Wake-up Call: As Monarch Butterfly Numbers Plummet, will their Migration become Extinct?

More alarming news from the Monarch butterfly roosting sites in Michoacán last week: the 2013 season will surpass 2012 as the all time worst year for Monarch butterflies since records have been kept.

Ever since 1994, scientists have measured the hectares occupied by the migrating insects in the high altitude forests west of Mexico City to get an idea of their numbers.  That information typically works as a key indicator on the state of the union of Monarch butterflies and other pollinators, which fertilize 70% of the world’s flowering plants and two-thirds of the world’s food crops.

Monarch population status 2014

Monarch population status 2014: less than two acres!  Graphic via Monarch Watch

For the 2013 season, the entire migrating Monarch butterfly population occupies only .67 hectares.  That’s 1.65 acres, 72,000 square feet–or about 35 million butterflies, down from highs of 450 million in years’ past.  Think about it:  the entire population of migratory Monarch butterflies could easily fit into the average Walmart store, with 30,000 square feet to spare.

Headlines trumpeted the end of the migration.

“Monarch butterflies drop, migration may disappear,” the Washington Post reported.  On January 29, NBC Nightly News anchor Bryan Williams told viewers–incorrectly–that the head of the World Wildlife Fund in Mexico said the Monarch butterfly is in serious risk of disappearing.  In fact, it’s the migration that’s endangered, NOT the butterflies.  Important point.

The New York Times put the dismal news in proper perspective:  ”The migrating population has become so small—perhaps 35 million, experts guess—that the prospects of its rebounding to levels seen even five years ago are diminishing. At worst, scientists said, a migration widely called one of the world’s great natural spectacles is in danger of effectively vanishing.”

Blue Sky Monarchs

The Monarch butterfly migration faces serious risks and may become extinct. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The news cast a pall over Monarch watchers and other nature lovers.

“My whole day got grayer,” said David Braun, an attorney, naturalist, and founder of Braun & Gresham, a law firm that specializes in environmental and land management issues in Dripping Springs, Texas.

Like me, Braun lives in the Texas Funnel, the primary flyway through which all migrating Monarchs must pass  in the fall on their way to Mexico.  He has accompanied me over the years on Monarch tagging outings along the Llano River and led ecotravelers to the roosting spots in Michoacán for Victor Emanual Tours back in the 1980s.  He was the first person to spark my imagination about how truly awesome it would be to witness the spectacle of hundreds of millions of butterflies unleashed in a mountain forest.

Catalina Trail, then known as Cathy Aguado, was the woman on the cover of National Geographic in 1976

Look at all those Monarchs!  Catalina Trail, then known as Cathy Aguado, discovered  the roosting sites and appeared on the cover of National Geographic in 1976.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

“I remember clearly my excitement when the National Geographic story came out in 1976 announcing the discovery of the wintering grounds,” Braun wrote via email.  ”I also remember my first trip there, the magic of walking through the hushed, cathedral-like fir forest and hearing the sound of millions of Monarch wings flapping.  Today, I have to wonder if that entire awe-inspiring, glorious natural wonder will disappear in my lifetime.  It makes my short life seem even more insignificant if the great cycles of nature aren’t timeless.”

Thousands of others echoed those sentiments via social media, in comments on dozens of news articles, and in emails, on listservs and conversations near and far.  For a sampling of angst, see the Monarch Watch Facebook page comments.

“What’s happening to Monarchs is probably happening to lots of species,” Dr. Karen Oberhauser, a professor at the University of Minnesota and founder of the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project, told the Washington Post. “This is a species, unlike most other insects, that we can count and look at what we’ve done to it. So this really should serve as a wake-up call.”

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, which oversees the citizen scientist tagging program in which I participate,  reinforced the connection to other pollinators on the public radio program Here and Now.

In a comprehensive interview with WBUR, Taylor underscored the idea that this extreme and rapid decline is not just about Monarchs.  ”Monarchs are simply a flagship species for everything else that’s happening out there,” he said.

Taylor noted that Monarchs live in marginal habitats that support most of our pollinators– in roadside wildflower patches, between rows of cultivated crops and in native wildflower prairies.  These spaces are too often decimated by habitat loss.  Read his compelling explanation of the decline on the Monarch Watch Population Status Report.

“Those marginal habitats support a lot of small mammals and ground-nesting birds, and if we lose the monarchs, it means we’re going to lose all those things,”  Dr. Taylor said. “People perhaps do not grasp…that it’s the pollinators that keep everything knitted together out there….there’s a fabric of life out there that maintains these ecosystems, and it’s the pollinators that are critical.”

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Dr. Chip Taylor to Butterfly Breeders: Monarch Roosts May Occupy Only 1.25 Acres This Year

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, told more than 100 butterfly breeders, enthusiasts and citizen scientists Saturday night that the entirety of this year’s migrating Monarch butterfly population may occupy only a half of a hectare–or about 1.25 acres–in Mexico.   That would make this year’s Monarch population the smallest in its recorded history.

Blue Sky Monarchs

The Monarch butterfly migration faces serious risks, says Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Scientists measure the hectares occupied by the migrating butterflies each spring at the ancestral overwintering sites in the mountains of Michoacán to determine the size of the population.

“We had some really robust Monarch butterfly populations in the 90s,” Taylor said.  ”But we’re never going to see those again.”

The decline of the Monarch butterfly population.  In the 90s, their roosting grounds averaged 22 acres.  Graphic via Monarch Watch

The decline of the Monarch butterfly population. In the 90s, their roosting grounds averaged 22 acres. In 2013, they’re predicted to be 1.25 acres. Graphic via Monarch Watch

A perfect storm of dire circumstances is to blame.  The increased use of genetically modified crops, climate change disrupting the insects’ life cycle, pervasive pesticide use, general habitat destruction in the U.S. breeding grounds and in the roosting sites in Mexico–all have created a set of obstacles that threaten the continuation of the unique phenomenon of the Monarch migration.

“We all have to work together to create Monarch habitat,” Taylor told the combined audience of International Butterfly Breeders Association and the Association for Butterflies in San Antonio.  The conference convened to celebrate the 15th birthday of the butterfly breeding business, widely acknowledged to be founded by Rick Mikula, “the butterfly guy.”

