Q & A: Dr. Anurag Agrawal challenges Monarch butterfly conservation conventional wisdom

Dr. Anurag Agrawal has a bit of a contrarian streak. Named the recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Ecology Award earlier this year, he was lauded for “opening up new research themes” and continuing “to push the envelope using novel approaches” to science, teaching and building community.

Anurag Agrawal by Frank DiMeo

Dr. Anurag Agrawal –PHoto by Frank DiMeo

Take a paper Agrawal and a team of researchers published in April, for example. Titled “Linking the continental migratory cycle of the monarch butterfly to understand its population decline,” Agrawal dared to suggest that the intense focus on milkweed in Monarch butterfly restoration efforts might be misplaced. Solutions that address habitat fragmentation and increasing the availability of late season nectar plants should receive more attention, he proposed.

Born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, Agrawal currently serves as Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Sciences and Faculty Fellow at the Atkinson School of a Sustainable Future at Cornell University. He’s married to fellow Cornell professor Dr. Jennifer Thaler, an insect ecologist, and the couple have two children, Anna and Jasper. Agrawal attributes his initial interest in science and plants to his mother’s intense love of vegetable gardening.

“Planting milkweed is probably not a bad thing to do but it’s not going to increase populations or save them from demise,” said Dr. Agrawal in a nine-minute video released in conjunction with the paper.

The paper rocked the “Monarchy” as he calls the the sceintific and citizen science communities devoted to the migrating insects in a soon-to-be published book, Milkweed and Monarchs: A Migrating Butterfly, a Poisonous Plant, and their Remarkable Story of Coevolution. The book will be available in April 2017. If all 296 pages are as readable and interesting as the first chapter, which you can read for free at the Princeton University Press website, Agrawal will have a butterfly bestseller on his hands.

Milkweed and Monarchs:

Milkweed and Monarchs, available in April 2017.  Dr. Anurag Agrawal’s soon-to-be-published book, details how the Monarch and milkweed plants have coevolved. –Courtesy photo

Agrawal has called the decline of the Monarch butterfly migration a “very gnarly problem,”  and consistently gives kudos to citizen scientists for contributing to our understanding of them. He often cites a need to “get the science right.”

That sounds like an honorable goal. Let’s hear more from Agrawal, below.

Q: Did you get a lot of flack for your contrarian view on the priority placed on milkweed in Monarch restoration efforts?

Agrawal: I did get a lot of flack.  And I would say that it was pretty interesting, too, because a substantial amount of the flack was off-the-record.

We had sent the manuscript to several Monarch researchers and many of their comments substantially improved the study. But there was a lot of pushback from very prominent research before we got it published. They were asking, ‘Do you want to be the person that derails Monarch conservation? You will appear to be in bed with Monsanto.’

It’s nice to think about science as a fact-based enterprise, but I was really surprised at the extent to which there was a strong agenda and some folks were not open to alternate interpretations of the data and the conventional wisdom.

I was anxious to see what would happen once the paper was published. And I was glad to see that when some of the senior Monarch researchers were asked, they said they didn’t agree–but they were far less bold in their public disagreement or criticism of the work.

My hope is that the study contributes a little to a change in perspective. Any good scientist would agree there are many factors and many causes that contribute to Monarch decline and getting the science right is critical to having a positive impact.

Q: Is it not of the evolutionary cycle for creatures to STOP migrating if they can secure the food and reproductive resources they need locally?

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Predators like the Tachinid fly serve the evolutionary purpose of keeping the Monarch population in check. Here, Tachinid larvae next to dead Monarch caterpillar. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Agrawal: For Monarchs, it’s known that the ancestral populations are migratory but that there are nonmigratory populations in Florida, Spain, Hawaii and elsewhere. Some new populations will evolve to be non-migratory, including some non-migratory populations in Mexico.

Scientists believe that migration evolves to take advantage of a large un-utilized resource in some seasons. For example, movement north from Mexico and the southern U.S. in spring evolved to take advantage of abundant milkweeds in the Midewest and Northeastern USA.

Migration is certainly an evolvable trait. In many of the articles I’ve read, almost everyone agrees Monarchs are not under any threat to go extinct; but the migratory phenomenon, one of the most spectacular in the world, may be at risk of going extinct.

Q: Is it arrogant of us to work to perpetuate the Monarch migration for the sake of our joy and fascination of witnessing the natural spectacle? What would the butterflies think if they had the option to reproduce and feed locally rather than migrate thousands of miles?

You’ve asked a really good question: is it arrogant for us to expect the migration to continue forever? The reason people worry about its loss is that we have to ask, to what extent is that loss driven by human consumption of the planet?

The world is changing on its own, organisms are evolved creatures and go extinct all the time; the pace of that extinction is much much more rapid in recent years than in the pre-industrial past. It has been likened to the pace of mass extinctions caused by events like asteroids hitting the planet. If that’s the case, and we have some control over it, then my answer is quite different than if the decline is due to “natural causes.”

Q. What is your view on Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, and advice from many scientists to chop it down in the late summer and early fall? What about other milkweeds that continue growing through the season in warm climates?

Agrawal:  We just don’t really know. That hits on a key issue: what causes the break in reproductive cycle–is it the presence of milkweed flowers in general, or is it something specific to Tropical milkweed?

Asclepias curassavica, Tropical milkweed, NOT native, but a great Monarch host and nectar plant for all butterflies. Photo by Moniak Maeckle

Asclepias curassavica, Tropical milkweed, NOT native, but a great Monarch host and nectar plant for all butterflies. To plant it or not is not a simple question. Photo by Monika Maeckle

We don’t know all the reproductive cues that affect Monarchs. Scientists discouraging “non-native” milkweeds are sticking with the precautionary principle–i.e., natives are expected to keep monarchs on track to continue their cycle.

What is a gardener to do?  Plant native milkweeds.

Habitat protection is a good thing. But there are a lot of unknowns. During the southern migration we’re just starting to get some sense of what happens in Texas–but we have very little information about what happens for the last 800 miles. That last third in Northern Mexico is when they’re struggling with wing wear, with lack of fuel (nectar), and we have very little data on that leg of the journey.

Q. Do you think that the rearing and release of Monarchs by citizen scientists and enthusiasts is harmful or helpful to the cause?

Agrawal:  It’s not something I have a scientific opinion on. It’s a double-edged sword in some ways… I’m very pro public engagement with the natural world, but I’m personally not that fond of the rear-and-release for the purpose of “helping” a species. It hints of a little bit of arrogance. We’ve created some problems and now we’re going to solve it by just raising them to make up the difference?! That’s not how nature works.

What makes people think that rearing them in cages is going to increase the abundance of the species? Look at the Bald Eagle. It wasn’t rearing them in captivity that saved them; it was improving habitat, understanding where they want to nest that made the difference.

We all desperately want to help, but I’m not sure that getting in the drivers’ seat is the most sensible approach. I would argue from the perspective of environmental education it makes a lot of sense–to be in Nature, to experience it, it’s something we can do.

