Texas Comptroller’s office provides update on Monarch butterfly research, ESA status

About 35 people attended the second Monarch Butterfly Task Force working group meeting in Austin on Thursday, December 17, to hear updates from the Texas State Comptroller’s office on the status of research and assessing whether or not to recommend the Monarch butterfly be listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.

Late season UTSA Monarch

UTSA is growing A LOT of milkweed. Here, late season Monarch, 12/8/2015 at the UTSA greenhouse. Photo courtesy UTSA.

In Texas, the Comptroller’s office oversees the Interagency Task Force on Economic Growth and Endangered Species. It’s charge: assist landowners, industries and local communities in working with endangered species issues and assessing their economic impact on the state.  Annual $5 million appropriations approved by the Texas Legislature fund the effort, lead by Dr. Robert Gulley of San Antonio.

Since the Monarch butterfly was submitted for consideration as a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act in August of 2014, research surrounding the ramifications of such a listing falls under the Task Force’s jurisdiction.

Dr. Gulley warmly welcomed the crowd with the prediction:  “I think we’re in for a very interesting meeting.”

And it was.  Dr. Janis Bush of the University of Texas at San Antonio kicked off the 9 AM session with updates on the $300K research grant awarded her in June to inventory milkweed, the Monarch butterfly host plant, in the state of Texas.

UTSA's Dr. Janis Bush is leading the $300K research grant. Courtesy photo

UTSA’s Dr. Janis Bush is leading the research. Courtesy photo

The Lone Star State has been deemed critically important to the health of the Monarch butterfly migration since the butterflies must pass through the “Texas funnel” coming and going on their epic migration to and from their roosting grounds in MIchoacán in the spring and fall.  Monarchs often lay the first generation of eggs in the multigeneration migration here; in autumn, they use Texas as a major nectar stop for fueling their long journey.

About 24 UTSA research associates, students and volunteers have already completed two milkweed surveys under Dr. Bush’s direction–one in July and another in October-November.   The study’s east-west transect stretches from PIneland to Ozona and the north-south from Wichita Falls to Alice.  Field crews stopped every 10 miles to survey the roadside for milkweed over several days. The research hopes to replicate the first such survey done by Dr. William Calvertt in 1996.

“This is just a snapshot in time” Bush said more than once.  She also mentioned that the “pattern between precipitation and milkweed is not clear….If you increase the amount of moisture in Austin, you don’t increase the number of hectares [of roosting Monarch butterflies} in Mexico.”

The UTSA team is also growing a lot of milkweed at a newly constructed UTSA greenhouse, said Bush–six native species as well as the controversial Monarch butterfly favorite, Asclepias curassavica, commonly known as Tropical milkweed.   The team aims to better understand what species Monarch butterflies prefer, seed viability and germination rates, soil, light and nutrient requirements, and drought tolerance.

Bush said she was surprised to learn that rats eat milkweed, something that butterfly breeders and Monarch butterfly enthusiasts have noticed for years.  Two different kinds of rats–a native cotton rat and nonnative Norwegian rat–made unwelcome visits to UTSA’s newly constructed milkweed greenhouse and decimated the plants.  “We don’t know if they got sick,” said Bush, alluding to the bitter-tasting cardiac glycosides found in milkweed that make Monarch butterflies unsavory to predators, “but they seem to like it.”

The UTSA research will also take a look at fire ant impacts on Monarchs and land management best practices.   For example, what effect does mowing have on milkweed?  How does milkweed respond to burning?  Bush also shared with the group San Antonio’s recently named status as the first and only Monarch Champion city by the National Wildlife Federation.  Mayor Ivy Taylor signed the NWF’s Mayor’s Monarch Pledge last week, making San Antonio the first city to adopt all 24 NWF recommended actions that aim to preserve and increase pollinator habitat.

“I’ve never seen the excitement for a species that I’ve seen with the Monarch,” said biologist Russell Castro of the USDA National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), following  Dr. Bush.  Castro described the NRCS Monarch Butterfly Habitat Development Project, which works with private landowners to increase pollinator habitat in Texas.  Budgeted for $4 million nationwide in 2016, “not that much money for Texas when you get down to it,” said Castro, “Monarch butterflies are the best thing going for conservation on the ground.”

 

ESA process

The process for getting a species listed is convoluted and takes years. Graphic via USFWS

Then Katie Latta, USFWS Monarch Outreach Specialist, took the podium to offer a quick update on the status of the Monarch’s endangered species status listing.

At the moment, we are in the status review phase, which means USFWS is reviewing information and research to determine whether or not the listing of the Monarch as “threatened” is warranted. At some time in 2017 or 2018, USFWS will rule whether the listing is warranted or not.  Lawsuits could delay the process further, or make the listing happen more quickly,  she said.

Finally, the session closed with Cary Dupuy of the Comptroller’s office explaining future funding opportunities and likely areas of research focus.

Sometime in early 2016, a Request for Proposal will be circulated and published in the Texas Register inviting public universities to apply for grants. (Gulley pointed out that the Comptroller’s office is not obliged to issue RFPs, but in the interest of transparency, is doing so.)  Subjects likely to be given serious consideration include best ways to eradicate red imported fire ants, as well as research on answering the intriguing question: “What’s going on with the fifth generation of Monarchs?” said Dupuy.

Got questions? Edith has the answers. In this case, this is one fertile female Monarch. Photo courtesy Edith Smith

Monarch butterfly laying eggs.   Apparently, lates season Monarchs ARE reproductive. Photo courtesy Edith Smith

For years scientists believed that Monarch butterflies migrating to Mexico late in the season were not reproductive.  Conventional wisdom said migrating Monarchs  suspended reproduction to conserve energy for the long flight to Mexico by assuming diapause, which is a state of suspended development of the reproductive organs.

Yet many of us have witnessed late season Monarchs engaging in reproduction as well  laying their eggs on any milkweeds they can find, often bearing fifth and sometimes sixth generation offspring well into November and sometimes December.

This information has been collected anecdotally and through various citizen science efforts, including the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project and Monarch Watch.  Dupuy suggested that scientific research would be helpful in determining the reality of the situation. Do the offspring of those late season Monarchs migrate, or do they become local residents?  With climate change and more milkweeds available later in the year, the question will become even more interesting.

