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 droughtmonitor.edu

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 wikipedia.org

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 www.urbanwildlife.net

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.

mothnightsheet

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.

Malt-Hops-Moths-greenlogo

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.

1280px-Great_Sphinx_of_Giza_-_20080716a

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?

sphinxmoththumbnail

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 BugGuide.net

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

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.

jbush1

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 texasento.net. “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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Join us! Malt, Hops and Moths: Moth Night at the Alamo Brewery July 23

San Antonio will gain a greater understanding of moths July 23 when the Alamo Brewery stages a family friendly evening of nighttime nature that will shine a much-needed spotlight on the beauty, importance and diversity of moths, the underappreciated siblings of butterflies.

Malt-Hops-Moths-greenlogo

JOIN US. July 23, 2015 at the Alamo Brewery in downtown San Antoino.

Malt, Hops, and Moths will take place at the downtown brewhouse, 9PM – Midnight, Thursday, July 23, 2015, and will benefit the Friends of San Antonio Natural Areas. Admission is FREE.

The fun, educational event, sponsored by this website, the Alamo Brewery, Trinity University, the Rivard Report, and the Arsenal Group, coincides with the fourth annual National Moth Week 2015 July 18-26, a global citizen-science project that celebrates the beauty, incredible biodiversity and ecological importance of moths.

The three-hour nature night will occur outside the Brewery near the Hayes Street Bridge where mercury vapor lamp and black light moth magnets will be set up to attract moths and other insects for close-up viewing, inspection and recording.

mothselfiechrisrobinson

Trinity University biology graduate Chris Robinson shows off his moth selfie. Join us for Malt, Hops and Moths on July 23 at the Alamo Brewery in San Antonio to snap yours. –Photo by Monika Maeckle

Would-be “moth-ers,” that is, folks interested in observing and enjoying the spectacle, can use their cell phones to snap “moth selfies” and help record data of observed species, then load them up to iNaturalist, a crowdsourced species identification cellphone app. Organizers plan to have moth host plants and caterpillars on hand, edible insect snacks, a slideshow and more.

FSANAcolorlogoAlamo Brewery will serve a special editionSphinx Moth Amber Ale at the event in honor of National Moth
Week’s featured moth
this year, members of the Sphingidae family–hawk and sphinx moths.  The beer will be used to make “moth bait” and participants will be invited to mix up the stinky stew—Alamo beer, overripe, mashed bananas, yeast and molasses–and smear it on nearby trees and structures with a paintbrush. (Sound like fun? Gloves provided.) The concoction is irresistible to moths.

“Moth night is a great way to get kids and adults engaged in nature,” said Daniel Large, a habitat conservation plan coordinator for the Edwards Aquifer Authority who co-organized the event in collaboration with me and Trinity biology associate professor Dr. Kelly Lyons.

Sphinx Moth on Datura, photo by Betsy Betros, via BugGuide.net

Ladies and gentlemen….the featured moth for National Moth Week 2015….the Sphinx Moth. Here, on Datura, photo by Betsy Betros, via BugGuide.net

We encourage everyone to join the fun at the Brewery next month, but remind you that anyone can stage a moth night in your own backyard, the park or the neighborhood.

“It’s amazing what you can find once you start looking–even if it’s just from the comfort of your own home” said Large. “With moths and many other insects, just turn on a porch light at night and see what happens,” he said.

Dr. Lyons’ Trinity biology students will assist citizen scientists in identifying moth species and uploading the data to iNaturalist. “Crowdsourced data collection at events like Moth Night help us understand the greater ecosystem,” said Dr. Lyons.

nmwlogoPlus, it’s just fun to hang out in the dark, enjoy a beer and see what shows up.

While most people view moths as pests, only one family of the hundreds of thousands of species eats clothes. As one who has been partial to publicity hogging butterflies for many years, I was surprised to learn that moths outnumber butterfly species 10:1.   Scientists believe that somewhere between 160,000-500,000 species of moths exist.

Moths indisputably get a bad rap.  Not only beautiful and interesting, they play an important role in the food chain, serving as pollinators and food for pollinators and other creatures.

