Agrawal: Milkweeds don’t need Monarch butterflies, but Monarchs need milkweed

Monarch butterflies and milkweed. We’ve explored the subject many times right here at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. But author Anurag Agrawal’s recently published Monarchs and Milkweed, A Migrating Butterfly, a Poisonous Plant, and their Remarkable Story of Co-evolution adds a new dimension to our understanding of the testy relationship between our favorite migrating butterfly and its poisonous host plant.

Anurag Agrawal, author of Monarchs and Milkweed, released this spring by Princeton University Press  –Courtesy photo

Agrawal, a recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Ecology Award in 2016,  wades far into the milkweeds to make this complicated story highly readable. The Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Sciences and Faculty Fellow at the Atkinson School of a Sustainable Future at Cornell University was the first scientist to suggest that Monarch butterfly conservation might be better served if we looked beyond planting more milkweeds–anything in the Asclepias family. Agrawal proposed increasing late season nectar plants, required by the butterflies in the fall to fuel their migratory flight.

In this beautifully illustrated book, he compares the co-evolution of milkweeds and Monarchs to an “arms race,” a parallel drawn previously by Monarch butterfly expert Lincoln Brower and other scientists. To Monarch butterfly lovers, the metaphor may seem off-putting, perhaps exaggerated. But after reading Agrawal’s detailed explanation of the continuous one-upmanship that occurs between the iconic creature and its host plant, the label makes perfect sense.

One of Agrawal’s most unexpected assertions: “The butterflies are simply no good as pollinators. Monarchs are strictly pests.” With Monarch butterflies bandied about as the poster child for pollinator advocacy in recent years, we naturally assume that the storied migrants are effective pollinators.

But they’re not. Especially for milkweeds, which have an unusual pollinator strategy, similar only to orchids in the natural world. Milkweed pollen is not disseminated by individual pollen grains like those we notice clinging to the bodies of bees.

Polonium

The dangling yellow pollen sac is the pollinium of an orchid. Photo via Wikipedia

Instead, members of the Asclepias family reproduce via pollinia, evolved pollen packages–sticky masses of pollen that look like tiny yellow bags. We sometimes see these teeny yellow bulbs attached to bees’ wooly heads or fuzzy legs after they’ve dug into a flower. The pollen sac attaches to the bee. As they dive into flowers, the pollinia somehow is inserted into the flower’s reproductive slit, resulting in pollination.

Monarch butterflies, because of their size, form, and the way they sit atop flowers, simply don’t have the capacity to carry these hefty pollen vessels. And they rarely come into contact with the pollinia, nor its reproductive destination in the female part of the flower.

“This nonpollinating aspect of Monarchs is not widely appreciated,” writes Agrawal.

Now there’s an understatement. Given the Monarch’s Pan-American status as the great pollinator ambassador, that fact will come as a harsh revelation to many.

Agrawal will be in town for a session at the San Antonio Book Festival April 8. Come join us, buy a book, and get it signed.

As it happens, milkweeds don’t need Monarchs, but Monarchs DO need milkweeds. Monarch butterflies will only lay their eggs on plants that are members of the Asclepias or milkweed family, a species known for its sticky, milky latex sap, which tastes bitter and contains potentially heart stopping toxins that protect the butterflies that consume it as caterpillars because it makes them distasteful to predators.

Monarch caterpillars eat the milkweed leaves, morph through their stages, transform into  chrysalises, then emerge as adult butterflies. As the Monarchs attack the milkweed by eating it, the milkweed responds by ratcheting up its toxic properties, making the larval food ever more toxic as the season wears on. This is how the plant protects itself and makes for the intriguing “coevolutionary arms race” which is the premise of the book.

Monarch butterflies will only lay their eggs on the toxic milkweed Asclepias species. Courtesy photo

Agrawal notes, and some of us have witnessed first hand, how tiny Monarch caterpillars sometimes perish upon eating perfectly healthy milkweed. The reason may be the milkweed is simply too toxic for the Monarchs to process. As Agrawal points out, “the dose makes the poison.”

In chapter seven, titled “The Milkweed Village,” Agrawal goes into entertaining detail about the 11 different species of insects that have made milkweed “their bed and breakfast.”  We’ve seen them all–aphids, milkweed bugs and beetles, wasps, ants. Agrawal introduces each in gory and glorious detail–the “seed eaters,” the “suckers,” the “chewers, miners and borers.” For anyone who raises Monarchs and milkweeds in the garden, many questions will be answered here.

As Monarch caterpillars decimate milkweeds, the plant responds by increasing the levels of cardiac glycosides it produces as a defense. Courtesy photo.

Throughout, Agrawal writes deeply but accessibly about biology, botany, and chemical ecology, only rarely straying into the hyper-scientific jargon that can make such writing impossible to understand for those without PhDs. That is one of the greatest strengths of this book in my view: making the science understandable to nonscientists.

Speaking of eating milkweed, Agrawal also shares that young stalks of certain milkweeds are perfectly edible as a side dish for humans. I had heard this from my friend, hydroponic farmer and adventurous vegetarian Mitchell Hagney of Local Sprout, but had never had it explained.

cooked milkweed stalks

Anurag Agrawal cooked milkweed for his wife and child. Courtesy photo

Agrawal cites wild plant proponent Euell Gibbons, author of the 1962 classic, Stalking the Wild Asparagus. Young milkweed shoots can apparently be gathered in late spring when they’re four- to eight-inches high, sautéed and served for supper or as a side dish. Agrawal suggests several cold water rinses to remove extreme bitterness from the milkweed but preserve its unique flavor. “Season with salt, pepper and butter. Serve proudly,” he writes. He offers a color photo of a cast iron skillet filled with young milkweed shoots that he served to his family. The Asclepias veggies appear amazingly similar to asparagus. Perhaps a milkweed cookbook will be next?

Such accessible, fun anecdotes mixed with hardcore science are exactly what make this book a must-read for Monarch followers and generalists alike.

Want to meet Anurag Agrawal? Join us at the San Antonio Book Festival Saturday, April 8, 10 AM, to meet him. We’ll discuss his book and answer your questions. Books will be available for purchase and signing. Hope to see you there! Details here.

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Monarch butterflies head north as Mexican scientists try to move their forest

One of the hottest winters in history poses good news and bad news for migrating Monarch butterflies this season. The good news: warm weather and well-timed rains translate into a grand wildflower season with plenty of milkweed in South Texas. The bad news: those same high temperatures in Mexico where the Monarchs overwinter mean that many butterflies have burned up much of their stored winter fats, creating a lack of fuel and extra stress for their journey north.

Some of the migrating creatures that arrived in the Mexican mountains last fall have already left the roosting sites. In fact, we found our first-of-season caterpillar this week on Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassivaca, along the San Antonio River Walk.

But the bulk of the overwintering butterflies have yet to depart, head north and lay the first round of eggs that will launch the 2017 edition of their epic multigenerational migration. The success of that first generation, often born in Texas, sets the stage for a successful-or-not Monarch butterfly season. Subsequent generations make their way north to Canada over the summer, reproducing along the way. In the fall, they fly home to Mexico to roost until one day in March, they leave for good, head north, reproduce and die–starting the cycle anew.

first instar

First instar Monarch caterpillar found on the San Antonio River, March 9, 2017. Photo by Monika Maeckle

A recent trip to the roosting sites in Mexico found the butterflies fluttering from their roosts on the sacred firs in search of water and nectar–not unusual this time of year. The butterflies puddled in the damp mud of shallow mountain streams to rehydrate and sip nutrients. They also nectared on stands of asters, sages and various verbenas. Many butterflies lay dead on the ground–again, not unusual.

According to Dr. Cuauhtémoc Sáenz Romero, a forest geneticist at the University of Michoacán, the winter storm of March 2016 punched dangerous holes in the forest canopy. An intact canopy serves as a blanket for the butterflies and prevents temperatures from dropping below freezing, while the butterflies wait out the winter in a semi-hibernative state.  A lack of activity in the context of cold weather and insulation provided by the forest helps them conserve lipids (previously accumulated fats in their bodies), needed for the spring remigration. Gaps in the forest canopy and hot temperatures–the warmest winter in history–force the butterflies to burn up their fats.

