Success! Petition spurs rangers’ reinstatement at Monarch butterfly roosting forest

Three park rangers have been redeployed to patrol one of the most visited Monarch butterfly overwintering sites in Mexico after having been summarily reassigned elsewhere following the end of the 2017 ecotourism season. The return of the rangers follows the launch of a Change.org petition that gathered 2,088 signatures in three weeks.

Monarch butterflies in Cerro Pelon, Michoacan, Mexico

Cerro Pelón in the state of Mexico near Macheros.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

“Victory! The Rangers Are Back on Cerro Pelón,” Dr. Ellen Sharp wrote to those who signed the petition she launched June 16. Sharp thanked those who lent their signatures to the cause and noted the three rangers are back in action, working to prevent illegal logging from undermining the protective ecosystem of the butterfly forest.

“The petition did not have anything to do with the return of the rangers,” said Eduardo Rendon-Salinas, of the World Wildlife Fund Mexico, via email. “That was an instruction of the CEPANAF (National Park Service) Director since June 19th, when we had a meeting to analyze that issue.”

In other words, three days after the launch of the petition. Sharp’s brother-in-law, Patricio Moreno, relayed that the rangers returned to work on July 4. Requests for comment from CONABIO, the Mexican government’s national commission on biodiversity, went unanswered.

Sharp launched the Protect the Monarch Butterfly Forest: Bring Back the Rangers! petition with an email to the D-PLEX, a listserv of about 800 scientists, citizen scientists, conservationists, enthusiasts, and others that follow Monarch butterfly news.

“My husband Joel, who grew up on the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, says that nobody cares about the Monarch butterfly forest when the butterflies aren’t there,” Sharp wrote in a post shared with”As if to prove his point, the only full time forest rangers employed at the Cerro Pelón sanctuary were permanently transferred to another site as soon as the Monarchs left this season.”

Illegal logging continues at Cerro Pelón, but is less common when rangers patrol the sanctuary. Photo by Ellen Sharp

Sharp took to social media asking people to sign and share the petition. She pointed out that illegal logging of the butterfly forest had increased visibly in the absence of daily security. More than 30 trees had been felled, just around her home and the J&M Butterfly B&B she and her husband Joel Moreno own and operate with his family at the entrance of Cerro Pelón.

The rangers had patrolled and protected this second most visited roosting site for 30 years.  Until April.

After the last of the tourists returned from their horseback treks up the mountain and packed their bags to close out the 2017 ecotourism season, the three park rangers charged with patrolling the forest in the reserve’s core zone were reassigned elsewhere.  Monarch tourism season typically runs November – March.  Someone somewhere decided that paying rangers in the off-season was an unnecessary expense.

Patricio Moreno

Patricio Moreno, park ranger at Cerro Pelón, is back on the job. Photo courtesy Ellen Sharp

We all know that crimes happen more often when no one is watching. At night, we lock the doors and leave the front porch light on. You wouldn’t leave your front door wide open upon departing for long vacation, so why would those responsible for protecting the Monarch butterfly roosting sites leave it vulnerable and unprotected for months at a time?

That’s the question posed by Sharp, whose education and training as a cultural anthropologist shape her perspective on Cerro Pelón as much as her union with Joel Moreno.

Dr. Ellen J. Sharp

Moreno was born in the house that became the B&B. He grew up in Macheros, the local town that is home to Cerro Pelón and helps run the business. He also serves as a butterfly tour guide for visitors. Moreno’s father, Melquiades, worked as a forest ranger at the Cerro Pelón sanctuary for decades. His brother, Patricio, known as Pato, took over the job and knows the community well.

The forest is personal to Sharp and Moreno. And with no one minding it, the couple noticed and documented an increase in illegal logging in the wake of absent rangers. That’s when Sharp assembled the petition.

Sharp brings a rich and informed take to the situation. An educated, well-traveled gringa who earned a PhD in anthropology at UCLA, she wrote her dissertation on vigilante justice in Guatemala. She shares our popular concern for the Monarch butterfly migration, but she pushes it further, advocating on behalf of the people who live full-time among the butterflies, including her own family. Sharp and Moreno formed Butterflies and their People, an associacion civil, the Mexican version of a nonprofit organization, to bring attention to this population, often left behind in the conservation and reforestation efforts in Mexico.

Joel Moreno leads tours at Cerro Pelón and co-owns the J&M Butterfly B&B with Ellen Sharp. Photo courtesy Ellen Sharp

Sharp spoke recently at the 2017 Texas Pollinator PowWow, offering a provocative perspective on the roosting sites and the people who live there.  “People continue to cut down the forest,” she told the crowd in May. Citing a lack of transparency and no accountability of the millions of dollars funneled by well-intentioned nonprofits to Monarch butterfly and forest conservation, Sharp brings a needed social justice perspective to the growing interest in Monarch butterfly conservation. Read more about Sharp and Moreno’s work here.

By coincidence, design, or at the behest of digital activism, it’s heartening to see this positive turn. A bad decision has been highlighted and reversed. 2,088 more people are engaged in Monarch butterfly forest conservation. Kudos to Sharp and Moreno for calling it to our attention.

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Fungus among us: Wildroot Organic praises the magic of mycorrhizal fungi

David Steinbrunner remembers the exact moment he decided to go organic. The Texas A&M University football quarterback and horticulture major and a fellow student were tasked with tending the campus pecan orchard in 1979. Their assignment: spray the trees for pecan weevils.

Teresa's salvia

Teresa’s Salvia: Wildroot Organic founder David Steinbrunner named a special pink salvia he developed after his wife and cofounder Teresa. Photo by David Steinbrunner

Steinbrunner and his partner gathered their large scale sprayer, filled it with zolone, a pesticide no longer sold in the United States, and made their way to the orchard. They dutifully spritzed the limbs and leaves of the pecan trees. Afterward, they removed their protective gear and washed off.

