2014: From Worst Year for Monarch Butterflies to Rebound, Increased Pollinator Awareness

The end-of-the-year provokes a look back to assess progress–if any–on the pollinator front.   2014 held a mixed bag of good and bad news with occasional surprising twists.

We started out thinking 2014 might be the worst year in history for Monarchs given that the 2013 migration ranked lowest in population numbers ever. Remember the headlines?  “90% drop in Monarch butterflies,” read Newsweek, the Washington Post, the New York Times and other media outlets.  But the season surprised us.

Llano River picnic spot kayak rock

Increased, well-timed rains helped pollinators and other wildlife and assuaged–for now–some drought fears, but we’re not able to be complacent. This photo, of the Llano River, was taken in late April. Photo by Monika Maeckle

A reprieve from the drought, well-timed rains in the Midwestern breeding grounds and milder temps in Texas made for a late summer surge, and an exceptional year for Monarch.  We look forward to hearing the numbers observed in Michoacán this winter.  While this temporary boost won’t fix the longterm, persistent declines caused by pesticide use, genetically modified crops, climate change and general habitat loss, it’s a welcome, unexpected turn.

On the PR front, 2014 couldn’t have been much better in terms of raised awareness.  Pollinator peril has gone mainstream.

The First Lady of the United States planted the first pollinator garden at the Whitehouse.  The presidents of Mexico, the U.S. and Canada agreed to work together to restore Monarch and other pollinator habitat, and some of the top scientists and pollinator advocacy organizations in the country submitted the Monarch butterfly for consideration as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.

Simultaneously, professional butterfly breeders gathered to create programs to systematically combat OE, the Monarch-centric spore driven disease that attacks Monarchs and other milkweed feeders.   And a lively debate continues about the appropriateness of planting Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, the only Monarch host plant commercially available.

Again, while the facts still spell general decline and danger for pollinators, the awareness of the problem has been elevated like never before.  That’s all good.

Below are some of the Texas Butterfly Ranch’s top posts written in 2014 that should give you a good perspective on the year.

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

Wake-up Call: Monarch Butterfly Numbers Plummet

In February we wrote the dreary news that for the 2013 season, the entire migrating Monarch butterfly population occupied 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.

First Lady Michelle Obama Gets Milkweed, Plants Pollinator Garden

On April 2,1600 Pennsylvania Avenue added Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata and Butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa to its 1500-square-foot vegetable garden. The milkweed species will serve as Monarch host plant as well as a favored nectar source to bees and other butterfly species.  The milkweeds also marked the first time in history that a pollinator garden had been planted at the White House.

First Lady Michelle Obama busy at the White House Kitchen Garden where she recently added pollinator plants, including two species of milkweed.  Photo via Obama Foodorama

First Lady Michelle Obama busy at the White House Kitchen Garden where she recently added pollinator plants, including two species of milkweed. Photo via Obama Foodorama3.

Monarch Butterflies Headed our Way in Promising Rebound Season

This year’s migration seemed to start early and end late, with the Monarchs taking their time and reproducing profusely along the way with optimal conditions in their favor.  Here in Texas, our season was 7 – 10 later than usual for peak migration.

Monarch on the Llano

Monarch butterfly resting on Frostweed on the Llano River. Photo by Monika Maeckle

 How to Track the Monarch Butterfly Migration from your Desk

Not everyone can access the Great Outdoors on Demand, especially during butterfly season.  This post details how you can track the migraiton from your desk using crowdsourced social media tools and apps like Twitter, Facebook, Journey North and Monarch Watch.

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Endangered Species Act:  Wrong tool for the Job of Monarch Butterfly Conservation?

Several pollinator advocacy organizations and many famous PhDs support the listing of the Monarch butterfly as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.   I, along with many others, do not.   Read this post to decide for yourself if you think it’s truly the right tool for the job.

Monarch butterflies along the Llano River fought the wind this weekend as the migration kicks into high gear.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch butterflies along the Llano River fought the wind this weekend as the migration kicks into high gear. Photo by Monika Maeckle

And just so you don’t think that we’re species-ist at the Texas Butterfly Ranch, I’ll mention that the number one post at the Texas Butterfly Ranch in 2014 was NOT about the Monarch butterfly.  Rather, the mysterious, ubiquitous Black Witch Moth, took the top spot in 2014 for the second year in a row.

Judging from my professional experience in online marketing, I’m betting the popularity of this post, first written in 2012, and updated in 2013, can be attributed to the fact that no one is writing about Black Witch moths–and yet they are amazingly interesting.   Blog posts, like Eastern Swallowtails, have what are called “long tails“–meaning that they generate many views over time.   The longer they are on the web and the more that people read and share them, the more popular they get and the higher they climb in search engine rankings.

This post, smartly headlined, Large, Batlike and Harmless:  Black Witch Moth

Black WItch Moth Huatulco

Black Witch Moth: large, batlike, totally harmless–and the source of much curiosity.    Photo by Monika Maeckle

includes many keywords that people type into the Google search box, wondering what the heck the enormous moth is doing hanging out in the rafters. It has generated more views than any other this year. The reason it is not featured as a top post is that it wasn’t written in 2014.

