New study: nectar plants more important than milkweed for Monarch butterfly migration

A research paper published April 27 in the journal Oikos is causing a stir in the Monarch butterfly world.  The paper challenges the conventional wisdom that the major cause of the decline of the Monarch butterfly migration is a lack of milkweed tied to the increased adoption of herbicide tolerant crops in the butterflies’ midwestern breeding grounds.

Monarch butterflies nectaring in the Chigger Islands in the Llano River on Frostweed

Migrating Monarch butterflies nectar on Frostweed in the Texas Hill Country, October, 2011. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Dr. Anurag Agrawal and his team of researchers at Cornell University tackle this widely held assumption in their recent paper, “Linking the continental migratory cycle of the monarch butterfly to understand its population decline.”  Agrawal suggests that the emphasis on milkweed may be misplaced and that solutions addressing habitat fragmentation, and most interesting and relevant to Texas, late season nectar plants should receive more attention.

“Planting milkweed is probably not a bad thing to do but it’s not going to increase their population or save them from some demise,” said Dr. Agrawal in a nine-minute video titled “Beyond milkweed:  Monarchs face habitat, nectar threats.” The video, below, was released in conjunction with the paper.

“Milkweed is probably not the limiting thing for the Monarch population,” he said.  “Perhaps planting milkweed will not improve or increase the populations as much as we thought in the past.”

Calling the decline of the Monarch butterfly migration a “very very gnarly problem,”  Agrawal gave kudos to citizen scientists for their involvement in the study and said more than once that  we must “get the science right.”

“We must identify the key weak points. It is absolutely critical.  If we don’t, we could be investing a lot of effort into conserving a portion of the migration but it may have ultimately no impact conserving the species overall,” he said.

Agrawal and his team matched Monarch butterfly counts made by citizen scientists and others to the different stages of the migration.   After doing so, they found that counts were not down until the end of the migratory cycle, when the butterflies started heading south.

“By the time they get to Mexico, their numbers are plummeting,” said Agrawal, “but at the end of the summer, when they start that migration, their numbers are not down.”

The research underscores the different needs of the species at the different stages of their life cycle.

In early spring, as Monarchs move north through the Texas funnel, they need milkweed on which to lay the first generation of eggs.  They continue to need milkweed through the summer as subsequent generations reproduce as they move north.

But in the fall when the Monarchs are heading south, they don’t need milkweed since they enter their reproductive diapause–that is, a temporary stage in which they postpone sexual activities and save their energy to migrate to Mexico.  At this point, they need water, ample nectar sources, trees or other protection at night for roosting, and connected habitats.

Monarch on Swamp milkweed

It’s not just about the milkweed.  Monarch butterfly on Swamp milkweed in downtown San Antonio, September 2014. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Agrawal’s point is well taken.  Immense focus has been devoted on increasing the Monarch butterfly host plant, milkweed.  Milkweed, anything in the Asclepias family, is necessary in the early stages of the migration when the Monarchs are reproductive.  But what about later in the game, when Monarchs are NOT reproductive?  They require nectar to fuel their flight.  Agrawal and his colleagues suggest that late season nectar plants and perhaps interconnected habitats–ie, pollinator corridors–would make their continuous route south more doable.

University of Georgia ecologist Dr. Andy Davis made a similar point last year when he spoke to the Washington Post. Davis challenged the idea of basing the Monarch butterfly population census on counting the number of hectares in Mexico occupied by the migrating creatures each winter.

Monarch caterpillars on Milkweed

Monarchs caterpillars eat only milkweed, but Monarch butterflies will nectar indiscriminately. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“If you were charged with figuring out how many people are participating in the Boston Marathon each year, you wouldn’t count the number of people who cross the finish line,” said Davis.  “For many years we’ve been counting the finishing Monarchs in Mexico….We’ve been doing it backwards.”

What Dr. Agrawal says about nectar plants makes sense, especially for Texas.

Think about it:  as Monarchs migrate south in the fall through the Texas funnel, they are  not reproductive. Their goal during this part of the migratory cycle is to fuel up on late season nectar plants and build up their body fat so they can make it to Mexico and survive the winter.  There, in early March of the following spring, they will leave their mountain roosts to mate, lay eggs on milkweed, and start the cycle all over again.

Monarch on duranta

Monarch nectaring on Duranta at Texas Butterfly Ranch urban butterfly garden, downtown San Antonio, November 2015. Photo by Monika Maeckle

That suggests that in the fall in Texas, there really is no need for milkweed for migratory Monarchs.  In fact, one could argue (and many scientists have) that having milkweed available late in the season will encourage Monarchs to break their diapause and reproduce, thus never arriving in Mexico.  This also suggests what Monarchs DO need in the fall: late season nectar sources.

The point is important and timely, given that millions of dollars in conservation funding and grants are being awarded as we speak. Should those grants and initiatives be focused on cultivating more milkweed or developing more sources and locations for late season nectar plants?

In much of Texas, called “the most important state” to the migration by Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch and others, the fall garden trumps the abbreviated spring garden season.  Temperatures climb into triple digits so early here that it’s challenging to grow many fruits, vegetables and flowers until the fall when things cool off.  In such a context, and given the timing of the Monarchs arrival here in the fall, late season perennial blooming plants should be encouraged.   We are well-suited to provide them.

Goldenrod Llano River

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

Need ideas?  Try Goldenrod, Frostweed, Autumn sage, Late flowering boneset, Asters, Cowpen daisy in your fall garden if you want to help Monarchs.  In my downtown San Antonio butterfly garden last year, Duranta, sometimes called Brazilian skyflower, was a big draw for Monarchs and other pollinators.  It’s not native, but a well adapted flowering bush–and highly appropriate, fantastic plant.

Monarch Watch offers this super useful list of appropriate nectar plants by season. The Xerces Society also has a guide for useful pollinator friendly plants.  And the Pollinator Partnership offers plant guides for every region in the country.

Scientists will continue this debate.  Dr. Chip Taylor recently took Dr. Agrawal’s paper to task in a rebuttal paper, “Conclusion of No Decline in Summer Monarch Population Not Supported” and Dr. Davis rebutted the rebuttal on his highly educational Monarch science blog.

Meanwhile, those of us in Texas should plan and plant late season bloomers.  Doing so will offer the bonus of providing fuel and sustenance not only for Monarchs but other pollinators.

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How to plan a successful butterfly and pollinator garden

How do you plan a successful butterfly and pollinator garden?

With the increased awareness of pollinator decline, gardeners are asking that question alot lately.

