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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First Lady Michelle Obama Gets Milkweed as White House Adds First Pollinator Garden

Congratulations, pollinator advocates!   Last week, First Lady Michelle Obama added a “first-ever pollinator garden,” including two types of milkweed and dozens of flowering nectar plants, to the White House Kitchen Garden.

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 Foodorama Blog

On April 2, during its spring installation, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue added Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata and Butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa to the 1500-square-foot garden.  The milkweed species will serve as Monarch host plant as well as a favored nectar source to bees and other butterfly species.

Swamp milkweed

Coming soon to the first ever pollinator garden at the White House: Asclepias incarnata, Swamp Milkweed. Photo by Monika Maeckle

In her remarks to the 25 school children assisting in the planting, Mrs. Obama explained  she was adding flowering inedible plants to the vegetable garden because she wants to “help bees and butterflies.”  Until now, herbs and vegetables have occupied all 34 of the garden’s beds since it was first planted in 2009. 

“A pollinator garden helps to encourage the production of bees and Monarch butterflies.  They pollinate the plants, they help the plants grow,” said the First Lady.  ”They’re dying because of disease–we don’t even know why some beehives are just totally disappearing.”

Ascelpias tuberosa

Asclepias tuberosa, or Butterfly Weed, will be growing soon at the White House Pollinator Garden. Photo courtesy Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center

The loss of the insects “could be a problem for the planet because if you don’t have insects and great pollinators to pollinate the plants, it could affect our food source, it could affect our ability to continue to grow things,” Mrs. Obama explained.

“So this garden is going to help to contribute to improving that problem,” she said.  “Pretty cool, huh?”

VERY cool.

The addition of milkweed to this symbolic presidential garden must be viewed as a small victory for pollinator advocacy.

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.

On February 19, the Presidents of the United States and Mexico, Barack Obama and Enrique Peńa Nieto, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada, met in Toluca, Mexico to discuss weighty matters of state–border security, economic issues, energy issues, and  immigration.  By the end of the day, they had also agreed to work together to try and save the Monarch butterfly migration, which binds all three countries through the magnificent insects’ North American migration.

Now here we are only seven weeks later–enough time for a Monarch butterfly egg to move through its five instars, form a chrysalis and hatch into a butterfly–and milkweed has been added to the White House garden.   

Coincidence?   We think not.

Michelle Obama, please plant milkweed at the White House
We did it!  First Lady Michelle Obama added milkweed to the White House kitchen garden, creating the first-ever pollinator garden at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue last week.

What happened in between is a testament to what is possible when individuals and citizen scientists take action.   As written here previously, the NAFTA gathering galvanized awareness of pollinator decline.  

Two groups, the Mexico-based Grupo de los Cien Internacional and Make Way for Monarchs here in the U.S., banded together to form the Milkweed-Butterfly Recovery Alliance  and 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.

Facebook pages were created, petitions launched (including one by the Texas Butterfly Ranch–thanks to all 508 of you who signed!) and organizations as diverse as the NRDC, the Xerces Society, Pollinator Partnership, Monarch Watch, Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project –even Monsanto expressed commitments to help.

Awareness is the first step in addressing the problem and this small garden cultivates attention at the highest level.  This is progress, pollinator peeps.   Let’s keep pushing.

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Historic Rendezvous of Those Who Located Monarch Butterfly Roosting Sites Draws Crowd of 200

Almost 200 butterfly aficionados gathered at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center auditorium in South Austin Monday night to hear from four speakers responsible for discovering and sharing the location of the Monarch butterfly roosting sites in Mexico almost 40 years ago.

Catalina Trail in Michoacán, 1975

Even in the 70s, logging took a toll on the Monarchs’ roosting sites as witnessed by this stump, enveloped in butterflies.  Catalina Trail on right.  Photo Copyright Catalina Trail

Dr. Lincoln Brower, one of the foremost Monarch butterfly entomologists in the country, was flown in from Virginia by the Austin Butterfly Forum to join three Austinites instrumental in Monarch butterfly history:  Catalina Trail, Dr. William “Bill” Calvert and John Christian.   The historic occasion was orchestrated by Mike Quinn, guardian of Texas Monarch Watch and the president of the Austin Butterfly Forum.

Trail is the only living founder of three people present at the “discovery” of the site where millions of Monarch butterflies roost each winter.  Calvert and Christian, in collaboration with Dr. Brower, revealed that location to the world two years after the site was first explored by Westerners. NOTE:  Native peoples had known about the roosts for centuries, but had no idea the butterflies had migrated from the United States and Canada.