Sáenz Romero expressed concerns that the condition of the forest coupled with climate change could have devastating consequences when the weather turns chilly and humid. This creates a deadly combination, forming ice on the Monarchs’ wings, he said, often causing their death.

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                                             photos by Nicolas Rivard

Such concerns motivated Sáenz Romero, ecological sciences professor Arnulfo Blanco García, and a crew of University of Michoacán students to establish an experimental forest plot on the Ejido La Mesa en Sierra Campanario near San Jose del Rincon in the state of Mexico.

While the area officially serves as a Monarch sanctuary and is part of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, few butterflies were present upon our visit there earlier this month. Signs of high temperatures, drought and the March 2016 storm that decimated more than 100 acres of forest and millions of butterflies were evident, however.

Sáenz Romero pointed out trees with skinny tops and a lack of foliage, which suggests a lack of water. A wet season and dry season typify the usual weather pattern here, he explained. But when the wet

Drought and high winds make the trees where the Monarchs roost vulnerable. Photo by Nicolas Rivard

season offers less rain than average and the dry season is warmer than usual, the trees can’t absorb enough water from the soil to reach the tallest limbs. Leaf and branch shedding result, creating weakened, scrawny treetops. This unhealthy state also makes the forest more susceptible to wind damage and insect attacks, said Sáenz Romero.

It wasn’t always this way, said Blanco García, taking in the vast expanse of oaks, pines and Oyamel, preferred by overwintering Monarchs. This area of Mexico has long relied on mining, which has posed different threats to the forest in the past, such as water pollution and deforestation.

Three-year-old Oyamel, sacred fir,  planted in full sun. Photo by Nicolas Rivard

Three-year-old Oyamel, sacred fir, in mixed plant community that provides partial shade. Photo by Nicolas Rivard

“Sixty years ago, there was no forest here,” he said. “But when mining stopped in the area, the forest regenerated itself.”  That was before climate change became the dominant factor it is today.

Saáenz Romero and Blanco García believe that within 70 years, the sacred firs hosting the Monarchs each winter will not be able to survive the increased temperatures and volatile weather predicted to rule the forest. The tree has a narrow window of temperature and altitude in which it can thrive, said Sáenz Romero.

With funding from Monarch Butterfly Fund in Minnesota, the Mexican Council of Science and TEchnology (CONACyT in Spanish), the Mexican Fund for the Nature Conservancy and the University of Michoacán, an experimental plot of Oyamel seedlings was placed  1,000 feet higher up the mountain than the existing sanctuaries–at 3,440 meters/11,286 feet. The approach, called assisted migration, has been successfully deployed in Canada. It aims to grow a replacement forest that in this case can be occupied by overwintering Monarchs when the roosting sites further down the mountain expire.

During a tour of the plot, now three years old, the scientists pointed out how Oyamel seedlings planted in combination with sage bushes and other tall perennials fared better than those placed in full sun. Because of the more severe dry season and higher temperatures, the Oyamels do better in a diverse plant community that offers shade at least part of the day.

“Weather proof” temperature monitor at the experimental forest in La Mesa. Photo by Nicolas Rivard

Also evident: the team’s unique resourcefulness. As students measured temperatures and moisture levels of the soil, an upside-down styrofoam cup wired to a stick raised questions.  What is that?

“It’s our weather proof temperature monitor,” said Blanco García.

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Monarch butterfly Valentine: how do we love thee? Let us count the ways…

My love affair with Monarch butterflies began in earnest in 2005. My friend Jenny Singleton had introduced us the year before. But the following October, on a warm Saturday afternoon, I stepped from my kayak in the Llano River and approached a stand of pecan trees bowed to the ground in submission from serial floods. My red rubber boots stuck for a moment in the mud, but when I looked up, I was struck. A silent eruption of Monarch butterflies wafted from the earth. Hundreds of them drifted skyward–floating, flitting, and fleeting before settling on bare tree limbs.

Yes, I’m smitten–how can you not be? That’s me at the 2016 Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival at the Pearl. Photo by Scott Ball

That was the day—the day I call my Magical Monarch Saturday–I fell profoundly, entirely in love with these insects. I’ve been reading and writing about them ever since, as well as raising them at home.

I’m not alone. Tens of thousands of people are smitten with Denaus plexipus. The species even has its own listserv, the DPLEX, with more than 800 subscribers.

Hundreds of websites and social media pages are devoted to Monarchs and their conservation, some of which flaunt tens of thousands of fans–Monarch Watch on Facebook with 38K+ followers, for example. Festivals celebrate Monarch butterflies in spring, summer and fall in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico.  The Monarch serves as the official insect of seven states in the U.S.  A 2013 survey published in Conservation Letters indicated U.S. households are willing to spend $4.78–$6.64 billion–yes, BILLION– for Monarch conservation through direct contributions and the purchase of milkweed and appropriate nectar plants. Monarchs are among the most studied insects in the world, with  multi-millions of dollars devoted to researching their life cycle, habitat and diseases/threats. Tens of thousands of Monarchs are also bred commercially and by hobbyists each year for use in classrooms and educational events to teach metamorphosis. Some folks even tap the Monarch to commemorate special occasions like weddings, funerals and life changes.

Monarch butterfly expert Dr. Lincoln Brower with overwintering monarch butterflies. Rosario overwintering colony, 4-6 February 1991. (Photo by Perry Conway.)

“I think of them as magical bottles of wine. You can pour it all out and when you go back, it’s full again. There is no end to the questions you can ask.”  That’s how Dr. Lincoln Brower, who has studied Monarchs for more than five decades, summed up the Monarch’s charms in the 2004 book Four Wings and A Prayer.

So why do we love Monarch butterflies so much? Lots of reasons.

First, they don’t sting or bite. Their bold, orange-and-black, stained-glass wings make them stand out and ward off predators. A dreamy flight pattern suggests confidence. Their elusive flits and turns connote flirtatiousness. Turning legs into wings—now that’s magical. And navigating thousands of miles “home” to a sacred forest never seen demonstrates tenacity and strength. It commands our admiration. Monarchs’ back story is also loaded with intrigue—scientific rivalries, mysterious chemical powers, a strong codependence on members of the milkweed family. All this makes for an incessantly interesting long-term relationship.

For Valentine’s Day in this year of such dramatic political change and on the heels of news that their numbers are down by almost a third, we thought it appropriate to ask Monarch butterfly lovers to articulate their feelings for the Americas’ most beloved insect. Their loving quotes follow, but perhaps more telling are the looks of pure joy on their faces in the photos they shared.

Nola Garcia of San Antonio, age 9, recalled receiving a gift of caterpillars on milkweed. She’s been raising and tagging Monarchs ever since.

“I remember the excitement of finding them all over my room when it was time for them to become chrysalises,” said Nola. “I saw one split its skin and pulsing as it changed. I love seeing them right after they come out when their wings unfold. My favorite part is letting them go and watching them fly off. I love how they look.”

Nola Hamilton Garcia with Monarch butterfly

Nola Garcia enjoys a freshly hatched male Monarch butterfly in her kitchen before releasing him to the wind. Photo by Tracy Idell Hamilton

Dara Satterfield of Georgia studies Monarch butterflies as a James Smithson Fellow at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. She sees a transformation myth in Monarch butterfly biology. “Monarchs grow up, reinvent themselves (in the chrysalis), and undertake a long journey that is all-at-once beautiful and treacherous and difficult,” said Satterfield, who has studied with Dr. Sonia Altizer, the foremost expert on the Monarch centric spore-driven disease, OE. “This story seems familiar, even personal, to us. It’s much like the human experience, in miniature. So we root for Monarchs. We want to see them thrive.”

Cathy Downs, Monarch Watch Conservation Specialist, welcomes a freshly hatched Monarch into the world. Courtesy photo

“As a child, I loved Monarchs because they were at times amusing, cartoonish and full of wonder and discovery,” explained Cathy Downs, Monarch Watch Conservation Outreach Specialist in Central and South Texas. “During career years, the sight of a Monarch took me back with a sigh, if only for a moment in a busy life, to my childhood. In retirement, Monarchs have opened thousands of doors for me to new people, new places and new passions.”

