Here They Come! Monarch Butterflies Headed our Way in Promising Rebound Season

The Monarch butterfly migration began in mid August. The progeny of butterflies that left the forests of Mexico in March have reproduced several times on their multi-generational journey north to Canada, and are now turning their attention south, as they head “home” for the winter.

Monarch Roost Wisconsin

The first Monarch roost was reported in Wisconsin this week. The migration is on and they’re heading our way. Photo by Pat Swerkstron via Journey North

While it’s too early for those of us who live in the “Texas funnel” to see masses of Monarchs moving through town, it’s hard to resist running out and checking our favorite butterfly destinations to see what’s flying and which species are in town.   We should be seeing a trickle of Monarchs from now until the peak migraiton in mid October.

A check-in at the San Antonio River Museum Reach Milkweed Patch this weekend didn’t disappoint.   Queens and Gulf Fritillaries were flying profusely, and one lone female Monarch joined the nectar party, frantically laying eggs on a dozen or more different Tropical Milkweed plants.

I checked the leaves she visited, hoping to spot some eggs–but no luck.   Just aphids.

Female Monarch laying eggs

Female Monarch butterfly “shooting blanks?” Apparently. Note how her abdomen is tucked under to lay eggs.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

So what was up, was she shooting blanks?

“Hard to say,” Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch told us via email.  “Could be blocked ducts, lacks mature eggs, having trouble moving an egg down the oviduct.  It happens frequently.”   Professional butterfly breeder Edith Smith of Shady Oak Butterfly Farm confirmed that this is not unusual.  “I’ve seen the same thing, normally caused by a clogged duct,” she relayed via email.

Since reproductive Monarchs do not migrate, this one will likely stay in the neighborhood.   Migrating Monarchs must preserve their energy for their long trip to Mexico.  Once they reach Michoacán, they roost for the winter, wake up in the spring, and reproduce then.  So if you see a Monarch laying eggs or mating, don’t tag it.

Nectar corridor

Monarchs nectar intensely when in migration mode–wouldn’t you, if you had to fly 3,000 miles? Photo via Journey North, by Elizabeth Howard

Monarch Watch discourages citizen scientists from tagging Monarchs before August 15 because it’s basically a waste of time.

“We generally send out tag orders starting in the first few days of August, giving priority to the most northerly areas. If we start sending tags in July, folks will tag more of the late breeders than they do now. This would be unproductive since the late breeders don’t migrate,”  Dr. Taylor explained to the DPLEX list, the email listserv that reaches hundreds of butterfly fans, academics, citizen scientists and others.

Monarch migration map

Texas Funnel:  Migrating Monarchs must pass through Texas coming and going to Mexico.  Map by Nicolas Rivard

But further north, folks are already tagging in what appears to be a rebound season.

According to Journey North, a citizen scientist-fueled website that posts updates on migrations of all kinds, the first overnight roost was reported on Monday by Pat Swerkstrom of Oceola, Wisconsin.  See the photo at the top of this post to see what it looked like.

We get this kind of action in mid October when the Monarchs move through the Texas Funnel on their way to Mexico.  Typically, those of us enamored with Monarchs stage tagging outings.

Along the Llano River, they roost in pecan trees during peak migration. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of Monarch butterflies cluster like grapes as the sun sets, settling in for the night to rest and wake the next morning to nectar up and continue on their journey.  In the weeks prior, we see Monarchs in ones and twos nectaring on flowers or resting in trees and shrubs.

Small roost of Monarch butterflies on the Llano River, October 5, 2012

Looking forward to seeing this:  roost of about 200 Monarchs in a pecan tree on the Llano River in October 2012.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

This year looks like it could be a rebound for Monarchs.   Conditions are favorable in the midwestern breeding grounds and milder temperatures than recent years prevail in the Southwest.

For those with no access to roosting sites who want to see Monarchs, seek out nectar destinations like pollinator gardens, wildflower patches on roadsides–any place with flowers that will draw the migrants on their journey south.  Remember, their primary goal when migrating is to fuel up and store fat for the long winter.

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Llano River Ready for “Premigration Migration” of Monarch Butterflies

Email lists have been filled with optimistic reports on the Monarch migration in recent weeks. We’re feeling hopeful of a rebound.

Folks from Canada to Pennsylvania sang a buoyant chorus:  more butterflies than last year.  Of course, it’s all relative:  with 2013 holding the distinction as the worst migration in history, even a slight uptick in Monarch butterfly numbers would call for celebration.

Monarch on swamp milkweed

Pretty, early girl. Faded female Monarch on Swamp Milkweed in downtown San Antonio, August 14, 2014. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Here’s a sampling of updates:

It has been the best year finding them, in 11 years of doing this. Most were from our yard.

–J Agazzi, SE Wisconsin on the Illinois border

I also live in SE WI and have about 30 just-born instars taken from swamp milkweed more than common milkweed. I agree also that this has been a good year and I’m still finding them.

