How to tag a Monarch butterfly in six easy steps

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

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

Ready to tag some butterflies?

Ready to tag some butterflies?

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

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

Monarch Watch tags and data sheets

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

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

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

  1. Locate butterfly

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

Frostweed is a fall favorite nectar source for Monarch butterflies.

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

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

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

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

2.  Net butterfly

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

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

Monarch nectaring on swamp milkweed

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

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

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

Annie Schenzel demonstrates proper net technique

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

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

3. Collect butterfly/butterflies from net

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

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

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

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

4.  Examine butterfly, establish its sex.

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

Male Monarch Butterfly

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

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

Raggedy Monarch butterfly

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

5.  Remove tag from sheet and adhere to butterfly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6.  Release

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

Off she goes!

Off she goes!   Photo by Monka Maeckle

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

Monarch butterfly recoveries

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

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

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Butterfly FAQ: How to move a Monarch butterfly chrysalis

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

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

Monarchs on pot

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

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

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

Queen chrysalis on door

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Newborn Monarch butterfly

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

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

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

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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

                     All slide show photos by Monika Maeckle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Butterfly Haven somewhere in Michoacan

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catalina Trail and Shaun Benson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2015 a banner year? Monarch butterfly migration heading our way

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

Monarch roost

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

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

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

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

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

skipper on swamp milkweed llano

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

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

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

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

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

Monarch roosts

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

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

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

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

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


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

Monarch roost in Iowa

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

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

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

Peak Migration dates

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

What a difference a year makes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

US Fish and Wildlife Service                 $2 million

Texas State Comptroller’s Office           $300,000

National Fish and Wildlife Fdn.            $1 million

Bureau of Land Management               $250,000

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

US Forest Service                              $100,000

Monsanto Corporation                         $4 million

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

President BArack Obama

Thanks, Obama! For raising pollinator awareness. Courtesy photo

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

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

Tagged Monarch butterfly

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

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

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Monarch Butterfly Release “Better than any church service”

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

Opa butterfly release

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

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

John Maeckle 1921-2015

John Maeckle        1921-2015

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

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

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

It was the right move.

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

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

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

day of dead mask

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

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

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

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

Monarch on swamp milkweed Arsenal

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

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

First instar caterpillar and egg

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

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

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

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

Opa butterfly Nola's

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Five Texas Moths for Enjoying Year-Round Moth Week

National Moth Week is behind us.  We really enjoyed our Malt, Hops and Moths event at Alamo Brewery last weekend–but the fun doesn’t have to stop there.  The celebration of those night flying cousins of butterflies, often cast as ugly step sisters in the world of lepidoptery, can take place ANY night of the week.  Just wait for darkness, turn on a light, sit back and enjoy the show.

Here’s five moths that we have in Central and South Texas right now.  Open your eyes, look, and you will see them.

The Sphinx Moth

Known in its larval form as the much loathed Tomato or Tobacco Horn Worm, this attractive dusk flier also is often called the “hummingbird moth.”   Gardeners despise the Manduca sexta’s consumption of their tomato plants, but I suggest setting aside a few seedlings for these voracious caterpillars, who strike a sphinx-like pose when poked, arching their neck and staring blankly at who’s bothering them.

Sphinx Moth caterpillar on Jimsonweed

Tobacco hornworms on Jimsonweed.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

As moths, these impressive striped flyers move during daylight hours, hovering like helicopters to nectar and provide great observation opportunities.  They are members of the Sphingidae family.

Sphinx Moth

C’mon, admit it: she’s adorable. Sphinx Moth, photo courtesy Colorado State University extension office

Black Witch Moth

Large, bat like and harmless, the intriguing Ascalapha odorata, sometimes known as “the bat moth” resembles a bat in size and shape, and with its seven-inch wingspan is the largest moth in North America. They are common in these parts.

Black Witch Moth

Black Witch Moth photographed by Karen Herrmann in Kansas.

They often hang out near doors and flush when approached, causing quite a startle for the unsuspecting.  But remember, they’re completely harmless.   Much folklore surrounds their appearance.  Throughout the hemisphere, legend has them bringing good luck, a lottery win, or a death in the family, depending on the part of the world and the circumstances of their appearance.