Drake White, founder of the Nectar Bar, a Facebook page devoted to educating people how to raise butterflies at home has a special greeting when she welcomes someone or signs off from her page: “Peace, love and butterflies.”  White manages the butterfly house at Phil Hardberger Park in San Antonio and does pollinator landscape consulting on the side. She loves all butterflies, but admits Monarchs are her favorite. Their metamorphosis “always makes me understand just how amazing nature truly is,” she said.  “I never want to lose that. It keeps me bonding with nature.”

Drake White

Drake White of the Nectar Bar’s signature butterfly greeting is Peace, Love and Butterflies. Photo by Drake White

Hope, beauty and perseverance are consistent themes among Monarch butterfly lovers. Jeanette LaVesque, who follows Monarchs from Minneapolis, said the butterflies “give me hope for a beautiful transformation for myself someday–either here or beyond. They prove to me that miracles happen in this world….Butterlies make my garden feel like a little paradise when they are present.”

Dr. Karen Oberhauser of the University of Minnesota and founder of the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project, has been studying Monarch butterflies and working to bring them to children and classrooms since 1984. And yet, ”I’ll never tire of bringing the eggs and larvae into my house and watching them undergo their amazing metamorphosis, or walking into my lab full of students helping to unravel monarch mysteries,” she said, adding that Monarchs are beautiful, familiar, interesting, and impressive. “They evoke deep connections between people and nature,” said Oberhauser.

Mayor Taylor wears Monarch butterfly wing bling earrings and releases another type of butterfly at the San Antonio Zoo Monarch Festival in 2016. Photo by Monika Maeckle

San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor became the first in the country to sign the National Wildlife Federation’s Mayor’s Monarch pledge in 2015. Taylor, who grew up in Queens, New York, was completely unfamilar with the Monarch migration until shortly before signing the pledge. But once she and Monarchs got acquainted, it was a pretty quick romance. “The story of the Monarch’s migration is what really caught my attention,” she said. “It’s amazing that such a fragile creature has the perseverance to travel thousands of miles every year.”

Anurag AGrawal, author, scientist, Monarch butterfly lover. Courtesy photo

Finally, Dr. Anurag Agrawal, conservation biologist at Cornell University and author of the soon-to-be-released Milkweed and Monarchs: A Migrating Butterfly, A Poinsonous Plant, and their Remarkable Story of Coevolution told us that while he is first and foremost a scientist, he sees beauty in biology.

He recalled seeing Monarchs in the fields of Pennsylvania as a child and attributes their magic to their transformative metamorphosis. “Who does that? Going from leaf-eating worm to flying machine. Going from Canada to Mexico. And going from a billion butterflies to too few,” said Agrawal. “Don’t leave us magnificent Monarchs. We need you for inspiration, for study, and to remind us of our place.”

Why do YOU love Monarch butterflies? Leave a comment below to let us know.

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Monarch butterfly migrating population drops 27%, freak sleet storm to blame

Officials in Mexico announced Wednesday that the population of migrating Monarch butterflies dropped 27% this season, marking a setback in two consecutive years of growth from the historic low of 2014. A freak sleet storm gets the blame.

Piedra Herrada

Our friend Regina Moya went to visit la familia in Valle del Bravo with a side trip to Piedra Herrada Sanctuary in the state of Mexico. PHoto by Regina Moya

Just last year, we celebrated a tripling of the population, a reassuring turn of events from the grim news of 2014 when the total migrating population of Monarch butterflies could fit into a single Wal-Mart store with 30,000 square feet to spare. That sad fact had butterflies occupying only .67 hectares (1.65 acres) of high elevation forest at their winter roosting grounds in Michoacán and the state of Mexico. The numbers grew in 2015 to 1.13 hectares (2.8 acres), then jumped in 2016 to 4.1 hectares (10 acres).

This year, the butterflies covered only 2.91 hectares (7.19 acres).

Scientists and conservationists estimate the population by counting the number of hectares occupied and multiplying the estimated number by 50 million Monarchs per hectare. That suggests this year’s population numbers 145.5. million. The goal of conservationists is to rebuild the population to its historic average of 6.07 hectares (15 acres), or about 300 million butterflies.

The scene at El Chincua sanctuary  two weeks after the February 2016 storm.
Photo by Dr. Isabel Ramírez

Scientists and others who follow Monarch butterflies were not surprised by the findings. Dr. Lincoln Brower said by phone that he thought the numbers would be even worse. Many of us noted fewer Monarch butterflies than usual. Ruth Bowell of Troy, Ohio, shared her thoughts on the 2016 season on the DPLEX-list, an email listserv that reaches about 800 scientists, citizen scientists and Monarch butterfly fans. “My numbers this year were dismal until late August when I started really seeing caterpillars…If they have a good winter, maybe we’ll see more returning than last year.” Dr. Cuauhtémoc Saenz Romero, who studies the forest where the Monarchs roost, expressed the same sentiment, remarking “That was due to the winter storm in March.”

The storm to which he refers quashed the optimism of February 2016’s dramatic population growth within a few weeks of its announcement when, on March 11, climate change dealt a deadly blow to the rebounded Monarch population. A freak freeze and sleet storm descended on Mexico’s Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Preserves, decimating 100 acres of Oyamel firs and killing an estimated 50 million butterflies. The tragedy occurred at a most vulnerable time. Typically the first and second week in March are when the Monarchs begin to flee the forest and head north for South Texas in search of milkweed on which to lay the first generation of eggs.

Those of us who live in the flyway hoped for a robust recovery over the course of the spring and summer breeding seasons. The weather cooperated, but apparently even good conditions–plenty of rain in the Texas Funnel, ample milkweed and nectar plants in the spring and fall–couldn’t make up for season’s cursed beginning.

Monarch butterfly population numbers. Graphic via Journey North

Omar Vidal, head of the Mexico office of the World Wildlife Fund, told the Associated Press that the unusual winter storm likely played a role in the steep dip in Monarch numbers. “The reduction in the area of forest they occupied this year is most probably due to the high mortality caused by storms and cold weather last year,” he said. Here’s the full report, in Spanish.

Conservation efforts including pollinator habitat restoration and outreach continue, but it remains to be seen if that will be enough. Just today, the National Wildlife Federation, NWF met in San Antonio, the first Mayor’s Monarch Champion City, and finalized the completion of a citywide Monarch butterfly conservation plan. The document, assembled over several months and with the input of more than a dozen local organizations under the umbrella name Alamo Area Monarch Collaborative will lay out a comprehensive conservation and pollinator habitat restoration strategy. The effort will kick off and the plan shared at the upcoming San Antonio Monarch Butterfly Festival March 4 -5 at the San Antonio Zoo.

“During the meeting, the population count from Mexico was announced,” said Grace Barnett, Monarch Outreach Coordinator, South Central Regional Center for NWF. “It was read aloud–a strong reminder of  how important our work is and how much more there is to be done.”

Vidal underscored the work ahead when he told the Associated Press, “We cannot control the climate, but we can do much better in eradicating illegal logging in the reserve and tackling habitat loss in the U.S. and Canada,” Vidal said. “But, even if Mexico’s overwintering sites never lose another tree, without food and habitat along the migration routes, the forests will soon bid farewell” to the Monarchs.

Reports from the sanctuaries have been extremely upbeat, including one issued the same day as the declining population report. Journey North shared its first bulletin from roosting grounds correspondent Estella Romero, coupled with a note that tried to manage readers’ expectations with a prediction that numbers would be low this year.

Estela Romero of Journey North visited the roosting sites last week and raved about what appeared to be high numbers. But the population actually slipped from last year. Photo via Journey North

Under the headline “Population News: Waiting for the Official Count” Elizabeth Howard, founder of the citizen science initiative that tracks the migrations of Monarchs and other species, warned that observations made throughout the year suggested “a small population has been predicted — perhaps as low as 1 hectare.”

But Romero was effusive in describing her recent visit to El Rosario and El Chincua sanctuaries on February 4, sharing a dispatch hailing their seemingly high numbers.

