,000 matching grant–half the total.  The funds will be used to take the app beyond the development phase.  “It may help us learn more about the how and why,” said Dr. Taylor. “The survival question will be more difficult to answer,” he said.

Monarchs on oil rigs app

Dr. Tracy Villareal’s app will track Monarch butterflies on oil rigs. Click on over and help raise the needed funds to take the app out of the beta stage.

Want to help?   Check out the fundraising campaign, Tracking Monarch Butterflies on Offshore Oil Platforms, which launched today on Hornraiser, a University of Texas- sponsored crowd funding platform. 

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Wildly Successful: Pollinator PowWow Draws Hundreds from Texas and Beyond

Icy roads and freezing rain couldn’t stop more than 200 people from making their way to the second annual Pollinator PowWow in Austin this weekend. The all-day gathering of pollinator advocates and native plant evangelists gathered at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center on Saturday for a full day of education, enlightenment and wisdom sharing.

bee_pollen_macro

Pollen is protein, nectar is carbs–who knew? And bees are master pollinators. –photo via http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/

Organizer and moderator Carrie McLaughlin opened the session by explaining the deliberate naming of the event.   “A powwow is a gathering of the people to listen to wise words,” she told the packed house, who arrived from five states and 49 Texas counties.   “It’s a joining of the tribes to hear the elders speak,” she said.

Carrie McLaughlin

Carrie McLaughlin, PowWow Moderator

And so it was.  Nine presentations ran like clockwork (well-done, organizers!) and about two dozen exhibitors filled the hall frequented by attendees during the breaks.

Michael Warriner, non game and rare species program leader for Texas Parks & Wildlife, kicked off the schedule with a fascinating overview of native bees in Texas.   While I consider myself relatively well-informed about pollinators, I learned a lot–like this fun fact:  nectar is sugar and pollen is protein. Hadn’t put that one together.   Or: not all bees build social hives, many are loners.

Then Dr. Rebecca Quiñonez-Piñón stepped up to the mic to share the admirable work of  Forests for Monarchs, a nonprofit organization that works with local Mexican populations in La Cruz, Mexico, to reforest the Monarch butterfly roosting sites with native oyamel fir and pine seedlings.   As executive director of the organization, Dr. Quiñonez-Piñón did an eloquent job explaining the needs of local Mexican people to earn a living and warm their homes in the face of environmental pressures to preserve the forest and the Monarch butterfly migration.  “The need for wood is not going to decrease,” she said.  Forests for Monarchs has planted eight million trees since 1997.

Pollinator PowWow

Hundreds braved the ice and cold to attend the Pollinator PowWow at Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin. Photo by Mike Quinn, TexasEnto.net

Perhaps one of the most entertaining sessions featured Randy Johnson, an Aggie that works overtime as the horticulture manager of the Dallas zoo and owner of  Randy Johnson Organics in Mesquite, Texas.

Johnson charmed the crowd with his deep knowledge and undisputed passion for native plants and disdain for invasive species:  “By plane or tractor, it don’t matter,” he said in his deep Southern drawl, offering caution on how unacceptable species and chemicals encroach on the natural world.  Johnson compared losing native species to randomly taking parts off a car. “First you lose the visor.  Then the door handle….”   Next thing you know the transmission is out and the car–or the ecosystem–won’t function.

After the lunch break, Dr. Merlin Tuttle, the founder of Bat Conservation International, presented on the importance of bats as pollinators.   The unfairly feared, grossly misunderstood creatures are important pollinators of agaves, fruit trees and other plants.  They also consume monumental amounts of crop damaging insects in their night flights.   Dr. Tuttle, who continues to speak all over the world on behalf of bats, announced the launch of his new website, http://merlintuttle.org/. and the fact that bat photos published there are available to download and use free of charge. 

Merlin Tuttle website

Bat evangelist and BAt Conservation International Founder Dr. Merlin Tuttle announced the launch of his new webpage at the Pollinator PowWow. Photo via www.merlintuttle.com

Later in the afternoon, attendees heard about the ecological and pollinating services provided by birds from urban wildlife biologist Brett Johnson of Texas Parks and Wildlife. Dr. Shalene Jha, of the University of Texas at Austin’s integrative biology department, explained pollination mutualisms–that is, the interconnectedness of plants with the insects and/or animals that inhabit our various ecosystems.

Dr. Shalene Jha

Dr. Shalene Jha, of UT Austin, discussed the “mutualisms” of pollinators. Photo by Mike Quinn, Texasento.net

Those of us with ranch land were intrigued to hear from Ricky Linex, wildlife biologist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service that conversions of ranch or farm land to pollinator habitat might be eligible for various financial and technical assistance programs offered by the state.

In Linex’s session, “Farm Bill Programs for Pollinators,” acronyms ran rampant–EQIP, WHIP, CCRP and many more.   I’ll be looking into these.   Linex also “unofficially” shared news of a $5 million project for habitat management on grazing lands.   “Details are coming soon,” he said.

Finally, Ben Eldredge, Director of Education at the Cibolo Nature Center & Farm in Boerne just outside San Antonio, presented on the decline of the Monarch butterfly migration.  Introduced by McLaughlin as “our maverick,” Eldredge focused on how glyphosate–commonly known as Round-Up–contributes immensely to Monarch decline, especially in the midwestern corn belt, and how agricultural practices will need to change if that decline is to stop.    The notion can make some ag folks–and purveyors of pesticides and the service industry that delivers them–uncomfortable.

“If we’re going to get serious about pollinator conservation, then some agricultural practices are going to have to change and it’s going to make some people uncomfortable,” said McLaughlin by phone after the event.

All that fun for only $25.  Feel like you missed out?  McLaughlin says plans are already underway for another  PowWow in Texas later this year, sometime after June.   To tap into pollinator resources, check out the Pollinator PowWow Part2 website.

Have you taken our What Kind of Milkweed Survey?    

Help us convince Color Spot and other commercial growers to offer clean, chemical free milkweed by voting for the species you’d like to see in local nurseries.  Here’s the link and feel free to share the survey.  GRACIAS!

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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.

P.S. Have you taken our What Kind of Milkweed Survey?   Help us convince Color Spot and other commercial growers to offer clean, chemical free milkweed by voting for the species you’d like to see in local nurseries.  Here’s the link and feel free to share the survey.  GRACIAS!

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