Happy Equinox, ya’ll: here’s how to track the Monarch migration from your desk

Sometime today, at 3:01 PM Central Standard Time in San Antonio, the earth will reach the point in its orbit when, for a few short moments, the sun shines directly on the equator. This results in the Fall Equinox, the celestial milestone that makes for a day of equal parts light and dark. As we march into Fall, the days get shorter, the nights grow longer and temperatures drop.

Monarch butterflies pick up on these cues. Using solar receptors in their antennae, the migrating orange-and-black insects start moving south in “directional flight” toward their winter home in Mexico. Most butterflies east of the Rocky Mountains will arrive in Michoacán by the first week in November where they overwinter until spring to start the life cycle anew.

Scientists and those who follow Monarchs are anticipating a rebound population this year, and we’re already seeing the famous international travelers in random sightings here in San Antonio and elsewhere in the Texas Funnel. We expect the big pulse of Monarchs, what is typically called “peak migration” weeks, to arrive the last half of October, right in time for our Second Annual Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival, October 20 – 22.

To figure out peak migration time in your neighborhood, check out this calendar assembled by Monarch Watch, the citizen science initiative that tracks the migrating insects. The calendar uses tagging data collected over decades to predict when the masses of Monarch butterflies are likely to move across specific latitudes on their way to Mexico.

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

Tagged Monarch butterfly

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

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

Journey North

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

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

The Monarch migration is moving south from Canada and is stalled in the midwest by strong winds, according to Journey North. Map via Journey North.

Journey North also publishes a weekly migration update on Thursdays, often written by founder Howard, like this one from September 21. “Strong and persistent south winds across the Central Flyway have held the migration in place for the past week.” Meet Howard at our  scientific symposium, Butterflies without Borders: the Monarch Migration and our Changing Climate, a discussion of atmospheric and political change and how it affects pollinator advocacy during our Festival. The panel takes place Friday, October 20.  Tickets available here.

 Twitter

Using Twitter as a search engine is another great Monarch butterfly tracking tool. It provides real-time updates of Monarch butterfly sightings and offers a timely feed on Monarch butterfly news, from many favorite sources, including Journey North and Monarch Watch.

Granted, not everyone uses Twitter, but an estimated 328+ million people and myriad organizations tap the free, real-time application as a search engine and personal or professional broadcast outlet.

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

For example, this search of “monarch butterfly sightings” on Twitter today, retrieved a feed that included the  reports at pictured at right.

 

Wind Map

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

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

Wind map gives a glimpse of what resistance Monarchs will encounter. Photo via Hint.fm

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

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

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

Wind map creators

Wind map creators Martin Wattenberg and Fernanda Viégas. Courtesy photo

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

LOVE this project.

Monarch Watch and Journey North Facebook Pages

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

With almost 42,000 fans, Monarch Watch’s page serves as a delightful online plaza where the Monarch Watch team from the University of Kansas engages with the rest of us to share information, photos, and wax passionate about Monarch butterflies and their migration.   Citizen scientists, recreational observers, professional and amateur biologists and entomologists all join the conversation.

The Facebook page, Migrant Monarch Tag Reports, allows you to post a notice or photo of a tagged butterfly to figure out its provenance. Photo via Facebook

The Journey North Facebook page, with more than 28,000 fans, is equally engaging.  Journey North posts regular updates and from visitors and citizen scientists. Numerous other Monarch butterfly pages have cropped up on Facebook in recent years, including this one that tracks Migrant Monarch Tag Reports. The page is a closed group, meaning you have to request access. It describes itself as a page “created for those people who find tagged monarch migrants. Take a picture if you can of the tag number or post the tag number so people can track their tagged monarchs. Please only post about tagged monarchs you’ve witnessed or found.”

Monarch Watch Website

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

Monarch Watch website offers Monarch info 24/7/365

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

tagged recovered Monarch

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

Thanks to Monarch Watch, I was able to determine that the butterfly I netted on October , 2016, had been tagged in Tishomingo, Oklahoma nine days earlier.  Pretty cool story–read it here.