“As I got nearer to the core of the colony, I just could not believe my eyes! It seemed as if I was looking to one of the best spectacles of the last years, in terms of population….Tens and tens of trees were full with clusters – more than 50 trees covered– on top, by one side, by the middle, with heavy clusters or lighter clusters hanging…It was a wonderful spectacle,” wrote Romero.

Edith Smith, a commercial butterfly breeder and owner/founder of Shady Oak Butterfly Farm in Florida, expressed exasperation about the negative headlines in an email to the Association for Butterflies email list, a listserv for commercial and hobbyist butterfly breeders. “Am I the only one who wishes positive information about Monarch butterflies was shared at times?,” wrote Smith. “Numbers are down by 27 percent from last year. BUT they are UP from the year before….We’re up over four times the lowest we had. That is still GOOD news.”

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Monarch Champions: San Antonio elected officials submit to butterfly’s charms

It doesn’t get much better for a butterfly evangelist than to have hometown elected officials raise Monarch caterpillars at City Hall. That’s what happened less than a year after the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) named San Antonio its first Monarch Butterfly Champion City.

Mikey the Monarch at Zoo

Does your Mayor do this? Mikey the Monarch raised by San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor’s office, released at the San Antonio Zoo. Photo via Twitter

San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor set the bar for the NWF’s Mayor’s Monarch Pledge (MMP) on December 9, 2015. That Wednesday, she made San Antonio the nation’s first and only Monarch Butterfly Champion City by committing to all 24 action items recommended by NWF to increase Monarch butterfly and pollinator habitat. Actions include installing pollinator gardens, encouraging citizen science, hosting a butterfly festival and changing landscape ordinances and city mowing schedules.

Mikey the Monarch caterpillar takes lunch at San Antonio City Hall. Courtesy photo

Taylor’s office raised her first Monarch, named Mikey, almost exactly a year later. Since Mikey emerged when it was too cold to fly   (temperatures hovered in the 40s), the San Antonio Zoo offered its flighthouse as a “butterfly B and B” until the weather warmed.

District 1 City Councilman Roberto Treviño became a  Monarch butterfly buff in October after attending all three events that comprised San Antonio’s first Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival. Treviño, an architect by training, served as a docent during the dozens of one-on-one tag- and-release demonstrations the Festival staged October 22. After accepting a milkweed loaded with two eggs and a couple of caterpillars as a gesture of thanks, Trevińo succumbed to the flashy orange-and-black butterflies’ charms–even releasing a Monarch butterfly at City Hall with Jonah Nirenberg, son of District 8 City Councilman Ron Nirenberg.

Treviño posted updates on his caterpillars’ progress on Facebook and had a sign at his City Hall office reminding visitors to shut the door because butterflies were in progress. “It’s such an opportunity to share the wonder,” he said.

To date, more than 240 cities have signed the Mayor’s Monarch Pledge. Only one – McAllen, Texas – has become a Monarch Champion City like San Antonio. The National Wildlife Federation is looking to expand the popular program to Mexico.

“The San Antonio administration and landscape team have really committed themselves to Monarch conservation,” said Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch,  the citizen science organization that tracks the migrating butterflies at the University of Kansas at Lawrence. San Antonio was the first city to call Monarch Watch’s Milkweed Market after the pledge, ordering 1,000 plants which have been planted in pollinator gardens around town.

Progress in the Alamo City has been consistent and impressive. Pollinator gardens have replaced invasive species along the San Antonio River South Channel and new gardens have been created at Phil Hardberger Park, Woodlawn Lake, UTSA, at the San Antoino River Authority and at many private residences. In April, four city agencies featured the Monarch butterfly on their Fiesta medals – the Mayor’s Office, SAWS, CPS Energy, and the San Antonio River Authority. A survey of 400 locals conducted by the Texas Butterfly Ranch website found the SAWS medal was the best.

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San Antonio has hosted two Monarch butterfly festivals since the Pledge was signed. The San Antonio Zoo’s first Monarch Fest took place in early 2016 and will take place this year March 4 and 5. In October, the Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival took place at the Pearl wowed an estimated 5-7,000 people. Plans are underway for a repeat.

According to Cathy Downs, a Monarch Conservation Specialist for the national citizen scientist program Monarch Watch, more requests for teacher training on how to use Monarchs in the classroom occurred in 2016 than prior years. And working closely with the NWF, local Monarch advocates are about to finalize the first San Antonio Monarch Conservation Plan as the City’s Sustainability Office integrates pollinator friendly guidelines into its strategic plans.

More pollinator habitat, sustainability plans, Fiesta medals, and Festivals are in store for 2017. But perhaps our most powerful tool in Monarch and pollinator conservation is one we should leverage more often: encounters with “the wonder” Monarchs generate. Giving caterpillars to elected officials and other with influence, affording them the opportunity to witness metamorphosis first hand may be just the inspiration we need. Try it. Let us know how it goes.

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Climate Change and the Monarch Butterfly Migration Symposium tackles tough questions

“Each one is a hole in the sky through which we can get a glimpse of heaven”.

–Mississippi wildlife artist Walter Anderson

That was how moderator Dan Goodgame launched our Climate Change and the Monarch Butterfly Migration Symposium October 21 at the Pearl Studio.

Monarch cat on swamp

The “new normal”?  Monarch butterflies continued to reproduce late into the season this year as warm temperatures caused many to break their diapause and lay eggs rather than migrate. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The 89-minute discussion was just one of three events that made San Antonio’s first Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival–three-days of art, science and celebration commemorating our favorite migrating insect, Danaus plexipus–such a success last month.

We share the video of that symposium in its entirety today, thanks to the generous support of the John and Florence Newman Foundation, a San Antonio foundation that invests in progressive initiatives in San Antonio and beyond.newman-logo

Questions raised in the symposium discussion are timely given the recent election and the long, late extremely unusual migration of Monarchs this season. As Thanksgiving approaches, many of us are STILL seeing Monarch butterflies in our gardens and wildscapes; policy questions about how President-elect Trump will address climate change and pollinator advocacy hang in the balance.

The symposium brought together an equal number of scientists and citizen scientists representing all three countries touched by the Monarchs’ North American travels to a sold-out house.

27-credit-artielimmer-texastechuniversity

On the panel: Dr. Katherine Hayhoe, rock star climate change expert from Texas Tech University. Born in Canada, Hayhoe “grew up with Monarchs” and had just returned from a visit to the White House where Leonardo DiCaprio asked her for her autograph.

 

 

Cathy Downs, from Comfort, Texas, works as an education cathyoutreach specialist  for Monarch Watch.

 

 

 

Dr. Cuauhtémoc Saenz RomeroMexican forester Dr. Cuauhtémoc Saenz Romero, of Michoacán, had been visiting Trinity University as a guest professor in ecological sciences; Dr. Saenz Romero studies the Oyamel forest where the Monarchs roost each winter.

 

 

maeckleheadshotMonika Maeckle, of the Texas Butterfly Ranch. That’s me. I was on the panel, but we didn’t plan it that way. At the last minute, our good friend Catalina Trail, founder of the Monarch butterfly roosting sites in 1975, was unable to attend because of a medical condition. I took her place.

The lively discussion touched on everything from the pros and cons of Tropical milkweed Asclepias curassavica, to whether or not “assisted migration,” or moving the Oyamel forest in Mexico where the Monarchs roost 2,000 feet higher in elevation to save it from climate change constitutes “interfering with nature.” Mitchell Hagney of the Rivard Report wrote a great wrap-up of the symposium the day after it happened.

At almost 90 minutes, the video may be a bit long for some. Thus, I have noted what I found to be some of the more interesting points with time stamps so those in a rush can skip to the parts that most interest them.

Two videos are also embedded in this one. Our butterfly friendly San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor, whose signature on the National Wildlife Federation’s Mayor’s Monarch Pledge made San Antonio the first Monarch Champion City in the country, recorded a welcome video for the Festival since she was unable to join us because of a previous commitment. That two-minute video can be viewed at minute 2:17, or you can watch it at the bottom of this post.

Our media partners, the Rivard Report, also made a lovely video with footage taken along the Llano River during peak migration to illustrate a story covering the Festival. That video can be viewed at 4:22.

If you want to skip all that and go straight to the discussion, fast forward to 7:30. Other notes/highlights are noted below.

