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.


“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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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.


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?


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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Monarch Butterfly Release “Better than any church service”

My 93-year-old father John Maeckle passed away August 2 after a long battle with dementia.  An avid hunter and fisherman, “Opa” disdained organized religion even more than politicians and preferred Sundays at the deer lease or the lake over church.  He taught me to waterski, fish and garden, to find solace and adventure in the great outdoors, and that “life is full of compromises.”

Opa butterfly release

On the count of three–Eins, zwei, drei–and off they went. Photo by Scott Ball

After serving as a Luftwaffe pilot in the German Air Force and as a prisoner of war in England until 1947, he and my mom Hilde immigrated to the U.S from Germany in 1953 after humble, difficult beginnings in southern Germany.   Not unlike migrating Monarchs each fall, they left unwelcoming circumstances to build a better life.  My dad become a custom home builder in the Dallas area during the 1960s building boom, supported his family, and sent me to college to become the first Maeckle to ever earn a degree.  He and my mom lived the American Dream. Read his full story here.

John Maeckle 1921-2015

John Maeckle        1921-2015

Given that profile, and my passion for butterflies, our family thought it appropriate to celebrate my father’s life with a butterfly release.  A church service or funeral home reception simply wouldn’t fit.

I thought long and hard about it.  Some people I respect think that butterfly releases are wrong and I appreciate their point of view.

In our case, a butterfly release was the perfect gesture for celebrating my father’s life.  I ordered 93 butterflies from my friends Barbara Dorf and Tracy Villareal of Big Tree Butterflies in Rockport, Texas.  I’ve come to know them through my memberships in the International Butterfly Breeders’ Association and the Association for Butterflies.   Barbara and Tracy are both scientists and butterfly breeders who follow best practices and run a professional breeding operation.

It was the right move.

Following a poem by our neighbor and renown poet Naomi Nye, a duet sung in German by family opera singers Melinda Maeckle Martin and her husband Robert Martin, and fond memories recalled by family members, we moved from the air-conditioned living area of our downtown home into the late afternoon sun of the butterfly garden.

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Each of about 50 friends and family received a healthy Monarch butterfly in a glycine envelope–the same type of envelope Dr. Lincoln Brower used to store butterflies when he came to visit the Texas Hill Country during the horrific 2011 drought.

The rest of the butterflies were safely secured in a pop-up cage (actually a converted laundry hamper) until the appropriate moment, which in this case, was the finale of our gathering. Following Robert Martin’s beautiful baritone rendition of the German version of Taps, we released the butterflies.   On the count of three, in German:  “Eins, zwei, drei!” off they went.

day of dead mask

The return of Monarchs return to Michoacán, Mexico, early each November made indigenous peoples believe their ancestors were coming home to visit.  Courtesy photo.

Ooos and ahs filled the yard as guests aged six to 82 marveled. The Monarchs lilted on guests’ shirts and shoulders, danced on Cowpen Daisies and milkweeds, and drifted around the yard in their dreamy flight pattern–floating, flitting, fleeting, like so many old souls. You could easily understand why the indigenous peoples of Mexico thought Monarchs were their ancestors returning to visit each fall for Day of the Dead in early November.

“It was better than any church service,” said my 82-year-old mother Hilde.

Because I have a magnificent butterfly garden with plenty of nectar sources including five different types of milkweed, the Monarchs have stuck around.   One week later, I’m still enjoying a half-dozen of them, nectaring on late summer blooms.

Monarch on swamp milkweed Arsenal

A week later, Monarchs are still nectaring in our butterfly garden. Photo by Monika Maeckle

I’ve gathered dozens of eggs and found several first instar caterpillars, too.  In fact, my partner Local Sprout founder Mitchell Hagney and I hope to raise the caterpillars and offer them as Milkweed and Monarch rearing kits at a future pop-up plant sale in about a month.  I can’t imagine a better way to honor my father and celebrate the life cycle.  Opa would approve.

First instar caterpillar and egg

First instar Monarch caterpillar and egg. The life cycle continues. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Upon considering writing this post, I revisited some of the negative press on butterfly releases.   They “turn butterflies into baubles.”  They might “mess with the migration” or “pollute the gene pool.”