Q. Are you aware of the recent Monarch zones efforts by folks in Iowa whereby volunteers raise and release Monarchs using an outdoor biotent natural rearing protocol? Is that any different, better or worse than enthusiasts or commercial breeders raising and releasing butterflies?

Agrawal:  Natural is often better. There’s pretty strong evidence that suggests exposure to ultraviolet light kills off some of the parasites and that the natural cues of sunlight will increase the probability of the Monarchs migrating. But in Nature, more than 90% don’t survive!

It’s worrisome to take natural filters out of the life cycle that natural predation provides.
When a seedling in a forest makes it to be an adult tree it’s a one-in-a-million event. It’s the one individual in the snowstorm of acorns that wasn’t eaten by squirrels at the right place at the right time that makes it.

The life of a Monarch is the same, in a way. Of those 400 million butterflies in Mexico, only a fraction made it. For the population to be stable, there’s a biological filtration process that creates resistance to predators. Mass rearing removes that filter.

Q. What is the one most important thing gardeners, citizen scientists and regular folks can do to help pollinators and Monarchs?

Agrawal:  Something they can do is what they don’t do: don’t spray pesticides around their homes. Having a few more weeds around allows some diversity there, which is likely to protect the animals that visit those plants.

The home gardening movement has all kinds of benefits–reduce lawn and reduce consumption.

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Climate Change and the Monarch Butterfly Migration Symposium tackles tough questions

“Each one is a hole in the sky through which we can get a glimpse of heaven”.

–Mississippi wildlife artist Walter Anderson

That was how moderator Dan Goodgame launched our Climate Change and the Monarch Butterfly Migration Symposium October 21 at the Pearl Studio.

Monarch cat on swamp

The “new normal”?  Monarch butterflies continued to reproduce late into the season this year as warm temperatures caused many to break their diapause and lay eggs rather than migrate. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The 89-minute discussion was just one of three events that made San Antonio’s first Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival–three-days of art, science and celebration commemorating our favorite migrating insect, Danaus plexipus–such a success last month.

We share the video of that symposium in its entirety today, thanks to the generous support of the John and Florence Newman Foundation, a San Antonio foundation that invests in progressive initiatives in San Antonio and beyond.newman-logo

Questions raised in the symposium discussion are timely given the recent election and the long, late extremely unusual migration of Monarchs this season. As Thanksgiving approaches, many of us are STILL seeing Monarch butterflies in our gardens and wildscapes; policy questions about how President-elect Trump will address climate change and pollinator advocacy hang in the balance.

The symposium brought together an equal number of scientists and citizen scientists representing all three countries touched by the Monarchs’ North American travels to a sold-out house.

27-credit-artielimmer-texastechuniversity

On the panel: Dr. Katherine Hayhoe, rock star climate change expert from Texas Tech University. Born in Canada, Hayhoe “grew up with Monarchs” and had just returned from a visit to the White House where Leonardo DiCaprio asked her for her autograph.

 

 

Cathy Downs, from Comfort, Texas, works as an education cathyoutreach specialist  for Monarch Watch.

 

 

 

Dr. Cuauhtémoc Saenz RomeroMexican forester Dr. Cuauhtémoc Saenz Romero, of Michoacán, had been visiting Trinity University as a guest professor in ecological sciences; Dr. Saenz Romero studies the Oyamel forest where the Monarchs roost each winter.

 

 

maeckleheadshotMonika Maeckle, of the Texas Butterfly Ranch. That’s me. I was on the panel, but we didn’t plan it that way. At the last minute, our good friend Catalina Trail, founder of the Monarch butterfly roosting sites in 1975, was unable to attend because of a medical condition. I took her place.

The lively discussion touched on everything from the pros and cons of Tropical milkweed Asclepias curassavica, to whether or not “assisted migration,” or moving the Oyamel forest in Mexico where the Monarchs roost 2,000 feet higher in elevation to save it from climate change constitutes “interfering with nature.” Mitchell Hagney of the Rivard Report wrote a great wrap-up of the symposium the day after it happened.

At almost 90 minutes, the video may be a bit long for some. Thus, I have noted what I found to be some of the more interesting points with time stamps so those in a rush can skip to the parts that most interest them.

Two videos are also embedded in this one. Our butterfly friendly San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor, whose signature on the National Wildlife Federation’s Mayor’s Monarch Pledge made San Antonio the first Monarch Champion City in the country, recorded a welcome video for the Festival since she was unable to join us because of a previous commitment. That two-minute video can be viewed at minute 2:17, or you can watch it at the bottom of this post.

Our media partners, the Rivard Report, also made a lovely video with footage taken along the Llano River during peak migration to illustrate a story covering the Festival. That video can be viewed at 4:22.

If you want to skip all that and go straight to the discussion, fast forward to 7:30. Other notes/highlights are noted below.

*                   *                 *                *                       *               *               *

2:17 Mayor Taylor’s Welcome Video. “I can’t think of a better symbol of the bonds we share as people and as nations than the Monarch Butterfly,” says San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor.

4:22 Rivard Report video.

7:30 Moderator Dan Goodgame introduces panelists.

10:25 Video “Get Well Card” for Catalina Trail, from audience.

11:27 Maeckle explains how she came to know Catalina Trail.

16:01 Cathy Downs offers a state-of-the-union of the Monarch butterfly population.

19:27 Dr. Hayhoe discusses how climate change works as a “threat multiplier” to the Monarch butterfly migration and many other issues.

21:06 Dr. Saenz Romero explains how the unique ecosystem of the Oyamel fir forests in Mexico serves as a blanket for the Monarchs’ in the winter, raising the temperature up to 10 degrees under the forest canopy, keeping the Monarchs from freezing.

oyamel drought

Dr. Saenz Romero discussed how drought and extreme weather has been tough on the Oyamel trees. They can’t get enough water from the soil during the dry season to keep the tree tops from dying. Photo by Dr. Cuauhtémoc Saenz Romero

28:35 Dr. Saenz Romero introduces the “radical” idea of moving the forest.   “I may be crucified by some ecologists,” he says.

“So when you plant Oyamel at higher altitudes than it exists today, we have to move the population higher. Then we have to hope, some say pray, that the Monarchs will change the location of their overwintering sites. We don’t know if it will happen. As you know, the generation that got to Mexico had never been to Mexico.”

“By 2090 there will not be a single square kilometer of climate that is good for the trees where the Monarchs go for over wintering.” –Dr. Saenz Romero

32:30 Dr. Saenz Romero bemoans the challenges of moving the forest higher, noting that even though “there’s no soil” above the tree line, that  has not stopped avocado growers from trucking in soil to Michoacán to grow avocados “for your Superbowl.”

35:05 Goodgame poses the question: will the butterflies follow the forest up the mountain if the Oyamel forest is moved? Downs tackles the question.

36:43 Hayhoe chimes in that indeed the butterflies could adapt—if they have time, “So after the last ice age there was a huge warming of the planet. That warming happened over 10-50 times longer than what we are seeing today.”

“If the climate changes more slowly, will the butterflies adapt? I think the answer is, yes. Without a doubt. I think the question really is: can they adapt this quickly without help? And it isn’t just the butterflies.”–Dr. Hayhoe

39:30 Cathy Downs suggests what we can do to mitigate the damage of climate change, including planting milkweeds and late season nectar plants.