*                   *                 *                *                       *               *               *

2:17 Mayor Taylor’s Welcome Video. “I can’t think of a better symbol of the bonds we share as people and as nations than the Monarch Butterfly,” says San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor.

4:22 Rivard Report video.

7:30 Moderator Dan Goodgame introduces panelists.

10:25 Video “Get Well Card” for Catalina Trail, from audience.

11:27 Maeckle explains how she came to know Catalina Trail.

16:01 Cathy Downs offers a state-of-the-union of the Monarch butterfly population.

19:27 Dr. Hayhoe discusses how climate change works as a “threat multiplier” to the Monarch butterfly migration and many other issues.

21:06 Dr. Saenz Romero explains how the unique ecosystem of the Oyamel fir forests in Mexico serves as a blanket for the Monarchs’ in the winter, raising the temperature up to 10 degrees under the forest canopy, keeping the Monarchs from freezing.

oyamel drought

Dr. Saenz Romero discussed how drought and extreme weather has been tough on the Oyamel trees. They can’t get enough water from the soil during the dry season to keep the tree tops from dying. Photo by Dr. Cuauhtémoc Saenz Romero

28:35 Dr. Saenz Romero introduces the “radical” idea of moving the forest.   “I may be crucified by some ecologists,” he says.

“So when you plant Oyamel at higher altitudes than it exists today, we have to move the population higher. Then we have to hope, some say pray, that the Monarchs will change the location of their overwintering sites. We don’t know if it will happen. As you know, the generation that got to Mexico had never been to Mexico.”

“By 2090 there will not be a single square kilometer of climate that is good for the trees where the Monarchs go for over wintering.” –Dr. Saenz Romero

32:30 Dr. Saenz Romero bemoans the challenges of moving the forest higher, noting that even though “there’s no soil” above the tree line, that  has not stopped avocado growers from trucking in soil to Michoacán to grow avocados “for your Superbowl.”

35:05 Goodgame poses the question: will the butterflies follow the forest up the mountain if the Oyamel forest is moved? Downs tackles the question.

36:43 Hayhoe chimes in that indeed the butterflies could adapt—if they have time, “So after the last ice age there was a huge warming of the planet. That warming happened over 10-50 times longer than what we are seeing today.”

“If the climate changes more slowly, will the butterflies adapt? I think the answer is, yes. Without a doubt. I think the question really is: can they adapt this quickly without help? And it isn’t just the butterflies.”–Dr. Hayhoe

39:30 Cathy Downs suggests what we can do to mitigate the damage of climate change, including planting milkweeds and late season nectar plants.

43:30 Downs and Maeckle discuss the odd, late Monarch migration this fall and how Monarchs are more frequently breeding this season. “They aren’t supposed to do that, they aren’t reading the book!” says Downs. “They are supposed to be in diapause.”

44:00 Maeckle brings up the Tropical milkweed debate—the question of what are native plants in the Monarch world. “If it’s ok to move a forest out of its native zone, why not a host plant?”

45:39 Saenz attempts to answer the question.

48:19 Dr. Hayhoe offers ideas about how to talk about climate change. “The reason why we care about a changing climate is because it takes something that we already care about, that we’re already concerned about, and it puts that extra straw on the camel’s back.” she says. “So in the case of the butterflies, there are already many reasons to be concerned.”

“What is climate change doing to the butterflies?” It’s doing a few different things. It is actually changing their phenology—what does that mean? It means when they breed and when they migrate. We just heard first-hand witnesses of how things are changing, and they’re changing because the warm temperatures are throwing off the butterflies’ internal calendars.” –Dr. Hayhoe

50:50 Hayhoe offers that we need to build resilience and wean ourselves from fossil fuels. She expresses hopefulness tied to the Paris Climate Change Treaty.

54:32 Saenz answers Goodgame’s question about how ecotourism is effecting the roosting sites—hurting or helping?

“Tourism is very positive at overwintering sites, because there is a very severe restriction to cut trees today, because it’s a biosphere reserve in the core area, so nearly the only income alternative to cut trees is to have ecotourism.”–Dr. Saenz Romero

56:10 Saenz Romero expresses pessimism about the voluntary enforcement of the Paris Climate Treaty, as Mexico begins oil drilling in the ocean and continues to import oil from Australia.

58:44 Goodgame introduces the issue of the possible copper mine at the Monarch roosting sites in Mexico.

1:01:15 Question from the audience: Should the mastodons still be alive today?

1:03:55 Goodgame follows up: Is the issue that the butterfly will go extinct, or that it just stops migrating?

Maeckle answers with a question: why do insects migrate? For shelter, for host plant, to reproduce. And if the Monarch butterfly can have local milkweed and mates here in San Antonio or Houston or Florida, why should they migrate? Why would they migrate?

“Is it a vanity for us as human beings for us to expect this insect to make that journey so we can be marveled, so we can appreciate it? And what would the butterfly say if we could interview the butterfly?”–Maeckle

1:05:52 Downs debates the pros and cons of migratory vs. local Monarch butterfly populations. “Personally, I think it’s important and I’m all for the vanity of that.”

1:13:56 What are the impacts of pesticide use?

1:16:08 Is Tropical milkweed good or not?

1:19.08 Do the two or three milkweeds in my yard make a difference?

1:19:58 Are we preventing adaptation by interfering with nature?

1:20:54 What other species of trees are part of the forests where the Monarchs roost? What is the reforestation plan for the Oyamel forest?

1:23:00 What is the forest going to look like in 50 years? And is there a possibility that the Monarchs would roost there on other species?

1:26:46 How will climate change impact predation pressure on Monarchs?

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What will happen to pollinator advocacy under President Trump?

Monarch butterflies undertook an unusual migration this 2016 season as a series of small pulses and late season flyers moved through the Texas Funnel en route to Mexico, replacing the concentrated butterfly wave that usually makes passage in mid-late October.

late season Monarchs

Monarchs were late to the party in 2016. Sounds like an election night the country just experienced. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The migrating butterflies were extremely late and unusually reproductive this year. Migrating butterflies do not typically reproduce. Rather, they save their energy for a spring orgy in Mexico that launches the following year’s first generation of butterflies.

As October gave way to the first day of November and the hottest temperatures in history, Monarchs continued their reproductive activities–dropping eggs, hatching caterpillars and forming chrysalises up until Election Day. Scientists, citizen scientists and casual observers all wondered: what the heck is going on?

The same question could be asked in this unprecedented election of a President. Past history and polling data proved wildly out of sync with the fact that on November 8, 2016, Americans elected Donald J. Trump their 45th president of the United States. Just like this season’s Monarch migration, that reality is generating a slew of head-scratching questions for those of us who care about butterflies.

Trump and Obama

Will Trump continue Obama’s legacy of pollinator advocacy? Photo via Donald Trump’s Facebook page

Before we speculate on what a Trump presidency might hold for pollinator advocacy, let’s recap President Barack Obama’s great work on behalf of pollinators.

In 2014, following the petition proposing listing of Monarch butterflies as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, President Obama met with the president of Mexico and prime minister of Canada to discuss a Pan-American strategy for saving the iconic Monarch butterfly migration.  He and First Lady Michelle Obama planted the first-ever pollinator garden at the White House. Pres. Obama also announced the formation of a Pollinator Task Force that produced the National Pollinator Strategy in 2015. The 58-page document outlined three ambitious goals for the U.S.:

  1. Reduce Honey bee colony losses by more than 15% within 10 years.
  2. Increase the migrating Monarch butterfly population to 225 million (their historic average), with an occupation of 15 acres in Michoacán by 2020.
  3. Restore or enhance seven million acres of pollinator habitat over the next five years.

The National Pollinator Strategy called for the creation of a “Monarch butterfly highway” of native plant and prairie restorations along the IH-35 corridor from Duluth, Minnesota to Laredo, Texas.  Interestingly, every state along that corridor voted for Trump except for Minnesota.

In June of 2016, Obama met again with his fellow North American leaders, los Tres Amigos, and reconfirmed the Pan-American commitment to preserving the Monarch butterfly migration.

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There’s no doubt that much of the advocacy, progress and attention to Monarch butterflies and other pollinators in the last two years has directly resulted from President Obama’s focus.  He will surely go down in history, among the growing community of committed pollinator advocates,  as “the pollinator president.”