It’s true that a handful of shoddy breeders have damaged the commercial butterfly breeding business by sending unhealthy livestock out into the universe while ignorant customers take the blame for mishandling precious butterfly livestock.  Here’s a tip for a successful butterfly release:  Read the handling instructions and don’t leave live butterflies out in the blazing sun while you touch up your wedding make-up, people.

For those of us who know what we’re doing and which breeders are reputable, I cannot fathom how any of this can be bad or wrong.

Opa butterfly Nola's

“Opa butterfly” collage by family friend Nola Grace Hamilton Garcia, age 8, assembled at Opa’s gathering. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Fifty people who had never thought twice about butterflies have now had a tactile experience with them and will view them forever differently.   My niece and nephew Amara, 8, and Alaric Martin, 6, and good friend Nola Grace Hamilton Garcia, 8,  chased butterflies around the yard for hours following the release, completely enchanted and forever touched by them.

Conservationists will tell you the most effective path to protecting a species or an ecosystem is engagement.   A butterfly release does that.

“A physical connection is absolutely crucial to getting people to care about something,” said Jim Lovett of Monarch Watch, the citizen scientist Monarch butterfly tagging and advocacy organization based at the University of Kansas.  “You’ve got to have face time with the species.”

As for speculative claims that thousands of commercially raised butterflies released into the ecosystem will “pollute” the gene pool, there’s no evidence of that to date.   And the numbers just don’t add up.

One source close to the industry said an internal survey of breeders suggested fewer than 250,000 Monarch butterflies are released each year around the United States–less than a half a percent of the 57 million Monarch butterflies that migrated last year.   On top of that, those butterflies are released at different times and dispersed throughout the 3.8 million square miles of these United States.  As Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch has said repeatedly, “Releases, in the present form, are a minor issue but they sure generate a lot of heat.”

But this post is not meant to argue that point.  It hopes to celebrate the life cycle we all share.   And to acknowledge, as my wise father would often say, that “life is full of compromises.”  In this case, the engagement with butterflies and the resulting embrace of their conservation far outweigh the unproven risks claimed by butterfly release detractors.

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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.


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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Mega Grower Color Spot Nursery to Consider Growing Clean, Chemical-free Milkweed

Color Spot Nursery, one of the top national wholesale growers in the country, said this week they will explore heeding the call for clean, chemical-free, preferably native milkweed plants.   The company said they are considering growing select Asclepias species, the only plant on which Monarch butterflies will lay their eggs, WITHOUT any systemic pesticides.  Thanks to Craig the Butterflyman for the tip.

Kevin Grossberndt, Colorspot Nursery

Kevin Grossberndt, Colorspot Nursery

The California-based mega grower, which has seven nursery locations in Texas including one in San Antonio, said they were responding to their customers, which include Lowes, Home Depot, Wal-Mart and hundreds of independent nurseries across the country. Color Spot does not sell directly to the public.

“Our customers got in trouble with the community,” said Kevin Grossberndt, Commercial Sales Manager for the Southwest Division of Color Spot.   “We all learned a lesson.”

Gorssberndt said Color Spot is well aware of Monarch butterfly enthusiasts’ dismay at buying milkweeds to feed hungry Monarch caterpillars, and being misinformed by retail nursery staff that milkweed plants had not been sprayed with systemic pesticides.

After customers purchased milkweed plants from local nurseries and later placed their caterpillars on them to feed on the milkweed leaves, the caterpillars perished within hours.   That’s because large growers like Color Spot often spray the plants with systemic pesticides early in the year and the poisons used can linger for many months.  The phenomenon has been well documented on these webpages.  We call it Desperately Seeking Milkweed syndrome.

Kevin Grossberndt Colorspot

Kevin Grossberndt stands in a quanset hut of Tropical milkweed and Butterfly weed at Colorspot Nursery in western San Antonio. The company is exploring cultivation of chemical free milkweeds. –PHoto by Monika Maeckle

Bernhardt, trained as a horticulturist, said Color Spot is considering which species to plant and is likely to go with Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, and Butterfly weed, Aslcepias tuberosa.

