Happy Monarch butterfly birthday suggests spectacular 2017 migration season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tagged Monarch butterfly

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

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

Journey North

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

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

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

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

 Twitter

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

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

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

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

 

Wind Map

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wind map creators

Wind map creators Martin Wattenberg and Fernanda Viégas. Courtesy photo

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

LOVE this project.

Monarch Watch and Journey North Facebook Pages

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

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

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

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

Monarch Watch Website

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

Monarch Watch website offers Monarch info 24/7/365

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

tagged recovered Monarch

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

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

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

D-Plex List

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

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

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

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

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Move over Monarch butterflies, Painted ladies are coming to town

While we wait for Monarch butterflies to make their seasonal pass through town, another long distance butterfly migrant is making its presence known in large numbers along the IH35 corridor: Vanessa cardui, commonly known as the Painted lady.

Painted lady, Venessa cardui, on zinnias in Drake White’s garden. Photo by Drake White, the Nectar Bar

Reports of an epic surge of the most common butterfly in the world surfaced last weekend when the ubiquitous speckled insect showed up by the thousands at the University of Kansas at Lawrence’s annual Monarch Watch Open House. The event typically serves as a showcase for Monarch butterflies, which generally migrate through Kansas during these early September weeks.

This year, however, Painted ladies crashed the party, showing up in droves and stealing attention from America’s most iconic insect.

“This is probably the largest migration of that species I’ve seen in over 30 years,” Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch and a host for the event, told the Lawrence Journal World September 8. Taylor will join us here in San Antonio for our festival and symposium, “Butterflies without Borders: the Monarch Migration and our Changing Climate October 20.”

Painted lady

Painted lady, wings open. Photo by Drake White, the Nectar Bar

Some would argue it’s high time the pervasive Painted lady shares in the butterfly limelight. Dusky and speckled when folded, bold, orange and black when open, wings of the Painted lady carry her through Europe, Asia, Africa, North America, and Central America. Painted ladies are constantly on the move, migrating periodically from the east coast of the U.S. to the deserts of the Southwest to northern Mexico in sporadic and sometimes dramatic numbers. Unlike Monarchs, which only eat milkweed in their caterpillar stage, Painted ladies are much less fussy about their host plant. The caterpillars consume thistles, mallow, legumes and hollyhocks. They even like soybeans, says Dr. Royce Bitzer, a Painted lady expert based at the Iowa State University at Ames. Painted ladies also show no fidelity to a particular roosting spot or overwintering site. They go dormant just about anywhere.

 

Painted lady sightings

Painted lady sightings on iNaturalist. Photo via iNaturalist

Bitzer has been studying the versatile insects for years and tracks them via citizen science reports, personal observation and radar. “Monarchs get all the attention. They’re the big charismatic species,” says Bitzer, whose  Red Admiral and Painted Lady Research Site provides a comprehensive overview of the butterfly and its close cousins.

Bitzer has been trying with mixed success to do a more systematic assessment of Painted lady life cycles and populations through his website and the citizen scientist app iNaturalist. Those interested can create an account on his site and report sightings here. The observations will be geolocated and shown on a map.

Painted lady on liatris spotted at Kerrville Schreiner Park on September 14. Photo by Cathy Downs

Another option is to join the hundreds of other observers who have filed 4,000 Painted lady observations on iNaturalist. The result of such citizen science is reflected in the map above, which shows the Painted ladies via orange dots on the map.

Bitzer says interest in Painted ladies is as ephemeral as their transitory presence.  “When they have big swarms, large migrations, that’s when I get 20 -30 people a week reporting on the website,” he says.

tagged recovered Monarch

Tagging Monarchs is only workable because they overwinter in the same place, making tag recovery possible. Photo by Monika Maeckle

With this surge in Painted lady population, perhaps that can change. Or, maybe Bitzer could start a Painted lady tagging program like the one implemented by Monarch Watch?

Not likely, since Painted ladies don’t all roost in one place, as Monarchs do each winter in Mexico. Tag recovery would be extremely rare. For that same reason, we don’t tag Monarchs in the spring. Recovering tags is too impossible.

The Painted lady parade in Texas appears to have begun. Butterfly observers on the DPLEX list, an email list serv that reaches more than 800 butterfly scientists, citizen scientists and butterfly fans, are seeing them in Dallas.

