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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Thanks, El Niño: Llano River Hosts Milkweed Buffet for Monarchs and other Butterflies

First I’d like to say, “Thank you, el Niño.”

I haven’t seen the Llano River or the milkweed and other wildflowers this robust since 2010, the year before the historic Texas drought hit our state.

Milkweed buffet

Decisions, decisions. What’s your pleasure, Monarch caterpillar? photo by Monika Maeckle

A weekend in the Texas Hill Country included a series of thunderstorms, warm temperatures and a bounty of roadside milkweed as well as a variety of Asclepias species on our property we haven’t seen in years.  Our caterpillars literally had a milkweed buffet awaiting them–four different Asclepias species, the Monarch butterfly host plant.

Antelope horns, Asclepias asperula, made a hearty showing in front of our porch.  Under the breezeway deck, a lone Texas milkweed, Asclepias texana, was already sporting blooms.  Down the trail, Pearl milkweed vine, Matelea reticulata, the lovely climber that boasts an attractive pearl-dotted flower, snuck up a nearby pencil cactus.  Along the banks of the Llano River, Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, the pink-blooming host plant offered hearty stalks, broader-than-usual leaves and new stands in places we’ve never noticed.

Antelope horns and Indian blanket

Antelope horns and Indian blanket dotted Highways 1871 and 87 in the Texas Hill Country this weekend. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Texas milkweed

Texas milkweed, what a trooper–no water, little light, growing under the breezeway. Haven’t seen this one in years. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Along the trail, this Pearl milkweed vine peeked above the mulch to climb a pencil cactus.  Can't wait for the flowers.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Along the trail, this Pearl milkweed vine peeked above the mulch to climb a pencil cactus. Can’t wait to see the flowers. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Robust stands of thick Swamp milkweed in new places along the River.  Gotta love it.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Robust stands of thick Swamp milkweed in new places along the Llano River. Gotta love it. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Only the Swamp milkweed hosted caterpillars and eggs.   The chubby chutes reached out of the Chigger Islands like thin stalks of asparagus.  What a heartening improvement over the scrawny plants of the past few years.

Only one Monarch was spotted flying this weekend, but others had obviously passed through since their offspring were observed in various stages–eggs, just-hatched cats,  second instar larvae and fifth instar caterpillars ready to bust their stripes and go chrysalis.

Two Monarch eggs over easy--well, under the leaves of Swamp milkweed on the Llano.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Two Monarch eggs over easy–well, under the leaves of Swamp milkweed, on the Llano. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Two stages of Monarch caterpillars munch on Swamp milkweed.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

Two stages of Monarch caterpillars munch on Swamp milkweed. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Anybody recognize this bloom?  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Anybody recognize this bloom? Photo by Monika Maeckle

The wildflower display along Highways 1871 and 87 around Mason and Fredericksburg was among the most spectacular I’ve seen in recent memory. Some mysterious (to me) newcomers joined the bouquet, like the white flower above showing in our watershed. Anybody know what it is?

Prediction:  2015 will be a fantastic year for butterflies, Monarchs in particular.   While the first three months of 2015 clocked as the hottest first quarter in history, it’s been mild and wet in our neck of the woods   And that bodes well for butterflies and other pollinators.

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Marine Biologist Launches App to Track Monarch Butterflies on Oil Rigs in Gulf

monarchsonrope

Monarch butterflies resting on an oil rig rope in the Gulf of Mexico in Oct.-Dec.  1993. Photo courtesy Dr. Gary Noel Ross

“The experience on the rig was certainly an unforgettable one…to see the cloud coming from all around in a mass that settled on every available space from the top of the derrick to the floors. Everything was covered…. There were butterflies on top of butterflies. The deck hands were busy with wash-down hoses and had to keep it up to be able to handle the gear while drilling. Some of the older hands said it was a yearly occurrence in the area.”

 –Mrs. Hylma Gordon of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, as told to  Bryant Mather and published in News of the Lepidopterists’ Society (July/August 1990), No. 4, page 59:

Dr. Tracy Villareal is atypical in the butterfly world.   He’s a PhD–but not in entomology.  He’s a butterfly breeder–but as a marine biologist at the University of Texas at Austin, he spends his days looking at small marine plants called phytoplankton
rather than coaxing caterpillars to morph to the next stage. Dr. Villareal and his partner Dr. Barbara Dorf, who serves as a Fishery Biologist at

Dr. Tracy Villareal, courtesy photo

Dr. Tracy Villareal, courtesy photo

Texas Parks and Wildlife Dept. along the Gulf, operate the Big Tree Butterflies farm in Rockport, Texas, when they’re not pulling duty at their full-time jobs.

