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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Historic Rendezvous of Those Who Located Monarch Butterfly Roosting Sites Draws Crowd of 200

Almost 200 butterfly aficionados gathered at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center auditorium in South Austin Monday night to hear from four speakers responsible for discovering and sharing the location of the Monarch butterfly roosting sites in Mexico almost 40 years ago.

Catalina Trail in Michoacán, 1975

Even in the 70s, logging took a toll on the Monarchs’ roosting sites as witnessed by this stump, enveloped in butterflies.  Catalina Trail on right.  Photo Copyright Catalina Trail

Dr. Lincoln Brower, one of the foremost Monarch butterfly entomologists in the country, was flown in from Virginia by the Austin Butterfly Forum to join three Austinites instrumental in Monarch butterfly history:  Catalina Trail, Dr. William “Bill” Calvert and John Christian.   The historic occasion was orchestrated by Mike Quinn, guardian of Texas Monarch Watch and the president of the Austin Butterfly Forum.

Trail is the only living founder of three people present at the “discovery” of the site where millions of Monarch butterflies roost each winter.  Calvert and Christian, in collaboration with Dr. Brower, revealed that location to the world two years after the site was first explored by Westerners. NOTE:  Native peoples had known about the roosts for centuries, but had no idea the butterflies had migrated from the United States and Canada.

Monday night’s presentation, staged by the Austin Butterfly Forum and billed as “a discussion of The Monarch’s Mexican Overwintering Refugia” did not disappoint.

Austin Butterfly Forum

Left to right: John Christian, Dr. Bill Calvert, Catalina Trail, and Dr. Lincoln Brower at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center. Photo Copyright by Mike Quinn

Wearing a lovely Pineda Covalin silk shawl festooned with lifelike Monarch butterflies,  Trail opened the discussion by sharing rarely seen photos of the ancestral roosting grounds as they appeared in the 70s.  Such was the state of the Oyamel forests when she and her then-husband, North American Ken Brugger, came upon the roosts after searching the rugged Sierra Madre mountains by motor home in the mid-70s.

thickmonarchsontreetrunks

“Butterflies on the ground, covering the trees, all the way to the top like a cathedral,” Catalina Trail said of the Monarch roosting sites’ appearance in 1975.   Photo Copyright Catalina Trail

“I was speechless,” said Trail in her soft Spanish accent.  “They were one-foot high, on the ground and covering the trees all the way to the top, like a cathedral.”

She described how she and Brugger had answered an ad placed in the Mexico City News by Canadian entomologist Dr. Fred Urquhart and his wife Nora for “interested persons” that would help track down the Monarch butterfly roosting sites.   The Urquharts had been working on the puzzle for decades.   Born on a ranch in Michoacán, Trail worked with Brugger to search the mountains for several years before discovering the ancestral roosts in January of 1975.

catalinatalkingtolocals

On the Monarch butterfly trail with Catalina Trail. She toured the Sierra Madre asking the locals if they had seen Monarch butterflies in the mid 1970s. Photo Copyright Catalina Trail

“I kept wishing the whole world had my eyes so they could see what I was seeing and feel what I was feeling,” she said, upon witnessing the millions and millions of butterflies covering every surface in the forest.   To hear the sound of the Monarchs taking flight was akin to “a symphony of the wings.”

ridgewheremonarchswerediscovered

According to Trail, this is the ridge where she and her husband Ken Brugger first found the roosts. Photo Copyright Catalina Trail

The day they found the Monarchs, she and her husband rushed back to town to call Dr. Urquhart and then came the hardest part:  “We had to keep it a secret.”

That’s because Dr. Urquhart wanted to keep the news quiet until he and his wife could visit and he could prepare a scientific paper.  Because of poor health, they didn’t make the trip until almost a year later.   Eventually Urquhart broke the news with a cover story in National Geographic in August of 1976.  That story rocked the world of entomology but left out the specifics of the location and caused devoted scientists like Dr. Brower, who had also been working on Monarch butterflies for years, and Dr. Bill Calvert, to set out on a quest to reveal the butterflies’ location.