Pollinators–bees, in particular–make two out of every three bites of food we eat possible, delivering billions of dollars of free ecosystem services to humanity each year.  Without them, the foods we know and love would become less available and more expensive. As climate change, pesticide abuse, genetically modified crops and urban sprawl conspire to limit pollinator habitat world-wide, governments are worried about food security in the face of their demise.

Insect pollinators make all these edibles--and much more--possible. Photo by Monika Meeckle

Insect pollinators make all these edibles–and many others–possible. Photo by Monika Maeckle

That thinking drove the announcement of President Barack Obama’s National Pollinator Strategy last year.  The 58-page document sets goals to reduce honey bee losses, increase the migrating Monarch butterfly population, and restore seven million acres of pollinator habitat over the next five years.

Large prairie restorations are already underway as funding and attention have focused on the IH-35 corridor, which serves as a major migration route for birds, insects and Monarchs.  Every yard can also make a difference.

Everyone loves Swamp milkweed. Here, aphids and a glamourous blue bumblebee pour over the blooms. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Everyone loves Swamp milkweed. Here, aphids and a glamorous blue bumblebee pour over the blooms. Photo by Monika Maeckle

In fact, an October 2015 study, An Evaluation of Butterfly Gardens for Restoring Habitat for the Monarch Butterfly, by Brian T. Cutting and Douglas W. Tallamy published in Environmental Entomology, a publication of the Entomological Society of America, demonstrated that Monarch butterflies are much more likely to lay their eggs in gardens than in natural sites–2.0  –  6.2 times more eggs per plant per observation.   That suggests planting butterfly and pollinator gardens can make a significant contribution to restoring habitat for these special creatures that keep our food web intact.

How to do it?   Here’s a few tips:

Ask:  How will I use my garden?

Do you want a deck or patio as part of your pollinator garden? A fire pit? Rain garden? Do you prefer a path for observing pollinators in the their various stages as well as the fruits, flowers and herbs you might be growing? Or maybe you just want a pretty yarden with bees buzzing, hummingbirds lighting and butterflies lilting on your flowers?

pollinator garden

I like a path in my pollinator garden so I can check for caterpillars and eggs, pick some okra, or snip some herbs for dinner. Photo by Monika Maeckle

How you will use your garden will determine how to plan the space. Personally, I like to come home from work and walk through my garden in the late afternoon and early evening, inspecting my milkweeds and other host plants for eggs and caterpillars, checking on the okra or tomatoes and perhaps snipping some herbs for dinner.  That’s why I’ve incorporated gravel and mulch paths that weave throughout the garden to allow access and close inspection, as well as close-up photography that you will often see in these webpages.

Pipevine Swallowtails

Pipevine swallowtail caterpillars on Dutchman’s Pipe. PHoto by Monika Maeckle

I understand that not everyone fancies that. Some folks want the focal point of their garden to be a barbecue zone or vegetable patch, or perhaps a hammock/reading area, a deck, a pond or rain garden. You decide. It’s your garden.  Plants can be identified to serve any situation—wet, dry, sunny, shady. So choose.

And while you’re at it: choose native and well adapted plants. 

I’m not a purist about native plants, but I do try to use them whenever possible.  Why?

Because natives are four times more likely to attract pollinators than exotics.  Makes sense, since the natives were born and raised here, thus the insects that interact with them are naturally predisposed to perform the valuable ecosystem services needed to be self-sustaining.  According to Pollinators of Native Plants, a fantastic book by Heather N. Holm, studies find that when eight or more species of native plants occupy a

lady bug aphids

Lady bug on the job tackling aphids on Swamp milkweed. Photo by Monika Maeckle

landscape, the population and variety of native bees increase.  Diverse native landscapes also support beneficial insects like lady bugs, who seemingly appear out of nowhere to combat the yellow aphids that gravitate to the milkweeds we all plant for Monarchs and other butterflies.

Choose nectar and host plants to draw your favorite butterflies.

Butterflies and moths feed mostly on nectar plants, their flowers providing a sugary fluid that fuels their flight and reproduction.  As caterpillars, they consume the leaves of particular plants known as host plants.   Bees, meanwhile, feed on a flower’s pollen (protein) and nectar (carbs).  If you plant a variety of nectar and host plants, you should attract butterflies and bees to your yard.  Most people focus on the flowers, failing to research and include host plants, but honestly host plants are the key to a successful  butterfly garden.

For example, we all know that Monarch butterflies eat milkweed, anything in the Asclepias family.   But did you know that Eastern Swallowtails, one of the most common and beautiful butterflies in our part of the world, eat plants in the carrot family, Apiaceae?  That means if you plant parsley, fennel, dill or rue, you will soon have Eastern Swallowtails in your yard.  They are magnificent caterpillars and dramatic, large flyers in the adult stage.

Swallowtail on Fennel

Eastern Swallowtails eat plants in the carrot family–parsley, fennel, dill and rue.  Here, a Swallowtail noshing on fennel.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Eastern Swallowtail

Eastern Swallowtails, like many butterflies, are less particular about their nectar sources.  Here, Swallowtail nectaring on Tropical milkweed. Photo by Monika Maeckle

If you need help identifying appropriate native host and nectar plants that will attract the butterflies and other pollinators in your area, consult your local native plant society or Master Gardeners Chapter.  Typically they offer lists of “butterfly garden” plants appropriate for your locale.

Right plant in the right place.

Ideally, you want a sunny location.  Butterflies, bees and hummingbirds like flowers and flowers need sun–preferably six – eight hours per day. Determining the sun’s arc—that is, how the sun and shade play on your pollinator garden will determine where you place  particular plants. Sunflowers, mistflowers, sages and asters must have sun to bloom;  planting them under a tree or eave will only disappoint you–and the bees and butterflies, too.

Shade options include Columbine, Turk’s Cap, and certain Goldenrods as excellent pollinator plants. These and others thrive on the edge of a tree’s shade or in roofline’s shadow.  Again, consult your local native plant society and Master Gardener chapters to see what’s right for your situation.

Hummingbird on Turk's cap

Hummingbirds love Turk’s Cap, which grows in shade. Photo via npsot.org

Meanwhile, ask yourself: what kind of soil do I have? Blackland prairie or rock-filled caliche? Loam, sand, silty?  The soil is the foundation of the garden and some plants will only grow in particular circumstances with the requisite moisture and nutrients.  You can do a simple soil test or simply observe a similar natural landscape and copy Mother Nature.

Avoid pesticides.

Butterflies, caterpillars, beetles, ants, wasps, hummingbirds and moths are sensitive creatures that readily absorb pesticides, which are poisons.  When caterpillars, or butterflies-to-be as I like to call them, eat the leaves of plants sprayed with systemic pesticides, they perish.    Systemic pesticides can linger in a plant for months.