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Monarch Champion status NOT “just talk,” will change how San Antonio manages land

Wednesday, December 9 was a banner day for Monarch butterflies and all pollinators in San Antonio, Texas. That’s when Mayor Ivy Taylor announced that the Alamo City has been named the first Monarch Champion in the country by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF).

Mayor Ivy Taylor's Monarch butterfly wing bling

San Antoino Mayor Ivy Taylor sported Monarch butterfly wing bling when she announced San Antonio’s Monarch Champion status and her signature on the Mayor’s Monarch Pledge December 9. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Standing before a group of pollinator enthusiasts at City Hall and wearing stylish Monarch butterfly wing earrings, Mayor Taylor shared the proclamation that commits our city to adopting all 24 recommended actions cited by the NWF in their nationwide initiative known as the Mayor’s Monarch Pledge.

“I am pleased that we have set the bar so high in our efforts to attract and care for one very important set of visitors, migrating Monarch butterflies,” said Mayor Taylor in a prepared statement.

That high bar means San Antonio can expect more citizen science projects, a pollinator garden at City Hall or another highly visible public space, more pollinator-friendly landscape ordinances and city mowing schedules, and my personal favorite–a butterfly festival.  Insecta Fiesta, anyone?

We’re talking changes in building codes, recommendations for landscaping by the City’s Sustainability Office and increased grassroots activities like city-sanctioned native plant sales and seed exchanges.

Doug Melnick, Chief Sustainability Officer for the City of San Antonio, said the Mayor’s Pledge is not “just talk.” It will bring about real change. “This will positively impact how we manage city-owned land,” he said.

Antelope horns

Antelope horns milkweed for San Antonio’s “inferno strips”?   GREAT IDEA!  Photo by Monika Maeckle

“I hope to see a citywide conversion of useless streetside inferno strips to Antelope horns milkweed,” said another city staffer who works for our award-winning water utility, SAWS.  The staff person referred to the overheated and challenging-to-landscape swatch of land found between a city sidewalk and the street.   SAWS has done much to raise awareness of native, pollinator-friendly plants through its GardenStyleSA website and WaterSaver coupons that offer rebates to those who replace water-guzzling  turf with native plants.

The timing couldn’t be better, said Melnick.  The City is currently developing three plans under the umbrella of SA Tomorrow: Comprehensive, Sustainability, and Strategic Multi-Modal plans. “We have a great opportunity to further the protection of Monarch butterfly habitats and enhance our biodiversity by incorporating these key strategies into our plans, which will provide a framework for growth through 2040,” he said.

Mayor Ivy Taylor reads a proclamation to butterfly conservationists led by Nationa Wildlife Federation Monarch Outreach Specialist Grace Barnett (center). Photo by Scott Ball.

Mayor Ivy Taylor reads the proclamation to butterfly conservationists led by National Wildlife Federation Monarch Outreach Specialist Grace Barnett (center). Photo by Scott Ball.

NWF officials were “stunned” by San Antonio’s commitment, said Grace Barnett, NWF Monarch outreach coordinator who works out of Austin for the Washington, D.C. conservation group. In fact, after Mayor Taylor signed the Pledge on Monday, Dec. 7, NWF had to arrange a quick conference call to come up with a new category of support: Monarch Champion. “No one expected a city to take on all of the potential actions associated with the Pledge,” said Barnett.

To date, 46 cities have signed up for the national campaign to encourage mayors and local governments to increase Monarch butterfly and pollinator habitat.

Seven cities including Austin, Dallas, and St. Louis signed the Pledge and agreed to adopt eight or more of the 24 items to join the “leadership circle” of Monarch Mayors. Another 38 cities agreed to do three of the items. Only San Antonio agreed to 24 of 24. See the full list.

Monarch migration map

Monarchs must pass through the “Texas funnel”  coming and going to Mexico.  Graphic by Nicolas Rivard

As those of you that read the Texas Butterfly Ranch well know, Monarch butterflies migrate each spring and fall over multiple generations, moving from Mexico to Canada and back before settling into their roosts for the winter in the mountainous forests west of Mexico City. At the beginning and end of their journey, they pass through the “Texas funnel,” making our part of the world especially strategic to their migration. San Antonio lies in the heart of that migratory path and often serves as the first stop on the migration north in the spring and as the last stop in the funnel south in the fall.

In recent years, the Monarch butterfly migration has declined dramatically–by 80% from the 21-year average across North America, according to the pollinator advocacy organization the Xerces Society.  Scientists attribute the decline to habitat loss, the increase in genetically modified crops in their primary breeding zone in the Midwest, increased pesticide use and climate change.

In August of 2014, several organizations submitted a petition to list the Monarch butterfly as a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act. The petition is under review. In May of 2015, President Obama announced a National Pollinator Strategy that addressed not only the decline of Monarch butterflies, but the demise of bees. The 58-page document also committed the federal government to restore seven million acres of pollinator habitat over the next five years, with a special focus on the IH-35 corridor.

All that focus on Monarchs and pollinators has made San Antonio’s long commitment to pollinator advocacy ripe for the Pledge.

Volunteers like Mary Kennedy, Kip Kiphart and Mobi Warren have worked tirelessly with the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project (MLMP), a citizen scientist initiative developed at the University of Minnesota.   Local MLMP volunteers have meticulously inventoried natural cycles of milkweeds (the Monarch host plant), eggs, caterpillars, chrysalises and butterflies at Cibolo Nature Center and the Museum Reach Milkweed Patch for years.

Citizen scientist volunteer Mobi Warren prepares to condusct reserach for MLMP at the San Antonio River Museum Reach Milkweed Patch. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Citizen scientist volunteer Mobi Warren prepares to condusct reserach for MLMP at the San Antonio River Museum Reach Milkweed Patch. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Just a short walk south of the Pearl on the San Antonio River, San Antonio’s Milkweed Patch serves an important inland urban monitoring site for overwintering Monarchs and has been the site of research conducted by some of the top Monarch scientists in the country, including Dr. Karen Oberhauser of the University of Minnesota and Dr. Sonia Altizer of the University of Georgia.

Some of us in the San Antonio area tag Monarch butterflies in the fall, as part of the Monarch Watch citizen science tagging program based out of the University of Kansas at Lawrence. Butterflies tagged in San Antonio and the Texas Hill Country have been recovered in the mountains of Michoacán, proving migratory patterns and providing data for scientists. (Personally I have tagged more than 2,000 butterflies, with 27 recoveries.) Programs and pollinator gardens have been established via Phil Hardberger Park, San Antonio Botanical Garden, Mitchell Lake Audubon Center, the Native Plant Society and elsewhere, as well as at community and private gardens all over town.

