$300K Grant Awarded to UTSA to Study Monarch Butterfly, Inventory Texas Milkweeds

The Texas State Comptroller’s office awarded the University of Texas at San Antonio a $300,000 grant to study the Monarch butterfly this week.   Dr. Janis Bush, a plant ecologist and the university’s director of environmental science academic programs, will oversee the research.

jbush1

UTSA’s Dr. Janis Bush will oversee the $300K research grant. Courtesy photo

According to a press release issued by the Comptroller’s office, the study will “evaluate the abundance, species type and distribution of milkweed—an important food source for Monarchs —in Texas. It also will examine land management approaches to enhance the abundance of milkweed if necessary.”

Why is the State Comptroller’s office awarding grants for butterfly research?

Because in Texas, the Comptroller’s office oversees the Interagency Task Force on Economic Growth and Endangered Species. It’s charge: assist landowners, industries and local communities in working with endangered species issues and assess their economic impact on the state. And since the Monarch butterfly was submitted for consideration as a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act last August, research surrounding the ramifications of such a listing falls in the Task Force’s wheelhouse.  Annual $5 million appropriations approved by the Texas Legislature will fund the UTSA grant; Dr. Robert Gulley of San Antonio heads up the Task Force.

Dr. Bush said via phone that the survey will take place over two years and replicate research done by Dr. William Calvert in 1996 which had him drive IH-10 from the Louisana border to El Paso, documenting milkweeds along the way.  Dr. Calvert, of Austin, is credited with revealing the location of the Monarch butterfly roosting sites to the world after Catalina Trail, also of Austin, led Dr. Fred Urquhart to the location in MIchoacán, Mexico back in 1975.  At the time, Dr. Urquhart wrote an explosive cover story on the discovery for  National Geographic magazine, but refused to reveal the location of the roosting sites.  Dr. Calvert did that about a year later.

Asclepias incarnata, Swamp milkweed

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

“We’ll try to duplicate Dr. Calvert’s study so we can compare the current milkweed populations to what he found,” she said, adding that the study will not just cover milkweeds, but will be a full-blown vegetation survey.

“It will include species identification for everything except grasses which will be done by family,” she said.   Graduate students will conduct the work, which will begin immediately.

In addition to plant identification, students will document the presence of any Monarch caterpillars, fire ants (which are famous for destroying Monarch eggs and small larvae) and other predators, as well as anything else that might enlighten us about creating opitmal Monarch butterfly habitat in the Lone Star State.  Read a summary of the project here.

Dr. Bush, with a PhD in ecological sciences and engineering, has extensive experience in native plants in Texas–and milkweeds in particular.   She wrote her dissertation on the federally threatened sunflower, Helianthus paradoxus, and oversaw Dr. Terri Matiella’s dissertation on milkweed when Matiella was a UTSA graduate student.

Antelope horns and Indian blanket

The UTSA grant will survey native milkweeds and their surrounding vegetation and other factors to help determine how to create optimal milkweed habitat.  Here, Antelope horns and Indian blanket dot the roadside in the Texas Hill Country this weekend. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Matiella’a paper, “The Effects of Carbon Dioxide on Milkweed (Asclepiadaceae) and Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) larvae” focused on the impact of climate change on Asclepias curassavica, the much discussed, technically nonnative Tropical Milkweed.  It awaits publication, hopefully later this year.  Dr. Matiella now serves as a lecturer in UTSA’s environmental sciences department and will serve on the research team.

The news was well received in the passionate Monarch butterfly community, but as always, also raised questions.

“It makes sense,” said Mike Quinn, an Austin-based entomologist who runs Texas Monarch Watch and the educational website texasento.net. “San Antonio is more or less in the heart of the Monarch butterfly flyway.  Hopefully, this study will provide a clearer picture of Monarch habitat usage, or at the very minimum, the habitat that’s available to Monarchs here in Texas.”

Monarch migration map

Monarchs must pass through Texas coming and going to Mexico. Graphic by Nicolas Rivard

Others voiced concerns that the grant money was not being best utiltized.  “A lot of this stuff has already been done,” said one source involved in local Monarch activities who chose not to be named.  “There seems to be a lot of reinventing of the wheel.”

Organizations like Monarch Watch, Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project, the Xerces Society, and the Pollinator Partnership have already done significant research on what it takes to continue the Monarch butterfly migration.  And most folks who follow Monarchs in Texas agree that a lack of milkweed in the Lone Star State is not an obstacle here.

“If everyone planted grass in their front yard, it wouldn’t bring back the buffalo,” said one skeptic, adding that researchers should target milkweed plantings “to where it’s been GMO’ed out.”

That would be the Midwestern corn belt, the Monarchs’ primary summer breeding grounds.  There, genetically modified corn and soybean crops have allowed indiscriminate spraying of herbicides like Round-Up, which essentially leave fields sterile except for the corn and soybean that have been biologically altered to withstand poisons.   In the past, milkweeds grew vigorously between the corn rows providing breeding season host plant for migrating butterflies.