Other posts from the archives that ranked in the Top 10 in readership but were drafted in previous years:

Have a great rest of the year.  And thank you for reading the Texas Butterfly Ranch.  We’re taking our Winter Solstice break effective this week, so best wishes for good luck, good health and prosperity in 2015–and may many butterflies, moths and wildflowers grace your path in the new year.

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Texas Parks and Wildlife Launches Milkweed Monitoring Project

The intersection of technology and Nature continues as the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) announced a program to monitor milkweed stands throughout the Lone Star State this week.

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The program, Texas Milkweeds and Monarchs, will be housed on the iNaturalist platform and launches as debate heats up about the wisdom of planting the technically nonnative but widely available Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, to help restore Monarch butterfly habitat in the face of the insect’s possible listing as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.  iNaturalist, a crowdsourced species identification system, declares its mission as “connecting people to nature through technology.”

The crowdsourced Texas Milkweeds and Monarchs project will document and map via observations made by citizen scientists where, how much, and what species of milkweed exists in Texas and whether or not Monarch butterflies are using it.

Monarch on Tropical Milkweed

Monarchs love Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, but the plant is somewhat controversial since it is technically a nonnative yet widely available. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Since milkweed–that is, any plant in the Asclepias family–is the only host plant on which Monarch butterflies will lay eggs, its presence or absence in our landscape is critical to the migrating butterflies.  Increased use of herbicide tolerant crops and general habitat loss have spelled decline for the once pervasive wildflower.

Mark Klym, Information Specialist in Wildlife Diversity for TPWD, said the project came to fruition because education and outreach folks at the department received “multiple questions per week … about what was happening to the Monarch population, why Texas Parks and Wildlife Department was not treating them as a priority.”  California-based iNaturalist.org ” is quickly becoming the go-to platform for citizen science around the world,” he said.

TPWD began working with iNaturalist about two years ago with a herpetology  tracking project, Herps of Texas,  which now boasts 11,000 observations by more than 500 citizen scientists who’ve documented 95% of the species in Texas, said Cullen Hanks, Texas Nature Tracker Biologist for the department.  Hanks, who manages the relationship with iNaturalist, said the platform was chosen because it had a lot of the functionality needed to track and harvest “taxa data,” which is information about classifying species via their taxonomy.  (NOTE:  If you’re wondering, herpetology is the study of amphibians and reptiles.)

TPWD already has the herps project, and also a Mammals of Texas, Birds of Texas and now their first plant-tracking project, the Milkweed and Monarchs project.  Check out all the Texas iNaturalist projects.

“Sounds like a neat effort to identify key milkweed habitats in Texas,” said Monarch and milkweed scientist and PhD candidate Dara Satterfield, whose dissertation includes research on the relationship between Monarch health and Tropical milkweed, upon hearing about the partnership.  Satterfield cited milkweed mapping as a long-term goal of the conservation plan being developed by Monarch Joint Venture.

To participate, volunteers can download the app on their phone or computer. After creating a login, choose the Texas Milkweeds and Monarch project, and start contributing observations in the form of text, photos, video–even audio clips.

The process works a bit like the Journey North program which invites volunteers to contribute observations of Monarch eggs, larvae, butterflies and roosts, geolocates the observation, and maps them in real-time resulting in a constantly updated map/picture of Monarchs in all their stages.

Texas Parks and Wildlife hopes to map milkweed throughout the Lone Star State via the iNaturalist app.

Texas Parks and Wildlife hopes to map milkweed throughout the Lone Star State via the iNaturalist app.

Contributors will be asked four brief questions about their observations, but don’t need to know specifics of the 40+ milkweed species found in Texas.  They can simply type “milkweed” and ask for assistance in identifying the plant, states the news release.

Ready to sign up?  You can do so here.

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Q & A: Grad Student Dara Satterfield on Tropical Milkweed and Monarch Butterflies

Graduate student Dara Satterfield caused quite a flutter recently when she was featured in the New York Times as the co-author of a study looking at how Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, may be effecting the health of Monarch butterflies and their Pan-American migration.  Her dissertation focuses on the relationship between migration and infectious disease in wildlife, with Monarch butterflies as her species focus.

Dara Satterfield

Dara Satterfield, PhD candidate at the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia.. Photo by Monika Maeckle

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

Satterfield, a PhD candidate at the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia, and other scientists speculate that Tropical milkweed, the most widely available but technically nonnative milkweed and favorite host plant of the Monarch butterfly, may be damaging the Monarchs’ abilities to stay healthy, on track and make their way to Mexico.

“She and her graduate adviser, Sonia Altizer, a disease ecologist at Georgia, fear that well-meaning efforts by butterfly lovers may be contributing to the monarch’s plight,” said the article.

I caught up with Satterfield recently to ask questions that have arisen since the article posted on November 17.   She expressed concern that the NY Times article might have confused some readers–and no doubt the issue is confusing and complex.   Hopefully the Q & A below will clarify matters a bit.