Tagged Monarch

Many of us tag Monarch butterflies as citizen scientists for Monarch Watch.  This one was raised and tagged in the Lavaca neighborhood  in downtown San Antonio. Photo by Monika Maeckle

That’s not to say we’re limited to citizen science in San Antonio. A recent $300K grant awarded UTSA by the State Comptroller’s Office to perform a statewide milkweed survey also contributed to our Monarch Champion status.  Combine that with our unique geographic location, special relationship with Mexico (the winter home to the mariposa monarca), the work of SAWS and San Antonio River Authority (SARA)  on the Museum and Mission Reach restorations with our passionate volunteers and grass roots efforts,   and San Antonio looks ideally suited to live up to the Mayor’s Monarch Pledge.

UTSA students milkweed survey

University of Texas at San Antonio students conduct research for a statewide milkweed survey. Photo courtesy UTSA

For a while, we wondered if it were going to happen.

NWF’s Grace Barnett, Dr. Terri Matiella of UTSA and I met with the Mayor’s office in October requesting that Mayor Taylor sign the Pledge. By doing so, she would have joined mayors in St. Louis, Austin, Grand Prairie, and six other cities along the IH-35 corridor that were among the vanguard to sign up. All we expected was participation–a commitment to three of the 24 items. The Mayor’s office was very receptive, but as is often the case when dealing with city government, nothing happened immediately.

Later we met with the City sustainability office. Joan Miller of the Native Plant Society of Texas joined us.  Again, very receptive. Yet….by early December, cities like Oklahoma City, Houston and Garrett, Texas, (population 800) had signed the Pledge while San Antonio continued to consider its options.

Butterfly advocates speculated as recently as the weekend before its signing that the Pledge was dead. Little did we know that what was taking so long was that the Mayor’s office was working with departments across the City to assure they could come through with all 24 items and make us the nation’s first Monarch Champion city.

In addition to the NWF reccomendations, Mayor Taylor said she is even considering a pollinator garden in her Dignowity Hill front yard as well as at the historic Dignowity Park, which her home fronts.  Whenever you’re ready, Mayor, let us know. Our pollinator posse will bring shovels, spades, native milkweeds and nectar plants to help make it happen.

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Guidance on milkweed management confuses butterfly gardeners

Confusion reigns for gardeners and Monarch butterfly enthusiasts trying to “do the right thing” managing their late season milkweed, the host plant of Monarch butterflies.

monarch laying eggs on swamp milkweed

Monarch laying eggs on Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, in downtown San Antonio November 15, 2015. Photo by Monika Mae

For the last few years, scientists like doctoral student Dara Satterfield and Dr. Sonia Altizer of the University of Georgia as well as renown Monarch scientist Dr. Lincoln Brower have recommended slashing Tropical milkweed, Aslcepias curassavica, to the ground late in the season.  Studies suggest that the year-round availability of Tropical milkweed makes Monarchs more prone to contracting Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, a debilitating protozoan parasite commonly known in Monarch butterfly circles as OE.

Until recently, Tropical milkweed, technically nonnative, has been the only host plant available for butterfly gardeners hoping to lure the migrating butterflies to their yards.  The reliable bloomer will thrive year-round in warmer and coastal climates, especially in Texas and Florida.  Scientists believe this year-round availability creates a hotbed of nasty OE spores and spreads the disease.  Its presence can also encourage Monarch butterflies to break their diapause–or temporarily suspended non reproductive state–and lay eggs, thus unable to complete their migration to Mexico.

No doubt about it: Monarch caterpillars LOVE Tropical milkweed. Photo taken 11/24/2015 by Monika Maeckle

No doubt about it: Monarch caterpillars LOVE Tropical milkweed. Photo taken 11/24/2015 by Monika Maeckle

But now, for the first time ever, native milkweeds are more available.  And judging from the government funding pouring in to milkweed cultivation and the valiant Monarch butterfly habitat conservation effort, even MORE milkweeds will be coming to market soon.  Gardeners will soon have choices beyond Tropical milkweed.

“Plant only species of milkweed that are native to your region, whenever possible.”

That’s what the Monarch Joint Venture OE Fact sheet advises pollinator gardeners like me and you.

We did that.  And like good stewards, we’ve been cutting Tropical milkweed to the ground late in the season.

But guess what?  Those native milkweeds, which have recently become available because of all the attention on Monarch habitat restoration, are thriving late in the season, too.

Egg on Texana

Egg found on Texana milkweed, Aslcepias texana, 11/19/2015. Not sure if it’s a Queen or monarch (and it hasn’t hatched yet.)  Photo by Monika Maeckle

In my yard right now, for example, I have

  • Asclepias texana, Texana milkweed
  • Asclepias incarnata, Swamp milkweed
  • Aslepias curassavica Tropical milkweed
  • Aslcepias tuberosa Butterfly weed
  • Asclepias oenotheroides, Zizotes milkweed
  • Matelea reticulata, Pearl Milkweed vine.

I sought out these various milkweeds at native plant sales, the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, from our family’s Llano River ranch.  I also traded seeds with other pollinator fans, friends and butterfly breeders. At this moment, all but those I’ve cut back (tuberosa and curassavica) still flaunt green foliage, days before Thanksgiving.

Should I cut these native milkweeds to the ground as well?

The theory of OE spores building up over the season, possibly infecting migrating Monarchs would seem to hold true for other milkweeds available late in the year, not just Tropical milkweed.

Right?

“You’re right that it’s less about the plant itself and more about the seasonality of the plant,” wrote Satterfield via email.  “Any plant that grows 365 days a year in the southern U.S. and supports Monarchs year-round could lead to high levels of disease, as we understand it.”

Swamp milkweed seed pod

Drawback to cutting back native milkweeds: we then can’t harvest the seedpods. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“My personal leaning is that if the species are native, they don’t need to be cut back on a regular basis,” said Dr. Altizer via email.  “Any natives that routinely remain in lush green foliage into the fall and winter are likely going to be rare species, or it will be a rare year when this happens, whereas with the Tropical milkweed, these commonly remain in green foliage until they are hit by a hard frost or cut back.”