Programs such as the National Wildlife Federation’s Mayor’s Monarch Pledge, research funding and grants focusing on milkweed habitat and prairie restoration, pollinator focused educational outreach and events through organizations like Monarch Watch, the Xerces Society and Monarch Joint Venture, and programs geared to encouraging private land owners to restore pollinator habitat on their properties in exchange for reduced property taxes have resulted from Obama’s pollinator focus.

And what will happen to these programs under a Trump Administration?

“The short answer is…it’s just too early to tell,” said Susan Kaderka, Southwest regional director of the National Wildlife Federation. “The Monarch work has been very popular—with states in the flyway, including many that went for Trump, with major cities and towns large and small. So it may be that it will continue, though I am sure USF&W is spending some money on it and it is unclear what will happen to that.”

Mayor Taylor at zoo

San Antonio’s butterfly friendly Mayor Ivy Taylor signed the National Wildlife Federation’s Mayor’s Monarch Pledge in December 2015 and made San Antonio the first Monarch Butterfly Champion City –Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch butterfly and pollinator advocates inside government and out echoed feelings of doubt and bewilderment. Most did not want their names attached to their quotes.

Several suggested that programs and initiatives might be safe for a while, as the new Trump administration focuses its attention elsewhere in the early days. A call for more reliance on private sector funding and pulling together for the long haul were common themes.

One government staffer mentioned a review of Trump’s 100-day mandate, which includes freezing all federal jobs, except positions in the military. “This will no doubt strain federal budgets indirectly or directly,” said the staffer.

Monarch expert Dr. Lincoln Brower, who helped initiate the petition to have Monarch butterflies listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, characterized his feelings this way. “Impossible to know, but I’m not optimistic,” he said. The listing is still under review and should be resolved by June 2019–year two of a Trump presidency.

President-elect Donald Trump has been characteristically vague about specifics regarding his future environmental policies, but he is regarded as a climate change denier and an advocate for freeing the domestic oil and gas industry from regulators. His website “positions” page doesn’t even include environment or climate change as a topic, but under energy, it states “Make America energy independent, create millions of new jobs, and protect clean air and clean water. We will conserve our natural habitats, reserves and resources. We will unleash an energy revolution that will bring vast new wealth to our country.”

Trump has labeled climate change a “hoax,” discussed dismantling the Environmental Protection Agency, and said more than once that he’s going to “bring back coal.” He has expressed a desire to undo the Clean Power Plan, and declared he will backpedal on the Paris climate change agreement signed by President Obama and representatives from 175 other nations in April.

“The prospect that the president-elect would roll back years of Obama administration policies buoyed investors in fossil fuels companies Wednesday—while sending shares of top wind and solar power firms tumbling,” stated a November 9 Wall Street Journal story headlined “Oil, Coal Seen as Winner With Donald Trump Victory.”

Every state along the Monarch butterfly highway IH35 corridor went for Trump except for Minnesota. Courtesy graphic

Every state along the Monarch butterfly highway IH35 corridor went for Trump except for Minnesota. Courtesy graphic

Trump’s suggested Cabinet picks offer some insight.

To lead the Environmental Protection Agency transition team, Trump selected Myron Ebell, a devout climate change denier who disputes the scientific consensus around manmade impacts on global warming.

As head of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a nonprofit organization devoted to “advancing the principles of limited government, free enterprise, and individual liberty,” Ebell and his anti-science positions are well-known.

Ebell once dismissed global warming as “a fad” and rationalized it as perhaps a good thing.  He wrote in a blog post on the CEI website “Complementing the weak scientific case for alarm, many people have realized that warmer climates are more pleasant and healthier. That’s why Americans move to Phoenix or Florida when they retire. If global warming theory turns out to be correct and winters become milder, then they may not be so eager to move from Michigan or New York.”

Scientific American, characterized Ebell’s role this way: “His participation in the EPA transition team signals that the Trump team is looking to drastically reshape the climate policies the agency has pursued under the Obama administration.”

As for Secretary of the Interior, the cabinet position that oversees federal lands, wildlife and rules on endangered species listings, Trump is considering Lucas Oil cofounder Frances Lucas, according to several news reports. Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., an avid big game hunter who created a stir earlier this year when photos of him with his African safari kills went viral via social media, is also being considered for the job, as is former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, known for her call to “Drill Baby Drill.”

Trump’s January 2016 interview with Field and Stream Magazine includes his references to his sons’ love for hunting and their shared belief that our national parks system, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, has been badly managed and maintained:  “..One of the things they’ve complained about for years is how badly the federal lands are maintained, so we’ll get that changed,” Trump told the magazine’s Anthony Licata.

Trump also said he’s “very much into energy” and “very much into fracking and drilling,” adding that “we never want to be hostage again to OPEC and go back to where we were.” Trump told Licata that he supports energy exploration, “as long as we don’t do anything to damage the land.”

Sustainability, renewable energy, government support of research and development into habitat protections and restoration have not been part of the Trump conversation with the public. For the next two months, an information vacuum with be filled with speculation. We will have to wait until Jan. 20 to find out Trump’s intentions.

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San Antonio’s first Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival a roaring success

Over three days and three events October 20 – 22, thousands of people came together online and in person to celebrate the Monarch butterfly migration during peak Monarch migration to make San Antonio’s first Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival a roaring success.

Kids scramble to get an up close look at Monarch butterflies. Photo by Scott Ball, Rivard Report

Kids scramble to get an up close look at Monarch butterflies. Photo by Scott Ball, Rivard Report

Or as we say in Spanish, un gran éxito.

One could argue (and I will) that we should expect nothing less from the country’s first Monarch Butterfly Champion City, so named by the National Wildlife Federation last December.

The Festival kicked off on Thursday, October 20 with the Buen Viaje, Mariposa Monarca! art show and celebration at the Mexican Cultural Institute in downtown San Antonio.

One of designers' Pineda Covalín's delectable Monarch butterfly gowns. Photo by Alex Holler

One of designers’ Pineda Covalín’s delectable Monarch butterfly gowns. Photo by Alex Holler

Recently arrived director Mónica del Arenal was so enthusiastic about the idea of a Monarch butterfly project when approached in August that within hours she had secured a commitment from Mexican nature photographer Ignacio Arcas to exhibit his work featuring the roosting sites in Michoacán.

Soon thereafter, del Arenal had a commitment from Pineda Covalín, Mexican fashion designers based in Mexico City who have an entire line of haute couture featuring textiles that show off the Monarch butterfly.  The design company committed to making their permanent collection available for the exhibit. And then Mexican artist David Romero agreed to “bring the roost to San Antonio” by creating an installation at the Institute that replicates the roosting sites.

Romero arrived early in the week to install thousands of laser cut butterflies onto the light fixtures illuminating the staircase at the Institute. The effect is a dreamy interpretation of what many will never have the chance to see.  The exhibit will be on display at the Institute until January 1.

Artist David Romero "brings the roost" to San Antonio. Photo by Rocio Guenther, Rivard Report

Artist David Romero “brings the roost” to San Antonio. Photo by Rocio Guenther, Rivard Report

About 100 people attended the opening reception, which included a discussion by Mexican Forester Dr. Cuauhtémoc Saenz Romero, Arcas and myself.  Read a full account of the reception written by Rocio Guenther of the Rivard Report.

On Friday, October 21, we hosted our symposium: Climate Change and the Monarch Butterfly Migration. All 144 seats sold out.

Savvy moderator Dan Goodgame led the panel–an equal mix of scientists and citizen scientists who represented all three countries touched by the butterflies’ unique migration. The hour-and-a-half discussion ended with questions from the audience at the intimate Pearl Studio.

Joining us for the symposium: Dr. Katherine Hayhoe, rock star climate change expert from Texas Tech University who had just returned from a visit to the White House where Leonardo DiCaprio asked her for her autograph; Cathy Downs, education outreach

Climate Change and the Monarch Butterfly Migration

Symposium: Climate Change and the Monarch Butterfly Migration. L-R, Monika Maeckle, Cuauhtémoc Saenz Romero, Cathy Downs, Dr. Katharine Hayhoe

specialist  from Monarch Watch; Mexican Forester Dr. Cuauhtémoc Saenz Romero who had been visiting Trinity University as a guest professor in ecological sciences; and myself, standing in for Catalina Trail, founder of the Monarch butterfly roosting sites in 1975, who was unable to attend due to illness.