In the photo below, a trusted nursery assured our friend Sharon Sander that they had not sprayed the milkweeds she sought with any pesticides. Sander bought several one-gallon milkweeds to feed her hungry Monarch caterpillars.   The nursery employee was correct–they had NOT sprayed the plant.  But the grower did.  The systemic pesticide used remained in the milkweed leaves for months, killing all the caterpillars.

Boo-hoo! Dead Monarch caterpillars fall victim to pesticide laced milkweed

Boo-hoo! Dead Monarch caterpillars fall victim to pesticide laced milkweed.  Photo by Sharon Sander

Seek out growers and nurseries that do not use systemic pesticides.   And if you must use pesticides yourself, read and follow the directions carefully.  Choose a still day, not when it’s windy, and avoid spraying if rain is in the forecast, since the poisons might wash off and run into streams or drains.   Also, spray or apply surgically, ONLY to the plant that has issues, not some mass broadswipe.

For more on how to safely use pesticides in a pollinator garden, check out this helpful flyer from the Pollinator Partnership.

Create a puddling zone and wind break.

Butterflies need damp, wet areas to rehydrate and soak up minerals from the soil. A small swale or even a rain garden can satisfy this need and create a microhabitat within your garden that brings a new pollinator audience to your yard.

We installed a rain garden last year, planting its perimeter with various sedges, native grasses and Texas Frogfruit, Phyla nodiflora, a lovely semi-evergreen groundcover that thrives in extreme wet and dry conditions.  A member of the verbena family,

Crescentspot

Phaeon crescentspot on frogfruit. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Frogfruit’s tiny white flowers serve as an excellent nectar source for various butterflies and as host plant to the Common Buckeye, Phaeon Crescentspot, and White Peacock butterflies.

Bushes, trees, and tall shrubbery also are necessary to provide pollinators a place to rest, roost and overnight.  You can make these flowering plants if you like, but it’s not necessary.  Monarchs roost every fall in pecan trees that offer no nectar or hosting, only protection from the wind and the elements.

Monarch Butterflies Stalled in Pecan Trees on the Llano River

Monarch butterflies take a break from the wind by roosting and resting in pecan tress along the Llano River.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Don’t expect year-round tidiness.

This is one of the toughest lessons for city folk.  Pollinator and native gardens go through messy stages.  And for good reason.

Annuals like Cowpen Daisy, Verbesina encelioides, “go to seed” and when they do, some people consider them impossibly unattractive. I had a neighbor in Austin who loathed my butterfly garden adjacent to his well-manicured lawn. When I vacated my apartment in the autumn he took

San Antonio butterfly garden, October 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

San Antonio butterfly garden, October 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

it upon himself to mow down my Daisy patch and reinstall St. Augustine.  The same attitude removed a well established pollinator patch from our former family home in Alamo Heights.  When we turned over the keys, the new owners ripped out all the shrubs and natives and returned the lawn to water guzzling grass.

Lavaca garden, November 2012

San Antonio butterfly garden, November 2012.  Some Cowpen Daisies are spent–good time to gather seeds for next year. Photo by Monika Maeckle

It’s a fact: nature is messy.  Sometimes pollinator gardens are not that pretty.  Seedpods form and dry, become brittle, and hang on the plant, reminding us of better days. Dead vines and stalks may look raggedy and unsightly, yet they provide shelter and protection for all kinds of creatures.  Just remember that the pay-off for such temporary imperfection is a new round of beauty in seasons to come.

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Monarch Champion status NOT “just talk,” will change how San Antonio manages land

Wednesday, December 9 was a banner day for Monarch butterflies and all pollinators in San Antonio, Texas. That’s when Mayor Ivy Taylor announced that the Alamo City has been named the first Monarch Champion in the country by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF).

Mayor Ivy Taylor's Monarch butterfly wing bling

San Antoino Mayor Ivy Taylor sported Monarch butterfly wing bling when she announced San Antonio’s Monarch Champion status and her signature on the Mayor’s Monarch Pledge December 9. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Standing before a group of pollinator enthusiasts at City Hall and wearing stylish Monarch butterfly wing earrings, Mayor Taylor shared the proclamation that commits our city to adopting all 24 recommended actions cited by the NWF in their nationwide initiative known as the Mayor’s Monarch Pledge.

“I am pleased that we have set the bar so high in our efforts to attract and care for one very important set of visitors, migrating Monarch butterflies,” said Mayor Taylor in a prepared statement.

That high bar means San Antonio can expect more citizen science projects, a pollinator garden at City Hall or another highly visible public space, more pollinator-friendly landscape ordinances and city mowing schedules, and my personal favorite–a butterfly festival.  Insecta Fiesta, anyone?

We’re talking changes in building codes, recommendations for landscaping by the City’s Sustainability Office and increased grassroots activities like city-sanctioned native plant sales and seed exchanges.

Doug Melnick, Chief Sustainability Officer for the City of San Antonio, said the Mayor’s Pledge is not “just talk.” It will bring about real change. “This will positively impact how we manage city-owned land,” he said.

Antelope horns

Antelope horns milkweed for San Antonio’s “inferno strips”?   GREAT IDEA!  Photo by Monika Maeckle

“I hope to see a citywide conversion of useless streetside inferno strips to Antelope horns milkweed,” said another city staffer who works for our award-winning water utility, SAWS.  The staff person referred to the overheated and challenging-to-landscape swatch of land found between a city sidewalk and the street.   SAWS has done much to raise awareness of native, pollinator-friendly plants through its GardenStyleSA website and WaterSaver coupons that offer rebates to those who replace water-guzzling  turf with native plants.

The timing couldn’t be better, said Melnick.  The City is currently developing three plans under the umbrella of SA Tomorrow: Comprehensive, Sustainability, and Strategic Multi-Modal plans. “We have a great opportunity to further the protection of Monarch butterfly habitats and enhance our biodiversity by incorporating these key strategies into our plans, which will provide a framework for growth through 2040,” he said.

Mayor Ivy Taylor reads a proclamation to butterfly conservationists led by Nationa Wildlife Federation Monarch Outreach Specialist Grace Barnett (center). Photo by Scott Ball.

Mayor Ivy Taylor reads the proclamation to butterfly conservationists led by National Wildlife Federation Monarch Outreach Specialist Grace Barnett (center). Photo by Scott Ball.

NWF officials were “stunned” by San Antonio’s commitment, said Grace Barnett, NWF Monarch outreach coordinator who works out of Austin for the Washington, D.C. conservation group. In fact, after Mayor Taylor signed the Pledge on Monday, Dec. 7, NWF had to arrange a quick conference call to come up with a new category of support: Monarch Champion. “No one expected a city to take on all of the potential actions associated with the Pledge,” said Barnett.