Soon they began to hear strange thuds. Steinbrunner thought maybe some pecans were dropping. Slowly, steadily, birds, insects and other former living creatures dropped from the trees to the ground. “Every crow, every bird, every lizard….Every living thing in that orchard was killed,” the 60-old horticulturist told a crowd of about 50 Bexar County Master Gardeners at the recent monthly meeting in San Antonio.

The Silent Spring moment moved Steinbrunner to swear off dousing chemicals on the earth and embrace organic approaches to landscaping and gardening. Since 1982, he and his wife Teresa have operated Steinbrunner Landscaping. After working closely with mycorrhizal fungi in his landscaping business and seeing dramatic success, Steinbrunner worked with Dr. Michael Amaranthus, a pioneer in mycorrhizal fungi research to develop a premium, proprietary concentrate of the fungi. In 2014, the couple launched Wildroot Organic, Inc. a local producer and supplier of the natural treatment, as well as an organic fertilizer. The agriculture and gardening community’s warm reception of their organic concentrates has led them to become especially particular about which landscaping jobs they accept. The fungi business takes up all their time.

Mycorrhizal fungi has gained attention lately as part of the organic and sustainable agriculture movement. The word comes from the Greek  mykos, “fungus,” and rhiza, “root” and represents the symbiotic relationship between a specific kind of fungus and the roots of a vascular host plant. More than 90% of plants on earth use or need mycorrhizal fungus to thrive. Mycorrhizae exist naturally in healthy soils, but drought, development, overgrazing, compacting, pollutants, and other detriments can kill the living organisms. Wildroot aims to replenish what would normally occur in a healthy situation–kind of like using probiotics for indigestion.

Teresa and David Steinbrunner of Boerne’s Wildroot Organics at a recent trade show. Courtesy photo

The product consists of a grayish, powdered dust that includes millions of live microbes, spores and bacteria. Mix a small scoop with water and put the solution in contact with a plant’s roots. Then wait for the “friendly fungi” solution to go to work on behalf of the plant.

The mycorrhizae will establish an underground spore colony that works unseen and  overtime transporting nutrients and moisture to the roots, says Steinbrunner. In exchange, the plant sends carbohydrates to the mycorrhizae, fueling its growth and expansion. Steinbrunner says that mycorrhizae have been known to extend their colonies more than a mile from their host plant.

Other ways for gardeners to use the mix is to dip potted plants in the solution, or dig a hole to provide access to the root system, says Steinbrenner. Wild root also provides spray mixes and capsules. What’s most important is to make sure the roots have contact with the mycorrhizae. Then watch your plants thrive despite less water, less fertilizer and without chemicals as the fungi builds colonies around the roots, increases soil health and humidity, and even grows straw-like vessels to help move the food and moisture to and from the plant.

“Mycorrhizae spores need a root to survive within about 10 days of germination,” says David Vaughan, a certified arborist with Etter Tree Service in San Antonio who often uses the treatment in tree restorations.  “So best way to get them started is putting the spores with the root.”

If you’ve ever seen thin, white spiderweb like  matter on a plant’s roots or in the compost pile–those are mycorrhizae. I confess to having trashed such matter in ignorance. Never again.

Steinbrunner says we just have to take a cue from Nature. “Just look at a huge oak tree growing by itself in a field. These huge plants. No water, no fertilizer.” The trick is the mycorrhizal fungi, he says.

Steinbrunner shares success stories of turning fallow fields into lush prairies and converting a failing pecan orchard into a premier organic nut producer. He also shares photos of two potted plants, side by side, one treated with mycorrhizal fungus, the other not. The mycorrhizae treated plant has a more robust root system, lusher blooms and greater stem mass.

It’s not a silver bullet that will cure every landscaping ailment, he says. “But it’s a big bullet.”

Have you ever gardened with mycorrhizal fungus? Leave a comment below and let us know.

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Commercially raised Monarch butterfly released in Grapevine, TX makes it to Mexico

They said it couldn’t be done. That a commercially raised Monarch butterfly couldn’t migrate. But Jenny Singleton of the Grapevine Butterfly Flutterby Festival and one commercially grown Monarch proved that a butterfly tagged and released in Texas can find its way 1,114 miles south to join its brothers and sisters in Mexico for the winter.

Grapevine Festival

Is this WGX139? We don’t know, but it IS one of the 710 butterflies released at the Grapevine Flutterby Festival last year. Photo by Jenny Singleton

Monarch WGX139 was raised in a commercial butterfly farm, probably somewhere in Florida.  On Wednesday, October 12, 2016, Connie Hodsdon of Flutterby Gardens in Bradenton shipped more than 500 Monarch butterflies to Grapevine, Texas. The community sits between Dallas and Ft. Worth, right on the IH35 “Monarch Highway.” Each fall during peak Monarch migration season, usually the second or third week in October, Grapevine celebrates its annual Butterfly Flutterby Festival with the release of hundreds of butterflies. This year, the Festival’s 20th, it will take place Saturday, October 14.

Bradenton’s box full of Monarchs, each packed in individual glycine envelopes and surrounded by protective styrofoam and ice packs, arrived for last year’s festivities on Thursday, October 13. Butterfly wranglers Jenny Singleton and other volunteers tagged the butterflies upon their arrival, then moved them to a large, open air cage where sliced oranges and watermelon awaited. Singleton and her crew regularly spritzed the butterflies with water throughout the day on Friday to keep them hydrated. Fresh fruit was replenished as needed while the butterflies awaited their Saturday debut.

Tagged Monarchs await their release at the Grapevine Flutterby Festival. Photo by Jenny Singleton

Starting at 10 AM on Saturday, Festival-goers arrived for a costumed parade, butterfly crafts and exhibits, a “migration station,” face painting and more at the Grapevine Botanical Gardens. Monarch butterfly releases occurred hourly in the morning, and children of all ages vied for the limited supply, often waiting in line to receive an envelope which contained one of hundreds of Monarchs ordered specifically for the occasion. The release ceremony finished with a countdown–three, two, one. Off they go! WGX139 was among the flyers.

