Monarch butterfly migrating population drops 27%, freak sleet storm to blame

Officials in Mexico announced Wednesday that the population of migrating Monarch butterflies dropped 27% this season, marking a setback in two consecutive years of growth from the historic low of 2014. A freak sleet storm gets the blame.

Piedra Herrada

Our friend Regina Moya went to visit la familia in Valle del Bravo with a side trip to Piedra Herrada Sanctuary in the state of Mexico. PHoto by Regina Moya

Just last year, we celebrated a tripling of the population, a reassuring turn of events from the grim news of 2014 when the total migrating population of Monarch butterflies could fit into a single Wal-Mart store with 30,000 square feet to spare. That sad fact had butterflies occupying only .67 hectares (1.65 acres) of high elevation forest at their winter roosting grounds in Michoacán and the state of Mexico. The numbers grew in 2015 to 1.13 hectares (2.8 acres), then jumped in 2016 to 4.1 hectares (10 acres).

This year, the butterflies covered only 2.91 hectares (7.19 acres).

Scientists and conservationists estimate the population by counting the number of hectares occupied and multiplying the estimated number by 50 million Monarchs per hectare. That suggests this year’s population numbers 145.5. million. The goal of conservationists is to rebuild the population to its historic average of 6.07 hectares (15 acres), or about 300 million butterflies.

The scene at El Chincua sanctuary  two weeks after the February 2016 storm.
Photo by Dr. Isabel Ramírez

Scientists and others who follow Monarch butterflies were not surprised by the findings. Dr. Lincoln Brower said by phone that he thought the numbers would be even worse. Many of us noted fewer Monarch butterflies than usual. Ruth Bowell of Troy, Ohio, shared her thoughts on the 2016 season on the DPLEX-list, an email listserv that reaches about 800 scientists, citizen scientists and Monarch butterfly fans. “My numbers this year were dismal until late August when I started really seeing caterpillars…If they have a good winter, maybe we’ll see more returning than last year.” Dr. Cuauhtémoc Saenz Romero, who studies the forest where the Monarchs roost, expressed the same sentiment, remarking “That was due to the winter storm in March.”

The storm to which he refers quashed the optimism of February 2016’s dramatic population growth within a few weeks of its announcement when, on March 11, climate change dealt a deadly blow to the rebounded Monarch population. A freak freeze and sleet storm descended on Mexico’s Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Preserves, decimating 100 acres of Oyamel firs and killing an estimated 50 million butterflies. The tragedy occurred at a most vulnerable time. Typically the first and second week in March are when the Monarchs begin to flee the forest and head north for South Texas in search of milkweed on which to lay the first generation of eggs.

Those of us who live in the flyway hoped for a robust recovery over the course of the spring and summer breeding seasons. The weather cooperated, but apparently even good conditions–plenty of rain in the Texas Funnel, ample milkweed and nectar plants in the spring and fall–couldn’t make up for season’s cursed beginning.

Monarch butterfly population numbers. Graphic via Journey North

Omar Vidal, head of the Mexico office of the World Wildlife Fund, told the Associated Press that the unusual winter storm likely played a role in the steep dip in Monarch numbers. “The reduction in the area of forest they occupied this year is most probably due to the high mortality caused by storms and cold weather last year,” he said. Here’s the full report, in Spanish.

Conservation efforts including pollinator habitat restoration and outreach continue, but it remains to be seen if that will be enough. Just today, the National Wildlife Federation, NWF met in San Antonio, the first Mayor’s Monarch Champion City, and finalized the completion of a citywide Monarch butterfly conservation plan. The document, assembled over several months and with the input of more than a dozen local organizations under the umbrella name Alamo Area Monarch Collaborative will lay out a comprehensive conservation and pollinator habitat restoration strategy. The effort will kick off and the plan shared at the upcoming San Antonio Monarch Butterfly Festival March 4 -5 at the San Antonio Zoo.

“During the meeting, the population count from Mexico was announced,” said Grace Barnett, Monarch Outreach Coordinator, South Central Regional Center for NWF. “It was read aloud–a strong reminder of  how important our work is and how much more there is to be done.”

Vidal underscored the work ahead when he told the Associated Press, “We cannot control the climate, but we can do much better in eradicating illegal logging in the reserve and tackling habitat loss in the U.S. and Canada,” Vidal said. “But, even if Mexico’s overwintering sites never lose another tree, without food and habitat along the migration routes, the forests will soon bid farewell” to the Monarchs.

Reports from the sanctuaries have been extremely upbeat, including one issued the same day as the declining population report. Journey North shared its first bulletin from roosting grounds correspondent Estella Romero, coupled with a note that tried to manage readers’ expectations with a prediction that numbers would be low this year.