No milkweed studies have been conducted in the strategically important “Texas funnel” through which migrating Monarchs pass each spring and fall on their multi-generation migratory journey since Calvert’s 1996 research.  The Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project, a citizen science initiative started by Monarch expert Dr. Karen Oberhauser at the University of Minnesota, has been active here for years, religiously monitoring milkweeds and collecting data on milkweeds, Monarch butterflies, caterpillars and eggs at the Milkweed Patch along the San Antonio River and at Cibolo Nature Center in Boerne.   While that data and the contributions of citizen scientists are immensely useful and well recognized, more scientific data is needed to figure out how to create optimal milkweed habitat, said Dr. Bush.

“We need to answer questions like what is the herbaceous cover around existing milkweeds?  Do they like competition from other plants or do they like open areas? Are native and/or nonnative grasses growing nearby?  What is the soil depth?” she said.

After two years of study, we should have a better idea of how private and public landowners can best manage their properties to increase milkweed and pollinator habitat.  We look forward to the findings.

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IH35 to become Pollinator Corridor for Bees, Monarch Butterflies, and other Pollinators

President Barack Obama has an exciting plan on the table with special meaning for Texas:  Interstate Highway 35, known as IH-35 or I-35 in the Lone Star State, will be the focus of a national strategy to bring back honey bees, Monarch butterflies and other pollinators.

Coming Soon:  IH-35 to become a pollinator corridor for Monarchs, bees and others pollinators. Video by Monika Maeckle

Starting in Duluth, Minnesota and ending in Laredo, Texas, the 1,568-mile-long highway links three of Texas’ largest metropolitan areas–Dallas/Ft. Worth, Austin and San Antonio. Soon it may be better known for an ambitious prairie restoration than for its famous traffic snarls and congestion.

The Office of the President announced the proposed pollinator corridor in the National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and other Pollinators, a 58-page document released May 19.  It continues Obama’s steady drumbeat on behalf of the insects responsible for pollinating 75% of all plants and making one of every three bites of food we eat possible.

In the past 12 months, President Obama has met with the presidents of Mexico and Canada to discuss a Pan-American strategy for saving the iconic Monarch butterfly migration; planted the first-ever pollinator garden at the White House with his wife Michelle; and announced the formation of a Pollinator Task Force that produced the National Pollinator Strategy document.  Obama will surely go down in history as the “pollinator president.”

The goals of the strategy are ambitious and far-reaching:

1.  Reduce Honey bee colony losses by more than 15% within 10 years.

2.  Increase the migrating Monarch butterfly population to 225 million (their historic average), with an occupation of 15 acres in Michoacán by 2020.

3.   Restore or enhance seven million acres of pollinator habitat over the next five years.

bee_pollen_macro

bees are master pollinators. –photo via http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/

Why the big focus on pollinators? Because they’re under siege.

Beekeepers lost 40% of their honey bee populations last year.  The beloved Monarch butterfly, whose iconic migration weaves together three countries, has also suffered enormously.  Their entire eastern population occupied only 1.65 acres at their roosting sites in Michoacán, Mexico in 2013–an area smaller than the average Wal-Mart store and representing a drop of 90% from their peak in the 1990s.   While the Monarch has made a slight rebound this last year, the general numbers continue to be worrisome, as the butterfly is also considered an indicator of general ecosystem health, the “canary in the cornfield.”

Bats, moths, beetles, birds and other butterflies all face the multi-whammy of habitat destruction, genetically modified crops reducing their wildscape habitats, pesticide abuse and climate change.  The myriad challenges are taking their toll as reflected in the submission of the Monarch as a candidate to be listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act last August.

Governments across the hemisphere are concerned about this loss of our natural heritage as well as the possibility of putting an affordable, diverse food supply at risk. Given that  the unpaid pollination services provided to the U.S. by the bees, wasps, flies, butterflies, moths, bats, beetles, and birds totalled $15 billion in 2009, the $82.5 million budgeted in the strategy for honeybee research in the coming budget year, up from $34 million, seems like a good investment. In China, for example, fruit trees and other crops must be pollinated by hand because of the loss of insect pollinators attributed to pollution and other factors.

Hand pollination in China

Hand pollination in China. Photo courtesy Oakland Museum of California

The strategy document’s third stated goal holds special meaning for the Lone Star State:  restoration of seven million acres of habitat focusing largely on federal lands and the IH35 corridor.

With almost 600 miles of IH35 here, almost double the I35 miles in any other state, “Texas is indeed poised to be a big player in this Federal Pollinator Strategy,” said Don Wilhelm, US Fish and Wildlife Region 2 Partners for Fish and Wildlife Coordinator, via email.