WGX139 arrived in Mexico more than a thousand miles later, at almost 8,500 feet in altitude. It was recovered 138 days after its release at the El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Preserve in Michoacán, Mexico, on March 2, 2017.

The amazing journey challenges what Monarch butterfly scientists have been saying for years: commercially raised Monarch butterflies do not migrate.

The conventional wisdom has always been that butterflies coddled in a laboratory setting with ideal conditions such as infinite amounts of milkweed and protection from predators likely would not develop the Darwinian skill set to migrate to Mexico. Scientists have also bandied about different theories about how important the sun’s cues are, and how they are tied to a butterfly’s location and the ambient temperature to which they are accustomed. More than one scientist has told me that a butterfly raised in Florida and released in Texas would never make it to Mexico.

In addition, it’s likely that WGX139 was not raised on milkweed. Bradenton’s butterflies often consume Calatropis gigantea or Calatropis procera, members of the dogbane family. Butterfly breeders sometimes use this African native because it has such enormous leaves and provides ample fodder for hungry caterpillars. It has similar chemical properties to milkweed.

“That’s a pretty interesting event,” said Dr. Lincoln Brower, one of the foremost Monarch butterfly experts in the world. “It shows that they’re adapting to local conditions in Texas, otherwise they wouldn’t get to Mexico.”

Incredible journey for an international traveler? WGX139 likely traveled from Florida to Michoacán–2,277 miles from birth to roosting sites. Map via Google

“That’s interesting. That’s very interesting,” said Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of the University of Kansas’ Monarch Watch tagging program used by Singleton and thousands of others who participate in the citizen science initiative. “I imagine a few will do it, but I can’t imagine very many of them will do it. It depends on how you handle them and what the temperatures are when they’re released.”

Dr. Karen Oberhauser of Monarch Joint Venture doesn’t think that a single Monarch making it to Mexico should dismiss concerns of disease and the other perceived threats caused by commercial butterfly rearing and mass releases. When asked to comment, she directed us to a webpage devoted to the dangers of captive breeding and mass releases–disease, dilution of the gene pool, and interference with scientific studies of population dynamics. WGX139’s international travels and arrival in Mexico “doesn’t really argue against these concerns,” said Oberhauser via email.

Monarch caterpillars on Calatropis, a member of the dogbane family. Photo by Connie Hodsdon

Dr. Sonia Altizer of Project Monarch Health at the University of Georgia, was also skeptical. “I agree that some growers are attentive to disease management, which is encouraging to see.  But others are not – and the concerns about disease extend to butterfly enthusiasts who rear Monarchs in large numbers but for no commercial gain.  Hopefully as more people become aware of OE and other diseases, and how to prevent them, the rearing conditions will improve, but my general impression is that there are many more productive ways people can help Monarchs aside from rearing.”

Citizen scientist Singleton has her own theories. She believes some of the butterflies from the Festival lingered to nectar on local flowers and to wait for the wind to shift. Singleton, who was tagging Monarchs back when they still used glue to adhere them to the wings, said she found several Festival-tagged Monarchs in her yard.

Grapevine Flutterby Festival wrangler Jenny Singleton with her grandson, Davis Berg. Photo by Peggy Moore

“I found four or five tagged butterflies from the Festival on my bushes three weeks later,” she said. “I think they hung out and nectared and caught those southbound winds,” said Singleton, recalling “big southern winds for two weeks” in late October.

Connie Hodson, the butterfly breeder who supplied the bulk of the livestock to the Festival, is delighted to know that WGX139 made it to the Mexican mountains.  “Not only are our butterflies OE free, they’re super intelligent,” said Hodsdon by phone, referring to Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, the unpronounceable spore-driven disease that often finds Monarchs in crowded conditions.

Hodsdon prides herself on a clean operation and runs her Flutterby Gardens (no formal association with the Grapevine Butterfly Flutterby Festival) with the help of seven seasonal staff from her home on a one-acre lot just north of Sarasota. “We’re realy proud of our butterflies,” she said. “Our butterflies are an asset.”

Hodsdon supplied the bulk of Monarchs for our Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival in San Antonio last year. We ordered more than 500 Denaus plexippus from her for our October 22 event, which was modeled after the Flutterby Festival.

David Berman

David Berman, PhD candidate at Oklahoma State University, is studying late generation Monarch butterflies and parasitoids. Photo by Monika Maeckle

None of our Monarchs were recovered in Mexico, but 20 of them were netted about two miles downstream. Graduate student David Berman from the University of Oklahoma happened to be in town that day performing a study on fifth instar Monarch butterflies to try to determine how late generations might affect the migration.

According to Berman, 20 butterflies tagged at our Festival on October 22 were netted on the San Antonio River a day later, October 23. None of them had OE, which is one of the major concerns scientists have for commercially raised Monarchs.

That’s because breeders like Hodsdon run a tight shop. She is meticulous and even bleaches the plants that the butterflies eat to rid their food of potential spores, virus or bacteria. Hodsdon teaches a course on how to raise OE-free Monarchs to professional butterfly breeders via the International Butterfly Breeders Association. Her process includes rounds of bleaching, sanitary conditions,

Flutterby Gardens flighthouse in Bradenton, Florida. Photo by Connie Hodsdon

gloves and passion mixed with pragmatism. “Because every Florida Monarch I found in the wild tested positive for OE,” she said. “And not just a little, a lot of OE.” Hodsdon’s appreciation for butterflies is not limited to Monarchs. She raises 20 different species, shipping thousands out each week during high season. “And I’m not getting rich, because it takes so much work,” she said.

So if commercially bred Monarch butterflies can migrate and responsible breeders can raise them disease free, is it possible they could be tapped to bolster the declining migratory population?

