Caterpillar Cannibalism: Monarch butterfly caterpillar eats Monarch egg for lunch

I have heard that when Monarch caterpillars run out of milkweed to fuel their feeding frenzy en route to becoming a migrating butterfly, they can become cannibalistic.  That makes Darwinian sense.   Facing competition and a lack of food, it’s understandable that a creature might eat what’s before it to survive.   Nature can be cruel.

Monarch catepillars and eggs

Not interested:  Monarch caterpillars resisted a snack of a creamy yellow Monarch eggs–unlike a fellow caterpillar hours earlier. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Still, I was surprised this weekend when I watched a Monarch caterpillar retrieved from an aging milkweed plant nonchalantly devour a creamy yellow Monarch egg upon combining the two for safekeeping.    The second instar caterpillar appeared freshly minted, as if it had just shed its skin.  Its tentacles were still stuck to his head, not yet dry or perking up to explore the universe as they often do when in full form.  I’m betting that shedding your skin requires extra energy and works up an appetite.

This caterpillar was hungry.  As soon as I plucked the leaf on which he rested and placed it in a container with a Monarch egg found earlier, the caterpillar quickly gravitated to the egg and began noshing.  It took about five seconds to decimate the egg.  The caterpillar knocked it back like a high protein jello shot.

Later, as an experiment, I put several caterpillars in with several eggs to see if they would do the same.  They did not.  Were they just not that hungry?  Scientists will have to answer that one.

“Cannibalism in monarchs is not unheard of – it usually occurs due to overcrowding and/or insufficient food availability, but this is not always the case,” wrote Jim Lovett of Monarch Watch when the “caterpillar cannibalism” question was posed on a Monarch Watch forum. Most folks here will tell you to give the caterpillars plenty of room and to raise similarly-sized caterpillars together (don’t keep the larger caterpillars with the smaller ones).”

Sounds like good advice.   I generally keep eggs and tiny instars separate from their more voracious brethren.  In the case above, I was moving caterpillars and eggs from the river to the ranch house, holding them together temporarily.

Jacqueline Stearns responded on the same string that she had witnessed Monarch cannibalism.  “My first cat ever earlier this summer ended up killing my 2nd and 3rd cats and scaring my 4th and eating 3 eggs before I finally figured out what was happening,” Stearns posted on the forum.   She isolated the aggressive caterpillar and segregated the rest by size.   Since, she wrote, “have not had issue with any of the others until just last week. I found my youngest ones fighting and separated them (one is now a chrysalis) so I’m guessing they are safe together now.”

Whew.

Frostweed on the Llano

Frostweed on the Llano River awaits migrating Monarchs. Lookin’ good for a nectar fest in a few weeks. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Meanwhile, on the Llano River this weekend, we found plenty of eggs and caterpillars upon making our milkweed rounds.   Three Monarchs, four Queens were spotted in flight.  Swamp Milkweed stands of Asclepias incarnata are numerous but thin, and we even found one egg on Antelope Horns milkweed, Asclepias asperula.

Parched Goldenrod on the Llano River

Last year, this is what it looked like:  parched Goldenrod on the Llano River served no use to migrating Monarch butterflies except as a place to rest.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Frostweed, a Monarch butterfly mainstay in the fall with its puffs of white flowers, is just starting to bloom.  Goldenrod is still pervasive, but fading.  The timing is excellent for good nectar possibilities a month from now, October 10-22,  when Monarch Watch predicts peak Monarch Migration for latitude 29, which is San Antonio.  Austin, at latitude 30, would be around the same.

Peak Migration dates

Peak migration for San Antonio is predicted to be October 10 -18 according to Monarch Watch. Screengrab and info via Monarch Watch.org

My Monarch Watch tags arrived this week.  I had procrastinated buying them and only ordered 100 this year as I expect another dreary turnout for the migration given the myriad challenges Monarchs face. Weather seems to be cooperating and cooling off, though.

When the small troop arrives, nectar sources should be plentiful, boding a restorative rest stop as they make their way to Mexico.

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Welcome to the World, Lil Joe! Monarch Eggs Retrieved on the Llano River this Weekend

Sometimes a blackhead is a good thing….when it signals the imminent hatching of a Queen or Monarch butterfly caterpillar, for example.

About to hatch caterpillar egg

Black head on Monarch or Queen egg suggests imminent hatching. Soon, Lil Joe was born.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Labor Day usually marks the kick-off of Monarch tagging season for me and my mariposista friends.  Often we gather at the ranch for the three-day weekend, tags in one pocket, notebook in the other, a butterfly net in hand and a rack of babyback ribs slow cooking on the smoker.  We move up and down the banks of the Llano River on foot and in kayaks looking for the Monarch butterfly vanguard, the early arrivals of the magnificent Monarch butterfly migration. Central Texas stream systems are a favorite passage on the long journey from Canada to Mexico each fall, and the first pulse of migrants typically shows up around the end of August.

Baby Back ribs--Yeah!

Monarchs are a Labor Day tradition–as are baby back ribs on the smoker. Photo by Monika Maeckle

These early arrivals often break their reproductive diapause, the state of suspending their sexual activity in order to conserve energy for their long flight.  When that happens, they often deposit eggs on milkweed host plants in our gardens and along the Llano River.

And who can blame them for breaking celibacy vows to take advantage of available sexual, host plant and nectar resources?  The definition of success to an insect is to reproduce.

Pat Epstein paddles for Monarchs

Pat Epstein in search of Monarch butterflies and their eggs on the Llano River. Photo by Monika Maeckle

That’s why our Labor Day Monarch tagging team makes a point to look not just for butterflies, but for eggs and caterpillars on the undersides of the leaves of Asclepias incarnata, Swamp milkweed.  The native milkweed, a Monarch host plant, blooms pink in late August and early September and awaits butterfly travelers as they journey south.  Science suggests that when the butterflies break diapause they do not migrate. It’s either migrate or reproduce.  Understandably, no Monarch butterfly has the energy to do both.

The good news is that the offspring of those vanguard Monarchs will grow up in about four weeks to migrate.  Their journey will be a much shorter one than that undertaken by those Monarchs who began the trip in Ontario or northern Michigan–about 870 miles compared to 2,500+.  San Antonio or the Texas Hill Country to the roosting spot in Michoacán makes for a much more manageable trip, especially when you are young, energetic, and well-fed on fall blooming nectar plants.

Lil Joe caterpillar

Welcome to the world, Lil Joe! Monarch or Queen caterpillar hatched before my eyes. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Out of approximately 2,000 Monarch butterflies tagged by our team since 2005,  25 of  “my guys” from Central and South Texas have made it to the ancestral roosts in Michoacán, according to the Monarch Watch butterfly recovery database.  That’s what motivated my friend Pat Epstein of Austin to join me, my husband Bob, and my able assistant Cocoa for daily inspections of the Llano River milkweeds this weekend.

We saw very few butterflies in general—only three Queens, several Gulf Fritillaries, an occasional Eastern Swallowtail and periodic Sulphurs  and Skippers, as well as a hatch of the elegant Amymone, a small peaches-and-cream colored brushfoot.

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

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

Plenty of bees, aphids, wasps, fire ants, mosquitoes and grasshoppers joined a loud chorus of cicadas as we perused the milkweed stands and observed nectaring on Goldenrod and Snow-on-the-Praire.  Perhaps that 2.5 inches in the rain gauge, apparently from a passing thunderstorm earlier in the week, provoked recent hatches.

We did find several caterpillar eggs, however, including the one pictured at the top of this post. Within hours of retrieving it, the egg turned grey, then black.  About 4 PM the same day, just as I was mopping the ribs on the smoker, Lil Joe, as we named him, was born.