So it seems the perfect marriage of passion and profession for Villareal to develop an app to track Monarch butterflies crossing the ocean–that is, the Gulf of Mexico.  “As an oceanographer I can’t bring much to bear in the terrestrial world, but this is flying over water,” he said in a series of conversations discussing his latest project.

As if migrating 3,000 miles were not impressive enough, evidence suggests that Monarch butterflies, like the ruby-throated hummingbird, cross the vast 450+ mile expanse of the Gulf of Mexico each year to make their famous trek to Michoacán in the mountains of Mexico.   Another scientist, Baton Rouge-based Gary Noel Ross, who holds a PhD in entomology,  documented the existence of myriad Monarch roosts on oil rigs as late as 1993.

Dr. gary Noel Ross, courtesy photo

Dr. Gary Noel Ross, courtesy photo

Dr. Villareal heard about the ocean crossings via the DPLX list, a listserv for butterfly enthusiasts, and began researching the idea of verifying whether or not the phenom continues today.

Given the lack of population on oil rigs, Dr. Villareal figured the best way to collect data would be to develop a very simple app that oil rig workers, fisher persons, even helicopter pilots might use to collect data on the whereabouts of Monarch butterflies. The app would register and automatically geolocate the datapoint, which would load to the cloud and populate a map, providing a real-time picture of where Monarchs are congregating at sea.  The app would work in a similar fashion to the well-utilized Journey North app, but it could go global and would be cloud-, rather than server-based.

“This needs to be as simple as possible,” said Dr. Villareal by phone.  “I don’t want (oil company) management out there telling people this is too distracting.”

But will oil rig workers take the time to contribute citizen science data? It wouldn’t be the first time.

Photos published in the Southern Lepidopterist Society newsletter by Dr. Ross, taken in the 90s, show oil rig workers netting butterflies. See below.

Oil rig workers tagging Monarch butterflies

Oil rig workers netting and tagging Monarch butterflies in October 1991. Photo via Southern Lepidopterist Society Newsletter

Dr. Ross supports the introduction of technology to the phenomenon he labeled the “Trans Gulf Express.”

“Technology has a lot to offer for field biologists,” said Dr. Ross via email, adding that if Dr. Villareal’s project gets underway and the app widely embraced, good data will be harvested that can be easily analyzed using digital tools.  “At the time of my work I had to rely on helicopter pilots and rig workers calling in to me at my location,” he recalled.  Dr. Ross offered that he personally thinks that Monarchs continue to cross the Gulf.

Monarch butterflies resting on oil rig rail in Oct. - Nov. 1993.  Photo courtesy Dr. Gary Noel Ross

Monarch butterflies resting on oil rig rail in Oct. – Nov. 1993. Photo courtesy Dr. Gary Noel Ross

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, the University of Kansas-based citizen scientist program that tags Monarch butterflies, agrees.

“As long as there are Monarchs, they will appear from time to time on rigs in the Gulf,” said Dr. Taylor.  Dr. Taylor and Monarch Watch are partners in the venture, kicking off a fundraising effort to raise $8,000 for Villareal’s app with a $4,000 matching grant–half the total.  The funds will be used to take the app beyond the development phase.  “It may help us learn more about the how and why,” said Dr. Taylor. “The survival question will be more difficult to answer,” he said.

Monarchs on oil rigs app

Dr. Tracy Villareal’s app will track Monarch butterflies on oil rigs. Click on over and help raise the needed funds to take the app out of the beta stage.

Want to help?   Check out the fundraising campaign, Tracking Monarch Butterflies on Offshore Oil Platforms, which launched today on Hornraiser, a University of Texas- sponsored crowd funding platform. 

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Mega Grower Color Spot Nursery to Consider Growing Clean, Chemical-free Milkweed

Color Spot Nursery, one of the top national wholesale growers in the country, said this week they will explore heeding the call for clean, chemical-free, preferably native milkweed plants.   The company said they are considering growing select Asclepias species, the only plant on which Monarch butterflies will lay their eggs, WITHOUT any systemic pesticides.  Thanks to Craig the Butterflyman for the tip.