“I am seeing dozens of Painted ladies nectaring in spots all over the Fort Worth Botanic Garden,” posted Gail Manning, Entomologist and Education Team Leader for that North Texas-based organization.

Linda Rippert of Meadows Place, Texas, reported Painted ladies “nectaring on all sorts of plants” southwest of Houston. We’re seeing them here in San Antonio, too.

Several Painted ladies nectared on lantana along the South Channel of the Riverwalk earlier this week, and today one fueled up on Duranta in my downtown front yard.  Nectar Bar operator Drake White reports myriad sightings in North San Antonio at her home and Phil Hardberger Park.

Stay tuned for more. They may not be as dramatic as the memorable snout-nosed butterfly invasion of South Texas last September, but the Painted ladies are on their way.

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“Monarchy” members Chip Taylor, Elizabeth Howard to join Butterflies w/o Borders Panel

Monarch butterfly advocates Dr. Chip Taylor and Elizabeth Howard, both founders of citizen science programs that have driven Monarch butterflies into the mainstream through education and conservation, will join a trinational panel discussion, “Butterflies without Borders: Monarch Butterflies and our Changing Climate,” at the Pearl Stable in San Antonio on Friday, October 20.

Sponsored by the Rivard Report, the event kicks off the 2017 edition of the Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival in San Antonio, declared the first Monarch Butterfly Champion City in the nation in 2015 by the National Wildlife Federation.

Monarch butterfly tagged with Monarch Watch tag gets ready for take-off in the Texas Hill Country. –Photo by Monika Maeckle

Taylor founded Monarch Watch in 1997, a citizen science tagging program based at the University of Kansas at Lawrence that tracks the southbound migrants each fall. Howard started Journey North in 1994. The organization tracks wildlife migrations around the world–Monarchs, hummingbirds, whales, eagles and others, through a real-time website and crowdsourced app. Both panelists are well-known in Monarch butterfly conservation circles, sometimes dubbed “the Monarchy” by those who follow the tight-knit, dedicated community.

Rounding out the trilateral panel, Dr. Carlos Galindo Leal, Director of Communications for the National Commission of Biodiversity in Mexico, (CONABIO) will  join us from south of the border and Dr. Louise Hénault-Ethier, Director of Science, of the David Suzuki Foundation, in Montréal, will lend insights from Canada.

Last year’s Symposium occurred two and a half weeks before the 2016 presidential election. –File photo

Moderator Dan Goodgame, a former White House correspondent and currently head of executive communications at cloud hosting giant Rackspace, promises a provocative discussion. Last year, our Monarch Butterfly Migration and Climate Change Symposium unfolded to a capacity crowd just two and a half weeks before the 2016 presidential election. Many of us sat smugly in the audience assuming a different political regime would occupy the White House–one that would continue the budding legacy of pollinator advocacy planted by  President’s Obama’s 2015 National Pollinator Strategy. The 58-page document laid out a national plan to increase pollinator habitat and boost bee, butterfly and other pollinator populations.

But that didn’t happen. A year later, it’s a different, more heated world–politically and atmospherically. Border walls disrupting the National Butterfly Center  and the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge in McAllen, the dismantling of the EPA, retreat from the Paris climate change agreement, historic hurricanes, and the hottest year on record, temperature wise, for three years running–these issues hog the headlines. How does it all play out for people, pollinators and the ecosystems that sustain them? And what happens to food security when ecosystem services provided at no charge by insect pollinators are drastically diminished?

San Antonio sits right in the middle of the Monarch flyway. Graphic by Nicolas Rivard

The symposium launches three days of science, education, art and celebration and occurs during peak Monarch migration in San Antonio, when millions of Monarch butterflies east of the Rocky Mountains funnel through Texas on their way to Mexico to roost for the winter. Migrating Monarchs often spend the night along the streams and riverbeds of the Texas Hill Country, where late season wildflowers provide nectar fuel stops to help to power their long flight.

BUTTERFLIES WITHOUT BORDERS SYMPOSIUM
The Monarch Migration in our Changing Climate                                                    6PM- 8PM, Friday, October 20, 1017                
Pearl Stable, 307 Pearl Pkwy, San Antonio, TX 78215
Tickets $15 – $25.

Dr. Carlos Galindo Leal, Director of Scientific Communication at the National Commission of Biodiversity in Mexico (CONABIO). Galindo Leal has worked as Director of the Mexican Forest Program for World Wildlife Fund (WWF). He has authored several books, including “Danaidas, the wonderful monarch butterflies.”

