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 the sceintific 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 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 Midewest 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 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.

Related posts:

Like what you’re reading? Don’t miss a single post from the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

                                       --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.”

Related posts:

 Like what you’re reading?  Don’t miss a single post from the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam.

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.”

Related posts:

 Like what you’re reading?  Don’t miss a single post from the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam.

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.”

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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!

Related posts

Like what you’re reading? Don’t miss a single post from the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam. Like what you’re reading? Don’t miss a single post from the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam.

 

 

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.

Related posts:

Like what you’re reading? Don’t miss a single post from the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam.

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.
Related posts:

Like what you’re reading? Follow butterfly and native plant news at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam

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.”

Like what you’re reading? Don’t miss a single post from the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam. Like what you’re reading? Don’t miss a single post from the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam.

 

Late season Monarch butterflies create gardening quandary

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

Monarch on duranta

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

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

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

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

lateseasonblooms

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

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

What gives?

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

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

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

winter breeding map

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

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

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

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

curassavica

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

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

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

Cowpen daisy

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

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

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

Scientists, what say you?

Like what you’re reading?  Don’t miss a single post from the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam.

 

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

Related posts:

Like what you’re reading? Follow butterfly and native plant news at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam

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

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

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

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

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

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

frontyardrendering

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

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

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

Front yard garden

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

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

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

Rendering:  backyard butterfly garden.  Photo by Nicolas Rivard

Rendering: backyard butterfly garden. By Nicolas Rivard

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

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

Backyard garden with screened porch

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

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

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

Backyard garden

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

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

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

Monarch chrysalis  on napkin

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

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

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

Mariposario April 2015

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

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

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

I look forward to sharing it with you.

Related posts:

Like what you’re reading?  Follow butterfly and native plant news at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam