Agrawal: Milkweeds don’t need Monarch butterflies, but Monarchs need milkweed

Monarch butterflies and milkweed. We’ve explored the subject many times right here at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. But author Anurag Agrawal’s recently published Monarchs and Milkweed, A Migrating Butterfly, a Poisonous Plant, and their Remarkable Story of Co-evolution adds a new dimension to our understanding of the testy relationship between our favorite migrating butterfly and its poisonous host plant.

Anurag Agrawal, author of Monarchs and Milkweed, released this spring by Princeton University Press  –Courtesy photo

Agrawal, a recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Ecology Award in 2016,  wades far into the milkweeds to make this complicated story highly readable. The Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Sciences and Faculty Fellow at the Atkinson School of a Sustainable Future at Cornell University was the first scientist to suggest that Monarch butterfly conservation might be better served if we looked beyond planting more milkweeds–anything in the Asclepias family. Agrawal proposed increasing late season nectar plants, required by the butterflies in the fall to fuel their migratory flight.

In this beautifully illustrated book, he compares the co-evolution of milkweeds and Monarchs to an “arms race,” a parallel drawn previously by Monarch butterfly expert Lincoln Brower and other scientists. To Monarch butterfly lovers, the metaphor may seem off-putting, perhaps exaggerated. But after reading Agrawal’s detailed explanation of the continuous one-upmanship that occurs between the iconic creature and its host plant, the label makes perfect sense.

One of Agrawal’s most unexpected assertions: “The butterflies are simply no good as pollinators. Monarchs are strictly pests.” With Monarch butterflies bandied about as the poster child for pollinator advocacy in recent years, we naturally assume that the storied migrants are effective pollinators.

But they’re not. Especially for milkweeds, which have an unusual pollinator strategy, similar only to orchids in the natural world. Milkweed pollen is not disseminated by individual pollen grains like those we notice clinging to the bodies of bees.

Polonium

The dangling yellow pollen sac is the pollinium of an orchid. Photo via Wikipedia

Instead, members of the Asclepias family reproduce via pollinia, evolved pollen packages–sticky masses of pollen that look like tiny yellow bags. We sometimes see these teeny yellow bulbs attached to bees’ wooly heads or fuzzy legs after they’ve dug into a flower. The pollen sac attaches to the bee. As they dive into flowers, the pollinia somehow is inserted into the flower’s reproductive slit, resulting in pollination.

Monarch butterflies, because of their size, form, and the way they sit atop flowers, simply don’t have the capacity to carry these hefty pollen vessels. And they rarely come into contact with the pollinia, nor its reproductive destination in the female part of the flower.

“This nonpollinating aspect of Monarchs is not widely appreciated,” writes Agrawal.

Now there’s an understatement. Given the Monarch’s Pan-American status as the great pollinator ambassador, that fact will come as a harsh revelation to many.

Agrawal will be in town for a session at the San Antonio Book Festival April 8. Come join us, buy a book, and get it signed.

As it happens, milkweeds don’t need Monarchs, but Monarchs DO need milkweeds. Monarch butterflies will only lay their eggs on plants that are members of the Asclepias or milkweed family, a species known for its sticky, milky latex sap, which tastes bitter and contains potentially heart stopping toxins that protect the butterflies that consume it as caterpillars because it makes them distasteful to predators.

Monarch caterpillars eat the milkweed leaves, morph through their stages, transform into  chrysalises, then emerge as adult butterflies. As the Monarchs attack the milkweed by eating it, the milkweed responds by ratcheting up its toxic properties, making the larval food ever more toxic as the season wears on. This is how the plant protects itself and makes for the intriguing “coevolutionary arms race” which is the premise of the book.

Monarch butterflies will only lay their eggs on the toxic milkweed Asclepias species. Courtesy photo

Agrawal notes, and some of us have witnessed first hand, how tiny Monarch caterpillars sometimes perish upon eating perfectly healthy milkweed. The reason may be the milkweed is simply too toxic for the Monarchs to process. As Agrawal points out, “the dose makes the poison.”

