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.

IMG_1440

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.

IMG_1840

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.

IMG_1839

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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Will Obama talk Monarch Butterflies with Presidents of Canada and Mexico this week?

President Barack Obama, President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico and Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada will gather Wednesday in the Mexican city of Toluca, only 75 miles from the ancestral roosting sites of Monarch butterflies in the mountains of Mexico.

Monarch on the Llano River

The fate of the Monarch migration is in our hands. PHoto by Monika Maeckle

According th the White House, the three leaders will discuss a range of issues important to the people of North America.

OK, but will they discuss what can be done to ensure the future of the epic Monarch butterfly migration, a unique natural phenomenon that binds our three countries geographically, spiritually and scientifically?

President BArack Obama

President Barack Obama will meet with the presidents of Canada and Mexico just 75 miles from the Monarch butterfly roosting sites. Will they talk Monarch butterflies?

Ever since the news broke in January that this year’s migrating Monarch butterfly population plunged to historically low numbers and scientists suggested that the migration may soon become extinct, Monarch and pollinator advocates have been energized, seeking solutions to the decline. Most suggestions have take the form of encouraging the planting of more milkweed and resisting genetically modified crops and pesticide use. But two groups, the Mexico-based Grupo de los Cien Internacional and Make Way for Monarchs here in the U.S., have banded together to form the Milkweed-Butterfly Recovery Alliance to take a political approach.

Led by Mexican poet, environmentalist and human rights activist Homero Aridjis, Monarch butterfly expert Dr. Lincoln Brower and Dr. Gary Paul Nabhan, the group of artists, intellectuals and scientists, wrote a letter to the three presidents beseeching them to work together for cross-continent solutions to restoring milkweed habitat. More than 160 scientists, conservationists, artists, naturalists and others signed the letter, which encouraged planting milkweed on roadsides and between fields, and suggested subsidies for farmers to set aside land that is free of herbicides.

Mexican poet/activist/enviornmentalis Homero Aridjis helped craft a letter to the three presidents of North America.  Courtesy photo

Mexican poet/activist/enviornmentalist Homero Aridjis helped craft a letter to the three presidents of North America. Courtesy photo

The group cites the recent dramatic declines documented at the overwintering roosts in Michoacán–from a 20-year average of about 16.5 acres to this year’s record low of 1.65 acres. That’s a 90% decrease.

The letter correctly assigns blame to illegal logging and habitat destruction at the roosting sights in Mexico, but also points the finger at atrocious agricultural policies in the United States. Among those pollinator-unfriendly policies: the approval of pesticides that are known to poison pollinators and the practice of wholesale spraying of herbicides on genetically modified corn and soybean crops immune to their toxins. Where fertile wildflowers, including the Monarch host plant milkweed, once flourished between the rows and on the fringes of farmland, now sterile space exists. Who knows what else is being eliminated.

In addition, the 2007 Renewable Fuel Standard mandated that a rising percentage of domestic gasoline be made from biofuels such as corn-based ethanol. The economic incentives for planting corn to produce ethanol have caused farmers to expand the ubiquitous starch to cover 97 million acres of farmland in 2013, up from 78 million acres in 2006. “Fallow fields, row crops and roadsides that used to support the growth of milkweed and substantial acreage of land previously set aside in the U.S. Conservation Reserve Program have been converted to monoculture crops,” the letter notes.

Antelope Horns Milkweed

It’s all about the milkweed–and a lack thereof. Asclepias asperula, Antelope Horns Milkweed on Texas Hill Country roadside in April 2011. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The alliance suggests the very reasonable notion of managing roadsides for native plants, including milkweeds and more extensive buffers of native plant communities at field margins. “A milkweed corridor stretching along the entire migratory route of the Monarch butterfly through our three countries must be established,” the letter states.

“This is a viable proposal. It is not impossible,” Aridjis told the the New York Times. “Otherwise, we face an ecological genocide, because if we take away the monarchs’ plants, we kill the monarchs.”

What an outrageous shame that would be. Thiseloquent essay written by Carter Roberts and Omar Vidal on the CNN website calls on the spirit of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the countries of our hemisphere working together for our greater good to literally spare common ground that might save the Monarch migration.

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2013’s Top Posts: Moths, Monarch Decline, How to Raise Butterflies, Move a Chrysalis

We close out 2013 as a banner year at the Texas Butterfly Ranch.  2013 marked our third year covering the life cycle of butterflies, moths and the plants that sustain them.  We published 35 posts this year and drew 107,000+ page views–up from 42,000 in 2012.   Thanks to all for reading.

The decline of the Monarch butterfly migration led butterfly news this year, with a post detailing the steady downward spiral topping the list.  Interestingly, posts about how-to-raise butterflies and what species of milkweed to plant also ranked highly–apparent responses to the severity of pollinator decline? Hmm.

Below, you’ll find the posts you enjoyed most in 2013.

Monarch butterflies in decline

Dire predictions became reality in November when news reports suggested that  only three million Monarch butterflies would make it to Mexico this year.  For the first time in recorded history, Monarch butterflies did not arrive at their ancestral roosts in Michoacán en masse by Day of the Dead, November 2.  Scientists were concerned at this historic tardy turn.