Olloclip camera lens

Olloclip. LOVE this cool 3-in-1 lens that snaps right onto your iPhone. Thanks to Wayne Alexander for the great gift!  Photo by Monika Maeckle

The tiny critter measured but a fraction of a centimeter in length.   Honestly, you wouldn’t see him were it not for my handy Olloclip close-up lens, which snaps onto the corner of my iPhone and offers 10x magnification.

Welcome to the world, Lil Joe!

We named him/her for being sweet but wearing a “black hat” like the youngest brother in the epic 60s TV series Bonanza.  

It’s too soon to tell if Lil Joe is a Monarch or QueenAs he/she develops, we’ll be able to tell by how many sets of tentacles display on his striped body.   Monarchs have two;  Queens three.

Female monarch lays eggs on Swamp milkweed on Llano

Female Monarch lays eggs on Swamp Milkweed on Llano River. Photo by Monika Maeckle

We observed no Monarchs—until I was packing up a few eggs collected from my kayak.   Right in front of me, I spotted a lone female, the singular sighting of the weekend.  She was  tattered, faded and fertile.   She laid three eggs on a milkweed plant right in front of my boat.  I whipped out my camera and took the shots above and below.

One of three Milkweed eggs

One of three Monarch eggs laid by the female above and retrieved from Milkweed on the Llano River. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The Monarch’s eggs will be added to our brood with Lil Joe.  When they hatch, we’ll provide fresh milkweed, clean their caterpillar condos and await their transformation from one stage to another until they form their j-shape and then a jade green chrysalis with gold flecks.   Once a Monarch butterfly emerges, we’ll tag her and send her on her way.

Check back here for updates.

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Caterpillar Quiz: How to Tell the Difference between Monarchs and Eastern Swallowtails

“Hello, I planted dill and it is dying.  The bad news is that tons of Monarch caterpillars are on it.  I’m not sure what to do, or how to keep the dill alive.  Any suggestions?”
–Jennifer L.
Eastern Swallowtail caterpillar on fennel, one of its host plants.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Eastern Swallowtail caterpillar on fennel, one of its host plants. Photo by Monika Maeckle

First of all, Jennifer, a Monarch caterpillar would not be found eating dill, since it only hosts on milkweed species.  Host plants–the plant a caterpillar eats and lays eggs on–are often the best clue to what kind of caterpillar is visiting your garden.

In their caterpillar stages, Eastern Swallowtails and Monarchs are often confused with each other.  That’s no surprise, since later in their development, both sport stylish green, yellow, cream and black-striped suits. 

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed

Monarch butterfly caterpillar on milkweed, its host plant. Photo by Monika Maeckle

These two very different butterflies–Monarchs and Swallowtails–grace our Central and South Texas skies regularly.  The migrating Monarch appears in spring and fall during its annual migration.   The Eastern Swallowtail seems to be present just about year-round, except in extreme cold.  

As butterflies, you can’t mistake these beauties for each other.  The Monarch, Denaus plexippus, exhibits orange-and-black markings that resemble a stained glass window.  

Monarch butterfly at the San Antonio River Milkweed Patch

Monarch butterfly, with wings closed, on milkweed, its host plant. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch butterfly nectaring on milkweed.  PHoto by Monika Maeckle

Monarch butterfly, with wings open, nectaring on milkweed. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The dark blue-and-black Swallowtail,  Papilio polyxenes, boasts elegant cream, gold and orange dots.   Both are large, lovely and can be drawn to your gardens with the right plants.

Eastern Swallowtail

Eastern Swallowtail, wings closed, nectaring on milkweed. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Swallowtail nectaring on milkweed.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Eastern Swallowtail, wings open,  nectaring on milkweed. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Yet as caterpillars, the Monarch and Swallowtail are often confused with each other, as the email that opens this post suggests.  Here’s a few tips that should help you pass the “caterpillar quiz” in distinguishing the Monarch and Swallowtail caterpillars from each other.

1.  Note the plant the caterpillars are eating.

Checking out the plant a caterpillar is eating generally is the easiest way to tell what kind of caterpillar you’re watching.

Monarchs only lay their eggs on and eat milkweed, members of the Asclepias family.  Swallowtails will host on members of the Apiaceae family, which includes parsley, Queen Anne’s Lace, carrot, celery, fennel and dill.

Swallowtails will also host on plants in the citrus (Rutaceae) family, including rue bushes and lemon, lime and orange trees. If you find a green-striped caterpillar noshing on fennel, it’s a Swallowtail; a stripe-suited chomper chowing down on your Antelope Horns is a Monarch.

Swallowtail showing tubercles

Who goes there?!? Note the yellow “tentacles” which the Swallowtail shows off when bothered. Monarchs don’t do that. Photo by Monika Maeckle

2.  Check the tentacles/antennae.

Monarch caterpillars have tentacles on either end of their bodies.  The ones in front are technically antennae and have special sensory cells, while the ones on the back are “just for show”–to throw off predators.

Swallowtails, on the other hand, don’t always show their antennae.  When bothered or poked, yellow tentacles pop out of their head and emit a distinctive, sickly sweet odor.  Kids are always impressed when you provoke the Swallowtail’s tentacles.

3.  Note the body shape.

Monarch caterpillars’ body type is consistent in its breadth, while Swallowtail caterpillars are thicker in general, and mass into a “hooded” shape at the head.

In answer to Jennifer’s question about what to do about a lack of dill, I suggest planting plenty of it–some for yourself, and some for the caterpillars.   Dill tends to die as summer heats up, so you can also try some of the other Swallowtail host plants.  Rue and fennel have worked well for me, thriving even in our Texas heat.

An emergency run to a local nursery might also be in the cards to pick up some caterpillar food.  Just make sure it hasn’t been sprayed with any systemic pesticides.

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Monarch Butterfly Google Earth Tour Marries Epic Journey With Epic Technology

Some stories never grow old no matter how often we hear them.  Especially when cool, appropriate technologies are tapped to amplify a known tale with delightful graphics and interesting maps.

Monarch Butterfly Google Earth Tour

Google Earth Tour of Monarch Butterfly Migration marries their epic journey with epic technology. Photo via EncyclopediaofLife

Such is the case with the recently released Monarch Butterfly Google Earth Tour, produced by Ari Daniel Shapiro and the gang at Atlantic Public Media and the Encylopedia of Life.

Sometimes technology injected into a natural phenom like the Monarch migration can seem intrusive and inappropriate.  But in this case, Google Earth mapping software lends a new perspective to the Monarchs’ epic journey, providing differing perspectives–from Monarchs’ flying in the sky to citizen scientists on the ground.

What is a “Google Earth Tour“?   As you may know, Google Earth is an amazing 3D virtual globe software program that allows one to travel the world without ever leaving your desk.   Developed by the CIA-funded Keyhole, Inc., and purchased by Google in 2004, the technology makes it possible to give a “tour” of most patches of the planet without ever leaving home.  The program also uses digital modeling data collected by NASA to provide 3D views of faraway places.

Ari Daniel Shapiro

Ari Daniel Shapiro

Shapiro said the idea for the tour resulted from a reporting trip he took to Winnipeg, Canada, last year.   “I visited someone’s home who had a monarch butterfly waystation.  I thought about how far those butterflies had to travel, and the way in which people feel connected to these insects.  It felt like it would make a great story,” he said via email.

Shapiro, like the Monarchs, starts this virtual tour in March in Michoacán.  Environmental geographer Dr. Isabel Ramirez of the Universidad Autonoma de Mexico tells us that Monarchs are “small pieces of sunlight.”