Taylor’s presence at the convention was a hopeful sign that the academic/scientist community might be able to find common ground with professional breeders who supply hundreds of thousands of butterflies, caterpillars and eggs each year to schools, festivals, exhibits and other events.   The relationship has been taxed in the past by differences of opinion on the appropriateness of butterfly releases.

One point of agreement:  Monarchs are not only the “money crop” for breeders, they also are the poster species for climate change and habitat destruction.

Rick Mikula

Rick Mikula, widely considered the “father of the commercial butterfly breeding business” poses with the convention birthday cake. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“Monarchs are the iconic species to which we can attach passion and do good for pollinators,” Dr. Taylor told the crowd.   “It’s not just about the Monarchs.  It’s everything else.”

Borrowing from lectures that he delivers regularly to students at the University of Kansas at Lawrence with titles like “The World of 2040″ and “Humans & Climate:  Past, Present and Future,” Taylor summarized the scenarios shared by the recently released United Nations Climate Change report.  The report includes research that suggests global warming will

Happy birthday, Butterfly biz!

The combine conference of the IBBA and AFB celebrated 15 years of the commercial butterfly breeding business. Photo by Monika Maeckle

reduce agricultural production by as much as two percent each decade for the rest of this century while demand for food climbs 14%.  Dr. Taylor underscored the point by adding that 75% of food crops are pollinated by birds, bees and butterflies.   The presentation put a sobering spin on the otherwise celebratory evening, which concluded with an oversized chocolate birthday cake decorated with edible soy and rice paper butterflies.

IBBA president Kathy Marshburn suggested that IBBA breeders, who live in at least 30 states and 13 different countries, could easily participate in the Monarch Watch’s Monarch Waystation program.  The program, launched in 2005, encourages the public, schools and others to create pollinator habitat by planting milkweed gardens for Monarch butterflies, something that every breeder does in the course of their business.

“That would be a simple thing to accomplish,” said Marshburn, who committed to discussing a resolution by the IBBA Board of Directors to implement such a program.  ”It makes perfect sense,” she said, “and will push us more toward conservation efforts.”

Chip Taylor and Kathy Marshburn

Dr. Chip Taylor visits with IBBA president Kathy Marshburn at the organization’s combined conference with the Association for Butterflies in San Antonio. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Dr. Taylor posed for photos with conference attendees, answered questions and generally wowed the crowd with his accessibility, Father Christmas demeanor and passion for the topic.   To climate change deniers, Taylor said:  ”It’s physics.  It’s chemistry.  It’s undeniable.  Are we on a sustainable path?  No.”

Taylor has a decades long passion for pollinators.   He began his career studying sulphurs,  the ubiquitous yellow butterflies that feed on legumes such as clovers and alfalfa.   He was forced to leave that field of study after developing an allergy to them–an apparently not uncommon occurrence in science when one spends lots of time with a particular species.

sulphur butterfly

Dr. Chip Taylor began his scientific career studying Sulphurs. Photo courtesy University of Florida

He then moved on to moved on to studies of the biology of neotropical African (killer) bees in South and Central America, a course he pursued for 22 years.   In 1994 he started Monarch Watch, the citizen science tagging program that started in 1992 and tracks the Monarch migration by having common folks net, tag and record the sex of migrating butterflies, then report the information to a central database managed by the Monarch Watch staff at the University of Kansas at Lawrence.  The program has contributed much to the understanding of the mysterious Monarch butterfly migration.

Perhaps most important, though, is how Monarch Watch has engaged average citizens in  hands-on understanding of conservation and the environment.

Taylor, 76, said he feels a sense of urgency to engage the public in pollinator protection.  He has no qualms about tapping the popularity of Monarch butterflies to do so.  ”There’s an innate interest in this mysterious insect,” he said.

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First of Season Monarchs Spotted on Llano River–Another “Worst Year” for Migration?

Two FOS (First of Season) Monarch butterflies made an appearance on the Llano River this weekend–pretty early for migrants.  They looked to be in good shape and were heading south.

Monarch butterfly

Veronica Prida holds a Monarch for tagging in 2007 on the Llano River. File photo by Monika Maeckle

We generally don’t start seeing Monarchs until Labor Day weekend, three weeks from now.  These early arrivals are called the “premigration migration” and typically show up about a month before the “real migration.”  If this is the case, we’ll be seeing pulses of Monarchs by mid September.

Recent years have been tough on Monarch butterflies.  Climate change and drought have messed with their host and nectar plants’ life cycles and genetically modified crops have sterilized their breeding grounds in the Midwest.  Wildfires and aerial pesticide spraying wreaked havoc with their journey through North Texas last Fall, and logging threatened their roosting sites in Mexico upon their arrival.

Could it get any worse?

Probably.  Last year, their population dropped to its lowest level in history.  They occupied less than three acres of the ancient Oyamel forest in Michoacán, Mexico, where they roost each winter.    That’s right: the entire migratory population of Monarch butterflies occupied a space smaller than most shopping malls.

The decline of the Monarch butterfly population.  In the 90s, their roosting grounds averaged 22 acres.  Graphic via Monarch Watch

The decline of the Monarch butterfly population. In the 90s, their roosting grounds averaged 22 acres. Graphic via Monarch Watch

Scientists, enthusiasts and butterfly watchers have been bemoaning the lack of Monarch butterflies on various listservs all year.  The Spring season was skimpy, and Fall doesn’t look any better.

“One of my monarch students, a 15-year-old budding biologist told me tonight that he’s seen NO sign of eggs nor larvae on hundreds of plants. He lives in a rural area; milkweed is abundant on roadsides, fields and his garden.”

                     –Debbie Jackson, Davisburg, MI, August 5

“There weren’t many Monarchs in Canada and the mid-west. I’ve been reading the butterfly counts that Don Davis has posted. Most listed zero Monarchs.”

                             –Mona Miller, Herndon, VA, July 20

 ”Where are the Monarch butterflies?” asked the headline on a MSN News story August 7. “Michigan is missing its monarch butterflies. So are Delaware, Minnesota and Montreal,” it continued.  ”We go out and are looking, looking, inspecting thoroughly,” Holli Ward, executive director of the Michigan Butterflies Project near Grand Rapids, told the Detroit Free Press….We have not seen a single egg or caterpillar.”