Kevin Grossberndt, Colorspot Nursery

Kevin Grossberndt, Colorspot Nursery

The California-based mega grower, which has seven nursery locations in Texas including one in San Antonio, said they were responding to their customers, which include Lowes, Home Depot, Wal-Mart and hundreds of independent nurseries across the country. Color Spot does not sell directly to the public.

“Our customers got in trouble with the community,” said Kevin Grossberndt, Commercial Sales Manager for the Southwest Division of Color Spot.   “We all learned a lesson.”

Gorssberndt said Color Spot is well aware of Monarch butterfly enthusiasts’ dismay at buying milkweeds to feed hungry Monarch caterpillars, and being misinformed by retail nursery staff that milkweed plants had not been sprayed with systemic pesticides.

After customers purchased milkweed plants from local nurseries and later placed their caterpillars on them to feed on the milkweed leaves, the caterpillars perished within hours.   That’s because large growers like Color Spot often spray the plants with systemic pesticides early in the year and the poisons used can linger for many months.  The phenomenon has been well documented on these webpages.  We call it Desperately Seeking Milkweed syndrome.

Kevin Grossberndt Colorspot

Kevin Grossberndt stands in a quanset hut of Tropical milkweed and Butterfly weed at Colorspot Nursery in western San Antonio. The company is exploring cultivation of chemical free milkweeds. –PHoto by Monika Maeckle

Bernhardt, trained as a horticulturist, said Color Spot is considering which species to plant and is likely to go with Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, and Butterfly weed, Aslcepias tuberosa.

The Texas Butterfly Ranch and our hydroponic milkweed growing partner Local Sprout made a pitch to Bernhardt to consider cultivating Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, since it is relatively easy-to-grow, a great nectar and host plant and prolific pink bloomer native to the area.  Most native Texas milkweed species are famously persnickety to grow. Swamp milkweed is not.  Check out the Texas Butterfly Ranch milkweed guide for more info.

Dr. Chip Taylor, the founder of Monarch Watch, chimed in via email, suggesting that Color Spot might try Green Antelope Horn milkweed, Asclepias viridis.  “Viridis is probably the second most important plant on the Monarch’s menu,” Dr. Taylor said.  “It’s the main host for first generation Monarchs. It’s also the most abundant of the Texas milkweeds and survives in pastures quite well.”

Which is absolutely true, but it’s famously challenging to grow from pots and transplants.

“Texas is too dry and hot for syriaca,” Taylor added.

During a tour of Color Spot’s 400-acre growing facility in western San Antonio near Lackland Airforce base, Grossberndt described the special challenges commercial growers will face in growing chemical-free milkweed.

As we all know, milkweed is an aphid magnet, and many people will not buy plants with aphids on them.   Traditionally, Color Spot deals with aphids and other pests via pesticides in order to deliver pristine plants to retail outlets.

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

Aphids and milkweed have a symbiotic relationship. Photo by Monika Maeckle

With labor one of their highest costs, hand removal of aphids may not be practical.    Color Spot already uses robots to move plants around.   The R2D2-like machines rearranged a plot of potted rose bushes as we all watched in amazement.  But since its doubtful that an aphid-squishing robot will be developed anytime soon, Color Spot will have to be resourceful.

“We might be able to do it with a soap knock-down or possibly explore using beneficials like ladybugs or parasitoid wasps,” said Grossberndt. “We’ll have to see.”

Video by Mitchell Hagney

Dr. Taylor also recommended beneficial insects.  “We are happy to recommend various biological control agents. They seem pricey until you see how effective they are but the grower has to have personnel that is alert to the build-up of pests so that the biologicals can be deployed effectively,” he said.    Grossberndt agreed that training of personnel, especially Color Spot’s technology services team, would have to be part of the plan.

Since the nursery typically sprays ornamental and other inventory with systemic pesticides, the growhouse would also need to be strategically placed out of any possible wind drift and would require polyurethane sides, versus less expensive shade cloth or plastic to assure no chemicals entered the clean zone.