IH35 mileage by state

Texas has almost double the mileage of IH 35 of any other state. Graphic via Wikipedia

With its proximity to Mexico and status as the “Texas Funnel,”  through which Monarch butterflies, Mexican free-tailed bats, and myriad pollinators migrate south, Texas will be a big beneficiary of government funding and public-private partnerships focusing on the research, outreach, education and land restoration efforts outlined in the document, Wilhelm said.  It’s important to note that the IH35 “focus” does not translate literally to mean pollinator plantings adjacent to 70-mile-per-hour highway traffic.  While rest areas and area landscapes will include pollinator plantings, the “focus” references the general area surrounding the IH35, USFWS staff stressed.

Texas also is home to the premiere native plant center in the country, The Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin.  In fact, the Austin native plant paradise is already working with the Federal government on ways to increase native milkweed seed production species and prototypes.  Also involved: the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute at Texas A&M University-Kingsville.  And further south on the border in Mission is the National Butterfly Center.

Skipper on Swamp Milkweed, Llano River

Looking to see more of these on native milkweeds: Skipper on Swamp Milkweed, Llano River  Photo by Monika Maeckle

On page 26 of the document, another opportunity awaits Texas:   federal agencies will be working with the Edison Electric Institute, a trade association of electrical utilities, and the National Electric Reliability Council (NERC) on redefining the rules for transmission line rights of way (RoW) habitat.  “These RoWs can be cost-effectively managed to offer prime pollinator habitat of low-growing grasses, forbs, and shrubs, using techniques such as Integrated Vegetation Management (IVM).”

Texas is home to dozens of power companies including two of the largest publicly owned utilities in the country.   CPS Energy in San Antonio is the largest municipally owned electric and gas utility in the country;  Austin Energy is the eighth largest municipally owned electric utility.  These entities, lauded for their progressive policies on renewable energy by the Pew Center, own tens of thousands of acres of land and control thousands of miles of right of way (RoW) habitat under power and transmission lines.

More native milkweed and other pollinator plants will result from research and habitat restoration projects associated with the pollinator strategy. Photo courtesy Native American Seed Co.

More native milkweed and other pollinator plants will result from research and habitat restoration projects associated with the pollinator strategy. Photo courtesy Native American Seed Co.

A huge opportunity exists to manage these areas as pollinator friendly areas of low growing grasses, forbs, and shrubs.    Federal agencies are revising the rules governing power line RoWs to further these beneficial pollinator practices.  Investor owned utilities can also get on board, but the public utilities will be more inclined to cooperate.  CPS Energy and Austin Energy have a unique opportunity to make pollinator power happen here.  (NOTE:  I work as a communications consultant to CPS Energy and have proposed a pollinator policy in the past.)   This federal nudge will likely get things moving.

The process has begun.  Dr. Julie McIntrye, USFWS endangered species ecologist in Albuquerque, New Mexico, relayed via email that a Monarch Outreach Specialist has just been hired by the agency to focus specifically on utilities and the IH-35 corridor.  One of the many priorities of this position: create more pollinator habitats with RoWs, pollinator habitats at rest-stops, and “getting the I-35 Monarch Prairie Passage initiated.”

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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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Let the Migration Begin: Milkweeds Sprout as Monarch Butterflies Arrive in Texas

Monarch butterflies left their roosts in Michoacán, Mexico, on March 24 in what appears to be their latest departure on record, citizen science organization Journey North reported this week.   “”Hundreds of Monarchs are flying over Angangueo—right now—with a clear direction northward!” the organization’s Michoacán-based correspondent Estela Moreno  relayed in their weekly migration newsletter.

Worn migrant Monarch

Migrant Monarch on verbena. Note how the tattered wings and faded color. Photo by Carol Clark

As is their fashion, the butterflies typically leave their roosts around the Spring Equinox and head north, making initial migratory stops in Texas.   Since the butterflies will ONLY lay their eggs on Asclepias species, that is, various milkweeds, conditions here determine  future generations’ success.   This year, with a late start following a wet, mild winter, they’ll find a bounty of wildflowers waiting and milkweed just beginning to sprout.

“I just returned from outdoors and checking my pots,” Carol Clark, a Monarch butterfly follower in Dallas relayed via email on Thursday.  “My large potted Asclepias viridis from last year finally has sprouts today–just in time.”

Monarch on lantana

Wildflowers besides milkweed like this native lantana are also important to Monarchs and other pollinators as nectar sources. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Mary Kennedy, a longtime volunteer for the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project (MLMP) here in San Antonio, provided this report: “I spotted the first milkweed in my yard day before yesterday. If I have 20 milkweed plants, see 10 monarchs, find 15 eggs, and see any of them make it to fifth instars without being eaten by fire ants, that will be a great year!”

Kip Kiphardt, MLMP volunteer in Boerne, offered that the first milkweeds were sprouting at the Cibolo Nature Center just outside San Antonio on March 28.  “Just came up,” he said.  And Chuck Patterson, from Driftwood, Texas, reported that Antelope Horns milkweed, Asclepias Asperula, was three – four inches tall in some locations.