In chapter seven, titled “The Milkweed Village,” Agrawal goes into entertaining detail about the 11 different species of insects that have made milkweed “their bed and breakfast.”  We’ve seen them all–aphids, milkweed bugs and beetles, wasps, ants. Agrawal introduces each in gory and glorious detail–the “seed eaters,” the “suckers,” the “chewers, miners and borers.” For anyone who raises Monarchs and milkweeds in the garden, many questions will be answered here.

As Monarch caterpillars decimate milkweeds, the plant responds by increasing the levels of cardiac glycosides it produces as a defense. Courtesy photo.

Throughout, Agrawal writes deeply but accessibly about biology, botany, and chemical ecology, only rarely straying into the hyper-scientific jargon that can make such writing impossible to understand for those without PhDs. That is one of the greatest strengths of this book in my view: making the science understandable to nonscientists.

Speaking of eating milkweed, Agrawal also shares that young stalks of certain milkweeds are perfectly edible as a side dish for humans. I had heard this from my friend, hydroponic farmer and adventurous vegetarian Mitchell Hagney of Local Sprout, but had never had it explained.

cooked milkweed stalks

Anurag Agrawal cooked milkweed for his wife and child. Courtesy photo

Agrawal cites wild plant proponent Euell Gibbons, author of the 1962 classic, Stalking the Wild Asparagus. Young milkweed shoots can apparently be gathered in late spring when they’re four- to eight-inches high, sautéed and served for supper or as a side dish. Agrawal suggests several cold water rinses to remove extreme bitterness from the milkweed but preserve its unique flavor. “Season with salt, pepper and butter. Serve proudly,” he writes. He offers a color photo of a cast iron skillet filled with young milkweed shoots that he served to his family. The Asclepias veggies appear amazingly similar to asparagus. Perhaps a milkweed cookbook will be next?

Such accessible, fun anecdotes mixed with hardcore science are exactly what make this book a must-read for Monarch followers and generalists alike.

Want to meet Anurag Agrawal? Join us at the San Antonio Book Festival Saturday, April 8, 10 AM, to meet him. We’ll discuss his book and answer your questions. Books will be available for purchase and signing. Hope to see you there! Details here.

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Monarch butterfly Valentine: how do we love thee? Let us count the ways…

My love affair with Monarch butterflies began in earnest in 2005. My friend Jenny Singleton had introduced us the year before. But the following October, on a warm Saturday afternoon, I stepped from my kayak in the Llano River and approached a stand of pecan trees bowed to the ground in submission from serial floods. My red rubber boots stuck for a moment in the mud, but when I looked up, I was struck. A silent eruption of Monarch butterflies wafted from the earth. Hundreds of them drifted skyward–floating, flitting, and fleeting before settling on bare tree limbs.

Yes, I’m smitten–how can you not be? That’s me at the 2016 Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival at the Pearl. Photo by Scott Ball

That was the day—the day I call my Magical Monarch Saturday–I fell profoundly, entirely in love with these insects. I’ve been reading and writing about them ever since, as well as raising them at home.

I’m not alone. Tens of thousands of people are smitten with Denaus plexipus. The species even has its own listserv, the DPLEX, with more than 800 subscribers.

Hundreds of websites and social media pages are devoted to Monarchs and their conservation, some of which flaunt tens of thousands of fans–Monarch Watch on Facebook with 38K+ followers, for example. Festivals celebrate Monarch butterflies in spring, summer and fall in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico.  The Monarch serves as the official insect of seven states in the U.S.  A 2013 survey published in Conservation Letters indicated U.S. households are willing to spend $4.78–$6.64 billion–yes, BILLION– for Monarch conservation through direct contributions and the purchase of milkweed and appropriate nectar plants. Monarchs are among the most studied insects in the world, with  multi-millions of dollars devoted to researching their life cycle, habitat and diseases/threats. Tens of thousands of Monarchs are also bred commercially and by hobbyists each year for use in classrooms and educational events to teach metamorphosis. Some folks even tap the Monarch to commemorate special occasions like weddings, funerals and life changes.

Monarch butterfly expert Dr. Lincoln Brower with overwintering monarch butterflies. Rosario overwintering colony, 4-6 February 1991. (Photo by Perry Conway.)

“I think of them as magical bottles of wine. You can pour it all out and when you go back, it’s full again. There is no end to the questions you can ask.”  That’s how Dr. Lincoln Brower, who has studied Monarchs for more than five decades, summed up the Monarch’s charms in the 2004 book Four Wings and A Prayer.