Black Witch Moth caterpillar

Black Witch Moth caterpillar. Photo via

In the movie Silence of the Lambs, serial killer Hannibal Lechter inserted cocoons of Black Witch Moths into the mouths of his victims as a weird gesture of transformation. The moth on the movie poster is a Death’s Head Hawk Moth, but the actual cocoon was that of a Black Witch.

Polyphemus Moth

The Polyphemus Moth, Antheraea polyphemus, sports prominent, owl-like eye spots and  a six-inch wingspan.  The moth is dramatic.  We had a hatch of these guys at the ranch one night and several fluttered against the porch spotlights.  The sound of their wings hitting the the floodlight was so loud, you would have thought birds or bats had paid a visit.

Polyphemus moth

Polyphemus moth. Check out those eyespots!   Photo by Monika Maeckle

The Polyphemus gets its name from the Greek myth of the Cyclops Polyphemus (cyclops means one-eyed giant). They’re not unusual and live everywhere in the U.S. and Canada.   That they host on a variety of trees–oaks, birches, elms, willows and others–perhaps explains their widespread provenance.

Like many moths, these members of the Saturnid, or silk moth family, spend most of their life as caterpillars, eating up to 86,000 times their body weight at emergence in just two months.  Once they become a moth, however, their vestigial mouth parts make eating impossible.  Basically, their mouths don’t work any more.   Their sole focus as a moth is to reproduce.

Polyphemus moth caterpillar

Handsome boy! Polyphemus moth on oak leaves. Photo by our friend Mona Miller

Polyphemus change dramatically during the caterpillar cycle and in their final instar become a fantastic three- or four-inch green caterpillar with silver and/or red spots on the side.   See the photo above by our friend Mona Milller.

Ailanthus Webworm Moth

The first time I spotted one of these handsome creatures at the ranch I thought it was beetle.  They tuck their wings in a tidy fashion, leading you to believe they are of a different genre, but no–they are moths.

Ailianthus Webworm Moth

This guy fooled me. Thought he was a beetle, but no, it’s the Ailianthus Webworm Moth. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Members of the ermine moth family, the small, striped Atteva aua caterpillars build communal nests in the Ailanthus tree by pulling leaves together with webbing and spinning cocoons inside the webs.    They are native to Central America, but migrate north in the summer and host on the Ailanthus tree, sometimes called the Tree of Paradise.   Both the AWM and the Ailanthus tree are introduced species that have adapted.  Non native, but gorgeous creatures.

Ailanthus webworm moth caterpillars

Ailanthus Webworm Moth caterpillars are an introduced species, just like the tree they host on. Photo via

Luna Moth

This beauty, Actius luna, is one of the most dramatic moths that take to the night.   The lime green beauties host on various hardwoods and are apparently found in our area, although I have never seen one.

Luna Moth

One of the most dramatic moths, the long-tailed glamourous Luna Moth. Photo bu Mike McCafferty, via Wikipedia

In their caterpillar stage, Luna Moths are equally impressive, with chubby green body sections punctuated by prominent gold-brown-orange pegs. Like many moths, they only live a week as adults.  For that period, they do not eat (they have no mouth parts).  Their singular goal is to reproduce.

Luna moth caterpillar

Luna moth caterpillar, reared and photographed by Shawn Hanrahan. Photo via Wikipedia

Good luck hunting moths.  Please let us know what you find.

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Moth Night San Antonio: Lotsa MOTH-ers, Fewer Moths, $ for Urban Natural Areas

MOTH-ers and “mo-fos” (that is, moth followers) showed up by the hundreds Saturday night for Malt, Hops, and Moths:  Moth Night at the Alamo Brewery.  More than 250 attended the gathering, which ranked as the first official National Moth Week event ever staged in San Antonio.  The occasion put the Alamo City on the Moth Week map with 373 similar events staged in 38 countries around the world July 18 – 26.


Lots of MOTH-ers, not so many moths at the moth sheet at Alamo Brewery for the first official Moth Night San Antonio in honor of National Moth Week. Photo by Scott Ball, Rivard Report

While several interesting moth species made appearances, including the Texas Grey Moth,  moths, in all their biodiversity, largely avoided the venue. Extreme heat, high winds, and possibly too much urban light may have deterred their participation.

But no matter. Turns out MOTH-ers really like their beer.