 

 

Louis Hénault-Ethier, Director of Science, the David Suzuki Foundation, Montréal. Hénault-Ethier’s job is to make science understandable to the public. In addition to pollinator advocacy, Hénault-Ethier champions entomophagy, the eating of insects as food and using insects to address the surplus of food waste being dumped into our landfills.

 

Elizabeth Howard, founder of Journey North, one of the premiere citizen science organizations in the country, tracks and advocates for all kinds of wildlife migrations—hummingbirds, whales and Monarchs. Her organization’s live online tracking map allows participants to upload and see their data in real-time.

 

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, a citizen science initiative that tags and tracks Monarch butterflies. Known as one of the grandfathers of the Monarch butterfly conservation movement, Taylor oversees the program from the University of Kansas at Lawrence.

 

Moderator Dan Goodgame works as vice-president for executive communications at cloud computing leader Rackspace. Self described as a “recovering journalist,” Goodgame’s tenure as a top editor at TIME and FORTUNE, as a White House correspondent, and covering the Middle East and Europe made him a Pulitzer Prize finalist and best-selling author.

 

Special thanks to our underwriters, the Mexican Cultural Institute and Trinity University, for helping make this event possible.

 

And big thanks to our Keystone Sponsors for overall support of our Festival. GRACIAS!

                                                                                                
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Here they come! Texas Hill Country ready for robust Monarch butterfly migration

Stands of flowering milkweed and late summer flowers await migrating Monarch butterflies in the Texas Hill Country this season. The iconic black and orange butterflies are projected to arrive here in about six weeks.

Got eggs? On the Llano River’s swamp milkweed, they’re everywhere. –Photo by Monika Maeckle

Every year around Labor Day, we get a small parade of Monarchs, what’s known as the “premigration migration.” This early pulse of butterflies, unlike later arrivals that suspend sexual activties to save their energy for the long trip to Mexico, are still reproductive and lay eggs on local milkweeds that hatch to become the final generation of migrating adults.

This weekend on the Llano River suggests an exceptional year. For the first time in 2017, I saw more Monarch butterflies than any other species, including Queens, which are regular visitors in September.

Swamp milkweed in full bloom greeted premigration Monarchs this weekend on the Llano. Photo by Monika Maeckle

About a dozen adult Monarch butterflies dipped between the Chigger Island sycamore trees, taking turns nectaring on the pink blooming stands of Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, before depositing eggs. Just before sunset on Sunday, two separate pairs of Monarchs passed our favorite pecan tree near the picnic spot locked in impressive courtship flights. In these stunning displays of stamina, the male firmly clasps the female with his pincers and lifts her into flight. The pair flies from bush to tree, locked in a butterfly embrace in a coupling that can last for hours.

Monarchs tagged on a Sunday in 2010, found mating on Monday. Photo by Monika Maeckle

In the file photo above, the butterflies pictured were tagged in my butterfly garden on Sunday, October 31, 2010.  Shortly thereafter, they were observed mating.  On November 1, they were spotted still locked in a reproductive dance–24 hours later.

All that coupling made eggs abundant this weekend. I noticed dozens while inspecting milkweed stands from my kayak, as did scientist David Berman of the Oklahoma State University. Berman stopped by to check in on the state of our milkweed habitat and count eggs, caterpillars and adults. He’s been monitoring two transects including dozens of milkweed plants along our stretch of river for about a year as a contractor on a study being conducted by Texas A & M University. In and around his 50-yard transect, Berman found 48 eggs and eight caterpillars in various stages, as well as several adult flyers. He arrived at our place from monitoring Monarchs in Abilene, where he said “Monarchs were everywhere.”

Egg at 11 o’clock about to hatch. See how the top is dark? Photo by Monika Maeckle

By my reckoning, if not taken by predators or disease, these eggs will hatch the first week in October, just in time to join the big pulse of Monarchs that typically move through the Texas Funnel during peak Monarch migration for our latitude. In San Antonio, 29 degrees, that happens October 10 – 22. Check your peak migration dates here.

Just a bit further south from us and close to the Llano’s headwaters, our sons Nicolas and Alexander Rivard kayaked the South Fork of the Llano River this weekend. They also reported dozens of Monarch sitings and a healthy river ecosystem poised for butterfly arrivals. Snow-on-the-mountain, goldenrod, water hemlock and late flowering boneset are putting on great shows right now.

