Queen, Monarch Caterpillars and Butterflies: How to Tell the Difference

Found a Monarch caterpillar on my milkweed!

                               –my friend Hugh Daschbach, via text message

How to tell the difference between a Queen or Monarch caterpillar

Every year around this time as the Queen butterflies start to show up, we get lots of questions about how to tell the difference between Queens, Danaus gilippus, and Monarchs, Danaus plexippus.  And with the warm weather that has gripped South Texas throughout November and now December, many of us are still finding eggs and caterpillars in the leaves of our milkweed.   Queens are here en masse.

Three Queen butterflies

Queens have been flying and reproducing this Fall.

As it turned out, the caterpillar in question that my friend Hugh texted me about (excuse the typos) was in fact a Queen.  The giveaway:  it had three sets of protuberances–frequently called antennae, but actually only one set are antennae and the other two are filaments.  The antennae have special sensing properties while the filaments are mostly for show, and to throw off predators.

Queens on Purple Mistflower

Queens on Purple Mistflower

Hugh’s confusion is common:  because of their similar color, size and affinity for milkweed as a host plant, Queens and Monarchs are often mistaken for each other in their various life stages.

But once you look closely, it’s not that hard to tell the difference between Monarchs and Queens.

First, Queens appear solid orange compared to the varying shades of a Monarch.  In the photo above, notice how with their wings folded, the Queens’ solid dark orange is interrupted with occasional white dots–nothing like the striking stained glass veins and color pattern of the Monarch below.

Resident Monarch butterfly on the San Antonio River Museum Reach

Monarch butterfly on the San Antonio River Museum Reach

With their wings open, the difference is even more obvious.  The Queen is solid, the Monarch has varied coloration.  Both of the examples below are male butterflies, as you can see by the prominent display of their family jewels–the defunct pheremone sacs that presumably once drove the lady butterflies wild.

Queen butterfly, wings open

Queen butterfly.  It’s a male.

Female Queens and Monarchs don’t have these prominent markings with wings open.   In Monarchs, the black veins are generally wider and more pronounced in the females.

Monarch butterflies are on the move in Texas

Male Monarch butterfly.  Notice the two dark spots, his “family jewels.”

In the caterpillar stage, the most obvious difference is that Queens have one set of antennae and two sets of filaments, while Monarchs have one set of antennae and one set of filaments. Antennae are on the head of the butterfly, while filaments are at the rear–and in the case of the Queen, in the middle.

Queen caterpillar with three filaments

Queen caterpillar sports three sets of protuberances–two sets of filaments, one set of antennae.

Notice in the photo above, the Queen has what appear to be THREE sets of protuberances.  The Monarch caterpillar only has TWO.  Both wear distinctive yellow, black and white striped suits.   The Queen often will have a slight red blend as the filaments connect to the caterpillar’s torso.  The patterns of the stripes can vary depending on time of year, humidity and diet.

Monarch butterfly caterpillar has two filaments

Monarch butterfly caterpillar has one set of antennae, one of filaments–two total sets.

Scientists don’t fully understand the biological purpose of the filaments, which seem to reach out and “feel” the universe around them.   They swerve and turn in various directions, almost punctuating caterpillar moves like a roving eye or arched eyebrows on the human face.

For the sake of identification, let’s just say their purpose is to signal the difference between Queens and Monarchs.   For more on filaments and what we do and don’t know about them, check this link on the Monarch Watch page.

Queen and Monarch chrysalises

Queen and Monarch chrysalises. Monarch in the middle.

In the chrysalis stage, Queen chrysalises are almost identical to Monarchs, except they are generally smaller.  They also sometimes offer a subtle pink hue, as evidenced in the picture above, Monarch in the middle, Queen on the sides.

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Happy Moth Week! Night Flying Butterflies Finally Get Some Respect

Butterflies,  Monarch butterflies in particular, seem to get all the press–and yet their night-flying cousins can be equally endearing and beautiful, providing useful pollination and food chain chores for our greater good.  Vastly under celebrated, moths are finally getting some well-deserved attention thanks to the first National Moth Week, July 23 – 29.