The saga has been well documented in the book, Four Wings in a Prayer by Sue Halpern.

While Trail was the star of the show on Monday, the crowd also heard from the soft-spoken John Christian, a quiet, Spanish-speaking photographer and documentarian, who grew up in Mexico and was approached by Dr. Calvert at the University of Texas to accompany him on an adventure in search of the butterflies.   Calvert had teamed up with Brower, Dr. Victoria Foe, and her boyfriend (no one can remember his name)  to figure out the location of the roosting sites.  His role was to set out for Mexico via pick-up truck in search of the location.

“Bill Calvert asked me one day if I wanted to go help him find the butterflies as a translator,” said Christian from the stage, wearing a Huichol bag across his left shoulder.  “I said yes, and it was quite an honor.”

Like Trail, and many of us who have visited the roosting sites, Christian was permanently effected by the experience.  “It was extraordinary.  Not religious, but spiritual. Like a Church of Nature.  It’s a sacred place.”

Calvert also spoke, putting all the memories in context by pointing out that with the passage of time, testimony frequently comes riddled with “embellishments and omissions and aggrandizements…resulting in no idea of the truth.”

Calvert recalled how he met Dr. Brower at a seminar and when he realized the entomologist was making the study of Monarch butterflies his life’s work, soon drove all the way to Bustamante, Mexico, to retrieve 200 for him.

“He immediately ground them up into paste and did a cardenolide study on them,” said Calvert.

In those days, Dr. Brower was on the cutting edge of research using chemical fingerprinting to determine lipid content and what type of milkweed the Monarchs were eating.   Surely this had to be threatening to Dr. Urquhart, who had mastered the quaint-but-effective (and still utilized) practice of physically putting tags on Monarchs to determine their migratory pattern.

Brower gets credit for figuring out that the toxins in milkweed, the cardiac glycosides, are what make Monarch butterflies distasteful to predators, and in fact, may be the key to their roosting survival.

As Dr. Brower pointed out in his own fascinating presentation, cold butterflies don’t move fast and are quite vulnerable for several months at 10,000 feet in the cool Mexican forest.   Why are predators not feasting on them in this most vulnerable state?

Because they don’t taste good.  Brower’s famous barfing bluejay photo proved that point, below.

Barfing Bluejay

Dr. Brower’s famous “Barfing Bluejay” photo of a bird wretching after eating Monarchs, proved Monarchs don’t taste good. Photo courtesy Dr. Lincoln Brower

Calvert said that when he and Brower contacted Urquhart to ask him the location of the butterflies so they could deepen their understanding and study of the Monarchs, Urquhart “suggested we goto Appalachicola Bay along the Florida coast and retrieve some.”  That led to their travels and Monarch findings in Mexico.

The duo realized two important clues dropped by Urquhart in the National Geographic article and in a paper published in the the Journal of the Lepidopterists’ Society:  the roosting sites were somewhere at 3,000 meters elevation and on a slope of volcanic mountains in the northern part of Michoacán.

Based on those two simple clues, Calvert determined a small area west of Mexico City that met the criteria and he and Christian set out to find the site.   When they arrived in Angangueo, a small town near the roosting sanctuaries, they recruited the Mayor’s son to help them.   “He seemed incredulous that anyone would be interested in these insects,” said Calvert.

On New Year’s Eve, 1976, almost exactly two years after Catalina Trail first trod on the spot, they located the roosting sanctuaries.

“That’s what science is,” said Brower, summing up the feat of connecting the dots and following the clues.

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Butterfly Farmer Edith Smith Keeps it All in the Family at Shady Oak Butterfly Farm

Ever heard of butterfly farming as a profession?

Neither had I–until four years ago when I dug into the craft and science of raising butterflies at home.  Rearing butterflies in my kitchen was such fun, I thought I wanted to be a professional butterfly farmer.  I quit my corporate marketing position in late 2011, applied for USDA permits to ship butterflies to the 48 contiguous states and cultivated my membership in the International Butterfly Breeders’ Association (IBBA).