Monarch butterflies hit record lows nationwide,” read the headline of the Rockford Register Star in Illinois on July 26.

Our friend and founder of Monarch Watch Dr. Chip Taylor told the publication that the population crash can be attributed to weird weather in 2012, including one of the hottest, driest summers in decades. “The heat shortened the lifespan and lessened the egg-laying capacity of female monarchs,” Dr. Taylor explained.

I’m predicting a new worst year in history.

Cocoa on the Llano river

Cocoa could practically walk across the Llano River this weekend. Doesn’t bode well for nectar sources this fall. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Our drought marches on, dropping water tables, shrinking our rivers and the riparian systems that sustain them and no end seems in sight.  Cocoa, my loyal butterflying assistant pictured above, could just about walk across the Llano River this weekend without getting her feet wet.  This is a first and doesn’t bode well for sustaining the milkweed host and nectar sources Monarchs need to get to Mexico.

Goldenrod on the Llano

Goldenrod busted out in big blooms following a nice 3.5-inch rain. If it can stay robust another month, whatever Monarchs arrive will have plenty of nectar. Photo by Monika Maeckle

We did have some well-timed rains this month, however.   The rain gauge showed a stout 3.5 inches.  Blooming Goldenrod awaited ubiquitous Sulphurs and Swallowtails as occasional Queens mingled with the two solo Monarchs referenced earlier.  Scattered showers are predicted for next week, which may keep the blooms in shape until our first wave of migrants typically show up–around Labor Day.

Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata

Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, present but scrawnier and less abundant than usual. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, a Monarch host plant, also began its late summer bloom, in smaller stands and scrawnier than usual, but present nonetheless.  We found four eggs which could be either Queens or Monarchs.  We’ll keep you posted.

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Faded FOS Monarch Butterfly Lays Eggs in San Antonio Despite Dreary Population Reports

My first day of earnest butterfly gardening of 2013 met with a sweet surprise:  my FOS (First of Season) Monarch butterfly, Sunday, March 17.

And, it was a faded female, fluttering in my mulched front yard garden, lighting from one Tropical milkweed plant to another.  In her wake, about a dozen creamy, white Monarch eggs were deposited on the undersides of select leaves.  I retrieved a handful for safekeeping inside.

FOS Monarch butterfly

WELCOME! FOS Monarch butterfly, a female, met me in the garden on Sunday.                                  Photo by Monika Maeckle

The sight was especially reassuring given that we just endured the worst news in history on Monarch butterfly numbers this week.   The official report from the World Wildlife Fund preserves in Michoacan, Mexico, confirmed what many of us had suspected for 2012.

Monarch egg on Tropical mlkweed

She left about a dozen creamy white eggs on the tenderest milkweed leaves she could find.      Photo by Monika Maeckle

The migrating butterflies occupied a mere 2.93 acres (1.19 hectares) of Oyamel forest in Mexico, the smallest recorded population in history. The number represents a 59% drop,  down from 7.14 acres (2.89 hectares) last year and the lowest population since record keeping began 20 years ago.  During the 1990s, the amount of forest typically occupied by Monarch butterflies averaged more than 20 acres.

Here's a close-up.  Never mind the dirty fingernails.  This egg is coming inside for safekeeping!  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Here’s a close-up. Never mind the dirty fingernails. This egg is coming inside for safekeeping! Photo by Monika Maeckle

Why is anyone surprised?  Climate change, drought, wildfires, illegal logging in Mexico, and pervasive pesticides have brewed a perfect storm that threatens the continuation of the magnificent Monarch  migration. Genetically modified crops leave our heartland void of milkweed, the Monarch host plant, starving the migrants of the only food that feeds their caterpillars.

Screen Shot 2013-03-18 at 2.13.43 PM

Passage: the Decline of Monarch butterflies via CBS news.

Our friend Dr. Lincoln Brower co-authored an op-ed piece with Homer Aridjis, a Mexican author and former ambassador, for the New York Times headlined:  ”The Winter of the Monarch.”  ”Today the winter monarch colonies, which are found west of Mexico City, in an area of about 60 miles by 60 miles, are a pitiful remnant of their former splendor,” wrote Brower, who has been studying Monarchs for decades.

Scientists see ominous decline in Mexico’s Monarch butterflies,” read the headline topping an AP story that ran on NBC news’ webpage and many other news sites.   The listservs and Facebook exploded with angst from butterfly fans.

The decline of the Monarch butterfly population.  In the 90s, their roosting grounds averaged 22 acres.  Graphic via Monarch Watch

The decline of the Monarch butterfly population. In the 90s, their roosting grounds averaged 22 acres. Graphic via Monarch Watch

“Bad omen: More than half of the monarch butterflies in Mexico have gone missing,”  tweeted Steve Silberman, as scores of others chimed in to express their dismay.  The Monarch Watch Facebook page posted the news and dozens of comments resulted.   “Terrible news” and “So sad” typified responses, along with myriad calls to plant more milkweed.
Just keep doing your thing, girl. She laid about 10 eggs on Sunday. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Just keep doing your thing, girl. She laid about 12 eggs on Sunday. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“All in all, it was not a good year for monarchs,” said Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, in his response to the report.

Yet…thinning my thick patch of Cowpen daisies to make more room for milkweed, I couldn’t help but marvel at the tenacity required for this small, slight creature to have traveled so far to complete her life cycle.   More than 850 miles. Faded, fluttering, she sought just a few good leaves for her babies.   She didn’t give up.

And we shouldn’t either.

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Persnickety Texas Milkweeds “May not Lend Themselves to Mass Seed Production”

Native American Seed Company is on a mission to restore the earth, one native seed at a time.

The 300-acre spread about 115 miles west of San Antonio on the banks of the Llano River just northeast of Junction, Texas, boasts 75 acres of native plants in production

Antelope horns milkweed seed pods

Antelope horns milkweed pods last June at Native American Seed in Junction, Texas.                Photo courtesy Native American Seed

for the distinct purpose of harvesting native seed.