43:30 Downs and Maeckle discuss the odd, late Monarch migration this fall and how Monarchs are more frequently breeding this season. “They aren’t supposed to do that, they aren’t reading the book!” says Downs. “They are supposed to be in diapause.”

44:00 Maeckle brings up the Tropical milkweed debate—the question of what are native plants in the Monarch world. “If it’s ok to move a forest out of its native zone, why not a host plant?”

45:39 Saenz attempts to answer the question.

48:19 Dr. Hayhoe offers ideas about how to talk about climate change. “The reason why we care about a changing climate is because it takes something that we already care about, that we’re already concerned about, and it puts that extra straw on the camel’s back.” she says. “So in the case of the butterflies, there are already many reasons to be concerned.”

“What is climate change doing to the butterflies?” It’s doing a few different things. It is actually changing their phenology—what does that mean? It means when they breed and when they migrate. We just heard first-hand witnesses of how things are changing, and they’re changing because the warm temperatures are throwing off the butterflies’ internal calendars.” –Dr. Hayhoe

50:50 Hayhoe offers that we need to build resilience and wean ourselves from fossil fuels. She expresses hopefulness tied to the Paris Climate Change Treaty.

54:32 Saenz answers Goodgame’s question about how ecotourism is effecting the roosting sites—hurting or helping?

“Tourism is very positive at overwintering sites, because there is a very severe restriction to cut trees today, because it’s a biosphere reserve in the core area, so nearly the only income alternative to cut trees is to have ecotourism.”–Dr. Saenz Romero

56:10 Saenz Romero expresses pessimism about the voluntary enforcement of the Paris Climate Treaty, as Mexico begins oil drilling in the ocean and continues to import oil from Australia.

58:44 Goodgame introduces the issue of the possible copper mine at the Monarch roosting sites in Mexico.

1:01:15 Question from the audience: Should the mastodons still be alive today?

1:03:55 Goodgame follows up: Is the issue that the butterfly will go extinct, or that it just stops migrating?

Maeckle answers with a question: why do insects migrate? For shelter, for host plant, to reproduce. And if the Monarch butterfly can have local milkweed and mates here in San Antonio or Houston or Florida, why should they migrate? Why would they migrate?

“Is it a vanity for us as human beings for us to expect this insect to make that journey so we can be marveled, so we can appreciate it? And what would the butterfly say if we could interview the butterfly?”–Maeckle

1:05:52 Downs debates the pros and cons of migratory vs. local Monarch butterfly populations. “Personally, I think it’s important and I’m all for the vanity of that.”

1:13:56 What are the impacts of pesticide use?

1:16:08 Is Tropical milkweed good or not?

1:19.08 Do the two or three milkweeds in my yard make a difference?

1:19:58 Are we preventing adaptation by interfering with nature?

1:20:54 What other species of trees are part of the forests where the Monarchs roost? What is the reforestation plan for the Oyamel forest?

1:23:00 What is the forest going to look like in 50 years? And is there a possibility that the Monarchs would roost there on other species?

1:26:46 How will climate change impact predation pressure on Monarchs?

thanks

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What will happen to pollinator advocacy under President Trump?

Monarch butterflies undertook an unusual migration this 2016 season as a series of small pulses and late season flyers moved through the Texas Funnel en route to Mexico, replacing the concentrated butterfly wave that usually makes passage in mid-late October.

late season Monarchs

Monarchs were late to the party in 2016. Sounds like an election night the country just experienced. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The migrating butterflies were extremely late and unusually reproductive this year. Migrating butterflies do not typically reproduce. Rather, they save their energy for a spring orgy in Mexico that launches the following year’s first generation of butterflies.

As October gave way to the first day of November and the hottest temperatures in history, Monarchs continued their reproductive activities–dropping eggs, hatching caterpillars and forming chrysalises up until Election Day. Scientists, citizen scientists and casual observers all wondered: what the heck is going on?

The same question could be asked in this unprecedented election of a President. Past history and polling data proved wildly out of sync with the fact that on November 8, 2016, Americans elected Donald J. Trump their 45th president of the United States. Just like this season’s Monarch migration, that reality is generating a slew of head-scratching questions for those of us who care about butterflies.

Trump and Obama

Will Trump continue Obama’s legacy of pollinator advocacy? Photo via Donald Trump’s Facebook page

Before we speculate on what a Trump presidency might hold for pollinator advocacy, let’s recap President Barack Obama’s great work on behalf of pollinators.

In 2014, following the petition proposing listing of Monarch butterflies as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, President Obama met with the president of Mexico and prime minister of Canada to discuss a Pan-American strategy for saving the iconic Monarch butterfly migration.  He and First Lady Michelle Obama planted the first-ever pollinator garden at the White House. Pres. Obama also announced the formation of a Pollinator Task Force that produced the National Pollinator Strategy in 2015. The 58-page document outlined three ambitious goals for the U.S.:

  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.

The National Pollinator Strategy called for the creation of a “Monarch butterfly highway” of native plant and prairie restorations along the IH-35 corridor from Duluth, Minnesota to Laredo, Texas.  Interestingly, every state along that corridor voted for Trump except for Minnesota.

In June of 2016, Obama met again with his fellow North American leaders, los Tres Amigos, and reconfirmed the Pan-American commitment to preserving the Monarch butterfly migration.

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There’s no doubt that much of the advocacy, progress and attention to Monarch butterflies and other pollinators in the last two years has directly resulted from President Obama’s focus.  He will surely go down in history, among the growing community of committed pollinator advocates,  as “the pollinator president.”

Programs such as the National Wildlife Federation’s Mayor’s Monarch Pledge, research funding and grants focusing on milkweed habitat and prairie restoration, pollinator focused educational outreach and events through organizations like Monarch Watch, the Xerces Society and Monarch Joint Venture, and programs geared to encouraging private land owners to restore pollinator habitat on their properties in exchange for reduced property taxes have resulted from Obama’s pollinator focus.

And what will happen to these programs under a Trump Administration?

“The short answer is…it’s just too early to tell,” said Susan Kaderka, Southwest regional director of the National Wildlife Federation. “The Monarch work has been very popular—with states in the flyway, including many that went for Trump, with major cities and towns large and small. So it may be that it will continue, though I am sure USF&W is spending some money on it and it is unclear what will happen to that.”

Mayor Taylor at zoo

San Antonio’s butterfly friendly Mayor Ivy Taylor signed the National Wildlife Federation’s Mayor’s Monarch Pledge in December 2015 and made San Antonio the first Monarch Butterfly Champion City –Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch butterfly and pollinator advocates inside government and out echoed feelings of doubt and bewilderment. Most did not want their names attached to their quotes.

Several suggested that programs and initiatives might be safe for a while, as the new Trump administration focuses its attention elsewhere in the early days. A call for more reliance on private sector funding and pulling together for the long haul were common themes.

One government staffer mentioned a review of Trump’s 100-day mandate, which includes freezing all federal jobs, except positions in the military. “This will no doubt strain federal budgets indirectly or directly,” said the staffer.