Monday night’s presentation, staged by the Austin Butterfly Forum and billed as “a discussion of The Monarch’s Mexican Overwintering Refugia” did not disappoint.

Austin Butterfly Forum

Left to right: John Christian, Dr. Bill Calvert, Catalina Trail, and Dr. Lincoln Brower at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center. Photo Copyright by Mike Quinn

Wearing a lovely Pineda Covalin silk shawl festooned with lifelike Monarch butterflies,  Trail opened the discussion by sharing rarely seen photos of the ancestral roosting grounds as they appeared in the 70s.  Such was the state of the Oyamel forests when she and her then-husband, North American Ken Brugger, came upon the roosts after searching the rugged Sierra Madre mountains by motor home in the mid-70s.

thickmonarchsontreetrunks

“Butterflies on the ground, covering the trees, all the way to the top like a cathedral,” Catalina Trail said of the Monarch roosting sites’ appearance in 1975.   Photo Copyright Catalina Trail

“I was speechless,” said Trail in her soft Spanish accent.  ”They were one-foot high, on the ground and covering the trees all the way to the top, like a cathedral.”

She described how she and Brugger had answered an ad placed in the Mexico City News by Canadian entomologist Dr. Fred Urquhart and his wife Nora for “interested persons” that would help track down the Monarch butterfly roosting sites.   The Urquharts had been working on the puzzle for decades.   Born on a ranch in Michoacán, Trail worked with Brugger to search the mountains for several years before discovering the ancestral roosts in January of 1975.

catalinatalkingtolocals

On the Monarch butterfly trail with Catalina Trail. She toured the Sierra Madre asking the locals if they had seen Monarch butterflies in the mid 1970s. Photo Copyright Catalina Trail

“I kept wishing the whole world had my eyes so they could see what I was seeing and feel what I was feeling,” she said, upon witnessing the millions and millions of butterflies covering every surface in the forest.   To hear the sound of the Monarchs taking flight was akin to “a symphony of the wings.”

ridgewheremonarchswerediscovered

According to Trail, this is the ridge where she and her husband Ken Brugger first found the roosts. Photo Copyright Catalina Trail

The day they found the Monarchs, she and her husband rushed back to town to call Dr. Urquhart and then came the hardest part:  ”We had to keep it a secret.”

That’s because Dr. Urquhart wanted to keep the news quiet until he and his wife could visit and he could prepare a scientific paper.  Because of poor health, they didn’t make the trip until almost a year later.   Eventually Urquhart broke the news with a cover story in National Geographic in August of 1976.  That story rocked the world of entomology but left out the specifics of the location and caused devoted scientists like Dr. Brower, who had also been working on Monarch butterflies for years, and Dr. Bill Calvert, to set out on a quest to reveal the butterflies’ location.

The saga has been well documented in the book, Four Wings in a Prayer by Sue Halpern.

While Trail was the star of the show on Monday, the crowd also heard from the soft-spoken John Christian, a quiet, Spanish-speaking photographer and documentarian, who grew up in Mexico and was approached by Dr. Calvert at the University of Texas to accompany him on an adventure in search of the butterflies.   Calvert had teamed up with Brower, Dr. Victoria Foe, and her boyfriend (no one can remember his name)  to figure out the location of the roosting sites.  His role was to set out for Mexico via pick-up truck in search of the location.

“Bill Calvert asked me one day if I wanted to go help him find the butterflies as a translator,” said Christian from the stage, wearing a Huichol bag across his left shoulder.  ”I said yes, and it was quite an honor.”

Like Trail, and many of us who have visited the roosting sites, Christian was permanently effected by the experience.  ”It was extraordinary.  Not religious, but spiritual. Like a Church of Nature.  It’s a sacred place.”

Calvert also spoke, putting all the memories in context by pointing out that with the passage of time, testimony frequently comes riddled with “embellishments and omissions and aggrandizements…resulting in no idea of the truth.”

Calvert recalled how he met Dr. Brower at a seminar and when he realized the entomologist was making the study of Monarch butterflies his life’s work, soon drove all the way to Bustamante, Mexico, to retrieve 200 for him.

“He immediately ground them up into paste and did a cardenolide study on them,” said Calvert.