–Chris Mason,  Lake Geneva, WI

A BIG comeback for Monarchs this year…. Having gathered and raised hundreds of Monarchs for past ten years; having been very sad over numbers next to nothing in 2012 & 2013, this year ‘s population is back up to 75 releases and more to come. I am amazed, overjoyed.   (Interestingly, I and others observed only a single Monarch here and there during this entire season. But how joyfully ‘active’ these ‘singles’ have been!)
                                –Cindy Ziebell, Eua Claire, Wisconsin

I have to agree with you all….although it is not scientific, I have recorded seeing at least one monarch every day for the last 4.5 weeks!! Sometimes I have seen as many as five in a day. This has not happened in at least 20 years! I really hope that our fall migration numbers follow these trends. It is also the only year I can remember collecting more than one or two eggs. This week, I have collected eight. Good to hear all this news from this central region.

–Jim and Linette Langhus, Monona Iowa

IMG_1637We learn in Monarch Migration 101 that the migratory generation of Monarchs do not reproduce.  Rather, they go into a reproductive diapause, a biological state of arrested development that interrupts their usual instinct to procreate.  Presumably, they do this to save their energy for the long flight and months-long overwintering in Mexico, conserving biological resources to awake in the spring and reproduce then.

Yet in late summer, we generally see a pulse of Monarchs over Labor Day weekend and many leave eggs as evidence of the reproductivity and their travels.

So what’s going on with these “joyfully active” single butterflies described above?

Goldenrod Llano River

Goldenrod, a favorite nectar source for Monarch butterflies during the fall migration, awaits on the Llano River in the Texas Hill Country. Photo by Monika Maeckle

For years, scientists like  Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch and Dr. Karen Oberhauser of Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project (MLMP) have described a “premigration migration” that begins in mid-July and carries a final reproductive generation of Monarchs south.

Candy Sarikonda explains the phenomenon in this issue of the MLMP newsletter. 

Taylor has speculated that late season reproduction is selectively advantageous for some Monarchs who are born too far north too late in the year to complete the lifecycle.   Dr. Karen Oberhauser, founder of the MLMP, and an evolutionary scientist at the University of Minnesota, told Sarikonda that “It makes evolutionary sense that some monarchs would fly south as they laid their eggs, since an egg laid in August in Missouri or Virginia is probably more likely to develop and migrate to Mexico than one laid in Minnesota, where a hard freeze in early September is not that uncommon.”

What'syour latitude.  Monarch Watch predicts peak Monarch activity by latitude each fall.

What’s your latitude? Monarch Watch predicts peak Monarch activity by latitude each fall.

We don’t fully understand the reasons for this premigration migration, but we do know that here in Texas, the Llano River is well-stocked with milkweed for those premigratory migrants.   Last Sunday we saw ample Swamp Milkweed and Goldenrod lining the banks, and heavy rains this weekend will keep the host and nectar plants fresh for Monarchs arriving later this summer.

For our area, latitude 28, the peak migration will occur somewhere between October 10 and 27.  Check the chart above to see when peak migration is expected in your neighborhood–or goto the Monarch Watch website.

How convenient: eggs laid over Labor Day weekend will be hatching just as the peak migration passes through the Texas Hill Country in mid October.  That means our freshly hatched, well-fed Monarchs will have an excellent chance of making it to Michoacán.

From the Texas Hill Country to Michoacan!  MJR894 was recovered on the florest floor and reported last week.  The butterfly was tagged on October 11, 2011 with Dr. Lincoln Brower.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

From the Texas Hill Country to Michoacan! two Monarch butterflies tagged at the ranch 10/12/13 were recovered on the florest floor and recovered 2/22/14. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Perhaps that was the case with two Monarch butterflies tagged at the ranch last year on October 12.  Monarch Watch just posted a preliminary report on the 2013 season’s recoveries. 

SLM131, a male, was tagged along the Llano River by friends Omar Rodriguez and Veronica Prida and was found at EL Rosario in February.   A female I tagged the same day, SLM181, was also found at the sanctuary on 2/22/14.

All the elements are in place for a recovery of the Monarch population this year.  Stay tuned for updates.

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Pollinator Power on the River Walk: Garden Plot Transforms to Creature Haven

In my day job at CPS Energy, the largest municipally owned electric and gas utility in the country, I look out my window onto the glorious San Antonio River Walk.

CPS ENergy pollinator posse

CPS Energy Pollinator Posse, L- R: Stephanie Ockenfels, Sam Taylor, Vincent McDonald, Pamela Maris, Gwenn Young, Monika Maeckle Photo by Gary Chavez

When I joined the company last year, a homogenous, overgrown patch of iron plant, occupied the small, triangular garden that separates my office from the San Antonio River. My view includes locals mingling with tourists and badge-wearing conventioneers shuffling along the sidewalk en route to hotels or meetings under the shade of grand Bald Cypress trees. Until recently, not many insects or pollinators joined the party.

Pollinators CPS Energy

Pollinators and other creatures have gravitated to the small plot at CPS Energy. Photo by Vincent McDonald

When I accepted the position as director of integrated communications, I joked with friends that my not-so-secret agenda would be “pollinator corridors under power lines.”  I wasn’t kidding.   We’re working on that.