The company’s nondescript cedar post gate opens onto a caliche drive that winds through classic Hill Country mesquite, agarita and sotol, then spills into planted rows of huisache daisy, standing cypress, gayfeather, American blanketflower and other native wildflowers and grasses.   Water pumped from the nearby Llano River maintains the verdant fields, and allows the company to grow, harvest, process, package and ship more than 170 species of native seed and 30 seed mixes nationwide.

Antelope Horns milkweed

Antelope Horns milkweed last June, after well-timed and regular rains in early 2012. Photo courtesy Native American Seed

Among the seed stock, two native Texas milkweeds, Asclepias asperula, commonly known as Antelope horns, and Asclepias viridis, often called Green milkweed, have challenged the 25-year-old seed company’s experts.  The Monarch butterfly host plants are essential to the Monarch butterfly migration, which funnels south through the Texas Hill Country each fall.  Native milkweeds are famously difficult to propagate, even for professionals. “Species in Texas may not lend themselves to mass seed production,” said George Cates, chief “seed wrangler” at Native American Seed.

Native Texas milkweeds require stratification–cold and moisture to soften up their outer shells.   They need 45 days of moist conditions, specific soil conditions, and alternate wet and dry periods.   Worst thing you can do: overwater them.  (Check out Native American Seed’s Milkweed Stratification process at this post.)

Gardeners and butterfly fans committed in theory to propagating and planting native milkweeds (and I consider myself among them) have been vexed in practice by their persnickety ways.   That’s what often drives us to plant Tropical Milkweed, the nonnative Asclepias curassavica that is easy-to-grow, widely available and the favorite of Monarch butterflies for hosting and other butterflies for nectar. While the practice bothers some scientists and native plant purists, our rationale is that Monarch caterpillars need to eat.   In short, it’s better to provide SOME host plant for migrating Monarchs than NONE as they pass through Texas.

George Cates

George Cates stands in a field of future Antelope Horns in April. Nothing sprouting yet. PHoto by Monika Maeckle

Native American Seed and the Portland-based Xerces Society, a nonprofit organization devoted to protecting invertebrates and their habitats, hope to change all that.

In 2010, the Xerces Society approached the 18-person staff of the Native American Seed Company about establishing a partnership to restore native milkweeds to the American landscape.  Xerces had recieved a $117,000 conservation innovation grant from the USDA’s National Resources Conservation Service.   “We call it the ‘milkweed CIG,’” said Brianna Borders, project manager for the undertaking, since renamed Project Milkweed.  A requirement of the grant was that the recipients match the sum by raising an equal amount.

Project Milkweed identified several U.S. regions for milkweed seed production–California, the Great Basin, Arizona, New Mexico, Florida, and Texas. “Texas was a clear choice, arguably the most important state to the Monarch migration,” said Borders.  The $334,000 was pretty much divied up equally between the areas, she said.

xerceslogo

Native American Seed was an ideal candidate for the project, said Borders, because of the company’s long involvement in native seed production and its opportune location on the Monarch flyway.  Founder Bill Nieman, a high school dropout who turned a trash hauling business into a successful landscaping and design firm and then into Native American Seed, has a long history as a conservationist. The company’s mission aligned perfectly with the task.

The company’s 100-page catalogue practically serves as a free native plant guide. The vivid and abundant photography, renderings of how seeds look when they sprout, and descriptive verbiage describing each plant’s soil type, sunlight needs, and other traits

Irrigating at Native American Seed

Native American Seed will use its full irrigation alltoment from the Llano River to produce native seeds. Photo by Monika Maeckle

offer a broad overview of the life cycle of many plants native to the U.S.   Especially entertaining is Nieman’s annual introductory letter in which he tackles topical environmental issues–from invasive plants and water waste to wind power lines.

Results for the Mlikweed Project have been mixed so far.  The program launched just as Texas entered the ongoing historic drought.  In April 2011, the milkweeds didn’t flower or produce seed (which is expected, given they are perennials).  Borders said the first seed harvest last year (2012) was “pretty modest.”The 2,400 linear feet of native milkweeds  produced 1.5 pounds of seed, which, at an average of 65,000 seeds per pound, amounts to almost 100,000 seeds.  Of those 100,000 seeds, 95% have been restratified and replanted.

“We didn’t set a target for how much seed has been produced because there are so many unknowns,” said Borders.

Meanwhile, others have tackled the daunting task of producing milkweed plugs.  Monarch Watch, based at the University of Kansas at Lawrence, launched a “Bring Back the Monarchs” milkweed restoration campaign back in 2010.  Last fall, the program got a second life here in Texas when it partnered with the Native Plant Society to recruit volunteers to gather native seed, then mail them to Kansas for cultivation there.

bring-back-the-monarchs

The milkweed restoration campaign previously used a Texas grower. Pat McNeal, of McNeal Growers in Manchaca, Texas, assumed those duties in 2012,  but said recently that Monarch Watch “had better success in Kansas where they have four real seasons.”

McNeal suggested that the best way to propagate Texas native milkweeds would be to cultivate the tubers for two years, then plant those in the fall.   “These milkweeds don’t adapt their schedules for us,” he said, adding that Texas native milkweeds don’t do well in containers.  The plants can have a two-meter long tap root making them difficult to transplant.  ”It’s like trying to grow a potato in a pot,” said McNeal.

Dr. Chip Taylor, who oversees the program, continued cultivation this year with a Kansas grower.  He said he anticipates that 25,000 native milkweed plugs will have been produced this spring.  All have been sold on preorder. Monarch Watch will soon set up  a “Milkweed Market” for retailers on its website so people can connect with growers in their area.

Antelope Horns milkweed root stok at American Native Seed

Cates points out root stock from 2012′s Antelope Horns milkweed crop, which has yet to sprout this year because of a lack of rain.    Photo by Monika Maeckle

At Native American Seed, the battle for Texas native milkweed seed plods on.  Cates assumes primary responsibility for their production.   He joined the company in 2003 as a student intern in ecological sciences at Austin College in Sherman, Texas.  After graduating he came on fulltime in 2007.