In those days, Dr. Brower was on the cutting edge of research using chemical fingerprinting to determine lipid content and what type of milkweed the Monarchs were eating.   Surely this had to be threatening to Dr. Urquhart, who had mastered the quaint-but-effective (and still utilized) practice of physically putting tags on Monarchs to determine their migratory pattern.

Brower gets credit for figuring out that the toxins in milkweed, the cardiac glycosides, are what make Monarch butterflies distasteful to predators, and in fact, may be the key to their roosting survival.

As Dr. Brower pointed out in his own fascinating presentation, cold butterflies don’t move fast and are quite vulnerable for several months at 10,000 feet in the cool Mexican forest.   Why are predators not feasting on them in this most vulnerable state?

Because they don’t taste good.  Brower’s famous barfing bluejay photo proved that point, below.

Barfing Bluejay

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

Calvert said that when he and Brower contacted Urquhart to ask him the location of the butterflies so they could deepen their understanding and study of the Monarchs, Urquhart “suggested we goto Appalachicola Bay along the Florida coast and retrieve some.”  That led to their travels and Monarch findings in Mexico.

The duo realized two important clues dropped by Urquhart in the National Geographic article and in a paper published in the the Journal of the Lepidopterists’ Society:  the roosting sites were somewhere at 3,000 meters elevation and on a slope of volcanic mountains in the northern part of Michoacán.

Based on those two simple clues, Calvert determined a small area west of Mexico City that met the criteria and he and Christian set out to find the site.   When they arrived in Angangueo, a small town near the roosting sanctuaries, they recruited the Mayor’s son to help them.   “He seemed incredulous that anyone would be interested in these insects,” said Calvert.

On New Year’s Eve, 1976, almost exactly two years after Catalina Trail first trod on the spot, they located the roosting sanctuaries.

“That’s what science is,” said Brower, summing up the feat of connecting the dots and following the clues.

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Right on time: First of Season Monarchs Arrive in San Antonio

Reports of Monarch butterfly sightings in South Texas are hitting email lists, the web and social media this week, as the hearty orange-and-black butterflies begin their massive departure from Michoacán, Mexico, making their multi-generational journey north.

Mating Monarchs

Get a room! Monarch butterflies drop to the ground in a mating frenzy upon departing their roosts in Michoacán. Photo by Estela Romero via Journey North

“The massive leaving is occurring right now!” wrote Journey North correspondent Estela Romero from Morelia, Mexico, on March 13, as millions of butterflies fled their roosts. “Monarchs are clouding our town, flying by the towers of our downtown churches in a majestic performance as if dancing to music!”  Romero provides regular dispatches from the ancestral roosting sites to the educational organization that tracks the Monarch and other migrations. Read Romero’s updates here.

The butterflies leave Mexico each year right around the Equinox, which occurred  at precisely at 11:57 AM CDT in San Antonio on Thursday.   The butterflies get their cues from the sun, rouse themselves from a semi-hibernative state, and mate.   Then they start heading north, following the blooming flowers that provide fuel in the form of nectar in search milkweed–the only plant on which they will lay their eggs and be able to continue their life cycle. The “Texas Funnel”–South Texas and the Hill Country– is often the first stop for egg-laying, and thus begets the first generation of new migrating Monarchs.

I spotted my FOS (First of Season) Monarch on Friday, March 20, about 6:30 PM, along the San Antonio River Walk right near downtown.  Alex Rivard reported a Monarch in the Dignowity Hill neighborhood of the Alamo City the same day. The faded beauty observed on my evening walk was nectaring on purple Mountain Laurel flowers, the early spring trees that offer a distinct grape Kool-aid scented bloom. As I approached the butterfly, she lighted upstream.

First of Season Monarchs are arriving in San Antonio

Harlen Aschen, a regular butterfly watcher  based in Port Lavaca, Texas, shared his  FOS Monarch spotting March 19 with the DPLEX-list, an old school style list serv that reaches hundreds of butterfly buffs.

Late this afternoon a monarch flew from the SSW out across the open pasture and finally picked a mesquite just north of the cabin to land in and spend the night.  It wasn’t new but not close enough to tell sex.  We will all be out for a few more days to see if any others follow and if we can get any to pose for a photo.  This would put this one about 640 miles north of the sanctuaries … 65 miles ESE of San Antonio. A light north breeze today and in mid-70′s. –Harlen

Last year, my FOS arrived on March 17.   That was a different year, with ample, well-timed rains and an abundance of milkweed waiting.  This year our spring follows a brutally dry winter and extremely cold temperatures–including three hard freezes–that have resulted in a delayed start to spring.