Estela Romero of Journey North visited the roosting sites last week and raved about what appeared to be high numbers. But the population actually slipped from last year. Photo via Journey North

Under the headline “Population News: Waiting for the Official Count” Elizabeth Howard, founder of the citizen science initiative that tracks the migrations of Monarchs and other species, warned that observations made throughout the year suggested “a small population has been predicted — perhaps as low as 1 hectare.”

But Romero was effusive in describing her recent visit to El Rosario and El Chincua sanctuaries on February 4, sharing a dispatch hailing their seemingly high numbers.

“As I got nearer to the core of the colony, I just could not believe my eyes! It seemed as if I was looking to one of the best spectacles of the last years, in terms of population….Tens and tens of trees were full with clusters – more than 50 trees covered– on top, by one side, by the middle, with heavy clusters or lighter clusters hanging…It was a wonderful spectacle,” wrote Romero.

Edith Smith, a commercial butterfly breeder and owner/founder of Shady Oak Butterfly Farm in Florida, expressed exasperation about the negative headlines in an email to the Association for Butterflies email list, a listserv for commercial and hobbyist butterfly breeders. “Am I the only one who wishes positive information about Monarch butterflies was shared at times?,” wrote Smith. “Numbers are down by 27 percent from last year. BUT they are UP from the year before….We’re up over four times the lowest we had. That is still GOOD news.”

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Monarch Champions: San Antonio elected officials submit to butterfly’s charms

It doesn’t get much better for a butterfly evangelist than to have hometown elected officials raise Monarch caterpillars at City Hall. That’s what happened less than a year after the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) named San Antonio its first Monarch Butterfly Champion City.

Mikey the Monarch at Zoo

Does your Mayor do this? Mikey the Monarch raised by San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor’s office, released at the San Antonio Zoo. Photo via Twitter

San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor set the bar for the NWF’s Mayor’s Monarch Pledge (MMP) on December 9, 2015. That Wednesday, she made San Antonio the nation’s first and only Monarch Butterfly Champion City by committing to all 24 action items recommended by NWF to increase Monarch butterfly and pollinator habitat. Actions include installing pollinator gardens, encouraging citizen science, hosting a butterfly festival and changing landscape ordinances and city mowing schedules.

Mikey the Monarch caterpillar takes lunch at San Antonio City Hall. Courtesy photo

Taylor’s office raised her first Monarch, named Mikey, almost exactly a year later. Since Mikey emerged when it was too cold to fly   (temperatures hovered in the 40s), the San Antonio Zoo offered its flighthouse as a “butterfly B and B” until the weather warmed.

District 1 City Councilman Roberto Treviño became a  Monarch butterfly buff in October after attending all three events that comprised San Antonio’s first Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival. Treviño, an architect by training, served as a docent during the dozens of one-on-one tag- and-release demonstrations the Festival staged October 22. After accepting a milkweed loaded with two eggs and a couple of caterpillars as a gesture of thanks, Trevińo succumbed to the flashy orange-and-black butterflies’ charms–even releasing a Monarch butterfly at City Hall with Jonah Nirenberg, son of District 8 City Councilman Ron Nirenberg.

Treviño posted updates on his caterpillars’ progress on Facebook and had a sign at his City Hall office reminding visitors to shut the door because butterflies were in progress. “It’s such an opportunity to share the wonder,” he said.

To date, more than 240 cities have signed the Mayor’s Monarch Pledge. Only one – McAllen, Texas – has become a Monarch Champion City like San Antonio. The National Wildlife Federation is looking to expand the popular program to Mexico.

“The San Antonio administration and landscape team have really committed themselves to Monarch conservation,” said Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch,  the citizen science organization that tracks the migrating butterflies at the University of Kansas at Lawrence. San Antonio was the first city to call Monarch Watch’s Milkweed Market after the pledge, ordering 1,000 plants which have been planted in pollinator gardens around town.

Progress in the Alamo City has been consistent and impressive. Pollinator gardens have replaced invasive species along the San Antonio River South Channel and new gardens have been created at Phil Hardberger Park, Woodlawn Lake, UTSA, at the San Antoino River Authority and at many private residences. In April, four city agencies featured the Monarch butterfly on their Fiesta medals – the Mayor’s Office, SAWS, CPS Energy, and the San Antonio River Authority. A survey of 400 locals conducted by the Texas Butterfly Ranch website found the SAWS medal was the best.

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San Antonio has hosted two Monarch butterfly festivals since the Pledge was signed. The San Antonio Zoo’s first Monarch Fest took place in early 2016 and will take place this year March 4 and 5. In October, the Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival took place at the Pearl wowed an estimated 5-7,000 people. Plans are underway for a repeat.