To date, 46 cities have signed up for the national campaign to encourage mayors and local governments to increase Monarch butterfly and pollinator habitat.

Seven cities including Austin, Dallas, and St. Louis signed the Pledge and agreed to adopt eight or more of the 24 items to join the “leadership circle” of Monarch Mayors. Another 38 cities agreed to do three of the items. Only San Antonio agreed to 24 of 24. See the full list.

Monarch migration map

Monarchs must pass through the “Texas funnel”  coming and going to Mexico.  Graphic by Nicolas Rivard

As those of you that read the Texas Butterfly Ranch well know, Monarch butterflies migrate each spring and fall over multiple generations, moving from Mexico to Canada and back before settling into their roosts for the winter in the mountainous forests west of Mexico City. At the beginning and end of their journey, they pass through the “Texas funnel,” making our part of the world especially strategic to their migration. San Antonio lies in the heart of that migratory path and often serves as the first stop on the migration north in the spring and as the last stop in the funnel south in the fall.

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

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

All that focus on Monarchs and pollinators has made San Antonio’s long commitment to pollinator advocacy ripe for the Pledge.

Volunteers like Mary Kennedy, Kip Kiphart and Mobi Warren have worked tirelessly with the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project (MLMP), a citizen scientist initiative developed at the University of Minnesota.   Local MLMP volunteers have meticulously inventoried natural cycles of milkweeds (the Monarch host plant), eggs, caterpillars, chrysalises and butterflies at Cibolo Nature Center and the Museum Reach Milkweed Patch for years.

Citizen scientist volunteer Mobi Warren prepares to condusct reserach for MLMP at the San Antonio River Museum Reach Milkweed Patch. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Citizen scientist volunteer Mobi Warren prepares to condusct reserach for MLMP at the San Antonio River Museum Reach Milkweed Patch. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Just a short walk south of the Pearl on the San Antonio River, San Antonio’s Milkweed Patch serves an important inland urban monitoring site for overwintering Monarchs and has been the site of research conducted by some of the top Monarch scientists in the country, including Dr. Karen Oberhauser of the University of Minnesota and Dr. Sonia Altizer of the University of Georgia.

Some of us in the San Antonio area tag Monarch butterflies in the fall, as part of the Monarch Watch citizen science tagging program based out of the University of Kansas at Lawrence. Butterflies tagged in San Antonio and the Texas Hill Country have been recovered in the mountains of Michoacán, proving migratory patterns and providing data for scientists. (Personally I have tagged more than 2,000 butterflies, with 27 recoveries.) Programs and pollinator gardens have been established via Phil Hardberger Park, San Antonio Botanical Garden, Mitchell Lake Audubon Center, the Native Plant Society and elsewhere, as well as at community and private gardens all over town.

Tagged Monarch

Many of us tag Monarch butterflies as citizen scientists for Monarch Watch.  This one was raised and tagged in the Lavaca neighborhood  in downtown San Antonio. Photo by Monika Maeckle

That’s not to say we’re limited to citizen science in San Antonio. A recent $300K grant awarded UTSA by the State Comptroller’s Office to perform a statewide milkweed survey also contributed to our Monarch Champion status.  Combine that with our unique geographic location, special relationship with Mexico (the winter home to the mariposa monarca), the work of SAWS and San Antonio River Authority (SARA)  on the Museum and Mission Reach restorations with our passionate volunteers and grass roots efforts,   and San Antonio looks ideally suited to live up to the Mayor’s Monarch Pledge.

UTSA students milkweed survey

University of Texas at San Antonio students conduct research for a statewide milkweed survey. Photo courtesy UTSA

For a while, we wondered if it were going to happen.

NWF’s Grace Barnett, Dr. Terri Matiella of UTSA and I met with the Mayor’s office in October requesting that Mayor Taylor sign the Pledge. By doing so, she would have joined mayors in St. Louis, Austin, Grand Prairie, and six other cities along the IH-35 corridor that were among the vanguard to sign up. All we expected was participation–a commitment to three of the 24 items. The Mayor’s office was very receptive, but as is often the case when dealing with city government, nothing happened immediately.

Later we met with the City sustainability office. Joan Miller of the Native Plant Society of Texas joined us.  Again, very receptive. Yet….by early December, cities like Oklahoma City, Houston and Garrett, Texas, (population 800) had signed the Pledge while San Antonio continued to consider its options.

Butterfly advocates speculated as recently as the weekend before its signing that the Pledge was dead. Little did we know that what was taking so long was that the Mayor’s office was working with departments across the City to assure they could come through with all 24 items and make us the nation’s first Monarch Champion city.

In addition to the NWF reccomendations, Mayor Taylor said she is even considering a pollinator garden in her Dignowity Hill front yard as well as at the historic Dignowity Park, which her home fronts.  Whenever you’re ready, Mayor, let us know. Our pollinator posse will bring shovels, spades, native milkweeds and nectar plants to help make it happen.

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Time to harvest seeds, make (small) seedballs for next year’s wildflowers

We haven’t had a freeze in San Antonio yet, but my plants are looking pretty raggedy, which makes me want to get out and gather seeds.

That’s good news because now’s the time to harvest wildflower seeds and get them in the ground for next year.  Most wildflower seeds from our part of the world appreciate being planted in the fall so they can settle in, have a chance to scarify their outer crust and find their way into the soil to eventually put out roots and chutes to become next year’s round of wildflowers.

You can gather and distribute seeds directly onto the soil.  Or, you can make seedballs, a fun, interesting and unusual way to use up surplus seeds and spread the wildflower wealth around.

Introduced in the 70s, seedballs are a form of “guerilla gardening” whereby seeds, soil and clay are mixed together into tidy germination bombs that are said to have an 80% higher success rate than simply broadcasting seeds onto soil. Adding red potters’ clay to the mix protects the seeds from being blown away by wind and a dash of chile pepper makes the seeds less tasty to insects and birds.

Let there be seedballs

Let there be seedballs! Mark the march toward spring and help make next year’s wildflowers happen by making seedballs.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

Gardeners including me report mixed success with seedballs.   I’ve had some seedballs result in lovely wildflower patches; others just melted into the earth.  Professional landscapers and  ecological restorationists also have mixed opinions about seedballs.

Our friends at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center I told us that for large-scale restoration projects, the success rate of seedballs is too low–mostly because assuring the seeds get enough soil contact to germinate once the balls fall apart is a hit-or-miss proposition.   For those of us who can personally monitor our seedballs, that’s usually not an issue.