Dr. Lincoln Brower, always the purist, suggests even cutting late season nectar plants back–if they are growing in close proximity to Tropical milkweed.

“I have given some thought to your question of whether nectar sources might accumulate OE spores,” wrote Dr. Brower via email.  “I think the answer to this is one of probability and proximity to curassavica [Tropical milkweed]. I think that nectar sources are so diverse and abundant in the natural environment that the probability of Monarchs infecting the plants with spores is very small. …unless the nectar plant is growing adjacent to curassavica. Again, yank it out.”

Confused?  You’re not the only one.

Mary Kennedy, volunteer at the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project

Mary Kennedy, volunteer at the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project

Mary Kennedy, a longtime Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project volunteer and trainer said she is no longer going to advise folks to cut back their Tropical milkweed. “If milkweed is on the ground late in the season, I don’t see why it makes any difference what species it is,” said Kennedy, a former science teacher. “Grow up kids, and make your own decisions.”

One drawback to cutting milkweeds back late in the season is that we then are unable to harvest the seeds. I cut back a patch of Swamp milkweed in August as it was riddled with aphids and gangly.  The plants failed to produce any more flowers; thus, no seeds have been harvested from that patch to propagate future native milkweeds.

Satterfield insisted that the scientists’ statements are “still correct and not mutually exclusive.”

Swamp milkweed in the "wild" of the Llano River, 11/21/2015. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Swamp milkweed in the “wild” of the Llano River, 11/21/2015. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“Our research suggests that milkweeds that support Monarch breeding year-round in the U.S. could put Monarchs at higher risk of disease. The milkweeds enabling these non-migratory Monarchs are exotic species, like Tropical milkweed and Family Jewels milkweed. We are not aware of any native species supporting large numbers of Monarch caterpillars during the winter in the Gulf states. So, we do not have any scientific support right now that says we should cut back native milkweeds.”

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

 

Tropical Milkweed OK for Monarch Butterflies, “Just Cut the Dang Stuff Down”

“Can well-meaning people sometimes make things worse?”

That was the provocative subhead on an article by Dr. Jeffrey Glassberg, founder and president of  the North American Butterfly Association (NABA) in that organization’s most recent edition of American Butterflies Magazine.

Glassberg, who holds a PhD in biology, a law degree and credentials as an entrepreneur, author and butterfly advocate, challenged the recent scientific assertions made by Satterfield et al  that Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, is bad news for Monarch butterflies.

Tropical milkweed:  The debate continues.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Tropical milkweed: The debate continues. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Glassberg challenges the study’s claims about Tropical milkweed’s appropriateness in South Texas, where the North American Butterfly Center operates in Mission along the Texas-Mexico border.

Dara Satterfield

Dara Satterfield  Photo by Monika Maeckle

In case you missed it, Dara Satterfield, a PhD candidate at the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia, and her graduate advisor, Dr. Sonia Altizer, a disease ecologist at Georgia and one of the foremost experts on Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, a Monarch-centric spore driven disease known as OE, suggest in their research that sedentary winter-breeding butterflies are at increased risk of OE. They speculate that Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, 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.

Native to Central America and Mexico, Tropical milkweed grows well and sometimes year round in Texas and Florida.  Scientists worry that it might be confusing Monarchs, making them skip their migration and reproduce locally.  When they do that, spores from butterflies infected with OE build up on the plant and may transfer the disease to other caterpillars, chrysalises, and later, butterflies, resulting in crippling and even death.  Read the Tropical milkweed fact sheet.

Just to be clear:  Satterfield, et al DO NOT THINK TROPICAL MILKWEED IS EVIL.  In fact, they say exactly that in a statement issued by Monarch Joint Venture and shared via the DPlex, a listserv that reaches about 800 butterfly followers.

“Tropical milkweed itself is not ‘bad.’ (It provides larval food for Monarchs in many places where it occurs naturally, such as across the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central America.),” the scientists said in a statement released in January following the milkweed kerfuffle.

“The truth is that we don’t really know,” if butterflies infected with OE at winter-breeding locations will impact the Monarch population as a whole, the statement said.

So to be fair,  the scientists admit that much is still to be determined about the impact of Tropical milkweed on the Monarch butterfly population.   That’s why they suggest cutting Tropical milkweed to the ground over the fall and winter–so the OE spores can’t build up.

Glassberg takes the Satterfield et al. study to task, challenging the assertions with his own data fueled theories.

Monarchs and other milkweed feeders host on the evergreen Pineneedle milkweed in Arizona and have lower than average OE infection rates.  Courtesy photo via Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, Sally Wasorski

Monarchs and other milkweed feeders host on the evergreen Pineneedle milkweed in Arizona and have lower than average OE infection rates. Courtesy photo via Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, Sally Wasowski

Nonmigrating Monarch butterflies in Hawaii  and Arizona have lesser-than-average levels of OE infection, notes Glassberg, pointing out that some Monarchs overwinter and sustain themselves on evergreen milkweeds like Fringed twinevine and Pineneedle milkweed.

Such examples “suggest that the level of OE infection might not be as highly correlated with non-migratory behavior and that the presence of an evergreen supply of milkweeds doesn’t necessarily mean that OE levels will be high, as Satterfield et al. conclude,” he writes.

“Perhaps the higher levels of infection that Satterfield et al. found to be associated with Tropical milkweeds were due to temperature effects or other factors not intrinsic to Tropical milkweed,” Glassberg writes, suggesting that global warning and higher temperatures beg the question: what is a native plant, anyway?

Climate change is already making the range for Tropical milkweed creep north and “if and when that happens, wouldn’t it be a good thing for there to be extensive areas in the southern United States that might serve as reservoirs for Monarchs that would then be able to repopulate more northern areas, much as Painted Ladies and American Ladies do now?”

Hardiness zones redefined by USDA

In 2012, the USDA redefined hardiness zones in response to climate change.  San Antonio moved to Zone 9a from Zone 8b.  Will Tropical milkweed eventually rank as “native”?  Screengrab via USDA

When asked about the article, Satterfield responded by email that “We do plan to address why our paper rules out effects of temperature and geography and points to year-round milkweed as the source of the high levels of disease.”

Glassberg makes a lot of sense here.   His characterization of Tropical milkweed as a “life buoy” for Monarchs until the commercial market for native milkweeds can be developed holds great appeal.  In a recent webinar staged by US Fish and Wildlife Service  on creating Monarch butterfly habitat in the U.S., experts stated that it will take a minimum of five years to create a commercial market for native milkweeds.   That’s a long time for Monarchs to wait around for the perfect locavore food, especially when Tropical milkweed is already on the market, easy-to-grow and very affordable.