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

D-Plex List

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

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

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

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

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“Monarchy” members Chip Taylor, Elizabeth Howard to join Butterflies w/o Borders Panel

Monarch butterfly advocates Dr. Chip Taylor and Elizabeth Howard, both founders of citizen science programs that have driven Monarch butterflies into the mainstream through education and conservation, will join a trinational panel discussion, “Butterflies without Borders: Monarch Butterflies and our Changing Climate,” at the Pearl Stable in San Antonio on Friday, October 20.

Sponsored by the Rivard Report, the event kicks off the 2017 edition of the Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival in San Antonio, declared the first Monarch Butterfly Champion City in the nation in 2015 by the National Wildlife Federation.

Monarch butterfly tagged with Monarch Watch tag gets ready for take-off in the Texas Hill Country. –Photo by Monika Maeckle

Taylor founded Monarch Watch in 1997, a citizen science tagging program based at the University of Kansas at Lawrence that tracks the southbound migrants each fall. Howard started Journey North in 1994. The organization tracks wildlife migrations around the world–Monarchs, hummingbirds, whales, eagles and others, through a real-time website and crowdsourced app. Both panelists are well-known in Monarch butterfly conservation circles, sometimes dubbed “the Monarchy” by those who follow the tight-knit, dedicated community.

Rounding out the trilateral panel, Dr. Carlos Galindo Leal, Director of Communications for the National Commission of Biodiversity in Mexico, (CONABIO) will  join us from south of the border and Dr. Louise Hénault-Ethier, Director of Science, of the David Suzuki Foundation, in Montréal, will lend insights from Canada.

Last year’s Symposium occurred two and a half weeks before the 2016 presidential election. –File photo

Moderator Dan Goodgame, a former White House correspondent and currently head of executive communications at cloud hosting giant Rackspace, promises a provocative discussion. Last year, our Monarch Butterfly Migration and Climate Change Symposium unfolded to a capacity crowd just two and a half weeks before the 2016 presidential election. Many of us sat smugly in the audience assuming a different political regime would occupy the White House–one that would continue the budding legacy of pollinator advocacy planted by  President’s Obama’s 2015 National Pollinator Strategy. The 58-page document laid out a national plan to increase pollinator habitat and boost bee, butterfly and other pollinator populations.

But that didn’t happen. A year later, it’s a different, more heated world–politically and atmospherically. Border walls disrupting the National Butterfly Center  and the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge in McAllen, the dismantling of the EPA, retreat from the Paris climate change agreement, historic hurricanes, and the hottest year on record, temperature wise, for three years running–these issues hog the headlines. How does it all play out for people, pollinators and the ecosystems that sustain them? And what happens to food security when ecosystem services provided at no charge by insect pollinators are drastically diminished?

San Antonio sits right in the middle of the Monarch flyway. Graphic by Nicolas Rivard

The symposium launches three days of science, education, art and celebration and occurs during peak Monarch migration in San Antonio, when millions of Monarch butterflies east of the Rocky Mountains funnel through Texas on their way to Mexico to roost for the winter. Migrating Monarchs often spend the night along the streams and riverbeds of the Texas Hill Country, where late season wildflowers provide nectar fuel stops to help to power their long flight.

BUTTERFLIES WITHOUT BORDERS SYMPOSIUM
The Monarch Migration in our Changing Climate                                                    6PM- 8PM, Friday, October 20, 1017                
Pearl Stable, 307 Pearl Pkwy, San Antonio, TX 78215
Tickets $15 – $25.

Dr. Carlos Galindo Leal, Director of Scientific Communication at the National Commission of Biodiversity in Mexico (CONABIO). Galindo Leal has worked as Director of the Mexican Forest Program for World Wildlife Fund (WWF). He has authored several books, including “Danaidas, the wonderful monarch butterflies.”

 

 

Louis Hénault-Ethier, Director of Science, the David Suzuki Foundation, Montréal. Hénault-Ethier’s job is to make science understandable to the public. In addition to pollinator advocacy, Hénault-Ethier champions entomophagy, the eating of insects as food and using insects to address the surplus of food waste being dumped into our landfills.

 

Elizabeth Howard, founder of Journey North, one of the premiere citizen science organizations in the country, tracks and advocates for all kinds of wildlife migrations—hummingbirds, whales and Monarchs. Her organization’s live online tracking map allows participants to upload and see their data in real-time.