Seedball

Seedball properly tossed.  Make sure it has maximum contact with the soil and doesn’t have to compete with grass.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Emily Neiman at Native American Seed in Junction, Texas, suggests that when it comes to seedballs, size does matter.

“From my experience, most people make them too big and it takes forever to break down and sprout,” she shared via email.  “No bigger than size of an Almond M&M is good–and only a few seeds per seedball,” said Neiman.

At my house, we just like to play in the dirt and typically celebrate the arrival of winter with an annual rite of making seedballs.   Some folks bake Christmas cookies.  Others craft tamales.   We like to mix soil, clay, water and seed with a generous dash of chile pepper to make seedballs, a facilitator of wildflowers, the nectar sources and hosts for next year’s butterflies.

Seeds for Seedballs

Collect seeds now for seedballs.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Generally, seedballs don’t require watering and you should NOT bury or plant them.

Simply toss them in a vacant lot, your front yard, or a wildscape situation like a ranch or roadside.  Wait for rain to melt away the clay casing, and nature will do the rest.

Monika Maeckle, Annie Schenzel, Shelley Ericson make seedballs

Seedball party?  Count me in.  Photo by Hugh Daschbach

Seedball recipes vary as much as those for Christmas cookies.  Some seedball aficionados recommend a 3:2:1 ratio of soil, clay and seed, adding nutrient rich ingredients like worm casings or other natural fortifiers.  The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center encourages a concoction that includes sifting, humus with good bacteria intact, your local soil, and sand.

I’m not that scientific about it. We’ve had great success using three parts local or potting soil, one-two parts red potter’s clay powder (purchased from a pottery supply) and one part seeds. The clay binds the ingredients and keeps the balls intact. Add water until you get a workable dough that allows you to roll a spoonful of seedball mix into a ball that doesn’t stick. If you find that your seedball dough is too watery, just wait. The soil soaks up the excess liquid with time.

What do you need to make seedballs? Seeds, soil, clay and water

What do you need to make seedballs? Seeds, soil, clay and water–and chile powder.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Put them on newspaper to set up and then add my secret ingredient: red chile pepper. The pepper discourages insects, birds and other critters from denigrating or eating the seeds, giving them a better chance at germinating and becoming wildflowers for pollinators.

Once the seedballs set up, usually after 24 hours, store them in paper bags for later use or toss them right away.

Mix well until you get a consistency that easily formed into seedballs.

Soil, seeds, red clay, water–and chili pepper. Mix until you get a consistency that is easily formed into seedballs.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

When you toss them, make sure they land where they can make contact with soil, as in the photo above.    If the seedballs have to compete directly with grass, leaves or forbs, germination rates of the seeds decrease.

Remember to use only native seeds for wildscaping situations. Good luck and let us know how it goes.

Seedball

Seedball improperly tossed. Make sure it makes contact with soil. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Texas Butterfly Ranch Seedball Recipe

  • 3 parts local soil or potting soil
  • 1 – 2 parts red potter’s clay powder, also known as “terracotta powder” at pottery supply stores
  • 1 part native wildflower seeds
  • Water, as needed.
  • Newspaper and cookie sheets for drying seedballs
  • Stainless steal bowls or pots for mixing
  ****
1.  Assemble ingredients.
2.  Mix soil, clay and wildflower seeds together in bowl.  Mix well.
3.  Add water to attain dough-like consistency, much like tart or pie dough
4. Pinch off or use spoon to grab gumball-sized amounts of the mix.  Roll between your palms to get round form.  Drop onto newspaper covered cookie sheet to dry.
5.  Sprinkle generously with red chile pepper.  Let set for 24 hours.
6.  Toss and wait.  Nature will do the rest.

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Late season Monarch butterflies create gardening quandary

It’s mid November and Monarch butterflies continue to visit my San Antonio pollinator garden.  Lighting on Cowpen daisy, Duranta, Gregg’s Purple mist flower and several kinds of milkweed, the butterflies have extended their visits long past their usual late October stay.

Monarch on duranta

Nov. 12,. 2015: Monarchs still visiting my San Antonio garden, this one on Duranta. Photo by Monika Maeckle

That’s not to say we don’t sometimes have Monarchs visiting this late in the season. We do.  In fact, we’ve had many questions from folks up north about what to do with late hatching Monarchs when the weather turns cold. A previous post addresses that. But I don’t ever recall having this many Monarch butterflies this late, and so consistently.

“Yesterday, I saw hundreds of Monarchs in Austin,” wrote John Barr of Native Cottage Gardens in Austin on November 1 in a post to the DPLEX list, the old school email listserv that reaches about 800 butterfly enthusiasts.  ” I saw more Monarchs in 30 minutes than I’ve seen all year. Bright, fresh, long-winged migrating Monarchs of both sexes.”

Monarchs were even spotted recently as far north as Lake Erie, according to Darlene Burgess of Point Pelee, Leamington, Ontario. “There are still Monarchs being seen in Ontario on Lake Erie’s north shore. This week’s warm temps up to 70° should get them south across the lake,” she wrote November 2 on the DPLEX list.

lateseasonblooms

Late season blooms continue to attract Monarchs and other pollinators to my urban San Antonio garden. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Our friends at the Natural Gardener in Austin, which stocks several kinds of native milkweeds, said they’ve had a steady stream of Monarchs visiting as well. “They LOVE the Duranta,” said Curt Alston, buyer for the organic nursery. Alston added that he has plenty of caterpillars and chyrsalises on the native milkweeds, and that adult Monarchs are still breezing through the aisles.

What gives?

Climate change.  September 2015 was the hottest month in recorded history.  October ranked the fourth hottest.  Overall, 2015 is likely to be the hottest year ever, says the New York Times.

Warmer temps mean extended growing seasons.  Plants that typically wouldn’t thrive when fall arrives will continue to grow and bloom, creating more nectar for migrating Monarchs, and in some cases, host plant.

Increased temperatures also mean that Monarch butterflies will likely break their diapause–that is, their asexual state of resisting reproductive activities so as to conserve energy for migrating to Mexico.   Once Monarchs reproduce, they don’t migrate.

winter breeding map

Breaking diapause increases the chances of more year-round Monarch butterfly colonies. Map via Monarch Joint Venture

“We’ve got to get used to the late Octobers and Novembers as part of our future,” said Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, the citizen scientist tagging program operated by the University of Kansas at Lawrence.

Taylor predicts that a larger proportion of these late Monarchs will be unable to maintain their diapause and become reproductive.  “Their hormones work on the basis of temperature.  It’s very delicate and complicated,” he said via phone.  “The warmer it is, the more likely it is the Monarch will not be able to maintain a diapause.”