The Texas Butterfly Ranch and our hydroponic milkweed growing partner Local Sprout made a pitch to Bernhardt to consider cultivating Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, since it is relatively easy-to-grow, a great nectar and host plant and prolific pink bloomer native to the area.  Most native Texas milkweed species are famously persnickety to grow. Swamp milkweed is not.  Check out the Texas Butterfly Ranch milkweed guide for more info.

Dr. Chip Taylor, the founder of Monarch Watch, chimed in via email, suggesting that Color Spot might try Green Antelope Horn milkweed, Asclepias viridis.  “Viridis is probably the second most important plant on the Monarch’s menu,” Dr. Taylor said.  “It’s the main host for first generation Monarchs. It’s also the most abundant of the Texas milkweeds and survives in pastures quite well.”

Which is absolutely true, but it’s famously challenging to grow from pots and transplants.

“Texas is too dry and hot for syriaca,” Taylor added.

During a tour of Color Spot’s 400-acre growing facility in western San Antonio near Lackland Airforce base, Grossberndt described the special challenges commercial growers will face in growing chemical-free milkweed.

As we all know, milkweed is an aphid magnet, and many people will not buy plants with aphids on them.   Traditionally, Color Spot deals with aphids and other pests via pesticides in order to deliver pristine plants to retail outlets.

Swamp milkweed loaded with aphids this weekend on the Llano River.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Aphids and milkweed have a symbiotic relationship. Photo by Monika Maeckle

With labor one of their highest costs, hand removal of aphids may not be practical.    Color Spot already uses robots to move plants around.   The R2D2-like machines rearranged a plot of potted rose bushes as we all watched in amazement.  But since its doubtful that an aphid-squishing robot will be developed anytime soon, Color Spot will have to be resourceful.

“We might be able to do it with a soap knock-down or possibly explore using beneficials like ladybugs or parasitoid wasps,” said Grossberndt. “We’ll have to see.”

Video by Mitchell Hagney

Dr. Taylor also recommended beneficial insects.  “We are happy to recommend various biological control agents. They seem pricey until you see how effective they are but the grower has to have personnel that is alert to the build-up of pests so that the biologicals can be deployed effectively,” he said.    Grossberndt agreed that training of personnel, especially Color Spot’s technology services team, would have to be part of the plan.

Since the nursery typically sprays ornamental and other inventory with systemic pesticides, the growhouse would also need to be strategically placed out of any possible wind drift and would require polyurethane sides, versus less expensive shade cloth or plastic to assure no chemicals entered the clean zone.

Milkweed at Color Spot Nursery

To be sprayed or not to be sprayed? Milkweed plants at Color Spot Nursery. Kevin Gorssberndt is hoping the nursery can figure out a way to produce lots of milkweed without chemicals. Photo by Mitchell Hagney

Grossberndt showed us one quanset hut filled with a mix of Tropical milkweed and Butterfly weed–some newly sprouted from seed this year, others cut back and sprouting new growth from last season.   Aphids adorned the underside of the older plants, suggesting the plants had not been sprayed with pesticides.


Will they be?  “I’m hoping they won’t,” said Bernhardt.  “These plants were in the middle of other plants, so we’ll just have to see how it goes,” said Bernhardt.  “I’m making the case.”

Grossberndt suggested that Color Spot might have some clean plants on the market by late summer or early fall–hopefully in time for the fall migration when those of us who raise Monarchs often run out of milkweed for those butterflies that break their diapause and reproduce here.  ” I can’t really guarantee a timeline,” said Grossberndt.

P.S. Have you taken our What Kind of Milkweed Survey?   Help us convince Color Spot and other commercial growers to offer clean, chemical free milkweed by voting for the species you’d like to see in local nurseries.  Here’s the link and feel free to share the survey.  GRACIAS!

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Monsanto: “We are absolutely committed” to Monarch butterfly conservation

Almost a year has passed since Monsanto Corporation stated in its Beyond the Rows blog that it was “eager” to restore Monarch butterfly habitat along the iconic creature’s migratory path.

When it comes to Monarch butterflies, Monsanto is often the villain of choice.  But the company says they are committed to helping save the butterflies' migration.

When it comes to Monarch butterflies, Monsanto is often the villain of choice. But the company says they are committed to helping save the butterflies’ migration.