Alamo Brewery had a banner night, ringing up substantial beer sales–mostly in a special edition Moth Night brew, Sphinx Moth Amber Ale. Partial proceeds of those sales, more than $1,000, will go to Friends of San Antonio Natural Areas, FoSANA, formerly known as the Friends of Friedrich Wilderness Park. The nonprofit organization serves as a steward and advocate for local urban wildlife spaces and promotes education and science to increase public understanding of nature.

Texas Gray Moth, Glenoides texanaria, was one of the few moths to join the party at Moth Night at the Alamo Brewery. We still had fun. Photo by Delmar Cain

Texas Gray Moth, Glenoides texanaria, was one of the few moths to join the party at Moth Night at the Alamo Brewery. We still had fun. Photo by Delmar Cain

“The great turnout affirms the San Antonio community’s desire to disengage from their screens and check out what our urban nature has to offer,” said Daniel Large, a board member of FoSANA and co-organizer of the event.  “We look forward to more events in the future.”

Eugene Simor, founder of Alamo Beer Company, agreed.  “It was one of our more unusual and successful events, and well worth the effort,” he said.


Three moth sheets were set up with mercury vapor and black lights in the Brewery’s massive yard as curious onlookers gaped from the Hayes Street Bridge, which remained completely dark this steamy summer evening by prior arrangement with the City of San Antonio.  Volunteers helped kids mix up moth bait–ripe bananas, Alamo beer, yeast and molasses. Kids and moth docents smeared the concoction on logs and trees in an attempt to attract the night flyers. Moths didn’t take much of the bait, but no one seemed to mind. A breezy summer evening, like-minded nature lovers, and cold brews with friends–who would complain?

spreading moth bait

Moth fan spreads moth bait on tree log to help lure moths to Alamo Brewery. Photo by Scott Ball, Rivard Report

“Moth night was so rad!  Thanks for putting this event on,” said Clarissa Perez, community relations coordinator for the San Antonio River Authority, via Facebook.

Delmar Cain, a retired attorney-turned-moth-enthusiast who assembled one of two educational slide shows that ran during the event, served as chief moth docent, explaining the life cycle of the fascinating insects.

“Beer looks to be a good magnet for people, and for moths,” said Cain, taking in the crowd Saturday night.

Delmar Cain

Moth docent Delmar Cain, answered questions and brought moth specimens to share with the crowd.   Photo by Scott Ball, Rivard Report

Armed with specimens  of moths he captured in the field and brought for viewing and explanation, Cain patiently answered questions from the crowd.  Also:  Cain showed off the dramatic Eastern Bloodsucking Cone-nose kissing bug.   The odd insect, a type of assassin bug, attacks and voraciously feeds on insects, small mammals and even humans occasionally with piercing-sucking mouthparts.   The bugs can carry the debilitating Chagas disease.   “If you see this guy, eliminate him,” said Cain, displaying the brown creature secured safely inside a glass vial.  One observer labeled the insect a “delightfully vile beast.”

It's Moth Night, ya'll. More than 250 folks showed up at Alamo Brewery for San Antonio's first official National Moth Week event.

It’s Moth Night, y’all. More than 250 folks showed up at Alamo Brewery for San Antonio’s first official National Moth Week event.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

Guests bought Jimsonweed plants (host plant to the  Sphinx Moth, national spokesmoth for  National Moth Week this year), examined a Tomato hornworm, handled Sphinx moth cocoons, and played with a woolly bear caterpillar, which morphs into the dramatic Leopard moth.

All in all, a lovely outing for a hot summer night.  When’s the next Moth Night, you ask?  Stay tuned for details.

Special thanks to our Malt, Hops and Moths Night sponsors:   Alamo Brewery, The Arsenal Group, City of San Antonio, Friends of San Antonio Natural AreasTexas Butterfly Ranch, Trinity University, and the Rivard Report.    And:  special thanks to Jeremy Karney and Genevieve Lillian Gaudet for developing our logo and ads, respectively.  GRACIAS!

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Q&A: Moth Week Spokesmoth Manduca Sexta Says Moths Get No Respect

Confession:  the Texas Butterfly Ranch is guilty of species-ism.

