Butterfly FAQ: How to move a Monarch butterfly chrysalis

One of the most frequently asked questions we get this time of year, especially in a rebound season like 2015, is how to move a Monarch chrysalis.

Janine Robin wrote via email last week that she found six Monarch chrysalises in her backyard in Folsom, Louisiana.  “Most are in a safe spot, but two are on a large clay pot. They are secure, but in the afternoon sun for about three hours.  Should they be moved?”

Monarchs on pot

Two Monarch caterpillars made their chrysalis on Janine Robin’s outdoor pot. Photo by Janine Robin

Good question.   That’s a judgement call.   Caterpillars are pretty intelligent about locating their chrysalises in safe places.  But like all of us, sometimes they misjudge.

For example, the Queen chrysalis pictured below formed on the edge of my kitchen door.

Queen chrysalis on door

Queen chrysalis on door. Not a good spot to hatch a butterfly. Photo by Monika Maeckle

I didn’t even notice until today (and I looked for her!) when I found a smashed newborn Queen caught in the door.  Sadly, she perished.

So if the chrysalis is in a dangerous or inopportune spot–or, if you just want to witness the magical moment of eclosure, when it hatches–then yes.  Move it.

The tricky part is often getting the chrysalis OFF of the surface to which it is attached without damaging the chrysalis itself.

You may have noticed that before caterpillars make their chrysalis, they are very still and quiet for about a day.  I like to think that they are deep in thought during this transformative stage.  It must take a lot of concentration and mindfulness to morph caterpillar legs into butterfly wings.

But what’s actually happening is they are spinning a vast silk web that you often don’t notice.  If you rub your finger on the surface around the stiff, black cremaster, which serves as a hook to hold the chrysalis in place, you’ll feel a thin, soft layer of silk.  That’s what you need to gather up to remove the chrysalis safely.  See the slide show below to learn how.

How do you know if the chrysalis is in a dangerous spot?

Newborn Monarch butterfly

Newborn Monarch butterfly will hang for about two hours before ready to fly. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Consider that the newly hatched butterfly will spend about two hours hanging from its empty chrysalis shell while it’s wet, crumpled wings drop and form properly. It’s advantageous for the butterfly in this delicate state to have something to climb on or cling to–a stick, netting, paper towel, leaves.

Winds blow. Animals or people walk by and brush up on the butterflies–possibly knocking them off. As Janine Robin wrote today, “Of the two chrysalises on the large clay pot, the lower one either fell off or was brushed off by an armadillo, possum or raccoon….I think it’s damaged.” Robin said she was able to reattach the cocoon with a spot of glue.

Also, if after hatching the butterflies fall and can’t climb back up (which seemingly could happen in the above pot and appears to be what happened with my Queen), their wings will dry crumpled and they will die. Having an easy-to-grab surface or twig/branch/leaf to grab would definitely help hoist heavy, damp wings in the event of a fall.

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                     All slide show photos by Monika Maeckle

For more on this subject, see our previous post: Is moving a Monarch chrysalis OK? Yes, and here’s how to do it.

Meanwhile, check out the slide show above to master the tricky task of getting a chrysalis off the surface to which it is attached.  Good luck, and let us know how it goes.

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

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

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

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

Tropical milkweed:  The debate continues.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Tropical milkweed: The debate continues. Photo by Monika Maeckle

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

Dara Satterfield

Dara Satterfield  Photo by Monika Maeckle

In case you missed it, Dara Satterfield, a PhD candidate at the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia, and her graduate advisor, Dr. Sonia Altizer, a disease ecologist at Georgia and one of the foremost experts on Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, a Monarch-centric spore driven disease known as OE, suggest in their research that sedentary winter-breeding butterflies are at increased risk of OE. They speculate that Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, the most widely available but technically nonnative milkweed and favorite host plant of the Monarch butterfly, may be damaging the Monarchs’ abilities to stay healthy, on track and make their way to Mexico.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hardiness zones redefined by USDA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edith Smith

Edith Smith, Shady Oak Butterfly Farm

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

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

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

Monarch caterpillars tropical milkweed

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monarch caterpillars eating pumpkin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Milkweed buffet