First National Moth Week, July 23 – 29, 2012

Started by several environmental scientists and insect enthusiasts in East Brunswick, New Jersey, National Moth Week grew out of occasional celebrations the group enjoyed hosting “Moth Nights” on the east coast and rides on the citizen scientist movement typified by Monarch Watch.   At a Moth Night, enthusiasts gather in the evenings with sheet-covered lights and old beer to draw the night flyers in for close inspection and photographs.

Interested?  If so, leave a comment.

The National Moth Night website offers a wealth of resources, including step-by-step instructions for hosting a Moth Party and recipes for making Moth Bait, which often features stale or fermented fruit, sugar, beer or wine.  Moths are literally suckers for stale beer.

“Basically, we want people to go out and have fun,” David Moskowitz told  Southern Rhode Island Newspapers.  Moskowitz, a New Jersey-based biologist who also works as a senior vice president for environmental consulting firm EcolSciences, collaborated with New Jersey oceanographer Liti Haramaty to get National Moth Week off the ground.

Sphinx Moth

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

“If we can use National Moth Week to turn them on to what’s in their own backyard, then hopefully something will click and they’ll start to think twice about environmental issues like recycling, and preserving habitats and biodiversity,” said Moskowitz.

Why is it that moths don’t get the attention and respect of butterflies?

Most are grey or brown, which makes them more drab than visually appealing.   Their erratic flight pattern can be creepy.   Flailing around and diving at lights can put people off.   Moths’ habit of coming out at night also raises some shackles and perhaps unpleasant, scary associations.  And then there’s the fact that much of our contact with moths amounts to finding them ruining our sweaters and winter wear.

Tobacco Hornworm on Jimsonweed

Look at that face! Tobacco Hornworm on Jimsonweed

Some people even have a fear of moths, called mottephobia.  “Motte” means “moth” in German.

As we’ve written here before, the 1991 thriller The Silence of the Lambs, starring Jodi Foster as tenacious cop Clarice Starling and Anthony Hopkins as cannibalistic serial killer, Hannibal Lecter, didn’t help moths’  reputation.  In the award-winning movie, “Hannibal the Cannibal” places the cocoon of a certain species of hawk moth, the Death’s Head Hawk Moth, in the mouths of  his victims as some sort of sick gesture of transformation. The moths fly around in a creepy, dark basement and evoke a weird terror.

The thriller, Silence of the Lambs, has contributed to moths' creepy reputation.

The thriller, Silence of the Lambs, contributed to moths’ creepy rep.

But not all moths are scary or ugly.  The Sphinx Moth, for example, sports black, grey and white stripes and often is mistaken for a hummingbird.  It sometimes carries out its aerial ventures during the day, hovering on late afternoon blooms.

In the caterpillar stage, the distinctive creature sports seven black-dotted stripes on a plump green body, its namesake “horn” reaching from its rear-end.   When bothered, the caterpillar strikes a stately “sphinx” pose, arching its head and shooting an annoyed look.

NEXT:   The Black Witch Moth

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Alamo, Texas, a Great Base for South Texas Sojourn of Bugs, Butterflies and Birds

For a fun outdoor getaway filled with butterflies and birds, look no further than Alamo, Texas. No, not The Alamo.  Alamo, Texas.

Empress Louisa butterflies at the Alamo B & B Inn

Empress Louisa butterflies at the Alamo B & B Inn

The small town in Hidalgo County may seem like an unworthy stop on the drive to South Padre Island with its strip malls and fast food joints dotting the highway.   But the former headquarters of the Alamo Sugar and Land Company sits in the center of the Rio Grande Valley and makes a perfect base for exploring the bird and butterfly hotspots of South Texas.

A Fourth of July trip took Bob and me to the National Butterfly Center, the Global Birding Center and the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in a 48-hour off-season nature sojourn that made us want to rebook in the “high season” of October or March.

We stayed at the Alamo Inn B & B, a historic naturalists’ retreat just five miles from the fabulous Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge.  Our new friend Ro Wauer, butterfly guidebook author extraordinaire, who we met at the Wings Over the Hills Festival in Fredericksburg this spring, recommended it highly.  And despite the historic part of the hotel being closed for the off-season, Proprietor Keith Hackland made us feel welcome with his profound hospitality, charming South African accent, and dog friendly accommodations in adjacent studio apartments (Cost:  $78 per night).  Our dog Cocoa made friends with Hackland’s sweet pooch Henry, and roamed a huge, fenced yard.