Snow on the mountain occupies the Llano’s riverbanks. PHoto by Monika Maeckle

Our friends at Journey North, whose founder Elizabeth Howard will join us as a panelist on October 20 for our Butterflies without Borders Scientific Symposium in San Antonio, touted overnight roosts in Ontario as the migration takes flight from northern climes.

On the DPLEX list, the email list serve that includes about 800 Monarch butterfly scientists, citizen scientists and enthusiasts, reports are increasing in frequency and generally optimistic in tone.

On September 2, Matt Baumann of Iowa posted this report: “Adult numbers looking good here (Cedar Falls). Currently have over a dozen Monarchs at any given time in my yard feeding on meadow blazing star, zinnias, and Mexican sunflowers. More adult Monarchs than last year at this point in early Fall. Adults here now look very healthy and have their big ‘migration wings.”

Save the dates!

The Facebook Group, Monarchs Migrating Through Ontario posted myriad reports of butterfly sitings and tagging. Rosetta McClain Gardens in east Toronto, Canada shared this: “… Aug 29th we tagged 66 monarchs. Slow but steady! Today the Monarchs came early and just kept coming all day until about 3PM. 102 tagged today! A great day of tagging. More females are starting to show up! YTD 612 monarchs tagged!”

Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch, who will also join our Butterflies without Borders Symposium as a panelist, predicted a healthy turn in his most recent Monarch Butterfly Population status report. “In sum, this looks to be a good year for monarchs – with a stronger migration in most regions and a good prospect that the overwintering population will increase from the 2.91 hectares of last year to 4 hectares or better this coming winter,” Taylor wrote in July.

All signs suggest he’s right.

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Nice job, Michigan: milkweed and nectar plants bolster Monarch butterfly migration

My husband and I just returned from the “Top of the Mitten,” an area that covers the northern most reaches of our favorite mitten-shaped state. We took a circuitous, 1400-mile drive around Lake Michigan that included stops at his boyhood stomping grounds in Petoskey and Kalamazoo.

A Monarch prepares to take flight across Lake Michigan from Peninsula Point. Photo by Dale Nemeth

For decades Bob has waxed nostalgic about growing up in northern  Michigan. Becoming acquainted with his boyhood home and escaping the South Texas’ summer heat were reasons enough to make the trip. But seeing this amazing part of the world and its unique geology and ecosystems turned the adventure into an awakening. What a beautiful place. Our visit also coincided with the beginning of the Monarch butterfly migration in that part of the world. Monarchs are just starting to take flight from southern Canada, thus we encountered some of our Danaus plexippus friends along the way.

My my Michigan milkweed, what big seedpods you have! Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park –Photo by Monika Maeckle

At Mackinac Island’s Mission Point Resort, Blackeyed Susans fill a beachfront prairie. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Most surprising: milkweed appears to be growing EVERYWHERE along the roadside in Michigan. True, we hugged the Great Lakes on our driving tour, but it seems that everywhere we turned–on highways, sunny clearances in forests, even at historic Mackinac Island Fort, milkweed flourished. Whether this was intentional or accidental, it doesn’t matter. Plenty of host plant exists for super generation Monarchs passing through  the Wolverine State and bode well for a healthy southbound population. Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, predicted in a recent blog post that Monarchs will experience a healthy rebound this year. Prospects call for “an increase from the 2.91 hectares of last year to 4 hectares or better this coming winter or better” in the amount of space the Monarchs occupy in their winter roosting sites.  Scientists calculate the Monarch population by counting the number of hectares they occupy in their roosting sites each winter in Michoacán, Mexico. The imperfect formula is currently 50 million butterflies per hectare.

Nectar plants were also abundant. Black-eyed Susan, (Rudbeckia hirta,) Smooth Aster (Aster laevis), Boneset or Thoroughwort (Eupatorium perfoliatum) and other flowers filled the roadsides and pocket prairies. Houghton’s Goldenrod (Solidago Houghtonii), a different species from the Solidago altissima that grows in Texas in late summer, can only be found in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, or  “U.P.,” as Michiganders call it. The dramatic plant, which sometimes includes strange galls that host a local moth, occupies the sandy shores of Lake Michigan, its stout yellow blooms braving the constant wind.