Monarch expert Dr. Lincoln Brower, who helped initiate the petition to have Monarch butterflies listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, characterized his feelings this way. “Impossible to know, but I’m not optimistic,” he said. The listing is still under review and should be resolved by June 2019–year two of a Trump presidency.

President-elect Donald Trump has been characteristically vague about specifics regarding his future environmental policies, but he is regarded as a climate change denier and an advocate for freeing the domestic oil and gas industry from regulators. His website “positions” page doesn’t even include environment or climate change as a topic, but under energy, it states “Make America energy independent, create millions of new jobs, and protect clean air and clean water. We will conserve our natural habitats, reserves and resources. We will unleash an energy revolution that will bring vast new wealth to our country.”

Trump has labeled climate change a “hoax,” discussed dismantling the Environmental Protection Agency, and said more than once that he’s going to “bring back coal.” He has expressed a desire to undo the Clean Power Plan, and declared he will backpedal on the Paris climate change agreement signed by President Obama and representatives from 175 other nations in April.

“The prospect that the president-elect would roll back years of Obama administration policies buoyed investors in fossil fuels companies Wednesday—while sending shares of top wind and solar power firms tumbling,” stated a November 9 Wall Street Journal story headlined “Oil, Coal Seen as Winner With Donald Trump Victory.”

Every state along the Monarch butterfly highway IH35 corridor went for Trump except for Minnesota. Courtesy graphic

Every state along the Monarch butterfly highway IH35 corridor went for Trump except for Minnesota. Courtesy graphic

Trump’s suggested Cabinet picks offer some insight.

To lead the Environmental Protection Agency transition team, Trump selected Myron Ebell, a devout climate change denier who disputes the scientific consensus around manmade impacts on global warming.

As head of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a nonprofit organization devoted to “advancing the principles of limited government, free enterprise, and individual liberty,” Ebell and his anti-science positions are well-known.

Ebell once dismissed global warming as “a fad” and rationalized it as perhaps a good thing.  He wrote in a blog post on the CEI website “Complementing the weak scientific case for alarm, many people have realized that warmer climates are more pleasant and healthier. That’s why Americans move to Phoenix or Florida when they retire. If global warming theory turns out to be correct and winters become milder, then they may not be so eager to move from Michigan or New York.”

Scientific American, characterized Ebell’s role this way: “His participation in the EPA transition team signals that the Trump team is looking to drastically reshape the climate policies the agency has pursued under the Obama administration.”

As for Secretary of the Interior, the cabinet position that oversees federal lands, wildlife and rules on endangered species listings, Trump is considering Lucas Oil cofounder Frances Lucas, according to several news reports. Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., an avid big game hunter who created a stir earlier this year when photos of him with his African safari kills went viral via social media, is also being considered for the job, as is former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, known for her call to “Drill Baby Drill.”

Trump’s January 2016 interview with Field and Stream Magazine includes his references to his sons’ love for hunting and their shared belief that our national parks system, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, has been badly managed and maintained:  “..One of the things they’ve complained about for years is how badly the federal lands are maintained, so we’ll get that changed,” Trump told the magazine’s Anthony Licata.

Trump also said he’s “very much into energy” and “very much into fracking and drilling,” adding that “we never want to be hostage again to OPEC and go back to where we were.” Trump told Licata that he supports energy exploration, “as long as we don’t do anything to damage the land.”

Sustainability, renewable energy, government support of research and development into habitat protections and restoration have not been part of the Trump conversation with the public. For the next two months, an information vacuum with be filled with speculation. We will have to wait until Jan. 20 to find out Trump’s intentions.

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San Antonio’s first Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival a roaring success

Over three days and three events October 20 – 22, thousands of people came together online and in person to celebrate the Monarch butterfly migration during peak Monarch migration to make San Antonio’s first Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival a roaring success.

Kids scramble to get an up close look at Monarch butterflies. Photo by Scott Ball, Rivard Report

Kids scramble to get an up close look at Monarch butterflies. Photo by Scott Ball, Rivard Report

Or as we say in Spanish, un gran éxito.

One could argue (and I will) that we should expect nothing less from the country’s first Monarch Butterfly Champion City, so named by the National Wildlife Federation last December.

The Festival kicked off on Thursday, October 20 with the Buen Viaje, Mariposa Monarca! art show and celebration at the Mexican Cultural Institute in downtown San Antonio.

One of designers' Pineda Covalín's delectable Monarch butterfly gowns. Photo by Alex Holler

One of designers’ Pineda Covalín’s delectable Monarch butterfly gowns. Photo by Alex Holler

Recently arrived director Mónica del Arenal was so enthusiastic about the idea of a Monarch butterfly project when approached in August that within hours she had secured a commitment from Mexican nature photographer Ignacio Arcas to exhibit his work featuring the roosting sites in Michoacán.

Soon thereafter, del Arenal had a commitment from Pineda Covalín, Mexican fashion designers based in Mexico City who have an entire line of haute couture featuring textiles that show off the Monarch butterfly.  The design company committed to making their permanent collection available for the exhibit. And then Mexican artist David Romero agreed to “bring the roost to San Antonio” by creating an installation at the Institute that replicates the roosting sites.

Romero arrived early in the week to install thousands of laser cut butterflies onto the light fixtures illuminating the staircase at the Institute. The effect is a dreamy interpretation of what many will never have the chance to see.  The exhibit will be on display at the Institute until January 1.

Artist David Romero "brings the roost" to San Antonio. Photo by Rocio Guenther, Rivard Report

Artist David Romero “brings the roost” to San Antonio. Photo by Rocio Guenther, Rivard Report

About 100 people attended the opening reception, which included a discussion by Mexican Forester Dr. Cuauhtémoc Saenz Romero, Arcas and myself.  Read a full account of the reception written by Rocio Guenther of the Rivard Report.

On Friday, October 21, we hosted our symposium: Climate Change and the Monarch Butterfly Migration. All 144 seats sold out.

Savvy moderator Dan Goodgame led the panel–an equal mix of scientists and citizen scientists who represented all three countries touched by the butterflies’ unique migration. The hour-and-a-half discussion ended with questions from the audience at the intimate Pearl Studio.

Joining us for the symposium: Dr. Katherine Hayhoe, rock star climate change expert from Texas Tech University who had just returned from a visit to the White House where Leonardo DiCaprio asked her for her autograph; Cathy Downs, education outreach

Climate Change and the Monarch Butterfly Migration

Symposium: Climate Change and the Monarch Butterfly Migration. L-R, Monika Maeckle, Cuauhtémoc Saenz Romero, Cathy Downs, Dr. Katharine Hayhoe

specialist  from Monarch Watch; Mexican Forester Dr. Cuauhtémoc Saenz Romero who had been visiting Trinity University as a guest professor in ecological sciences; and myself, standing in for Catalina Trail, founder of the Monarch butterfly roosting sites in 1975, who was unable to attend due to illness.