Q: I’ve talked to several scientists that insist that Tropical milkweed is the plant on which Monarchs evolved. Do you agree with that?

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PhD candidate Dara Satterfield doing field work on Tropical milkweed and the Monarch butterfly migration. Photo courtesy Dara Satterfield

A:  Good question. From what I understand, the historically held view was that Monarchs evolved from a tropical ancestor from Central or South America, and so some scientists have said they must have used Tropical milkweed and other exotic milkweed species early in their speciation.

New evidence suggests a different story. The recent Nature paper examining Monarch genetics revealed that, actually, Monarchs appear to have originated in North America (and would have evolved on native North American milkweed species) and the other Monarch populations in Central America, South America, the Pacific, etc. (some of which would use Tropical milkweed) came from the North American population.

Q. You have said that Monarchs are much more likely to be sick in places where Tropical milkweed grows year-round–but is it really Tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) that is the problem? If Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) or Swamp milkweed (Asclepias Incarnata) also survived a winter and were available, would the same tendency apply?

A. You are correct, I think. The same disease problem would probably occur with any milkweed species that grew year-round in warm areas and was attractive to Monarchs. It just happens that Tropical milkweed is the species that does stick around. We don’t think Tropical milkweed itself is bad; it’s the year-round growth that is harmful because it promotes disease.  Also, I’d just like to add that we would not even understand this problem without the help of dedicated volunteers and citizen scientists who share observations and collect data. Much of what we know about Monarch ecology can be attributed to the help of citizen scientists.

NOTE from Texas Butterfly Ranch:   Thus, best practice suggests slashing all milkweeds to the ground in late fall if they do not die back from freeze.  This prevents OE spores from building up and spreading disease.

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Satterfield in the lab, checking for OE spores. Larvae can acquire OE infections by eating parasite spores on milkweed leaves, left there by an infected butterfly (often, the larva’s mom). Courtesy photo

3. What is the purpose of a migration? If everything an insect needs to complete the life cycle is available locally, what interest is there for the insect to migrate?

For most migratory species, the purpose of migration is to track seasonal changes in climate or resources needed for survival and reproduction. Without human interference, migration as a strategy can often support large numbers of animals, because migratory animals may take advantage of the best resources–in different parts of the world at different times of the year (e.g., red knots that travel from the North Pole to the South Pole to experience summer in both hemispheres).

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Monarch caterpillar on Tropical milkweed. The larvae can pick up OE spores through contact with other creatures or from plants on which the spores rest. Courtesy photo.

But some migratory populations including birds, bats, fish, and hoofed animals are altering their migrations–shortening or halting their journeys–in response to human activities like barriers in their migratory pathways (e.g., dams), changes in climate, and human-provided foods. Examples of this abound (No Way Home, by David Wilcove). Of course some of these newly non-migratory animal populations will be just fine and learn to adapt to new circumstances, but others will not.

Consequences will include changes in infectious diseases, loss of ecosystem services associated with migration (e.g., nutrient transfer between ecosystems by salmon, control of insect populations by birds), and in some cases, species extinction.

For Monarchs specifically, their migration allows them to have a large population capacity. If Monarchs solely engaged in winter-breeding, rather than overwintering in Mexico, this strategy could likely only support a much smaller population. So we try to conserve the abundance of migration.

Of course, individual animals operate on an individual basis and do not make choices based on what is best for the population at large, so individual animals will often take advantage of resources that are available to them–for example, why go to Mexico when I have everything I need here?

The problem with that, in this case of year-round milkweed and year-round Monarch breeding, is extremely high levels of protozoan disease as well as risks of winter starvation (running out of Tropical milkweed) and freeze events that kill caterpillars. The concern is also that migratory Monarchs (or their offspring) might be exposed to parasite-contaminated milkweed in the spring.

All of that said, Dr. Chip Taylor is correct that the link between year-round milkweed and disease is by no means the largest threat to Monarchs. However, given what we now know about this problem, we have the opportunity to reduce disease in Monarchs by keeping milkweed seasonal rather than available all year.

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

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

OE Spores with Monarch Butterfly Scales

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

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

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

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

Monarch on Tropical Milkweed at CPS Energy Pollinator garden

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

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

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

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

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

Edith Smith

Edith Smith, Shady Oak Butterfly Farm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dara Satterfield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Migration Update: It Takes a Village to Feed Hungry Monarch Butterfly Caterpillars

It takes a village to keep the Monarch butterfly migration going.

Last week I discovered dozens of Monarch butterfly eggs at the ranch when a cold front pushed a vanguard pulse of migrants down to the Texas funnel.   The early moving butterflies broke their reproductive diapause to lay hundreds of eggs.  I collected more than 70 from Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, along the banks of the Llano River and dozens more from our downtown San Antonio garden.

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Special delivery of milkweed by Tracy Idell Hamilton with an assist from Teresa Elliott. Photo by Teresa Elliott.

That’s the good news.