Edith Smith

Edith Smith, Shady Oak Butterfly Farm–Courtesy photo

Yes, the IBBA.   The trade association of more than 100 butterfly breeders serves as a great place to learn about rearing butterflies from people who do it professionally. 

Each year the IBBA stages a conference. It’s geared to professionals but is open to others. I joined the organization and attended my first butterfly convention in Las Vegas as a curious observer in 2009.   The 2013 Convention takes place in my hometown of San Antonio this November in conjunction with another butterfly breeders group, the spin-off Association for Butterflies.   The combined event will commemorate the 15th anniversary of the founding of the butterfly breeding industry.  Feel free to join us.

In the butterfly breeding business, Monarchs are the money crop.  --Photo by Monika Maeckle

In the butterfly breeding business, Monarchs are the money crop. –Photo by Monika Maeckle

Apart from these annual gatherings, the far-flung, ferociously independent butterfly farmers rarely see each other in person. Most were drawn to the profession for the love of the species rather than monetizing their passion.  They communicate constantly through an active, members-only listserv that functions as a commodities exchange:

“Need six dozen Monarch pupae for funeral this weekend.  Please contact me offline.”

“Painted lady larvae available.  Email me directly.”

But this hyperactive email list also works as an insiders’ guide to detailed information on the persnickety process of producing butterflies on demand.  From best practices for propagating host plants to how to deal with common caterpillar maladies,  I have learned much from this group.

One of the most generous resources on the IBBA list is Edith Smith of Shady Oak Butterfly Farm in Brooker, Florida.  Smith grew up on a peanut farm in the Sunshine State, 15 miles north of Ocala, “in the middle of nowhere,”  as her father used to say.  She found her way to butterfly farming in 1999.   The farm evolved, as many butterfly related activities tend to do, from a gardening passion–in this case, an herb farm she and her husband started.  She and her retired pharmacist husband Stephen Smith now raise several thousand pupae and/or butterflies a week.

Edith Smith and her husband Stephen, who's career as a pharmacist and science background greatly assisted the development of their Shady Oak Butterfly Farm.  --Courtesy photo

Edith Smith and her husband Stephen, who’s career as a pharmacist and science background greatly assisted the development of their Shady Oak Butterfly Farm. –Courtesy photo

In the beginning, the Smiths sold butterflies, caterpillars, and chrysalises to a single broker.   “We raised about 12 species at that time but had not yet tried Monarch or Painted Lady butterflies,”  said Edith via email.

LIke many butterfly lovers, Smith was taken aback by the general population’s obsession with Monarchs.   Many professional and novice lepidopterists don’t understand the focus on Monarchs when so many other amazing butterfly species abound and merit attention.  Monarchs get all the press, and in the butterfly breeding business, the dramatic migrant is a money crop–constituting the bulk of sales in the multi-million dollar industry.

“Because we sold only to one broker who resold to exhibits, we didn’t realize that Monarchs and Painted Ladies were the two main sources of income for most butterfly farmers,” said Edith.   The couple quickly changed their strategy and added the two bread-and-butter species to their line-up. Generally, Monarchs are the preferred species for releases at weddings, funerals and celebrations, while Painted Ladies are often used en masse in science classrooms and home school situations as part of science curricula.

The Smiths were selling 500 – 1,000 pupae per week by the end of their first year.  They increased their species count from 12 to 20. Back then a high volume broker could buy a chrysalis for $1.  Today a chrysalis can cost $3 – $10, depending on the species and who’s buying it.

These days, Shady Oak, one of the largest farms in the industry, produces up to 6,000 pupae per week and grosses about $300,000 per year.  “But costs are high,” said Smith, noting the operation includes a staff of six family members and an equal number of greenhouses to raise host plants.