The lively discussion touched on everything from the pros and cons of Tropical milkweed Asclepias curassavica, to whether or not “assisted migration,” or moving the Oyamel forest in Mexico where the Monarchs roost 2,000 feet higher in elevation to save it from climate change constitutes “interfering with nature.” The entire conversation will be made available online in the next week or two. Until then, here’s a great wrap up by Mitchell Hagney of the Rivard Report.

Finally, on Saturday, October 22, our Festival proper took place. Somewhere between 5-7,000 people joined us at the Pearl, a mixed used development lauded for its sense of place and respect for history on the banks of the San Antonio River. The award-winning development lived a past life as the Pearl Brewery, and owners have painstakingly conserved its character.

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People showed up with their wings on to participate in the People for Pollinators parade, led by the Earn-a-Bike Coop‘s Pedaling Pollinators. Participants ambled through the Pearl grounds as the Mariachi de Corazón San Antonio marched to a festive beat, leading the crowd under blue skies and mild temperatures.

Hundreds of butteflies were released at 10:30 and noon. After brief remarks explaining the migration and tagging program, docents and young volunteers led the contained butterflies into a courtyard. After a bilingual countdown–Uno, dos tres…three, two, one–the butterflies were released as musician Adam Tutor serenaded them with his saxophone and a song composed specifically for the occasion, Fly Away, sung by Celeste Thomas.

Throughout the morning, trained butterfly docents moved through the crowd, providing one-on-one demonstrations of how to tag a Monarch butterfly, accompanied by explanations of why we do so. All in all, 559 butterflies were tagged–400 from two mass releases, and 159 in one-on-one tagging demos by our docents.

chrysalis TBG partners

A couple attending the Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival walk under the chrysalis created by TBG Partners. Photo by Scott Ball, Rivard Report

Educational partners offered engaging tables with displays of food made possible by pollinators (Green Spaces Alliance), a Monarch Jeopardy Quiz (National Wildlife Federation), live caterpillars and butterflies courtesy of Monarch Joint Venture, education about and sales of native pollinator plants (Bexar County Master Gardeners and Native Plant Society), a game featuring the function of the proboscis (San Antonio Botanical Garden), a live bee hive (Alamo Area Beekeepers), Pollinator Palooza game (San Antonio River Authority), Monarch tagging and free milkweed seeds (San Antonio Zoo)–even a pollinator kite-building exercise organized by the good folks at the Bridge Projects.  Friends of the San Antonio Natural Areas, HEB, Rivard Report, and the San Antoino Hispanic Chamber of Commerce also offered education and entertainment, as well of lots of free stuff.

Our friends from TBG Partners even built triple whammy sculptures that displayed the life cycle in three installations, from egg to caterpillar, to chrysalis to butterfly.

Monarch butterfly helps recurit signers for a petition to stop the copper mine at the Monarch butterfly roosting sites in Angangueo, Mexico. Photo by Alex Holler

Monarch butterfly helps recruit signers for a petition to stop the copper mine at the Monarch butterfly roosting sites in Angangueo, Mexico. Photo by Alex Holler

At the Texas Butterfly Ranch booth, we sold Festival bandanas and tshirts, while inviting people to sign a petition assembled by the Endangered Species Coalition. The  petition encourages the Mexican government to stop the activation of a copper mine at the Monarch butterfly roosting sanctuaries. The butterfly pictured at right helped recruit signers, which numbered 591 by the time we finished.

Those who signed had their name enlisted in a drawing to win a “caterpillar condo” stocked with a second instar Monarch caterpillar, a chrysalis, and two tags.  Natalia Rojas, a recent transplant from Chicago who now lives in San Antonio, went home with the prize.

Natalia Rojas

Natalia Rojas won the drawing for the caterpillar condo. Thanks to the 591 folks who signed the petition. Photo by Monika Maeckle

We feel pretty good about our first Festival and are contemplating doing it next year. If you attended, we’d love to hear your thoughts. We want to make it even better and appreciate your input. Here’s the link. To those who already took the survey, thank you!

To all our education partners, volunteers and sponsors, THANK YOU FOR YOUR SUPPORT and we hope to see you next year.

thanks

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Monarch migration update: winds from south, hot temps stall butterflies on Llano River

Hundreds of Monarch butterflies paused in the Texas Hill Country this weekend as winds from the south and temperatures in the 90s prevented the migrating insects from continuing their journey south.

Monarchs pecan trees wind

Small clusters of six-12 Monarch butterflies battled the wind and 90-degree temperatures along the Llano River this weekend. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Most late season nectar plants had passed their peak, with much of the Frostweed, Verbesina virginica, and Goldenrod, Solidago altissima, two late season nectar favorites, starting to go to seed. Cowpen daisies, Verbesina enceliodes, situated in shady spots produced lush, new blooms, offering the stymied flyers a fuel stop.

Coupon Daisy pecan tree Monarch butterfly

Patches of Cowpen Daisy offered fuel stops for migrating Monarch butterflies in the shade of Llano River pecan trees. Photo by Monika Maeckle

On the river banks, Swamp milkweed, Asclepius incarnata, host plant for Monarchs and Queens, showed fresh foliage for late season caterpillars, providing plenty of host plant for those Monarchs who chose to ditch the migration and reproduce locally.

David Berman

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

David Berman, PhD candidate in the integrative biology program at Oklahoma State University, made the second of three scheduled visits to the ranch this weekend.

TAchinid fly larvae

Eeew.Monarch caterpillar killed by the parasitoid Tachinid fly larvae. Those red “pills” are the pupae of the fly. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Berman is gathering data for a study funded by the Texas State Comptroller’s Office and other organizations, looking at the impacts of parasitoids and fifth generation Monarch butterflies on the migrating Monarch population.

In the back of his white Durango, Berman carried an entire ice chest filled with dead Monarch and Queen caterpillars collected in Texas and infected with Tachinid flies. The gross fly has a science fiction-like life cycle: it deposits its eggs on Monarchs and other caterpillars, which then hatch inside the caterpillar and eat it from the inside out.

Second instar Monarch caterpillar

Second instar Monarch caterpillar on the Llano River, October 16, 2016. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Third install

Third instar Monarch caterpillar, Llano River, October 16, 2016. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Fifth instalr

Ready to bust his stripes. Fifth instar Monarch caterpillar, October 16, 2016 on Llano River. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Here along the Llano, known as the “last wild river” in Texas, dozens of Monarch butterfly caterpillars in all stages of development —eggs, caterpillars and adult butterflies in migrating mode—supplied plenty of data for his study.

“I’d have to agree with Dr. Chip Taylor that the migration will be late and long this year,” said Berman.

Monika on Llano tagging

Frustrating tagging outing on the Llano River. Photo by Victoria Echeverri

A small tagging team attempted to net the smaller-than-usual clusters of six-10 butterflies we usually encounter during peak Monarch season.

Victoria tagging

Victoria Echeverri of San Antonio takes her best shot at a cluster of Monarchs waiting out the wind on the Llano River. Photo by Monika Maeckle

High temperatures in the low nineties and winds out of the south gusting at 29 mph thwarted the butterflies directional flight south. They also seemed more skittish than usual, clinging to pecan limbs close to the limestone escarpment that provides a scenic backdrop to our river bottom.