So why do we love Monarch butterflies so much? Lots of reasons.

First, they don’t sting or bite. Their bold, orange-and-black, stained-glass wings make them stand out and ward off predators. A dreamy flight pattern suggests confidence. Their elusive flits and turns connote flirtatiousness. Turning legs into wings—now that’s magical. And navigating thousands of miles “home” to a sacred forest never seen demonstrates tenacity and strength. It commands our admiration. Monarchs’ back story is also loaded with intrigue—scientific rivalries, mysterious chemical powers, a strong codependence on members of the milkweed family. All this makes for an incessantly interesting long-term relationship.

For Valentine’s Day in this year of such dramatic political change and on the heels of news that their numbers are down by almost a third, we thought it appropriate to ask Monarch butterfly lovers to articulate their feelings for the Americas’ most beloved insect. Their loving quotes follow, but perhaps more telling are the looks of pure joy on their faces in the photos they shared.

Nola Garcia of San Antonio, age 9, recalled receiving a gift of caterpillars on milkweed. She’s been raising and tagging Monarchs ever since.

“I remember the excitement of finding them all over my room when it was time for them to become chrysalises,” said Nola. “I saw one split its skin and pulsing as it changed. I love seeing them right after they come out when their wings unfold. My favorite part is letting them go and watching them fly off. I love how they look.”

Nola Hamilton Garcia with Monarch butterfly

Nola Garcia enjoys a freshly hatched male Monarch butterfly in her kitchen before releasing him to the wind. Photo by Tracy Idell Hamilton

Dara Satterfield of Georgia studies Monarch butterflies as a James Smithson Fellow at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. She sees a transformation myth in Monarch butterfly biology. “Monarchs grow up, reinvent themselves (in the chrysalis), and undertake a long journey that is all-at-once beautiful and treacherous and difficult,” said Satterfield, who has studied with Dr. Sonia Altizer, the foremost expert on the Monarch centric spore-driven disease, OE. “This story seems familiar, even personal, to us. It’s much like the human experience, in miniature. So we root for Monarchs. We want to see them thrive.”

Cathy Downs, Monarch Watch Conservation Specialist, welcomes a freshly hatched Monarch into the world. Courtesy photo

“As a child, I loved Monarchs because they were at times amusing, cartoonish and full of wonder and discovery,” explained Cathy Downs, Monarch Watch Conservation Outreach Specialist in Central and South Texas. “During career years, the sight of a Monarch took me back with a sigh, if only for a moment in a busy life, to my childhood. In retirement, Monarchs have opened thousands of doors for me to new people, new places and new passions.”

Drake White, founder of the Nectar Bar, a Facebook page devoted to educating people how to raise butterflies at home has a special greeting when she welcomes someone or signs off from her page: “Peace, love and butterflies.”  White manages the butterfly house at Phil Hardberger Park in San Antonio and does pollinator landscape consulting on the side. She loves all butterflies, but admits Monarchs are her favorite. Their metamorphosis “always makes me understand just how amazing nature truly is,” she said.  “I never want to lose that. It keeps me bonding with nature.”

Drake White

Drake White of the Nectar Bar’s signature butterfly greeting is Peace, Love and Butterflies. Photo by Drake White

Hope, beauty and perseverance are consistent themes among Monarch butterfly lovers. Jeanette LaVesque, who follows Monarchs from Minneapolis, said the butterflies “give me hope for a beautiful transformation for myself someday–either here or beyond. They prove to me that miracles happen in this world….Butterlies make my garden feel like a little paradise when they are present.”

Dr. Karen Oberhauser of the University of Minnesota and founder of the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project, has been studying Monarch butterflies and working to bring them to children and classrooms since 1984. And yet, ”I’ll never tire of bringing the eggs and larvae into my house and watching them undergo their amazing metamorphosis, or walking into my lab full of students helping to unravel monarch mysteries,” she said, adding that Monarchs are beautiful, familiar, interesting, and impressive. “They evoke deep connections between people and nature,” said Oberhauser.