The science is unfinished on that, but one can always hope.

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RIP: The all too short life of a gnarly pecan tree

I can’t recall another Saturday morning that began with sawdust in my coffee. That was the salute and send-off for one of our favorite pecans trees, a 42-year-old that fell to the gales of Tuesday night’s storm.

The squirrels will miss the gnarly pecan’s handy rest stop. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The gnarly example of Carya illinoinensis had taken some hits in its short life. For most of four decades, it thrived mostly unattended in an empty lot a block from the river in downtown San Antonio. It endured wind, freezes, drenching and drought.

In recent years a four-year construction project likely contributed to its demise, opening a wound where bark rot took hold. The strange looking fungus attacked the lean, straight tree, producing large dark brown mushroom bracts that jutted sideways from its bark like so many convenient shelves. When gardening I would often lay my pruning shears on the handy natural shelf. Squirrels found the fungi ledges an ideal sitting spot, a well-placed bench to rest or enjoy a pecan from the tree’s regular alternate year crops.

Where are my pruning shears? Photo by Monika Maeckle

Many evenings our family sat on the front porch and enjoyed the squirrels chasing each other across the yard. In the spring, they pounced from limb to limb in a courtship chase as mockingbirds tweeted their aggressive evening calls and titmice jockeyed for spots on the bird feeder. Not only did the squirrels use the gnarly pecan as a midpoint rest stop, its location in the middle of the yard made for a common place to jump.

The entrance to our home accommodated this tree with a u-shaped detour around its young, broad trunk. Family and visitors respected it by walking around it. We all enjoyed its shade and oily autumn fruits, marveled at its mushroom shelves and appreciated its yellow tassels in the spring. The annoying yellow catkins, the male flowers of the pecan, litter the sidewalk but their messy appearance assures future fruits.

Gnarly pecan tart is a holiday tradition at our house. Creme fraiche optional. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Each fall, we gather dozens of pounds of nuts from the gnarly pecan and its siblings in our yard and along the river. Pecan tarts and a special snack mix follow shortly thereafter.

Last Tuesday’s storm put an end to the gnarly pecan. Around 7 PM after the winds died down, I looked out the front window and noticed the tree had tree tipped at a 45-degree angle across the yard. It had uprooted, tipped east and was thankfully  caught by its sister tree, a gesture

View of Tuesday night’s storm damage. Photo by Monika Maeckle

that likely prevented the crash of a nearby power pole in its path. The gnarly tree’s rotted roots were exposed to the sidewalk, making the destruction of the last few years obvious.  Fungus had been composting the dead matter from its inside out, undermining its health and ultimately causing its death.

Bark rot, root rot and high winds were the downfall of the gnarly pecan. Photo by Monika Maeckle

It took several days to locate a certified arborist to tackle the aftermath. Tree people were busy in the wake of the storm. But Saturday morning, Darling and Miguel of Tree Musketeers arrived with their chainsaws, ropes and extension saws to harvest the wood  and restore order to the yard.

We watched as the tree climbers expertly tied ropes and pullies around the healthy limbs of the sister tree to catch falling branches of the fatally injured pecan. No gutters were damaged, no power lines downed. Over three hours, the tree team dissected the gnarly pecan. Limb by limb, they extricated it from its sister’s arms, brought it gently to the ground, then sliced its 18-inch trunk into hefty logs for firewood. A few select chunks will become treasured sitting stumps on the porch.

Rest in peace, gnarly pecan. We appreciate your service.

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Beyond Monarch butterflies: pollinators and politics at Texas Pollinator PowWow

The fifth Texas Pollinator PowWow assembled in the piney woods of Nacogdoches, Texas, last weekend. About 75 people made their way to Texas’ oldest city to celebrate pollinators in all their forms–syrphid flies, solitary wasps, fireflies, hummingbirds, bears, bats, bees, and yes–Monarch butterflies. The PowWow bills itself as “a gathering of the people to listen to wise words.”

Bees and butterflies get all the press, but Texas Pollinator PowWow celebrated pollinators in all their forms last weekend. Photo by Monika Maeckle

This year, more than a dozen sessions enlightened the crowd on how to attract and better understand pollinators and the ecosystems that sustain them–and in turn, us. Over two days, attendees learned how to build food prairies that boost vegetable garden yields, how and why you should attract solitary wasps to your garden (They keep nonbeneficial insects in check and most don’t sting.), the state of the union of bats, bears and fireflies in Texas, and much more.

Dr. Ellen J. Sharp

Dr. Ellen J. Sharp, a cultural anthropologist who lives at the entrance of Cerro Pelon, one of the most visited Monarch butterfly sanctuaries in Michoacán, Mexico, presented one of the most compelling sessions. Her talk, “Butterflies and their People,” offered a provocative perspective on the roosting sites and the people who share them with our favorite migrating insect.  “People continue to cut down the forest,” Sharp told the crowd on Saturday, citing a lack of transparency and no accountability in management of the forests. “Every time I go hiking I find someone logging.”

Sharp offered a quick history of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve (MBBR), including an explanation of the communal properties known as ejidos, which have rights to the land where the Monarchs roost each winter. The ejidatarios, or managers of the ejidos, are paid by the government to not log in the MBBR–yet people living there must make a living to feed their families and warm their homes.  “Only the ejidatarios are rewarded financially” Sharp said. “Everyone else is effectively disenfranchised.”

Dr. Pablo Jaramillo Lopez, an agroecologist at the National Autonomus University of Mexico, also in Michoacán, echoed Sharp’s sentiments, exploring the continuing conflict of interest between humans and nature, in his session, “The Hope for Monarch Butterflies in North America.”

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“How close can I get to take a selfie?” asked Jaramillo, characterizing the priorities of most visitors to the roosting sites. “Tourists that visit the overwintering Monarch butterfly colonies think that nature is putting on a show for them and do not realize that they are invading a very sensitive natural ecosystem,” said Jaramillo.