 

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, a citizen science initiative that tags and tracks Monarch butterflies. Known as one of the grandfathers of the Monarch butterfly conservation movement, Taylor oversees the program from the University of Kansas at Lawrence.

 

Moderator Dan Goodgame works as vice-president for executive communications at cloud computing leader Rackspace. Self described as a “recovering journalist,” Goodgame’s tenure as a top editor at TIME and FORTUNE, as a White House correspondent, and covering the Middle East and Europe made him a Pulitzer Prize finalist and best-selling author.

 

Special thanks to our underwriters, the Mexican Cultural Institute and Trinity University, for helping make this event possible.

 

And big thanks to our Keystone Sponsors for overall support of our Festival. GRACIAS!

                                                                                                
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Here they come! Texas Hill Country ready for robust Monarch butterfly migration

Stands of flowering milkweed and late summer flowers await migrating Monarch butterflies in the Texas Hill Country this season. The iconic black and orange butterflies are projected to arrive here in about six weeks.

Got eggs? On the Llano River’s swamp milkweed, they’re everywhere. –Photo by Monika Maeckle

Every year around Labor Day, we get a small parade of Monarchs, what’s known as the “premigration migration.” This early pulse of butterflies, unlike later arrivals that suspend sexual activties to save their energy for the long trip to Mexico, are still reproductive and lay eggs on local milkweeds that hatch to become the final generation of migrating adults.

This weekend on the Llano River suggests an exceptional year. For the first time in 2017, I saw more Monarch butterflies than any other species, including Queens, which are regular visitors in September.

Swamp milkweed in full bloom greeted premigration Monarchs this weekend on the Llano. Photo by Monika Maeckle

About a dozen adult Monarch butterflies dipped between the Chigger Island sycamore trees, taking turns nectaring on the pink blooming stands of Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, before depositing eggs. Just before sunset on Sunday, two separate pairs of Monarchs passed our favorite pecan tree near the picnic spot locked in impressive courtship flights. In these stunning displays of stamina, the male firmly clasps the female with his pincers and lifts her into flight. The pair flies from bush to tree, locked in a butterfly embrace in a coupling that can last for hours.

Monarchs tagged on a Sunday in 2010, found mating on Monday. Photo by Monika Maeckle

In the file photo above, the butterflies pictured were tagged in my butterfly garden on Sunday, October 31, 2010.  Shortly thereafter, they were observed mating.  On November 1, they were spotted still locked in a reproductive dance–24 hours later.

All that coupling made eggs abundant this weekend. I noticed dozens while inspecting milkweed stands from my kayak, as did scientist David Berman of the Oklahoma State University. Berman stopped by to check in on the state of our milkweed habitat and count eggs, caterpillars and adults. He’s been monitoring two transects including dozens of milkweed plants along our stretch of river for about a year as a contractor on a study being conducted by Texas A & M University. In and around his 50-yard transect, Berman found 48 eggs and eight caterpillars in various stages, as well as several adult flyers. He arrived at our place from monitoring Monarchs in Abilene, where he said “Monarchs were everywhere.”

Egg at 11 o’clock about to hatch. See how the top is dark? Photo by Monika Maeckle

By my reckoning, if not taken by predators or disease, these eggs will hatch the first week in October, just in time to join the big pulse of Monarchs that typically move through the Texas Funnel during peak Monarch migration for our latitude. In San Antonio, 29 degrees, that happens October 10 – 22. Check your peak migration dates here.

Just a bit further south from us and close to the Llano’s headwaters, our sons Nicolas and Alexander Rivard kayaked the South Fork of the Llano River this weekend. They also reported dozens of Monarch sitings and a healthy river ecosystem poised for butterfly arrivals. Snow-on-the-mountain, goldenrod, water hemlock and late flowering boneset are putting on great shows right now.

Snow on the mountain occupies the Llano’s riverbanks. PHoto by Monika Maeckle

Our friends at Journey North, whose founder Elizabeth Howard will join us as a panelist on October 20 for our Butterflies without Borders Scientific Symposium in San Antonio, touted overnight roosts in Ontario as the migration takes flight from northern climes.

On the DPLEX list, the email list serve that includes about 800 Monarch butterfly scientists, citizen scientists and enthusiasts, reports are increasing in frequency and generally optimistic in tone.