Mayor Taylor wears Monarch butterfly wing bling earrings and releases another type of butterfly at the San Antonio Zoo Monarch Festival in 2016. Photo by Monika Maeckle

San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor became the first in the country to sign the National Wildlife Federation’s Mayor’s Monarch pledge in 2015. Taylor, who grew up in Queens, New York, was completely unfamilar with the Monarch migration until shortly before signing the pledge. But once she and Monarchs got acquainted, it was a pretty quick romance. “The story of the Monarch’s migration is what really caught my attention,” she said. “It’s amazing that such a fragile creature has the perseverance to travel thousands of miles every year.”

Anurag AGrawal, author, scientist, Monarch butterfly lover. Courtesy photo

Finally, Dr. Anurag Agrawal, conservation biologist at Cornell University and author of the soon-to-be-released Milkweed and Monarchs: A Migrating Butterfly, A Poinsonous Plant, and their Remarkable Story of Coevolution told us that while he is first and foremost a scientist, he sees beauty in biology.

He recalled seeing Monarchs in the fields of Pennsylvania as a child and attributes their magic to their transformative metamorphosis. “Who does that? Going from leaf-eating worm to flying machine. Going from Canada to Mexico. And going from a billion butterflies to too few,” said Agrawal. “Don’t leave us magnificent Monarchs. We need you for inspiration, for study, and to remind us of our place.”

Why do YOU love Monarch butterflies? Leave a comment below to let us know.

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Frostweed earns its name with intriguing ice sculptures upon first frost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Queens on Frostweed, Llano River Photo by Monika Maeckle

Bumblebees are also Frostweed fans. Photo by Monika Maeckle

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

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

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

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

Frostweed Seed

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

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

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

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

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

Anurag Agrawal by Frank DiMeo

Dr. Anurag Agrawal –PHoto by Frank DiMeo

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

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

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

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

Milkweed and Monarchs:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

img_2433

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is a gardener to do?  Plant native milkweeds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Butterfly bonanza: Monarch tagged in Oklahoma netted on Llano River in Texas

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

Justin Roach WMX658

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

tagged recovered Monarch

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

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

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

James Roach Tishomongo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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                                       --all photos by Monika Maeckle

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

monarch egg drowned milkweed

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

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

snouts pioneer flower mill

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

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

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

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

Queens on Frostweed, Llano River

Queens on Frostweed, Llano River Photo by Monika Maeckle

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

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

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

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

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

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

snout

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

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

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

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

Snout by Drake White

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

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

hackberry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-11-16-47-am

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

Social media was also aflutter with snout sightings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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When aphids suck the life from your milkweed, here’s how to safely get rid of them

The dreaded oleander aphids have arrived here and are trying to wreak havoc in my gardens. At a friend’s house today, I noticed that all of her milkweed is infested beyond hope….Are there any new ideas on how to deal with them? Thanks. –Jan LeVesque, Minneapolis

Jan LeVesque is not alone in her exasperation at the hands–rather, mouth parts–of plant sucking aphids.  Anyone who raises milkweed in an effort to attract Monarchs is familiar with the soft-bodied, squishy orange insects that seemingly take over anything in the Asclepias family.

Oleander aphids on Tropical milkweed

If you raise milkweed and Monarchs, you’re well acquainted with oleander aphids. Here they are on Tropical milkweed. Note the sticky, slick looking substance on the leaves. That’s honeydew. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Jan, like many before and after her, posted the above query on the Monarch Watch DPLEX list, an old school listserv that goes to hundreds of citizen and professional scientists and butterfly fans who follow the Monarch migration. And as usual, the community had plenty of ideas.

But before we explore how to kill them, let’s take a look at the interesting life cycle of these ubiquitous, annoying insects, known as oleander aphids, milkweed aphids, or by their Latin name, Aphis nerii.

First off, they are parthenogenic, which means they clone themselves and don’t require  mates to reproduce. In addition, the clones they produce are always female.  Yes, that’s right–all girls. “No boys allowed.”

apids

All female aphid colonies undermine our milkweeds. Photo via University of Florida

According to the University of Florida’s Department of Entomology and Nematology “Featured Creatures” website, “The adult aphids are all female and males do not occur in the wild.”  Instead, the aphid moms deposit their all-female nymph broods on the stalks of our milkweed plants.  That generation morphs four more times until they grow up to become aphid moms who repeat the process.