The problem:  where would we get enough “clean” milkweed this late in the season to feed the hungry critters, who eat more than 2,000 times their birth weight in milkweed leaves?  NOTE:  “clean” milkweed is plant material that has never been sprayed with systemic pesticides, which routinely kill the caterpillars.

I’ve written before about the scarcity of chemical free milkweed, especially this time of year.  In fact, we are exploring the idea of becoming a native, chemical free milkweed supplier.   Please take our poll and let us know if you would support such an endeavor.

Hungry Monarch caterpillar

What’s for dinner? Hungry Monarch caterpillar got a special delivery of Austin milkweed just in time to morph to the next stage. Photo by Monika Maeckle

San Antonio nurseries all told similar stories: “Sorry, we’re out,” or “Yes, we have some, but can’t guaranteed that it’s never been sprayed.”

One nursery had milkweed, but couldn’t guarantee it had not been sprayed by the grower with systemic pesticides, which can linger in the leaves for months.   And we all know how that turns out–just read one of our most read posts of all time, Desperately Seeking Milkweed, details the sorry stories of two friends who served pesticide laced milkweed to their hungry cats.

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

Dead Monarch caterpillars fall victim to pesticide laced milkweed.  No thank you!  Photo by Sharon Sander.

What to do?

Turn to the community, of course. In the case of Monarchs, that’s a broad collection of friends, family and acquaintances near and far. One of our favorite Austin nurseries, The Great Outdoors, almost always has a supply of chemical free milkweed on hand. A quick call to the native plant destination confirmed they had about a dozen large pots of clean, Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, left over from a spring shipment.  The plants could provide the massive foraging and feasting buffet required to take our dozens of ravenous crawlers to the butterfly stage of their life cycle.

But drive 150 miles roundtrip to Austin from San Antonio on the clogged IH-35 on a busy Saturday to collect plants? Sigh.  NOT very appealing.

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Good thing my dear friend Teresa Elliott lives a few blocks from Great Outdoors and volunteered to pick up a few plants for me at $15.95 a pop.  (Yeah, kind of expensive–but worth it.)  Teresa wouldn’t even let me reimburse her. “I’m doing it for the cause,” she said.

Meanwhile, another good friend and Monarch tagging pal, Tracy Idell Hamilton, agreed to pick up the bushy bloomers since she was already in Austin attending the Texas Tribune Festival. Teresa’s house happened to be just a few blocks away from where Tracy was staying.

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Such collaboration is commonplace in the sphere of the Monarch butterfly migration, where volunteers, citizen scientists, professional academics and entomologists routinely share data, tricks of the trade, and information to keep the migration going.  It’s the nature of the passion.

Upon arriving home from a day of errands last Saturday, three “ginormous” milkweed plants waited at my door.   The plants were mature, relatively aphid-free, and ready to be attacked by my hungry cats.

Hungry caterpillars

More, please! These hungry caterpillars outgrew their container and were ready for a bushy milkweed buffet. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The gang had been chomping happily on milkweed from my downtown garden, but even if we used every plant in the yard, it wouldn’t be enough to sustain them.   For the first few days, my mom, Hilde Maeckle, would help me daily clean out the caterpillars temporary plastic container home of frass, or caterpillar poop, which can be monumental. We would wipe down the container, lay out fresh leaves for them, and leave them to munch.

But now they were getting too big and too crowded, so it was time to transfer them to the plants–which arrived just in time.

Tropical milkweed

Thanks, ladies! “Ginormous” Tropical milkweed delivered to my door from Austin. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The caterpillars are now munching happily on these milkweeds, growing before our eyes.  In a day or so we’ll transfer the plants with the caterpillars to a large netted cage, or “caterpillar condo” to keep them from wandering off.  Eventually, each caterpillar will seek a quiet place, form an upside down “J” shape, then morph into a beautiful jade green chrysalis to hatch sometime during the second week in October, just as peak migration hits San Antonio.  We look forward tagging and sending them on their way.

Queen and Monarch Chrysalises

Monarch chrysalises coming soon. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Thanks to all the friends, family, professional and citizen scientists near and far who  work hard to sustain the seasonal miracle of the Monarch butterfly migration.

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Migration Update: Monarch Butterfly EGGstravaganza on the Llano River

We’re hearing positive reports from further north about the Monarch butterfly migration. Masses of Monarchs look to be in the Midwest right now, according to dispatches from the DPLEX list, the Monarch butterfly listserv that reaches hundreds of butterfly enthusiasts, citizen scientists, academics and others.

Monarch on Swamp milkweed

Monarch butterfly on Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, in downtown San Antonio September 15. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“It was obvious that the crest of the migration was passing through Omaha today,” Dr. Ted Burke, an entomologist and behavioral biologist at Creighton University wrote on Sunday. Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, clarified that the ”crest” is actually the “leading edge” of the migration which should be followed by the peak six – eight days later.

“The numbers observed were incredible….At one prairie I counted 79…At the other prairie, I counted 150!” Burke wrote, adding that last year the numbers at the same locations were eight and twelve, respectively.