On September 2, Matt Baumann of Iowa posted this report: “Adult numbers looking good here (Cedar Falls). Currently have over a dozen Monarchs at any given time in my yard feeding on meadow blazing star, zinnias, and Mexican sunflowers. More adult Monarchs than last year at this point in early Fall. Adults here now look very healthy and have their big ‘migration wings.”

Save the dates!

The Facebook Group, Monarchs Migrating Through Ontario posted myriad reports of butterfly sitings and tagging. Rosetta McClain Gardens in east Toronto, Canada shared this: “… Aug 29th we tagged 66 monarchs. Slow but steady! Today the Monarchs came early and just kept coming all day until about 3PM. 102 tagged today! A great day of tagging. More females are starting to show up! YTD 612 monarchs tagged!”

Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch, who will also join our Butterflies without Borders Symposium as a panelist, predicted a healthy turn in his most recent Monarch Butterfly Population status report. “In sum, this looks to be a good year for monarchs – with a stronger migration in most regions and a good prospect that the overwintering population will increase from the 2.91 hectares of last year to 4 hectares or better this coming winter,” Taylor wrote in July.

All signs suggest he’s right.

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Nice job, Michigan: milkweed and nectar plants bolster Monarch butterfly migration

My husband and I just returned from the “Top of the Mitten,” an area that covers the northern most reaches of our favorite mitten-shaped state. We took a circuitous, 1400-mile drive around Lake Michigan that included stops at his boyhood stomping grounds in Petoskey and Kalamazoo.

A Monarch prepares to take flight across Lake Michigan from Peninsula Point. Photo by Dale Nemeth

For decades Bob has waxed nostalgic about growing up in northern  Michigan. Becoming acquainted with his boyhood home and escaping the South Texas’ summer heat were reasons enough to make the trip. But seeing this amazing part of the world and its unique geology and ecosystems turned the adventure into an awakening. What a beautiful place. Our visit also coincided with the beginning of the Monarch butterfly migration in that part of the world. Monarchs are just starting to take flight from southern Canada, thus we encountered some of our Denaus plexippus friends along the way.

My my Michigan milkweed, what big seedpods you have! Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park –Photo by Monika Maeckle

Most surprising: milkweed appears to be growing EVERYWHERE along the roadside in Michigan. True, we hugged the Great Lakes on our driving tour, but it seems that everywhere we turned–on highways, sunny clearances in forests, even at historic Mackinac Island Fort, milkweed flourished. Whether this was intentional or accidental, it doesn’t matter. Plenty of host plant exists for super generation Monarchs passing through  the Wolverine State and bode well for a healthy southbound population. Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, predicted in a recent blog post that Monarchs will experience a healthy rebound this year. Prospects call for “an increase from the 2.91 hectares of last year to 4 hectares or better this coming winter or better” in the amount of space the Monarchs occupy in their winter roosting sites.  Scientists calculate the Monarch population by counting the number of hectares they occupy in their roosting sites each winter in Michoacán, Mexico. The imperfect formula is currently 50 million butterflies per hectare.

At Mackinac Island’s Mission Point Resort, Blackeyed Susans fill a beachfront prairie. Photo by Monika MaeckleNectar plants were also abundant. Black-eyed Susan, (Rudbeckia hirta,) Smooth Aster (Aster laevis), Boneset or Thoroughwort (Eupatorium perfoliatum) and other flowers filled the roadsides and pocket prairies. Houghton’s Goldenrod (Solidago Houghtonii), a different species from the Solidago altissima that grows in Texas in late summer, can only be found in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, or  “U.P.,” as Michiganders call it. The dramatic plant, which sometimes includes strange galls that host a local moth, occupies the sandy shores of Lake Michigan, its stout yellow blooms braving the constant wind.

Houghton’s Goldenrod, a specialty of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, grows prolifically along the windy shores of Lake Michigan. Photo by Monika Maeckle

A highlight of the trip was Peninsula Point, a famous Monarch butterfly staging area. The migrating insects gather on the milkweed-studded shore of this skinny stretch of sand, which juts out into Lake Michigan. A historic lighthouse marks the Point, and just as ships sailing the lake use it for orientation, Monarch butterflies utilize the strategic location to navigate their migration.