Every time they left a pecan limb or cedar branch to continue their travels, a rush of wind would push them back. The wind made netting the creatures more challenging than usual,  as the slightest pivot of the Monarch’s wings or body would allow them to take a dramatic turn and avert our swoops.  A full day on the river only netted 58 tagged, compared to three times that many last year.

Monarch pecan

Pecan nuts made a convenient rest stop on the Llano River for migrating Monarch butterflies. Photo by Monika Maeckle

As the sun set on a mid October day that called for shorts and t-shirts instead of the usual jeans and long sleeves, we all wondered: is this the new normal? Rather than dramatic dense clusters of hundreds or thousands of butterflies roosting a few nights as in peak seasons past, maybe we’ll be seeing smaller groups over many weeks.

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Can’t get outside? Here’s how to track the Monarch butterfly migration from your desk

Monarch butterflies are on the move in what is likely to be a late migration.

Here in San Antonio, we’re entering peak migration time, as deemed by the calendar put together 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 fun 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 Monarch butterfly migration right from your desk or mobile device.  Check out the cool 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.

In last week’s map, below, overnight roosts were recently observed in North Texas.

Journey North 2016 map

Journey North tracks the migration weekly using data submitted by volunteer citizen scientists. Click on the map above to see latest migration status. –Map via Journey North

Journey North also publishes a weekly migration update on Thursdays, often written by founder Elizabeth Howard, like this one from October 6:  “A sudden and dramatic sweep into northern Texas occurred this week as the migration map shows. A river of wind carried monarchs by the thousands across Missouri and Oklahoma where a roost of 4,000 butterflies was reported — the largest of the season. On Friday, September 30, a dozen Texans reported in as a wave of butterflies arrived.

 Twitter

butterflyfest_300x600Using 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 of my favorite sources–including Journey North and Monarch Watch.

Granted, not everyone uses Twitter, but an estimated 313+ 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 butterflies” 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 butterflies” on Twitter today, retrieved a feed that included these beautiful photos.

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Twitter indexes the last 3200 tweets of any individual, so if you’re looking for historical archives, better check Google and other search engines. You can try searching Google News, but this won’t return the real-time reports Twitter delivers.  Check it out.

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.

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.

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Check the wind map and see which way the winds are blowing. This tells us alot about how Monarchs can move south toward Mexico–or not. Screen grab via Wind Map

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 more than 38,000 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 like Rachel Shoemaker form Bixby Oklahoma, recreational observers, and professional and amateur biologists and entomologists join the conversation.

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Screengrab via Facebook.

The Journey North Facebook page, with more than 24,000 fans is equally engaging.  Journey North posts regular updates and visitors like Peggyanne Wink in Pennsylvania share sightings and observations (see below).

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Screengrab via Facebook.

Numerous other Monarch butterfly pages have cropped up on Facebook in recent months, 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 1 this year 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 plexipus, 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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Butterfly bonanza: Monarch tagged in Oklahoma netted on Llano River in Texas

A male Monarch butterfly, tag number WMX658, paused Saturday morning October 1 around 11 AM on a fresh Frostweed bloom along the Llano River. Netted and retrieved, the faded Monarch was photographed, then released to set sail for his flight to Mexico.

Justin Roach WMX658

Justin Roach’s WMX658 male Monarch, 9/22 in Tishomingo, Oklahoma. Photo by Justin Roach

tagged recovered Monarch

About 350 miles and nine days later, WMX658  was netted on the Llano River near London, Texas. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Thanks to the miracles of social media and the tight-knit Monarch butterfly community, it soon became apparent that Mr. WMX658 was tagged at the Tishomingo National Wildlife Refuge in southern Oklahoma on September 22 about 10:30 AM by Justin Roach, wildlife biologist for the US Fish and Wildlife Service refuge there.

Roach said by phone that WMX658 was one of 15 butterflies tagged that day. About 350 miles later, I netted the butterfly in Kimble County near London, Texas.

James Roach Tishomongo

Justin Roach, wildlife biologist at the Tishomingo National Wildlife Refuge in southern Oklahoma tagging Monarchs in early September. Photo by Joanne Ryan

That means WMX658 traveled about 44 miles per day, an impressive clip, to reach our nectar patch along the Llano. Hopefully, he’ll have fueled up enough in Texas to carry him the remaining 920 miles to the overwintering roosts in Mexico.

“It seems the migration is more consistent this year than I’ve ever seen. Every day there’s been a few,” said Roach, who usually tags between 100-200 butterflies annually. The day WMX658 was tagged, butterflies were nectaring on Smartweed, a member of the Polygonum family.  Roach said a school outing was planned for that Thursday, but somehow the kids couldn’t make it so he just tagged with staff.

WMX658 flew about 350 miles since September 22, arriving along the Llano River on October 1. Graphic via Google

WMX658 left  Tishomingo,Oklahoma on September 22, arriving nine days later 350 miles south on the Llano River. Graphic via Google

Having tagged about 1,000 Monarchs since 1997, Roach has had two recoveries in Mexico, where the butterflies are typically found on the forest floor after having made the full trip to Michoacán. This was the first time someone found a Monarch he had tagged and reported it live.

It was a first for me as well. In 11 years of tagging more than 3,000 Monarch butterflies with 29 recoveries, I had never netted a Monarch tagged elsewhere.

This poor male was too ragged to tag. Photo by Monika Maeckle

This poor male was too ragged to tag. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Our Oklahoma Monarch was just one of about two dozen spotted and 11 tagged on the Llano this weekend–all males. Just a week prior, on September 26, more than five inches of rain fell in the Texas Hill Country and parts of South Texas. The storm system left the landscape thoroughly drenched and primed for sustaining late season blooms for peak migration visitors later this month.

Many Swamp milkweed stands, Asclepius incarnata, that exhibited packs of aphids, milkweed beetles and bugs just two weeks ago, were now washed clean, losing lower milkweed leaves to “drowning” by water levels that rose 4 – 6 feet. Seedpods have replaced the pink flowers while other late season bloomers drew literally thousands of butterflies.

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                                       --all photos by Monika Maeckle

Frostweed, Verbesina virginica, was a favorite draw for Queens, Spangled, Gulf and other fritillaries, Giant, Pipevine and Eastern Swallowtails, skippers, snouts, sulphurs–everyone swarmed to the nectar fest that the recent weather pattern has made possible. And the wilted, yellowed, washed out milkweed leaves didn’t stop Monarchs and Queens from laying their eggs on remaining healthy foliage. At least one more hatch will occur before peak migration arrives the last two weeks of October.

monarch egg drowned milkweed

River rises six feet and drowns your host plant? No problem. Monarchs and Queens find the good foliage to deposit their eggs. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The snout-nosed butterfly invasion that hit us two weeks ago seems to bode well for butterflies in general. While the snouts were not quite as obvious this weekend at the ranch, they made a repeat–even exaggerated appearance in San Antonio midweek.

snouts pioneer flower mill

The snouts returned to invade downtown San Antonio again last week. The weather has been perfect for butterflies. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The small, orange-and-black brushfooted butterflies made headlines in early September because of their staggering presence. Just last Thursday, on September 29, literally millions of the small orange and black flyers filled the skies of downtown San Antonio, clogging car grills, spattering windshields, and confusing many who thought they were Monarchs.