Hackland offered hefty 20-page handouts of bird species we were likely to see upon check-in, retrieved from his well-stocked outdoor store which was also closed for the off-season.  Alas, we’re not serious birders and I’m a novice (but extremely enthusiastic) lepidopterist, more interested in the whole life cycles of plants, creatures and ecosystems than checking species off a life-list.  Yet the pages and pages of species had me intrigued:  were there really 500 species of birds and at least 200 different butterflies cruising the area around our hotel?  Apparently so.

Termite hatch left bug detritus everywhere

Termite hatch left bug detritus everywhere

We arrived Sunday afternoon and planned a late morning visit to the National Butterfly Center.   (One of the best things about chasing butterflies is that they don’t get up early.) As we sat on our front porch Sunday evening and watched buff-bellied hummingbirds nectar on Turk’s Cap, a thunderstorm blew in, dropping a quarter-inch of rain on the Alamo Inn’s garden.

Ten minutes later, a torrent of flying creatures filled the air–a massive hatch like we had never witnessed.  I thought at first they were Mayflies, but Hackland nabbed one with one hand and provided a positive I.D.: termites. “This happens pretty regularly after it’s been dry,” he said.

Empress Louisa butterflies at the National Butterfly Center

Empress Louisa butterflies at the National Butterfly Center

The next day, Empress Louisa, Asterocampa louisa, butterflies filled the air at the National Butterfly Center.  They fluttered along the pathways, nectared on lantana, and rested on miniature log roosts assembled by the Center.    This video provides a great overview.

The 100-acre park, opened in 2004, is a project of the North American Butterfly Association, which planted hundreds of host plants to draw butterflies from all corners of the Valley and northern Mexico.  More than 200 species have been identified along the Center’s trails.

Lake Flato's World Birding Center Headquarters in Mission, Texas

World Birding Center Headquarters in Mission, Texas, photo courtesy Lake|Flato Architects

Ambling the park-like grounds last week, we saw Queens, Sulphers, Whites, Swallowtails, Zebra Longwings, unusual hairstreaks and brush foots.  We had the place to ourselves, and enjoyed the solitude in spite of a muggy heat.  Tip:  be sure to bring your own snacks and drinks as the Butterfly Center offers no refreshments.  According to office manager Flora Vela, the Center had contracted with a restaurant to open a cafe on the premises earlier in  its history, but the deal fell through.

At the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge in the Rio Grande Valley

At the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge in the Rio Grande Valley

Next stop: the World Birding Center ecotourism headquarters, built by San Antonio’s  AIA Firm of the Year, Lake|Flato Architects.  The award-winning building anchors nine birding destinations that dot the Valley and draw thousands of ecotourists each winter.  Unfortunately our trip here was cut short by another downpour.  A lovely Black Witch Moth kept us company under the eaves of the magnificent galvanized metal quonset-hut style patio. As a drumbeat of raindrops pounded on the tin roof, we were able to observe the rainwater collection system in action.  It felt like the tropics.

Canopy Walk, feels like the jungle at Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge

Bob Rivard on the Canopy Walk at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge

At the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, some of the wetlands were dry, but those back-to-back thunderstorms created a steamy, fertile backdrop for a hike.  We hoped to spot the Valley’s signature Green Jay, and helpful attendants at the front desk offered to spread birdseed in the feeding area to increase our chances.

No luck, but Kiskadees, Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, and other flying creatures kept our walk interesting and the screaming cicada chorus and tropical bird sounds provided an apt soundtrack as we traversed the Canopy Walk and climbed the Tree Tower.

An off-season visit has the advantage of  no crowds, but we’re already planning our high season return.

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Banner Butterfly Year Caused by “Ecological Release” in Texas, says Monarch Watch Founder Dr. Chip Taylor

Texas has been called the “most important state” to the Monarch butterfly migration by Monarch Watch founder Chip Taylor.   Now our Lone Star State is getting attention for spawning an “ecological release” that has resulted in a butterfly “season like no other,”  Taylor told the Hornell Evening Tribune in New York.