Even more interesting, under normal conditions, adult female aphids do not sport wings, but get this: if conditions are crowded, or the plant is old and unappetizing (which happens as the summer progresses in our part of the world), the girls grow wings so they can fly away to greener pastures–or in this case, fresher milkweed. Aphids live 25 days and produce about 80 nymphs each.

This brilliantly efficient method of reproduction, says Featured Creatures, is one of the reasons “large colonies of oleander aphids…build quickly on infested plants.”

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Small populations of aphids are pretty harmless to the plants, but when you get a large colony, the milkweed suffers. The aphids insert their piercing mouthparts into the milkweed, literally sucking the life out of it as they enjoy the sweet liquid that courses through the plant. The high concentration of sugar in that liquid means the aphids have to eat a lot of it to get the protein they need.

That results in a profuse amount of excrement, called honeydew. It is prolific and forms a thin, sticky layer on the leaves of your milkweed, choking the absorption of essential nutrients.  It can also cause sooty mold, an ugly dark fungi that can cover your milkweed.

We have a fair amount of milkweed near the house and it’s been aphid free so far – except for one incarnata shoot on which a 3 inch long colony had formed with probably more than 500 aphids of all sizes. Not having mixed up any fancy aphid remedy and not having insecticidal soap, I looked under the sink for the handy spray bottle of 409. It wasn’t there – so, I grabbed the Windex instead. Last evening a quick inspection showed that all the aphids were blackened and dead. I checked again this morning and spotted one aphid. The plant seems unaffected by the treatment.  –-Dr. Chip Taylor, Founder of Monarch Watch

Once you have well-established infestation of aphids, the plant just goes downhill. The aphids themselves are also highly appetizing to Ladybugs, wasps and syrphid flies–all insects that eat aphids and Monarch or Queen eggs with equal abandon.

When I get a serious aphid infestation, I typically use a high pressure spray of water to blow the bugs off the plant. That simultaneously washes the honeydew off the milkweed, which will deter the arrival of ants and also clean the leaves so they can absorb sun, air, water and nutrients to fuel their growth.

My other method is to simply squish the aphids between my thumb and fingers and wipe them off the plant. Your thumb and fingers will turn bright gold, but will wash off.

Oleander aphids

A Ladybug’s favorite treat: aphids. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Some gardeners like to use alcohol or other additives with the water spray, but I prefer to keep that stuff off my plants.

As Dr. Karen Oberhauser of the University of Minnesota and founder of the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project wrote to the DPLEX list in July of 2015, “Detergent treatments will kill any live insects on aphid-infested plants, including Monarch eggs, Monarch larvae, and aphid predators like syrphid fly larvae, ladybug larvae, and lacewing larvae.”

Alas, even Dr. Oberhauser, who has decades of experience with aphids, admits “There is really no good way to kill aphids without killing everything else, except by trying to lower the population by carefully killing them by hand.”

If Monarch cats are not present, I spray with insecticidal soap and then rinse later with water hose. If that is ineffective, I move up to Neem oil and rinse it off also later. One and/or the other are very effective…. It is easy to go from 1 to 1,000s of aphids in a very short period of time.

— David Laderoute, Coordinator,  Missourians for Monarchs

Another option is biological control. Lady beetles or Ladybugs feed primarily on aphids. Somehow they seem to magically find their way to our milkweed gardens to feast on the yellow critters. Ladybugs can be purchased in bags at some garden centers and released to do their jobs.  But remember–they also eat butterfly eggs.

Hover flies and wasps also eat aphids. Wasps have a bizarre practice of laying their eggs on the aphids, then eating them from the inside out, leaving a brown shelled carcass in their wake. We often find these hollow corpses on our milkweed plants.

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

Pesticides will kill aphids, but they often remain in the plant for months and will also kill Monarch caterpillars. Photo by Sharon Sander

One good thing about aphids: if you see them on a plant in a nursery, you know the milkweed is clean, and has NOT been sprayed with systemic pesticides. We all want perfect looking plants, but the occasional aphid is a good sign that your plants are pure. See this post for more on that topic.

Need more ideas for getting rid of aphids?  Check out this useful post from The Monarch Butterfly Garden.  If you have new tips not covered here, please leave a comment below.  Good luck!

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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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Commercial butterfly breeders: industry has vested interest in raising OE-free butterflies

NOTE:  The following guest post by Dr. Barbara Dorf* arrived as a lengthy comment here at the Texas Butterfly Ranch last week.  I invited Dorf to expand her comment to a full-blown post because I think the perspective of professional breeders is important to various issues discussed here.

–Monika Maeckle

As a board member of the Association for Butterflies, an organization for about 80 professional and hobbyist butterfly breeders and a co-owner of Big Tree Butterflies  commercial butterfly breeding farm,  I am writing today to clarify our position in relation to the proposed petition to the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to list the Monarch butterfly as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Barbara Dorf and Tracy Villareal, owners of Big Tree Butterfly Farm in Rockport, Texas --Courtesy photo

Dr. Tracy Villareal and Dr. Barbara Dorf, owners of Big Tree Butterflies in Rockport, Texas –Courtesy photo

As stated in a recent post on this website, Lawsuit seeks ESA monarch butterfly listing, turns up heat on commercial breeders, the petitioners believe that commercial breeders release diseased butterflies into the wild population, potentially damaging it.  Such comments oversimplify the butterfly industry and misrepresent the efforts of many breeders who are very diligent and dedicated to raising healthy butterflies.

Butterfly disease is a concern for all ethical butterfly breeders and part of the larger issue of raising healthy butterflies in captivity. Our concern is at several levels.

We want to raise healthy butterflies and provide customers with the best value for their money. In addition, butterflies are living creatures and proper animal care practices need to be observed. Failure to adopt clean rearing procedures is costly and ultimately self-destructive. That said, there are areas of concern.

Ophyryocystis elecktroscirrha, or OE, has been studied extensively and is of particular concern because it can significantly impact Monarch populations. It is the most commonly mentioned disease problem in both the butterfly industry and popular press. OE occurs in nature, primarily infecting Monarchs and related butterflies. It is found in Monarch butterfly populations throughout the world, including North and South America, the Caribbean, Hawaii, and Australia.

OE spores transfer through physical contact or consumption of milkweed leaves. PHoto courtesy AFB

OE spores transfer through physical contact or consumption of milkweed leaves. Photo by Dr. Tracy Villareal

OE can be transmitted in two ways. In nature and during captive breeding, spores are transmitted from egg-laying females to their offspring when dormant spores on the female’s body scales are scattered on eggs or as they are passed onto milkweed leaves that are the Monarch’s only host plant. Newly emerged caterpillars consume spores when they eat their eggshell or when feeding on milkweed leaves. Spores can also be spread between adults through body contact, more likely to occur during captive breeding when adults are kept in higher concentrations than in the wild.

Once eaten, the spores have a rather complicated life cycle, with the end result being many more spores, which are often visible inside the chrysalis. When the butterfly emerges spores are located mostly on the abdomen.

OE can be debilitating, often killing or deforming caterpillars, chrysalises and adults. Infected adults have been shown to be smaller, have shorter lives, and mate and migrate less successfully. However, those that do mate can continue to lay eggs, passing on the OE spores to the next generation, both in nature and in captivity.

deformed Monarch OE

OE infected Monarchs can have trouble emerging from the chrysalis and may be deformed. Photo via UGA Monarch parasites website

If not controlled, all butterflies within a captive breeding colony will become infected with OE in very few generations, resulting in poor quality butterflies unable to successfully breed or migrate when released. This is a butterfly breeder’s worst nightmare.

Thus, the butterfly industry has a vested interest in producing OE-free butterflies and educating all breeders on how to produce healthy butterflies. The problem is not that all butterfly breeders raise and sell OE-contaminated Monarch butterflies. Rather, the problem is that customers cannot tell if the butterfly breeder they are purchasing from raises OE-free butterflies.

The AFB has been implementing programs over the last 10 years and has been anything but lethargic concerning OE in commercially raised butterflies.

Here is what the AFB is doing to address the problem:

1. Educational programs

The AFB offers educational programs developed by butterfly professionals and academic researchers available to anyone who wants to learn more about butterfly disease prevention.

Our annual “Disease Prevention in Lepidoptera” course (offered for the last 10 years!) is free to all members and has been taken by hundreds of professional breeders, hobbyists, enthusiasts and educators, and offers a Disease Seal and certification for participants who successfully complete weekly testing and a final exam.