Troipcal milkweed:  "Life buoy" for Monarchs and other milkweed feeders until the native milkweeds are available.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Tropical milkweed: “Life buoy” for Monarchs and other milkweed feeders until the native milkweeds are available. Photo by Monika Maeckle

My approach in the garden includes Tropical milkweed as a foundation, natives preferred, but more challenging to grow.  And I’m not alone.  Plenty of us who follow Monarchs believe the Tropical milkweed debate is bloated and misguided.

Here’s what Edith Smith, one of the most seasoned, experienced and thoughtful commercial butterfly breeders on the planet and owner of Shady Oak Butterfly Farm in Florida, thinks about the focus on Tropical milkweed:   “…They’re so fussy about that plant. If only they’d stop to think, they’d realize that if a couple of treaties had been written a bit different and the southern border of our country had been drawn a hundred miles further south, Tropical milkweed WOULD be a U.S. native.  SHEESH!”

Edith Smith

Edith Smith, Shady Oak Butterfly Farm

She adds:  “As far as it being good/bad for Monarchs … let’s remove all the Tropical milkweed from Mexico and see what happens to the Monarch population in the US. That in itself should answer the question.”

Another Monarch expert suggested everyone just chill on the Tropical milkweed fixation, pointing out that a better investment of time, energy and money would be replenishing the million-plus acres of pollinator habitat lost each year.  Arguing about narrow strips of Tropical milkweed along the coastline constitutes a huge misplaced priority.

“Just cut the dang stuff down at the end of the season–maybe twice. We’re wasting too much time on this issue. There are bigger problems,” said the source.

Monarch caterpillars tropical milkweed

Monarch caterpillars on Tropical milkweed, April, 2015  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Even Catalina Trail, the woman who discovered the Monarch butterfly roosting sites in Mexico back in 1975, plants Tropical milkweed in her Austin garden.  “I would prefer to have native milkweeds in my yard, but they’re impossible to grow,” she said by phone.  “I have two Tropical milkweeds in my yard.”

This website has reported repeatedly on this topic and I am at peace with my stance:   Tropical milkweed fills a gap for Monarch butterflies. Just cut it back.

Both early and late in the season, Tropical milkweed is often the ONLY milkweed available for migrating Monarchs.   The eggs of the caterpillars pictured above were laid in late March and because of our cool spring, no native milkweed was up and out of the ground yet.   My Tropical milkweed from last year, which had been cut to the ground in December as per best practice, had plenty of fine, tender new leaves ready for the hungry critters when they arrived.

Had I not this Tropical milkweed in my yard, the migrating Monarch who laid the eggs that became today’s caterpillars in my yard would have had to keep flying, seeking milkweed that in this cool Texas spring was mostly absent until now.  Who knows where/if she would have found a place to lay her eggs before perishing?

Meanwhile, in the Fall, the only native milkweed I see is Swamp milkweed along the Llano River, and it’s usually in bad shape, ravaged by aphids and the summer heat.   Tropical milkweed is the only food available for late season caterpillars, and the lack of available caterpillar food often results in a caterpillar food emergency, with folks calling around town to friends and local nurseries to see if anyone has clean, chemical free milkweed available.   Some breeders and enthusiasts have taken to offering pumpkin, cucumbers and other “alternative fuels” for late season Monarchs.

Monarch caterpillars eating pumpkin

In the fifth instar, Monarch caterpillars will eat a variety of pumpkins. Photo by Ellen Reid

Making an issue about Tropical milkweed reminds me of the locavore food movement: idealistic, admirable, but now always practical.   The caterpillars have to eat.

Imagine you’re driving cross-country with your family and you and the kids find yourselves famished. Sure, you’d prefer to stop at a local diner where good food was whipped up from scratch from local organic ingredients, responsibly harvested, lovingly prepared, delicious, nutritious and affordable.

But that’s not always possible.   Sometimes you have to hit the drive-through of a fast-food joint because that’s all there is.  And that will get you to the next place.

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Let the Migration Begin: Milkweeds Sprout as Monarch Butterflies Arrive in Texas

Monarch butterflies left their roosts in Michoacán, Mexico, on March 24 in what appears to be their latest departure on record, citizen science organization Journey North reported this week.   “”Hundreds of Monarchs are flying over Angangueo—right now—with a clear direction northward!” the organization’s Michoacán-based correspondent Estela Moreno  relayed in their weekly migration newsletter.

Worn migrant Monarch

Migrant Monarch on verbena. Note how the tattered wings and faded color. Photo by Carol Clark

As is their fashion, the butterflies typically leave their roosts around the Spring Equinox and head north, making initial migratory stops in Texas.   Since the butterflies will ONLY lay their eggs on Asclepias species, that is, various milkweeds, conditions here determine  future generations’ success.   This year, with a late start following a wet, mild winter, they’ll find a bounty of wildflowers waiting and milkweed just beginning to sprout.

“I just returned from outdoors and checking my pots,” Carol Clark, a Monarch butterfly follower in Dallas relayed via email on Thursday.  “My large potted Asclepias viridis from last year finally has sprouts today–just in time.”

Monarch on lantana

Wildflowers besides milkweed like this native lantana are also important to Monarchs and other pollinators as nectar sources. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Mary Kennedy, a longtime volunteer for the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project (MLMP) here in San Antonio, provided this report: “I spotted the first milkweed in my yard day before yesterday. If I have 20 milkweed plants, see 10 monarchs, find 15 eggs, and see any of them make it to fifth instars without being eaten by fire ants, that will be a great year!”

Kip Kiphardt, MLMP volunteer in Boerne, offered that the first milkweeds were sprouting at the Cibolo Nature Center just outside San Antonio on March 28.  “Just came up,” he said.  And Chuck Patterson, from Driftwood, Texas, reported that Antelope Horns milkweed, Asclepias Asperula, was three – four inches tall in some locations.

Antelop Horns, Asclepias asperula

Milkweed in Driftwood, Texas was three-four-inches tall on March 28. Photo by Chuck Patterson

While Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, said it was too early to make predictions about the 2015 Monarch season, Austin entomologist and Austin Butterfly Forum president Mike Quinn reminded us that that cool weather in Texas usually benefits Monarchs. “This should be good news,” he said.  He explained that mild temps “slow down their larval predators and the exhaustion of their adult lipid reserves.”