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

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

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

Antelope horns and Indian blanket

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

Texas milkweed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anybody recognize this bloom?  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Anybody recognize this bloom? Photo by Monika Maeckle

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

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

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

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

Kevin Grossberndt, Colorspot Nursery

Kevin Grossberndt, Colorspot Nursery

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

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

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

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

Kevin Grossberndt Colorspot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Video by Mitchell Hagney

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

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

Milkweed at Color Spot Nursery

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Dara Satterfield

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

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

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

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

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

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

DSC00048 - Copy

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Migrating Monarch Butterflies Stymied by Wind, Storms in Texas Hill Country

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Monarch butterflies clustered along the Llano River this weekend, clinging to pecan tree branches as strong winds from the south kept them in place, temporarily halting their journey south toward Mexico and making easy work for Monarch taggers.

Monarch butterflies along the Llano River fought the wind this weekend as the migration kicks into high gear.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch butterflies along the Llano River fought the wind this weekend as the migration kicked into high gear. Photo by Monika Maeckle

On Friday, winds shifted temporarily, blowing out of the north.  Temperatures dropped  40 degrees–from 93 to 53. The shift blew in a fresh crop of the migrating creatures.  Then early Saturday morning a dramatic thunderstorm dumped 1 – 4 inches of rain in the Texas Hill Country, knocking out electrical power and bringing heavy cloud cover that kept the butterflies once again in place for the day.

Tuf Singleton enjoys his first Monarch butterfly tagging outing with his Aunt Peggy Singleton in Hext, Texas.  Photo by Jenny Singleton

Tuf Singleton enjoys his first Monarch butterfly tagging outing with his Aunt Peggy Turlington in Hext, Texas. Photo by Jenny Singleton

“Last night was great,” Jenny Singleton texted regarding Friday night. Singleton, our friend and fellow Monarch butterfly enthusiast, first introduced me to Monarch butterflies back in 2006 when she invited me to her Texas Hill Country ranch to “tag some Monarch butterflies” along with a group of her friends and family.

The tradition continues today during peak migration each year.  I’ve borrowed the practice as well, inviting friends and family to celebrate my October 13 birthday at the ranch, tagging butterflies along the Llano.  I’m lucky my birthday falls right in the middle of peak migration season, which this year runs October 10-22 for our latitude.

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“Nothing tonight,” Singleton texted on Saturday. “Why? Too cold?” she asked, echoing my own thoughts about schizophrenic weather conditions.

As the sun returned on Sunday, Monarchs started moving again, clustering into groups of 20 -50 and making for a fantastic day of tagging.

The butterflies bunched up to stay warm and protect themselves from the wind, occasionally busting off the trees when the sun was just right, floating and flitting in the gorgeous autumn day. The pattern made for full nets, sometimes swooping 20 in one swing.  See the video above and you’ll get the idea.

Our team from Austin and San Antonio recorded more than 300 of the stymied migrants as peak migration kicked into gear right on schedule for the Texas Funnel. Singleton tagged 271 over four days this weekend, compared to 333 last year, and categorized the weekend as “disappointing.” Keep in mind this is a woman who has tagged more than 1,000 butterflies in a single weekend. “Crazy weather” was to blame for what she considered low tagging numbers in Hext, Texas, just 30 miles away from our stretch of river.


What a handful! Winds out of the South made for fantastic tagging last weekend, keeping Monarch butterfly clusters temporarily in place. Photo by Monika Maeckle

With big winds out of the south followed by thunderstorms, cold temps and then a blast from the north, conditions made for “Perfect migrating, not great for tagging,” said Singleton.

The story was different for us.   Monarchs hugged the trees, protected by a limestone escarpment and a linear grove of pecans, making for easy–and often loaded–net swoops.  All in all, a “Monarch-u-mental” weekend of butterfly fun, and a hopeful sign for a Monarch butterfly rebound. We’ll be back for more on Friday.

NOTE:  Have you taken our Milkweed Poll?  Please do. Three questions, only takes a minute.  GRACIAS!  Please do it now, here’s the link.

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Monarch Migration Update: Lone “Cat” on Llano, Butterfly Cloud Spotted on Radar

No woman is an island, but this caterpillar had his own—right in the middle of the Llano River.