On a windy Friday afternoon in April, Cates pointed to the dry landscape.  ”The grass hasn’t been green since 2010,” he said. With the Llano River flowing at an historic low, Cates mentioned the seed company will once again use its entire irrigation allotment, strategically watering wildflowers and native grasses, supplementing with a recently installed rainwater collection system.

Monarch on Tropical Milkweed

Cates says voting for Tropical milkweed is a vote against native milkweeds. Photo by Monika Maeckle

A dry winter coupled with early, hot tempertures, watering restrictions on the Llano, and an unpredictable climate suggest months of hard work and frustration ahead for Cates.  But the difficulties haven’t dampened his zeal for restoring native plants with seeds.  ”A plant in the ground will produce 100x more seed than tubers,”  he said.  ”That’s where we’re at–we’re trying to grow a substantial amount of this seed material.”

Cates has little patience for Tropical milkweed, the easy answer for gardeners in the long haul of native plant restoration. “We’re all about having it right now,” said Cates.  “These kinds of conservation efforts can’t be done ‘right now.’  It takes time.”

“Every time you vote for Tropical milkweed with your dollar, you vote against this,” he said, pointing to tidy, dry rows of future Antelope horns, which had yet to sprout this year.

Cates kneeled down and dug his fingers into the soil to find root stock from the 2012 milkweed crop. “Half of what we do fails, but that doesn’t make us stop.”

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Tropical Milkweed: To Plant it or Not, it’s Not a Simple Question

Dara Satterfield SM

Dara Satterfield, PhD Candidate at the University of Georgia, is studying Monarch butterflies and OE. Courtesy photo

Graduate student Dara Satterfield came to town in late January for the second time in 12 months to take the pulse of the Monarch butterfly population at the San Antonio River Museum Reach Milkweed Patch.  There, dozens of Tropical milkweed plants play year round host to Monarch butterflies.   Satterfield works closely with local volunteers like Mary Kennedy and Mobi Warren of the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project (MLMP), a citizen scientist program, to monitor milkweed patches far and wide for egg, caterpillar, chrysalis and butterfly action that might shed light on the state of the Monarch butterfly migration.

Monarch on Tropical Milkweed

Monarch butterflies LOVE Tropical milkweed. But is it appropriate to plant it? Photo by Monika Maeckle

Satterfield, like other scientists, believes the increased availability of  Asclepias curassavica, commonly known as Tropical milkweed, coupled with our warmer winters, may have an unhealthy impact on Monarch butterflies and their migration.   The science is undetermined on that question.

A native of  Marietta, Georgia, Satterfield attends the University of Georgia where she is a PhD candidate whose dissertation focuses on the relationship between migration and infectious disease in wildlife.  Monarchs are her species focus.  Satterfield works closely with Monarch scientist Dr. Sonia Altizer, the foremost expert in the country on Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, or OE. The unpronouceable protozoan disease infects Monarchs and other milkweed feeders, often resulting in butterfly crippling or death.

Dara Satterfield

Dara Satterfield checks Monarch butterflies at the San Antonio River Museum Reach Milkweed Patch for OE.           Photo by Monika Maeckle

As winters get warmer, Asclepias curassavica, the only milkweed species commercially available, is less likely to die back in winter. Some scientists hypothesize that A. curassavica entices Monarchs to forego migration and winter in the U.S. This could create an unhealthy hotbed of lingering OE spores for caterpillars and butterflies that remain in the local area.   Since the spores transfer from creature to creature via physical contact with each other or the plants on which they rest or eat, scientists worry that local OE-infested Monarchs will infect and breed with populations that are passing through, possibly jeopardizing the migration.

The situation exacerbates an already serious decline in the Monarch migration.  Drought, genetically modified crops, late summer wildfires, and generally inhospitable conditions pose multiple threats to Monarchs and their migration.   It’s likely that 2012 will be the worst year, numbers wise, in Monarch butterfly migration history since records have been kept.

“Monarchs are famous for this migration so when we see what appears to be a break in their migratory pattern, we want to know why and what the implications are,” said Satterfield.

OE Spores with Monarch Butterfly Scales

Eeeew! OE spores look like little footballs next to Monarch Butterfly Scales–photo courtesy of MLMP

But butterfly breeders and enthusiasts argue that OE is like staphylococcus–present in the general population and becoming a threat only under stressed circumstances. Organizations like the International Butterfly Breeders Association promote best practices for limiting OE in captive environments through education of its membership and seminars on managing and limiting its presence.  And yet others believe that OE is simply a part of the evolutionary cycle, killing those butterflies less fit than others.

For butterfly hobbyists and gardeners, the “curassavica question” presents a quandary:  should we be planting Tropical milkweed or not?

“This is a very sensitive subject in the Monarch world,”  said Satterfield.   “We just don’t have the data right now.” It will take three or four more years to complete Satterfield’s research.   She advises that natives are always better–which is true, IF you can find them and meet their persnickety growing needs.   Organizations like Monarch Watch and the Xerces Society‘s have launched milkweed restoration campaigns, but wide availability of native stock is still a dream.

If you DO plant curassavica, many scientists suggest cutting it to the ground in winter–unless yours is a research site like the Milkweed Patch on the San Antonio River Museum Reach.  Scientists encouraged the City of San Antonio and San Antonio River Authority to leave our milkweed patch alone as an experiment.   Interestingly, the San Antonio patch brags a lower incidence of OE (15%) than in other monitoring sites observed (47%) by the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project.   The 47% figure is SIX TIMES the rate of OE in Monarchs that migrate to Mexico.

Satterfield suggested that a deluge of milkweed beetles at the Patch this winter decimated not only the foliage, but OE spores.  The hungry orange-and-black bugs pruned much of the diseased growth, creating a better balance for the butterflies. Apparently Mother Nature has her own way of managing the OE problem.

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

Mother Nature on the case: Milkweed beetles defoliated the Milkweed Patch last spring, cleaning out OE spores in the process. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“This may have removed any OE spores on the milkweed plants, which probably helped to keep the prevalence of OE low this year,” said Satterfield. She added that since our Milkweed Patch is further inland and enjoys cooler temperatures than coastal situations in Houston and Florida, the Monarch population was lower and perhaps more hearty.

In the meantime, gardeners are left to make their own calls.   Is it better to have a questionable milkweed source in your yard to provide Monarchs with nectar and host plant, or not?  