Of the 230 posts published here in the last five years, only 10 have been about moths.   Yet moths occupy a huge majority of the order of Lepidoptera–numbering an estimated 150,000-500,000 species vs. butterflies’ measly 20,000.

Sphinx moth

Manduca sexta says moths have suffered at the wings of butterflies with color. Photo via IronChris via Wikipedia Commons

Moth followers, or “Moth-ers” as they’re known, would say that butterflies are just day flying moths, yet we almost always refer to moths as the “night flying butterflies.”

In a salute to National Moth Week July 18 – 26, we attempt to rectify this wrong with a focus on moths.  A full week of moth festivities organized by our insect loving pals at the Friends of the Malt-Hops-Moths-greenlogoEast Brunswick Environmental Commission will be here soon, including our own San Antonio National Moth Week event.

Malt, Hops and Moths: Moth Night at the Alamo Brewery takes place July 23, 9 PM – Midnight. The FREE, family friendly  evening of exploring night-time nature will join hundreds of Moth Week events celebrated around the world. San Antonio is on the Moth Week map and makes one small flight toward species equality. Want to join us? Please let us know so we can plan properly with an RSVP.

This year’s featured moth family is the Sphingidae, which includes sphinx and/or hawkmoths.

Loathed by gardeners in its caterpillar stage, the Manduca quinquemaculata, or tomato hornworm, has eight V-shaped marks on each side and a signature horn on the rear.  Manduca sexta, the tobacco hornworm, closely resembles its tomato preferring cousin, but shows seven diagonal white lines on its sides and a curved horn. Both caterpillars turn into large moths with four- to six-inch wingspans in colors ranging from brown and gold to pink and grey.   They often are mistaken for small hummingbirds when they fly during the day and  hover helicopter-style to nectar on flowers, which is why they are also called Hummingbird or Hawk Moths.

tomato hornowrm caterpillar

Tomato hornworm morphs into the National Moth Week Spokesmoth, the Sphinx moth. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The hornworm caterpillars get their name from the signature horns that grace their backsides. The “Sphinx Moth” moniker results from the distinct pose the caterpillar assumes when disturbed. Upon the mildest poke, the creature rears its head in a thoughtful stance, hoisting the upper third of its body in a sphinx-like posture.


Which came first, the SPhinx or the Sphinx Moth? The latter. Photo via Wikipedia

Sphinx moths have charms all their own, as noted in this exclusive interview with Manduca sexta, spokesmoth for National Moth Week.

Question: Why do butterflies get all the attention?


Manduca sexta

Manduca sexta: Lepidoptera of color definitely get all the glory. We are often grey or brown and perceived as drab or uninteresting.  We’re dismissively referred to as LBTs–“little brown things.”

Yet many of us are as colorful and glorious as our day flying cousins.  Only one family of moths consumes clothing, yet people brand us as pests even though most of us contribute necessary ecosystem services like pollination and serve as food to other creatures.  Perhaps because moths mostly fly at night…it might raise some shackles in folks.  They think we’re creepy.  I happen to be a dusk flyer.

Question:  Tell us about that–your reputation as a “hawkmoth.”

Manduca sexta: We Sphingidae are rightly proud of our flight capabilities.  We’ve been clocked at 30 miles per hour and have the ability to hover, which requires enormous energy. Our flight behavior is so exemplary that aeronautics companies study us to get ideas for making drones and other micro-aerial devices (MAVs). Yep, when it comes to scooting through the sky in the dark, nobody beats us.

Moth MAV

MAV by Phototronics inspired by moths and other insects. Photo via National Moth Week Blog

Question: What’s a typical night like for a hawkmoth?

Manduca sexta: It’s about finding food.   And us hawkmoths don’t visit just any flower for a nectar sip.  We’re very particular, drawn to white, yellow or super pale pink flowers.  Hawkmoth-pollinated flowers also are heavily scented.   Our sense of smell is excellent and allows us to find these flowers in total darkness, from up to a mile or more away. Jimsonweed is one of my favorites.

One study gave us some well-deserved credit as the primary pollinators of Agave plants in the Arizona desert–so I guess you could say that thanks to us, tequila happens.

It’s not all flitting around in the dark for some quick nectar high, though. The night flying is riddled with danger. At any moment we could be snatched up by a bat or nighthawk, run crosswise with a speeding truck, or find our way into a screened porch with no chance for escape. It’s a dangerous world out there, but we do our best.