Banner year for butterflies, thank you, Texas!

Banner year for butterflies. Thank you, Texas!

“This year continues to amaze,” Dr. Taylor wrote to the DPLEX email list, well-read by hundreds of academics, enthusiasts and others who follow the Monarch butterfly migration.   Taylor detailed ample and early sightings of Monarchs, Sulphurs, Red Admirals, Buckeyes and other species to the Midwest.   Watch the video above for examples.

Taylor and others attribute the 2012 banner butterfly year to a perfect storm of circumstances in Texas, including:

  •  An historic drought which killed butterfly and caterpillar predators, notably fire ants, followed by
  • Generous, well-timed rains, a mild winter that caused host and nectar plants to flourish, and caterpillars and butterflies to thrive.

Eventually, host plant and nectar populations will drop back to normal, as will this year’s butterfly explosion.

In the meantime, enjoy the show.

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Want to Meet the Beetles? Better Hurry, Removal of Milkweed Beetles from San Antonio River’s Milkweed Patch Imminent

An invasion of red-and-black milkweed beetles have made a temporary eyesore of the San Antonio River’s celebrated Milkweed Patch on the Museum Reach.  The striking insects, whose colorful torsos suggest the patterns of a tiki mask, have moved into the 1200-square foot Tropical milkweed garden on the banks of the San Antonio River just south of the Pearl Brewery  in a classic play of nature’s cycles.

Milkweed Beetles have taken over the Milkweed Patch

Milkweed Beetles have taken over the Milkweed Patch

The beetles, which look like ladybugs on steroids, don’t bite, sting or carry diseases. They do, however, defoliate milkweed plants, and have left the highly trafficked stretch of the River with some unattractive bald spots.

Migrating Monarch butterflies moved through town earlier this spring, laying the first generation of eggs in their annual migration at the Milkweed Patch.  The resulting acrobatic caterpillars occupied the Patch, feasting on milkweed leaves, the Monarch butterfly host plant.  Late straggling Monarchs continue to mingle with our local colony but the pervasive milkweed beetle, Labidomera clivicollis, dominates.

Milkweed Patch going bald thanks to milkweed beetles

Milkweed Patch going bald thanks to milkweed beetles

Volunteers for the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project (MLMP), a citizen scientist program based at the University of Minnesota and which aims to better understand the Monarch life cycle and migration, have noticed fewer Monarch caterpillars and chrysalises during their weekly observations as beetles consume the milkweed leaves.

Discussions ensued about possibly pruning the milkweeds, which typically die back in winters when a hard freeze occurs.   That didn’t happen this year.  But San Antonio River Authority staff determined a better approach would be to hand-remove the beetles, THEN prune the plants.

Milkweed beetles have defoliated the Milkweed Patch. But aren't they cute?

Milkweed beetles have defoliated the Milkweed Patch. But aren't they cute?

“We believe this to be a holistic management approach with minimal negative impact to the environment that is consistent with our commitment to the local community for the project, ” said Steven Schauer, Manager of External Communications at the San Antonio River Authority (SARA), which oversees maintenance of the area.   The Museum Reach stretch of the San Antonio River was designed as a manicured, urban park setting, unlike the Mission Reach section, which is managed as a native riparian restoration.

SARA deserves praise for working with MLMP  volunteers and resisting the use of pesticides to address the problem.   A round of pesticides would quickly rid the area of

Gulf Fritillary

Gulf Fritillary, photo courtesy NABA.org

beetles (and other plant pests) and would also jeopardize the Monarchs’ and other butterflies’ continued colonization of the River.  Just north of the Milkweed Patch is a huge Passionflower planting, where Gulf Fritillary butterflies have made their home and are breeding.

If you’d like to “meet the beetles,”  better do so in the next few days.  The critters will be less visible once the hand removal is accomplished.