Let’s see: Tropical milkweed is easy to grow, widely available, prolific bloomer, favorite host plant for Monarchs and a great nectar source for all butterflies.   I know where I come down on that.   You’ll see Tropical milkweed in my yard.   But I’ll be sure to keep it out of wildscapes and ranch situations, and slash it to the ground in the winter.  

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Oh, those Crazy Chrysalises: Bringing Caterpillars Inside Can Result in Chrysalises in Surprising Places

Judy Nevin of San Antonio was concerned about Monarch chrysalises she’d been monitoring in her garden this week.   One had crawled under some plant cloth and frozen when the temperatures dipped below 32.   Another had relocated to a former basil plant and formed its green, gold-flecked container on a dead limb, perhaps to emerge on a day like those we experienced this weekend when the sun warmed parts of Bexar County to springlike temperatures in the 70s.

Swallowtail chrysalis on electrical chord of a flat-iron

This Swallowtail wandered 25 feet from its host plant across a dining room to form its chrysalis on an electrical chord in a nearby bedroom. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“I had two chrysalises until two nights before last,” said Nevin by phone.  One froze and she brought the other inside.

Our schizophrenic weather, freezing one day and balmy the next, has provoked frequent questions from readers about what to do with chryalises found in the winter.  Should you bring them inside?   And why do they form away from their host plant?

chrysalis in hat

Monarch chrysalis formed inside my hat! Photo by Mike Quinn

Bringing a chrysalis inside for protection from the elements is a judgement call.  We already covered the quandary of moving late season caterpillars indoors in this December post.    The same logic applies to chrysalises.   Will you be around to release the butterfly or do you plan to keep it inside if the weather is ornery?  Do you have nectar for it–either artificial or natural?  Depending on where you live and the time of year, the newborn butterfly may have few prospects for food or mating.

Monarch chrysalis on an indoor plant cart

Wheels up! Monarch chrysalis formed on the wheel of this indoor garden cart. The caterpillar’s host plant was directly above the wheel.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Again, there’s no “right” answer here.

As for caterpillars forming their chrysalises AWAY from their hostplants, this is common practice.  We’ve brought hundreds of caterpillars and chrysalises inside, and yet it still provokes smiles when we find a chrysalis in an unlikely place.

MOnarch chrysalis on napkin

Monarch chrysalis formed on a napkin at my kitchen table. Photo by Monika Maeckle

We’ve found them under chairs, on curtains, napkins, blank walls, glass windows, and other unexpected locations.

Monarch chrysalis on wall.

Monarch chrysalis on wall. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Once a Swallowtail chrysalis wandered 20 feet from the host plant in my Austin apartment to form its chrysalis on the electrical chord of a flat iron.   Another time a Monarch caterpillar I was transporting to a speaking event in my car wandered away during the drive.  Later I found the chrysalis inside my summer straw hat. I moved the perfectly formed chrysalis to a stick, tying its silk button with dental floss to a horizontal branch so it could hang vertically until it was ready to emerge.  A week later, it did, nonplussed.

Monarch Chrysalises

You can tie Monarch chrysalises onto a horizontal stick with dental floss to keep a close eye on them. Photo by Monika Maeckle

We’ve also made the dreary discovery of a perfectly formed dead butterfly that eclosed and was belatedly found–under a couch, near a window, or on the floor by a glass door when we were away for the weekend.  A sad event, and something to consider should you bring in a chrysalis from the cold.

Why do these intriguing creatures wander so far from what they know so well and what has sustained them?

Chrysalis on agave

Safe place to form a chrysalis? We think so. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Scientists suggest this is a survival mechanism.   If a caterpillar forms its chrysalis on the host plant and other caterpillars defoliate it, that leaves the chrysalis more visible and vulnerable to predators.   My personal unscientifc theory is that caterpillars need a quiet spot to transform themselves into a completely different lifeform. Growing wings and planning your first flight must require deep concentration.

More on this topic:

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As the Earth Heats Up, What Does it Mean for Monarch and other Migrating Butterflies?

Congratulations, 2012, you’re the hottest year on record!

The National Climate Data Center, released data this week showing that temperatures across the U.S. averaged 3.2 degrees above their 20th Century average.   Nineteen states–including Texas–had their highest annual average temperatures ever recorded.

2012 hottest year on record

Hot enough for ya? Climate data shows 2012 was 3.2 degrees hotter than any prior year. Chart via NOAA

Last year’s wet winter and mild spring fooled us into thinking that the drought and extreme heat were behind us. But the last three months of 2012 were some of the driest in history and predictions are rife that 2013 will bring continued, possibly intensified drought.

Drought Outlook 2013

Drought Outlook 2013: more and maybe worse.

In our front yard, “winter” visited for a few days following Christmas, but the “freeze” didn’t even die back our Frostweed plants.   Our milkweed, pruned in early December, sports new chutes, suggesting our downtown environment is even warmer than thermometers reflect.   Over at the Milkweed Patch on the San Antonio River Museum Reach, we observed Monarchs and Queens in abundance in late December.

The continued drought and warm temperatures beg the question:  Will Monarchs and other butterflies continue to migrate if  they and the plants that sustain them can survive warm winters?

The Museum Reach Milkweed Patch on the San Antonio Riverwalk

Monarchs and other butterflies are occupying the Milkweed Patch at the San Antonio River Museum Reach year round. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“Climate change – in the near term – is not going to change the monarch migration,” Dr. Chip Taylor relayed via email.   Over the long haul, though, it’s inevitable that climate  change, coupled with the decimation of the Mexican roosting sites, pervasive insecticides, and an increase in genetically modified crops will decrease the numbers of Monarchs and impact their migration habits.

Dr. Karen Oberhauser, PhD in Ecology at the University of Minnesota, suggested that Monarchs “might not need to (or be able to) move,” given the changing climate. “But that could expose them to potentially lethal conditions, when, for example, the southern US experiences an unseasonal freeze,” she added.

Oberhauser, who has been studying Monarchs since 1984, also mentioned undesirable colonies of Ophryocystis elektroscirrhaor 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.  But in places where freezes don’t kill off milkweed, OE becomes a problem and can be lethal to Monarchs.