In the meantime, however, I wondered:   would it be possible to transform this small corner of the River Walk into a more interesting view for me and my colleagues while offering a more inviting habitat for local critters, especially pollinators?

CPS Energy pollinator garden

BEFORE: View from my office at CPS Energy. Iron plant on the River Walk. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The area sees mostly shade, which is why landscapers planted Aspidistra elatior.  Commonly known as iron plant, or cast iron plant, this well-adapted evergreen has a reputation for its resistance to neglect.   It thrives in shade and requires little water.

Flowers need sun and pollinators need flowers.  Dappled light finds its way to this plot in the mornings and cascades from the west in the afternoon. That’s enough for certain plants to flower.  If we chose our plants carefully, we might be able to lure butterflies or hummingbirds.   Hmmm.

CPS Energy pollinator garden

AFTER: Check out the new view!   Wildlife loves it, and so do we. Photo by Monika Maeckle

In January, volunteers from our corporate communications team joined me in a small “Pollinator Power” experiment.  A half-dozen willing workers gathered late one cool winter afternoon to tackle the transformation of the 120-square foot plot into a pollinator habitat.

We used my favorite low-tech method of clearing undesirable plants:   hand pulling (thank you, CPS Energy landscape crew!) followed by solarization, an environmentally friendly method for ridding soil of pests, pathogens and undesirable plants executed by my corp comm colleagues.

Polly the Pollinator Garden cat

Sorry, kitty. No milk, but would you settle for some milkweed? “Polly” the cat visits the CPS Energy pollinator garden. Photo by Monika Maeckle

On January 3, we laid six-10 layers of newspaper atop the soil after the CPS Energy landscape crew hand-pulled the iron plant.   We then watered the newspaper, applied four-six inches of compost and mulch, spreading it evenly.

Then, we waited.   Solar power does the rest.  By blocking light with the newspaper and mulch mix and using the sun’s energy to kill pathogens and weed seed, we prevent the growth and spread of undesirables.

About eight weeks later, we plugged in specific shade tolerant plants by simply carving a small hole into the mulch and newspaper with a shovel.  Plant choices were dictated by their appeal to pollinators as either host plants (where they lay their eggs) or nectar plants (which they use for fuel), and an ability to thrive in dappled sun.

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These are the plants we chose and why.

Turk’s Cap Malvaviscus arboreu

Hummingbirds love this shade tolerant member of the mallow family, which blooms red.

Milkweed Asclepias curassavica, Asclepias incarnata

Host plant to Monarch and Queen butterflies. These prolific bloomers work as nectar magnets for all butterflies.

Gregg’s Purple Mist flower Conoclinium greggii

 Male Queens crave this plant’s purple bloom, which provides them special nutrients that make them attractive to the lady butterflies.

Yellow Texas Columbine Aquilegia hinckleyana

Another hummingbird favorite, the delicate leaves of this shade tolerant plant cradle interesting yellow blooms.

Texas gold lantana Lantana urticoides

Excellent all-around nectar plant.  Hearty, drought tolerant, reliable bloomer in orange or yellow.

Cowpen Daisy  Verbesina encelioides

A personal favorite.   This member of the sunflower family blooms nonstop, works overtime as a nectar source and as a host to the Bordered Patch butterfly.

Jimsonweed Datura wrighti

Host plant to the Sphinx moth, the robust grower loves the heat, shows large white flowers in the evening, and has a fantastic fragrance.  The leaves smell like chocolate–but don’t eat them.  They cause hallucinations.

 

After planting, we watered each plant thoroughly and tossed a handful of slow-release fertilizer into the soil around the plant base.

In May, as the weather warmed, we developed a volunteer watering schedule, dubbed our “Pollinator Posse.” Several corporate communications staff agreed to water with a hose three times a week.

Pollinator ducks

A pair of Mallard ducks took up residence in the pollinator garden at CPS Energy. Photo by Lori Johnson

Several staff members commented that the 10-minute watering break in the dappled shade of the pollinator garden was “the most relaxing part of the day.”

In June, we sent off for our official Xerces Society sign, designating our plot as pollinator habitat, and now here we are in August, the most brutal month of the year, and the pollinator garden is thriving.

So far, we’ve witnessed visits from Queen and Sulphur butterflies, watched a black-chinned hummingbird sip from a Turk’s cap bloom, and enjoyed a pair of mallard ducks who built a temporary shelter in the garden.   A downtown kitty-cat visits from across the street at La Villita, the old Mexican market.  She lies in the shade and watches the pollinators busy themselves on the blooms.  Imagine what kind of wildlife is visiting when we’re not looking.

We’ve also had extended visits by a juvenile Golden-crowned Heron, who has decided the insects who’ve taken up residence in the garden make for tasty

Golden crowned heron

Young Golden-crowned Heron cherry picks the best bugs for a mid-morning snack from pollinator garden. Photo by Monika Maeckle

morning snacks.  This bird was quite comfortable at our plot, lingering long enough for us to snap multiple photos.

I would offer that for those of us with a window view–and for passersby and nearby urban wildlife–our pollinator power experiment has been a success.