Bees pollinate the malt that makes our beer, but moths help make tequila happen, for example.  They serve as a primary protein for bats, which pollinate the Agave cactus from which tequila is distilled.   And the “worm” in the Mezcal bottle is actually the caterpillar of the Tequila Giant Skipper, Aegiale hesperiaris, a species that lies taxonomically between a moth and a butterfly.

San Antonio’s Malt, Hops and Moths Night joins hundreds of similar National Moth Week events around the world. Last year, more than 400 events took place in 50 states and 42 countries. To see the event roster, check out the map on the National Moth Week webpage, and please join us on July 23!

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

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Happy Pollinator Week! Unpaid Workers of Our Food Web Deserve Respect and Resources

Monday kicks off Pollinator Week, a seven-day celebration of those that make two out of every three bites of food we eat possible.

Bee on sunflower

Bees are the master pollinators and keep our food affordable. Photo courtesy FWS/Cristina De La Garza

Yes, that’s correct:   birds, butterflies, beetles, bats, and moths make our food happen.  Were it not for the free ecosystem services provided by these creatures, food would cost much more and many would go hungry.

Just like our underpaid food service industry workers whose minimum wages don’t aptly reflect their contribution to society, pollinators get little respect.  That’s changing.  But in the meantime, since we pay them nothing for their valuable services, can we at least make a greater effort to understand, appreciate and support pollinators?

pw15logoFINALbThat’s the goal of Pollinator Week, organized by the Pollinator Partnership, a nonprofit organization devoted to the greater understanding and appreciation of pollinators and their ecosystems. The week-long event seeks to call attention to these valued members of our food web through activities, outreach and education.

Pollinators have been making news lately.  Just last month, President Barack Obama released the National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and other Pollinators, a 58-page document that lays out a plan to reverse the disturbing trend of pollinator decline.  It results from the work of a Pollinator Task Force established by the President last June.

The strategy document reflects grave concern and a serious attempt to address these depressing  facts:  Bee populations plummeted 40% last year.  The magnificent Monarch butterfly migration is at risk, since the butterflies’ numbers have dropped 90% in recent years from their high in the 90s.  The butterfly is being considered for listing as  “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act.  Bats populations have also taken a deep dive, and they’re fighting a strange malady called white-nose syndrome.   All pollinators face massive habitat destruction, climate change, pesticide abuse and  agricultural and developement practices that don’t support their existence.

Obama

Thanks, Obama! For making pollinators a priority. Courtesy photo

Of the 100+ official Pollinator Week events listed on the Pollinator Partnership website, Texas lists seven–with no official events in San Antonio or Austin.   I’m embarrassed.  Next year, people, we will have our own events.  (NOTE:  Stay tuned for details on our Malt, Hops and Moths event at the Alamo Brewery, July 23, which will celebrate National Moth Week!)

Unofficially, though, several local organizations are staging events that happen to celebrate pollinators during Pollinator Week.  Here they are.

Butterfly Count at San Antonio Botanical Gardens and Hardberger Park

Get your citizen scientist on with Patty Leslie Pastzor, San Antonio’s local denizen of native plants.  Pastzor has organized a butterfly census as part of the official North American Butterfly Association count, Monday, June 15, and Thursday, June 18.

Cowpen Daisy is a butterfly magnet and easy to grow

Help count butterflies for the North American Butterfly Association and learn about native plants at the same time with Patty Leslie Pastzor this week. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The outings include hikes centered around identifying and collecting data on San Antonio area butterflies. The June 15 event takes place at the San Antonio Botanical Garden.  On Thursday morning volunteers will gather at Phil Hardberger Park. A $3 fee applies to register your data. Wear a hat, sunscreen and comfortable walking shoes. For more info or to RSVP, contact Pastzor at 210.837.0577 or email agarita@me.com.