Milkweed at Color Spot Nursery

To be sprayed or not to be sprayed? Milkweed plants at Color Spot Nursery. Kevin Gorssberndt is hoping the nursery can figure out a way to produce lots of milkweed without chemicals. Photo by Mitchell Hagney

Grossberndt showed us one quanset hut filled with a mix of Tropical milkweed and Butterfly weed–some newly sprouted from seed this year, others cut back and sprouting new growth from last season.   Aphids adorned the underside of the older plants, suggesting the plants had not been sprayed with pesticides.

Yet.

Will they be?  “I’m hoping they won’t,” said Bernhardt.  “These plants were in the middle of other plants, so we’ll just have to see how it goes,” said Bernhardt.  “I’m making the case.”

Grossberndt suggested that Color Spot might have some clean plants on the market by late summer or early fall–hopefully in time for the fall migration when those of us who raise Monarchs often run out of milkweed for those butterflies that break their diapause and reproduce here.  ” I can’t really guarantee a timeline,” said Grossberndt.

P.S. Have you taken our What Kind of Milkweed Survey?   Help us convince Color Spot and other commercial growers to offer clean, chemical free milkweed by voting for the species you’d like to see in local nurseries.  Here’s the link and feel free to share the survey.  GRACIAS!

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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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Monarch Butterfly Inches Toward “Threatened” Status under Endangered Species Act

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced this week it will conduct a status review to determine whether or not the Monarch butterfly should be listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  The conservation arm of the U.S. government has been considering the matter ever since the Xerces Society, Center for Food Safety, Center for Biological Diversity and Dr. Lincoln Brower submitted this petition to the Secretary of the Interior on August 26.  Read the press release.

Soon to be "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act?  --Photo by Monika Maeckle

Soon to be “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act? –Photo by Monika Maeckle

The petition caused quite a flutter in the Monarch butterfly community over the past few months.   Listservs and social media outlets mulled the possibilities inherent in a threatened status listing.   Hundreds of scientists and enthusiasts signed letters and petitions of support, yet others took issue with the 159-page petition.

Professional butterfly breeders and some citizen scientists (including yours truly) expressed concerns about the petition’s final sentence, which described how people like me and you will only be allowed to raise 10 or fewer Monarchs per year–unless that activity is “overseen by a scientist, conservation organization, or other entity dedicated to the conservation of the species.”

If the Monarch butterfly is declared threatened under the Endangered Species Act, will it be illegal to take this boy home and get him to the next stage?   Photo by Monika Maeckle

If the Monarch butterfly is declared threatened under the Endangered Species Act, will it be illegal to take this boy home and get him to the next stage? –Photo by Monika Maeckle

Commercial butterfly breeders, who supply the exhibition, natural history, education, and special event businesses with butterfly stock, strongly objected to the petition, suggesting it could jeopardize their businesses.  At its core, the petition does strike at the heart of what has made the Monarch butterfly so iconic, widely embraced, and understood–the crowdsourcing utilized to unravel its mysterious migration and the resulting groundswell of interest in conserving it.

Reactions to the move toward threatened status were mixed.

“Could have gone either way,” said Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, the citizen scientist program that tags thousands of Monarch butterflies each year. “This finding just means it advances to the review stage and these reviews can be repeated year after year after year for decades. If the current population is as large as I think it is and there is no catastrophic mortality in Mexico this winter, support for the petition could fade. Successful large scale restoration efforts with lots of attendant publicity could also weaken the case for threatened status.” he added.  Taylor has stated his opposition to the petition, calling for an apolitical approach and expressing concerns about landowner backlash if milkweed–the Monarch butterfly’s host plant–is declared critical habitat.

xerceslogo“We are extremely pleased that the federal agency in charge of protecting our nation’s wildlife has recognized the dire situation of the Monarch,” said Sarina Jepsen, endangered species director of the Xerces Society, one of the organizations that submitted the petition. “Protection as a threatened species will enable extensive Monarch habitat recovery on both public and private land,” she added.

Tierra Curry, a senior  scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity echoed those sentiments in this statement posted on the organization’s website:  “The Endangered Species Act is the most powerful tool available to save Monarchs so I’m really happy these amazing butterflies are a step closer to the protection they so desperately need.”

Commercial butterfly breeders were not so thrilled.

ibba“The IBBA does not believe that a status of threatened is appropriate or warranted at this time for the Monarch butterfly,” said the International Butterfly Breeder’s Association president Kathy Marshburn in response to the news. She added that habitat conservation is necessary to support and promote the survival of the Monarch and the IBBA will continue to support these efforts.