We haven’t seen any Monarch butterflies.  Yet.   But we’re keeping our fingers crossed as the fall migration gets underway later this month.   Hopefully they’ll recharge at CPS Energy before making their way to Mexico.   You’ll read about it right here when they do.

UPDATE: In a previous version, iron plant was misidentified as hostas. Hostas and iron plant are in the same family but different genera. Thanks to reader Anna Osborn for pointing out the faulty I.D.

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2014 Monarch Butterfly Migration: Worst in History or a Hopeful Rebound?

Moth week is behind us and next up on the pollinator calendar is the Monarch butterfly migration. The storied insects start moving south on their 3,000-mile fall migration from Canada to Mexico around August 15th.

This year started with only 33 million Monarchs leaving the Oyamel forests of Michoacán in March–that’s the lowest count in history, down from more than one billion in 1994. It’s no surprise that Monarch watchers are on the edge of their seats, wondering if the majestic orange-and-black butterflies will rebound.

I saw my first-of-season (FOS) Monarch since the spring migration on Sunday, July 20, enroute to help our son Alex Rivard move into his first home. As I  crossed the driveway to my car, I noticed a Monarch butterfly on Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, in my front yard pollinator garden in downtown San Antonio.

There she was, tucking her abdomen to reach the underside of milkweed leaves, laying dozens of eggs in the process.  See the video above. I collected 34 eggs, took them inside for fostering, and left about that many on the plant.  Days later, little round “chew marks” on the garden’s milkweed plants proved that the eggs had hatched, but not a caterpillar was in sight.  Wasps, ants, spiders, ladybugs, a bird–who knows what got them?  Nature is brutal.

Still, I couldn’t help associate the FOS, egg-laying Monarch with the “new beginning” of our son’s arrival as a mortgage-paying, first-time homeowner. Alex will get a chrysalis as a housewarming gift.  And I am feeling hopeful about the 2014 migration.

Texas Drought, July 2014

Better rains, less drought translates to more welcoming conditions for Monarch butterfly migration. Map by U.S. Drought Monitor

So is Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch. He told us via email that he suspects a modest increase in monarch numbers.

“I’m not ready to say what ‘modest’ means in terms of hectares but all the indications remain positive. Monarch production from the upper midwest from the eastern Dakotas through Wisconsin and parts of southern Missouri will be above that of last year–areas to the east will be low again but not quite as low as last year.”

In June, Taylor pointed out that the harsh winter we experienced after three dry summers has driven down the predator population, increasing the survival rate of Monarch caterpillars in the central breeding grounds.   “Monarch larvae should survive in greater numbers. Elevated reproductive success in early generations usually leads to growth of the population.”

Elizabeth Howard

Elizabeth Howard, founder of Journey North, a website that tracks the Monarch migration. Courtesy photo

Elizabeth Howard, founder of Journey North, agrees. “Yes, I do think this fall’s migration will be larger than last year’s,” she told us via email.  “However, considering how dismal last year’s migration was, that isn’t saying a whole lot.”

Journey North taps citizen scientists across the hemisphere to collect data about Monarch sightings and posts the info on a handy map so you can track the migration from your desk (see above).   They also provide weekly reports summing up the state of the migration and Monarchs’ move through the hemisphere, like this one:

“There are hopeful signs of successful reproduction from the Upper Midwest and across much of Ontario. People are reporting up to a half-dozen monarchs at a time, and more eggs and larvae than all of last year.”

“Hopeful signs of reproduction.”  Yes, we like the sound of that. Because if we can just get a slew of Monarchs produced in the midsection of the country they can start their trip to Mexico through the Texas Funnel and this year we can offer a much more welcoming reception than we’ve been able to provide in the recent past.

Monarch butterfly caterpillars

Yes, please.  More Monarch caterpillars mean more migrating Monarch butterflies.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

While the drought continues, we’ve had a relatively mild summer, with few days over 100 degrees.  Sporadic rains–more than 10 inches at the ranch just in July–have fueled the growth of late summer flowers.  Nectar plants await our favorite migrants: Frostweed, Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnate), and Goldenrod stand at the ready, about to bust out their blossoms for a full-on nectar party.  Send some Monarchs our way, please, and we’ll make sure they’re well fueled for the rest of their journey.

In the meantime, it’s not too early to order your tags from Monarch Watch.  Tagging season begins soon. Related posts:

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Four Fine Texas Moths for National Moth Week

Happy National Moth Week!   The celebration of the night flying cousins of butterflies, often cast as ugly step sisters in the world of lepidoptery, began only three years ago and takes place this week, July 15 – 27.

Wish I had planned better and organized an event.  Anybody?

Maybe next year. Dang work always gets in the way of the fun stuff.  Anyone interested in helping me organize a Moth Night in San Antonio, whereby we would set up a black light with a sheet and await/celebrate the arrival of moths, please leave a comment below.  Perhaps we can make something happen.

Moth light night trap

Anybody want to do this? I’m in.  We just need a mercury vapor light. Photo via www.exploratorium.edu

Meanwhile, you can still keep watch for some of the most common and amazing moths to be found in our area.  I had no idea how fascinating moths can be until I was seduced by butterflies. Turns out moths outnumber butterfly species 15 to one.  Really. That’s what happens….you start paying attention, and next thing you know, you’re raising caterpillars in the kitchen.