From there, they journey north. Dr. Karen Oberhauser of the University of Minnesota’s Monarch Lab details their travels through northern Mexico, the “Texas funnel,” on to the spring ranges in the Midwest and then to the summer breeding grounds further north.   The first half of the 12-minute video provides a view from the butterflies’ perspective, flying high above the varied terrain, stopping periodically to lay eggs and continue the life cycle.   Given the obstacles–ants, birds, wasps, diminished habitat and climate change–their tenacity is remarkable. In her plainspoken Minnesota accent, Dr. Oberhauser declares:  “Yeah.   It’s incredible.”

Then Shapiro switches gears.   He introduces citizen scientists and butterfly lovers, from Mark Garland and Paige Cunningham in New Jersey to Mary Beth Curry in Sylvester, Georgia.   Garland and Cunningham tag Monarchs near Cape May, and Cunningham likes to whisper “Have a good journey” upon releasing them to fly on their way.  Curry, a teacher, shares Monarch caterpillars with her students.

The story continues into Fall when the butterflies arrive at our famous Texas funnel–the channel through which ALL migrating Monarchs must pass to reach their ancestral roosts in Mexico.   That’s where we come in.

I heard about Shapiro’s project through the DPLEX email list, an old style email listserv that reaches hundreds of professional scientists, citizen scientists, and butterfly lovers.  Journey North had forwarded Shapiro’s solicitation for volunteers in which he invited  contributions of audio files and photos for the project.

________________________________________________________________________

Ari Daniel Shapiro's Email soliciting volunteers to help with Monarch Butterfly Google Earth Tour, November, 2012_________________________________________________________________________

I couldn’t resist, so in early December of 2012, I contacted Shapiro.  My contribution appears in minute 10:51, where he plays my allergy congested sound bite, which describes Monarchs “clustered like grapes” on the pecan trees that line our stretch of the Llano River, a favorite Fall overnight roosting spot.

Shapiro also plugged in a couple of my photos, including a shot of family friend Annie Alice Schenzel of Austin with her back to the camera, netting Monarchs on the Chigger Islands.   The caption reads “Monika Maeckle” and as much as I wish I were 24 years old again, that’s not the case.

Nope, not me.  That's Annie Alice Shenzel of Austin, TX.  That IS my voiceover, though.  Photo via Encyclopedia of LIfe

Nope, not me. That’s Annie Alice Shenzel of Austin, TX. That IS my voiceover, though. Photo via Encyclopedia of LIfe

When the video came out, I contacted Shapiro, but it was too late to make the change.   Lucky for us, Ms. Schenzel is gracious in being misidentified. “I am not even close to being offended by this,” she relayed via email, when told about the mix-up.  Thanks, Annie!

The entire project would not have been possible without the new technologies that bind and sometimes divide us.  In fact, citizen science would be nowhere near its current zenith without crowdsourcing tools like Facebook, Twitter, Google Earth, listservs, Smartphones, and blogs/websites like the one you’re reading.   We would all be marveling alone, unable to share the wealth of magic and information.

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Mostly Native Urban Butterfly Garden Outperforms Lawn Anytime in San Antonio

Last year about this time, we detailed a turf-to-bed conversion in the front yard of our rent house in the downtown Lavaca neighborhood of San Antonio.  We thought it would be helpful to share what happened over the past year on that small square of yard, thoughtfully converted from a drought damaged lawn to a mostly native butterfly garden with a bit of edible landscape thrown in.

The garden is located in Southtown, near downtown San Antonio.  What follows is a month-by month lowdown of a Year in the Life of an Urban Butterfly Garden.   Hopefully you’ll be inspired to get busy and start your own.

January, 2012

Future butterfly garden in Lavaca

Austin transplants hold down the fort at our future Lavaca neighborhood butterfly garden in downtown San Antonio, January 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

It actually started in November of 2011.

At the time, work and personal circumstances pulled me back to San Antonio after 12 months of temporary duty in Austin.   I joined my husband at a distinctive green-built downtown “Cube,” one of a pair of rentals conceived by progressive architect/urban pioneer Hilary Scruggs of Operative Ventures.  Our plan was to live there one year while building a house on a nearby empty lot just a mile away on the border of the historic King William district.  We’re now well into Year Two of that plan.

The Cube’s front yard St. Augustine was badly burnt from months of 2011’s historic drought.   Scruggs agreed to let me have my way with part of the yard, planting it as a butterfly garden and edible landscape.

Austin to San Antonio translplants

Austin to San Antonio transplants: rue, milkweed, bulbine and some favorite lantanas.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Because I become irrationally attached to certain plants, I choose to recycle them, digging them up from one yard and moving them to another.   The prior year, upon moving from our large family home in Alamo Heights to Austin, I took along several beloved favorites from my well-established butterfly garden–a large rue bush, several milkweeds, reliable red and mealy blue sages, and a couple of bulbines.  These same plants, and a few new ones, made the 75-mile trek to Austin and were now returning with me.

In December, we  prepped the area via solarization, using mulch and newspaper to kill the turf.   Six-10 layers of newsprint or cardboard covered by three-four inches of mulch and  steady South Texas sunshine will typically kill grass and weeds in just a few weeks, creating a decent environment for transplants, which we installed right away.   Then, we waited.

February

One of the mainstays of my urban butterfly gardens has been various types of daisies, all members of the Helianthus family.  I love dramatic sunflowers in early spring and have a fondness for Cowpen Daisy, because it blooms from March to November and takes our Texas heat so well with little water.

Last year I planted daisy, sunflower and milkweed seeds indoors in  February.   The milkweed would be used for “caterpillar food,” when Monarchs started arriving in March.

Cowpen Daisy Seedlings, February 2012.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Cowpen Daisy Seedlings, February 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

March

By the time of our last official estimated freeze date, March 15, Mammoth Sunflower and  Cowpen Daisies started indoors were transplanted to the front yard.   Our transplanted milkweeds were already hosting dozens of migrating Monarchs, who graced us with eggs which we gladly brought inside for fostering.

Mammoth sunflowers were transplanted in early March.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Mammoth sunflowers were transplanted in early March. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Cowpen Daisy

Cowpen Daisy became the foundation of the Lavaca butterfly garden.  Transplanted up front in March, 2012.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch caterpillars brought inside for fostering, harvested from our front yard, March 2012.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch caterpillars brought inside for fostering, harvested from our front yard, March 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The hungry critters devoured sprouts of Tropical mlikweed we had planted in pots specifically for their consumption.

We also installed a few tomato, okra and pepper plants, and of course parsley, rue, and fennel, which double as Swallowtail host plant as well as culinary herbs.

April

Our first happy sunflower bloomers showed themselves in late April.  Unfortunately,

Happy Mammoth sunflower and a variegated fritillary, April 30, 2012  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Happy Mammoth sunflower and a variegated fritillary, April 30, 2012 Photo by Monika Maeckle

garden vandals saw fit to decapitate our sunny soldiers, leaving their seed heads drooping in the breeze.  In one case, a 12-foot tall sunflower was beheaded by a teen walking past.  A worker installing a fence for a neighbor called her out.   The girl dropped the sunflower head and another passing teen lay it on our front porch.  Such are the travails of the unfenced urban garden on a well-trafficked sidewalk.

May

May brought the first tomatoes and a couple of okra.   Cowpen Daisies flushed their yellow blossoms, drawing Bordered Patch butterflies, which use them as a host plant.

By now, Swallowtail butterflies regularly visited the garden, nectaring on the prolific daisies and leaving their lovely, round eggs on our fennel and my well-traveled rue.