Monarch butterfly eggs

Musta been a wild weekend on the Llano River in the Texas Hill Country: 77 eggs gathered from Swamp milkweed. Photo by Monika Maeckle

About 850 miles south of Omaha, a dramatic cold front that began in Canada pushed 20-mile winds out of the north and dropped temperatures from the 90s to the 50s. The front blew some early migrants into the “Texas Funnel” along the Llano River this weekend. Judging from the dozens of eggs observed and collected on Sunday, it must have been a wild Saturday night in the Texas Hill Country.

Early migrants broke their reproductive diapause to drop their small yellow pearls on the undersides of Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, leaves.   In my eight years of tagging and monitoring, I have never seen so many eggs.   I stopped gathering after 77, wondering where I would find enough milkweed to feed the resulting hungry caterpillars.  Note to my San Antonio area friends:  you’ll be hearing from me regarding milkweed loans.

Monarch chrysalis on milkweed

Another first: perfect chrysalis found on Swamp milkweed on the Llano. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Another first: I found a fully formed Monarch chrysalis dangling from milkweed leaves over the river.

Two caterpillars and about half a dozen adult Monarchs also made an appearance, presenting the entire life cycle in a two-hour kayaking tour. With tags in the boat, I only took one swing with my net all afternoon.  I missed.  She was probably an egg-laying female anyway, so unlikely to migrate. See our recent story on the premigration migration.

Our friend Veronica Prida reported a FOS (First of Season) migrant Monarch in her front yard in Alamo Heights on Saturday.   The faded female nectared on dramatic Pride of Barbados while Veronica snapped photos.  Upon returning Monday, we also had a female laying eggs in our downtown garden on Swamp milked transplanted from the Llano.

Monarch on Pride of Barbados

This faded female showed up in San Antonio on Saturday, September 13 to nectar on Pride of Barbados. Photo by Veronica Prida

All this bodes well for the migration. The 77 harvested eggs will take about one month to become butterflies, hatching just in time for peak migration in our latitude, October 10 – 22. They’ll be tagged, released and join the migration.  We promise to fatten them up with ample nectar from our gardens, sending them on to Michoacán with massive healthy fat deposits to see them through the winter.

Ideal conditions prevail here with Goldenrod, Frostweed, Swamp Milkweed and other fall flowers still in bloom, and almost tropical weather in place.  Meteorologists predict a “mild El Nińo” pattern this fall, translating to more rain.  How sweetly ironic and preferable to last year’s dreary reports of drought and decline.

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Resilience Required: Climate Change Turns up the Heat in the Butterfly Garden

Brace yourselves, butterfly gardeners: climate change is turning up the heat in the butterfly garden.

Not only do higher temperatures rule, but resilience and adaptability will be required for successful pollinator gardens in the coming years.

Butterfly Garden, Travis Heights, Austin, TX 78704, Summer 2011

An open mind and willingness to adapt will be keys to sustaining your butterfly garden in the wake of climate change.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

Surely you’ve noticed: Wacky weather, erratic extremes, traditional first and last frost dates that are routinely inaccurate.   As James Barilla wrote in the New York Times last week, “This past winter was a tough one in our backyard…. One week I’m sweating, the bees are buzzing, buds are breaking; the next, the birdbath is frozen and there’s snow on the ground.”

The crazy vacillations in daily temperatures make the usual gardening choices and chores more challenging. When it’s freezing one day, brazen sun and high temps the next, what’s a butterfly gardener to do? And if you’re feeling confused, imagine how birds, bees and butterflies are coping—not to mention the plants that sustain them.

From 80 degrees to 27 in 48 hours.  March 2 and 3, 2014.

From 80 degrees to 27 in 48 hours. March 2 and 3, 2014.

I suggest we all keep an open mind. Adaptability is key. For example, let’s not be doctrinaire about native plants.   Of course natives are preferred, but with changing range expansions and longer growing seasons, what does native really mean?

According to the National Arboretum, a native plant is one that was present at the time Europeans arrived in North America–that is, around  Columbus’s arrival in 1492.  I prefer the definition of the The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s Mr. Smarty Plants, who defines natives like this:

“It is actually pretty simple…to define a native plant as … a plant that occurs naturally in the place where it evolved.”

That makes sense.   But I also agree with Mr. Barilla’s pragmatic approach to the garden.  “It doesn’t makes sense to think in terms of native and nonnative when the local weather vacillates so abruptly.   A resilient garden is a diverse garden.”

Amen.

Monarch on milkweed

Monarch butterflies LOVE Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica  Photo by Monika Maeckle

My views on Tropical milkweed, Monarch butterflies favorite host plant, native to Mexico, are well-known. Some scientists will claim that the easy-to-grow orange bloomer encourages disease and its adoption will wipe out native milkweeds. I disagree. Besides, that train has left the station since Tropical Milkweed is the only Asclepias species widely available commercially.

No one says we have to choose between Tropical and native milkweeds.   Do both. While you’re struggling to get those natives established, Tropical milkweed can hold down the fort since it consistently delivers. Not only is it a reliable host plant for Monarch butterflies, but all butterflies flock to its bright blossoms for nectar.   And many scientists believe that it’s the plant on which Monarch butterflies evolved.