Four laboratories, a shipping/packing area and various screened 12’x12’x16′ butterfly “apartments” allow for mating and hatching of various species on the Shady Oak grounds.  The Farm ships to myriad flyhouses, zoos and natural history exhibits and supplies livestock to hundreds of weddings, funerals, events and schools for celebration, commemoration and education each year.

Shady Oak Butterfly Farm

Smith led a tour of one of the Farm’s “rearing rooms” for IBBA members at the 2011 convention in Gainesville, Florida.   –Photo by Monika Maeckle

Shady Oak once opened to the public for tours and field trips, but now the farm offers visits by appointment only.  Smith also welcomes fellow butterfly farmers and like several breeders, hosts educational seminars and an internship program aimed at teaching best practices. “Our first seminar was in 2003 with 64 people,”  she said.  These days, for health reasons, Smith prefers one-on-one week-long internships. “We have met the most fantastic people!”  she said, including visitors from 12 countries.

Shady Oak has mastered breeding the uncommon Blue Buckeye.  Photo via Edith Smith, Shady Oak Butterfly Farm

Shady Oak has mastered breeding the uncommon Blue Buckeye. Photo via Edith Smith, Shady Oak Butterfly Farm

The Smiths are especially proud of their Blue Buckeyes, their specially bred blue-winged Common Buckeye.   Just like other types of farmers and ranchers, a butterfly breeder can breed for desirable traits.   In this case, the Smiths focused on the beautiful iridescent blue sometimes observed on the wings of the Common Buckeye, Junoeia coenia. 

Whenever the Smiths noticed blue in the background of recently emerged Buckeye wings, they isolated the creature’s eggs for breeding.   Over time, each generation produced more pronounced iridescent blue in the background of the Buckeye’s wings.  Eventually, “Buckeye butterflies emerged with the entire background of their wings a remarkable metallic blue,” notes Smith on her educational website, Butterfly Fun Facts.  See the video below for a glimpse at this amazing creature.

Smith is always quick to share advice and rearing tips on her Facebook page, her websites, on the proprietary IBBA listserv, and through the Association for Butterflies.  Isn’t she concerned about disclosing trade secrets?

“The more we all share the better off we all are!” she said via email.   That attitude led her to help found the Association for Butterflies along with Jodi Hopper and Mona Miller, an educational-oriented organization for professional breeders that helps to promote best practices for butterfly lovers of all stripes.

Smith believes the butterfly breeding industry must share and improve its practices to continue growing.  “There’s more demands for butterflies than we farmers can supply,” she said.  “Teaching others to raise butterflies means that when supply is low, we will be more likely to find someone to dropship to our customers.”

Smith also credits her farm’s proximity to the University of Florida and the McGuire Center for Biodiversity and Lepidoptera in nearby Gainesville.  “The people there are very generous with their time and knowledge.  They have helped us more than we can say.”

At age 58, Smith is turning her attention to writing books about butterfly rearing and implementing a two-year succession plan. Her eldest daughter, Charlotte, has become part owner of the farm, which the couple incorporated last year.   Daughter-in-law Michelle manages the office, takes orders and often packs and ships 40-50 orders of live butterflies, pupae, caterpillars, eggs and/or butterfly gear a day.   Shady Oak also employs several other staff members that keep the place running smoothly.

Smith and her husband Stephen plan to attend the IBBA/ABF Joint Conference in San Antonio this November.   If you want to meet Edith and learn about raising butterflies from her and others who do it for a living, check out the convention page for further details.

As for me, I will remain a NONprofessional butterfly farmer/rancher for the foreseeable future.  After completing my first paying gig as the Texas Butterfly Ranch, which was to supply 500 live butterflies to the University of Texas at Austin’s First Annual Insecta Fiesta in April of 2012, I realized immediately I’m a better marketer than rancher.  Special thanks to another generous farmer, Connie Hodson of Flutterby Gardens, for helping me fill the order.

Lesson learned:   it’s much easier and less stressful to  produce blogposts and marketing plans on deadline than to deliver hundreds of live butterflies by a predetermined date. For now, I’m sticking to my profession and raising butterflies for fun.

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