A quick kayak tour on Friday revealed another first in my eight years of tagging and monitoring Monarch butterflies: a fifth instar Monarch butterfly caterpillar clinging to a single milkweed stalk in the middle of the Llano.

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I had noticed this milkweed plant a week ago. How inspiring that a single, solitary Asclepias incarnata seed found its way to the silt surrounding one of the many limestone bedded “Chigger Islands” that dot our stretch of river.  A result of seed balls thrown last Fall?  Maybe–or Mother Nature’s grand plan.

It laid down roots, put out stalks, chutes and flowers, and attracted at least one female Monarch butterfly to grace its leaves with eggs. I recall gathering at least one egg from here on September 14.

But obviously I missed this guy–or was his egg laid later? Maybe he had just hatched and tucked himself into the petals of the pink flowers when I examined the plant last week.  In any case, eight days later, he’s ready to bust his stripes and go chrysalis at any moment. After two days of more milkweed in the well-fed, safe confines of a yogurt container-turned caterpillar cage in San Antonio, he formed a chrysalis. In another seven – 10 days, he’ll hatch and we’ll tag and release this Monarch so he/she can join the migration and head to Mexico.

The migration continues, with reports from Ontario and points south suggesting the rebound we hoped for will arrive in about two weeks. The latest report from Journey North has Monarchs skipping down the Atlantic coast.

Monarchs on  Atlantic coast via Journey North

Monarchs cling to pine trees to avoid winds along the Atlantic coast. Photo by Barbara Becker via Journey North

“The Atlantic Ocean is directing the migration now in the east,” wrote Journey North founder Elizabeth Howard in her report September 25.  “Monarchs hug the coast as they travel southward, trying to avoid the winds that can carry them out to sea.”

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch relayed to the DPLEX list, an old style list-serv that reaches hundreds of butterfly enthusiasts, academics and citizen scientists, that the peak had hit Lawrence, Kansas, where the Monarch Watch citizen scientist program is based.

“The numbers seen are certainly greater than observed during the last two migrations,” wrote Dr. Taylor, referencing good numbers of Monarchs for September 25-28 in Lawrence.  “This is another late migration,” he added.

“The leading edge of the migration usually reaches here between the 9-11th of September with an estimated peak on the 23rd. It’s hard to say but, it’s probable that the peak occurred yesterday – the 27th,”  he said.

In contrast, the Associated Press reported the first migrating Monarch butterflies arrived in the northern border state of Coahuila, earlier than usual.   The report characterized the early arrivals as “a tentative sign of hope” for the migration, given the historic drop in their numbers last year.

Bee on Frostweed

Bees were out in abundance this weekend, gathering pollen on Frostweed. Only a handful of Monarchs flying. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Luis Fueyo, head of Mexico’s nature reserves, told the reporter that the first butterflies have been seen entering Mexico earlier than usual. “…This premature presence could be the prelude to an increase in the migration,” he was quoted as saying. Usually the first arrivals don’t get to Mexico until October.

Here in the “Texas Funnel,” we saw a handful of Monarchs flying in the Texas Hill Country this weekend. Most appeared to be laying eggs and did not exhibit directional flight. Frostweed was the big draw, not only for Monarchs but other pollinators, especially bees.

Butterfly cloud in St. Louis

Butterfly cloud? Ya think? That’s what the National Weather Service of St. Louis said this week. Courtesy photo

In other news, a strange cloud spotted via radar above the city of St. Louis last week by the National Weather Service was identified as a Monarch butterfly mass, making its migratory trek south. “Sometimes our radars pick up more than precipitation,” the Facebook post read, provoking a social media flutter. The “butterfly cloud” even looked obtusely to be in the shape of a butterfly—well, if you used your imagination.

NOTE:  Have you taken our Milkweed Poll?  Please do. Three questions, only takes a minute.  GRACIAS!  Please do it now, here’s the link.

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Migration Update: It Takes a Village to Feed Hungry Monarch Butterfly Caterpillars

It takes a village to keep the Monarch butterfly migration going.