With my stretch of the world considered part of planting Zone 9A as of January 2012  (the same zone as coastal cities Corpus Christi and Houston) we’re not that far from “tropical,” anyway. This year, however, much of my Asclepias curassavica froze beyond recovery in the harsh winter and didn’t come back. Good thing it’s easy to propagate from seed and I have a private stash. I have replanted.

Chino Checkerspot

The endangered Chino Checkerspot moved to higher altitudes and changed its host plant of its own volition. Courtesy photo

Perhaps we should look to the butterflies themselves for inspiration.   One endangered species, the Quino Checkerspot, Euphydryas editha quino, found in Mexico and southern California, shifted to higher altitudes and switched its host plant to an entirely different species of its own volition.  Scientists were expecting the species to become extinct, but somehow it quickly adapted, according to research presented at the Butterfly Conservation’s seventh international symposium in April.

Meanwhile, we learned recently that professional and amateur butterfly breeders have also had luck feeding Monarch butterfly caterpillars pumpkin, butternut squash, even cucumbers in their fifth and final instar.  This news came at a good time this spring when a brutal winter and late spring made milkweeds unavailable, just as Monarchs began their migration.  While I received at least one email from a scientist chastising me for celebrating this news, taking it as a challenge to native milkweeds, my feeling is we should celebrate the fact that Monarchs appear to be more adaptable than we thought.

Monarch caterpillars on pumping and squash

Monarch butterfly caterpillars will eat pumpkin, squash, even cucumbers in the fifth instar or final stage. Photo courtesy Ellen Reid

Unpredictable weather will likely be the new normal for some time. As the third National Climate Assessment report suggests, Texas will continue to face severe shortages of ground and surface water. Floods caused by extreme rain events will interrupt the ongoing drought. Tornadoes, thunderstorms, hurricanes, and winter storms will occur with increasing frequency. Oh, and the wildfires will continue.

Science tells us this is a period of rapid climate change like no other. The plants, insects and gardeners that can adapt, will survive, and with luck, thrive.

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Milkweed Shortage Sparks “Alternative Fuels” for Hungry Monarch Caterpillars

Monarch butterflies have made their way to Texas, but unfortunately not much milkweed greets them upon arrival.  A harsh, dry winter preceded by drought and schizophrenic weather have left the sought-after perennial a no-show in many Texas gardens–and on roadsides and ranch land.

Milkweeds, that is, any Asclepias species, are the host plants to Monarch butterflies and the only plant on which they will lay eggs to continue their life cycle.

PUmpkin fed Monarch

The Monarch butterfly on the left was fed with pumpkin during its final instar. Photo by Ellen Reid

Reliable DPLEX correspondent Harlen Aschen wrote to the listserv that reaches hundreds of butterfly fans that on a 1000-mile trip from Port Lavaca, Texas, past San Antonio to near Abilene and back around Austin “we saw no blooming milkweed.”

Not good.

Yet that hasn’t stopped a tenacious group of butterfly lovers from raising caterpillars and hatching butterflies on “alternative fuels.”

Professional butterfly breeders have been experimenting for years to keep their livestock well nourished when host plants become scarce.    Many of us who raise butterflies at home, especially in a year like this, also seek alternatives, since local nurseries seem to be having a hard time getting milkweed and keeping it in stock.   The recent news that the Monarch butterfly migration may soon become extinct because of a loss of milkweed habitat is driving the demand.

So what’s a hungry caterpillar to do?

Hungry caterpillars on milkweed seedlings

My boys are hungry! Six Monarch caterpillars have pretty much decimated this pot of milkweed seedlings planted in February. Good thing I have another one. Photo by Monika Maeckle

It’s a quandary.   At my house, I planted Tropical milkweed seeds in February and have several pots growing, including two filled with seedlings only two inches tall.  This will sate my caterpillars for a few days, at most.

I’m hoping that by the time the hungry cats finish up the tender seedlings, my garden milkweeds will have taken off.  Or perhaps local nurseries will get more milkweed in stock.

Over on the DPLEX list, butterfly buffs–and the Monarch caterpillars–are getting resourceful.  Several folks mentioned that by the time the caterpillars get to their fifth instar, or their final stage, before morphing into a chrysalis, they will eat pumpkin and cucumbers.

That’s right, folks.   See it with your own eyes.

Monarch caterpillars eating pumpkin

No milkweed? No problem. In the fifth instar, Monarch caterpillars will eat a variety of pumpkins. Photo courtesy Ellen Reid

“The butterfly on the left was fed with pumpkin during its final instar.  The one on the right was reared on milkweed,” Ellen Reid wrote via email all the way from St. Arnaud, Victoria, Australia.  “We couldn’t distinguish between them in any way.”

Reid shared a photo of “pumpkin frass”–orange colored butterfly poop which is produced in volumes in the final stages of the caterpillars metamorphosis.   Usually the frass is dark green or even brown, but “pumpkin frass” looks like the food that fueled it.