Just keep doing your thing, girl. She laid about 10 eggs on Sunday. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Front yard milkweed 2013:  Look how big the milkweed was in my yard on March 17 compared to the same plant, a year later, below.  This butterfly laid 12 eggs here that day. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, in my yard is barely out of the ground, and the Swamp milkweed Asclepias incarnata, on the Llano River is not even showing.   Antelope Horns, Asclepias asperula?  Haven’t see any at our place, but others report a bounty.

As noted in a previous post, cold winters are actually good for the migration, since not only do colder temps kill fireants and other predators, but they slow down the butterflies and prevent them from getting ahead of the plants.  Check out the difference between last year (above) and this year’s milkweed foliage (below).

Tropical milkweed, spring 2014

Front yard Tropical milkweed March 21, 2014: barely out of the ground. Photo by Monika Maeckle

One common thread carried over from 2013:  again, this year looks to be the worst in history, population wise for Monarchs.  Last year we bemoaned the paltry 2.93 acres of Oyamel forest occupied by the Monarchs in Mexico.  But 2014 knocked out that dreary record, with only 1.65 acres–about 72,000 square feet–of  forest occupied by Monarch butterflies.  Scientists measure the number of acres occupied by the butterflies each year at their ancestral roosts to estimate how many butterflies exist.

That said, we must marvel at the tenacity and endurance of these small, slight creatures.  Those spotted this week have just traveled 850 miles in search of milkweed so they can lay eggs and continue the life cycle. They just don’t give up.

And we won’t either.

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Austin Butterfly Forum to Feature Historic Gathering Of Monarch Butterfly Flutterati

Butterfly aficionados in Texas are in for a treat March 24 in Austin:  the Austin Butterfly Forum will host a quartet of players responsible for discovering and sharing the location in Mexico of the Monarch butterfly roosting sites back in 1976.   For butterfly buffs, it will be an historic night, as Dr. Lincoln Brower, Catalina Trail, Dr. William “Bill” Calvert and John Christian gather to share stories billed as “a discussion of The Monarch’s Mexican Overwintering Refugia.”

I can’t wait.

The event takes place at Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, 4801 La Crosse Avenue, Austin, TX 78739  7PM Monday, March 24. Tickets are $10 per person.   For more information, see the Austin Butterfly Forum website.

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

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

Dr. Lincoln Brower, one of the foremost Monarch butterfly entomologists in the country and a tireless advocate for the migrating creatures, will fly in from Sweet Briar, Virginia, to join the discussion and lead two field trips–one on Saturday and one on Monday.  Unfortunately, both of those are full.

Catalina Trail, the only living founder of the roosting sites, lives in Austin.  Her story and historic contribution to the discovery of the Monarch wintering grounds were first profiled on this website in July of 2012. 

Back in the 70s, Trail and her then husband, North American Ken Brugger, answered an ad placed in the Mexico City News by Canadian entomologist Dr. Fred Urquhart and his wife Nora seeking “research assistants” to help piece together the mystery of the Monarch butterfly migration, a puzzle they had been working on for decades.   Born on a ranch in Michoacán, Trail worked with Brugger to search the Sierra Madre for years before discovering the ancestral roosts in January of 1975.

Catalina Trail, always a bit of a free spirit, traveled the hemisphere in the 70s.

Free spirit and itinerant traveler Catalina Trail traveled the hemisphere in the 70s.                      Photo copyright Catalina Trail

Urquhart refused to disclose the site to the scientific community and the world.  In the story he wrote for National Geographic that broke the news in August of 1976, coy language described a vague destination in the Sierra Madre at an elevation of 10,000 feet.  Many entomologists and citizen scientists who had contributed for years to unraveling the Monarch mystery wondered exactly where the millions of Monarch butterflies documented in the magazine’s pages were roosting.

Enter Dr. Bill Calvert, labeled a “cowboy entomologist” in the book Four Wings and A Prayer, which chronicles the events.

University of Texas entomologist Calvert teamed up with Brower on a quest to track down the mysterious location and make the whereabouts of the butterflies public.  He enlisted in this adventure an intrepid, Spanish-speaking researcher, writer and photographer named John Christian, also of Austin, whose Mexican upbringing and natural curiosity made him the perfect traveling companion and guide.