OE Spores with Monarch Butterfly Scales

Eeeew! OE spores look like little footballs next to Monarch Butterfly Scales–photo courtesy of MLMP

“Some species are increasing their range, but one problem with that is that other species that they need to survive might not move at the same rate,” said Dr.  Oberhauser.

“Just because it warms up, doesn’t necessarily mean Monarchs. . . won’t migrate, “ Dr. John Abbott, Curator of Entomology for the Texas Natural Science Center at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote to us in an email.  “It may be so genetically programmed, that they have no “choice.”

Brown Argus Butterfly

The Brown Argus Butterfly has adapted well to climate change by changing its diet and expanding its range by 50 miles.  Photo via cum bria.org

One butterfly species in England has fared extremely well in the face of climate change.   The Brown Argus butterfly has increased its range in England 50 miles north in the past 20 years thanks to warming temperatures.   According to a study made possible by English citizen scientists over many years, the Brown Argus has flourished because it adapted its diet and now eats wild geraniums, which formerly only thrived in especially warm summers.  Prior to the warmer weather, Brown Argus caterpillars ate primarily Rock Rose.

The Brown Argus’ adaptation to a new host plant and that plant’s wider availability caused by warmer temperatures thus allowed the butterfly to expand its range at twice the average rate of other species, the study found.    Change or perish.

“Sudden changes resulting in a species being in an area where it wasn’t or when it wasn’t previously will almost invariably have an affect on other species,”  cautioned Dr. Abbott. “So it’s a cascade.”

According to the IO9 blog, a website devoted to science, science fiction, and the future, insects are well poised to take advantage of climate change.   Why?   Because they are well suited to quick adaptation and in the case of those with wings, able to move to new environments.   And, as cold blooded creatures, they will have a longer eating/growing/reproductive season with longer, warmer seasons.

Embrace it.  Odds are more mosquitoes, ticks, fire ants–and hopefully butterflies–are coming our way, if this warmer weather pattern continues.  One sure thing:  change will continue to be the only constant.

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“Flight of the Butterflies” in 3D a Special Holiday Treat for Kids, Seniors and all of us in Between

The new 3D IMAX film, “Flight of the Butterflies,” made the perfect Thanksgiving Day preface to a nontraditional dinner for my parents, Hilde and John Maeckle, 80 and 91 years young, respectively, and affectionately known as “Oma” and “Opa.”

Flight of the Butterflies in 3D

Thanksgiving Day treat: Flight of the Butterflies in 3D.  L-R  Hilde, John, and Monika Maeckle –Photo by Robert Rivard

Apart from the fantastic story and stunning effects, the sound was loud enough for my hard-of-hearing dad to enjoy the soothing rhythm of millions of butterflies’ wings beating.    The three-dimensional cinematography so captured his imagination that he, like the rest of us, couldn’t resist reaching into the darkness in attempts to touch the butterflies as they seemingly flit before our eyes.

This familiar story, well-told, never gets old–even to a butterfly evangelist well-versed in Monarch butterfly natural history.  Only one scene gave me pause, making me wonder if the filmmakers had taken their cinematic license too far.

The film weaves the compelling narrative of Dr. Fred Urquhart and his wife Norah, who studied the Monarchs for 40 years and are credited with piecing together the mystery of their migration. Their tenacious efforts included the development of the first citizen scientist tagging programs.   The climax of the story occurs when the Urquharts finally visit the ancestral roosts in early 1976, after Mexican national Catalina Trail and her husband Ken Brugger lead them to the mountaintop in Michoacan province near Angangueo where the butterflies wait out the winter each year.

The film depicts the elderly couple huffing up a challenging trail, seemingly gasping for air in the thin mountain air.  Upon first sight of  the forest filled with  Monarch butterflies, Dr. Urquhart appears teary.

In his first person account in National Geographic Magazine in August of 1976, Urquhart mentions the possibility that he might perish before seeing the subject of his life’s work.   Here’s what he wrote:

“Norah and I are no longer young.   At 10,000 feet, as we walked along the mountain crest, our hearts pounded and our feet felt leaden.

The rather macabre thought occurred to me:  Suppose the strain proved too much?  It would be the ultimate irony to have come this far and then never witness what we’d waited so long to see!”

But Urquhart and Norah lived to see the Monarchs and tell the tale. In the movie, he sits down in a field to absorb the magnificence of millions and millions of butterflies–floating, flitting, fleeing the ancient Oyamel trees as the sun warms them for a midday flight.  He looks down to see a tagged butterfly near his feet–thus proving that these butterflies migrated from the United States.

Watching this scene, I couldn’t believe it happened like that.   Did it?

The Urquharts as they find a tagged butterfly in Michoacan

In the movie, Flight of the Butterflies, Norah and Fred Urquhart find a tagged butterfly in Michoacan. The real story was even more amazing. Photo courtesy SK Films

“They couldn’t film what really happened.”  said Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas at Lawrence and a longtime Monarch butterfly scholar.  ”A lot of people questioned that scene.”  Taylor relayed the real story, an Isaac Newton moment.

“What really happened, he was sitting by a tree, and a branch fell down,” Taylor said by phone.   “And one of the butterflies on the branch had the tag on it.”   Taylor said the filmmakers couldn’t replicate the situation exactly without harming the butterflies.  Deliberately breaking a branch off the tree in the protected sanctuaries where the scene was shot would have been illegal.  The tag was applied in Chaska, Minnesota.

Monarch butterflies cluster on Oyamel Trees in Michoacan

Monarch butterflies cluster on Oyamel Trees in Michoacan–Photo courtesy SK Films

Catalina Trail, the only living member of the team that discovered the Monarch roosting spots in Michoacan and who was present at that moment, confirmed the story.  ”That’s how it happened,” she said by phone from Austin.

As difficult as it is to grasp, branches often break from the weight of millions of butterflies.   “It happens all the time,”  said Taylor.  Each butterfly weighs half a gram. That means 907 butterflies weigh one pound.  And a million butterflies weigh 1,102 pounds.   The roosting spots can host half a billion butterflies.   Do the math.