The lively discussion touched on everything from the pros and cons of Tropical milkweed Asclepias curassavica, to whether or not “assisted migration,” or moving the Oyamel forest in Mexico where the Monarchs roost 2,000 feet higher in elevation to save it from climate change constitutes “interfering with nature.” The entire conversation will be made available online in the next week or two. Until then, here’s a great wrap up by Mitchell Hagney of the Rivard Report.

Finally, on Saturday, October 22, our Festival proper took place. Somewhere between 5-7,000 people joined us at the Pearl, a mixed used development lauded for its sense of place and respect for history on the banks of the San Antonio River. The award-winning development lived a past life as the Pearl Brewery, and owners have painstakingly conserved its character.

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People showed up with their wings on to participate in the People for Pollinators parade, led by the Earn-a-Bike Coop‘s Pedaling Pollinators. Participants ambled through the Pearl grounds as the Mariachi de Corazón San Antonio marched to a festive beat, leading the crowd under blue skies and mild temperatures.

Hundreds of butterflies were released at 10:30 and noon. After brief remarks explaining the migration and tagging program, docents and young volunteers led the contained butterflies into a courtyard. After a bilingual countdown–Uno, dos tres…three, two, one–the butterflies were released as musician Adam Tutor serenaded them with his saxophone and a song composed specifically for the occasion, Fly Away, sung by Celeste Thomas.

Throughout the morning, trained butterfly docents moved through the crowd, providing one-on-one demonstrations of how to tag a Monarch butterfly, accompanied by explanations of why we do so. All in all, 559 butterflies were tagged–400 from two mass releases, and 159 in one-on-one tagging demos by our docents.

chrysalis TBG partners

A couple attending the Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival walk under the chrysalis created by TBG Partners. Photo by Scott Ball, Rivard Report

Educational partners offered engaging tables with displays of food made possible by pollinators (Green Spaces Alliance), a Monarch Jeopardy Quiz (National Wildlife Federation), live caterpillars and butterflies courtesy of Monarch Joint Venture, education about and sales of native pollinator plants (Bexar County Master Gardeners and Native Plant Society), a game featuring the function of the proboscis (San Antonio Botanical Garden), a live bee hive (Alamo Area Beekeepers), Pollinator Palooza game (San Antonio River Authority), Monarch tagging and free milkweed seeds (San Antonio Zoo)–even a pollinator kite-building exercise organized by the good folks at the Bridge Projects.  Friends of the San Antonio Natural Areas, HEB, Rivard Report, and the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce also offered education and entertainment, as well of lots of free stuff.

Our friends from TBG Partners even built triple whammy sculptures that displayed the life cycle in three installations, from egg to caterpillar, to chrysalis to butterfly.

Monarch butterfly helps recurit signers for a petition to stop the copper mine at the Monarch butterfly roosting sites in Angangueo, Mexico. Photo by Alex Holler

Monarch butterfly helps recruit signers for a petition to stop the copper mine at the Monarch butterfly roosting sites in Angangueo, Mexico. Photo by Alex Holler

At the Texas Butterfly Ranch booth, we sold Festival bandanas and tshirts, while inviting people to sign a petition assembled by the Endangered Species Coalition. The  petition encourages the Mexican government to stop the activation of a copper mine at the Monarch butterfly roosting sanctuaries. The butterfly pictured at right helped recruit signers, which numbered 591 by the time we finished.

Those who signed had their name enlisted in a drawing to win a “caterpillar condo” stocked with a second instar Monarch caterpillar, a chrysalis, and two tags.  Natalia Rojas, a recent transplant from Chicago who now lives in San Antonio, went home with the prize.

Natalia Rojas

Natalia Rojas won the drawing for the caterpillar condo. Thanks to the 591 folks who signed the petition. Photo by Monika Maeckle

We feel pretty good about our first Festival and are contemplating doing it next year. If you attended, we’d love to hear your thoughts. We want to make it even better and appreciate your input. Here’s the link. To those who already took the survey, thank you!

To all our education partners, volunteers and sponsors, THANK YOU FOR YOUR SUPPORT and we hope to see you next year.

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Monarch migration update: winds from south, hot temps stall butterflies on Llano River

Hundreds of Monarch butterflies paused in the Texas Hill Country this weekend as winds from the south and temperatures in the 90s prevented the migrating insects from continuing their journey south.

Monarchs pecan trees wind

Small clusters of six-12 Monarch butterflies battled the wind and 90-degree temperatures along the Llano River this weekend. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Most late season nectar plants had passed their peak, with much of the Frostweed, Verbesina virginica, and Goldenrod, Solidago altissima, two late season nectar favorites, starting to go to seed. Cowpen daisies, Verbesina enceliodes, situated in shady spots produced lush, new blooms, offering the stymied flyers a fuel stop.

Coupon Daisy pecan tree Monarch butterfly

Patches of Cowpen Daisy offered fuel stops for migrating Monarch butterflies in the shade of Llano River pecan trees. Photo by Monika Maeckle

On the river banks, Swamp milkweed, Asclepius incarnata, host plant for Monarchs and Queens, showed fresh foliage for late season caterpillars, providing plenty of host plant for those Monarchs who chose to ditch the migration and reproduce locally.

David Berman

David Berman, PhD candidate at Oklahoma State University, is studying late generation Monarch butterflies and parasitoids. Photo by Monika Maeckle

David Berman, PhD candidate in the integrative biology program at Oklahoma State University, made the second of three scheduled visits to the ranch this weekend.

TAchinid fly larvae

Eeew.Monarch caterpillar killed by the parasitoid Tachinid fly larvae. Those red “pills” are the pupae of the fly. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Berman is gathering data for a study funded by the Texas State Comptroller’s Office and other organizations, looking at the impacts of parasitoids and fifth generation Monarch butterflies on the migrating Monarch population.

In the back of his white Durango, Berman carried an entire ice chest filled with dead Monarch and Queen caterpillars collected in Texas and infected with Tachinid flies. The gross fly has a science fiction-like life cycle: it deposits its eggs on Monarchs and other caterpillars, which then hatch inside the caterpillar and eat it from the inside out.

Second instar Monarch caterpillar

Second instar Monarch caterpillar on the Llano River, October 16, 2016. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Third install

Third instar Monarch caterpillar, Llano River, October 16, 2016. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Fifth instalr

Ready to bust his stripes. Fifth instar Monarch caterpillar, October 16, 2016 on Llano River. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Here along the Llano, known as the “last wild river” in Texas, dozens of Monarch butterfly caterpillars in all stages of development —eggs, caterpillars and adult butterflies in migrating mode—supplied plenty of data for his study.

“I’d have to agree with Dr. Chip Taylor that the migration will be late and long this year,” said Berman.

Monika on Llano tagging

Frustrating tagging outing on the Llano River. Photo by Victoria Echeverri

A small tagging team attempted to net the smaller-than-usual clusters of six-10 butterflies we usually encounter during peak Monarch season.

Victoria tagging

Victoria Echeverri of San Antonio takes her best shot at a cluster of Monarchs waiting out the wind on the Llano River. Photo by Monika Maeckle

High temperatures in the low nineties and winds out of the south gusting at 29 mph thwarted the butterflies directional flight south. They also seemed more skittish than usual, clinging to pecan limbs close to the limestone escarpment that provides a scenic backdrop to our river bottom.

Every time they left a pecan limb or cedar branch to continue their travels, a rush of wind would push them back. The wind made netting the creatures more challenging than usual,  as the slightest pivot of the Monarch’s wings or body would allow them to take a dramatic turn and avert our swoops.  A full day on the river only netted 58 tagged, compared to three times that many last year.

Monarch pecan

Pecan nuts made a convenient rest stop on the Llano River for migrating Monarch butterflies. Photo by Monika Maeckle

As the sun set on a mid October day that called for shorts and t-shirts instead of the usual jeans and long sleeves, we all wondered: is this the new normal? Rather than dramatic dense clusters of hundreds or thousands of butterflies roosting a few nights as in peak seasons past, maybe we’ll be seeing smaller groups over many weeks.