Pollinator Talk at Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin

As part of their Nature Nights series, Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center will host a pollinator overview Thursday, June 18, 6 – 9 PM.  The event is FREE. Bat Conservation International, Travis Audubon Society and the Austin Butterfly Forum will pitch in to explain the importance of pollinators in our food chain.

bats

Did you know that bats pollinate agaves, which makes Tequila possible? Photo via Bat Conservation International

Wildflowers and Whiskey Sours at Cibolo Nature Center, Boerne

Judit Green, Texas Parks and Wildlife biologist and plant expert, will offer a tour and conversation during a plant walk through the wildflower bounty at the 60-acre Herff Farm in Boerne, Thursday, June 18. “Adult beverages” provided, as well as drinks for the kids.   6:30 -8:30 PM,  $10.  830.249.4616 for more info.

Further afield, the following are official “Pollinator Week” events.

Pollinator Week at the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge in Alamo, Texas 

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in Alamo has an entire week of pollinator festivities planned.   Tuesday-birds, Wednesday-butterflies and bats, Thursday-dragonflies, and Friday-pollinator habitat.   Plant giveaways and story time are also part of the programming.   Events start at various times and are FREE with your $5 vehicle entry fee. See the Santa Ana NWR Facebook page for details.

Hummingbirds also serve in the unpaid pollinator workforce.  Photo by Charles Sharp Photography

Hummingbirds also serve in the unpaid pollinator workforce. Photo by Charles Sharp Photography

Pollinator Workshop at the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center in Ft. Davis, Texas

Pollinator expert Cynthia McAllister of Sul Ross State University will lead a pollinator workshop June 20.  It starts indoors with a presentation/overview of the importance of pollinators, then moves outside for a tour of the pollinator garden with close-up binoculars to get a bee’s eye view of the pollination process.  10 AM – noon, Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center Visitor Center.  FREE.

For more Pollinator Week events and to learn what you can do to help foster their livelihoods, check out the Pollinator Partnership website.
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Trinity Students Tackle Invasive Johnson grass on Llano River

There was a fine lady from Lampasas
Who waged battle with invasive grasses
When a root so immense
of that Sorghum halepense
Knocked her and her friends on their Johnson grasses.

                          –Chris Best, Texas State Botanist
                             U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

monarchsonfrostweed

Monarch butterflies nectar on Frostweed along the Llano River in 2012. Now the native nectar source has to compete with Johnson grass. Photo by Monika Maeckle

On the Llano River, we’ve always enjoyed lovely stands of Goldenrod and Frostweed in the fall when the Monarchs pass through. Solidago altissima and Verbesina virginica, beautiful yellow and white fall bloomers, respectively, serve as important nectar and resting stops for migrating Monarch butterflies and other creatures.

Until recently.

In the last two years, we’ve noticed our uninterrupted stands of fall nectar plants persistently punctuated by invasive Johnson grass. A recent road project that busted the crust on our river frontage opened the gate for germination, and the record rains and floods have put our nectar rest stop for pollinators at risk. Where once stood a solid stand of fall blooms for migrating Monarch butterflies, local Swallowtails and native bees, now presides an uninvited patch of Johnson grass.

The pesky invasive, Sorghum halepense, first arrived in the U.S. from the Mediterranean in the 1800s when it was imported as a supplementary foraging crop.   We all know how that turned out.

Eastern gamma grass

On the Llano River: Eastern gamagrass, a lovely native and host to the bunchgrass skipper.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Now, Johnson grass is one of the Top 10 Most Noxious weeds in the world, according to the educational website Texasinvasives.org, a public-private partnership of state and federal agencies, conservation organizations, green industry businesses, academia and others organized to protect Texas from the threat of invasive species.  Johnson grass is super aggressive, spreads through rhizomes and seeds, hogs space and resources, and crowds out natives that provide food, fodder and shelter to local wildlife.

Johnson grass has nasty rhizomes
Creeping through the clastic loams
The bunches measure three feet wide
And their leaves are stuffed with cyanide.

                                            –Chris Best

When stressed by drought, frost or herbicides, Johnson grass can produce toxic amounts of hydrocyanic acid that makes it poisonous to livestock–not a trait you typically seek in a grass meant for cattle grazing.  The seeds are also especially well protected by their casings and can survive the digestive tracts of birds and others that might eat them.