According to Cathy Downs, a Monarch Conservation Specialist for the national citizen scientist program Monarch Watch, more requests for teacher training on how to use Monarchs in the classroom occurred in 2016 than prior years. And working closely with the NWF, local Monarch advocates are about to finalize the first San Antonio Monarch Conservation Plan as the City’s Sustainability Office integrates pollinator friendly guidelines into its strategic plans.

More pollinator habitat, sustainability plans, Fiesta medals, and Festivals are in store for 2017. But perhaps our most powerful tool in Monarch and pollinator conservation is one we should leverage more often: encounters with “the wonder” Monarchs generate. Giving caterpillars to elected officials and other with influence, affording them the opportunity to witness metamorphosis first hand may be just the inspiration we need. Try it. Let us know how it goes.

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Weather extremes create quandary: what to do with late season butterflies?

The first week of 2017 can be likened to the worst of a bad relationship, vacillating between hot and cold so drastically we’re left perplexed. What to wear–sweater and long johns or shorts and a t-shirt?

Mikey the Monarch

San Antonio Mayor’s Mikey the Monarch hatched and was released at the San Antonio Zoo flighthouse on January 5. The temperature outside was in the 40s. Photo courtesy San Antonio Zoo

Imagine what that’s like for butterflies and other cold-blooded creatures.The first six days of San Antonio’s New Year had temperatures swinging from 29 to 81.

Such drama will continue. With cozy pockets of our urban heat islands creating perfect microclimates for year-round host plants, Monarchs, Queens Gulf fritillaries and others continue to lay their eggs irrespective of the seasons. The eggs will hatch, morph into caterpillars which some of us won’t be able to resist bringing inside and raising to the chrysalis stage. Then on a mild winter day–like last Tuesday or Thursday when temperatures climbed to 81 and 71 respectively–a glorious, perfect butterfly will hatch.

Then what? It’s 29 degrees outside.

Generally, butterflies won’t fly when temperatures are less than 55 or 60 degrees. And after spending weeks fostering an egg, then a caterpillar, and finally a chrysalis to the point of becoming a butterfly, the idea of unleashing it into a cold, wintry wind seems brutally unacceptable.

“Cold weather does a number on all insects. That’s a given,” said entomologist MIke Quinn, who runs the über helpful insect education website Texasento.net.

I’ve stopped raising butterflies at home in the winter because the stress of having to deal with these late season beauties cancels much of the fun for me. After December 1, I let Nature do her thing.

But I get that many can’t resist having colorful creatures lilting around your home or office providing their unique charms in the dead of winter.

Our butterfly friendly Mayor Ivy Taylor hatched Mikey the Monarch on January 5. Mikey got a free ride to the San Antonio Zoo to live out the rest of his life in the climate controlled flighthouse filled with coddled milkweed and other plants the Zoo keeps in its greenhouse. Education manager Laurie Brown said Mikey may be released to the elements if temperatures warm up.

Our friend, District 1 City Councilman and Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival docent Roberto Treviño got lucky with a milkweed plant we gave him in November. The gift included one fifth star Monarch caterpillar and one Monarch chrysalis. Yet Treviño ended up with four extra butterflies-in-progress. Unbeknownst to us, several eggs were hiding in the milkweed plant.

Councilman Treviño tagged and released the Monarchs, which hatched around Thanksgiving. He’s hatched several Queens since, the last of which emerged this week  on a chilly winter day. His strategy? Hold the butterflies indoors until the weather warms up, then release them on the San Antonio River.

San Antonio City Councilman Roberto Treviño’s Thanksgiving Monarch. It was a boy. Photo courtesy Roberto Treviño

This Queen hatched in January in Treviño’s office. Check out the frass on the keyboard and around the computer. Photo courtesy Roberto Treviño

Caterpillar found its way to the computer plug to make its chrysalis. Hey, it’s warm back there! Photo courtesy Roberto Treviño

Is San Antonio a butterfly friendly city or what? Photo courtesy of Roberto Treviño

So for those who can’t resist fostering butterflies in winter, here’s some tips for dealing with late season butterflies, recast from a 2013 blogpost.

Entomologist Quinn suggests if you bring in found caterpillars, eggs or chrysalises, park them on a screened porch or cool garage to slow down their development in anticipation of warmer weather. Quinn points out that some butterflies overwinter in the chrysalis stage (like Swallowtails) while others, like Monarchs, overwinter in the adult, butterfly stage.

If you have adult butterflies and want to hold them for warmer days, Connie Hodson, a butterfly breeder and owner of Flutterby Gardens in Tampa Bay, Florida recommends sponges–scrubbers, actually–soaked in grape- or punch-flavored Gatorade laid out in shallow dishes in a butterfly cage.