Eastern Swallowtails love fennel, parsley and rue.   They show up in late spring and keep coming all summer.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Eastern Swallowtails love fennel, parsley and rue. They show up in late spring and keep coming all summer. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Swallowtail caterpillar

Acrobatic Swallowtail caterpillar on fennel.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

The Swallowtail caterpillars are highly entertaining, and sport crazy yellow tentacles that seem to reach out and fathom the universe when bothered, giving off a weird scent. Kids love them.

June

The sunflowers were losing their charm as the weight of their heavy heads caused them to slouch forward in sad fashion.   Sparrows and cardinals started perching on their stiff stems, pecking the protein-rich seeds.

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

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

Tomato and Jimsonweed plants became common hosts for Tomato and Tobacco hornworms, which later morph into the beautiful Sphinx moth.    Loathed by gardeners, I find these caterpillars charming with their eight V-shaped marks on each side and a signature horn on the rear.  Manduca sexta, the tobacco hornworm, closely resembles its tomato preferring cousin, but shows seven diagonal white lines on its sides and a curved horn.

Tobacco Hornworm on Jimsonweed

Look at that face! Tobacco Hornworm on Jimsonweed.   PHoto by Monika Maeckle

Because they are moths, the caterpillars drop to the ground, cover themselves with earth to later rise as a large, hovering night-flyer.

 July

Fourth of July brings peak summer–long, hot days.   Daisies, milkweed, Jimsonweed and sages are taking the heat well.  Sunflower seeds are ready for collection from their tired, dried heads–here’s how to harvest them.

July:  Time to harvest sunflower seeds.  Just scrape them from the flower head with a spoon. Photos by Nicolas Rivard

We also had our first brood of Bordered Patch butterfly caterpillars on our Cowpen Daisies.   The fuzzy black critters decimated a few leaves, but the birds soon came and made quick snacks of most of them.

Bordered Patch butterfly: Quick change artist?

Bordered Patch butterfly on Cowpen Daisy.   July 2012.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

August

We start to see Queens in late summer.  Queens, Danaus gillippus, share the multiple charms of Monarchs, Danaus plexippus.  Both flaunt large size, flashy, striped caterpillars, and chrysalises that resemble a jade crystal, flecked with gold.

Queens are back in town

Queens are back in town. Here, on  Tropical milkweed..  Male Queens adore Gregg’s Purple Mistfower.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

If you have flowers blooming during the most brutal summer days, you’re likely to see the burnt orange creatures.  Like Monarchs, Queens lay their eggs only on milkweed, but they nectar indiscriminately.  Males have a penchant for Gregg’s purple mist flower.   Apparently they extract minerals necessary for their virility from the native perennial.

September

Late August and early September signal the start of the Monarch migration in our part of the world.  We usually buy our tags from Monarch Watch in August and tag the first Monarchs over Labor Day weekend.

Use your thumbnail to lift tag from sheet and transfer to butterfly.

Labor Day Monarch tagging, 2012:  Use your thumbnail to lift tag from sheet and transfer to butterfly.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch Watch has run the citizen scientist tagging program for more than 20 years.  Hundreds of thousands of butterflies have been tagged in the two decades by nature lovers like you and me.   The data collected by those citizen scientists has helped piece together the many mysteries of the Monarch migration.

We’ve tagged about 2,000 over the years and had 26 recoveries from the forest floor in Michoacan.  Here’s how to tag Monarch butterflies, if you’re interested.

October

April and October are always some of the best months in the garden in South Texas.  If you’re lucky and plan ahead, you can still be pulling okra off your plants, get a second round of tomatoes and harvest some peppers.

Lavaca butterfly garden, October 2012.  Cowpen daisy is a rock star foundation plant. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Lavaca butterfly garden, October 2012. Cowpen daisy is a rock star foundation plant. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Perhaps now you can see why I love the Cowpen Daisy so much.   The plant just keeps on giving blooms.  The more you cut it back, the more it puts out.  You can shape it into a hedge, let it grow tall and gangly, or chop it short and bushy.  And of course the butterflies love it.

Cowpen Daisy continues to bloom through the fall, drawing all kinds of butterflies

Cowpen Daisy continues to bloom through the fall, drawing all kinds of butterflies as a nectar source. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch caterpillar on Tropical milkweed

Monarch caterpillar on Tropical milkweed in October, 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Butterflies and other pollinators are ubiquitous this time of year because the weather is so perfect for blooms.   

November

November is a great time to collect seeds for next year’s butterfly garden.  It’s prime time for planting many native wildflowers, too.
Some dislike the brown woody look of native annuals that must be  allowed to “go to seed” in order to produce blooms next year.   But for me, the seeds add to the charm of these reliable plants.
Lavaca garden, November 2012

Lavaca Butterfly garden, November 2012. Some Cowpen Daisies are spent–good time to gather seeds for next year. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Tagged Monarch butterfly on leftover Halloween pumpkin

Tagged Monarch butterfly on leftover Halloween pumpkin. November 2012 Photo by Monika Maeckle

And while you’re gathering those seeds, the butterflies just keep on coming.  Our typical first freeze in San Antonio is supposed to be in mid-late November, but climate change has made that so unpredictable that we, like the birds, butterflies, bats and bees, should seize every sunny, warm day and make the most of it.

December

The last month of the year is a good time to make use of those seeds you’ve collected.  Brush them off the sidewalk, put them in a brown paper bag and share them with friends.

Seeds for next year

Seeds for next year, gathered from Lavaca garden, December 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

 We also like to make seedballs for ranch wildscaping and guerilla gardening projects. The recipe is easy, inexpensive, and makes for a great group activity.
Rollyo seedballs--why wouldn't you?

Rollyo seedballs–why wouldn’t you?   Makes a fun group activity.  Photo by Hugh Daschbach

Looking back over the year, can you believe how much life–and fun–can be culled from a small butterfly garden?   A modest patch of earth populated with appropriate, native and well-adapted plants beats a vast green lawn anytime.

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Got Milkweed? Updated Plant Guide for Central and South Texas

Our first Milkweed Guide posted back in the fall of 2010 and has continued to be one of our most-read blogposts.   With spring here and butterfly gardeners chomping at the bit to create host and nectar habitat for Monarchs and other butterflies, it’s a good time to talk milkweed choices and availability.

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Much has changed since that 2010 post.  A three-year, drought-induced emphasis on native, drought-hearty plants has created a greater demand for native milkweeds. That said, supply continues to be lacking.

Monarch Watch recently launched its Milkweed Market on its homepage, a virtual marketplace of native milkweed seed.    When you click on the vendors, though, most species are not available.

Monarch Watch, The Xerces Society, a pollinator advocacy organization, and the Native Plant Society have all engaged in milkweed restoration initiatives.    This is good news, but it will take time to develop the market commercially.

Those of us who have attempted cultivation of native milkweeds from seed in our home gardens have often met frustration and failure.   The very traits that make native plants so hardy also often make them extremely particular about their soil, drainage, moisture and available light.  As George Cates, chief seed wrangler at Native American Seed Co. in Junction, Texas told me:  “These milkweeds have a mind of their own.”

Monarch caterpillars will ONLY eat Asclepias species, or milkweed.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch caterpillars will ONLY eat Asclepias species, or milkweed. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Plugs for native milkweeds are practically impossible to find in nurseries and because of their extremely long tap roots, transplanting them successfully often fails.   Texas longterm drought has sparked a broader interest in native plants, so the availability of milkweeds and other “from here” pollinator plants will continue to grow.