The Association For Butterflies, a butterfly education and advocacy group for farmers and hobbyists, issued the following statement:   “The Association for Butterflies is saddened to hear that Fish and Wildlife has decided to move ahead with the process of listing the Monarch butterfly as a threatened species. There is clear evidence that the butterfly itself is not threatened, only the migration phenomenon. Monarch Watch and other organizations are on the right track to help increase the migration numbers by encouraging private citizens and others to plant milkweed, which AFB will continue to support as we work towards helping all pollinators.”

Endangered Species Act Process

This is the process. We are entering the second blue bubble from the top. Stay tuned. –Courtesy graphic

So what happens next?

The USFWS will continue to review information, including public comments submitted in the next 60 days. Stakeholders and organizations have two months to express concerns and get them on the public record.

After two-months of public comment, the petition will be considered and evaluated until August 26, 2015 (12 months from the initial filing of the petition) then result in one of the following:

1) USFWS proposes the Monarch for listing
2) USFWS declines to list the Monarch
3) USFWS decides that listing is warranted but precluded by higher priorities, and the Monarch then would be added to a waitlist of candidate species.

 

Government regulation comment page

Let your voice be heard! Starting tomorrow, post comments at the page above. Just click on the picture above and Insert docket #FWS-R3-ES-2014-0056 into the search box.

“The public is key right now,” said Vanessa C. Kauffman, spokesperson for USFWS.  “We value their input during the status review period.”

So gather your thoughts for posting to the public record, and let your voice be heard.   The notice will be published in the Federal Register tomorrow, December 31, 2014, and the public comment period will end March 2, 2015.   Starting tomorrow, you can view the notice and submit information by visiting www.regulations.gov and typing docket number FWS-R3-ES-2014-0056 into the search box.

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

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

Dara Satterfield

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

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

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

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

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

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

DSC00048 - Copy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DSC00035

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OE Spores with Monarch Butterfly Scales

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

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

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

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

Monarch on Tropical Milkweed at CPS Energy Pollinator garden

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

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

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

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

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

Edith Smith

Edith Smith, Shady Oak Butterfly Farm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dara Satterfield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Endangered Species Act Petition: Wrong Tool for Monarch Butterfly Conservation?

As Monarch butterflies finished their tardy, impressive sweep through Texas in early November demonstrating a 2014 population rebound, those in the Monarch community debated the wisdom of listing the iconic migrating butterfly as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Monarch butterflies on the Llano River

If the Monarch butterfly were listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, you could only harvest 10 from your own yard each year. Photo by Veronica Prida

In late August, the Xerces Society, Center for Food Safety, Center for Biological Diversity and Dr. Lincoln Brower submitted this petition to the Secretary of the Interior requesting the Monarch butterfly be listed as “threatened” under the ESA.

This year’s seemingly healthy population, predicted by experts to be two, perhaps three times as large as last year’s record low, is a welcome turnaround from the post-2010 decline associated with the prolonged Texas drought and other challenges to the migration. The rebound has created a bit of a disconnect, arriving the same year as the petition to consider the iconic migrants’ threatened status.

The reasons for the general decline of Monarchs are well documented: genetically modified and herbicide tolerant crops, continued urbanization and habitat destruction along the migratory path, illegal logging in Mexico, climate change, and pesticide use. The ecosystem that supports the Monarch butterfly migration–and pollinator habitat in general–is tattered.  Dr. Chip Taylor stated it well in a recent blog post: “Monarchs clearly aren’t endangered. As this discussion proceeds, we need to make it clear in all communications that it’s about the migration and not the species per se.”

Agreed.

So, is petitioning the federal government to list our favorite butterfly as “threatened” the best way to accomplish that goal?  After giving it much thought, I think not.

Threatened status might motivate large corporations and government agencies to be more considerate of Monarchs and other pollinators, but for private citizens with no government or scientific affiliation, such status could be counter productive.

Monarch cateripllars

Not in your backyard: if ESA threatened status is applied to Monarchs, each household will be allowed to raise only 10 Monarchs per year. Photo by Monika Maeckle

As one who enjoys Monarchs visiting my urban garden eight months of the year and roosting along the Llano River in the fall, I take particular issue with the federal government telling me what I can do with my land.