If 2015 turns out to be a good year for the Monarch population or not remains to be seen. There’s no doubt, however, that this year will reap continued political tumult.

After their worst year in history followed by a 70% rebound in 2014, the butterflies have taken center stage in pollinator advocacy and habitat restoration circles in recent months. A petition submitted last August requesting they be listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act continues to be debated.  Strong reactions have resulted–from lawsuits by the National Resource Defense Council taking the EPA to task for dragging its feet on Monarch protection to admirable public-private partnerships like the $3.2 million in federal grants announced recently by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Here in Texas, the State Comptroller’s office recently announced the appointment of San Antonio water hero and endangered species expert Dr. Robert Gulley to head a task force that will assess the financial consequences of endangered species listings on the state.   The Monarch butterfly will be one of five species on which the task force will focus.

Swamp milkweed

Who’s winning? Soil grown Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, on the left. Hydroponic milkweed on the right. Photo by Monika Maeckle

In the meantime, scientists, citizen scientists, nature lovers and gardeners have all awakened to the fact that we can each help sustain the Monarch butterfly migration by planting clean, chemical-free, preferably native milkweeds. Asclepias as a native wildflower is considered undesireable by some, and not everyone agrees on the appropriateness of the Monarchs’ favorite, Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica. No one, however, contests the fact that pollinator habitat in the form of native and pocket prairies featuring appropriate indigenous plants must be made a priority.

Here at the Texas Butterfly Ranch, we’ve been experimenting with Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, with our friends at Local Sprout to assemble Monarch and milkweed kits for sale later this spring. Our friend Mitch Hagney and I have waged a contest to see who could get Swamp milkweed growing faster, better, soonest.  Scarified seeds were planted hydroponically by Hagney and in soil by me on February 10. Hard to say who’s winning the growth contest–you decide, see above.

Like many, as a safeguard, I have planted and overwintered the reliable Tropical milkweed.   Detractors have their concerns, but I’m a huge fan and provide the host plant in my downtown San Antonio garden.  Leaves are lush on those I overwintered, after slashing them to the ground in December as recommended.

Tropical milkweed

Tropical milkweed looking good, ready for Monarch butterfly eggs. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, Native Plant Society, San Antonio Botanical Garden and your local gardening and conservation organizations will be staging plant sales in the next few weeks.   These pop-up plant sales often feature the hard-to-find, coveted native milkweeds.   Keep an eye out for the sales and grab them while you can.  Like the Monarchs, we have to take what we can get.

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Q & A: Dr. Lincoln Brower talks Ethics, Endangered Species, Milkweed and Monarchs

At 83, Dr. Lincoln P. Brower has studied Monarch butterflies longer than anyone on the planet. He first became enamored of butterflies as a five-year-old in New Jersey and later

Dr. Lincoln Brower--photo via Monarch Butterfly Fund

Dr. Lincoln Brower–photo via Monarch Butterfly Fund

by Monarchs when he learned they don’t taste good to predators. His famous  “Barfing Bluejay” photo, below, proved their unpleasant taste to predators and always gets a chuckle when I share it in presentations.

Brower followed his passion and turned his attention to Monarch biology as a grad student at Yale in 1954. He has visited the roosting sites in Mexico more than 50 times since his first trip in 1977–15 years BEFORE Dr. Chip Taylor, the other grandpa of the Monarch community, started the citizen scientist Monarch butterfly tagging program, Monarch Watch, in 1992.

So it’s no surprise that after a lifetime invested in the dramatic orange-and-black butterflies, Brower takes Monarchs personally. When he recently lent his name to the petition to list the Monarch butterfly as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), few people were surprised. NOTE: The period to join 306 others who have commented on the petition closes March 1, 2015.

Barfing Bluejay

Dr. Brower’s famous “Barfing Bluejay” photo of a bird wretching after eating Monarchs, proved Monarchs don’t tast good. Photo courtesy Dr. Lincoln Brower

Dr. Brower graced the Texas Butterfly Ranch with a visit back in October of 2011 when he toured the Texas Hill Country during the peak of the historic Texas drought.

The man is amazing. Tromping across the limestone watershed, butterfly net in hand, we tagged dozens of butterflies that day for a study he was doing.  Between net swoops, Brower taught me how to identify male from female Monarchs without having
to open up their wings, a trick I still use today.

Brower can be a purist.  He’s said that Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, should only be planted in a laboratory or controlled environment because it might spread disease in Monarchs–a directive he recently amended. Now he advises the Monarchs’ favorite host plant be planted no further north than Orlando, Florida. Brower also called the recent 70% increase in Monarch numbers “catastrophic.” “That change is trivial,” said Brower. “We were thinking it would be more than two hectares. What we need is up to five hectares.”

Monarch Butterfly Texas Team

Monarch Butterfly Dream Team: Kip Kiphart, Jenny Singleton, Dr. Lincoln Brower, Monika Maeckle, Mike Quinn

Since the petition was submitted, much attention has been focused on our favorite migrating insects, who’s “canary in the corn field” status makes them pollinator decline’s apt and timely poster child. Climate change, overzealous pesticide use, genetically modified crops and general human domination of the planet all play their role in challenging Monarch butterflies and the entire food web.

Awareness of these critical issues is fundamental to addressing them and the ESA petition has raised unprecedented awareness. Some of us may disagree that ESA status for Monarchs is the best tool for the job, but it’s impossible to not recognize how the petition has served to raise the profile of Monarch butterfly and pollinator decline. So thanks to Brower and the petitioners for creating needed drama.

We recently chatted with Dr. Brower, who currently serves as Distinguished Service Professor of Zoology Emeritus at the University of Florida and Research Professor of Biology at Sweet Briar College. The conversation migrated from email to phone and back. Here, in his words, is how he sees the current landscape.

Dr. Lincoln P. Brower at Sierra Chincua in 201?.  Photo by Medford Taylor, courtesy Dr. Lincoln Brower

Dr. Lincoln P. Brower at Sierra Chincua in 2007, one of more than 50 trips he’s made to the roosting sites. Photo by Medford Taylor, courtesy Dr. Lincoln Brower

Q. Recent events, including your participation in filing a petition to list the Monarch butterfly as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, have brought unprecedented attention to the decline of the Monarch butterfly migration.    Was this the honest intent of filing the petition–to bring attention to the situation rather than actually list it?  Or do you still believe that listing the insect as endangered is the appropriate approach to conservation?