Oh, and Johnson grass likes moist conditions.  Like riversides.  After floods.   Are you getting the picture here?

austinjohnsoneeggrass

Trinity biology student Austin Phillipe lets us know what he thinks of Johnson grass on the Llano. That’s Johnson grass on the left. Eastern gamagrass on the right. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Trinity University students to the rescue.   Last week, five students accompanied their biology professor, Dr. Kelly Lyons, a restoration ecologist and expert in invasive plants, to the Texas Butterfly Ranch to assist in a Johnson grass eradication project as part of Trinity University’s summer research program funded by the University, Texas Ecolab, and the National Science Foundation.

The project began in April when a team of students arrived at the ranch to set up plots and gather baseline data on plant density and diversity.   Four 15- x 2-meter plots were established and will be treated with different forms of Johnson grass control–grubbing, weedwhacking, herbicides, and fire in various combinations.

Last week, students Ann Adams, Cassandra Alvarado, Avva Bassiri-Gharb, Kendall Kotara and Austin Phillipe returned to check the effect floods had on the site and begin control treatments.  The messy job of reestablishing the plots started Thursday, as super-sized mosquitoes dogged the students.  “Wear a hazmat suit,” quipped Avva Bassiri-Gharb. Said Phillipe:  “A bad day in the field beats a good one in the lab. But we had a great day in the field so you can’t beat that!”

More data collection and Johnson grass removal continued Friday in the aftermath of yet another inch-plus of rain and two overnight tornado warnings.  Grubbing and herbicide applications followed, with herbicide applied via makeshift wand–actually barbecue tongs wrapped in towels–that kept the product from escaping to desirable plants.

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Later this year we’ll test fire as a control method, and plant Eastern gamagrass, Tripsicum dactyloides, as a native replacement.   The project will continue into 2016.

Eastern gamagrass, a lovely, large bunchgrass related to corn that grows two – 10-feet tall, is well suited to the Llano River’s unpredictable moods of famine and flooding.

Dr. Kelly Lyons

Dr. Kelly Lyons

“The species is already present in high abundance and provides high quality habitat,” said Dr. Lyons, adding that Eastern gamagrass also works as a great soil stabilizer in river ecosystems. “Restoration ecologists often refer to it as ‘riparian rebar’ since its rhizomes are even more substantial than Johnson grass,” she said.

Eastern gamagrass also competes well with overzealous Johnson grass and uses niche space in a similar way, said Dr. Lyons. “We hypothesize that it will hold its own when Johnson grass tries to reinvade.”

So the war is on.  No surprise that we’re rooting–pardon the pun–for Eastern gamagrass.  It offers multiple benefits to our local creatures, including service as a host plant to the Bunchgrass skipper.   It also appears to be a steady companion to our Llano River Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, which is a host plant to Monarch butterflies.  The tall  mounds of Eastern gamagrass provide shade for late season milkweed from harsh summer sun and shield it from flooding.

Bunchgrasss skipper hosts on Easern gamma grasss and other bunch grasses.  Photo by Charles T. and John R. Bryson,  Bugwood.org -

Bunchgrasss skipper hosts on Eastern gamagrass and other bunch grasses. Photo by Charles T. and John R. Bryson, Bugwood.org –

We spend a lot of time and energy talking about restoring native milkweeds and other pollinator plants to the prairies that we’ve lost.   It’s equally important to manage and combat the deluge of invasive species that infect our wildscapes.  Johnson grass is just one interloper.    Check out the Texas Invasives website for more information.   We’ll keep you posted on the progress of the project.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bee_pollen_macro

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

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

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

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

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

Hand pollination in China

Hand pollination in China. Photo courtesy Oakland Museum of California

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

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

IH35 mileage by state

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

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

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

Skipper on Swamp Milkweed, Llano River

Looking to see more of these on native milkweeds: Skipper on Swamp Milkweed, Llano River  Photo by Monika Maeckle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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