In a panel discussion, Dr. Rebecca Quiñonez, a forest hydrologist and executive director of Forests for Monarchs, a nonprofit organization that works with the people of La Cruz, Mexico on reforestation, added that degradation in the MBBR buffer zone is contributing to major environmental decline. All three speakers with direct experience in Mexico expressed concern that Grupo Mexico may soon receive its permit to reopen an abandoned copper mine in the heart of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Preserve. The trio proposed that the only way to conserve this precious area, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is to have complete transparency and accountability in government and fulltime jobs for locals.

On a more upbeat note, the PowWow added two evening field trips to the program for the first time this year.

Carrie McLaughlin

Carrie McLaughlin, PowWow Organizer

On Friday night, PowWow cofounder Carrie McLaughlin assembled a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to collect and record data on bats on an acoustic hike with renown bat expert Merlin Tuttle, founder of Bat Conservation International and more recently Merlin Tuttle’s Bat Conservation, where he makes his extraordinary bat photos available online for use at no charge.

The outing, held at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Experimental Forest a few miles outside town, included a trek down a dirt road lined with pine trees to a natural wallow where mist netting stretched across the water like a bad mitten net. Thirsty bats in the area swooped down to take a sip and were snagged in the net. Biologists and students from Stephen F. Austin State University then waded into the wallow to retrieve the bats for data collection, which included a Q-tip swipe test for white-nosed syndrome, the alarming fungal disease that has decimated the bat population and has just moved into Texas.

Dr. Merlin Tutle

Dr. Merlin Tuttle, worldwide bat expert, examines a red bat at Texas Pollinator PowWow’s Bat Night. Photo by Jeff Dye, Earth Day Texas

“I’m just going to calm this guy down,” said Tuttle, petting a fuzzy, captured Red Bat, as if it were a small kitten. Tuttle seemed unperturbed when the bat nipped at his finger. “Aw. He didn’t even draw blood,” he said.

For decades, the indefatigable Tuttle has worked to undo the image of bats as scary, rabies-carrying, blood-sucking monsters. The red-blooded creatures are actually mostly harmless and perform valuable ecosystem services like eating thousands of insects per hour each night and pollinating our mangos, bananas, cocoa, and agave.

Tuttle’s bat PR seems to be working. Just as in bird or Monarch tagging, opportunities for interspecies connections can be some of the most powerful conduits for understanding. Two young girls waited eagerly at the biologist’s table begging to pet the bats. “They’re so cute!” they cooed.

Leopard Moth

Former woolly bear caterpillar morphs into the lovely Leopard Moth at Texas Pollinator PowWow’s Moth Night in Nacogdoches, Texas. Photo by Monika Maeckle

On Saturday, a Moth Night took place at the SFA Native Plant garden. While city lights and cool temps seemed to keep many moths away, we spotted several impressive species, including the lovely Leopard Moth.

 

When’s the next PowWow? PowWow co-founder and National Resource Conservation Service wildlife biologist Rickey Linex said dates and times are not fixed yet.

“We try to get to every vegetational field in the state,” he said, citing past PowWows in Mansfield, Austin, Lubbock and Kerrville. Perhaps San Angelo or Marfa will be next. Stay tuned.

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Pollinator favorite: Cowpen Daisy plays host to Bordered Patch butterfly

Cowpen Daisy, Verbesina encelioides, goes on the Texas Butterfly Ranch Favorite Species List (FSL). This plant is a rock star.

It starts blooming in March and continues through November. Keep deadheading, and Cowpen Daisy puts out prolific blooms, abundant seeds, and attracts wildlife aplenty. Drought tolerant and comfortable in various soils, Cowpen Daisy, sometimes called golden crown beard or butter daisy, gets its name from its capacity to easily sprout in disturbed areas–like the cowpen.

Early blooming Cowpen Daisy works overtime as host plant to the lovely Bordered Patch butterfly. Photo by Monika Maeckle

You can cut it back short or let it grow tall and gangly to create a flowering hedge. As an annual, the plant grows tall in the sun–up to five or so feet. In partial shade it will stay shorter and bloom less. At the ranch, the plant often pops up under pecan trees where it gets morning sun; it also thrives along the dirt road in the blazing Texas summer.

Cowpen Daisy is a great all-around pollinator plant, attracting a variety of bees and butterflies. It also plays host plant to the Bordered Patch butterfly, Chlosyne lacinia, a highly variable member of the Nymphalidae family. The black, white and orange butterflies

Bees LOVE Cowpen Daisy. And it has a long, low-maintenance blooming season. Photo by Monika Maeckle

lay groups of yellow eggs on the underside of the daisy leaves and other members of the aster family. When the eggs hatch, the caterpillars are gregarious and stick together, decimating small groups of leaves at a time. They morph through their stages quickly from agile orange-and-black spikey (but harmless) caterpillars to interesting tan-and-black mottled chrysalis.

Gregarious Bordered Patch butterflies might strip a stalk of Cowpen Daisy, but no worries–the plant will recover. Photo by Monika Maeckle

This Bordered Patch chrysalis formed on a nearby Swamp milkweed plant in a downtown San Antonio garden. Photo by Monika Maeckle

In the fall, resist the temptation to slash Cowpen Daisy to the ground as its appearance becomes unkempt. Prolific seeds will fall to the ground or become fodder for birds. In the spring, you’ll have dozens of young plants.  They’re easy to pull out, pot up to give away as young seedlings, or leave to compete with each other to provide more gardening fun.

Once you plant Cowpen Daisy, you may never have to do so again.