That blogpost appeared in the wake of an historic meeting of the NAFTA presidents last year, when Presidents Obama and Enrique Peńa Nieto, along with Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada gathered 75 miles from the Monarch butterfly’s ancestral roosting sites and committed to form a task force to “ensure the conservation of the Monarch butterfly.”

On February 24, 2014, Monsanto’s blogpost, generically labeled “The Monarch Butterfly” posed the question:  What can we do to help?

“We’re talking with scientists about what might be done to help the Monarchs rebound,” the unsigned post stated. “And we’re eager to join efforts to help rebuild Monarch habitat along the migration path by joining with conservationists, agronomists, weed scientists, crop associations and farmers to look at ways to increase milkweed populations on the agricultural landscape.”

Monarch on swamp milkweed

Native milkweeds like this Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, are harder to come by in the Monarch butterfly breeding grounds thanks to GMO corn and soybeans which allow for indiscriminate spraying of herbicides.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

In April, First Lady Michelle Obama planted milkweed on the White House grounds, thus creating the first-ever pollinator garden at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Then in August, debate ensued over whether the Department of the Interior should list the Monarch butterflies as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.

Monsanto, often vilified for its genetically modified corn and soybean seeds that have wreaked havoc on milkweed all along the insects’ primary breeding grounds from Canada south to Mexico, has remained relatively mum on the subject. They returned to the subject of Monarchs in a September 12, 2014 post headlined, “Helping Protect the Monarch Butterfly.” Here’s an excerpt:

“At Monsanto, we’re committed to doing our part to protect these amazing butterflies. That’s why we are collaborating with experts from universities, nonprofits, and government agencies to help the Monarch by restoring their habitat in Crop Reserve Program land, on-farm buffer strips, roadsides, utility rights-of way and government-owned land.”

So what, exactly, has Monsanto done for Monarch butterflies in the last year?

ERic Sachs, Monsanto

Eric Sachs, Science and Policy lead, Monsanto Corporation –Photo via LinkedIn

The Monarch community wondered exactly that this week on listservs, social media and via private emails.

As the news conference announcing the size of the overwintering population at the roosting sites in Mexico was postponed for the third time, efforts to restore milkweed by gardeners was taken to task by mainstream media, and comments on the Federal Register debating the insect’s ESA listing grew to more than 260, postings, conspiracy theories, impatience and indignation abounded.

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, has consulted with Monsanto on the topic. He sent an email Monday to the DPLEX list, which is read by hundreds of butterfly enthusiasts, with the subject line: “Take a deep breath – exhale slowly – relax – please.”

Eric Sachs, the top Science and Policy official for Monsanto, said the multinational corporation is serious about helping Monarchs. While the NYSE-listed chemical and biotech powerhouse has publicly stated it does not support listing the insect under the Endangered Species Act because it wouldn’t “do anything to help solve the problem,” Sachs noted in an email and later by phone that Monsanto has been working diligently with public and private sector partners to “enable greater numbers of farmers to integrate Monarch habitat into existing conservation, land management and habitat expansion efforts.”

A presentation Sachs made in November 2014 to the North American Entomological Society emphasized the company’s penchant for P3s–public-private partnerships.  Tools in the conservation arsenal, according to Sachs, include grants, incentives and collaborative projects to increase habitat.

Ed Sachs Monsanto presentation

Can habitat and agriculture coexist? Good question. Eric Sachs made this presentation to the North American Entomological Society in November 2014.

Monsanto is prepared to make financial contributions to habitat preservation, Sachs said, but he did not say how much or exactly when, because the company is still trying to gain consensus from the coalition of scientists, conservationists and others tapped via the Keystone Center in Colorado.  “Obviously that plan needs to be supported with funds, which will come from Monsanto and other organizations,” said Sachs.

Dr. Taylor seconded the motion in his email to the DPLEX list, encouraging patience and a positive attitude.  “It costs $100-1000 per acre to restore milkweed/Monarch habitats, depending on the situation (and maintenance), and we are talking about restoration of a least a million acres a year just to offset annual habitat losses,” Taylor wrote. “Getting the Monarch numbers back to where they need to be will require the restoration of many more millions of acres. The investment will be significant. Partnerships are in the process of forming. Whether significant funding will be forthcoming is still an open question. Please be patient.”