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Can’t get outside? Here’s how to track the Monarch butterfly migration from your desk

Monarch butterflies are on the move in what is likely to be a late migration.

Here in San Antonio, we’re entering peak migration time, as deemed by the calendar put together by Monarch Watch, the citizen science initiative that tracks the migrating insects. The calendar uses tagging data collected over decades to predict when the masses of Monarch butterflies are likely to move across specific latitudes on their way to Mexico.

The best way to enjoy the fun is to get outside as much as possible to see what’s going on with the famous flyers. But that’s not always possible. Work, school and/or other obligations always seem to get in the way.

Tagged Monarch butterfly

Won’t be long and Monarch butterflies will be passing throughout the Texas Funnel.  Check out the online tools that will help you track the migration.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Not to worry. By tapping the resources below, you’ll be able to stay on top of the Monarch butterfly migration right from your desk or mobile device.  Check out the cool tools available at the intersection of technology and (citizen) science listed below.

Journey North

First stop should be the Journey North website.  A free internet-based program that explores the interrelated aspects of seasonal change, Journey North tracks wildlife migrations including hummingbirds, whales and bald eagles.   This time of year, the Monarch migration gets top billing.  Journey North founder Elizabeth Howard told us that hundreds of thousands of people per month visit the site during Monarch migration season.

And with good reason.  Journey North offers constantly updated maps showing where adult Monarchs, eggs, caterpillars, and roosts have been spotted.  Photos and reports from citizen scientists, butterfly enthusiasts, professional photographers and academics populate the site, along with training and resources for teachers and others.

In last week’s map, below, overnight roosts were recently observed in North Texas.

Journey North 2016 map

Journey North tracks the migration weekly using data submitted by volunteer citizen scientists. Click on the map above to see latest migration status. –Map via Journey North

Journey North also publishes a weekly migration update on Thursdays, often written by founder Elizabeth Howard, like this one from October 6:  “A sudden and dramatic sweep into northern Texas occurred this week as the migration map shows. A river of wind carried monarchs by the thousands across Missouri and Oklahoma where a roost of 4,000 butterflies was reported — the largest of the season. On Friday, September 30, a dozen Texans reported in as a wave of butterflies arrived.

 Twitter

butterflyfest_300x600Using Twitter as a search engine is another great Monarch butterfly tracking tool. It provides real-time updates of Monarch butterfly sightings and offers a timely feed on

Monarch butterfly news, from many of my favorite sources–including Journey North and Monarch Watch.

Granted, not everyone uses Twitter, but an estimated 313+ million people and myriad organizations tap the free, real-time application as a search engine and personal or professional broadcast outlet.

That means you can visit http://search.twitter.com and punch in “monarch butterflies” or “monarch migration” or “tagged monarch butterfly” and dozens of hours-old “tweets”–brief 140-character updates—will be returned, telling you where Monarchs are flying RIGHT NOW.

For example, this search of “monarch butterflies” on Twitter today, retrieved a feed that included these beautiful photos.

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Twitter indexes the last 3200 tweets of any individual, so if you’re looking for historical archives, better check Google and other search engines. You can try searching Google News, but this won’t return the real-time reports Twitter delivers.  Check it out.

Wind Map

For those of us who live in the Texas funnel, the wind plays an especially significant role in planning for Monarch tagging outings. During Monarch season, I plot each weekend for maximum Monarch activity.

Before leaving town, I check the Wind Map, a fantastic tool that shows which way the winds are blowing.  If winds are coming out of the North, that means Monarchs will be riding the wave and we could have a big mass when they drop from the sky at sunset and roost for the night.

If winds are coming from the South, Monarchs won’t be moving much. That could mean they’re stranded in place, which could also make for good tagging since they will likely hang out and nectar on late blooming flowers.

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Check the wind map and see which way the winds are blowing. This tells us alot about how Monarchs can move south toward Mexico–or not. Screen grab via Wind Map

Either way, the map lets us know what’s coming.  Plus, it’s simply a dreamy tool, with it’s  visual articulation of nature’s breath expressed in real-time.

As the site descriptor says: “An invisible, ancient source of energy surrounds us—energy that powered the first explorations of the world, and that may be a key to the future. This map shows you the delicate tracery of wind flowing over the US.”

Wind map creators

Wind map creators Martin Wattenberg and Fernanda Viégas. Courtesy photo

The wind map is an art project of Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg who lead Google’s “Big Picture” visualization research group in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The talented team are committed to a “rigorous understanding of visualization” informed by their Ph.Ds–Viégas’ graduate degree from the MIT Media Lab; Wattenberg’s in mathematics, from U.C. Berkeley.

LOVE this project.

Monarch Watch and Journey North Facebook Pages

If you’re reading this and you’re on Facebook, then you likely have already “LIKED” the Monarch Watch and Journey North Facebook pages.  If not, go ahead, do it now, and join the party.  (And while you’re at it, why not LIKE the Texas Butterfly Ranch Facebook page?)

With more than 38,000 fans, Monarch Watch’s page serves as a delightful online plaza where the Monarch Watch team from the University of Kansas engages with the rest of us to share information, photos, and wax passionate about Monarch butterflies and their migration.   Citizen scientists like Rachel Shoemaker form Bixby Oklahoma, recreational observers, and professional and amateur biologists and entomologists join the conversation.

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Screengrab via Facebook.

The Journey North Facebook page, with more than 24,000 fans is equally engaging.  Journey North posts regular updates and visitors like Peggyanne Wink in Pennsylvania share sightings and observations (see below).

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Screengrab via Facebook.

Numerous other Monarch butterfly pages have cropped up on Facebook in recent months, including this one that tracks Migrant Monarch Tag Reports. The page is a closed group, meaning you have to request access. It describes itself as a page “created for those people who find tagged monarch migrants. Take a picture if you can of the tag number or post the tag number so people can track their tagged monarchs. Please only post about tagged monarchs you’ve witnessed or found.”

Monarch Watch Website

Journey North devotes itself to wildlife migrations besides Monarch butterflies, but the Monarch Watch website brags Monarch butterflies, all the time.

Monarch Watch website offers Monarch info 24/7/365

Based at the University of Kansas at Lawrence, Monarch Watch founded the citizen scientist tagging program embraced by thousands of us who tag Monarchs each fall.  Its comprehensive website offers information on how to tag a Monarch, raising milkweed, rearing Monarch caterpillars, and a database of all the Monarch tags recovered in Mexico, so those of us who tag can find out if any of our butterflies made it home.

tagged recovered Monarch

Thanks to Monarch Watch and the miracles of social media, I was able to determine that this ragged fellow, netted at the Texas Butterfly Ranch on October 1, 2016 on the Llano River near London, Texas, was tagged in southern Oklahoma. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Thanks to Monarch Watch, I was able to determine that the butterfly I netted on October 1 this year had been tagged in Tishomingo, Oklahoma nine days earlier.  Pretty cool story–read it here.

The site posts predictions for when the peak migration will occur at your latitude based on Monarch Watch scientists’ well-researched opinions.  The Monarch Watch blog is also worth a look and you can join thousands of others to get on the mailing list.

D-Plex List

If the above won’t sate your migration curiosity, then consider signing up for the D-PLEX list,  an email exchange that includes about 800 scientists, conservationists, enthusiasts, and others, including some very interesting characters.

Named after the Monarch butterfly’s Latin designation, Danaus plexipus, the D-PLEX is an old fashioned email listserv started by Monarch Watch founder Dr. Chip Taylor and invites the public.  Sign up to receive D-PLEX emails on the Monarch Watch webpage.

Careful, though.  The D-PLEX can overtake your email inbox.   Conversations can escalate, generating dozens of emails a day, many of which you may not find useful. Sometimes exchanges devolve into rude online arguments. I’ve set up all D-PLEX emails to forward to a special email box that I check periodically, so as not to be overwhelmed.

Don’t forget to check in with us here at the Texas Butterfly Ranch, too.  We’ll do our best to keep you posted.

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