Antelop Horns, Asclepias asperula

Milkweed in Driftwood, Texas was three-four-inches tall on March 28. Photo by Chuck Patterson

While Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, said it was too early to make predictions about the 2015 Monarch season, Austin entomologist and Austin Butterfly Forum president Mike Quinn reminded us that that cool weather in Texas usually benefits Monarchs. “This should be good news,” he said.  He explained that mild temps “slow down their larval predators and the exhaustion of their adult lipid reserves.”

If 2015 turns out to be a good year for the Monarch population or not remains to be seen. There’s no doubt, however, that this year will reap continued political tumult.

After their worst year in history followed by a 70% rebound in 2014, the butterflies have taken center stage in pollinator advocacy and habitat restoration circles in recent months. A petition submitted last August requesting they be listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act continues to be debated.  Strong reactions have resulted–from lawsuits by the National Resource Defense Council taking the EPA to task for dragging its feet on Monarch protection to admirable public-private partnerships like the $3.2 million in federal grants announced recently by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Here in Texas, the State Comptroller’s office recently announced the appointment of San Antonio water hero and endangered species expert Dr. Robert Gulley to head a task force that will assess the financial consequences of endangered species listings on the state.   The Monarch butterfly will be one of five species on which the task force will focus.

Swamp milkweed

Who’s winning? Soil grown Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, on the left. Hydroponic milkweed on the right. Photo by Monika Maeckle

In the meantime, scientists, citizen scientists, nature lovers and gardeners have all awakened to the fact that we can each help sustain the Monarch butterfly migration by planting clean, chemical-free, preferably native milkweeds. Asclepias as a native wildflower is considered undesireable by some, and not everyone agrees on the appropriateness of the Monarchs’ favorite, Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica. No one, however, contests the fact that pollinator habitat in the form of native and pocket prairies featuring appropriate indigenous plants must be made a priority.

Here at the Texas Butterfly Ranch, we’ve been experimenting with Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, with our friends at Local Sprout to assemble Monarch and milkweed kits for sale later this spring. Our friend Mitch Hagney and I have waged a contest to see who could get Swamp milkweed growing faster, better, soonest.  Scarified seeds were planted hydroponically by Hagney and in soil by me on February 10. Hard to say who’s winning the growth contest–you decide, see above.

Like many, as a safeguard, I have planted and overwintered the reliable Tropical milkweed.   Detractors have their concerns, but I’m a huge fan and provide the host plant in my downtown San Antonio garden.  Leaves are lush on those I overwintered, after slashing them to the ground in December as recommended.

Tropical milkweed

Tropical milkweed looking good, ready for Monarch butterfly eggs. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, Native Plant Society, San Antonio Botanical Garden and your local gardening and conservation organizations will be staging plant sales in the next few weeks.   These pop-up plant sales often feature the hard-to-find, coveted native milkweeds.   Keep an eye out for the sales and grab them while you can.  Like the Monarchs, we have to take what we can get.

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

monarchsonrope

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

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

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

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

Dr. Tracy Villareal, courtesy photo

Dr. Tracy Villareal, courtesy photo

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

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

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

Dr. gary Noel Ross, courtesy photo

Dr. Gary Noel Ross, courtesy photo

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

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

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

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

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

Oil rig workers tagging Monarch butterflies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monarchs on oil rigs app

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

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

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Q & A: Dr. Lincoln Brower talks Ethics, Endangered Species, Milkweed and Monarchs

At 83, Dr. Lincoln P. Brower has studied Monarch butterflies longer than anyone on the planet. He first became enamored of butterflies as a five-year-old in New Jersey and later

Dr. Lincoln Brower--photo via Monarch Butterfly Fund

Dr. Lincoln Brower–photo via Monarch Butterfly Fund

by Monarchs when he learned they don’t taste good to predators. His famous  “Barfing Bluejay” photo, below, proved their unpleasant taste to predators and always gets a chuckle when I share it in presentations.

Brower followed his passion and turned his attention to Monarch biology as a grad student at Yale in 1954. He has visited the roosting sites in Mexico more than 50 times since his first trip in 1977–15 years BEFORE Dr. Chip Taylor, the other grandpa of the Monarch community, started the citizen scientist Monarch butterfly tagging program, Monarch Watch, in 1992.

So it’s no surprise that after a lifetime invested in the dramatic orange-and-black butterflies, Brower takes Monarchs personally. When he recently lent his name to the petition to list the Monarch butterfly as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), few people were surprised. NOTE: The period to join 306 others who have commented on the petition closes March 1, 2015.

Barfing Bluejay

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

Dr. Brower graced the Texas Butterfly Ranch with a visit back in October of 2011 when he toured the Texas Hill Country during the peak of the historic Texas drought.

The man is amazing. Tromping across the limestone watershed, butterfly net in hand, we tagged dozens of butterflies that day for a study he was doing.  Between net swoops, Brower taught me how to identify male from female Monarchs without having
to open up their wings, a trick I still use today.