Sachs said Monsanto is being “very deliberate” in developing their plan. “We want to make sure it’s robust, and measure the performance. Then we will essentially fund the program to make sure we get the bang for the buck,” he said.

How it all plays out remains to be seen. “We are absolutely committed,” said Sachs. “At the right time, people will shake their heads and say ‘this is good.’ But we’re not there yet.”

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NYTimes, Commercial Butterfly Breeders Raise Awareness of OE to Help Monarchs

In the last two weeks, both the New York Times and professional butterfly breeders have made progress in raising awareness of a little known but possibly significant factor in the decline of the Monarch butterfly migration–a spore driven, Monarch-centric disease known as OE.

OE Spores with Monarch Butterfly Scales

OE spores look like little footballs next to Monarch butterfly scales.  The spore-driven disease can be devastating to the butterflies.  Photo courtesy of MLMP

Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, known in the Monarch community as OE, infects Monarchs and other butterflies that host on milkweed, sometimes resulting in butterfly crippling or death. Spores transfer from creature to creature via physical contact with each other or the plants on which they rest or eat, thus scientists worry that local OE-infested Monarchs will infect populations that are passing through, possibly jeopardizing the migration.

Several sessions at the Butterfly Professionals Conference held in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, November 12 – 16, were dedicated to educating about 100 attendees on prevention of the disease.   The organization has been called to task in the recent petition to list the Monarch butterfly as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act for releasing butterflies that could carry OE into the wild population.

Connie Hodsdon, a butterfly breeder and owner of Flutterby Gardens in Bradenton, Florida, addressed the joint meeting of the International Butterfly Breeders Association (IBBA), the Association for Butterflies (AFB) and the International Association of Butterfly Exhibitioners and Suppliers (IABES), in a 90-minute session focused exclusively on OE.

Monarch on Tropical Milkweed at CPS Energy Pollinator garden

Monarch butterfly on Tropical milkweed. The Asclepias curassavica strain of milkweed, a Monarch favorite, can host overwintering OE spores in addition to Monarch butterflies and should be slashed to the ground each winter, scientists say. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“You have to start clean and stay clean,” said Hodsdon before sharing slides of mottled, dark speckled OE-infected Monarch chrysalises.  She then launched into a detailed description of the methodology she employs for preventing or eliminating OE from butterfly livestock.

Her approach includes multiple bleach baths of Monarch eggs, breeding vessels, and all plant material in a special product imported from Great Britain called Milton, separate rearing rooms for different broods of butterflies, and regular testing with a microscope for OE spores.

“We have to do everything in our power to make sure our Monarchs are an asset to the species,” Hodsdon told the conference crowd.  “If you can’t, find another species to raise.”

Later, butterfly breeder Edith Smith, owner of Shady Oak Butterfly Farm in Brooker, Florida, continued the call-to-action for breeders to be meticulously clean in their operations and monitor livestock closely–not just for OE, but for more pervasive and difficult-to-cure plagues.

Edith Smith

Edith Smith, Shady Oak Butterfly Farm

Smith, who teaches various workshops and seminars about butterfly diseases that nature uses for population control, has been raising butterflies commercially since 1999.   She proposed that OE should be eliminated before it even enters the breeding operation.

“These are diseases that butterfly breeders must keep out of their breeding facilities,” she said.

Both Smith and Hodsdon keep a 100x microscope on hand along with clear, invisible tape. They check Monarch and Queen butterflies for OE spores by rolling the abdomen of young butterflies along the tape, then viewing the tape under the microscope. If football-like spores are prevalent, the butterfly is destroyed rather than used as a breeder or sold as livestock.

“If this is done and any milkweed that wild butterflies can touch is disinfected, OE shouldn’t ever be an issue,” said Smith.

A week after the IBBA Conference, the New York Times caused a storm with citizen scientists and butterfly gardeners by focusing on possible negative impacts of planting Tropical milkweed to attract Monarch butterflies.  Some scientists believe that planting Asclepias curassavica, Tropical milkweed, outside certain ranges creates hotbeds of OE that could negatively impact the population and the migration. Monarchs will only lay eggs on their host plant, which is any member of the Asclepias species.