Monarch graph Journey North

Only three million Monarchs made it to Mexico and may occupy only 1.25 acres of forest this year, a record low. Graph via Journey North

The 2012 season, acknowledged as the worst year for the insects population wise, counted 60 million Monarchs.  In prime years, they numbered 450 million.  Looks like 2013 will hold the dubious distinction of the year the migration came unraveled.

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, relayed a similar prognosis earlier in the season when he told the International Butterfly Breeders conference that the butterflies would likely occupy only 1.25 acres of forest in the mountainous roosting grounds west of Mexico City.  At their height, the creatures roosted in 50+ acres of forest.

Chip Taylor and Kathy Marshburn

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

How unspeakably sad that the entire population of Monarch butterflies east of the Rocky Mountains could fit into a space smaller than a strip shopping center.

People are doing what they can to help Monarchs on the home front

Our two-part feature on How to Raise Monarch Butterflies at Home ranked a top post  with readers.   In April I wrote that I had collected Monarch eggs from milkweed in my  front yard. Subsequent posts detailed step-by-step how easy it is to raise Monarch butterflies at home.

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed

Monarch butterfly caterpillar on milkweed, its host plant. You can raise them at home–it’s easy! Photo by Monika Maeckle

We started with the eggs, watching them hatch and become tiny caterpillars.  We fueled their growth with fresh, pesticide-free milkweed, then followed their whole lifecycle to the chrysalis stage and finally their eclosure to a butterfly. You can do it, too.  Read the two-part series here.

Moths:  Underappreciated, extremely interesting

While we call ourselves the Texas Butterfly Ranch, we try not to be speciesists.  That is, we try not to give too much attention to one species over another—although that’s pretty much impossible given America’s love affair with the Monarch butterfly.

We agree that Monarchs and other butterflies seem to get all the press at the expense of their less celebrated, night flying cousins.  That said, we try to spread the love around.

In fact, two of our top posts in 2013 didn’t even discuss butterflies.  Instead, they profiled two of the more interesting moths you’ll likely find in your gardens.

Sphinx Moth on Datura, photo by Betsy Betros, via BugGuide.net

Sphinx Moth on Datura, photo by Betsy Betros, via BugGuide.net

This post on tomato hornworms ran back in June 2012, yet climbed easily into one of the top reads of 2013—18 months after it posted in the height of summer.   Perhaps because so little is written about moths?  Or maybe thanks to National Moth Week, a relatively new celebration launched by the Friends of the East Brunswick Environmental Commission (Friends of EBEC), a group of citizen scientists that focus on the fascinating flyers every summer.  Mark your calendar for National Moth Week 2014, July 19 – 27, as a week that will celebrate their existence.

The truth is that even butterfly loving vegetable gardeners often squish the tomato and tobacco hornworms, which feast voraciously on tomato, pepper and potato plants and other members of the Solanaceae family.  We encourage ceding a few fruits or entire plants to these dramatic caterpillars, which later morph into beautiful Sphinx Moths.

Sphinx Moth caterpillar on Jimsonweed

Look for Tobacco Hornworms on Jimsonweed and your tomato plants.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Then, our story on the mysterious, myth-laden Black Witch Moth: Large, Common, Bat-like, and Harmless drew lots of interest.

This “bat moth” resembles a bat in size and shape and its seven-inch wingspan ranks it as the largest moth in North America.  Black Witch Moths are common in Central and South Texas and frequently rest under the eaves of houses near doors, often startling folks as they arrive home.   Generous rains seem to have offered favorable conditions for them this year, as we had many questions about them.

Black WItch Moth Huatulco

Black Witch Moth seen in a kitchen on a full moon night.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

The folklore surrounding these harmless nightflyers runs the gamut.  They can be a harbinger of death–or a sign that your future includes a winning lottery ticket.

Butterfly 911:  lack of host plant results in milkweed emergency

This post on a “milkweed emergency” drew plenty of views and the most comments of any post ever on the Texas Butterfly Ranch  (76).

The quandary of too many caterpillars and no milkweed to feed them continues to find readers, especially at the end of the Monarch butterfly season when nurseries and gardens have exhausted their host plant supplies.

Monarch on Milkweed

It takes a lot of milkweed to grow a Monarch butterfly. The caterpillars consume 200x their birth weight in milkweed leaves. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Every fall, we receive frantic emails, Facebook posts and even phone calls from people who have plenty of Monarch caterpillars, but no milkweed on hand.   A milkweed shortage pretty much defines the plight of Monarch butterflies throughout the migration landscape.

Frequently, folks will run out to a nursery and buy a fresh pot of milkweed, unaware that plants have been sprayed with systemic pesticides, which can last six months.   This post details how to avoid the sad experience of finding all your caterpillars dead from toxic poisoning the morning after you’ve served them polluted host plant.

How to Move a Monarch Chrysalis

If you can get your caterpillars to the chrysalis stage, they often will build their jade jewel in an inconvenient location.   A post that draws steady interest year after year answers the frequently asked question:  Is Relocating a Monarch Chrysalis OK?