Houghton’s Goldenrod, a specialty of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, grows prolifically along the windy shores of Lake Michigan. Photo by Monika Maeckle

A highlight of the trip was Peninsula Point, a famous Monarch butterfly staging area. The migrating insects gather on the milkweed-studded shore of this skinny stretch of sand, which juts out into Lake Michigan. A historic lighthouse marks the Point, and just as ships sailing the lake use it for orientation, Monarch butterflies utilize the strategic location to navigate their migration.

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According to a plaque on the Peninsula Point Lighthouse, the area serves as one of few places in the country where one can witness Monarchs migrating en masse. The southbound butterflies gather here and use the area as a “nursery.” Just like our migrating Monarchs sometimes take a break along the Llano River or other Hill Country river bottom to wait out an unfavorable  wind, these pragmatic Monarchs have patience for an optimal wind current they can jump to cross the lake.

Raspberry brambles populated the forest at Peninsula POint. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Bob and I parked about a mile from the Point and chose to take a hike through the woods to reach our destination. We didn’t see many Monarchs until we came to the water, but in the forest where the sun peaked through the tree canopy, hundreds of wild raspberry brambles distracted us from our Monarch butterfly search.

Upon arriving at the Peninsula Point shoreline, we ran into Dale Nemeth, a Michigander from Stonington, not far up the road. He and his family rent a cabin every year across the water at Garden Peninsula. Nemeth sported a fancy camera with a long lens, and agreed

Dale Nemeth photographs Monarch butterflies getting ready to head south at Peninsula Point. Photo by Monika Maeckle

to share the picture at the top of this post. He says many Monarchs frequent the Garden Peninsula as well. “Their chrysalis amazes me…They remind me of a green pill capsule with gold engraving!” he wrote via email.

Janet Ekstrum, wildlife biologist for Rapid River/Manistique District of the Hiawatha National Forest, says the University of Minnesota operates a Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project (MLMP ) at Peninsula Point. Barring a projected frost next week which could cut monitoring short, she says MLMP will continue monitoring into mid September this year since they’re still finding eggs and caterpillars.

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Butterflies without Borders: Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival set for October

Dust off your wings and save the dates: the 2017 Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival in San Antonio will take flight Friday – Sunday, October 20 – 22, 2017, celebrating the magic and majesty of the Monarch butterfly migration.

Save the dates!

For those unaware, millions of Monarch butterflies leave the Mexican mountains each spring and head north in a unique multigeneration migration. Taking their cues from the sun, they rouse themselves from a semi-hibernative state, mate and head north in search of milkweed on which to lay their eggs. Then they die.

The eggs hatch into caterpillars and later morph into adult butterflies which produce subsequent generations over the summer. Those butterflies continue north, following the milkweed, all the way to southern Canada.

Migration map

The eastern population of Monarch butterflies will be moving through San Antonio in late October during peak migration as they make their way to Mexico to roost for the winter. Graphic by Nicolas Rivard

Each butterfly only lives about a month, until fall when a “super generation” of Monarchs suspends reproduction to head south and migrate thousands of miles “home” to the Mexican forest where they roost until spring and start the cycle anew. Each fall, the migrating Monarchs pass through San Antonio and the “Texas Funnel” in late October–just in time for our Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival.

Our second annual Festival in San Antonio, a community collaboration by the Texas Butterfly Ranch and pollinator friendly private sector companies, public entities, and nonprofit organizations, will span three days during peak Monarch migration week in the nation’s first Monarch Butterfly Champion City, so declared by the National Wildlife Federation in 2015.

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The timely theme of this year’s Festival: Butterflies without Borders. Thanks to The Pearl, HEB, San Antonio River Authority, the John and Florence Newman Foundation and the Rivard Report for their support as Keystone Sponsors and making the second annual Festival possible.

Three days of festivities commence Friday, October 20 at the Pearl Stable with a scientific symposium: Butterflies without Borders: the Monarch Migration in our Changing Climate. The event features an international panel discussion and some of Monarch butterfly science’s most well-known advocates.

Dr. Chip Taylor will join us for a discussion ofpolitics and pollinators.

Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch, Elizabeth Howard of Journey North, Dr. Carlos Galindo Leal from the Ministry of Biodiversity in Mexico (CONABIO), and Louise Hénault-Ethier of the David Suzuki Foundation in Montreal will gather to discuss the changing political and atmospheric climate. The discussion of pollinators and politics will be moderated by Dan Goodgame. Tickets go on sale in early September.  For more information on the speakers, see our events page.