Brower can be a purist.  He’s said that Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, should only be planted in a laboratory or controlled environment because it might spread disease in Monarchs–a directive he recently amended. Now he advises the Monarchs’ favorite host plant be planted no further north than Orlando, Florida. Brower also called the recent 70% increase in Monarch numbers “catastrophic.” “That change is trivial,” said Brower. “We were thinking it would be more than two hectares. What we need is up to five hectares.”

Monarch Butterfly Texas Team

Monarch Butterfly Dream Team: Kip Kiphart, Jenny Singleton, Dr. Lincoln Brower, Monika Maeckle, Mike Quinn

Since the petition was submitted, much attention has been focused on our favorite migrating insects, who’s “canary in the corn field” status makes them pollinator decline’s apt and timely poster child. Climate change, overzealous pesticide use, genetically modified crops and general human domination of the planet all play their role in challenging Monarch butterflies and the entire food web.

Awareness of these critical issues is fundamental to addressing them and the ESA petition has raised unprecedented awareness. Some of us may disagree that ESA status for Monarchs is the best tool for the job, but it’s impossible to not recognize how the petition has served to raise the profile of Monarch butterfly and pollinator decline. So thanks to Brower and the petitioners for creating needed drama.

We recently chatted with Dr. Brower, who currently serves as Distinguished Service Professor of Zoology Emeritus at the University of Florida and Research Professor of Biology at Sweet Briar College. The conversation migrated from email to phone and back. Here, in his words, is how he sees the current landscape.

Dr. Lincoln P. Brower at Sierra Chincua in 201?.  Photo by Medford Taylor, courtesy Dr. Lincoln Brower

Dr. Lincoln P. Brower at Sierra Chincua in 2007, one of more than 50 trips he’s made to the roosting sites. Photo by Medford Taylor, courtesy Dr. Lincoln Brower

Q. Recent events, including your participation in filing a petition to list the Monarch butterfly as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, have brought unprecedented attention to the decline of the Monarch butterfly migration.    Was this the honest intent of filing the petition–to bring attention to the situation rather than actually list it?  Or do you still believe that listing the insect as endangered is the appropriate approach to conservation?

Brower: Those involved in writing the petition had, I think, two goals:  One, to raise public and government awareness; and two, to generate funding of varied mitigation programs, private and public.

Q.  Do you still believe that listing the Monarch butterfly is the best option or have you changed your mind?

Brower: I did when I signed onto the petition and the evidence I have seen so far seems to be supporting that contention. I think we will have to wait and see what happens. It is possible that nothing we can do will preserve the Monarch’s migration and overwintering biology spectacle.

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

Citizen scientists like Catalina Trail were instrumental in pieceing together the mysteries of the Monarch butterfly migration.

Q. If the Monarch becomes listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and milkweed and physical contact with Monarch butterflies will likely be controlled, do you share concerns about the disenfranchisement of the citizen scientists and Monarch butterfly enthusiasts that have for decades been instrumental in unraveling the mystery of their migration?

Brower:  Appendix B page 162 of the petition is worded in confusing legalese but states that citizen scientists’ participation and conservation efforts will not be restricted. I have recommended that the stated limit of ten butterflies per person be raised to 100.

Q. Recent studies link Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, to increases of OE in Monarchs. If other species of milkweed–Swamp or Common, for example–had been the species widely cultivated and made available commercially to gardeners, would we be having the same issues with those plants?

Brower: Curassavica likely would not normally have entered Texas from Mexico in the past or future even with global warming. It does not tolerate desert conditions in its natural geographic distribution. As I have stated elsewhere, I think it is a mistake to plant it north of the City of Orlando, Florida latitude in the US.

The recent paper by Satterfiled, et al, is relevant. Propagation of locally occurring native milkweeds and planting them widely in gardens along roads, etc., is what should be done.  The Monarch community needs to jump on this bandwagon and influence plant nurseries to do this for their sales. Bring everyone together to do the best we can to increase native milkweed habitat.

Got milkweed?

Tropical milkweed is technically not native but the most widely available species of Monarch host plant. Native milkweeds are best.

Q.  Is it at all arrogant of us, the human species, to insist that the Monarch migration continue as climate change, human impacts and other factors conspire to make it possible for Monarch butterflies to continue their life cycles and reproduce without migrating 3,000 miles? And if the need to migrate changes or no longer exists, who are we to say that it should continue? (I wonder what a Monarch butterfly would say if we gave them a choice of migrating or not?)

Brower: As we discussed at length, these are ethical questions. Should we try and preserve natural phenomena such as the Monarch migration? Analogously, should we try and save pandas, polar bears, endangered plants. etc.

Turn the question around: is it ethical to let these things go extinct when we have the ability to prevent that from happening? Are people the only creatures with a right to rich and natural lives on this planet?