Milkweed and nectar plants fill my San Antonio pollinator gardens.   We’ve also undertaken a riparian restoration in the Texas Hill Country where Monarchs roost each year, an effort that includes planting native milkweeds and other nectar plants along our riverbanks along the Llano River.

In the course of any given year, I raise several hundred butterflies, not just Monarchs, for fun, joy, and to give as gifts. My goal is to inspire appreciation and understanding of our outdoor world and reinforce the majesty of nature in a small, everyday way.

According to the 159-page petition’s final line,  if “threatened” status is approved, such activities would be a crime.  People like me and you will be allowed to raise “fewer than ten Monarchs per year by any individual, household or educational entity”–unless that activity is “overseen by a scientist, conservation organization, or other entity dedicated to the conservation of the species.”

This seems to strike at the very heart of what has made the Monarch butterfly so iconic and widely embraced–the crowdsourcing of understanding its migration and the groundswell of interest in conserving it.

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

Citizen scientists and individuals like Catalina Trail were instrumental in the discovery of the Monarch roosting spots in 1976.  File photo.

Let’s not forget that regular folks like us helped piece together the puzzle of the Monarch migration back in 1976 through Dr. Fred Urquhart’s monitoring project and the intrepid explorations of individuals like Catalina Trail, the first person to chance up on the roosts in Michoacán.  Making lawbreakers of regular folks for participating and reserving that privilege only for scientists would do more harm than good.

If milkweed becomes part of critical habitat as defined by the ESA under this petition, that would mean destroying milkweed–or getting caught destroying it–would become a crime punishable by fines or mitigation.   Civil penalties can come to $25,000 per ESA violation and criminal fines up to $100,000 per violation, and/or imprisonment for up to one year.

Many landowners will simply not plant milkweed or will do away with it entirely just to avoid problems.  In some parts of the universe, this is known as Shoot, Shovel and Shut-up, the “practice of killing and burying evidence of any plants or animals that might be threatened or endangered.”   We have seen this attitude first hand in Texas.  Ranchers have been known to destroy first growth Ashe Juniper to preserve grass lands and conserve water to avoid ramifications of disturbing the preferred habitat of the endangered Golden-cheeked warbler.

Also, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is cited as the enforcement agent for these rules– but how likely is it that agency personnel will have the bandwidth to do so? If enforcement is not practical, what is the point of the rule?

The petitioners take special issue with the commercial butterfly breeding industry, which supplies eggs, caterpillars, chrysalises and live butterflies for schools, nature exhibits, conservation activities and events. The petition specifically details how conservation education activities like the rearing of Monarchs in school classrooms or at nature centers will be immune to regulation, “provided that the Monarchs are not provided by commercial suppliers.”

That means if a teacher in a classroom or home school situation in New York City wants to teach metamorphosis to fifth graders using Monarch butterflies, she can only do that with  butterflies personally harvested in the Big Apple. The best intentions often lead to unintended consequences, and that is what I fear in this instance.

“If only wild caterpillars can be collected and brought into the classroom, we will run the risk of excluding urban children…. precisely what we don’t want,” Dr. David Wagner, author of the guide to Caterpillars of Eastern North America, Dr. Felix Sperling of the University of Alberta and Dr. Bruce Walsh, of the University of Arizona, co-wrote in a 2010 article in the News of the Lepidopterist’s Society.

Again, this seems like a case where federal regulation will do more harm than good since the children that most benefit from the tactile experience of raising butterflies are often those living in urban settings with limited access to nature.

Nola Hamilton Garcia with Monarch butterfly

Limiting access to butterflies in the classroom to those found only in the wild will severely restrict access to Monarchs by urban children (who most need it), some scientists say.   Photo by Tracy Idell Hamilton

One of the most contentious issues in the petition is a claim on page 74 that “millions” of Monarch butterflies are released into the environment by commercial butterfly breeders each year.

The claim appears greatly exaggerated to the International Butterfly Breeders Association (IBBA), which challenged the number in a press release headlined, “Number of Monarch Butterflies Released Annually Closer to 32,000 than ‘millions and millions’ as Claimed by Endangered Species Act Petitioners.”

[DISCLOSURE:  I serve on the board of the International Butterfly Breeders Association but do not raise butterflies commercially.  I also am a member of the Xerces Society and have hosted both Dr. Chip Taylor and Dr. Lincoln Brower at our ranch.]