Queens on sponges

Baby, it’s cold outside: soak scrubbers in Gatorade so butterflies can fuel up for when the weather turns. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Since butterflies taste with their feet, you have to set them on the sponge so they can “taste” the fake nectar, whetting their appetite. At that point, they’ll extend their long proboscis and slurp some fuel to power their flight.

You can try bringing in cut or potted flowers and laying out a spread of overripe fruit in the butterfly cage. Cotton balls soaked in sugar-water and apple juice are

Queens in the cage

Queens were not too keen on my offerings of fruit, flowers and sugar water. Photo by Monika Maeckle

another option. I’ve had mixed success with this. Sometimes the butterflies accept the smorgasbord, but mostly not.

Butterfly breeder Barbara Dorf of Big Tree Butterflies in Rockport likes to use tried-and-true hummingbird nectar–four parts water to one part sugar. She said a shallow dish or the top of a plastic container work well as a feeding station.  Lightly misting the sides of the cage with water helps the butterflies stay hydrated. “All you can do is keep them til a good warm day,” said Dorf.

Hodson pointed out that recently hatched butterflies are not hungry for the first 24 – 48 hours, so if sun is in tomorrow’s forecast, just wait. If days pass and the weather hasn’t turned, continue offering fresh nectar surrogates and keep spritzing the netting of the cage.

If the butterflies resist the sponge or scrubber, Hodson suggested taking a Q-tip, dipping it in the Gatorade and gently touching the creatures’ proboscis so they get the hang of it.

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Frostweed earns its name with intriguing ice sculptures upon first frost

The first frost of the season hit our Llano River ranch last weekend, a month later than the average November 15 first frost date prescribed by gardening buffs, farmer’s almanacs and the National Climate Data Center. On December 18, temperatures dropped a dramatic 60 degrees–from 78 to 18 in just a few hours.

Frost Flowers: The Frost Awakens from Roy Spencer on Vimeo.

Butterflies were absent Sunday morning, but we witnessed a different natural majesty. One of our favorite late season nectar plants, Frostweed, Verbesina virginica, graced us with the annual ritual of splitting her stems and producing amazing, delicate ice sculptures.

The airy, fragile constructions pour out of the plants’ stems like Nature’s artisanal meringues. I couldn’t help but think San Antonio’s thriving cocktail culture would appreciate the natural treasures as adornments on fancy adult beverages.

In the fall, Frostweed serves as a prime nectar source for Monarchs and other butterflies. The sturdy Verbesina virginica, with its odd square-like stalks, sports fleshy green flanges on its stems. The wildflower produces lush white blossoms from late August through November in semi-shade that provides respite from the late summer sun. The flowers bloom in big colonies along the rivers and streams of the Texas Hill Country.

Buckeyes share a Frostweed nectar stop with a Gulf Fritillary. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Along our stretch of the Llano River, Frostweed lines the riverbanks. This last year was spectacular with our well-timed rains. In September and October, the Frostweed forest was home to myriad butterfly species, bees, beetles and wasps. This plant is gorgeous, drought tolerant, a generous seed and nectar producer, and the butterflies love it. I don’t understand why it’s not more available in local nurseries.

Queens on Frostweed, Llano River Photo by Monika Maeckle

Bumblebees are also Frostweed fans. Photo by Monika Maeckle

As a member of the aster family, Frostweed can reach six-eight feet in height in a good year. Upon first frost, the stem splits, the sap oozes out and freezes to form fascinating curled ice ribbons and intriguing sculptures. That’s why it’s called Frostweed, or sometimes, Iceweed. See the amazing video by Roy Spencer, above, to witness the process.

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Only a handful of species commonly exhibit this behaviour. Bob Harmes of the University of Texas coined the term, crystallofollia, to describe the phenomenon, from the Latin crystallus, ice, and folium, leaf.

Frostweed is a magnet and important nectar source for migrating Monarchs in the fall. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Another student of Frostweed and crystafollia, Dr. James Carter, a professor emeritus in the department of geography and geology at Illinois State University, points out that “the ice formation far exceeds the amount of moisture from sap locally available in the stem, and must be augmented by water drawn up from the roots.” Frostweed’s rhizomes help it slurp up moisture in the soil to produce the ice formations. The robust root system also makes it easy to propagate the plant from its roots as well as from seed.

Frostweed Seed

Frostweed produces generous seed and nectar. And it’s easy to grow.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

According to an article in the September-October 2013 issue of Scientific American, written by Carter,  formal study of the process is limited.

For a fascinating blow-by-blow of what actually occurs botanically in the forming of these sculptures, see Bob Harms’ of the University of Texas at Austin Plant Resources Center Biophysica of Crystallofolia website.

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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 scientific 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 the nature 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 Midwest 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 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?

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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 butterflies 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 Antonio 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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