You know my answer, it is dead wrong not to try to prevent loss of natural species and what they do from bacteria to humans. If rabies were to take over, the view of letting it be would mean the end of dogs. How can anyone even think that is tolerable. I feel the same way about the Monarch…In addition, preserving it is symbolically important:  it is the “canary in the corn field” telling us something very broad and serious is wrong with managing our planet.

Q:  Dr. Brower, I agree with you regarding species going extinct, however we are talking about the migration.  Few folks believe the Monarch butterfly will become extinct.  Do you make a distinction that some behaviours outlive their usefulness–such as, perhaps, the Monarch migration?

Brower: My colleagues and I have referred to the Monarch migration/overwintering behavior as an endangered biological phenomenon. My thesis above also applies exactly to this category of biodiversity.

Should we work to restore the bison migrations or just keep them in a few zoos and confined pastures? What about the bamboo forests of China: let them and the panda inhabitants be destroyed while keeping a few panda breeding programs going to make sure zoos are profitable? Bioethics again.

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Survey: Monarch Butterfly Enthusiasts Will Pay More for Clean, Chemical Free Milkweed

A Texas Butterfly Ranch survey conducted in late 2014 found that Monarch butterfly enthusiasts are willing to put extra money where their beloved Monarch caterpillars mouths are:  on clean, chemical-free (preferably native) milkweed.

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed

Got clean milkweed?   Great, we’ll pay more.   Is it native?  Yes, please–even better.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Are you listening, American nursery industry?   You can make more money if you grow milkweed without chemicals.  Make them native and you can likely charge another premium.

“Truthfully, I’ll pay anything to keep my cats safe!”

Our online poll of 363 respondents found that 96% responded “Yes” to the question:  “Would you pay more for “clean,” chemical-free milkweed that is raised organically, sustainably and locally?”

wouldyoupaymoreyesorno

The survey, which ran in various online forums from September 24 through December 31, 2014, resulted from the annual angst that arrives with each fall migration.  Late in the season, when masses of Monarchs move through town and some lay eggs on local milkweed plants, those who hope to raise the caterpillars to the butterfly stage bring them inside for “fostering.” It’s not uncommon so late in the year for people to run out of milkweed for their hungry caterpillars.

This typically sends folks running to their local nursery to buy fresh host plant–most often Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, since that’s all that’s commercially available.  Typically, when asked the provenance of the milkweed, nursery staff tell milkweed buyers the plants have NOT been sprayed with pesticides.

“When my caterpillars are down to stems, I’m just happy to be able to get ‘clean and safe’ milkweed at almost any price….They will starve otherwise! I’ve bought ‘bad’ milkweed and lost thirty or more caterpillars… it was horrible.”

Yet, upon moving their Monarch larvae to the milkweed plants, the caterpillars perish within hours.   That’s because many commercial growers use systemic pesticides to keep the plants aphid-free before selling them to our local nurseries.  Often the local nursery staff is unaware that these pesticides have been sprayed on the plants.  Nor do they seem to know that the chemicals  remain active for months.

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

Always a bummer: dead Monarch caterpillars fall victim to pesticide laced milkweed.  Photo by Sharon Sanders

The syndrome has been dubbed by those of us who follow it Desperately Seeking Milkweed and has been well documented on this website as well as referenced in comments (some of which you’ll find throughout this post) in our recent milkweed survey.

So how much, exactly, are Monarch caterpillar foster parents willing to pay for clean, chemical free milkweed?

“I grow my own plants but when I run out of food I have to run to a garden center…I always ask, ‘have these plants been sprayed with insecticide?’ and the answer is always ‘No, ma’am.’ I buy the plants and my cats die when they eat it…very sad so I would definitely pay more to keep my babies alive!  :-)

howmuchmore

About 48% said “it would depend” on the time of year and how badly they wanted/needed the plant.  Another 21% of respondents said they would pay $5 more, 5.5% said $4 more would be their limit, 10.5% said they would pay $3 more and 16.5% said they would pay $2 more.

The geographic diversity of the respondents played out like this:
Where do you live?Missing from the survey was a question asking whether or not buyers of milkweed prefer that NATIVE species in addition to chemical free and clean.  My bad.  Of the 183 comments, many expressed a desire for NATIVES.  Here’s a sampling of comments:

“NATIVE, clean milkweed please.”

“Prefer the non-tropical, if possible… Native Texas milkweed would be preferred.”

“Is there any place to buy native milkweed plants?”

“Native milkweed is hard to find in the nursery trade. I’m  rich, but I would pay a fair price.”

“What about native milkweed?”

The survey launched about a month after an August 26  petition to list the Monarch butterfly as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act made its way to the Department of the Interior. That petition is under a 12-month review and has provoked many discussions about the gross loss of native milkweeds in our landscape in addition to a lack of available native milkweeds in commercial nurseries.

Since, interest in native milkweeds has ballooned, bringing much needed attention to Monarch butterfly native habitat restoration in our fields, landscapes, gardens–even in our caterpillar nurseries in the late fall during the migration as well as in the spring.