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

The Sphinx Moth

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

Sphinx Moth caterpillar on Jimsonweed

Tobacco hornworms on Jimsonweed.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

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

Sphinx Moth

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

Black Witch Moth

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

Black Witch Moth

Black Witch Moth photographed by Karen Herrmann in Kansas.

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

Black Witch Moth caterpillar

Black Witch Moth caterpillar. Photo via wikipedia.org

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

Polyphemus Moth

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

Polyphemus moth

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

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

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

Polyphemus moth caterpillar

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

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

Ailanthus Webworm Moth

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

Ailianthus Webworm Moth

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

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

Ailanthus webworm moth caterpillars

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

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How to Raise Eastern Swallowtail Butterflies at Home

Monarch butterflies get all the press, but the Eastern or Black Swallowtail, Papillio polyxenes, a large blue, black and gold and cream-specked beauty, flies in our neck of the world from April through November.   The Texas native provides lots of action in the garden when Monarchs are elsewhere.

Eastern Swallowtail

Eastern Swallowtail, recently hatched, resting in the grass. Llano River, Texas Hill Country. Photo by Monika Maeckle

We’ve been getting questions about raising Swallowtail butterflies in recent weeks. The wet June has made for a long season for dill, fennel, parsley and rue the plants on which Swallowtail butterflies lay their eggs.  Below are some tips for raising them at home.

Eastern Swallowtail egg on Dill Weed

Eastern Swallowtail egg on Dill Weed.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

First, locate the eggs. The tiny yellow spheres perch prominently on the leaves of dill, fennel, parsley and rue. Check your plants frequently, as wasps, ladybugs, spiders and others will slurp up these protein pops as soon as they are spotted.  When you’re looking, you may notice some clear, dry, empty spheres, exactly the size of the eggs.  Those are empty egg shells already visited and consumed by predators.

Swallowtail egg

Close-up of Swallowtail egg on dill. Photo by Monika Maeckle

I usually snap off a piece of the plant with the eggs on them and take them inside to rest in a jar with the lid loosely closed.  Don’t worry about “smothering” the egg.   They’ll do fine until they hatch, usually within four days.

Once the little guys hatch, you’ll want to provide fresh air to prevent mold from growing on the host plant.  Bring in some sprigs of fresh plant and put them in the jar. I usually leave the eggs alone until the caterpillars are big enough to spot with a naked eye–generally two days.   You’ll see they’re tiny and hard to monitor, so again, leave them alone and just provide fresh air and fresh host plant until they grow bigger.

After a few days you’ll see a small black creature, perhaps 1/16th of an inch long.  If you look closely, you might notice a white or orange band in the middle of the body.  That’s your first instar, or stage, Swallowtail caterpillar.  They will eat quietly and consistently for several days before they morph to the next stage.   They’re rather nondescript and not yet as interesting as they will become.  Just wait.

Swallowtail

First instar Eastern Swallowtail caterpillar on rue. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Up until this point, I may have had the Swallowtails in a jar or container with a loose lid or netting.  But now it starts to get interesting and I like to watch them eat and grow, although it can make a small mess.

Usually I gather fresh host plant and put it in a vase with newspaper underneath so I can observe the caterpillars literally grow before my eyes. The newspaper catches the frass, or caterpillar poop, that the caterpillars produce in volume.  The small, black odorless pellet-like droppings may seem gross, but they’re actually not.  Well, maybe for some people.  Generally I will set such a vase in a highly trafficked place in my home or office so I won’t miss the action in the course of any day. (Yes, I’ve been known to take caterpillars to work.)

Swallowtail bouquet

Bouquet of Swallowtail caterpillars in vase on fennel. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The caterpillars will continue to eat and morph for about 10 days.   What’s amazing is how different they look at each stage.   As they move through their instars, they completely transform, going from the unremarkable black cat with a white band to a prickly orange, white and black form, then to a black, green, yellow and white-striped creature often confused with Monarch caterpillars.

Throughout the process these boys eat voraciously–lots of fresh host plant.  In our hot Texas summers, I find dill expires early in the season but that Swallowtails will easily transition to the more abundant and heat-hardy rue or fennel.   At the ranch we have wild parsley and I have brought that home for feeding.  Once I bought organic fennel or parsley at the grocery store to feed a slew of Swallowtails when I had run out of fresh host.  The caterpillars didn’t seem to like it much (like us, they prefer FRESH greens) but they at it in the later stages.

Swallowtail showing tubercles

Who goes there?!? Note the yellow “tubercles” which the Swallowtail shows off when bothered. Photo by Monika Maeckle

One of the most amusing aspects of raising Swallowtails is their interesting tentacles.  When they get to the last stages, they show distinctive yellow antennae when poked or bothered. This orange forked gland, called the osmeterium, shows itself when the butterfly perceives danger.  Upon the slightest nudge or threat, the yellow tentacles pop out of their head and emit a distinctive, sickly sweet odor. Kids are always impressed when you provoke the Swallowtail’s tentacles.