Brower: Those involved in writing the petition had, I think, two goals:  One, to raise public and government awareness; and two, to generate funding of varied mitigation programs, private and public.

Q.  Do you still believe that listing the Monarch butterfly is the best option or have you changed your mind?

Brower: I did when I signed onto the petition and the evidence I have seen so far seems to be supporting that contention. I think we will have to wait and see what happens. It is possible that nothing we can do will preserve the Monarch’s migration and overwintering biology spectacle.

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

Citizen scientists like Catalina Trail were instrumental in pieceing together the mysteries of the Monarch butterfly migration.

Q. If the Monarch becomes listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and milkweed and physical contact with Monarch butterflies will likely be controlled, do you share concerns about the disenfranchisement of the citizen scientists and Monarch butterfly enthusiasts that have for decades been instrumental in unraveling the mystery of their migration?

Brower:  Appendix B page 162 of the petition is worded in confusing legalese but states that citizen scientists’ participation and conservation efforts will not be restricted. I have recommended that the stated limit of ten butterflies per person be raised to 100.

Q. Recent studies link Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, to increases of OE in Monarchs. If other species of milkweed–Swamp or Common, for example–had been the species widely cultivated and made available commercially to gardeners, would we be having the same issues with those plants?

Brower: Curassavica likely would not normally have entered Texas from Mexico in the past or future even with global warming. It does not tolerate desert conditions in its natural geographic distribution. As I have stated elsewhere, I think it is a mistake to plant it north of the City of Orlando, Florida latitude in the US.

The recent paper by Satterfiled, et al, is relevant. Propagation of locally occurring native milkweeds and planting them widely in gardens along roads, etc., is what should be done.  The Monarch community needs to jump on this bandwagon and influence plant nurseries to do this for their sales. Bring everyone together to do the best we can to increase native milkweed habitat.

Got milkweed?

Tropical milkweed is technically not native but the most widely available species of Monarch host plant. Native milkweeds are best.

Q.  Is it at all arrogant of us, the human species, to insist that the Monarch migration continue as climate change, human impacts and other factors conspire to make it possible for Monarch butterflies to continue their life cycles and reproduce without migrating 3,000 miles? And if the need to migrate changes or no longer exists, who are we to say that it should continue? (I wonder what a Monarch butterfly would say if we gave them a choice of migrating or not?)

Brower: As we discussed at length, these are ethical questions. Should we try and preserve natural phenomena such as the Monarch migration? Analogously, should we try and save pandas, polar bears, endangered plants. etc.

Turn the question around: is it ethical to let these things go extinct when we have the ability to prevent that from happening? Are people the only creatures with a right to rich and natural lives on this planet?

You know my answer, it is dead wrong not to try to prevent loss of natural species and what they do from bacteria to humans. If rabies were to take over, the view of letting it be would mean the end of dogs. How can anyone even think that is tolerable. I feel the same way about the Monarch…In addition, preserving it is symbolically important:  it is the “canary in the corn field” telling us something very broad and serious is wrong with managing our planet.

Q:  Dr. Brower, I agree with you regarding species going extinct, however we are talking about the migration.  Few folks believe the Monarch butterfly will become extinct.  Do you make a distinction that some behaviours outlive their usefulness–such as, perhaps, the Monarch migration?

Brower: My colleagues and I have referred to the Monarch migration/overwintering behavior as an endangered biological phenomenon. My thesis above also applies exactly to this category of biodiversity.

Should we work to restore the bison migrations or just keep them in a few zoos and confined pastures? What about the bamboo forests of China: let them and the panda inhabitants be destroyed while keeping a few panda breeding programs going to make sure zoos are profitable? Bioethics again.

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Survey: Monarch Butterfly Enthusiasts Will Pay More for Clean, Chemical Free Milkweed

A Texas Butterfly Ranch survey conducted in late 2014 found that Monarch butterfly enthusiasts are willing to put extra money where their beloved Monarch caterpillars mouths are:  on clean, chemical-free (preferably native) milkweed.

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed

Got clean milkweed?   Great, we’ll pay more.   Is it native?  Yes, please–even better.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Are you listening, American nursery industry?   You can make more money if you grow milkweed without chemicals.  Make them native and you can likely charge another premium.

“Truthfully, I’ll pay anything to keep my cats safe!”

Our online poll of 363 respondents found that 96% responded “Yes” to the question:  “Would you pay more for “clean,” chemical-free milkweed that is raised organically, sustainably and locally?”

wouldyoupaymoreyesorno

The survey, which ran in various online forums from September 24 through December 31, 2014, resulted from the annual angst that arrives with each fall migration.  Late in the season, when masses of Monarchs move through town and some lay eggs on local milkweed plants, those who hope to raise the caterpillars to the butterfly stage bring them inside for “fostering.” It’s not uncommon so late in the year for people to run out of milkweed for their hungry caterpillars.

This typically sends folks running to their local nursery to buy fresh host plant–most often Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, since that’s all that’s commercially available.  Typically, when asked the provenance of the milkweed, nursery staff tell milkweed buyers the plants have NOT been sprayed with pesticides.

“When my caterpillars are down to stems, I’m just happy to be able to get ‘clean and safe’ milkweed at almost any price….They will starve otherwise! I’ve bought ‘bad’ milkweed and lost thirty or more caterpillars… it was horrible.”

Yet, upon moving their Monarch larvae to the milkweed plants, the caterpillars perish within hours.   That’s because many commercial growers use systemic pesticides to keep the plants aphid-free before selling them to our local nurseries.  Often the local nursery staff is unaware that these pesticides have been sprayed on the plants.  Nor do they seem to know that the chemicals  remain active for months.

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

Always a bummer: dead Monarch caterpillars fall victim to pesticide laced milkweed.  Photo by Sharon Sanders

The syndrome has been dubbed by those of us who follow it Desperately Seeking Milkweed and has been well documented on this website as well as referenced in comments (some of which you’ll find throughout this post) in our recent milkweed survey.

So how much, exactly, are Monarch caterpillar foster parents willing to pay for clean, chemical free milkweed?