So listen up, commercial growers.   Native milkweeds are in high demand and short supply.  A business opportunity awaits those who pounce.   The Texas Butterfly Ranch is exploring such a venture with our hydroponic partner, Local Sprout. Stay tuned for details.

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FINALLY! Monarch Butterfly News Spurs Extreme Interest in Native Milkweeds

Last week, the Mexican government announced the number of Monarch butterflies counted at the ancestral roosting sites in the oyamel forests of Michoacán, Mexico.

The population grew by almost 70% since last year–from 34 million butterflies occupying 1.65 acres (.67 hectares) in 2014 (the worst year in history) to 56.5 million butterflies occupying 2.79 acres (1.13 hectares) in 2015.

Good news:  Monarch butterfly numbers up.  Bad news:  numbers still dangerously low.  Graphic via Monarch Watch

Good news: Monarch butterfly numbers up. Bad news: numbers still dangerously low. Graphic via Monarch Watch

Good news, right?

That depends on where you sit.   Dr. Lincoln Brower, perhaps the person on the planet who has studied the Monarch butterfly migration longer than anyone, called the 69% increase  “catastrophic” in a phone interview.

Dr. Lincoln Brower--photo via Monarch Butterfly Fund

Dr. Lincoln Brower–photo via Monarch Butterfly Fund

“That change is trivial,” said Brower.  “We were thinking it would be more than two hectares. What we need is up to five hectares.”

George Kimbrell, senior attorney for the Center for Food Safety, said in a press release posted on that organization’s website that despite the increase, the Monarch population is still “severely jeopardized by milkweed loss in their summer breeding grounds due to increasing herbicide use on genetically engineered crops.”

Kimbrell’s organization, with the Center for Biological Diversity, the Xerces Society and Dr. Brower, filed a petition in August to list the Monarch butterfly as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.  The petition is currently under review.

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

If only we could all grow native milkweeds like this Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, found on the Llano River in the Texas Hill Country. Aphids come with the territory. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“Extremely vulnerable” is how Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of the citizen scientist Monarch tagging organization Monarch Watch, categorized the increase in a January 27 blogpost.   While population increase represents improvement, “Winter storms or poor conditions for breeding in the spring and summer could have a severe impact on a population of this size,” wrote Taylor.  He added that if we can get through the winter with no major storms “the long-range forecasts suggest that the population has a good chance of increasing again next year.”

So…numbers up slightly, but still dangerously low.   Bad news, right?

FBCommentonmilkweed

Well, not entirely.

Thanks to all the angst and attention, awareness of the decline of the Monarch butterfly migration has reached unprecedented heights.  And everyone–even the folks at Monsanto– seems to agree on one point:  habitat loss, specifically restoration of native milkweeds, must be addressed on a grand scale if we are to keep the migration from becoming a memory.

We couldn’t agree more.  This website has documented and addressed the dearth of native milkweed over the years, answering many questions from readers who want to do the right thing.  Where to get them?  Should one plant seeds or seedlings?  What are the best practices for getting native milkweeds to grow?

The problem is that it’s near impossible to find native milkweed plugs locally. The only milkweed plants available in commercial nurseries each spring is Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, which some scientists have suggested might increase diseases in Monarchs. (I don’t necessarily buy this theory.) To play it safe, best practice suggests cutting Tropical milkweed to the ground in the winter in warmer climates so nasty OE, Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, spores, which infect Monarchs and other milkweed feeding butterflies, can’t collect on old plants and infect migrating Monarch butterflies.

MIlkweed seeds

So many milkweeds. Which ones to plant, and how to do it? Photo by Monika Maeckle

That said, we would all prefer to plant native local species–IF we could find them. Native seeds are relatively available, but getting them to germinate can be tricky. As George Cates, chief seed wrangler at Native American Seed in Junction, Texas, once told me, Texas milkweeds “may not lend themselves to mass seed production.”  Personally, I have spent hundreds of dollars and many many hours spreading native milkweed seeds and homemade native milkweed seedballs at our Llano River Ranch.  In 10 years, only three–count ’em–Antelope Horns, Asclepias asperula, milkweed plants have taken root.

That brings us to plugs. I’ve tried those, too.   One year I finally coaxed some Antelope Horns seed to germinate after following these directions from the experts at Native American Seed, only to have the seedlings die once transplanted.

In response to a survey conducted by the Texas Butterfly Ranch in late 2014, we’re exploring the possibility of growing native Texas milkweed here in San Antonio with a hydroponic partner, Local Sprout.  We haven’t figured out all the details, but we’re working on growing Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, from seeds harvested on the banks of the Llano River.

Meanwhile, we challenge local nurseries and growers to rise to the challenge and make local, native chemical free milkweeds available for the spring migration as well as in the fall.

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Monsanto: “We are absolutely committed” to Monarch butterfly conservation

Almost a year has passed since Monsanto Corporation stated in its Beyond the Rows blog that it was “eager” to restore Monarch butterfly habitat along the iconic creature’s migratory path.