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Mexican President Felipe Calderon Visits Monarch Butterfly Preserves in Michoacan

President Felipe Calderon of Mexico visited the Monarch butterfly preserves in Michoacan last week to film an IMAX film and call attention to the importance of the butterflies’ unique ancestral roosting spots to the sustainable economic development of the impoverished communities surrounding them.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon visits the Monarch butterfly sanctuaries in Michoacan

Mexican President Felipe Calderon visits the Monarch butterfly sanctuaries in Michoacan--photo by La Voz

Late February and early March are ideal for visiting the sanctuaries since rising temperatures warm up the butterflies and make them more active.

Unfortunately, tourism at the roosting areas, including visits from scientists who make such pilgrimages the basis for their life’s work, has fallen dramatically in recent years because of narco violence and instability in the region.   U.S.-based tour operators have pretty much ceased offering Monarch butterfly sanctuary tours because of potential liabilities.  (An exception:  Bill Toone’s EcoLife Foundation.)

Deforestation in Mexico is still a problem

Deforestation in Mexico is still a problem

The U.S. State Department advised Americans to avoid “non-essential travel” to 14 of Mexico’s 31 states in an amped-up  travel warning on February 8.   The warning came on the heels of a 15-ton meth seizure outside Guadalajara and expanded on previous advisories that has Mexican tourism authorities annoyed.

While informal reports of this years’ visitor count to El Rosario Sanctuary list slight increases ecotourism (up to 100,000 from 80,000 last year), the butterfly preserves need all the help they can get.  Fewer visitors means locals will have to seek other ways of earning a living, including illegal logging.  My husband and I braved Mexico last year to visit the sanctuaries and it was a memorable, monumental trip;  however, not sure I would do it again until the situation changes there.

It’s unfortunate, but travel in Mexico right now is just too potentially dangerous.  Driving through the Mexican provinces, once a common adventure for many Texans, now is fraught with risk, sometimes death.  Says the advisory:   “TCOs [Transnational Criminal Organizations] have erected their own unauthorized checkpoints, and killed or abducted motorists who have failed to stop at them. You should cooperate at all checkpoints.”   Doesn’t sound like much of a vacation.

The good news is that migrating Monarch butterflies are already on their way to Texas.   The active DPLEX list, a Monarch butterfly list-serv that charts the creatures’  every move, has reports of first-of-season sightings and egg-laying on South Texas milkweeds, which are emerging early this year because of our warm winter.

As the Spring Equinox approaches and the migrating insects leave Mexico, they’ll nectar up for their journey north,  head our way, and grace us with their joyous presence.    On March 15, the state-of-the-union report of the Monarch butterfly population for 2011-2012 will be released by Mexican authorities.   We’ll keep you posted.

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San Antonio Museum Reach Milkweed Patch Becomes Official Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project Site

Monarch butterflies, who usually pass through town like so many other fleeting visitors, have taken up permanent residence at a 1200 square-foot milkweed garden known by local butterfly aficionados as “the Milkweed Patch” on the San Antonio River Museum Reach.  The year-round colony is a first for San Antonio.

Resident Monarch butterfly on the San Antonio River Museum Reach

Resident Monarch butterfly on the San Antonio River Museum Reach

We’ve written about the Milkweed Patch here many times, but just this month the Patch gained national attention from Monarch researchers when it became one of hundreds of  sites in the nation to be observed weekly by volunteer citizen scientists associated with the University of Minnesota-based Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project (MLMP).

Monarch butterflies traditionally pass through San Antonio and the “Texas Funnel” each spring and fall to and from their ancestral roosting grounds in the the mountains of Michoacan, Mexico.   Year-round local Monarch butterfly communities are relatively common along the Gulf Coast, in Houston and in Florida, yet they’ve been unheard of in San Antonio–until now.

“Its historic,” says Mary Kennedy of Boerne, who monitors Monarch caterpillars, at Boerne’s Cibolo Nature Center and at Mitchell Lake. “We’ve never had anything

Mary Kennedy, volunteer at the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project

Mary Kennedy, volunteer at the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project

like this before,” says the retired science teacher.  Kennedy used Monarch butterflies in her classroom for years at Texas Military Institute.  ”This is not a place they would normally be this time of year.”

Kennedy suggests warmer winters and advantageous conditions at the protected, well-kept milkweed garden get credit for attracting the creatures that have captivated observers for millennia.