Paul Addington tried feeding his Monarch caterpillars cucumbers.  It worked.

Monarchs eating cucumbers

Monarch caterpillars in the fifth instar will eat cucumbers. But they have to be FRESH cucumbers! Photo courtesy Paul Addington

“These cats are eating the skin of the cucumber,” relayed Addington. “These were organic, but still felt like they were waxy, so [they were] heavily scrubbed first.”

Addington said the caterpillars indeed preferred milkweed when given a choice.  “All 52 of mine finished on cucumber, looked great and joined the wild,” he said, adding     “UPDATE: must be fresh, crunchy cucumbers.…two-weeks-in-the-fridge cukes were rejected with enthusiasm….what an uproar!”

Pumpkin frass

The frass, or butterfly poop, of pumpkin fed Monarch caterpillars reflects the food’s orange tint. Photo courtesy Ellen Reid

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, chimed in to the conversation, letting folks know that the alternatives have been known for a while.   “These alternatives have been utilized by many people in the past. They only seem to work for fifth instar larvae that are less than four days from pupating. Many of the larvae will not make these transitions successfully.”

So Monarch butterfly caterpillars appear to be more adaptable than we thought.

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Plant Milkweed, Sign our Petition, Help Save the Monarch Butterfly Migration

Crazy, erratic weather arrived in Texas–again–this week, bringing freezing temperatures to much of the state.   Last Saturday temperatures rose to the 80s;  by noon on Sunday it was 27 degrees.   Surely plants and insects must be grossly confused and butterfly gardeners like me start thinking: what should we plant in our gardens?

Michelle Obama, please plant milkweed at the White House

Since Monarch butterflies are about to leave their overwintering roosts in Michoacán and head our way, it’s impossible to not consider milkweed, the only plant on which Monarch butterflies will lay their eggs.    A cold winter in San Antonio that included four “polar vortexes” has frozen all our milkweed to the ground, leaving little or nothing for the  migrating insects to host on if they show up in the next few weeks.   Even sturdy Asclepias asperula, Antelope Horns, which we usually see at the ranch by now haven’t shown their nubby heads.

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, told us via email this week that looking ahead, average temperatures are likely to prevail for the next 40 days, according to Accu-weather.   “That’s a more favorable forecast than the one from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association,” he wrote.   In his seasonal blogpost assessing the beginning of the 2014 Monarch migration, Dr. Taylor had speculated that temperatures would be higher than normal in Texas for March and April.   “Which wouldn’t be good,” he said.

Why?

It seems counterintuitive, but it creates a bad situation when early spring is warmer than usual because the Monarchs disperse further north faster.  That can cause them to get ahead of the milkweed plants they need to lay their eggs and provide food for hatching caterpillars.   When they travel further north too early, they arrive in locations where milkweed has neither germinated nor produced leaves for them to eat.  On top of that, subsequent cold spells  are more likely to occur as they move further north–and this can kill eggs and caterpillars they leave behind in the erratic weather.

Aslcepias curassavica, Tropical milkweed

Asclepias curassavica, Tropical milkweed seeds, were planted in February and are just showing their delicate leaves. Photo by Monika Maeckle

While the weather continues its uncertain patterns one thing is for sure:  we should all be planting milkweed.

I dropped some Asclepias curassavica, Tropical Milkweed, and Asclepias incarnata, Swamp milkweed, into several black buckets in early February and the sprouts are poking their dainty heads above the soil mix right now.  In about two weeks, I’ll re-pot those seedlings into two-inch square containers for later transplanting in the garden and sharing with friends.

You should all do the same.   If not with Tropical Milkweed, the most widely available, easy-to-grow variety, then with your local natives collected from the wild or bought at native nurseries and seed suppliers.  Check out the Texas Butterfly Ranch Milkweed Guide for details.

Asclepias incarnata, Swamp milkweed

Monarch on Swamp Milkweed on the Llano River, PHoto by Monika Maeckle

Native plant purists sometimes contest the planting of Tropical milkweed outside of its natural range, which would limit it to parts of Mexico.  They suggest that it might cause disease or encourage migrating Monarchs to break their diapause and stick around locally.   I don’t buy that argument, especially when Monarchs are in such great need of milkweed and Tropical milkweed is the only one widely available commercially.   To me, that’s like saying you’re not going to feed a starving child anything but locavore, organic produce.  Given the circumstances, we can’t afford to be so choosy.   Read more about the Tropical milkweed quandary in this post.

However, for those who live in warm climates where Tropical milkweed might survive a mild winter, best practices suggest we should chop it to the ground at the end of the fall so  any undesireable spores that may carry disease won’t have the chance to fester on its stalks and be passed along to the next generation.  This year’s ample freezes took care of that for 2014.

While you’re waiting for those milkweed sprouts to take root, please sign our petition encouraging First Lady Michelle Obama to plant milkweed at the White House garden.   The First Lady has been lauded for planting an organic vegetable garden at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and for encouraging Americans to get out and get active through her Let’s Move initiative.   We feel that planting milkweed–Asclepias syriaca, Common milkweed, perhaps–in between the rows of broccoli and tomatoes at the White House would be an apt expression of her priorities, while also helping to raise awareness of the dramatic decline of the Monarch migration.