On Saturday, a series of educational events will take place. Howard will lead a teacher training workshop on how to use Monarchs in the classroom. Taylor will guide a butterfly walk and talk at the San Antonio Botanical Garden, and Hénault-Ethier will explain why we all need to eat insects instead of beef and chicken at a Bug Lunch at the Witte Museum.

Saturday evening, the Institute of Mexican Culture will host a Monarch butterfly themed art opening by artist Luis Moro, “Monarcas, Atravesando Fronteras/Monarchs, Crossing Borders.” The opening is FREE and open to the public.

The Earn-a-Bike Coop’s Pedaling Pollinators will lead the parade. Photo by Cristian Sandoval

On Sunday, the actual Festival takes place. The day starts with the People for Pollinators Parade led by the Pedaling Pollinators, San Antonio’s own pollinator friendly bicycle troupe, organized by our friends at the Earn-a-Bike Coop. Hundreds of tagged Monarch butterflies will catch the wind, joining their siblings for their flight to Mexico in two separate release events. Trained butterfly docents, led by Drake White of the Nectar Bar, will fan out into the crowd to educate Festival-goers on why and how we tag Monarch butterflies.

More than 20 members of our unofficial Pollinator Posse, myriad educational partners, will offer engaging activities at the Pearl while the Sunday Farmer’s Market takes place. SAWS will host a Butterfly Landscaping Workshop at the Pearl Studio. The Festival and all events on Sunday are  FREE and open to the public.

Dr. Chip Taylor predicts a rebound year for the butterflies, as the breeding population in the northern zones appears exceptionally healthy and robust. “In sum, this looks to be a good year for Monarchs,” Taylor wrote in his late season Monarch Population Status update in August.

Good rains this summer also suggest a bounty of late nectar blooms awaiting the butterflies when they pass through San Antonio to fuel up for the final leg in their long journey to the mountains of Michoacán to roost for the winter. Their passage through the Alamo City generally occurs during the last two weeks of October.

Our Festival deliberately coincides with the Monarchs’ arrival in our part of the world. Come join us as we wish them safe travels south.

Special thanks to our Keystone Sponsors for making this year’s Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival possible!

Check our events page for more details and schedules. We look forward to seeing you there. 

Sponsorship opportunities still available.  

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Border wall at National Butterfly Center violates property rights and worse

If I ever pulled up to our Llano River ranch road to find a work crew, heavy machinery, pink flagged survey stakes, and trees slashed to the ground, I’d likely grab my husband’s shotgun.

Marianna Wright, Director of the National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas –courtesy photo

But Marianna Treviño Wright, director of the National Butterfly Center, has more self-control than me. She peacefully, but forcefully, ordered five contractors off the 100-acre private property owned by the National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas along the U.S. Mexico border. Then she took to the media.

Wright told local reporters that the National Butterfly Center received no notices or requests for access to the property–even though “no trespassing” signs were prominently displayed. According to a story in the local Mission, Texas paper, the crew wielded chainsaws, two mechanized brush cutters and other pieces of heavy machinery. They told her they were on assignment from the Tikigaq Construction LLC firm in Point Hope, Alaska. Their job: mark a 150-foot clearance for President Trump’s border wall.

X marks the spot where contractors planned to dig core samples for a future levee at the National Butterfly Center. Courtesy photo

“Just about every type of wildlife is here,” Wright told Progressive Times reporter Jose de Leon III. “This habitat is rich and diverse….What will happen to them if the wall is built here?”

Next door to Wright at the 2,000+ acre Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge, planning for Trump’s border wall has been underway for months. According to a July 14 story by Melissa del Bosque in the Texas Observer,  U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials have been meeting quietly with private contractors to plot out the first piece of Trump’s border wall here for half a year. Plans call for 28 miles of a new levee wall system in the Rio Grande Valley and 32 new miles of border wall system here. An 18-foot levee wall will stretch for almost three miles right through the Santa Ana wildlife refuge. Construction could begin at Santa Ana as early as January 2018, a federal official who asked to remain anonymous told the Observer.

The stretch of South Texas destined to host Trump’s border wall includes at least three wildlife areas. Photo via National Butterfly Center

Designated by the federal government in 1943 as a sanctuary for migratory birds and managed by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Santa Ana straddles the Rio Grande and is considered one of the most diverse ecosystems left in the United States. Along with the NBC and the Bentson State Park, the natural areas collectively provide habitat for the endangered ocelot, the jaguarundi, coyotes, bobcats, armadillos and 400 species of birds. See video below.