Dr. Karen Oberhauser, founder of the MLMP, calls the San Antonio Museum Reach Milkweed Patch “unique” and explains why scientists are especially interested in what goes on here.

“All Monarchs pass through Texas in the fall and again in the spring, and their use of resources in this state in many ways determines the success of the migration. Additionally, many Monarchs stay to breed in Texas in the fall, and understanding what drives this behavior will help us understand how monarchs might respond to climate change and how they are reacting to the presence of non-native milkweed.  The site is particularly interesting because it is basically an island of habitat, and understanding what happens there will help us understand how monarchs use habitat patches of different sizes and with different amounts of isolation from other sites.”

Dr. Oberhauser also points out that the visibility of the Milkweed Patch in our highly trafficked River Walk will engage many more people in “the wonders of monarch biology.”

The first weeks of monitoring have yielded more than 30 chrysalises–17 alive and 15 dead–and some surprising results, says Kennedy.  All butterflies were tested for Ophryocystis elektroscirrhaor OE, a nasty protozoan disease that infects Monarchs and other milkweed feeders.  Some Monarch scientists have speculated that cultivating Monarch butterflies on Tropical milkweed year round can result in undesirable colonies of OE, which seems to flourish on the plant in southern climates late in the year.  In colder climates and the wild, milkweeds die off in the winter, apparently purging OE to a large degree.

Kennedy was pleasantly surprised that not a single one of the Milkweed Patch Monarchs collected this month showed signs of the crippling, often fatal disease.

San Antonio River Milkweed Patch

"A" marks the approximate spot for the San Antonio River Milkweed Patch

And San Antonians will be pleasantly surprised by a saunter to the Milkweed Patch.  As the Spring Equinox approaches March 20, Monarchs will start to stream through San Antonio from Mexico, making their journey north and laying the first generation of eggs that will hatch, morph into their various stages, eclose and continue the multi-generation migration.  Go take a look.

Directions:  Park at the Pearl Brewery and cross to the west side of the River.  Follow the trail about five minutes and watch for butterflies.  You can also park on the deadened street at Elmira and Myrtle Streets, and descend the stairs to the River.  Walk south about one minute and you’ll be there.   

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Timely Rains, Pent-up Seed Bank, and Little Competition Raise Hopes for a Banner 2012 Wildflower Season

Major rain fell on San Antonio, Austin and in the Hill Country this week, raising levels at streams, aquifers and rivers in Central and South Texas and hopes for a 2012 wildflower bounty this spring.

Austin Bergstrom Airforce base saw a record 5.66 inches.  In San Antono we logged almost three inches–2.94 to be exact.  Out on the Llano River in Kimble County, about an inch-and-a-half doused the landscape.

Will steady rains in Central Texas convert to banner wildflowers in 2012?

Steady rains set stage for a banner wildflower season in 2012

Wildflower and butterfly fans are keeping track.  The historic Texas drought continues, yet steady, periodic rains this winter have the capacity to convert a pent-up seedbank–the soil where seeds drop and await optimal conditions for germination–to a spectacular  wildflower show this spring.

Bluebonnet rosettes are already showing in January

Bluebonnet rosettes are already showing in January

The drought’s kill-off of grass, trees and forbs also make for less competition for hearty native bloomers.   Early risers like bluebonnets, pink evening primrose, and Cowpen Daisy already dress the landscape with rosettes and eager seedlings.

Will 2012 offer a bounty of blooms and butterflies?

Bluebonnet

Bluebonnet: will we see a lot of them this year? Photo: aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu

“So far, so good,” said Dr. Mark Simmons, an ecologist and Director of the Ecosystem Design Group at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin.  ”Wildflowers need a pulse of rain every four-six weeks.   We’re on track.”

Dr. Simmons counsels cautious optimism. The caveat: invasive species also lurk and will aggressively compete for available soil, nutrients, sun and water.

Andrea DeLong-Amaya, the Wildflower Center’s Director of Horticulture, also offers encouraging words. “We’re looking to a pretty good spring….alot of germination out there, lots of good well-spaced rains,” she said. “Where cedar elms were growing before, the seed banks underneath have an opportunity.”