The IBBA challenged the basis for such a claim, noting that the “millions and millions” citation was, in fact, lifted from a single newspaper op-ed piece published eight years ago.  The author, Professor Jeffrey Lockwood, University of Wyoming, acknowledged the number was guesswork.

“That such an unverified claim surfaced in a formal petition before the Secretary of the Interior demonstrates a serious failure in documentation at best,” Kathy Marshburn, IBBA president, said in the press release.

Dr. Tracy Villareal, an IBBA board member, oceanographer, and part owner of Big Tree Butterflies butterfly farm in Rockport, Texas, called the claim “misleading and poor scholarship.” Villareal told me by phone that he would grade such secondhand references unacceptable in a graduate student’s dissertation.

“The authors made no attempt to determine the composition of the 11 million–how many of each species, for example. Nor did they attempt to contact the author to determine how he arrived at this number.  It took me about four hours from my initial email to Professor Lockwood to find out how it was done.”  Read the IBBA’s challenge to the numbers for yourself.

OE Spores with Monarch Butterfly Scales

OE spores can be debilitating for Monarch butterflies.   Concerns about infecting the wild population with the nasty spore persist, and studies continue.  Photo courtesy of MLMP

The petitioners believe that commercial breeders release diseased butterflies into the wild population, potentially damaging it. In particular, the unpronounceable Monarch-centric spore, Ophyrocystis elektroscirrha (OE), poses special concern since it debilitates the butterflies and appears to thrive in conditions where the creatures congregate en masse, are crowded, and/or where milkweeds overwinter, carrying the spores into the next season.

Yet, scientists agree that OE is present in the wild population, too, just as Streptococcus, the nasty sore throat-causing bacteria, is present in the human population. Only when health or conditions are degraded does the disease overtake the butterflies. The science is still uncertain on this.  Studies continue.

Like any industry, commercial butterfly breeding attracts good citizens and bad, but it seems highly unlikely that people who gravitated to the challenging task of breeding butterflies for a living would intentionally release damaged goods into nature. That just makes for bad business. Does the industry need better checks and balances on the health of livestock released into nature?  Absolutely.

The IBBA, an international organization of 104 breeders, plans to release new counts for the number of butterflies released annually at its conference that begins November 12 in Ft. Lauderdale. The organization also will host a discussion on changing or increasing self-policing practices of its membership to keep livestock as disease-free as possible.  As Villareal said in a recent email exchange on the DPLEX list, a listserv frequented by hundreds of folks in the Monarch community, “Working from clean breeders is a critical first step in production. I repeat this for everybody in the back row. CLEAN BREEDERS ARE CRITICAL.”

The ESA petition has created conflict in the small-but-passionate world of butterfly advocates.  A far better use of the community’s time and energy could be spent on initiatives and public education campaigns to restore migratory habitat.

It’s already happening in many ways, through government and small-but-significant public- private partnerships.

In June, President Obama issued a presidential memorandum calling for all federal agencies to “substantially expand pollinator habitat on federal lands, and to build on federal efforts with public-private partnerships.”  Pollinator Week Proclamations have been declared in 45 states, recognizing the vital services that pollinators provide.  The EPA released guidance to help scientists assess the potential risks various pesticides pose to bees, and the USDA announced an $8 million initiative to provide funding to farmers and ranchers who establish new pollinator habitats on agricultural lands as part of its Conservation Reserve Program.

Hardberger Park Land bridge

Yes, please.  Hardberger Park land bridge would facilitate safe movement of wildlife–including pollinators. Photo via Rivard Report

Here in my hometown, we are working with the leadership of San Antonio’s Hemisfair Area Redevelopment Corporation to include pollinator habitat in their upcoming reimagination of the historic 65-acre downtown park that was home to the city’s 1968 world’s fair. Our local public utility, CPS Energy, recently supported the installation of a pollinator garden right downtown at their headquarters on the San Antonio River Walk.   And on our city’s heavily developed northwest quadrant, Hardberger Park has a dedicated butterfly garden. The park conservancy is raising money for a spectacular land bridge that will facilitate safe movement of pollinators and other wildlife.

Let’s focus on individual actions and crafting effective public-private partnerships that raise awareness, plant more milkweed and nectar plants and make rebounds like 2014 common fare–and keep the federal government out of our yards.

NOTE:  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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