Catalina and Bill

Catalina Trail and William “Bill” Calvert at an Austin coffee shop in June of 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

All four of these characters will stand before us on March 24 to share their tales of adventure and discovery of one of the most amazing natural phenomena on earth.   That scientists are predicting the possible extinction in the near future of the Monarch migration makes this gathering even more poignant.

For those who can’t sate their butterfly curiosity with just one event, Dr. Brower will offer an extra lecture on Tuesday, The Grand Saga of the Monarch Butterfly Research.

Dr. Lincoln Brower

Dr. Lincoln Brower                                                 Photo courtesy Austin Butterfly Forum

Mike Quinn and his colleagues at the Austin Butterfly Forum deserve a lot of credit for assembling this historic entourage of Monarch butterfly celebrities.

Quinn said the idea for the gathering was sparked by the chronicling of Catalina’s story here at the Texas Butterfly Ranch.  Trail had received little attention or recognition of her role in the saga until recently.  ”That story got me thinking…” he said.  ”Catalina, Bill Calvert, even Ken Brugger lived in Austin.  And now John Christian.  Austin is an epicenter of butterfly discoveries.”

As the founder of Texas Monarch Watch, the highly educational Texasento.net insect site and the president of the Austin Butterfly Forum,  Quinn fits right in with this crowd.

The event will be crowded, so show up early.   Folks are flying in from Michigan, Wisconsin, Nebraska and making the trip from Dallas and the Rio Grande Valley.  A crew of four documentary filmmakers contracted by public television of Mexico will also be on hand from Mexico City.

See you there.

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

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

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

Monarch population status 2014

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

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

Headlines trumpeted the end of the migration.

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

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

Blue Sky Monarchs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Only Three Million Monarch Butterflies Make it to Mexico this Year

The dismal state of the Monarch butterfly migration came into closer focus this week, as reports from Mexico suggest that only three million butterflies had arrived at the ancestral roosts in Michoacán, the New York Times reported.  The 2012 season, acknowledged as the worst year for the insects population wise, counted 60 million Monarchs.  In prime years, they numbered 450 million.

Video may be as good as it gets from now on, when it comes to observing the Monarch butterfly migration.  Enjoy this one, taken in 2007, by Jesse Waugh.  

 

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, relayed a similar prognosis two weeks ago, addressing the International Butterfly Breeders conference.   Dr. Taylor stated 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. How depressing that the entire population of Monarch butterflies east of the Rocky Mountains could fit into a space smaller than a strip shopping center.

Monarch graph Journey North

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

Each December, scientists measure the hectares occupied by the migrating butterflies at their ancestral overwintering sites in the mountains of Michoacán to determine the size of their population. (NOTE: one hectare equals 2.47 acres.)

Our friend and Monarch butterfly expert Dr. Lincoln Brower, quoted in the New York Times, forwarded an email from Mexico to the D-PLEX list (an email list for butterfly enthusiasts) last week.

“What I find worrisome is the late arrival of the butterflies,” wrote Dr. Brower, adding that the butterflies usually arrive in force at the very beginning of November.  Concern resulted when for the first time in recorded history, the Monarchs did not arrive in time for Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico.  Here’s an excerpt from the email:

The monarch population is very low, the trees are not fully covered by monarch like in past years. In Chincua, there are approximately 14 trees, in Rosario, a similar number of trees was found, however in the past few days there was a cold front that entered the country, there were trees that fell down as a result of the strong winds, especially in Rosario, right in the middle of the monarch colony. The colony at Pelon is still wandering about and also with very low numbers.

 

Biologist Gloria Tavera Alonso told the Spanish language news agency EFE that “More or less we’re estimating that we’ll have 50 percent fewer than this time last year.”   Last year, only 60 million butterflies made it to the roosting sites, the worst year in history–until now.

Monarch butterfly on milkweed, November, 11, 2011

You can help by planting milkweed, the Monarch butterfly’s host plant. Here, a Monarch butterfly on Tropical milkweed.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

What can you do?   We’ve suggested in the past that you plant milkweed.  That’s a start.

But we also need to encourage our lawmakers to approve the Save America’s Pollinators Act, H.R. 2692.   The bill would ban neonicotinoid pesticides, introduced three decades ago without appropriate field study to its side effects.    The newcomer pesticide, often referred to as the “new DDT,” is the first new class of pesticides introduced in the last 50 years and while apparently

Save America's Pollinators

Don’t delay, sign the petition today. Photo via Friends of the Earth

milder on human beings, has a devastating effect on bees, butterflies, and other pollinators.  Here’s a few facts from the Xerces Society, a pollinator advocacy organization.