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According to a plaque on the Peninsula Point Lighthouse, the area serves as one of few places in the country where one can witness Monarchs migrating en masse. The southbound butterflies gather here and use the area as a “nursery.” Just like our migrating Monarchs sometimes take a break along the Llano River or other Hill Country river bottom to wait out an unfavorable  wind, these pragmatic Monarchs have patience for an optimal wind current they can jump to cross the lake.

Raspberry brambles populated the forest at Peninsula POint. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Bob and I parked about a mile from the Point and chose to take a hike through the woods to reach our destination. We didn’t see many Monarchs until we came to the water, but in the forest where the sun peaked through the tree canopy, hundreds of wild raspberry brambles distracted us from our Monarch butterfly search.

Upon arriving at the Peninsula Point shoreline, we ran into Dale Nemeth, a Michigander from Stonington, not far up the road. He and his family rent a cabin every year across the water at Garden Peninsula. Nemeth sported a fancy camera with a long lens, and agreed

Dale Nemeth photographs Monarch butterflies getting ready to head south at Peninsula Point. Photo by Monika Maeckle

to share the picture at the top of this post. He says many Monarchs frequent the Garden Peninsula as well. “Their chrysalis amazes me…They remind me of a green pill capsule with gold engraving!” he wrote via email.

Janet Ekstrum, wildlife biologist for Rapid River/Manistique District of the Hiawatha National Forest, says the University of Minnesota operates a Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project (MLMP ) at Peninsula Point. Barring a projected frost next week which could cut monitoring short, she says MLMP will continue monitoring into mid September this year since they’re still finding eggs and caterpillars.

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Butterflies without Borders: Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival set for October

Dust off your wings and save the dates: the 2017 Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival in San Antonio will take flight Friday – Sunday, October 20 – 22, 2017, celebrating the magic and majesty of the Monarch butterfly migration.

Save the dates!

For those unaware, millions of Monarch butterflies leave the Mexican mountains each spring and head north in a unique multigeneration migration. Taking their cues from the sun, they rouse themselves from a semi-hibernative state, mate and head north in search of milkweed on which to lay their eggs. Then they die.

The eggs hatch into caterpillars and later morph into adult butterflies which produce subsequent generations over the summer. Those butterflies continue north, following the milkweed, all the way to southern Canada.

Migration map

The eastern population of Monarch butterflies will be moving through San Antonio in late October during peak migration as they make their way to Mexico to roost for the winter. Graphic by Nicolas Rivard

Each butterfly only lives about a month, until fall when a “super generation” of Monarchs suspends reproduction to head south and migrate thousands of miles “home” to the Mexican forest where they roost until spring and start the cycle anew. Each fall, the migrating Monarchs pass through San Antonio and the “Texas Funnel” in late October–just in time for our Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival.

Our second annual Festival in San Antonio, a community collaboration by the Texas Butterfly Ranch and pollinator friendly private sector companies, public entities, and nonprofit organizations, will span three days during peak Monarch migration week in the nation’s first Monarch Butterfly Champion City, so declared by the National Wildlife Federation in 2015.

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The timely theme of this year’s Festival: Butterflies without Borders. Thanks to The Pearl, HEB, San Antonio River Authority, the John and Florence Newman Foundation and the Rivard Report for their support as Keystone Sponsors and making the second annual Festival possible.

Three days of festivities commence Friday, October 20 at the Pearl Stable with a scientific symposium: Butterflies without Borders: the Monarch Migration in our Changing Climate. The event features an international panel discussion and some of Monarch butterfly science’s most well-known advocates.

Dr. Chip Taylor will join us for a discussion ofpolitics and pollinators.

Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch, Elizabeth Howard of Journey North, Dr. Carlos Galindo Leal from the Ministry of Biodiversity in Mexico (CONABIO), and Louise Hénault-Ethier of the David Suzuki Foundation in Montreal will gather to discuss the changing political and atmospheric climate. The discussion of pollinators and politics will be moderated by Dan Goodgame. Tickets go on sale in early September.  For more information on the speakers, see our events page.

On Saturday, a series of educational events will take place. Howard will lead a teacher training workshop on how to use Monarchs in the classroom. Taylor will guide a butterfly walk and talk at the San Antonio Botanical Garden, and Hénault-Ethier will explain why we all need to eat insects instead of beef and chicken at a Bug Lunch at the Witte Museum.