2. Disease screening co-op

In addition to education, the AFB also offers its members a 3rd-party Disease Screening Co-op in conjunction with the Mississippi State Pathology Department.  Caterpillars are screened by pathologists for viruses, bacteria and parasites, helping breeders to detect issues in breeding butterflies before disease can cause serious issues.

3. OE Clean Screen Program

The AFB has initiated the OE Clean Screen Program, a butterfly industry first. This is a 3rd-party OE testing program in which professional breeders voluntarily submit Monarch chrysalises to an independent University laboratory for OE testing when the adult butterfly emerges. Submitting fresh chrysalises eliminates any possibility of “selection” for OE-free AFBlogo

butterflies. Acceptable OE levels reflect natural background levels, with 20% of all butterflies tested having either no OE or showing light contamination (less than 100 spores). The program was set up with comments and advice from Dr. Sonia Altizer, a leading Monarch butterfly researcher and world-expert on OE.

Testing is voluntary and anonymous. Breeders will receive a Clean Screen rating and be highlighted on the AFB website as part of a Preferred Listing. The rating indicates that the breeder has met standards for OE prevention that have been approved by academic researchers. No program with this level of rigor and independent evaluation has ever been attempted. This is a serious program to address a legitimate concern. It is open to all butterfly farmers, even if they do not belong to the AFB.

The purpose of this testing program is not to penalize breeders who may have OE-positive butterflies, but to get a better picture of the butterfly industry, offer support and education, troubleshoot, identify, and correct possible rearing problems, and to encourage all butterfly breeders to do a better job of keeping a clean operation. The result will be that customers will be able to compare butterfly breeders based on this independent standard. The marketplace will determine the rest. Independent, 3rd-party certification allows customers to know that the breeder was producing Clean Screen stock at the time and that they are taking an active interest in producing healthy butterflies. Thus, it is in the butterfly breeder’s best interest, once they have Clean Screen stock, to maintain them.

There are unscrupulous butterfly breeders out there who do not practice clean breeding techniques and give the entire butterfly industry an unfavorable image. Because these unscrupulous breeders exist, buying butterflies from breeders engaged in independent 3rd-party testing allows customers to know that they are buying from a butterfly breeder who is seriously working to produce healthy butterflies.

In closing, butterfly disease is a concern for all ethical butterfly breeders and the AFB is working hard to provide the best possible support to butterfly breeders for rearing healthy butterflies.

*When she’s not raising butterflies, Barbara Dorf works as a fishery biologist at Texas Parks and Wildlife.  She earned her PhD in biological oceanography at the University of Rhode Island and holds undergraduate degrees in wildlife and fisheries science and aquatic biology.
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Guidance on milkweed management confuses butterfly gardeners

Confusion reigns for gardeners and Monarch butterfly enthusiasts trying to “do the right thing” managing their late season milkweed, the host plant of Monarch butterflies.

monarch laying eggs on swamp milkweed

Monarch laying eggs on Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, in downtown San Antonio November 15, 2015. Photo by Monika Mae

For the last few years, scientists like doctoral student Dara Satterfield and Dr. Sonia Altizer of the University of Georgia as well as renown Monarch scientist Dr. Lincoln Brower have recommended slashing Tropical milkweed, Aslcepias curassavica, to the ground late in the season.  Studies suggest that the year-round availability of Tropical milkweed makes Monarchs more prone to contracting Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, a debilitating protozoan parasite commonly known in Monarch butterfly circles as OE.

Until recently, Tropical milkweed, technically nonnative, has been the only host plant available for butterfly gardeners hoping to lure the migrating butterflies to their yards.  The reliable bloomer will thrive year-round in warmer and coastal climates, especially in Texas and Florida.  Scientists believe this year-round availability creates a hotbed of nasty OE spores and spreads the disease.  Its presence can also encourage Monarch butterflies to break their diapause–or temporarily suspended non reproductive state–and lay eggs, thus unable to complete their migration to Mexico.

No doubt about it: Monarch caterpillars LOVE Tropical milkweed. Photo taken 11/24/2015 by Monika Maeckle

No doubt about it: Monarch caterpillars LOVE Tropical milkweed. Photo taken 11/24/2015 by Monika Maeckle

But now, for the first time ever, native milkweeds are more available.  And judging from the government funding pouring in to milkweed cultivation and the valiant Monarch butterfly habitat conservation effort, even MORE milkweeds will be coming to market soon.  Gardeners will soon have choices beyond Tropical milkweed.