For now, though, planting from seed is the most viable option.  If you can collect your own seed in the wild, go for it.  Native milkweed seed is expensive–as it should be.  When you realize what it takes to produce the seed, you won’t begrudge its price tag.  Read that saga here.

Since the time to take cuttings and collect seed will soon be upon us, we offer guidance below, based on personal experience.  Other appropriate milkweeds are suggested in this article by the Native Plant Society.  Keep an eye out for your local botanical garden or native seed society’s pop-up plant sales to score some proven homegrown natives.

Texas Butterfly Ranch Suggested Milkweed Species for our Area

Antelope HornAsclepias asperula  

The most common native milkweed in these parts has fuzzy leaves and an odd greenish-white bloom and can stand two-feet tall.  During dry spring seasons, the hearty perennial is sometimes the ONLY plant blooming.  Last year in Central Texas when we had an exceptionally wet winter, the Antelope Horns were not as pervasive as you would think.   Too much moisture and too much competition from less hardy plants kept these guys laying low. 

Antelope horns

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

Antelope horns is especially appropriate for wildscapes, ranches, and large plantings.  It can best be propagated by seed, which is available commercially from native seed suppliers.  

Be mindful that stratification is recommended for successful germination.   According to the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, Antelope horns can also be propagated from root cuttings taken in the spring.  If you have it growing in nearby fields, ranches or wildscapes, you might give this a try.  If you choose to plant seeds you’ve gathered yourself, collect those in June.  

Typically 30 – 45 days of stratification will be required before installing in moist soil.  See our post on how to get Antelope Horns milkweed to germinate, courtesy of Native American Seed Company in Junction, Texas.

 Green MilkweedAsclepias viridis 

This common native milkweed in our area is sometimes called Green Antelope Horn Milkweed or Green Mlikweed and is the most common milkweed in the state of Texas.   The Edwards Plateau is the western reach of its range, which starts in East Texas.

Asclepia Viridis, Green Milkweed or Green Antelopehorn Milkweed Photo courtesy Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center

Asclepia Viridis, Green Milkweed or Green Antelopehorn Milkweed Photo courtesy Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center

I have a single one of these plants growing under a porch at the ranch.   The solitary bloomer never receives supplementary water and barely enjoys rain, given its location tucked under a breezeway.

Yet every year it pushes out a batch of blooms and seedpods, peeking from under the  deck, reaching for the sun.   Those of us who raise Monarch caterpillars like the fact that Green milkweed has larger leaves than other available milkweed, which makes feeding voracious caterpillars a bit easier.

Green milkweed can range from one-three feet in height and is best propagated by seed which is commercially available.  Like Antelope Horns, it sports showy whiteish-green globes of flowers that attract Monarchs as a host, and huge bees and other butterflies for its nectar.

Swamp MilkweedAsclepias incarnata

Another excellent native milkweed for our area is Swamp Milkweed, a lovely pink bloomer that sports lush pink flowers in August and blooms through September.

Swamp milkweed grows along rivers and streams and is an excellent choice for riverbanks in the Hill Country or perhaps in an area where you have air conditioning condensate draining.  Spiders LOVE this plant.  I have witnessed “death in the afternoon” more often than I care to remember: Monarch butterflies snagged by orb weaver spiders as they perch on Swamp Milkweed leaves, in search of an easy feast.

Monarch on Swamp Milkweed on the Llano River

Monarch on Swamp Milkweed on the Llano River, photo by Monika Maeckle

For years we’ve had this milkweed growing along the banks and on the Chigger Islands of our Llano River ranch, but recent, prolonged drought has taken a severe toll, lowering our water table so much that much Swamp milkweed has died.

 Butterfly Weed, Asclepias tuberosa

This bushy orange bloomer is often confused for Tropical Milkweed (see below) and is frequently mislabeled at nurseries.  One of the best ways to tell if a milkweed in question is tuberosa is to break off a leaf and see if  milky latex pours out.  If it doesn’t, then it’s Butterfly Weed.

Ascelpias tuberosa

Asclepias tuberosa, or Butterfly Weed, is a great nectar plant for Monarchs and other butterflies. Photo courtesy Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center

Detractors of Butterfly Weed point out that it doesn’t contain the toxic cardenolides that protect Monarchs from predators, thus should be avoided.   The toxins, contained in the latex of  most milkweed species, give the Monarch its bright warning colors and bad taste that deters predators.

The 18-inch-tall perennial serves as a fantastic nectar plant.  Its abundant orange blooms attract all kinds of butterflies.   If you’re trying to stick with natives, choose this one to grace your butterfly garden.

Butterfly weed can sometimes be found locally at nurseries. The plant is propagated easily from seeds and cuttings and blooms through the Fall, when nectar sources are wanting.

Tropical Milkweed, Asclepias curassavica

Tropical milkweed is not native, but it is widely available at garden centers in one-gallon pots and it also germinates easily from seed and cuttings. As much as I support native plants, this is my favorite Monarch host plant.  It’s easy to grow, not a water hog, propagates easily from seeds and cuttings, blooms prolifically and draws Monarchs like a magnet.  Commercial butterfly breeders and even organizations like Monarch Watch rely on Tropical milkweed to raise butterflies in captivity.

Asclepias curassavica, Tropical milkweed, NOT native, but a great Monarch host and nectar plant for all butterflies.  Photo by Moniak Maeckle

Asclepias curassavica, Tropical milkweed, NOT native, but a great Monarch host and nectar plant for all butterflies. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The plant can be controversial for native plant purists and some scientists.   Theories abound on the appropriateness–or not–of Tropical milkweed in Central and South Texas.

The plant originated in Central America and has gradually moved north.   Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, points out that Tropical milkweed is the plant on which Monarch butterflies evolved.

In my completely unscientific kitchen experiments, I’ve noticed that Monarch caterpillars PREFER Tropical milkweed. When offered a choice of Tropical milkweed, Swamp Milkweed or Antelope horns, Monarch caterpillars inevitably choose Tropical milkweed.

Studies show that the toxins in Tropical Milkweed inoculate Monarch moms and their young. While it can be challenging to find Tropical milkweed in the Fall when Monarchs are moving through Texas, it’s easy to cut back your spring plants to encourage new growth for migrating visitors.   My butterfly breeder friend Connie Hodson, of Flutterby Gardens in Manatee, Florida, says you can cut any six-inch stalk of Tropical milkweed in a potting soil and vermiculite mix, and have new plants in no time.    You can also order seeds or harvest them yourself from fellow gardeners.

NOTE:  If you choose to plant Tropical milkweed, best practice suggests slashing it to the ground in late fall or early winter.   It will push out new shoots as the weather warms. This  will discourage overwintering of organisms possibly harmful to Monarchs.

Matelea reticulata  Pearl Milkweed vine

Milkweed vine

Milkweed vine, lovely addition to the garden!  Photo by Monika Maeckle

While Milkweed vine is in the Asclepias family, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that Monarchs and Queens use this vine as a host plant. It grows in the wild in the Texas Hill Country.

Anyone have experience with Milkweed vine as a host?

I include it today because it is an absolutely delightful plant with its heart-shaped leaves, perfect green symmetrical flowers, and a lovely, intriguing pearl-like dot in the middle. Someone needs to make earrings out of these flowers.

In the Fall, Milkweed vine produces huge seed pods, about three times the size of Tropical milkweed.  The plant climbs and curls for six – 12 feet and is sometimes called Green milkweed vine, Net vein milkvine, and Netted milkvine.