Hmm.  So where does that leave butterfly gardeners?  Should we encourage egg laying with native or clean Tropical milkweed, or just let all those good eggs go to waste?

curassavica

Tropical milkweed: cut it to the ground in the fall to prevent build-up of OE spores. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Research from scientists like doctoral student Dara Satterfield and Dr. Sonia Altizer out of the University of Georgia indicates that the year-round availability of Tropical milkweed makes Monarchs more prone to contracting Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, a debilitating protozoan parasite commonly known as OE in Monarch butterfly circles.  Since OE spores transfer via physical contact between creatures or the plants on which they rest or eat, having year-round milkweed which is visited repeatedly by Monarchs and other butterflies creates a hotbed of these nasty spores and spreads the disease.

Satterfield, et al, suggest hard-to-find native milkweeds should be planted rather than the technically nonnative Tropical milkweed, which is widely available and easy to grow.  Best practice dictates close management of Tropical milkweed.   Cut it to the ground late in the season so OE spores don’t build up and infect migrating Monarchs.

Cowpen daisy

Cowpen daisy: Monarch and pollinator favorite and blooms into fall. Photo by Monika Maeckle

But what about all the other plants that Monarchs frequent?  In my yard, the native Swamp milkweed continues to thrive and various nectar sources have been repeatedly visited by Monarchs and other butterflies since April.  As the Natural Gardener’s Curt Alston said above, Monarchs are loving the lush, purple bloom of Duranta that laces my fence perimeter.  They also repeatedly visit my golden-yellow, late season Cowpen daisies.

Wouldn’t these plants also host the same debilitating OE spores so closely associated with late season Tropical milkweed after so many return visits from Monarchs?   Should we cut those plants down as well, to avoid infecting visiting flyers?

Scientists, what say you?

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Happy Pollinator Week! Unpaid Workers of Our Food Web Deserve Respect and Resources

Monday kicks off Pollinator Week, a seven-day celebration of those that make two out of every three bites of food we eat possible.

Bee on sunflower

Bees are the master pollinators and keep our food affordable. Photo courtesy FWS/Cristina De La Garza

Yes, that’s correct:   birds, butterflies, beetles, bats, and moths make our food happen.  Were it not for the free ecosystem services provided by these creatures, food would cost much more and many would go hungry.

Just like our underpaid food service industry workers whose minimum wages don’t aptly reflect their contribution to society, pollinators get little respect.  That’s changing.  But in the meantime, since we pay them nothing for their valuable services, can we at least make a greater effort to understand, appreciate and support pollinators?

pw15logoFINALbThat’s the goal of Pollinator Week, organized by the Pollinator Partnership, a nonprofit organization devoted to the greater understanding and appreciation of pollinators and their ecosystems. The week-long event seeks to call attention to these valued members of our food web through activities, outreach and education.

Pollinators have been making news lately.  Just last month, President Barack Obama released the National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and other Pollinators, a 58-page document that lays out a plan to reverse the disturbing trend of pollinator decline.  It results from the work of a Pollinator Task Force established by the President last June.

The strategy document reflects grave concern and a serious attempt to address these depressing  facts:  Bee populations plummeted 40% last year.  The magnificent Monarch butterfly migration is at risk, since the butterflies’ numbers have dropped 90% in recent years from their high in the 90s.  The butterfly is being considered for listing as  “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act.  Bats populations have also taken a deep dive, and they’re fighting a strange malady called white-nose syndrome.   All pollinators face massive habitat destruction, climate change, pesticide abuse and  agricultural and developement practices that don’t support their existence.

Obama

Thanks, Obama! For making pollinators a priority. Courtesy photo

Of the 100+ official Pollinator Week events listed on the Pollinator Partnership website, Texas lists seven–with no official events in San Antonio or Austin.   I’m embarrassed.  Next year, people, we will have our own events.  (NOTE:  Stay tuned for details on our Malt, Hops and Moths event at the Alamo Brewery, July 23, which will celebrate National Moth Week!)

Unofficially, though, several local organizations are staging events that happen to celebrate pollinators during Pollinator Week.  Here they are.

Butterfly Count at San Antonio Botanical Gardens and Hardberger Park

Get your citizen scientist on with Patty Leslie Pastzor, San Antonio’s local denizen of native plants.  Pastzor has organized a butterfly census as part of the official North American Butterfly Association count, Monday, June 15, and Thursday, June 18.

Cowpen Daisy is a butterfly magnet and easy to grow

Help count butterflies for the North American Butterfly Association and learn about native plants at the same time with Patty Leslie Pastzor this week. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The outings include hikes centered around identifying and collecting data on San Antonio area butterflies. The June 15 event takes place at the San Antonio Botanical Garden.  On Thursday morning volunteers will gather at Phil Hardberger Park. A $3 fee applies to register your data. Wear a hat, sunscreen and comfortable walking shoes. For more info or to RSVP, contact Pastzor at 210.837.0577 or email agarita@me.com.

Pollinator Talk at Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin

As part of their Nature Nights series, Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center will host a pollinator overview Thursday, June 18, 6 – 9 PM.  The event is FREE. Bat Conservation International, Travis Audubon Society and the Austin Butterfly Forum will pitch in to explain the importance of pollinators in our food chain.

bats

Did you know that bats pollinate agaves, which makes Tequila possible? Photo via Bat Conservation International

Wildflowers and Whiskey Sours at Cibolo Nature Center, Boerne

Judit Green, Texas Parks and Wildlife biologist and plant expert, will offer a tour and conversation during a plant walk through the wildflower bounty at the 60-acre Herff Farm in Boerne, Thursday, June 18. “Adult beverages” provided, as well as drinks for the kids.   6:30 -8:30 PM,  $10.  830.249.4616 for more info.

Further afield, the following are official “Pollinator Week” events.

Pollinator Week at the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge in Alamo, Texas 

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in Alamo has an entire week of pollinator festivities planned.   Tuesday-birds, Wednesday-butterflies and bats, Thursday-dragonflies, and Friday-pollinator habitat.   Plant giveaways and story time are also part of the programming.   Events start at various times and are FREE with your $5 vehicle entry fee. See the Santa Ana NWR Facebook page for details.

Hummingbirds also serve in the unpaid pollinator workforce.  Photo by Charles Sharp Photography

Hummingbirds also serve in the unpaid pollinator workforce. Photo by Charles Sharp Photography

Pollinator Workshop at the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center in Ft. Davis, Texas

Pollinator expert Cynthia McAllister of Sul Ross State University will lead a pollinator workshop June 20.  It starts indoors with a presentation/overview of the importance of pollinators, then moves outside for a tour of the pollinator garden with close-up binoculars to get a bee’s eye view of the pollination process.  10 AM – noon, Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center Visitor Center.  FREE.