Known as one of the top birding destinations in the world, Santa Ana is being sacrificed precisely because of its federally protected status. Since the U.S. government owns it, they won’t be subjected to pesky lawsuits from private landowners like Marianna Wright and the National Butterfly Center. As another story in the Texas Observer noted in June, a third or more of 320 condemnation suits filed against private landowners to build a wall in 2007 are still unresolved.

In contrast, the National Butterfly Center (NBC) is a project of the North American Butterfly Association (NABA), a privately funded, nonprofit organization. Like its Santa Ana neighbor, NBC is devoted to the conservation of wildlife–specifically wild butterflies in their native habitats. NBC features a native species garden, offers walking trails, observation areas, educational exhibits and a plant nursery.

In a four-and-a-half minute video posted on Generosity.com on July 22,  Wright describes the flagrant disregard for the rule of law exercised by the work crews.

“They flat-out  ignored the private property sign and began work clearing trees along our road and the Rio Grande River,” she says in the video, as the South Texas breeze blows across the microphone.

******

           “this is not just about the butterflies….”

–Legal Defense Fund to Stop Trump’s Border Wall started by National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas

*****

“You may have heard about what’s happening with the Trump border wall and Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge,” says Wright, her voice rising as she refers to her government-employed neighbors. “Well those people can’t talk to you. But we can. And I’m gonna show you what’s about to be lost. And how the government is operating.”

She chronicles the violations and encourages contributions to a legal fund set up to fight it. The Generosity.com campaign specifically states “This is not just about the butterflies.” The federal government “will do as it pleases with our property, swiftly and secretly, in spite of our property rights and right to due process under the law,” states the campaign.

She describes the future loss of habitat that will result when “thousands of acres, 38 miles of river between Bentsen State Park and Santa Ana Wildlife will be cleared for this border wall that people climb over.  A border wall that already exists in places….It’s barely a deterrent.”

Canopy Walk, feels like the jungle at Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge

Canopy Walk at Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge, 2012. Will this view soon include a border wall? Photo by Monika Maeckle

Calling the border wall a waste of taxpayer dollars and an environmental disaster, she concludes what those of us who live in South Texas know well: border walls don’t stop illegal immigrants. We’ve had one, with gaps and gates, for years.

According to the American Immigration Council, approximately 650 miles of border fence already exists as of early 2017. We have 350 miles of primary pedestrian fencing, 300 miles of vehicle fencing, 36 miles of secondary fencing behind the primary fencing, and 14 miles of tertiary pedestrian fencing behind the secondary fence. These barriers run the gamut from tall metal and concrete posts to solid corrugated steel walls, metal fencing, and combinations thereof. Then there’s the surveillance tools–towers, cameras, motion detectors, thermal sensors, stadium lighting, ground sensors, drones. This montage of deterrents comprises the existing infrastructure aimed to stop the unauthorized entry of people, drugs, and arms into the United States.

But as former Department of Homeland Security Secretary under Obama Jeh Johnson said in a November 2016 speech: “We can spend billions of dollars to build a 10-foot wall on top of a 10,000-foot mountain. But if you’ve come all the way from Central America, it’s not going to stop you.”

Last weekend, as Wright posted her video, dozens, perhaps hundreds of illegal immigrants who tunneled, hiked, swam or waded across our border were discovered packed in an unairconditioned semi truck in a San Antonio Wal-Mart parking lot. The temperature climbed to 104 degrees here on Saturday, and was likely higher on hot asphalt.

Police officers gather around the tractor-trailer and tow truck outside of Walmart where ten people died last weekend. Photo courtesy Bonnie Arbittier, Rivard Report

When a Wal-Mart employee noticed people streaming from the back of the truck, he rushed over to provide assistance and dialed 911. Several people were already dead; more than 20 were sent to local hospitals with extreme dehydration, asphyxiation and other health issues. By Monday 10 people had perished.

Wright is right: It’s NOT just about the butterflies. Nor is it just about property rights. It’s about much much more than that.

Find the National Butterfly Center’s Stop Trump’s Border Wall Legal Defense Fund campaign here.

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

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

Monarch butterflies in Cerro Pelon, Michoacan, Mexico

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patricio Moreno

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

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

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

Dr. Ellen J. Sharp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teresa's salvia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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