“It just blows me away,” said Taylor, recalling a trip to the Monarch sanctuaries and an inch-and-a-half round sapling, 20 feet tall, with a sprig of foliage on the branch.  ”It would literally fold over double from the weight of the butterflies.”  And when they flew off, the branch would spring back to an erect posture, he said.

Catalina Trail, January 2, 1975, the day she and Ken Brugger "discovered" the Monarch butterfly Overwintering Sites

Catalina Trail, January 2, 1975, the day she and Ken Brugger “discovered” the Monarch butterfly overwintering sites.     Photo copyright Catalina Trail

Urquhart described the moment on page 173 of the August 1976 edition of National Geographic:   “”While we stared in wonder, a pine branch three inches thick broke under its burden of languid butterflies and crashed to earth…..There, to my amazement, was one bearing a white tag!”

The IMAX movie, Flight of the Butterflies, was released last week, and chronicles the "discovery" of the Monarch butterfly roosting spot.

The IMAX movie, “Flight of the Butterflies,” chronicles the “discovery” of the Monarch butterfly roosting spot.  Photo courtesy SK Films.

Some have suggested that the movie misses a chance to make a strong case for conservation.  But one could also argue that that’s a different movie. The film does much more than any other single piece of media to raise awareness of the magic of the  Monarch butterfly migration.    Once people feel the magic, then doing something constructive to help often follows–like planting milkweed.

Flight of the Butterflies, a spectacular 44-minute show, simultaneously suits children, seniors and all of us in between.   The film continues in San Antonio at the Rivercenter IMAX theater and opens at Austin’s Bob Bullock IMAX Theater in January.

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Monarch Butterflies: the Panda Bears of Climate Change?

A late Monarch butterfly season comes to a close this month in what may be the worst year, numbers wise, in the history of the migration.  The storied insects arrived at El Rosario sanctuary in Michoacán, Mexico, last week, “thousands of them,” according to Journey North, a nonprofit organization that engages students and citizen scientists around the globe in tracking wildlife migration and seasonal change.

Monarch butterfly season comes to a close

Monarch butterfly season comes to a close in what may be the worst year, numbers wise in history.

The insects endured a rollercoaster ride in 2012.   The year began in the hangover of an historic Texas drought.  A wet, mild winter and a banner wildflower season followed in the spring.  The drought moved to the Midwest in the summer, crippling the Monarchs’ milkweed breeding grounds and stifling the growth of summer blooms for nectar.  By fall, storms hit the East Coast and aerial insecticides filled North Texas skies in an attempt to control West Nile virus-carrying mosquitoes–just as Monarchs were set to move through the “Texas funnel” en route to their ancestral roosts in Mexico later in the season.  Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, aptly categorized 2012 as “a year like no other.”

And yet as we gather our tagging data to send to Monarch Watch by the December 1 deadline in a year of seemingly record low numbers, Monarch butterfly awareness seems to be enjoying an all-time high.

A Butterfly Haven somewhere in Michoacan

A Butterfly Haven somewhere in Michoacán –Photo courtesy SK Films

In October, the IMAX 3-D film “Flight of the Butterflies” opened with a soiree at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.  The $12 million Monarch butterfly natural history epic drew the “flutterati”–my word for the Monarch scientist celebrity pack–from across the hemisphere.   Dr. Chip Taylor, Dr. Karen Oberhauser, Dr. Lincoln Brower  joined forest restoration patrons, citizen scientists and others along with Mexican President Felipe Calderon to attend the premiere.  Mainstream awareness of the history and plight of the migrating insects made international news.

On November 5, the savvy PR folks at Southwest Airlines agreed to fly a Monarch butterfly and  ”the Butterfly lady” Maraleen Manos-Jones, author of the Spirit of the Butterflies, from Albany, New York, to San Antonio, Texas.  The Dallas-based airline sent a Southwest Airlines escort to meet Ms. Manos-Jones and her precious cargo from New

Monarch butterflies make front page news

Monarch butterflies made front page news when Southwest Airlines flew a late season Monarch from Albany to San Antonio

York to the Lone Star State. Upon arrival, a Southwest Airlines video crew met the butterfly and its entourage, documenting the event for future use and generating more international media buzz.  The AP picked up the story, NPR ran a segment, and the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and other media outlets labeled the story “a talker” as local TV stations covered the spectacle.

The butterfly was released at the San Antonio Botanical Garden on a warm Fall afternoon, as dozens of butterflies fluttered around milkweed and other late season blooms.   Presumeably, the well-traveled insect joined its butterfly brethren for the trip south to Michoacán.

Then, on November 18, scientist-turned-eloquent-author Barbara Kingsolver released her latest book, “Flight Behavior.” The novel uses the Monarch butterfly migration to tackle the complex subject of climate change.  When asked why she used Monarch butterflies to make the wonky topic understandable, Kingsolver responded:  ”The more I studied it, the more I realized this was a perfect vehicle for what I wanted to say.”

Kingsolver is on to something.   Monarch butterflies hold universal appeal.   They don’t sting or bite.  They are beautiful and accessible.  They migrate across three countries, serving as a living metaphor for our innate interconnectedness.

In 1961, Chi-Chi, a giant panda with lots of fur and appealing, black-patched eyes arrived at the London Zoo.  The cuddly, distinctive bear captured the imaginations of Londoners and quickly became the “poster species” of the World Wildlife Fund, which was founded the same year.

According to the WWF website, the first sketches were done by the British environmentalist and artist, Gerald Watterson.   ”We wanted an animal that is beautiful, is endangered, and one loved by many people in the world for its appealing qualities.”

Like the panda, Monarchs are a beloved species.   Pandas are endangered, Monarchs are not, but many would argue that the Monarch migration is rushing toward a dangerous path of extinction.

Monarch butterflies’ range is moving north as temperatures rise.   We see them later in the year, and further north, with each passing season.   They also endure the climate changing extremes of heavy, unpredictable rain and storms (Storm Sandy this year), unexpected freezes, and persistent drought.   They adapt, they adjust, and they tell us much about our changing climate and the abilities of other pollinators to adapt to these rapid changes–or not.

Recent media coverage and attention suggest Monarchs are on their way to becoming the “poster species” of climate change.   We applaud this new awareness.

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