For more Pollinator Week events and to learn what you can do to help foster their livelihoods, check out the Pollinator Partnership website.
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Trinity Students Tackle Invasive Johnson grass on Llano River

There was a fine lady from Lampasas
Who waged battle with invasive grasses
When a root so immense
of that Sorghum halepense
Knocked her and her friends on their Johnson grasses.

                          –Chris Best, Texas State Botanist
                             U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

monarchsonfrostweed

Monarch butterflies nectar on Frostweed along the Llano River in 2012. Now the native nectar source has to compete with Johnson grass. Photo by Monika Maeckle

On the Llano River, we’ve always enjoyed lovely stands of Goldenrod and Frostweed in the fall when the Monarchs pass through. Solidago altissima and Verbesina virginica, beautiful yellow and white fall bloomers, respectively, serve as important nectar and resting stops for migrating Monarch butterflies and other creatures.

Until recently.

In the last two years, we’ve noticed our uninterrupted stands of fall nectar plants persistently punctuated by invasive Johnson grass. A recent road project that busted the crust on our river frontage opened the gate for germination, and the record rains and floods have put our nectar rest stop for pollinators at risk. Where once stood a solid stand of fall blooms for migrating Monarch butterflies, local Swallowtails and native bees, now presides an uninvited patch of Johnson grass.

The pesky invasive, Sorghum halepense, first arrived in the U.S. from the Mediterranean in the 1800s when it was imported as a supplementary foraging crop.   We all know how that turned out.

Eastern gamma grass

On the Llano River: Eastern gamagrass, a lovely native and host to the bunchgrass skipper.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Now, Johnson grass is one of the Top 10 Most Noxious weeds in the world, according to the educational website Texasinvasives.org, a public-private partnership of state and federal agencies, conservation organizations, green industry businesses, academia and others organized to protect Texas from the threat of invasive species.  Johnson grass is super aggressive, spreads through rhizomes and seeds, hogs space and resources, and crowds out natives that provide food, fodder and shelter to local wildlife.

Johnson grass has nasty rhizomes
Creeping through the clastic loams
The bunches measure three feet wide
And their leaves are stuffed with cyanide.

                                            –Chris Best

When stressed by drought, frost or herbicides, Johnson grass can produce toxic amounts of hydrocyanic acid that makes it poisonous to livestock–not a trait you typically seek in a grass meant for cattle grazing.  The seeds are also especially well protected by their casings and can survive the digestive tracts of birds and others that might eat them.

Oh, and Johnson grass likes moist conditions.  Like riversides.  After floods.   Are you getting the picture here?

austinjohnsoneeggrass

Trinity biology student Austin Phillipe lets us know what he thinks of Johnson grass on the Llano. That’s Johnson grass on the left. Eastern gamagrass on the right. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Trinity University students to the rescue.   Last week, five students accompanied their biology professor, Dr. Kelly Lyons, a restoration ecologist and expert in invasive plants, to the Texas Butterfly Ranch to assist in a Johnson grass eradication project as part of Trinity University’s summer research program funded by the University, Texas Ecolab, and the National Science Foundation.

The project began in April when a team of students arrived at the ranch to set up plots and gather baseline data on plant density and diversity.   Four 15- x 2-meter plots were established and will be treated with different forms of Johnson grass control–grubbing, weedwhacking, herbicides, and fire in various combinations.

Last week, students Ann Adams, Cassandra Alvarado, Avva Bassiri-Gharb, Kendall Kotara and Austin Phillipe returned to check the effect floods had on the site and begin control treatments.  The messy job of reestablishing the plots started Thursday, as super-sized mosquitoes dogged the students.  “Wear a hazmat suit,” quipped Avva Bassiri-Gharb. Said Phillipe:  “A bad day in the field beats a good one in the lab. But we had a great day in the field so you can’t beat that!”

More data collection and Johnson grass removal continued Friday in the aftermath of yet another inch-plus of rain and two overnight tornado warnings.  Grubbing and herbicide applications followed, with herbicide applied via makeshift wand–actually barbecue tongs wrapped in towels–that kept the product from escaping to desirable plants.

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Later this year we’ll test fire as a control method, and plant Eastern gamagrass, Tripsicum dactyloides, as a native replacement.   The project will continue into 2016.

Eastern gamagrass, a lovely, large bunchgrass related to corn that grows two – 10-feet tall, is well suited to the Llano River’s unpredictable moods of famine and flooding.

Dr. Kelly Lyons

Dr. Kelly Lyons

“The species is already present in high abundance and provides high quality habitat,” said Dr. Lyons, adding that Eastern gamagrass also works as a great soil stabilizer in river ecosystems. “Restoration ecologists often refer to it as ‘riparian rebar’ since its rhizomes are even more substantial than Johnson grass,” she said.

Eastern gamagrass also competes well with overzealous Johnson grass and uses niche space in a similar way, said Dr. Lyons. “We hypothesize that it will hold its own when Johnson grass tries to reinvade.”

So the war is on.  No surprise that we’re rooting–pardon the pun–for Eastern gamagrass.  It offers multiple benefits to our local creatures, including service as a host plant to the Bunchgrass skipper.   It also appears to be a steady companion to our Llano River Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, which is a host plant to Monarch butterflies.  The tall  mounds of Eastern gamagrass provide shade for late season milkweed from harsh summer sun and shield it from flooding.

Bunchgrasss skipper hosts on Easern gamma grasss and other bunch grasses.  Photo by Charles T. and John R. Bryson,  Bugwood.org -

Bunchgrasss skipper hosts on Eastern gamagrass and other bunch grasses. Photo by Charles T. and John R. Bryson, Bugwood.org –

We spend a lot of time and energy talking about restoring native milkweeds and other pollinator plants to the prairies that we’ve lost.   It’s equally important to manage and combat the deluge of invasive species that infect our wildscapes.  Johnson grass is just one interloper.    Check out the Texas Invasives website for more information.   We’ll keep you posted on the progress of the project.

 

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Coming soon: LIVE from the Mariposario, Dispatches from my Butterfly House

Almost four years ago our family began its own amazing multi-generation migration:  we moved from the homestead where we raised our two sons in a protected enclave of San Antonio to a downsized contemporary compound in unruly downtown.

Look for LIVE from the Mariposario updates coming your way.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Look for LIVE from the Mariposario updates coming your way. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Our Alamo Heights home had a beautiful half-acre lot with a magnificent butterfly garden that took years to nurture.  It was sad to see the new owners rip out its specimen native plants and return it to its former state as a St. Augustine lawn.  Part of the trade-off of making the traumatic move was that someday I would have a new wildlife garden and my own space to rear caterpillars and native plants, as well as a home more suited to our empty nest lifestyle.  I’m glad to say that day is here.