Save those seeds! YOu’ll have plenty of Cowpen Daisy in the spring if you let them drop. And the birds will be happy, too. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch butterflies frequent Cowpen Daisy in the fall as a nectar source. This picture was taken in October during peak migration week in the Texas Hill Country. PHoto by Monika Maeckle

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Agrawal: Milkweeds don’t need Monarch butterflies, but Monarchs need milkweed

Monarch butterflies and milkweed. We’ve explored the subject many times right here at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. But author Anurag Agrawal’s recently published Monarchs and Milkweed, A Migrating Butterfly, a Poisonous Plant, and their Remarkable Story of Co-evolution adds a new dimension to our understanding of the testy relationship between our favorite migrating butterfly and its poisonous host plant.

Anurag Agrawal, author of Monarchs and Milkweed, released this spring by Princeton University Press  –Courtesy photo

Agrawal, a recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Ecology Award in 2016,  wades far into the milkweeds to make this complicated story highly readable. The Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Sciences and Faculty Fellow at the Atkinson School of a Sustainable Future at Cornell University was the first scientist to suggest that Monarch butterfly conservation might be better served if we looked beyond planting more milkweeds–anything in the Asclepias family. Agrawal proposed increasing late season nectar plants, required by the butterflies in the fall to fuel their migratory flight.

In this beautifully illustrated book, he compares the co-evolution of milkweeds and Monarchs to an “arms race,” a parallel drawn previously by Monarch butterfly expert Lincoln Brower and other scientists. To Monarch butterfly lovers, the metaphor may seem off-putting, perhaps exaggerated. But after reading Agrawal’s detailed explanation of the continuous one-upmanship that occurs between the iconic creature and its host plant, the label makes perfect sense.

One of Agrawal’s most unexpected assertions: “The butterflies are simply no good as pollinators. Monarchs are strictly pests.” With Monarch butterflies bandied about as the poster child for pollinator advocacy in recent years, we naturally assume that the storied migrants are effective pollinators.

But they’re not. Especially for milkweeds, which have an unusual pollinator strategy, similar only to orchids in the natural world. Milkweed pollen is not disseminated by individual pollen grains like those we notice clinging to the bodies of bees.

Polonium

The dangling yellow pollen sac is the pollinium of an orchid. Photo via Wikipedia

Instead, members of the Asclepias family reproduce via pollinia, evolved pollen packages–sticky masses of pollen that look like tiny yellow bags. We sometimes see these teeny yellow bulbs attached to bees’ wooly heads or fuzzy legs after they’ve dug into a flower. The pollen sac attaches to the bee. As they dive into flowers, the pollinia somehow is inserted into the flower’s reproductive slit, resulting in pollination.

Monarch butterflies, because of their size, form, and the way they sit atop flowers, simply don’t have the capacity to carry these hefty pollen vessels. And they rarely come into contact with the pollinia, nor its reproductive destination in the female part of the flower.

“This nonpollinating aspect of Monarchs is not widely appreciated,” writes Agrawal.

Now there’s an understatement. Given the Monarch’s Pan-American status as the great pollinator ambassador, that fact will come as a harsh revelation to many.

Agrawal will be in town for a session at the San Antonio Book Festival April 8. Come join us, buy a book, and get it signed.

As it happens, milkweeds don’t need Monarchs, but Monarchs DO need milkweeds. Monarch butterflies will only lay their eggs on plants that are members of the Asclepias or milkweed family, a species known for its sticky, milky latex sap, which tastes bitter and contains potentially heart stopping toxins that protect the butterflies that consume it as caterpillars because it makes them distasteful to predators.

Monarch caterpillars eat the milkweed leaves, morph through their stages, transform into  chrysalises, then emerge as adult butterflies. As the Monarchs attack the milkweed by eating it, the milkweed responds by ratcheting up its toxic properties, making the larval food ever more toxic as the season wears on. This is how the plant protects itself and makes for the intriguing “coevolutionary arms race” which is the premise of the book.

Monarch butterflies will only lay their eggs on the toxic milkweed Asclepias species. Courtesy photo

Agrawal notes, and some of us have witnessed first hand, how tiny Monarch caterpillars sometimes perish upon eating perfectly healthy milkweed. The reason may be the milkweed is simply too toxic for the Monarchs to process. As Agrawal points out, “the dose makes the poison.”

In chapter seven, titled “The Milkweed Village,” Agrawal goes into entertaining detail about the 11 different species of insects that have made milkweed “their bed and breakfast.”  We’ve seen them all–aphids, milkweed bugs and beetles, wasps, ants. Agrawal introduces each in gory and glorious detail–the “seed eaters,” the “suckers,” the “chewers, miners and borers.” For anyone who raises Monarchs and milkweeds in the garden, many questions will be answered here.

As Monarch caterpillars decimate milkweeds, the plant responds by increasing the levels of cardiac glycosides it produces as a defense. Courtesy photo.

Throughout, Agrawal writes deeply but accessibly about biology, botany, and chemical ecology, only rarely straying into the hyper-scientific jargon that can make such writing impossible to understand for those without PhDs. That is one of the greatest strengths of this book in my view: making the science understandable to nonscientists.

Speaking of eating milkweed, Agrawal also shares that young stalks of certain milkweeds are perfectly edible as a side dish for humans. I had heard this from my friend, hydroponic farmer and adventurous vegetarian Mitchell Hagney of Local Sprout, but had never had it explained.

cooked milkweed stalks

Anurag Agrawal cooked milkweed for his wife and child. Courtesy photo

Agrawal cites wild plant proponent Euell Gibbons, author of the 1962 classic, Stalking the Wild Asparagus. Young milkweed shoots can apparently be gathered in late spring when they’re four- to eight-inches high, sautéed and served for supper or as a side dish. Agrawal suggests several cold water rinses to remove extreme bitterness from the milkweed but preserve its unique flavor. “Season with salt, pepper and butter. Serve proudly,” he writes. He offers a color photo of a cast iron skillet filled with young milkweed shoots that he served to his family. The Asclepias veggies appear amazingly similar to asparagus. Perhaps a milkweed cookbook will be next?

Such accessible, fun anecdotes mixed with hardcore science are exactly what make this book a must-read for Monarch followers and generalists alike.