“I grow my own plants but when I run out of food I have to run to a garden center…I always ask, ‘have these plants been sprayed with insecticide?’ and the answer is always ‘No, ma’am.’ I buy the plants and my cats die when they eat it…very sad so I would definitely pay more to keep my babies alive!  :-)

howmuchmore

About 48% said “it would depend” on the time of year and how badly they wanted/needed the plant.  Another 21% of respondents said they would pay $5 more, 5.5% said $4 more would be their limit, 10.5% said they would pay $3 more and 16.5% said they would pay $2 more.

The geographic diversity of the respondents played out like this:
Where do you live?Missing from the survey was a question asking whether or not buyers of milkweed prefer that NATIVE species in addition to chemical free and clean.  My bad.  Of the 183 comments, many expressed a desire for NATIVES.  Here’s a sampling of comments:

“NATIVE, clean milkweed please.”

“Prefer the non-tropical, if possible… Native Texas milkweed would be preferred.”

“Is there any place to buy native milkweed plants?”

“Native milkweed is hard to find in the nursery trade. I’m  rich, but I would pay a fair price.”

“What about native milkweed?”

The survey launched about a month after an August 26  petition to list the Monarch butterfly as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act made its way to the Department of the Interior. That petition is under a 12-month review and has provoked many discussions about the gross loss of native milkweeds in our landscape in addition to a lack of available native milkweeds in commercial nurseries.

Since, interest in native milkweeds has ballooned, bringing much needed attention to Monarch butterfly native habitat restoration in our fields, landscapes, gardens–even in our caterpillar nurseries in the late fall during the migration as well as in the spring.

So listen up, commercial growers.   Native milkweeds are in high demand and short supply.  A business opportunity awaits those who pounce.   The Texas Butterfly Ranch is exploring such a venture with our hydroponic partner, Local Sprout. Stay tuned for details.

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FINALLY! Monarch Butterfly News Spurs Extreme Interest in Native Milkweeds

Last week, the Mexican government announced the number of Monarch butterflies counted at the ancestral roosting sites in the oyamel forests of Michoacán, Mexico.

The population grew by almost 70% since last year–from 34 million butterflies occupying 1.65 acres (.67 hectares) in 2014 (the worst year in history) to 56.5 million butterflies occupying 2.79 acres (1.13 hectares) in 2015.

Good news:  Monarch butterfly numbers up.  Bad news:  numbers still dangerously low.  Graphic via Monarch Watch

Good news: Monarch butterfly numbers up. Bad news: numbers still dangerously low. Graphic via Monarch Watch

Good news, right?

That depends on where you sit.   Dr. Lincoln Brower, perhaps the person on the planet who has studied the Monarch butterfly migration longer than anyone, called the 69% increase  “catastrophic” in a phone interview.

Dr. Lincoln Brower--photo via Monarch Butterfly Fund

Dr. Lincoln Brower–photo via Monarch Butterfly Fund

“That change is trivial,” said Brower.  “We were thinking it would be more than two hectares. What we need is up to five hectares.”

George Kimbrell, senior attorney for the Center for Food Safety, said in a press release posted on that organization’s website that despite the increase, the Monarch population is still “severely jeopardized by milkweed loss in their summer breeding grounds due to increasing herbicide use on genetically engineered crops.”

Kimbrell’s organization, with the Center for Biological Diversity, the Xerces Society and Dr. Brower, filed a petition in August to list the Monarch butterfly as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.  The petition is currently under review.

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

If only we could all grow native milkweeds like this Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, found on the Llano River in the Texas Hill Country. Aphids come with the territory. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“Extremely vulnerable” is how Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of the citizen scientist Monarch tagging organization Monarch Watch, categorized the increase in a January 27 blogpost.   While population increase represents improvement, “Winter storms or poor conditions for breeding in the spring and summer could have a severe impact on a population of this size,” wrote Taylor.  He added that if we can get through the winter with no major storms “the long-range forecasts suggest that the population has a good chance of increasing again next year.”

So…numbers up slightly, but still dangerously low.   Bad news, right?

FBCommentonmilkweed

Well, not entirely.

Thanks to all the angst and attention, awareness of the decline of the Monarch butterfly migration has reached unprecedented heights.  And everyone–even the folks at Monsanto– seems to agree on one point:  habitat loss, specifically restoration of native milkweeds, must be addressed on a grand scale if we are to keep the migration from becoming a memory.

We couldn’t agree more.  This website has documented and addressed the dearth of native milkweed over the years, answering many questions from readers who want to do the right thing.  Where to get them?  Should one plant seeds or seedlings?  What are the best practices for getting native milkweeds to grow?

The problem is that it’s near impossible to find native milkweed plugs locally. The only milkweed plants available in commercial nurseries each spring is Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, which some scientists have suggested might increase diseases in Monarchs. (I don’t necessarily buy this theory.) To play it safe, best practice suggests cutting Tropical milkweed to the ground in the winter in warmer climates so nasty OE, Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, spores, which infect Monarchs and other milkweed feeding butterflies, can’t collect on old plants and infect migrating Monarch butterflies.

MIlkweed seeds

So many milkweeds. Which ones to plant, and how to do it? Photo by Monika Maeckle

That said, we would all prefer to plant native local species–IF we could find them. Native seeds are relatively available, but getting them to germinate can be tricky. As George Cates, chief seed wrangler at Native American Seed in Junction, Texas, once told me, Texas milkweeds “may not lend themselves to mass seed production.”  Personally, I have spent hundreds of dollars and many many hours spreading native milkweed seeds and homemade native milkweed seedballs at our Llano River Ranch.  In 10 years, only three–count ’em–Antelope Horns, Asclepias asperula, milkweed plants have taken root.

That brings us to plugs. I’ve tried those, too.   One year I finally coaxed some Antelope Horns seed to germinate after following these directions from the experts at Native American Seed, only to have the seedlings die once transplanted.

In response to a survey conducted by the Texas Butterfly Ranch in late 2014, we’re exploring the possibility of growing native Texas milkweed here in San Antonio with a hydroponic partner, Local Sprout.  We haven’t figured out all the details, but we’re working on growing Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, from seeds harvested on the banks of the Llano River.

Meanwhile, we challenge local nurseries and growers to rise to the challenge and make local, native chemical free milkweeds available for the spring migration as well as in the fall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monarch on swamp milkweed

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

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

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

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

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

ERic Sachs, Monsanto

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ed Sachs Monsanto presentation

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

twittermonarchs

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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