“Plant only species of milkweed that are native to your region, whenever possible.”

That’s what the Monarch Joint Venture OE Fact sheet advises pollinator gardeners like me and you.

We did that.  And like good stewards, we’ve been cutting Tropical milkweed to the ground late in the season.

But guess what?  Those native milkweeds, which have recently become available because of all the attention on Monarch habitat restoration, are thriving late in the season, too.

Egg on Texana

Egg found on Texana milkweed, Aslcepias texana, 11/19/2015. Not sure if it’s a Queen or monarch (and it hasn’t hatched yet.)  Photo by Monika Maeckle

In my yard right now, for example, I have

  • Asclepias texana, Texana milkweed
  • Asclepias incarnata, Swamp milkweed
  • Aslepias curassavica Tropical milkweed
  • Aslcepias tuberosa Butterfly weed
  • Asclepias oenotheroides, Zizotes milkweed
  • Matelea reticulata, Pearl Milkweed vine.

I sought out these various milkweeds at native plant sales, the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, from our family’s Llano River ranch.  I also traded seeds with other pollinator fans, friends and butterfly breeders. At this moment, all but those I’ve cut back (tuberosa and curassavica) still flaunt green foliage, days before Thanksgiving.

Should I cut these native milkweeds to the ground as well?

The theory of OE spores building up over the season, possibly infecting migrating Monarchs would seem to hold true for other milkweeds available late in the year, not just Tropical milkweed.

Right?

“You’re right that it’s less about the plant itself and more about the seasonality of the plant,” wrote Satterfield via email.  “Any plant that grows 365 days a year in the southern U.S. and supports Monarchs year-round could lead to high levels of disease, as we understand it.”

Swamp milkweed seed pod

Drawback to cutting back native milkweeds: we then can’t harvest the seedpods. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“My personal leaning is that if the species are native, they don’t need to be cut back on a regular basis,” said Dr. Altizer via email.  “Any natives that routinely remain in lush green foliage into the fall and winter are likely going to be rare species, or it will be a rare year when this happens, whereas with the Tropical milkweed, these commonly remain in green foliage until they are hit by a hard frost or cut back.”

Dr. Lincoln Brower, always the purist, suggests even cutting late season nectar plants back–if they are growing in close proximity to Tropical milkweed.

“I have given some thought to your question of whether nectar sources might accumulate OE spores,” wrote Dr. Brower via email.  “I think the answer to this is one of probability and proximity to curassavica [Tropical milkweed]. I think that nectar sources are so diverse and abundant in the natural environment that the probability of Monarchs infecting the plants with spores is very small. …unless the nectar plant is growing adjacent to curassavica. Again, yank it out.”

Confused?  You’re not the only one.

Mary Kennedy, volunteer at the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project

Mary Kennedy, volunteer at the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project

Mary Kennedy, a longtime Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project volunteer and trainer said she is no longer going to advise folks to cut back their Tropical milkweed. “If milkweed is on the ground late in the season, I don’t see why it makes any difference what species it is,” said Kennedy, a former science teacher. “Grow up kids, and make your own decisions.”

One drawback to cutting milkweeds back late in the season is that we then are unable to harvest the seeds. I cut back a patch of Swamp milkweed in August as it was riddled with aphids and gangly.  The plants failed to produce any more flowers; thus, no seeds have been harvested from that patch to propagate future native milkweeds.

Satterfield insisted that the scientists’ statements are “still correct and not mutually exclusive.”

Swamp milkweed in the "wild" of the Llano River, 11/21/2015. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Swamp milkweed in the “wild” of the Llano River, 11/21/2015. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“Our research suggests that milkweeds that support Monarch breeding year-round in the U.S. could put Monarchs at higher risk of disease. The milkweeds enabling these non-migratory Monarchs are exotic species, like Tropical milkweed and Family Jewels milkweed. We are not aware of any native species supporting large numbers of Monarch caterpillars during the winter in the Gulf states. So, we do not have any scientific support right now that says we should cut back native milkweeds.”

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