Swallowtail caterpillar sheds its skin.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

Swallowtail sheds skin. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The caterpillars will continue to eat, shed their skins and morph to the next stage over about 10 days until they get to the fifth instar at which time they will cease eating and seek a quiet place to form their chrysalis. Swallowtails are famous for wandering far from the host plant and taking their time to emerge from the chrysalis at unpredictable times.  Monarch caterpillars are generally reliable in taking 10-14 days to eclose, or make the transition from chrysalis to butterfly.

 

Swallowtails, in contrast, can take a few weeks to many months to emerge.  Their unpredictability is also manifested in the varied color of the chrysalis that results from the final morphing.   Sometimes brown, sometimes green, you just never know what color a Swallowtail chrysalis will be.

Swallotwails wear chrysalis coats of many colors.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Swallowtails wear chrysalis coats of many colors. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Because Swallowtails can wander, it’s smart to contain them in a cage when they get large enough to bust their stripes and go chrysalis.  I use a net laundry hamper and simply put the vase inside.

Swallowtail

The Swallowtail will bow its head and make a silk button and saddle before going chrysalis. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The Swallowtail, when ready, will stop eating.  He will bow his head in an upside down J-shape, and spin a silk button to attach itself by its head to a twig, branch or net siding.   He then makes a silk saddle to hold itself snugly in place for the time it takes to transform its DNA into a butterfly–again, an often unpredictable amount of time.   Some Swallowtails will overwinter to the next season, depending on the conditions present at the time of forming the chrysalis.

Newborn Swallowtail butterfly with sister chrysalis.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Newborn Swallowtail butterfly with sister chrysalis. Photo by Monika Maeckle

When the day finally comes, though, you will know because the chrysalis will turn dark, then clear. Thereafter, the Swallowtail will emerge when ready.

Give it a few hours to allow its wings to harden. When she starts beating them slowly, you know she’s ready for flight. Take her outside and send her on her way.

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Summer Solstice, Pollinator Week, and Some Hopeful Monarch Butterfly News

Pollinator week is here (June 16 – 22), the Summer Solstice arrives this Saturday and Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch is bullish on Monarchs this season.

Journey NOrth Monarch

First Monarchs spotted in Quebec this week. Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch is predicting an increase in the Monarch numbers. Photo by Journey North

Taylor has been updating the DPLEX list of late with positive, upbeat messages suggesting that this year’s Monarch crop may be slightly larger than last year’s record low. That would be heartening.

“There will be a modest increase in Monarch numbers and most of that will come from the upper midwest,” Dr. Taylor wrote via email when asked to explain.

For those unaware, the D-PLEX list, named after the Monarch butterfly’s Latin designation, Danaus plexipus, is an old-fashioned email listserv started by Taylor that reaches hundreds of butterfly enthusiasts and scientists.  Sign up to receive D-PLEX emails on the Monarch Watch webpage.

Taylor bases his predictions on past history, warmer temperatures this spring and a late summer.   Also, this year’s tough winter has obliterated the usual natural predators to

Tachinid fly on Monarch

Tachinid flies lay their eggs on Monarch caterpillars,  using them as a host. Taylor says they are not as pervasive this year as in years past. Photo via University of Georgia Athens

Monarch larvae–the tachinid flies, wasps, spiders and other death threats that couple with climate change, habitat loss, genetically modified crops and insecticide use to pose a grave threat to the continuation of the Monarch butterfly migration.

Here’s what Dr. Taylor wrote on June 15:

The harsh winter may account in part for the lack of predators but the last three dry summers may have driven local predator populations down as well…. The tachinid flies also seem to be down….

Whatever the cause, or causes, of these low numbers of predators and parasites, Monarch larvae should survive in greater numbers. Elevated reproductive success in early generations usually leads to growth of the population.

We’ll take it.

The Solstice occurs this Saturday, June 21 at 5:51 AM CDT marking the astronomical moment when the sun reaches its northernmost point in the sky, resulting in the longest day of the year. From here til December, the days will get shorter.   Monarch butterflies use the sun compass in their antennae to pick up on these solar cues and by late August they’ll start heading south on their journey to Mexico to roost for the winter.  Won’t be long now.

Keep an eye out for those that respond to the sun’s signals and your fingers crossed that Dr. Taylor’s optimistic predictions are correct.

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Plant Flowers, Sign the Petition and Celebrate National Pollinator Week June 16 – 22

National Pollinator Week will be here June 16-22.  We’ve written before about the need to assist pollinators–the bees, butterflies, beetles, bats and birds that make 75% of our food crops possible.

Queen on mistflower in urban polliantor garden

Who says you can’t have a pollinator garden in the city? Queen on Purple Mistflower. Photo by Monika Maeckle

According to the USDA, one out of every three to four mouthfuls of food we eat and beverages we drink is made possible by pollinators.  If it wasn’t for the 200,000 species of insects and other creatures that help angiosperms (flowering plants) reproduce, much of the world would go hungry.