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Part Two: More Tips for Raising Monarch Caterpillars and Butterflies at Home

Last week’s post on raising Monarch butterflies at home sparked a a slew of questions, comments and emails.   I figured I’d better get back here and clarify a few things.

Newborn male Monarch

This newborn male Monarch hatched this week from my first “crop” of eggs. Off he went! Photo by Monika Maeckle

First, I left out the part about what to do with the egg, once you bring it inside.

I usually tear off the leaf that the egg is on and put it in a jar or plastic container with the lid on.  This keeps it moist and at a stable temperature.  Sometimes the leaves will start getting moldy or condensation will form on the sides of the jar or lid.  If that happens, just open the container and let the fresh air in.  You might even wipe off the condensation.  Too much humidity may cause mold to grow and is not a good thing.

Monarch butterfly egg

Put fresh Monarch butterfly egg inside a plastic container or jar with lid on. Photo by Monika Maeckle

But often as the torn leaves decay, they  smell “ripe”–that is, you can tell they are starting to degrade.   The eggs usually hatch within three – four days, so hopefully they will show themselves as tiny caterpillars before that happens.  That said, it seems that caterpillars don’t mind that earthy aroma as much as we humans do.

Once the egg hatches, you can start the process discussed in last week’s post.  There, I shared photos and info mostly about raising caterpillars in a vase-like setting with cut milkweed set in water and caterpillars munching happily on the leaves.   But when you have LOTS of caterpillars, that’s hard to do.

Seven baby Monarch caterpillars

Seven baby Monarch caterpillars occupy this former cheese container. You can see one pretty clearly at 10 o’clock. Photo by Monika Maeckle

When I have more than two-three caterpillars at once, I use the contained “caterpillar condo” approach I alluded to but didn’t describe in detail last week.  I will do that now.

I like to have a large stalk of milkweed that I place inside the container.  Taking a small piece of dampened paper towel and wrapping it around the end of the milkweed helps keep it fresh and assists in extending its appeal to the caterpillars.  Like us, caterpillars prefer fresh greens.

Caterpillar condo

Paper towel on the bottom of the container helps in cleaning frass and changing milkweed. Note wet paper towel wrapped around stem on right side.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

As the caterpillars get bigger and indulge in their 10-14-day feeding frenzy, massive amounts of caterpillar poop, or frass, result.   The problem compounds with more caterpillars.  When I have several caterpillars, a paper towel in the bottom of the plastic container helps to absorb dampness and makes for easy clean-up.

Move caterpillars from container to assist in easy clean-up

Just lift the stem and move the caterpillars out of the way while you clean the container. PHoto by Monika Maeckle

When the caterpillars reach their third instar, or stage, you’ll find you may need to supply fresh milkweed daily, sometimes more than once a day. Of course it depends on how many caterpillars you are raising.  NOTE:   When there’s nothing to eat, caterpillars can become cannibalistic.  We don’t want that.

Caterpillar just shed its skin

This Monarch caterpillar just shed its skin. Leave him alone to do his thing. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Some people may struggle with moving the caterpillars around.   Often you can simply lift what remains of the stem and put the caterpillars aside while you wipe down the container.  If a caterpillar is stuck in an inconvenient position, take a leaf and slide it under her.  Usually she will climb right on, getting out of your way.  I’ve used a spoon or paintbrush to move the caterpillars.  Handling with your fingers should be discouraged.  Usually they will ball up and drop to the ground and it can be difficult to get a grip on them.

Cleaned caterpillar condo

After cleaning out the container, return the caterpillars to their “condo.” Photo by Monika Maeckle

Sometimes,  the caterpillar is in the middle of shedding its skin and won’t want to move.   In that case you should try to wait til the process is complete.   Caterpillars seem to gravitate to the roof of the containers, too.  I just let them hang out there while I clean up, then put the roof back on.

Fresh milkweed for Monarch caterpilalrs

Fresh milkweed for Monarch caterpillars. Note damp paper towel on stem tip. Photo by Monika Maeckle

When it’s time to go chrysalis, I will move all these caterpillars to a chemical free milkweed plant.   They will wander off and find a good place to transform themselves.   As stated previously, I’m not squeamish about caterpillars in my house.

You can also put them inside the pop-up cages that I mentioned last week, and they will form a chrysalis on the side of the netting or the roof of the cage.

Caterpillar condo

Put the lid on your caterpillar condo and wait til it’s time to go chrysalis. PHoto by Monika Maeckle

Good luck, and let us know how it goes!

For more information, check out the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project page on raising Monarchs or Monarch Watch.

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Part One: How to Raise Monarch Butterflies at Home

Remember those Monarch eggs I wrote about two weeks ago that I found on my front yard milkweed?  The photos below illustrate how easy it is to raise Monarch butterflies at home.  It’s fun and gratifying to bring the eggs inside for fostering.

Caterpillar condo

It’s not pretty, but it works. Iced latte cup serves as “caterpillar condo.” Photo by Monika Maeckle

Now’s the time of year you’ll find Monarch butterfly eggs on your milkweed.  Just turn over the leaves, look on the underside and you’ll see them.  Your helping hand could give those eggs a higher chance–from 10% to 90%–of completing their life cycle and becoming a butterfly.   Mother Nature can be brutal.  The tiny eggs represent a protein pop for beetles, ants, and wasps and serve as the equivalent of a highly nutritious smoothie.  

Once the eggs hatch and start munching on milkweed leaves, the holes and “chew marks” they leave in their wake signal to predators that a tasty morsel is near.   While birds generally don’t find Monarchs tasty, they don’t know that until they have their first bite.

Monarch egg on Tropical mlkweed

Bring eggs in to give them a better chance of completing the life cycle. You’ll find them on the underside of milkweed leaves. Photo by Monika Maeckle

It’s not difficult to nurture an egg all the way through the life cycle–from teeny creamy yellow dot to chubby waddling caterpillar to jewel-like chrysalis to beautiful butterfly.  Chrysalises also make fantastic, unique gifts for life’s transitional occasions–weddings, funerals, graduations, a job or other life change.

If you’re up for fostering Monarch caterpillars, you must have ample, chemical-free milkweed.   Any type of Asclepias species will do.  As much as I like native plants, I’m a big fan of Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, for at-home butterfly gardens:  it’s easy-to-grow, widely available, a reliable bloomer, and its leaves serve as Monarchs’, Queens’ and other milkweed feeders’ sole food source.   Other butterflies adore nectaring on its orange and yellow flowers.

Once the eggs hatch, you’ll need to provide fresh milkweed regularly–and in later stages, daily–to these voracious eating machines, so make sure you’re well stocked.

Former salad greens box converts to a caterpillar container.  You'll have to provide fresh milkweed each day.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Former salad greens box converts to a caterpillar container. You’ll have to provide fresh milkweed each day. Photo by Monika Maeckle

You’ll also need a pot, container or “cage” in which to store the milkweed and sequester the caterpillars.  They make quite a mess.  Some people use tupperware boxes, others will put milkweed leaves in a vase and let the caterpillars crawl around, munching as they please.   I like to use a beverage bottle or a plastic iced coffee cup with a lid, which makes a simple “caterpillar condo.”   Be sure to put some newspaper underneath to catch the enormous amount of caterpillar poop, also known as frass, that will result from the constant eating.  Clipping the paper with a clothespin to create a catch for the frass will keep it from rolling onto your floor.

Caterpillar poop or frass

Whole lotta caterpillar poop! Known as frass, caterpillar excrement can be monumental. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Another option, if you have chemical-free potted milkweed available, is to bring the plant inside the house or on a porch and let the caterpillars consume the plant.   That’s one of the easiest methods.