Want to meet Anurag Agrawal? Join us at the San Antonio Book Festival Saturday, April 8, 10 AM, to meet him. We’ll discuss his book and answer your questions. Books will be available for purchase and signing. Hope to see you there! Details here.

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Monarch butterflies head north as Mexican scientists try to move their forest

One of the hottest winters in history poses good news and bad news for migrating Monarch butterflies this season. The good news: warm weather and well-timed rains translate into a grand wildflower season with plenty of milkweed in South Texas. The bad news: those same high temperatures in Mexico where the Monarchs overwinter mean that many butterflies have burned up much of their stored winter fats, creating a lack of fuel and extra stress for their journey north.

Some of the migrating creatures that arrived in the Mexican mountains last fall have already left the roosting sites. In fact, we found our first-of-season caterpillar this week on Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassivaca, along the San Antonio River Walk.

But the bulk of the overwintering butterflies have yet to depart, head north and lay the first round of eggs that will launch the 2017 edition of their epic multigenerational migration. The success of that first generation, often born in Texas, sets the stage for a successful-or-not Monarch butterfly season. Subsequent generations make their way north to Canada over the summer, reproducing along the way. In the fall, they fly home to Mexico to roost until one day in March, they leave for good, head north, reproduce and die–starting the cycle anew.

first instar

First instar Monarch caterpillar found on the San Antonio River, March 9, 2017. Photo by Monika Maeckle

A recent trip to the roosting sites in Mexico found the butterflies fluttering from their roosts on the sacred firs in search of water and nectar–not unusual this time of year. The butterflies puddled in the damp mud of shallow mountain streams to rehydrate and sip nutrients. They also nectared on stands of asters, sages and various verbenas. Many butterflies lay dead on the ground–again, not unusual.

According to Dr. Cuauhtémoc Sáenz Romero, a forest geneticist at the University of Michoacán, the winter storm of March 2016 punched dangerous holes in the forest canopy. An intact canopy serves as a blanket for the butterflies and prevents temperatures from dropping below freezing, while the butterflies wait out the winter in a semi-hibernative state.  A lack of activity in the context of cold weather and insulation provided by the forest helps them conserve lipids (previously accumulated fats in their bodies), needed for the spring remigration. Gaps in the forest canopy and hot temperatures–the warmest winter in history–force the butterflies to burn up their fats.

Sáenz Romero expressed concerns that the condition of the forest coupled with climate change could have devastating consequences when the weather turns chilly and humid. This creates a deadly combination, forming ice on the Monarchs’ wings, he said, often causing their death.

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                                             photos by Nicolas Rivard

Such concerns motivated Sáenz Romero, ecological sciences professor Arnulfo Blanco García, and a crew of University of Michoacán students to establish an experimental forest plot on the Ejido La Mesa en Sierra Campanario near San Jose del Rincon in the state of Mexico.

While the area officially serves as a Monarch sanctuary and is part of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, few butterflies were present upon our visit there earlier this month. Signs of high temperatures, drought and the March 2016 storm that decimated more than 100 acres of forest and millions of butterflies were evident, however.

Sáenz Romero pointed out trees with skinny tops and a lack of foliage, which suggests a lack of water. A wet season and dry season typify the usual weather pattern here, he explained. But when the wet

Drought and high winds make the trees where the Monarchs roost vulnerable. Photo by Nicolas Rivard

season offers less rain than average and the dry season is warmer than usual, the trees can’t absorb enough water from the soil to reach the tallest limbs. Leaf and branch shedding result, creating weakened, scrawny treetops. This unhealthy state also makes the forest more susceptible to wind damage and insect attacks, said Sáenz Romero.

It wasn’t always this way, said Blanco García, taking in the vast expanse of oaks, pines and Oyamel, preferred by overwintering Monarchs. This area of Mexico has long relied on mining, which has posed different threats to the forest in the past, such as water pollution and deforestation.

Three-year-old Oyamel, sacred fir,  planted in full sun. Photo by Nicolas Rivard

Three-year-old Oyamel, sacred fir, in mixed plant community that provides partial shade. Photo by Nicolas Rivard

“Sixty years ago, there was no forest here,” he said. “But when mining stopped in the area, the forest regenerated itself.”  That was before climate change became the dominant factor it is today.

Saáenz Romero and Blanco García believe that within 70 years, the sacred firs hosting the Monarchs each winter will not be able to survive the increased temperatures and volatile weather predicted to rule the forest. The tree has a narrow window of temperature and altitude in which it can thrive, said Sáenz Romero.

With funding from Monarch Butterfly Fund in Minnesota, the Mexican Council of Science and TEchnology (CONACyT in Spanish), the Mexican Fund for the Nature Conservancy and the University of Michoacán, an experimental plot of Oyamel seedlings was placed  1,000 feet higher up the mountain than the existing sanctuaries–at 3,440 meters/11,286 feet. The approach, called assisted migration, has been successfully deployed in Canada. It aims to grow a replacement forest that in this case can be occupied by overwintering Monarchs when the roosting sites further down the mountain expire.

During a tour of the plot, now three years old, the scientists pointed out how Oyamel seedlings planted in combination with sage bushes and other tall perennials fared better than those placed in full sun. Because of the more severe dry season and higher temperatures, the Oyamels do better in a diverse plant community that offers shade at least part of the day.

“Weather proof” temperature monitor at the experimental forest in La Mesa. Photo by Nicolas Rivard

Also evident: the team’s unique resourcefulness. As students measured temperatures and moisture levels of the soil, an upside-down styrofoam cup wired to a stick raised questions.  What is that?

“It’s our weather proof temperature monitor,” said Blanco García.

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Monarch butterfly Valentine: how do we love thee? Let us count the ways…

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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Monarch butterfly migrating population drops 27%, freak sleet storm to blame

Officials in Mexico announced Wednesday that the population of migrating Monarch butterflies dropped 27% this season, marking a setback in two consecutive years of growth from the historic low of 2014. A freak sleet storm gets the blame.