Sphinx Moth on Datura, photo by Betsy Betros, via

This Sphinx moth smells the heavy scent of  Datura and is diving in with its long proboscis. photo by Betsy Betros, via

Question:  Why should human beings care about moths?

That is just so Homo sapiens of you.   Why is every living creature cast in the context of human beings?   Other species occupy this planet.

If we must cast our existence in such a context, I’ll reiterate that we perform important ecosystem services–at no charge, mind you–pollinating various plants as mentioned above.   We’re also are a primary source of protein for bats, birds and other creatures, providing a high nutrition pop with very little fat or carbs.  Were it not for us moths, other creatures would suffer a food shortage and perhaps perish.  And if bats and birds ceased to exist, you’d have an overpopulation of mosquitoes and other pests that sting, bite and cause disease.   So…as you can see, it’s not as simple as what’s in it for me?  It’s our role in the greater food chain that matters.

Question:  Anything else you want us to know?

Manduca sexta: I’d just like to clarify something.  That movie, The Silence of the Lambs, with Jodi Foster and Anthony Hopkins as the cannibalistic serial killer, Hannibal Lecter?  That did a real number on moths’  reputation.

You think moths are creepy? That crazy “Hannibal the Cannibal” puts hawkmoth cocoons in his victims mouths as some sort of sick gesture of transformation. And they have us flying around in a weird, dark basement evoking a strange terror.

The thriller, Silence of the Lambs, has contributed to moths' creepy reputation.

Quid pro quo, Clarice:The thriller, Silence of the Lambs, has contributed to moths’ creepy reputation.

It’s true that a bunch of tobacco hornworm moths used in the film were treated like celebrities by the filmmakers.  They flew us first class to the set in a fancy carrier and had special living quarters with controlled humidity and heat.  It was pretty sweet.

But just to be clear, on the movie poster, the moth on Jodi Foster’s mouth had a skeleton skull photoshopped onto a sphinx moth.  That was a pretty realistic portrayal of the Death’s Head hawkmoth–which is generally only found in Africa and southern Europe.

So, to be clear, we had NOTHING to do with Hannibal the Cannibal.  That was fiction.

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Like what you’re reading?  Follow butterfly and native plant news at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery in the righthand navigation bar of this page, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam.  You can also read our stuff on the Rivard Report.

$300K Grant Awarded to UTSA to Study Monarch Butterfly, Inventory Texas Milkweeds

The Texas State Comptroller’s office awarded the University of Texas at San Antonio a $300,000 grant to study the Monarch butterfly this week.   Dr. Janis Bush, a plant ecologist and the university’s director of environmental science academic programs, will oversee the research.


UTSA’s Dr. Janis Bush will oversee the $300K research grant. Courtesy photo

According to a press release issued by the Comptroller’s office, the study will “evaluate the abundance, species type and distribution of milkweed—an important food source for Monarchs —in Texas. It also will examine land management approaches to enhance the abundance of milkweed if necessary.”

Why is the State Comptroller’s office awarding grants for butterfly research?

Because in Texas, the Comptroller’s office oversees the Interagency Task Force on Economic Growth and Endangered Species. It’s charge: assist landowners, industries and local communities in working with endangered species issues and assess their economic impact on the state. And since the Monarch butterfly was submitted for consideration as a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act last August, research surrounding the ramifications of such a listing falls in the Task Force’s wheelhouse.  Annual $5 million appropriations approved by the Texas Legislature will fund the UTSA grant; Dr. Robert Gulley of San Antonio heads up the Task Force.

Dr. Bush said via phone that the survey will take place over two years and replicate research done by Dr. William Calvert in 1996 which had him drive IH-10 from the Louisana border to El Paso, documenting milkweeds along the way.  Dr. Calvert, of Austin, is credited with revealing the location of the Monarch butterfly roosting sites to the world after Catalina Trail, also of Austin, led Dr. Fred Urquhart to the location in MIchoacán, Mexico back in 1975.  At the time, Dr. Urquhart wrote an explosive cover story on the discovery for  National Geographic magazine, but refused to reveal the location of the roosting sites.  Dr. Calvert did that about a year later.