Professional butterfly breeders often take this approach, devoting entire greenhouses to seeded milkweed pots.    Others will use cut milkweed supplied fresh daily after cleaning the containers.

Caterpillar-palooza

Professional breeders and Monarch enthusiasts plant Tropical milkweed seeds in January so they’ll be sprouting in time for the caterpillar-palooza that arrives in the spring. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Cages must be kept clean and free of frass. You can empty out the frass and wipe down the inside of the cup or container with a paper towel.  Trapped frass can cause a germ problem, as the caterpillars waddle through the mess, track it onto leaves, then consume the nastiness, possibly getting sick.

Beyond fresh milkweed and a container, cage, or potted plant, you’ll need little else but time.  The life cycle from egg to butterfly usually takes about a month.   The egg stage lasts about four days.   Then the caterpillar hatches and remains in its first instar, or stage, for several days.   As it eats and outgrows its skin, it morphs to become a second instar caterpillar.

Caterpillar spinning silk

This guy is forming his silk button and will soon make a j-shape to morph into his chrysalis. See the silk? Photo by Monika Maeckle

The process continues, to third, fourth and fifth instar “cats,” until finally, the caterpillar is almost as big as your ring finger and appears as if it will bust its stripes.   Usually the process from egg to fifth instar takes about 10 -14 days, depending on conditions.   And, if there’s less milkweed available, the caterpillars will hurry up and form their chrysalises, eating less and forming more petite chrysalises.

When that time nears, the caterpillar typically wanders away from its host plant or attaches itself to the top of the cage if confined.   It seeks a nice, quiet place, out of direct sunlight to form its chrysalis.    We have found chrysalises in the most unusual places.

About to go chrysalis, he's forming his j-shape.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

About to go chrysalis, he’s forming his j-shape. Photo by Monika Maeckle

For that reason, many people prefer pop-up cages rather than cups or potted plants since you can put a potted plant inside, sit back and wait.   Personally, I love watching the cats’ acrobatics as they go through the process and I don’t mind finding caterpillars on or under my furniture or curtains.  My husband is also quite tolerant.   But…I understand not everyone feels that way.

When the caterpillar is ready to go chrysalis, it sits quietly for a while, seeming to ponder the possibilities.  But actually, it’s spinning a tough, sturdy silk button that will support its weight for the period in which it hangs upside down as a chrysalis for about a week.

When it’s ready, it hangs vertically and forms a j-shape.   At some moment, when you see its tentacles hanging

Monarch chrysalises

These three caterpillars formed their chrysalises on the underside of the newspaper protecting my floor. Photo by Monika Maeckle

limply, it will begin its transformation from caterpillar to chrysalis with an exotic twisting dance that allows it to shed its skin for the fifth and final time.  It  forms the most fantastic jade colored jewel, flecked with gold specks and rimmed with black.   The chrysalis remains for 10 – 14 days, depending on the weather and humidity.

Finally, when it’s ready to become a butterfly, the green chrysalis will turn opaque, then dark, then black, then clear.   You can see the gorgeous orange-and-black coloration of the Monarch butterfly

clear chrysalis

When the chrysalis turns clear, a butterfly is about to be born. Photo by Monika Maeckle

waiting to be born through the shell.   To watch the butterfly eclose, or emerge, from this form warrants a toast of champagne or a sip of Bordeaux. It happens quickly, so don’t leave the scene if you’re hoping to catch the moment.

When the butterfly first hatches, its wings are soft and malleable.   The butterfly needs to hang vertically so its wings can take shape and firm up.  After about two hours, the butterfly’s wings have dropped completely and are fully formed, ready for first flight.  When you see the butterfly start to beat its wings slowly, as if it’s revving up its engines, its time to take her outside and send her on her way.

Newborn Monarch butterfly

Newborn Monarch butterfly: almost ready for flight.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

For more information, check out the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project page on raising Monarchs or Monarch Watch.

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Faded FOS Monarch Butterfly Lays Eggs in San Antonio Despite Dreary Population Reports

My first day of earnest butterfly gardening of 2013 met with a sweet surprise:  my FOS (First of Season) Monarch butterfly, Sunday, March 17.

And, it was a faded female, fluttering in my mulched front yard garden, lighting from one Tropical milkweed plant to another.  In her wake, about a dozen creamy, white Monarch eggs were deposited on the undersides of select leaves.  I retrieved a handful for safekeeping inside.

FOS Monarch butterfly

WELCOME! FOS Monarch butterfly, a female, met me in the garden on Sunday.                                  Photo by Monika Maeckle

The sight was especially reassuring given that we just endured the worst news in history on Monarch butterfly numbers this week.   The official report from the World Wildlife Fund preserves in Michoacan, Mexico, confirmed what many of us had suspected for 2012.

Monarch egg on Tropical mlkweed

She left about a dozen creamy white eggs on the tenderest milkweed leaves she could find.      Photo by Monika Maeckle

The migrating butterflies occupied a mere 2.93 acres (1.19 hectares) of Oyamel forest in Mexico, the smallest recorded population in history. The number represents a 59% drop,  down from 7.14 acres (2.89 hectares) last year and the lowest population since record keeping began 20 years ago.  During the 1990s, the amount of forest typically occupied by Monarch butterflies averaged more than 20 acres.

Here's a close-up.  Never mind the dirty fingernails.  This egg is coming inside for safekeeping!  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Here’s a close-up. Never mind the dirty fingernails. This egg is coming inside for safekeeping! Photo by Monika Maeckle

Why is anyone surprised?  Climate change, drought, wildfires, illegal logging in Mexico, and pervasive pesticides have brewed a perfect storm that threatens the continuation of the magnificent Monarch  migration. Genetically modified crops leave our heartland void of milkweed, the Monarch host plant, starving the migrants of the only food that feeds their caterpillars.

Screen Shot 2013-03-18 at 2.13.43 PM

Passage: the Decline of Monarch butterflies via CBS news.

Our friend Dr. Lincoln Brower co-authored an op-ed piece with Homer Aridjis, a Mexican author and former ambassador, for the New York Times headlined:  “The Winter of the Monarch.”  “Today the winter monarch colonies, which are found west of Mexico City, in an area of about 60 miles by 60 miles, are a pitiful remnant of their former splendor,” wrote Brower, who has been studying Monarchs for decades.

Scientists see ominous decline in Mexico’s Monarch butterflies,” read the headline topping an AP story that ran on NBC news’ webpage and many other news sites.   The listservs and Facebook exploded with angst from butterfly fans.

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

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

“Bad omen: More than half of the monarch butterflies in Mexico have gone missing,”  tweeted Steve Silberman, as scores of others chimed in to express their dismay.  The Monarch Watch Facebook page posted the news and dozens of comments resulted.   “Terrible news” and “So sad” typified responses, along with myriad calls to plant more milkweed.
Just keep doing your thing, girl. She laid about 10 eggs on Sunday. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Just keep doing your thing, girl. She laid about 12 eggs on Sunday. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“All in all, it was not a good year for monarchs,” said Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, in his response to the report.

Yet…thinning my thick patch of Cowpen daisies to make more room for milkweed, I couldn’t help but marvel at the tenacity required for this small, slight creature to have traveled so far to complete her life cycle.   More than 850 miles. Faded, fluttering, she sought just a few good leaves for her babies.   She didn’t give up.

And we shouldn’t either.

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Persnickety Texas Milkweeds “May not Lend Themselves to Mass Seed Production”

Native American Seed Company is on a mission to restore the earth, one native seed at a time.