These mobile organisms move from plant to plant, making reproduction possible, delivering pollen from the male parts of flowers (the anther) to the female parts (the stigma).   The result?  The fruits, nuts and vegetables that sustain us.

Habitat loss, pesticide use, climate change and genetically modified crops have caused a serious decline in pollinators, resulting in lesser productivity in the food chain.  In severe cases, hand pollination has  been required for food crops to be productive–apple trees in China, for example, increasing food costs as much as 130%.

Hand pollination in China

In China, the lack of insects requires hand pollination of apple trees by people. Photo via www.infiniteunknow.net

Surely you’ve heard of the bee crisis.   A strange malady called colony collapse disorder has decimated the bee population, causing a huge loss of native bees.  Generally,  beekeepers lose 10-15% of their colonies to disease and various stresses each year. But since the advent of colony collapse disorder, losses have averaged 30%.  And bees, with their fuzzy bodies and specialized “pollen basket” body parts, are the most efficient pollinators.   Their decline negatively impacts plant production.  While the cause of CCD is not completely understood, the usual suspects of habitat loss, pesticide use (a special class of pesticides called neonicotinoids in particular), drought, disease and climate change have been implicated–just as in the downturn of the Monarch butterfly migration.

But maybe things are looking up for increasing pollinator habitat, at least when it comes to the 17 million acres of highways and right-of ways under the direction of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Integrated vegetation management

Integrated vegetation management (IVM), beautiful to look at, great for pollinators, and saves money on mowing. Photo via University of Northern Iowa.

On May 30, Representatives Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL) and Jeff Denham (R-CA), Co-Chairs of the Congressional Pollinator Protection Caucus, introduced the Highways Bettering the Economy and Environment Act, known as the Highways BEE Act.

The BEE Bill, an amendment to the Highway Trust Fund reauthorization, encourages states to mow and spray fewer chemicals and plant more native plants on the 17 million acres of highway rights-of-way. It incurs no additional costs to states. The practices it promotes can save about 25 percent annually in roadside maintenance costs.

Passage of the bill directs the U.S. Department of Transportation to use its authority to encourage willing state transportation departments and rights-of-way managers to embrace practices that support pollinators, ground nesting birds, monarch butterflies and other creatures.  It also calls for the Department of Transportation to conduct or facilitate research and demonstration projects on the economic and environmental benefits and best practices for integrated vegetation management (IVM), reduced mowing and native plantings for pollinator habitat.

pollinatorplantguides

Pollinator Plant Guides are available by region at the Pollinator Partnership website.

According to the Pollinator Partnership, a nonprofit organization devoted to pollinator advocacy, the legislation is nearly identical to a bill introduced in 2011 which was widely supported by 28 national organizations and business, 175 regional organizations, 46 researchers and more than 1,500 individuals. “Regrettably, those good efforts [in 2011] fell short. We don’t want to fall short in helping pollinators this time!”

Indeed not. So go ahead and sign the petition right now.

What else can you do?  Plant flowers, preferably natives.   Pollinators need nectar sources to fuel up and keep all that sexual reproduction active between the male and female flower parts, resulting in food and beverages for us.   They also need host plants on which to lay their eggs.  The Pollinator Partnership has several pollinator plant guides that can direct you regarding what’s most appropriate in your region.  You can also contact your local agricultural extension office or Master Gardener Program.

Cowpen daisy deadhead

Don’t forget to deadhead. It will make for more blooms. Photo by Monika Maeckle

One more thing:  don’t forget to deadhead.    The old “green thumb” exercise means removing spent flowers before they go to seed so that the plant will continue to produce blooms.  This encourages a steady supply of flowers for visiting pollinators to slurp nectar, gather pollen, and transfer it to the next plant, all why furthering the life cycle.

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Thanks, Climate Change! 9.5-inch Llano River Rain Dump Exemplifies Extreme Weather

Llano River picnic spot kayak rock

On the Llano River: the picnic spot kayak rock May 16, 2014.  As of this date, only five inches of rain had fallen on the ranch in all of 2014.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Everything I need to know about climate change I can learn from the the picnic spot kayak rock on our Llano River ranch pictured above.

The rock is our family’s “riverometer.”   It tells us how the river is faring.  Is it up?  Down? Is the current running swiftly or creeping slow?

Each visit to the ranch begins with a trek down to the picnic spot to check the kayak rock, where we put our kayaks in the water, launch our river adventures, begin our wading outings and fishing fun.    When the river is down, which it has been in recent years, we can even traverse almost the entire karst riddled river bottom without getting our shorts wet.   That’s a sad day.

Last weekend, like many of you, I was very much looking forward to a three-day Memorial Day weekend.   As is our custom, my family set out for the Texas Hill Country.   Memorial Day weekend generally means  the kick-off of summer with clusters of agarita berries, excellent bird and butterfly watching, fishing for bass and gar, and the first swim of the season.

But not this year. Just like other creatures that have had their schedules rearranged by “extreme weather events” the outing we had planned didn’t happen. We had to literally go with the flow–of the river, that is.