Asclepias incarnata, Swamp milkweed

Monarch on Swamp Milkweed on the Llano River, PHoto by Monika Maeckle

“We’ll try to duplicate Dr. Calvert’s study so we can compare the current milkweed populations to what he found,” she said, adding that the study will not just cover milkweeds, but will be a full-blown vegetation survey.

“It will include species identification for everything except grasses which will be done by family,” she said.   Graduate students will conduct the work, which will begin immediately.

In addition to plant identification, students will document the presence of any Monarch caterpillars, fire ants (which are famous for destroying Monarch eggs and small larvae) and other predators, as well as anything else that might enlighten us about creating opitmal Monarch butterfly habitat in the Lone Star State.  Read a summary of the project here.

Dr. Bush, with a PhD in ecological sciences and engineering, has extensive experience in native plants in Texas–and milkweeds in particular.   She wrote her dissertation on the federally threatened sunflower, Helianthus paradoxus, and oversaw Dr. Terri Matiella’s dissertation on milkweed when Matiella was a UTSA graduate student.

Antelope horns and Indian blanket

The UTSA grant will survey native milkweeds and their surrounding vegetation and other factors to help determine how to create optimal milkweed habitat.  Here, Antelope horns and Indian blanket dot the roadside in the Texas Hill Country this weekend. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Matiella’a paper, “The Effects of Carbon Dioxide on Milkweed (Asclepiadaceae) and Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) larvae” focused on the impact of climate change on Asclepias curassavica, the much discussed, technically nonnative Tropical Milkweed.  It awaits publication, hopefully later this year.  Dr. Matiella now serves as a lecturer in UTSA’s environmental sciences department and will serve on the research team.

The news was well received in the passionate Monarch butterfly community, but as always, also raised questions.

“It makes sense,” said Mike Quinn, an Austin-based entomologist who runs Texas Monarch Watch and the educational website “San Antonio is more or less in the heart of the Monarch butterfly flyway.  Hopefully, this study will provide a clearer picture of Monarch habitat usage, or at the very minimum, the habitat that’s available to Monarchs here in Texas.”

Monarch migration map

Monarchs must pass through Texas coming and going to Mexico. Graphic by Nicolas Rivard

Others voiced concerns that the grant money was not being best utiltized.  “A lot of this stuff has already been done,” said one source involved in local Monarch activities who chose not to be named.  “There seems to be a lot of reinventing of the wheel.”

Organizations like Monarch Watch, Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project, the Xerces Society, and the Pollinator Partnership have already done significant research on what it takes to continue the Monarch butterfly migration.  And most folks who follow Monarchs in Texas agree that a lack of milkweed in the Lone Star State is not an obstacle here.

“If everyone planted grass in their front yard, it wouldn’t bring back the buffalo,” said one skeptic, adding that researchers should target milkweed plantings “to where it’s been GMO’ed out.”

That would be the Midwestern corn belt, the Monarchs’ primary summer breeding grounds.  There, genetically modified corn and soybean crops have allowed indiscriminate spraying of herbicides like Round-Up, which essentially leave fields sterile except for the corn and soybean that have been biologically altered to withstand poisons.   In the past, milkweeds grew vigorously between the corn rows providing breeding season host plant for migrating butterflies.

No milkweed studies have been conducted in the strategically important “Texas funnel” through which migrating Monarchs pass each spring and fall on their multi-generation migratory journey since Calvert’s 1996 research.  The Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project, a citizen science initiative started by Monarch expert Dr. Karen Oberhauser at the University of Minnesota, has been active here for years, religiously monitoring milkweeds and collecting data on milkweeds, Monarch butterflies, caterpillars and eggs at the Milkweed Patch along the San Antonio River and at Cibolo Nature Center in Boerne.   While that data and the contributions of citizen scientists are immensely useful and well recognized, more scientific data is needed to figure out how to create optimal milkweed habitat, said Dr. Bush.

“We need to answer questions like what is the herbaceous cover around existing milkweeds?  Do they like competition from other plants or do they like open areas? Are native and/or nonnative grasses growing nearby?  What is the soil depth?” she said.

After two years of study, we should have a better idea of how private and public landowners can best manage their properties to increase milkweed and pollinator habitat.  We look forward to the findings.

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