Three-plus inches of rain in San Antonio:January showers mean springtime flowers--and butterflies--on the Mission Reach.

A recent 3-inch rain in San Antonio: winter showers mean springtime flowers--and butterflies--on the Mission Reach.

The drought also stunted many wildflowers and inhibited their seed production last year, David Rodriguez, Bexar County Agent of the Texas Agrilife Extension Service points out.   “Wild populations are going to take a while, but seeded populations started in September-October are looking really really nice,” he said.

The National Weather  Climate Prediction Center is predicting “persistent” drought at least through April 30.  Given the inaccuracy of longterm weather forecasting, we’re keeping a hopeful watch.

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Butterfly FAQ: Pros and Cons of Tropical Milkweed and What to do with a Winter Monarch Butterfly Caterpillar or Chrysalis

Several emails like the one below landed in my mailbox this week seeking counsel on what to do about late season Monarchs.

Hi Monika,

My friends found seven Monarch caterpillars on a well- protected piece of milkweed.  Six are gone, but one spun a chrysalis that they are protecting.  Do you have any advice?  We are wondering how long it will be in the chrysalis state in the winter.  Thanks for any advice you can give.

Dale

I would bring it inside, Dale–but that’s just me.

Usually it takes 10 – 14 days to eclose, or become a butterfly, but cooler temps can extend the process.  Caterpillars I

Monarch caterpillar makes its "J" shape and readies to form its chrysalis, 12/21/2011

Monarch caterpillar makes its "J" shape and readies to form its chrysalis, 12/21/2011 in my kitchen.

found on potted milkweed in mid December and brought inside hatched just last week and flew off on a warm 70-degree afternoon. But it could easily have gone the other way, with an ice storm hitting just as my butterflies hatched.  Then what?

Deciding whether or not to adopt in-process butterflies during the off-season always presents a quandary. Questions to ask:

  1. Do you have nectar available? Newborn butterflies generally don’t need to eat for the first 24 hours, but then they’ll need sustenance.
  2. What about host plants?  A butterfly’s first priority is to mate (for males) and lay eggs (for females) on their specific host plant.
  3. Will the weather cooperate?  Butterflies don’t fly when it’s less than 65 degrees.  Most will die with a freeze.

With our crazy Texas weather, Monarchs and other butterflies can hatch throughout the year depending on temperatures and host plant availability.  As noted last week, Monarchs are reproducing regularly on the San Antonio River — even into January.   Whether or not the eggs of those late season couplings make it to the butterfly stage is a crap shoot dictated by Mother Nature.

Monarch chrysalis about to hatch in my kitchen

Monarch butterfly about to hatch in my kitchen

Generally, if I have host plants, I take found caterpillars into my kitchen to increase their chances of becoming a butterfly.  Studies suggest that  caterpillars and eggs left entirely to nature have a 10% chance of becoming a butterfly.  When we lend a hand the odds are flipped–with a 90% chance.

What’s sad is when butterflies hatch and enter a world with no potential mates, no nectar and no host plants.   I once bought several chrysalises at Butterfly World, the Disneyland”

Tropical milkweed on San ANtonio River Walk

Tropical milkweed on the San Antonio River Walk 1/04/2012

of butterflies and a worthy destination for butterfly fans in Coconut Grove, Florida.  I returned to Texas in mid December with Luna and Polyphemus Moth cocoons, and a Giant Swallowtail chrysalis.

I pinned each to the curtain of my kitchen window as directed, providing the bright light that can speed up development.

The Luna Moth hatched beautifully and was released on a relatively warm January evening.  The Polyphemus Moth never hatched.   When the Giant Swallowtail eventually eclosed–about six weeks after purchase–an ice storm raged outside.  A week of cold and freeze followed.  The poor creature flailed around on my kitchen floor, refusing the cut flowers and diluted Gatorade I offered via Q-Tip. After three sad days, the Swallowtail perished.

For Monarchs, this may not be a problem if you have milkweed growing year round. The non-native but easily adapted Asclepias curassavica, sold in many nurseries as Tropical milkweed, provides nectar and host plant material and grows gregariously in pots that can be moved in and outside.