Llano River picnic spot kayak rock

Llano River picnic spot kayak rock May 23, 7:38 PM, after five inches of rain in 60 minutes.   And more on the way.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

En route to our weekend late Friday afternoon, we encountered a massive storm that dumped five inches of rain on the Texas Hill Country in 60 minutes.   That’s more rain than our ranch has seen in all of 2014 until now.

Living in San Antonio’s “flash flood alley,” which sits on thin soils and lots of limestone,  we’re accustomed to rainstorms turning our streets into high water crossings.  But this rain event was monumental.

Water blocked Highway 385 around 6 PM on Friday night, and surrounding fields looked like fresh tanks with water standing under oak and pine trees. And then the sun came out.

Llano River picnic spot kayak rock

Llano River picnic spot kayak rock on May 24, 2:43 PM, water has receded a bit. Photo by Monika Maeckle

 

Llano River picnic spot kayak rock

Llano River picnic spot kayak rock May 25, 2014, 8:52 AM. Another two inches of rain later.

 

Llano River picnic spot kayak rock

Llano River picnic spot kayak rock, May 26, 9:56 AM, after two-and-a-half more inches of rain, for a total of nine-and-a-half inches. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The rain surge continued on and off all weekend–then into the week. By Monday morning, we had 9.5 inches of rain in the rain gauge. That’s a blessing, of course, in the context of historic drought. But it sure would be preferable if we could have it in smaller, more manageable doses.

Unfortunately, that’s not likely.  The predictable, manageable cycles of the past have been thrown into jeopardy with global climate change. As laid out in the recently released White House Global Climate Assessment Report earlier this month, “extreme weather events” like that of last weekend will become increasingly common.

Imagine you are an insect or crawfish that lives on or near the picnic spot kayak rock. One minute you’d be scrounging for sustenance in high salinity water with low oxygen levels, the next scrambling to survive as waves of run-off and debris literally rearrange your world. You’d really have to be flexible and have the ability to adapt to extremes to survive.

As written here previously, unpredictable and extreme weather will constitute the new normal for us. The third National Climate Assessment report suggests Texas will continue to face severe shortages of ground and surface water. Floods caused by extreme rain events will interrupt the ongoing drought. Tornadoes, thunderstorms, hurricanes, and winter storms will become more common.   And wildfires will punctuate our summers.

Science tells us this is a period of rapid climate change like no other. Organisms that can adapt, will survive, and with luck, thrive.

Rain dump means road repairs needed

Good news: it rained buckets. Bad news: road repairs needed. Photo by Monika Maeckle

As we assessed the damage to our roads following last weekend’s deluge, it’s clear some expensive road work is in our future.    We’ll adapt.    And, we’ll keep in mind that while we can always rebuild the road, only Nature can restore the river.

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Genista Moth Caterpillars Return to Llano River Mountain Laurels

Last May I posted a much-read report of an extreme outbreak of Genista Moth larvae on two treasured Mountain Laurel trees my family had transplanted to our Llano River ranch 10 years ago.

The post, “Squish remorse” — Genista Larvae on Mountain Laurels Create Caterpillar Quandary,” started like this:

“It was an odd day, digging up wild parsley in search of chubby, Eastern Swallowtail caterpillars for fostering and fun at home, followed by hours of trying to figure out a humane and responsible way to kill hundreds–no, thousands–of unwelcome critters decimating several precious Mountain Laurels.”

 

The Genista Broom moth caterpillar, Uresiphita reversals, occupied almost every leaf of the tree.   Sometimes called the Sophora worm, these moth larvae relish the toxic leaves of our native Texas Mountain Laurels, Sophora secundiflora.

IMG_1072

Genista moth caterpillars returned to a different set of Mountain Laurels this spring. Photo by Monika Maeckle

A year ago, the voracious caterpillars were decimating the evergreen native, which produces a Kool-Aid perfumed bloom that typically signals the first days of spring.

At the time, I was concerned the ubiquitous caterpillars would kill the tree or prune it to a shadow of its former self.   Several sources assured me not to worry—it was all part of the life cycle.

Twelve months later, I’m happy to report that the Mountain Laurels in question have rebounded magnificently. See the photo below.

Mountain Laurel

Genista moth caterpillars decimated this Mountain Laurel last year, but the tree bounced back nicely in 2014. Photo by Monika Maeckle

That’s the good news.

The bad news: the Genistas have  moved on to devour another Mountain Laurel further up the hill from their 2013 feast.   As Sandra Schwinn commented at the time:

“I have dealt with these for the last couple of years…. If there were just a few of them, it wouldn’t be so bad. Be prepared for a second onslaught, as that’s been my experience. In fact, last year, I battled them from spring into fall.”

Sounds about right.   While it’s reassuring that the caterpillar onslaught doesn’t appear to kill the plant, it does rob us of the next year’s purple blooms since Mountain Laurel flowers only occur on second year growth.

Genista Moth caterpillars

Genista Moth larvae returned to different Mountain Laurels this year on the Llano River. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Given the apparent heartiness of the Mountain Laurel I will resist the urge to squish the Genistas, letting nature take its course and ceding their role in the food web as fodder for lizards, wasps and others.

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