Last week I discovered dozens of Monarch butterfly eggs at the ranch when a cold front pushed a vanguard pulse of migrants down to the Texas funnel.   The early moving butterflies broke their reproductive diapause to lay hundreds of eggs.  I collected more than 70 from Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, along the banks of the Llano River and dozens more from our downtown San Antonio garden.


Special delivery of milkweed by Tracy Idell Hamilton with an assist from Teresa Elliott. Photo by Teresa Elliott.

That’s the good news.

The problem:  where would we get enough “clean” milkweed this late in the season to feed the hungry critters, who eat more than 2,000 times their birth weight in milkweed leaves?  NOTE:  “clean” milkweed is plant material that has never been sprayed with systemic pesticides, which routinely kill the caterpillars.

I’ve written before about the scarcity of chemical free milkweed, especially this time of year.  In fact, we are exploring the idea of becoming a native, chemical free milkweed supplier.   Please take our poll and let us know if you would support such an endeavor.

Hungry Monarch caterpillar

What’s for dinner? Hungry Monarch caterpillar got a special delivery of Austin milkweed just in time to morph to the next stage. Photo by Monika Maeckle

San Antonio nurseries all told similar stories: “Sorry, we’re out,” or “Yes, we have some, but can’t guaranteed that it’s never been sprayed.”

One nursery had milkweed, but couldn’t guarantee it had not been sprayed by the grower with systemic pesticides, which can linger in the leaves for months.   And we all know how that turns out–just read one of our most read posts of all time, Desperately Seeking Milkweed, details the sorry stories of two friends who served pesticide laced milkweed to their hungry cats.

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

Dead Monarch caterpillars fall victim to pesticide laced milkweed.  No thank you!  Photo by Sharon Sander.

What to do?

Turn to the community, of course. In the case of Monarchs, that’s a broad collection of friends, family and acquaintances near and far. One of our favorite Austin nurseries, The Great Outdoors, almost always has a supply of chemical free milkweed on hand. A quick call to the native plant destination confirmed they had about a dozen large pots of clean, Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, left over from a spring shipment.  The plants could provide the massive foraging and feasting buffet required to take our dozens of ravenous crawlers to the butterfly stage of their life cycle.

But drive 150 miles roundtrip to Austin from San Antonio on the clogged IH-35 on a busy Saturday to collect plants? Sigh.  NOT very appealing.


Good thing my dear friend Teresa Elliott lives a few blocks from Great Outdoors and volunteered to pick up a few plants for me at $15.95 a pop.  (Yeah, kind of expensive–but worth it.)  Teresa wouldn’t even let me reimburse her. “I’m doing it for the cause,” she said.

Meanwhile, another good friend and Monarch tagging pal, Tracy Idell Hamilton, agreed to pick up the bushy bloomers since she was already in Austin attending the Texas Tribune Festival. Teresa’s house happened to be just a few blocks away from where Tracy was staying.


Such collaboration is commonplace in the sphere of the Monarch butterfly migration, where volunteers, citizen scientists, professional academics and entomologists routinely share data, tricks of the trade, and information to keep the migration going.  It’s the nature of the passion.

Upon arriving home from a day of errands last Saturday, three “ginormous” milkweed plants waited at my door.   The plants were mature, relatively aphid-free, and ready to be attacked by my hungry cats.

Hungry caterpillars

More, please! These hungry caterpillars outgrew their container and were ready for a bushy milkweed buffet. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The gang had been chomping happily on milkweed from my downtown garden, but even if we used every plant in the yard, it wouldn’t be enough to sustain them.   For the first few days, my mom, Hilde Maeckle, would help me daily clean out the caterpillars temporary plastic container home of frass, or caterpillar poop, which can be monumental. We would wipe down the container, lay out fresh leaves for them, and leave them to munch.

But now they were getting too big and too crowded, so it was time to transfer them to the plants–which arrived just in time.

Tropical milkweed

Thanks, ladies! “Ginormous” Tropical milkweed delivered to my door from Austin. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The caterpillars are now munching happily on these milkweeds, growing before our eyes.  In a day or so we’ll transfer the plants with the caterpillars to a large netted cage, or “caterpillar condo” to keep them from wandering off.  Eventually, each caterpillar will seek a quiet place, form an upside down “J” shape, then morph into a beautiful jade green chrysalis to hatch sometime during the second week in October, just as peak migration hits San Antonio.  We look forward tagging and sending them on their way.