Monarch chrysalis and butterfly

The answer:  yes, you may relocate the creatures once they make their chrysalis.

The post details a few tips on how to handle a Monarch chrysalis with care and do’s and don’ts for successfully relocating them.

Got Milkweed?  Updated guide to Texas milkweeds

Finally, rounding out our top posts of 2013, an updated Milkweed Guide: Choose Best Plants for Monarch Butterflies.    Given the news of the decline of the Monarch butterfly migration, the call to plant milkweed and other wildflowers to make sure pollinators—not just Monarchs—continue their life cycle becomes urgent.

Antelope horns

Asclepias asperula, Antelope Horns Milkweed on Texas Hill Country roadside in April 2011, photo by Monika Maeckle

We get many questions  in our emailbox regarding which species are best for San Antonio and Austin yards, ranches, or even a vacant lots that beg for a butterfly garden.   Our Milkweed Guide aims to point you in the right direction.

We’ve added a few links below to other favorite posts that we believe merit your time.   We hope they pique your interest.  Let us know by leaving a comment.

To all our readers, mariposistas, MOTH-ers, butterfly lovers near and far–cheers to a healthy, happy 2014.   Plant lots of wildflowers, host and pollinator plants in 2014.   Stay away from pollutants and pesticides. Enjoy and tend your gardens and wildscapes.

See you outside.

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San Antonio Butterfly Fans, Join us Monday for How to Tag a Monarch Butterfly

Many of us believe the Monarch butterfly should be declared the Official Insect of San Antonio. Given our geographic location in the heart of the Texas flyway and the dramatic butterflies’ intimate connection to Mexico, it makes perfect sense.  Monarch butterflies have already been declared the official bug of Texas.

Since Monarch butterflies are on the move this week, the Texas Butterfly Ranch is joining its sister site, the Rivard Report, to perform a Monarch butterfly tagging demonstration for “Something Monday,” tomorrow, October 21.  Something Monday is a weekly learning outing sponsored by the site, co-founded by me and my husband Robert Rivard.

Meet us at 6:30 p.m. at the Milkweed Patch on the Museum Reach of the San Antonio River, tomorrow, October 21.   We’ll gather downstream from the Pearl (map below) and demonstrate How to Tag a Monarch Butterfly.   Park at the Pearl, cross the river, and walk south five minutes and you’ll be there.

Tagged Monarch butterfly

Join us at the Milkweed Patch for ‘Something Monday’ to see how Monarch butterflies are tagged en route to Mexico. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Tag a Monarch butterfly?  How does one do that?

You’ll  have to join us to find out. But show some respect – the dramatic orange and black butterflies have had a tough year.  Many of us believe that 2013 is shaping up to be their worst in history, population wise.

Professional and citizen scientists have been “tagging” the storied creatures since the ’50s.  That’s how they figured out that the Monarchs that are passing through town right now are the great-great grandchildren of the ones that left Mexico last spring.

Museum Reach Milkweed Patch

The Milkweed Patch before the drought. Don’t worry, the butterflies still show up. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Yep, that’s right.  The butterflies that are migrating to Mexico this month through the “Texas Funnel” have never been to the roosting spot that is their final destination.   That would be like finding your way to the home of your great-great grandmother without ever having known her address.

The methodology for unraveling this mystery entailed professional and citizen scientists “tagging” the butterflies throughout the Eastern U.S.

Monarch Watch, a citizen scientist program based at the University of Kansas at Lawrence, continues the program today.

The butterflies migrate to a remote mountainous area of southern Mexico in the winter, rouse in the spring, mate, then die.  Their bodies are found on the forest floor.  These days, scientists pay the local people of Michoacán $5 per recovered tag.  In 1976, thanks to an intrepid Austin woman named Catalina Trail, scientists finally pieced together the puzzle and determined that Monarch butterflies are the only creatures on the planet to undertake a multi-generational migration.

Milkweed Patch on the San Antonio River Museum Reach

“A” Marks the spot for the Milkweed Patch

And why the Milkweed Patch, you say?

Monarch butterflies will only lay their eggs on a particular plant–milkweed. The beautiful orange bloomer serves as the insects’ host plant and also provides nectar for fueling up for its long journey. The San Antonio River Authority planted a stand of milkweed on the Museum Reach four years ago when the River Walk was extended north.

National Geographic cover of Monarch migration

Scientists didn’t piece together the puzzle of the Monarch butterfly migration until 1976.

The butterfly garden has since become known as The Milkweed Patch and is a regular hangout for Monarchs in the Spring and Fall, and other butterflies year-round. The Patch also is monitored by citizen scientists on behalf of the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project.

Join us at the Milkweed Patch at 6:30 PM.  Bring the kids.  They’ll love it.

I’ll have a couple of butterfly nets  and tags on hand to show you how its done.  We’ll tag the butterflies, record their tag numbers, and make note if they are male and female. All that info will be to Monarch Watch and entered into a database that is accessible from the web.

We’ll release tagged butterflies to the wind with the hope they find their way to Mexico. Perhaps our ‘Something Monday’ Monarchs will be fortunate enough to complete the trip.

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