In an article headlined For the Monarch Butterfly, a Long Road Back, and promoted heavily online as “Monarch Butterflies:  Loved to Death?” science journalist Liza Gross explored the pros and cons of planting Tropical milkweed.   To read our original story on this topic, check out Tropical Milkweed:  To plant it or not, it’s not a simple question.

The article featured an interview with Dara Satterfield, a PhD student at the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia.  A native of Marietta, Georgia, Satterfield’s dissertation focuses on the relationship between migration and infectious disease in wildlife. Monarchs are her species focus.

Dara Satterfield

Dara Satterfield first visited San Antonio to inspect our milkweed patch along the San Antonio River Walk in early 2013. Photo by Monika MAeckle

Satterfield works closely with Monarch scientist Dr. Sonia Altizer, the foremost expert in the country on OE. (NOTE:  Dr. Altizer recently hosted a webinar for commercial butterfly breeders on how to prevent OE at their farms.)

This is the line that really whipped up butterfly fans:  “…Well-meaning efforts by butterfly lovers may be contributing to the Monarch’s plight.”  The piece then stated that planting Tropical milkweed, the only Asclepias species available commercially, might be doing more harm than good because it might cause butterflies to stick around, not migrate and spread the OE spores year-round.

Confused?  Are you wondering what to plant when scientists and conservationists encourage us to help Monarchs by planting milkweed, yet when we do, we’re told it promotes a deadly Monarch butterfly disease?

Me, too. What’s a butterfly gardener to do? I tracked down Satterfield to provide direction.

“The monarchs are showing us something…and the pattern is clear and consistent,” Satterfield said via email, explaining that Monarchs are much more likely to be sick in places where Tropical milkweed grows year-round.

“In a nutshell, this is how we would summarize for gardeners: Choose native milkweeds whenever possible,” she said.  Satterfield insists that Tropical milkweed should be limited in areas where it might survive the winter–coastal Texas, California, Florida, for example.   Overwintering of the plant enables winter-breeding and high levels of OE infection, she contends.

She recommends if you DO plant Tropical milkweed in a place that rarely freezes, best practice would include cutting the plant to the ground so as not to harbor overwintering OE spores.

For the record, consensus on the science of how Tropical milkweed effects or not the Monarch migration is as elusive as the butterflies themselves.   Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch told the New York Times that Tropical milkweed constitutes “a tiny, tiny portion” of the milkweeds encountered by Monarchs returning in the spring.  “Should they be there? Probably not. But will they do immense harm? Probably not.”

But, to play it safe, slash that Tropical milkweed to the ground this winter if a good freeze doesn’t do it for you.

LAST CHANCE TO TAKE OUR POLL!  Have you taken our Milkweed Poll?  Please do. Three questions, only takes a minute.  GRACIAS!  Please do it now, here’s the link.

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Llano River Ready for “Premigration Migration” of Monarch Butterflies

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

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

Monarch on swamp milkweed

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

Here’s a sampling of updates:

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

–J Agazzi, SE Wisconsin on the Illinois border

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

–Chris Mason,  Lake Geneva, WI

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

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

–Jim and Linette Langhus, Monona Iowa

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

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

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

Goldenrod Llano River

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Texas Drought, July 2014

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

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

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

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

Elizabeth Howard

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

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

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

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

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

Monarch butterfly caterpillars

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

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

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

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Four Fine Texas Moths for National Moth Week

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

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

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

Moth light night trap

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

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

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

The Sphinx Moth

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

Sphinx Moth caterpillar on Jimsonweed

Tobacco hornworms on Jimsonweed.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

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

Sphinx Moth

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

Black Witch Moth

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

Black Witch Moth

Black Witch Moth photographed by Karen Herrmann in Kansas.

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

Black Witch Moth caterpillar

Black Witch Moth caterpillar. Photo via

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

Polyphemus Moth

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

Polyphemus moth

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

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

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

Polyphemus moth caterpillar

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

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

Ailanthus Webworm Moth

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

Ailianthus Webworm Moth

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

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

Ailanthus webworm moth caterpillars

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

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