Saturday evening, the Institute of Mexican Culture will host a Monarch butterfly themed art opening by artist Luis Moro, “Monarcas, Atravesando Fronteras/Monarchs, Crossing Borders.” The opening is FREE and open to the public.

The Earn-a-Bike Coop’s Pedaling Pollinators will lead the parade. Photo by Cristian Sandoval

On Sunday, the actual Festival takes place. The day starts with the People for Pollinators Parade led by the Pedaling Pollinators, San Antonio’s own pollinator friendly bicycle troupe, organized by our friends at the Earn-a-Bike Coop. Hundreds of tagged Monarch butterflies will catch the wind, joining their siblings for their flight to Mexico in two separate release events. Trained butterfly docents, led by Drake White of the Nectar Bar, will fan out into the crowd to educate Festival-goers on why and how we tag Monarch butterflies.

More than 20 members of our unofficial Pollinator Posse, myriad educational partners, will offer engaging activities at the Pearl while the Sunday Farmer’s Market takes place. SAWS will host a Butterfly Landscaping Workshop at the Pearl Studio. The Festival and all events on Sunday are  FREE and open to the public.

Dr. Chip Taylor predicts a rebound year for the butterflies, as the breeding population in the northern zones appears exceptionally healthy and robust. “In sum, this looks to be a good year for Monarchs,” Taylor wrote in his late season Monarch Population Status update in August.

Good rains this summer also suggest a bounty of late nectar blooms awaiting the butterflies when they pass through San Antonio to fuel up for the final leg in their long journey to the mountains of Michoacán to roost for the winter. Their passage through the Alamo City generally occurs during the last two weeks of October.

Our Festival deliberately coincides with the Monarchs’ arrival in our part of the world. Come join us as we wish them safe travels south.

Special thanks to our Keystone Sponsors for making this year’s Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival possible!

Check our events page for more details and schedules. We look forward to seeing you there. 

Sponsorship opportunities still available.  

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Commercially raised Monarch butterfly released in Grapevine, TX makes it to Mexico

They said it couldn’t be done. That a commercially raised Monarch butterfly couldn’t migrate. But Jenny Singleton of the Grapevine Butterfly Flutterby Festival and one commercially grown Monarch proved that a butterfly tagged and released in Texas can find its way 1,114 miles south to join its brothers and sisters in Mexico for the winter.

Grapevine Festival

Is this WGX139? We don’t know, but it IS one of the 710 butterflies released at the Grapevine Flutterby Festival last year. Photo by Jenny Singleton

Monarch WGX139 was raised in a commercial butterfly farm, probably somewhere in Florida.  On Wednesday, October 12, 2016, Connie Hodsdon of Flutterby Gardens in Bradenton shipped more than 500 Monarch butterflies to Grapevine, Texas. The community sits between Dallas and Ft. Worth, right on the IH35 “Monarch Highway.” Each fall during peak Monarch migration season, usually the second or third week in October, Grapevine celebrates its annual Butterfly Flutterby Festival with the release of hundreds of butterflies. This year, the Festival’s 20th, it will take place Saturday, October 14.

Bradenton’s box full of Monarchs, each packed in individual glycine envelopes and surrounded by protective styrofoam and ice packs, arrived for last year’s festivities on Thursday, October 13. Butterfly wranglers Jenny Singleton and other volunteers tagged the butterflies upon their arrival, then moved them to a large, open air cage where sliced oranges and watermelon awaited. Singleton and her crew regularly spritzed the butterflies with water throughout the day on Friday to keep them hydrated. Fresh fruit was replenished as needed while the butterflies awaited their Saturday debut.

Tagged Monarchs await their release at the Grapevine Flutterby Festival. Photo by Jenny Singleton

Starting at 10 AM on Saturday, Festival-goers arrived for a costumed parade, butterfly crafts and exhibits, a “migration station,” face painting and more at the Grapevine Botanical Gardens. Monarch butterfly releases occurred hourly in the morning, and children of all ages vied for the limited supply, often waiting in line to receive an envelope which contained one of hundreds of Monarchs ordered specifically for the occasion. The release ceremony finished with a countdown–three, two, one. Off they go! WGX139 was among the flyers.