Queen and Monarch Chrysalises

Monarch chrysalises coming soon. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Thanks to all the friends, family, professional and citizen scientists near and far who  work hard to sustain the seasonal miracle of the Monarch butterfly migration.

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2014 Monarch Butterfly Migration: Worst in History or a Hopeful Rebound?

Moth week is behind us and next up on the pollinator calendar is the Monarch butterfly migration. The storied insects start moving south on their 3,000-mile fall migration from Canada to Mexico around August 15th.

This year started with only 33 million Monarchs leaving the Oyamel forests of Michoacán in March–that’s the lowest count in history, down from more than one billion in 1994. It’s no surprise that Monarch watchers are on the edge of their seats, wondering if the majestic orange-and-black butterflies will rebound.

I saw my first-of-season (FOS) Monarch since the spring migration on Sunday, July 20, enroute to help our son Alex Rivard move into his first home. As I  crossed the driveway to my car, I noticed a Monarch butterfly on Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, in my front yard pollinator garden in downtown San Antonio.

There she was, tucking her abdomen to reach the underside of milkweed leaves, laying dozens of eggs in the process.  See the video above. I collected 34 eggs, took them inside for fostering, and left about that many on the plant.  Days later, little round “chew marks” on the garden’s milkweed plants proved that the eggs had hatched, but not a caterpillar was in sight.  Wasps, ants, spiders, ladybugs, a bird–who knows what got them?  Nature is brutal.

Still, I couldn’t help associate the FOS, egg-laying Monarch with the “new beginning” of our son’s arrival as a mortgage-paying, first-time homeowner. Alex will get a chrysalis as a housewarming gift.  And I am feeling hopeful about the 2014 migration.

Texas Drought, July 2014

Better rains, less drought translates to more welcoming conditions for Monarch butterfly migration. Map by U.S. Drought Monitor

So is Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch. He told us via email that he suspects a modest increase in monarch numbers.

“I’m not ready to say what ‘modest’ means in terms of hectares but all the indications remain positive. Monarch production from the upper midwest from the eastern Dakotas through Wisconsin and parts of southern Missouri will be above that of last year–areas to the east will be low again but not quite as low as last year.”

In June, Taylor pointed out that the harsh winter we experienced after three dry summers has driven down the predator population, increasing the survival rate of Monarch caterpillars in the central breeding grounds.   “Monarch larvae should survive in greater numbers. Elevated reproductive success in early generations usually leads to growth of the population.”

Elizabeth Howard

Elizabeth Howard, founder of Journey North, a website that tracks the Monarch migration. Courtesy photo

Elizabeth Howard, founder of Journey North, agrees. “Yes, I do think this fall’s migration will be larger than last year’s,” she told us via email.  “However, considering how dismal last year’s migration was, that isn’t saying a whole lot.”

Journey North taps citizen scientists across the hemisphere to collect data about Monarch sightings and posts the info on a handy map so you can track the migration from your desk (see above).   They also provide weekly reports summing up the state of the migration and Monarchs’ move through the hemisphere, like this one:

“There are hopeful signs of successful reproduction from the Upper Midwest and across much of Ontario. People are reporting up to a half-dozen monarchs at a time, and more eggs and larvae than all of last year.”

“Hopeful signs of reproduction.”  Yes, we like the sound of that. Because if we can just get a slew of Monarchs produced in the midsection of the country they can start their trip to Mexico through the Texas Funnel and this year we can offer a much more welcoming reception than we’ve been able to provide in the recent past.

Monarch butterfly caterpillars

Yes, please.  More Monarch caterpillars mean more migrating Monarch butterflies.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

While the drought continues, we’ve had a relatively mild summer, with few days over 100 degrees.  Sporadic rains–more than 10 inches at the ranch just in July–have fueled the growth of late summer flowers.  Nectar plants await our favorite migrants: Frostweed, Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnate), and Goldenrod stand at the ready, about to bust out their blossoms for a full-on nectar party.  Send some Monarchs our way, please, and we’ll make sure they’re well fueled for the rest of their journey.