“I looked outside and it was like a butterfly highway,” said Rebecca Guererro, a stylist at Mint Salon in downtown San Antonio on Thursday.

Monarchs have begun showing up in steady trickles in these parts just in the last week. The storied migrants were pushed south by a recent cold front and the dry-wet weather has set the stage for a bounty of nectar.

Queens on Frostweed, Llano River

Queens on Frostweed, Llano River Photo by Monika Maeckle

A kayak tour of the Llano revealed no caterpillars this trip, although plenty of Queen and Monarch eggs were present on the mud-coated Swamp milkweeds that bowed to the floodwaters which rose about six feet.

Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch issued a migration update on September 26 predicting a late migration this year.

“A while back I pointed out the probability that the migration would be late and long this year. That is likely to be the case,” said Taylor, pointing to hot weather as the cause. “Last week was a scorcher through much of the midwest with temperatures in the 90s and high-80s over a broad area. The migration advances slowly, if at all, under these conditions. The ideal temperatures for the migrants are in the 70s and 60s,” he said.

The Journey North website reported streams of Monarchs heading south through the central and eastern flyways. The site attributed the movement to a cold front that “dropped down from the north and finally ended the unseasonably hot weather — with associated south winds — that have been holding the butterflies back,” wrote Elizabeth Howard, founder of Journey North, in last week’s Thursday migration newsletter. Howard cited peak flights along the ridges of the Appalachian Mountains over the weekend as “the first strong pulse in the Eastern Flyway.”

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Climate change expert Dr. Katherine Hayhoe at TribuneFest: “Hopelessness is hopeless”

Dr. Katherine Hayhoe, one of the foremost experts in the world on climate change, appeared at the Texas Tribune Festival this weekend in a one-on-one interview with Neena Satija,  the news organization’s environmental and investigative reporter.

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Climate change expert Dr. Katherine Hayhoe will join us at our Climate Change and the Monarch Butterfly Migration Symposium in San Antonio October 21 -Photo by Artie LImmer, Texas Tech University

Since Dr. Hayhoe will be joining us at our Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival October 20 -22 as a speaker at our climate change symposium, I thought I’d sit in on the session to get a preview of what we might hear from her next month. Tickets available here.

Hayhoe did not disappoint. But first, a bit of background.

Born in Ontario, Canada, she “grew up with Monarch butterflies,” she told me after her appearance. She was raised as an evangelical Christian and climate skeptic.

butterflyfest_300x600Now, as an atmospheric scientist, Hayhoe serves as an associate professor and director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University with a B.Sc. in Physics from the University of Toronto and an M.S. and Ph.D. in Atmospheric Science from the University of Illinois. She devotes herself to developing and applying climate projections to understand what climate change means for people and the natural environment. As a lead author for the Second and Third U.S. National Climate Assessments, she has conducted climate impact studies for a broad cross-section of organizations, cities and regions, from Boston to Texas to California.

“I am also the founder and CEO of ATMOS Research, where we bridge the gap between scientists and stakeholders to provide relevant, state-of-the-art information on how climate change will affect our lives,” Hayhoe states on her website.

This bridge building becomes most interesting when Hayhoe taps into her identity as an evangelical Christian married to a pastor–not the typical profile of a climate change activist. She and her husband Andrew Farley, a professor of applied linguistics and best-selling author, wrote A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions, a book that untangles the complex science of climate change while tackling long-held misconceptions.

This defying of the stereotype gives Hayhoe a unique ability to talk about climate change in a way people can hear and understand.

Satija Hayhoe

Neena Satija interviews Dr. Katherine Hayhoe at the Texas Tribune Festival. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Referring to the “earth’s fever,” on Saturday at Calhoun Hall on the University of Texas at Austin campus, she pointed out how the values that drive people to do things big and small to combat client change are the same values upon which every major religion in the world are founded–taking responsibility, caring about the future our children will face, and caring for the poor, for example.

“Hopelessness as a policy is hopeless,” Hayhoe said. “Hope is what keeps us going as humans.”

She added that the poor and the vulnerable are the human populations most effected by climate change. Native Americans in Alaska and Louisiana have been displaced and are the first climate change refugees “because their land is sinking,” into the rising oceans, she said.

climate change hayhoe book

Hayhoe’s book, coauhored with her husband Dr. Andrew Farley, unravels misconceptions about climate change. Courtesy photo

But Hayhoe’s primary message was one of hope. She cited the progress and actions cities are taking across the country to fight climate change–planting more trees, reducing pavement, concrete and other impervious cover, creating green roofs to help reduce temperatures in urban heat islands.

She praised British Colombia’s carbon fee dividend program–whereby companies and individuals charge a fee for greenhouse gas emissions, which are then refunded to taxpayers as a dividend. “China’s 2015 coal emissions dropped for the first time. They have more wind and solar than anyone,” she said.

She encouraged those advocating to combat climate change to “leave the science behind” and talk about something that touches people’s hearts.

“To talk to people about climate change, don’t start with the science, talk about something that is personal to them,” said Hayhoe. “We must be able to connect where our heart is, not just where our head is.”

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McAllen, Texas becomes second NWF Monarch Butterfly Champion City

There’s a new Monarch Butterfly Champion City in the Lone Star State: McAllen.

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Tattered Monarch on Purple Mistflower at the National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas. Photo courtesy of National Butterfly Center

For the past 10 months, San Antonio ranked as the only National Wildlife Federation  (NWF) Monarch Butterfly Champion City.  San Antonio Mayor Taylor signed the NWF’s Mayor’s Monarch Pledge last December, committing to all 24 action items recommended in the national campaign to encourage mayors and local governments to increase Monarch butterfly and pollinator habitat.

But that unique status is now behind us. Last week, McAllen Mayor Jim Darling, citing San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor as “an inspiration,” became the second mayor in the country to step up to the plate and make pollinators a hometown priority.

McAllen Mayor Jim Darling has made pollinators a priority. Courtesy photo

McAllen Mayor Jim Darling has made pollinators a priority. Courtesy photo

Darling made the announcement at the September McAllen City Commission Meeting. Darling also declared Sept. 12 “Mayor’s Monarch Pledge Day in the City of McAllen.”

“Mayor Darling has made a major commitment to help save this iconic, declining species in a city that sits right in the middle of the Monarch butterflies’ migratory flyway,” said Patrick Fitzgerald, National Wildlife Federation senior director of community wildlife, in response to the news.

The Lower Rio Grande Valley’s McAllen-Edinburg-Mission triangle has long been a place with much wildlife diversity due to its location at the intersection of myriad ecosystems that host more than 300 species of butterflies and 520 species of birds.

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McAllen Mayor Jim Darling announces McAllen’s status as a Monarch Butterfly Champion City. Briana Deleon, Quinta Mazatlan Volunteer of the Year, dons her wings to commemorate the occasion. Photo courtesy of the McAllen Mayor’s Office.