  • Neonicotinoid residues are found in pollen and nectar consumed by pollinators such as bees and butterflies. The residues can reach lethal concentrations in some situations.
  • Neonicotinoids can persist in soil for months or years after a single application. Measurable amounts of residues were found in woody plants up to six years after application.
  • Untreated plants may absorb chemical residues left over in the soil from the previous year.
  • Products approved for homeowners to use in gardens, lawns, and on ornamental trees have manufacturer-recommended application rates up to 120 times higher than rates approved for agricultural crops.

Recent research suggests that neonicotinoids can cause increased levels of proteins in bees that inhibit key molecules involved in their immune response, making the insects more susceptible to attack by harmful viruses.   The much publicized Colony Collapse Disorder, which has decimated the bee population, has been linked to neonicotinoids as well.

Insects like bees and butterflies are responsible for pollinating 75 percent of our food crops–one of every three bites of food you take. Shortages of bees have increased the cost of growing food because farmers must rent them for pollination services, resulting in food cost production increases by as much as 20%.

Please help protect bees, butterflies and other important pollinators by supporting H.R. 2692, the Save America’s Pollinators Act. They are the glue that binds our ecosystem.   Sign the petition now.   And in the meantime, plant some milkweed.

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

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

Blue Sky Monarchs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rick Mikula

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

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

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

Happy birthday, Butterfly biz!

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

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

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

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

Chip Taylor and Kathy Marshburn

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

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

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

sulphur butterfly

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

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

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

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

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Lots of Butterflies, but No Monarchs on the Llano River this Weekend

It was a disappointing weekend of Monarch tagging.   Again.

This weekend was a repeat of last–with only one Monarch butterfly spotted, none tagged.   I’m betting Monarchs migrated further west.  Or more likely, this year’s crop was extremely thin.  I don’t foresee more tagging weekends this fall.  It’s over.

And honestly, we did not see the masses enjoyed in recent years.   Sightings of 10 – 20 have replaced masses of 100-200.

According to the Journey North website, Monarchs crossed the border into Mexico this week.  That suggests they have passed the Texas funnel.  We may still see singles and strays, but the “massive” migration–a shadow of its former self–has passed.

From Nuevo Leon:  ”Today, Monarchs were spotted for miles over three hours in some parts of Monterrey this morning,” wrote Rocio Treviño of Mexico’s Monarch tracking project, Correo Real, on October 23.  Similar bulletins were cited for Coahuila and Tamaulipas.

Tagged Monarch

Tagged Monarch, raised at home. Many of the Monarchs we tagged this year we raised ourselves. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The butterflies have not arrived at their ancestral roosts in the mountains of Michoacán.  On Thursday, Estela Romero, the Journey North correspondent on the ground in Michoacán, reported:

Our graph recording Monarchs’ arrival this week, filled in inside our VW due to the intense rain:   Z E R O on October 24.”

It’s difficult to be optimistic about the future of the Monarch migration.   Every obstacle has been thrown in its path.  Habitat destruction in the flyway, the breeding grounds and the roosting sites.   Drought and climate change messing with the butterflies’ inherent cycles.   Aerial spraying of pesticides and the use of herbicide tolerant crops.   Continued illegal logging in Mexico.

The one good note is that people are paying attention.  We are planting milkweed.   Monarch butterfly festivals are hatching across the hemisphere.  More people are raising butterflies at home.

Last fall, a 3-D IMAX movie, “Flight of the Butterflies” was released, sharing the story of the Monarch migration to rave reviews and multiple awards.  And scientist-turned-eloquent-author Barbara Kingsolver‘s latest novel, “Flight Behavior,” used Monarch butterflies to tackle the complex subject of climate change.

Monarch chrysalises

Happy Monarch butterfly chrysalises.  We fostered many Monarchs from wild eggs and caterpillars this year. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Are Monarch butterflies the panda bears of climate change?   The beloved creatures hold universal appeal.   They don’t sting or bite.  They are beautiful and accessible.  They migrate across three countries, serving as a living metaphor for our innate interconnectedness.

Pandas are endangered, Monarchs are not.  But many would argue that the Monarch migration is rushing toward a dangerous path of extinction.

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