Piedra Herrada

Our friend Regina Moya went to visit la familia in Valle del Bravo with a side trip to Piedra Herrada Sanctuary in the state of Mexico. PHoto by Regina Moya

Just last year, we celebrated a tripling of the population, a reassuring turn of events from the grim news of 2014 when the total migrating population of Monarch butterflies could fit into a single Wal-Mart store with 30,000 square feet to spare. That sad fact had butterflies occupying only .67 hectares (1.65 acres) of high elevation forest at their winter roosting grounds in Michoacán and the state of Mexico. The numbers grew in 2015 to 1.13 hectares (2.8 acres), then jumped in 2016 to 4.1 hectares (10 acres).

This year, the butterflies covered only 2.91 hectares (7.19 acres).

Scientists and conservationists estimate the population by counting the number of hectares occupied and multiplying the estimated number by 50 million Monarchs per hectare. That suggests this year’s population numbers 145.5. million. The goal of conservationists is to rebuild the population to its historic average of 6.07 hectares (15 acres), or about 300 million butterflies.

The scene at El Chincua sanctuary  two weeks after the February 2016 storm.
Photo by Dr. Isabel Ramírez

Scientists and others who follow Monarch butterflies were not surprised by the findings. Dr. Lincoln Brower said by phone that he thought the numbers would be even worse. Many of us noted fewer Monarch butterflies than usual. Ruth Bowell of Troy, Ohio, shared her thoughts on the 2016 season on the DPLEX-list, an email listserv that reaches about 800 scientists, citizen scientists and Monarch butterfly fans. “My numbers this year were dismal until late August when I started really seeing caterpillars…If they have a good winter, maybe we’ll see more returning than last year.” Dr. Cuauhtémoc Saenz Romero, who studies the forest where the Monarchs roost, expressed the same sentiment, remarking “That was due to the winter storm in March.”

The storm to which he refers quashed the optimism of February 2016’s dramatic population growth within a few weeks of its announcement when, on March 11, climate change dealt a deadly blow to the rebounded Monarch population. A freak freeze and sleet storm descended on Mexico’s Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Preserves, decimating 100 acres of Oyamel firs and killing an estimated 50 million butterflies. The tragedy occurred at a most vulnerable time. Typically the first and second week in March are when the Monarchs begin to flee the forest and head north for South Texas in search of milkweed on which to lay the first generation of eggs.

Those of us who live in the flyway hoped for a robust recovery over the course of the spring and summer breeding seasons. The weather cooperated, but apparently even good conditions–plenty of rain in the Texas Funnel, ample milkweed and nectar plants in the spring and fall–couldn’t make up for season’s cursed beginning.

Monarch butterfly population numbers. Graphic via Journey North

Omar Vidal, head of the Mexico office of the World Wildlife Fund, told the Associated Press that the unusual winter storm likely played a role in the steep dip in Monarch numbers. “The reduction in the area of forest they occupied this year is most probably due to the high mortality caused by storms and cold weather last year,” he said. Here’s the full report, in Spanish.

Conservation efforts including pollinator habitat restoration and outreach continue, but it remains to be seen if that will be enough. Just today, the National Wildlife Federation, NWF met in San Antonio, the first Mayor’s Monarch Champion City, and finalized the completion of a citywide Monarch butterfly conservation plan. The document, assembled over several months and with the input of more than a dozen local organizations under the umbrella name Alamo Area Monarch Collaborative will lay out a comprehensive conservation and pollinator habitat restoration strategy. The effort will kick off and the plan shared at the upcoming San Antonio Monarch Butterfly Festival March 4 -5 at the San Antonio Zoo.

“During the meeting, the population count from Mexico was announced,” said Grace Barnett, Monarch Outreach Coordinator, South Central Regional Center for NWF. “It was read aloud–a strong reminder of  how important our work is and how much more there is to be done.”

Vidal underscored the work ahead when he told the Associated Press, “We cannot control the climate, but we can do much better in eradicating illegal logging in the reserve and tackling habitat loss in the U.S. and Canada,” Vidal said. “But, even if Mexico’s overwintering sites never lose another tree, without food and habitat along the migration routes, the forests will soon bid farewell” to the Monarchs.

Reports from the sanctuaries have been extremely upbeat, including one issued the same day as the declining population report. Journey North shared its first bulletin from roosting grounds correspondent Estella Romero, coupled with a note that tried to manage readers’ expectations with a prediction that numbers would be low this year.

Estela Romero of Journey North visited the roosting sites last week and raved about what appeared to be high numbers. But the population actually slipped from last year. Photo via Journey North

Under the headline “Population News: Waiting for the Official Count” Elizabeth Howard, founder of the citizen science initiative that tracks the migrations of Monarchs and other species, warned that observations made throughout the year suggested “a small population has been predicted — perhaps as low as 1 hectare.”

But Romero was effusive in describing her recent visit to El Rosario and El Chincua sanctuaries on February 4, sharing a dispatch hailing their seemingly high numbers.

“As I got nearer to the core of the colony, I just could not believe my eyes! It seemed as if I was looking to one of the best spectacles of the last years, in terms of population….Tens and tens of trees were full with clusters – more than 50 trees covered– on top, by one side, by the middle, with heavy clusters or lighter clusters hanging…It was a wonderful spectacle,” wrote Romero.

Edith Smith, a commercial butterfly breeder and owner/founder of Shady Oak Butterfly Farm in Florida, expressed exasperation about the negative headlines in an email to the Association for Butterflies email list, a listserv for commercial and hobbyist butterfly breeders. “Am I the only one who wishes positive information about Monarch butterflies was shared at times?,” wrote Smith. “Numbers are down by 27 percent from last year. BUT they are UP from the year before….We’re up over four times the lowest we had. That is still GOOD news.”

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