When it comes to Monarch butterflies, Monsanto is often the villain of choice.  But the company says they are committed to helping save the butterflies' migration.

When it comes to Monarch butterflies, Monsanto is often the villain of choice. But the company says they are committed to helping save the butterflies’ migration.

That blogpost appeared in the wake of an historic meeting of the NAFTA presidents last year, when Presidents Obama and Enrique Peńa Nieto, along with Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada gathered 75 miles from the Monarch butterfly’s ancestral roosting sites and committed to form a task force to “ensure the conservation of the Monarch butterfly.”

On February 24, 2014, Monsanto’s blogpost, generically labeled “The Monarch Butterfly” posed the question:  What can we do to help?

“We’re talking with scientists about what might be done to help the Monarchs rebound,” the unsigned post stated. “And we’re eager to join efforts to help rebuild Monarch habitat along the migration path by joining with conservationists, agronomists, weed scientists, crop associations and farmers to look at ways to increase milkweed populations on the agricultural landscape.”

Monarch on swamp milkweed

Native milkweeds like this Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, are harder to come by in the Monarch butterfly breeding grounds thanks to GMO corn and soybeans which allow for indiscriminate spraying of herbicides.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

In April, First Lady Michelle Obama planted milkweed on the White House grounds, thus creating the first-ever pollinator garden at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Then in August, debate ensued over whether the Department of the Interior should list the Monarch butterflies as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.

Monsanto, often vilified for its genetically modified corn and soybean seeds that have wreaked havoc on milkweed all along the insects’ primary breeding grounds from Canada south to Mexico, has remained relatively mum on the subject. They returned to the subject of Monarchs in a September 12, 2014 post headlined, “Helping Protect the Monarch Butterfly.” Here’s an excerpt:

“At Monsanto, we’re committed to doing our part to protect these amazing butterflies. That’s why we are collaborating with experts from universities, nonprofits, and government agencies to help the Monarch by restoring their habitat in Crop Reserve Program land, on-farm buffer strips, roadsides, utility rights-of way and government-owned land.”

So what, exactly, has Monsanto done for Monarch butterflies in the last year?

ERic Sachs, Monsanto

Eric Sachs, Science and Policy lead, Monsanto Corporation –Photo via LinkedIn

The Monarch community wondered exactly that this week on listservs, social media and via private emails.

As the news conference announcing the size of the overwintering population at the roosting sites in Mexico was postponed for the third time, efforts to restore milkweed by gardeners was taken to task by mainstream media, and comments on the Federal Register debating the insect’s ESA listing grew to more than 260, postings, conspiracy theories, impatience and indignation abounded.

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, has consulted with Monsanto on the topic. He sent an email Monday to the DPLEX list, which is read by hundreds of butterfly enthusiasts, with the subject line: “Take a deep breath – exhale slowly – relax – please.”

Eric Sachs, the top Science and Policy official for Monsanto, said the multinational corporation is serious about helping Monarchs. While the NYSE-listed chemical and biotech powerhouse has publicly stated it does not support listing the insect under the Endangered Species Act because it wouldn’t “do anything to help solve the problem,” Sachs noted in an email and later by phone that Monsanto has been working diligently with public and private sector partners to “enable greater numbers of farmers to integrate Monarch habitat into existing conservation, land management and habitat expansion efforts.”

A presentation Sachs made in November 2014 to the North American Entomological Society emphasized the company’s penchant for P3s–public-private partnerships.  Tools in the conservation arsenal, according to Sachs, include grants, incentives and collaborative projects to increase habitat.

Ed Sachs Monsanto presentation

Can habitat and agriculture coexist? Good question. Eric Sachs made this presentation to the North American Entomological Society in November 2014.

Monsanto is prepared to make financial contributions to habitat preservation, Sachs said, but he did not say how much or exactly when, because the company is still trying to gain consensus from the coalition of scientists, conservationists and others tapped via the Keystone Center in Colorado.  “Obviously that plan needs to be supported with funds, which will come from Monsanto and other organizations,” said Sachs.

Dr. Taylor seconded the motion in his email to the DPLEX list, encouraging patience and a positive attitude.  “It costs $100-1000 per acre to restore milkweed/Monarch habitats, depending on the situation (and maintenance), and we are talking about restoration of a least a million acres a year just to offset annual habitat losses,” Taylor wrote. “Getting the Monarch numbers back to where they need to be will require the restoration of many more millions of acres. The investment will be significant. Partnerships are in the process of forming. Whether significant funding will be forthcoming is still an open question. Please be patient.”

Sachs said Monsanto is being “very deliberate” in developing their plan. “We want to make sure it’s robust, and measure the performance. Then we will essentially fund the program to make sure we get the bang for the buck,” he said.

How it all plays out remains to be seen. “We are absolutely committed,” said Sachs. “At the right time, people will shake their heads and say ‘this is good.’ But we’re not there yet.”

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