If you agree, please join us by signing our petition.

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NAFTA Presidents, Monsanto Say They Want to Help Save the Monarch Butterfly Migration

Thanks to the three leaders of North America I won a $5 bet with my son Alex Rivard last week.

Alex didn’t think the Presidents of the United States and Mexico, Barack Obama and  Enrique Peńa Nieto, nor Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada, would discuss the preservation of the Monarch butterfly migration when they met in Toluca, Mexico, last Wednesday, only 75 miles from the Monarch butterfly ancestral roosting sites.

President BArack Obama

Thanks, Obama! Our President met with the leaders of Canada and Mexico just 75 miles from the Monarch butterfly roosting sites. They committed to trying to save the Monarch butterfly migration. Courtesy photo

“It’s not a big deal to them,” he argued two days before the meeting.

Wanna bet?   I asked.  He did and I won.

And so did the Monarch butterfly migration and those of us who agitate on its behalf.

At the end of a long day of weighty negotiations that touched on immigration, border security, job creation and energy issues, “los tres amigos” determined that the miraculous migration of the iconic insect that knits our countries together is something worth salvaging.

“We have also agreed to work on the preservation of the Monarch butterfly as an emblematic species of North America which unites our three countries,”  President Enrique Peńa Nieto said at the end of the summit.   The leaders agreed to form a task force to study the situation and “ensure the conservation of the Monarch butterfly.”

Now that the Monarch butterfly migration registers on the radar of all three leaders of North America, the creature’s Pan-American journey creates an unprecedented opportunity to raise awareness and captivate attention for pollinator decline.  This focus has galvanized folks across North America.

Monarch butterfly at the San Antonio River Milkweed Patch

Monarch numbers plunged to historic lows this year, prompting predictions that its magnificent migration may soon become extinct.  Monarch butterfly on milkweed, its host plant. Photo by Monika Maeckle

On February 24, the National Resources Defense Council submitted a petition to the Environmental Protection Agency to review the use of glyphosates, the widely used broad spectrum herbicide often sold by Monsanto (see below) as  Round-Up.

“As monarch butterflies plummet, it’s time to rethink the widespread use of our nation’s top weedkiller,” read the headline on the NRDC’s Switchboard blog, trumpeting a post that detailed how glyphosate use has  “skyrocketed tenfold to 182 million pounds annually.  As a result, milkweed–which is the sole food source for monarch butterfly larvae–has all but been eliminated from farm fields across the Midwest.” According to the article, glyphosates were approved in 1993 before the advent of genetically modified crops that are tolerant of its use.  You can read the petition here.

Common milkweed

Will the Whitehouse add some common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, to the Whitehouse Garden? Photo via wikipedia

As noted here last week, ever since the news broke last month that 2013 numbers for the migrating Monarch butterfly population plunged to historic lows and scientists suggested that the migration may soon become extinct, Monarch and pollinator advocates have been energized, seeking solutions to the decline.   Planting more milkweed and resisting genetically modified crops and pesticide use are all good prescriptions, but the political approach exemplified by the Milkweed-Butterfly Recovery Alliance, an ad hoc group formed by Mexico-based  Grupo de los Cien Internacional  and Make Way for Monarchs contributed to the positive outcome of our leadership embracing the notion that the migration is worth saving.   Others seem to be following suit.

Over on Facebook, almost 600 people have “liked” a page created on February 21st called Mr. President – Save the Monarch – Please plant milkweed at the Whitehouse.”  I encourage you to do the same.   Can’t wait for Michelle, Malia and Sasha to add some Asclepias syriaca–common milkweed, the Monarch butterfly host plant–to the Whitehouse vegetable garden.

Whitehouse vegetable garden

All that’s missing? Plant some milkweed and we’re good to go. Photo via sheknowshouseandgarden.com

Even the folks at Monsanto Corporation, the NYSE-listed multinational chemical and biotech powerhouse often vilified as an evil empire, addressed the decline of the Monarch butterfly migration and pledged to look into it.

A February 24 post on the Monsanto “Beyond the Rows” blog generically labeled “The Monarch Butterfly” states:

“As research continues, the pressing question for all of us is: what can we do to help? We’re talking with scientists about what might be done to help the monarchs  rebound.  And we’re eager to join efforts to help rebuild monarch habitat along the migration path by joining with conservationists, agronomists, weed scientists, crop associations and farmers to look at ways to increase milkweed populations on the agricultural landscape.”

Interestingly, of the 696 posts published on the Monsanto blog since 2008, this is the first time the issue of the Monarch butterfly migration has been addressed.

This is progress, people. Monsanto, we look forward to good deeds following your words.  Los tres amigos, gracias for the exposure and galvanizing the continent on behalf of pollinators.  Alex, time to pay up that $5 bet.  Let’s keep it going.

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