On top of that, we needed a place for my 93-year-old father and 82-year-old mother.  After researching the exorbitant costs of assisted living, John and Hilde Maeckle agreed to leave their tract home on the north side of San Antonio and join us at the family compound we now call Arsenal.

frontyardrendering

Rendering: Front yard vision, drawn sometime in 2013. Photo by Nicolas Rivard

We sold our house in 78209 and bought an empty lot in 78204, just a block from the San Antonio River across from HEB world headquarters at the historic San Antonio Arsenal, a limestone compound that housed munitions for wars from the Confederacy through World War II.  Then we began the arduous process of building a house–actually, two of them–from the ground up.

Our son, Nicolas Rivard, had just graduated from the University of Texas architecture school.  Since we needed someone to design our future two-home complex, we figured, naively:  how could we NOT use our own son as the architect?  It’s amusing, gratifying and sometimes aggravating to see how the reality has departed from the vision Nicolas and our family imagined.

Front yard garden

Reality:  Our front yard downtown garden, April 2015. Watch this space! Photo by Monika Maeckle

The design-build process began in late 2011.  The tight, alley-lined lot in downtown San Antonio created special challenges of staging and parking.   A newbie architect and unusual design and materials made for slow progress.  The public living area of our home is crafted from compressed earth block–that is, bricks made from soil.  The extraordinary building material created its own obstacles, but ultimately was worth it.  The place has the vibe of an ancient mission.

And then good fortune threw us a wild card.  Nicolas was accepted to graduate school at Harvard, then to an amazing fellowship in Rwanda.  For two-and-a-half years, these exceptional learning opportunities took him far from home and the project we had started.   It forced us to make many decisions via Skype and email rather than in-person and on site.  We made many mistakes.

Rendering:  backyard butterfly garden.  Photo by Nicolas Rivard

Rendering: backyard butterfly garden. By Nicolas Rivard

But that was all part of the adventure, as were the twists of life and unanticipated turns in our careers. During this time, my husband and I both left our jobs and started a communications consulting firm, The Arsenal Group. We launched a local news website, The Rivard Report. None of these career moves were planned when we launched the complex construction of our new home.

I kept sane by continuing to pursue my outdoor passions and working on this website, the Texas Butterfly Ranch. More change erupted as I rejoined, then left, the full-time workforce, only to return to consulting again. Meanwhile, our other son, Alexander, returned from a two-year job in Boston where he learned how to cook, and Nicolas also came home to roost–just as the home he had imagined in blueprint was nearing completion.

Backyard garden with screened porch

Reality: screened porch, rain garden, butterfly habitat coming soon. WATCH THIS SPACE.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

First came the Casita for my parents. My father’s health continues to decline, and my mom, Oma, as we call her, holds down the fort.  She has been a trooper to endure this years-long building process while also caring full-time for Opa.

Next, we crafted our house–two structures divided by a lovely atrium and connected with a two-story screened-in porch. My parents made their move in March of 2013. We finally made the Arsenal home in November of 2014 even though it is still a partial construction site.  The final phase includes a car port and my much-anticipated Mariposario, or butterfly house.   (For those unaware, mariposa means butterfly in Spanish.)

Backyard garden

Backyard wildscape and butterfly garden has just been planted. That’s pecan shell mulch. Photo by Monika Maeckle

For years my husband has indulged my affinity for insects in the kitchen and living room. When we lived in Alamo Heights I would bring potted milkweeds in for prime placement near windows. When the caterpillars were about to go chrysalis, they would be elevated to the coffee table for prime viewing so we wouldn’t miss the moment, often toasting the occasion with a sip of wine.

More recently, while living in multiple rental apartments with little outdoor space, we’ve had caterpillars marching across the rug, Monarchs hatching on curtains, and even a Black Swallowtail forming its chrysalis on the electrical chord of my flatiron–25 feet from its host plant. A lesser man would have shut this down, but my husband, Bob Rivard, has been extremely patient. Thanks, honey!

Monarch chrysalis  on napkin

Not any more: Monarch chrysalis on napkin. Now my caterpillars will have their own place to go chrysalis. Photo by Monika Maeckle

My Mariposario and new wildlife garden has made the long, circuitous, multi-generation trip worthwhile.   As we finish up the landscaping with help from Charles Bartlett and Albert del Rio of Green Haven Industries, I am FINALLY getting my own place to do my butterflying.

In the coming months, I’ll be posting photos and dispatches from the garden and my spanking new Mariposario–a fancy potting shed made literally from river rocks and hog panel.  Architects are not keen on showing a project when it’s not-quite-finished because often the photos don’t do their work justice.  I can’t resist offering a quick peek, though, as I know that fellow gardeners much appreciate how projects grow and evolve.   So here you go.

Mariposario April 2015

Mariposario: This is where the caterpillars will live. Can’t wait to install some milkweed and passion vine along the gabion wall of this final butterfly garden at our downtown home. Photo by Monika Maeckle

It’s almost done, and it’s quite special.  Our son chose gabion panels as the building material, a riff off the style fencing we used for our new home.  Made of metal, Texas river rocks, and hog panel, it creates privacy and security in an area of San Antonio riddled with vandalism and revelers.

This special place made of earth, rocks and metal will serve as a place for my tools, for my caterpillars, my family and for me. It joins our Llano River ranch and all wild spaces in between as the collective location of the Texas Butterfly Ranch.

I look forward to sharing it with you.

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

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

CPS ENergy pollinator posse

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

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

Pollinators CPS Energy

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

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

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

CPS Energy pollinator garden

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

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

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

CPS Energy pollinator garden

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

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

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

Polly the Pollinator Garden cat

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

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

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

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

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These are the plants we chose and why.

Turk’s Cap Malvaviscus arboreu

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

Milkweed Asclepias curassavica, Asclepias incarnata

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

Gregg’s Purple Mist flower Conoclinium greggii

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

Yellow Texas Columbine Aquilegia hinckleyana

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

Texas gold lantana Lantana urticoides

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

Cowpen Daisy  Verbesina encelioides

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

Jimsonweed Datura wrighti

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

 

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

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

Pollinator ducks

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

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

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

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

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

Golden crowned heron

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Queen on mistflower in urban polliantor garden

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

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

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

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

Hand pollination in China

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

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

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

Integrated vegetation management

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

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

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

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

pollinatorplantguides

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

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

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

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

Cowpen daisy deadhead

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

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

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