The 300-acre spread about 115 miles west of San Antonio on the banks of the Llano River just northeast of Junction, Texas, boasts 75 acres of native plants in production

Antelope horns milkweed seed pods

Antelope horns milkweed pods last June at Native American Seed in Junction, Texas.                Photo courtesy Native American Seed

for the distinct purpose of harvesting native seed.

The company’s nondescript cedar post gate opens onto a caliche drive that winds through classic Hill Country mesquite, agarita and sotol, then spills into planted rows of huisache daisy, standing cypress, gayfeather, American blanketflower and other native wildflowers and grasses.   Water pumped from the nearby Llano River maintains the verdant fields, and allows the company to grow, harvest, process, package and ship more than 170 species of native seed and 30 seed mixes nationwide.

Antelope Horns milkweed

Antelope Horns milkweed last June, after well-timed and regular rains in early 2012. Photo courtesy Native American Seed

Among the seed stock, two native Texas milkweeds, Asclepias asperula, commonly known as Antelope horns, and Asclepias viridis, often called Green milkweed, have challenged the 25-year-old seed company’s experts.  The Monarch butterfly host plants are essential to the Monarch butterfly migration, which funnels south through the Texas Hill Country each fall.  Native milkweeds are famously difficult to propagate, even for professionals. “Species in Texas may not lend themselves to mass seed production,” said George Cates, chief “seed wrangler” at Native American Seed.

Native Texas milkweeds require stratification–cold and moisture to soften up their outer shells.   They need 45 days of moist conditions, specific soil conditions, and alternate wet and dry periods.   Worst thing you can do: overwater them.  (Check out Native American Seed’s Milkweed Stratification process at this post.)

Gardeners and butterfly fans committed in theory to propagating and planting native milkweeds (and I consider myself among them) have been vexed in practice by their persnickety ways.   That’s what often drives us to plant Tropical Milkweed, the nonnative Asclepias curassavica that is easy-to-grow, widely available and the favorite of Monarch butterflies for hosting and other butterflies for nectar. While the practice bothers some scientists and native plant purists, our rationale is that Monarch caterpillars need to eat.   In short, it’s better to provide SOME host plant for migrating Monarchs than NONE as they pass through Texas.

George Cates

George Cates stands in a field of future Antelope Horns in April. Nothing sprouting yet. PHoto by Monika Maeckle

Native American Seed and the Portland-based Xerces Society, a nonprofit organization devoted to protecting invertebrates and their habitats, hope to change all that.

In 2010, the Xerces Society approached the 18-person staff of the Native American Seed Company about establishing a partnership to restore native milkweeds to the American landscape.  Xerces had recieved a $117,000 conservation innovation grant from the USDA’s National Resources Conservation Service.   “We call it the ‘milkweed CIG,'” said Brianna Borders, project manager for the undertaking, since renamed Project Milkweed.  A requirement of the grant was that the recipients match the sum by raising an equal amount.

Project Milkweed identified several U.S. regions for milkweed seed production–California, the Great Basin, Arizona, New Mexico, Florida, and Texas. “Texas was a clear choice, arguably the most important state to the Monarch migration,” said Borders.  The $334,000 was pretty much divied up equally between the areas, she said.

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Native American Seed was an ideal candidate for the project, said Borders, because of the company’s long involvement in native seed production and its opportune location on the Monarch flyway.  Founder Bill Nieman, a high school dropout who turned a trash hauling business into a successful landscaping and design firm and then into Native American Seed, has a long history as a conservationist. The company’s mission aligned perfectly with the task.

The company’s 100-page catalogue practically serves as a free native plant guide. The vivid and abundant photography, renderings of how seeds look when they sprout, and descriptive verbiage describing each plant’s soil type, sunlight needs, and other traits

Irrigating at Native American Seed

Native American Seed will use its full irrigation alltoment from the Llano River to produce native seeds. Photo by Monika Maeckle

offer a broad overview of the life cycle of many plants native to the U.S.   Especially entertaining is Nieman’s annual introductory letter in which he tackles topical environmental issues–from invasive plants and water waste to wind power lines.

Results for the Mlikweed Project have been mixed so far.  The program launched just as Texas entered the ongoing historic drought.  In April 2011, the milkweeds didn’t flower or produce seed (which is expected, given they are perennials).  Borders said the first seed harvest last year (2012) was “pretty modest.”The 2,400 linear feet of native milkweeds  produced 1.5 pounds of seed, which, at an average of 65,000 seeds per pound, amounts to almost 100,000 seeds.  Of those 100,000 seeds, 95% have been restratified and replanted.

“We didn’t set a target for how much seed has been produced because there are so many unknowns,” said Borders.

Meanwhile, others have tackled the daunting task of producing milkweed plugs.  Monarch Watch, based at the University of Kansas at Lawrence, launched a “Bring Back the Monarchs” milkweed restoration campaign back in 2010.  Last fall, the program got a second life here in Texas when it partnered with the Native Plant Society to recruit volunteers to gather native seed, then mail them to Kansas for cultivation there.

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The milkweed restoration campaign previously used a Texas grower. Pat McNeal, of McNeal Growers in Manchaca, Texas, assumed those duties in 2012,  but said recently that Monarch Watch “had better success in Kansas where they have four real seasons.”

McNeal suggested that the best way to propagate Texas native milkweeds would be to cultivate the tubers for two years, then plant those in the fall.   “These milkweeds don’t adapt their schedules for us,” he said, adding that Texas native milkweeds don’t do well in containers.  The plants can have a two-meter long tap root making them difficult to transplant.  “It’s like trying to grow a potato in a pot,” said McNeal.

Dr. Chip Taylor, who oversees the program, continued cultivation this year with a Kansas grower.  He said he anticipates that 25,000 native milkweed plugs will have been produced this spring.  All have been sold on preorder. Monarch Watch will soon set up  a “Milkweed Market” for retailers on its website so people can connect with growers in their area.

Antelope Horns milkweed root stok at American Native Seed

Cates points out root stock from 2012’s Antelope Horns milkweed crop, which has yet to sprout this year because of a lack of rain.    Photo by Monika Maeckle

At Native American Seed, the battle for Texas native milkweed seed plods on.  Cates assumes primary responsibility for their production.   He joined the company in 2003 as a student intern in ecological sciences at Austin College in Sherman, Texas.  After graduating he came on fulltime in 2007.

On a windy Friday afternoon in April, Cates pointed to the dry landscape.  “The grass hasn’t been green since 2010,” he said. With the Llano River flowing at an historic low, Cates mentioned the seed company will once again use its entire irrigation allotment, strategically watering wildflowers and native grasses, supplementing with a recently installed rainwater collection system.

Monarch on Tropical Milkweed

Cates says voting for Tropical milkweed is a vote against native milkweeds. Photo by Monika Maeckle

A dry winter coupled with early, hot tempertures, watering restrictions on the Llano, and an unpredictable climate suggest months of hard work and frustration ahead for Cates.  But the difficulties haven’t dampened his zeal for restoring native plants with seeds.  “A plant in the ground will produce 100x more seed than tubers,”  he said.  “That’s where we’re at–we’re trying to grow a substantial amount of this seed material.”

Cates has little patience for Tropical milkweed, the easy answer for gardeners in the long haul of native plant restoration. “We’re all about having it right now,” said Cates.  “These kinds of conservation efforts can’t be done ‘right now.’  It takes time.”

“Every time you vote for Tropical milkweed with your dollar, you vote against this,” he said, pointing to tidy, dry rows of future Antelope horns, which had yet to sprout this year.

Cates kneeled down and dug his fingers into the soil to find root stock from the 2012 milkweed crop. “Half of what we do fails, but that doesn’t make us stop.”

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