In the meantime, it’s not too early to order your tags from Monarch Watch.  Tagging season begins soon. Related posts:

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Milkweed Shortage Sparks “Alternative Fuels” for Hungry Monarch Caterpillars

Monarch butterflies have made their way to Texas, but unfortunately not much milkweed greets them upon arrival.  A harsh, dry winter preceded by drought and schizophrenic weather have left the sought-after perennial a no-show in many Texas gardens–and on roadsides and ranch land.

Milkweeds, that is, any Asclepias species, are the host plants to Monarch butterflies and the only plant on which they will lay eggs to continue their life cycle.

PUmpkin fed Monarch

The Monarch butterfly on the left was fed with pumpkin during its final instar. Photo by Ellen Reid

Reliable DPLEX correspondent Harlen Aschen wrote to the listserv that reaches hundreds of butterfly fans that on a 1000-mile trip from Port Lavaca, Texas, past San Antonio to near Abilene and back around Austin “we saw no blooming milkweed.”

Not good.

Yet that hasn’t stopped a tenacious group of butterfly lovers from raising caterpillars and hatching butterflies on “alternative fuels.”

Professional butterfly breeders have been experimenting for years to keep their livestock well nourished when host plants become scarce.    Many of us who raise butterflies at home, especially in a year like this, also seek alternatives, since local nurseries seem to be having a hard time getting milkweed and keeping it in stock.   The recent news that the Monarch butterfly migration may soon become extinct because of a loss of milkweed habitat is driving the demand.

So what’s a hungry caterpillar to do?

Hungry caterpillars on milkweed seedlings

My boys are hungry! Six Monarch caterpillars have pretty much decimated this pot of milkweed seedlings planted in February. Good thing I have another one. Photo by Monika Maeckle

It’s a quandary.   At my house, I planted Tropical milkweed seeds in February and have several pots growing, including two filled with seedlings only two inches tall.  This will sate my caterpillars for a few days, at most.

I’m hoping that by the time the hungry cats finish up the tender seedlings, my garden milkweeds will have taken off.  Or perhaps local nurseries will get more milkweed in stock.

Over on the DPLEX list, butterfly buffs–and the Monarch caterpillars–are getting resourceful.  Several folks mentioned that by the time the caterpillars get to their fifth instar, or their final stage, before morphing into a chrysalis, they will eat pumpkin and cucumbers.

That’s right, folks.   See it with your own eyes.

Monarch caterpillars eating pumpkin

No milkweed? No problem. In the fifth instar, Monarch caterpillars will eat a variety of pumpkins. Photo courtesy Ellen Reid

“The butterfly on the left was fed with pumpkin during its final instar.  The one on the right was reared on milkweed,” Ellen Reid wrote via email all the way from St. Arnaud, Victoria, Australia.  “We couldn’t distinguish between them in any way.”

Reid shared a photo of “pumpkin frass”–orange colored butterfly poop which is produced in volumes in the final stages of the caterpillars metamorphosis.   Usually the frass is dark green or even brown, but “pumpkin frass” looks like the food that fueled it.

Paul Addington tried feeding his Monarch caterpillars cucumbers.  It worked.

Monarchs eating cucumbers

Monarch caterpillars in the fifth instar will eat cucumbers. But they have to be FRESH cucumbers! Photo courtesy Paul Addington

“These cats are eating the skin of the cucumber,” relayed Addington. “These were organic, but still felt like they were waxy, so [they were] heavily scrubbed first.”

Addington said the caterpillars indeed preferred milkweed when given a choice.  “All 52 of mine finished on cucumber, looked great and joined the wild,” he said, adding     “UPDATE: must be fresh, crunchy cucumbers.…two-weeks-in-the-fridge cukes were rejected with enthusiasm….what an uproar!”

Pumpkin frass

The frass, or butterfly poop, of pumpkin fed Monarch caterpillars reflects the food’s orange tint. Photo courtesy Ellen Reid

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, chimed in to the conversation, letting folks know that the alternatives have been known for a while.   “These alternatives have been utilized by many people in the past. They only seem to work for fifth instar larvae that are less than four days from pupating. Many of the larvae will not make these transitions successfully.”

So Monarch butterfly caterpillars appear to be more adaptable than we thought.

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