Bird- and butterfly-viewing destinations such as Quinta Mazatlan in McAllen, the National Butterfly Center, the annual Texas Butterfly Festival in Mission, and the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in Hidalgo County draw nature lovers from all over. The City of McAllen attributes an annual $460 million in eco-tourism to its “natural beauty and sunny and temperate year-round climate,” according to a press release.

San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor welcomed McAllen to the elite club of NWF Monarch Champion Cites.

“Like us, McAllen obviously understands the significance of helping protect and promote our State Insect,” Taylor said. “I’d like to issue a challenge for all other mayors in Texas to sign the pledge and help make us the first Monarch Champion State in the U.S.”

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In an email exchange, Darling gave special credit to Colleen Hook, director of Quinta Mazatlan, a McAllen wildlife sanctuary that promotes knowledge about birds, plants, and environmental stewardship in South Texas, for “leading the effort for the Mayor.” Hook became aware of the challenge through press coverage of San Antonio’s pledge, the Mayor’s office stated via email.

“We have a big responsibility in South Texas to enhance the migratory ‘Texas Funnel’ used by butterflies, birds and many other creatures of the land,” said Hook.

Hook refers to the remarkable  “Texas funnel,”the  passage through which Monarch  butterflies migrate coming and going  each spring and fall over multiple generations, moving from Mexico to Canada and back before settling into their roosts for the winter in the mountainous forests west of Mexico City.

Monarch migrate through Texas coming and going through the Texas Funnel. Graphic by Nicolas Rivard

Monarchs migrate from Mexico to Canada and back through the ‘Texas Funnel.’ Graphic by Nicolas Rivard

“We welcome anybody else trying to help Monarchs,” said North American Butterfly Association President Jeffrey Glassberg, who also is founder of the National Butterfly Center (NBC) in Mission. The NBC was recently featured in a Texas Monthly article titled “Mission’s Quest to Become the Butterfly Capital of the World.”

Status as a Monarch Butterfly Champion City doesn’t come easy. Municipalities must agree to adopt all 24 specific actions suggested by the NWF to support the declining Monarch butterfly migration and other pollinator habitat.

Participation in the pledge requires at a minimum for Mayors to execute three of the 24 items; to be in the “leadership circle” they must commit to eight; to become a Monarch Champion, they must do all 24. Actions range from citizen science projects and installing a pollinator garden at City Hall or another highly visible public space, to hosting a butterfly festival and changing landscape ordinances and city mowing schedules.

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Since the Mayor’s Monarch Pledge was launched in September of last year, 190 entities across North America have committed to create habitat and encourage their citizens to do the same.

In recent years, the Monarch butterfly migration has declined dramatically– by 80% from the 21-year average across North America. Scientists attribute the decline to habitat loss, the increase in genetically modified crops in their primary breeding zone in the Midwest, increased pesticide use, illegal logging in Mexico, and climate change.

In August of 2014, several organizations submitted a petition to list the Monarch butterfly as a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act. The petition is currently under review. In May of 2015, President Obama announced a National Pollinator Strategy that addressed not only the decline of Monarch butterflies, but the demise of bees. The 58-page document also committed the federal government to restore seven million acres of pollinator habitat over the next five years, with a special focus on the IH-35 corridor.

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Invasion of Snout-nosed butterflies returns to Central and South Texas

While we’re waiting for Monarch butterflies to move through the Texas Funnel, another orange-and-black butterfly has made its presence known here en masse.

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Snout-nosed butterfly. With wings closed, it’s disguised as a leaf. Photo by Drake White

The American Snout butterflyLibytheana carinenta, is currently moving around the IH-35 pollinator corridor, clogging windshields and car grills along the way.

The long-nosed butterfly with mottled black, orange and white coloration, migrates randomly around Central and South Texas following late summer rains, said Texas Entomologist Mike Quinn.

“It’s not a migration in the usual terms,” Quinn said. “They’re ’emigrating’ out of where they overpopulated and exhausted the food source, looking for new mates.”

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Drake White of the Nectar Bar holds an American Snout-nosed Butterfly in San Antonio this week. Photo by Drake White

That food source is the hackberry tree, often considered a nuisance tree by landscapers and gardeners, but which is actually a fantastic wildlife plant. Its leaves provide food for snout caterpillars and its berries offer important winter sustenance for birds. Big snout invasions can completely defoliate a hackberry tree, but the tree will recover.

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Hackberry, often considered a trash tree, provides food for snout caterpillars and other wildlife. Photo courtesy of Texas Agrilife.

The 2016 weather cycle set the stage for this year’s snout invasion, the likes of which we haven’t seen since 2012. The snout deluge should last about another two weeks.

A dry July followed by a wet August reduced the predators and favored the snouts, who can postpone reproductive activities until moisture returns. Late summer rains following dry spells also cause hackberry trees to sprout tender new growth – perfect fuel for baby snout caterpillars which are leaf green, and about an inch long when mature.

“Late summer rains are a hallmark of the snout explosion followed by mass movements in multiple directions,” Quinn said.

According to most recent reports, the snouts seem concentrated in the Edwards Plateau area.

Richard Kostecke, associate director of conservation at The Nature Conservancy of Texas in Austin, reported counting 376 snouts during a 30-minute run yesterday. Driving home from the Hill Country on Monday, I witnessed thousands of snouts smacking windshields on IH-10 around the Medina River near Comfort.

“I have tons of them at my house right now, but I also have a hackberry tree in my yard,” said Drake White, who lives on the northeast side and operates the Nectar Bar, a Facebook page devoted to helping people learn how to responsibly raise butterflies.

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Twitter was aflutter with tweets about Snout-nosed butterflies. Screenshot via Tweetdeck

Social media was also aflutter with snout sightings.

“Those are snout nose (sic) butterflies & they are getting on my nerves! I’m not washing my car until I kill the last one!” tweeted Addie @addiesabatino, yesterday.

“Snout-nosed butterflies: I hope you ALL get to where you are going soon . . . I’ll help you pack AND buy your gas! 🙄,” Teresa Jackson Doty posted on FAcebook.

The mottled grey insects disguise themselves as dead leaves when their wings are closed. With wings open, they flaunt their orange, black and white accents and are sometimes confused with Monarchs or Painted Lady butterflies.

Snouts, so called because of their tubular, elephant trunk-like “noses,” lay eggs on the leaves of hackberry trees, the drought-tolerant native considered a trash shrub by some. The adult butterflies nectar on various flowering plants and live about two weeks.

In the annals of American Snout butterfly migrations, 1921 ranks as a most remarkable year. After a world record downpour in Central Texas on September 9-10, 1921, when 36.4 inches of rain fell in an 18-hour period, a Snout butterfly breakout resulted a few weeks later.

“An estimated 25 million per minute southeasterly-bound snout butterflies passed over a 250 mile front from San Marcos to the Rio Grande River,” according to Mike Quinn’s Texas Entomology, a trusted and entertaining source for Texas insect news and info. Scientists noted at the time that the butterflies’ flight “lasted 18 days and may have involved more that 6 billion butterflies.”

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