That said, some Monarch scientists, including our friend Dr. Lincoln Brower, worry that cultivating Monarch butterflies on Tropical milkweed year round can result in undesirable colonies of Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, or OE, a protozoan disease that infects Monarchs and other milkweed feeders. OE is present in the landscape but seems to especially flourish on Tropical milkweed in southern climates late in the year.  In colder climates and the wild, milkweeds die off in the winter, apparently purging OE to a large degree.

Scientists speculate that local OE-infested Monarchs will breed with migrating populations, possibly jeopardizing the migration.  Butterfly breeders and enthusiasts argue that OE is like staphylococcus–present in our populations and getting out of hand only under stressed circumstances.  Some believe that OE is simply a part of the evolutionary cycle, killing those butterflies less fit than others.

The answer, Dale, is that it’s a cold, cruel world for butterflies caught in flighty Texas winters–and an uneasy call for butterfly fans seeking to lend them a hand.

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UPDATE: Winter Monarch Butterflies are Reproducing at the Museum Reach Milkweed Patch on the San Antonio River Walk

Graduate student Kelly Nail was pleasantly surprised at the bounty of butterfly life unfolding at the Museum Reach milkweed patch on the San Antonio River Walk just this week.  The patch of milkweed, a Monarch butterfly host plant, was planted two years ago as part of the City’s redevelopment of the former drainage ditch and lies just a five-minute walk south of the Pearl development on lower Broadway.

Kelly Nail, Graduate Student, Univeristy of Minnesota

Kelly Nail, Graduate Student, Univeristy of Minnesota

Nail majored in mathematics and biology at St. Olaf College.  After teaching high school biology in rural Mississippi, she returned to school to study Monarch butterflies.  Her dissertation, overseen by renown Monarch butterfly scientist Dr. Karen Oberhauser at the University of Minnesota, will explore the effect of climate change on Monarch butterflies.  Nail flew to Houston this week to talk to Monarch citizen scientists about “winter Monarchs,” then made the three-hour drive to San Antonio to see how Alamo City butterflies are faring.

The Museum Reach milkweed patch did not disappoint.

We observed several Monarchs flying, more than a dozen Monarch caterpillars and one Queen caterpillar in various stages of development, dozens of chrysalises–spent, interupted, and in process–and one egg.  We also saw instances of the brilliant-but-creepy tachinid fly.  This parasitoid lays eggs on Monarch caterpillars, which kills them when the flies feed on their living bodies and eventually hatching just before the Monarchs pupate, leaving a caterpillar corpse in their wake.  Scientists suspect that Monarchs born later in the season and further south are more likely to encounter such a fate.

Nail was delighted to find such a jackpot of Monarch data. “I was impressed to see all stages of the life cycle in one single place,” said Nail.  ”And right along the River Walk in the middle of San Antonio.  It’s pretty amazing.”

One of the questions she hopes to answer:  Are “winter Monarchs” reproductive?  Judging from this field trip–no doubt about it.

Butterfly fans and those of us who tag Monarch butterflies in the fall have always been told that late season Monarchs do not reproduce and are behaviorally and biologically different from spring and summer Monarchs.  Supposedly, late season Monarchs remain sexually inactive, saving their energy for the great migration to Mexico.  There, they wait out the winter and emerge from their diapause in the spring to partake in an orgy of butterfly mating in the mountains of Michoacan, often laying their first eggs on Texas milkweeds in March or April.

Butterfly fans know that local populations of Monarch butterflies can establish themselves when host and nectar plants are available and the weather cooperates.  We see it in Houston, Florida, and now–San Antonio.

Based on personal observation and discussions with professional butterfly breeders, it appears that Monarchs are just like us:  opportunists.  With ripe conditions and mates available, they’ll pounce on the chance to reproduce.

Our local Monarchs are likely to continue their procreative antics as long as  temperatures remain above freezing and milkweed and nectar plants provide host and sustenance.  San Antonio’s Museum Reach milkweed patch,  semi-protected from the elements with supplementary grey water and temperatures more moderate than street level, is destined to become a favored nectar and host plant hangout where Monarch butterflies gather to find partners.   That’s good news for those of us who hope to enjoy butterflies year-round.

We look forward to Nail’s research and to more visits to the milkweed patch.

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