WGX139 arrived in Mexico more than a thousand miles later, at almost 8,500 feet in altitude. It was recovered 138 days after its release at the El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Preserve in Michoacán, Mexico, on March 2, 2017.

The amazing journey challenges what Monarch butterfly scientists have been saying for years: commercially raised Monarch butterflies do not migrate.

The conventional wisdom has always been that butterflies coddled in a laboratory setting with ideal conditions such as infinite amounts of milkweed and protection from predators likely would not develop the Darwinian skill set to migrate to Mexico. Scientists have also bandied about different theories about how important the sun’s cues are, and how they are tied to a butterfly’s location and the ambient temperature to which they are accustomed. More than one scientist has told me that a butterfly raised in Florida and released in Texas would never make it to Mexico.

In addition, it’s likely that WGX139 was not raised on milkweed. Bradenton’s butterflies often consume Calatropis gigantea or Calatropis procera, members of the dogbane family. Butterfly breeders sometimes use this African native because it has such enormous leaves and provides ample fodder for hungry caterpillars. It has similar chemical properties to milkweed.

“That’s a pretty interesting event,” said Dr. Lincoln Brower, one of the foremost Monarch butterfly experts in the world. “It shows that they’re adapting to local conditions in Texas, otherwise they wouldn’t get to Mexico.”

Incredible journey for an international traveler? WGX139 likely traveled from Florida to Michoacán–2,277 miles from birth to roosting sites. Map via Google

“That’s interesting. That’s very interesting,” said Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of the University of Kansas’ Monarch Watch tagging program used by Singleton and thousands of others who participate in the citizen science initiative. “I imagine a few will do it, but I can’t imagine very many of them will do it. It depends on how you handle them and what the temperatures are when they’re released.”

Dr. Karen Oberhauser of Monarch Joint Venture doesn’t think that a single Monarch making it to Mexico should dismiss concerns of disease and the other perceived threats caused by commercial butterfly rearing and mass releases. When asked to comment, she directed us to a webpage devoted to the dangers of captive breeding and mass releases–disease, dilution of the gene pool, and interference with scientific studies of population dynamics. WGX139’s international travels and arrival in Mexico “doesn’t really argue against these concerns,” said Oberhauser via email.

Monarch caterpillars on Calatropis, a member of the dogbane family. Photo by Connie Hodsdon

Dr. Sonia Altizer of Project Monarch Health at the University of Georgia, was also skeptical. “I agree that some growers are attentive to disease management, which is encouraging to see.  But others are not – and the concerns about disease extend to butterfly enthusiasts who rear Monarchs in large numbers but for no commercial gain.  Hopefully as more people become aware of OE and other diseases, and how to prevent them, the rearing conditions will improve, but my general impression is that there are many more productive ways people can help Monarchs aside from rearing.”

Citizen scientist Singleton has her own theories. She believes some of the butterflies from the Festival lingered to nectar on local flowers and to wait for the wind to shift. Singleton, who was tagging Monarchs back when they still used glue to adhere them to the wings, said she found several Festival-tagged Monarchs in her yard.

Grapevine Flutterby Festival wrangler Jenny Singleton with her grandson, Davis Berg. Photo by Peggy Moore

“I found four or five tagged butterflies from the Festival on my bushes three weeks later,” she said. “I think they hung out and nectared and caught those southbound winds,” said Singleton, recalling “big southern winds for two weeks” in late October.

Connie Hodson, the butterfly breeder who supplied the bulk of the livestock to the Festival, is delighted to know that WGX139 made it to the Mexican mountains.  “Not only are our butterflies OE free, they’re super intelligent,” said Hodsdon by phone, referring to Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, the unpronounceable spore-driven disease that often finds Monarchs in crowded conditions.

Hodsdon prides herself on a clean operation and runs her Flutterby Gardens (no formal association with the Grapevine Butterfly Flutterby Festival) with the help of seven seasonal staff from her home on a one-acre lot just north of Sarasota. “We’re really proud of our butterflies,” she said. “Our butterflies are an asset.”

Hodsdon supplied the bulk of Monarchs for our Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival in San Antonio last year. We ordered more than 500 Denaus plexippus from her for our October 22 event, which was modeled after the Flutterby Festival.

David Berman

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

None of our Monarchs were recovered in Mexico, but 20 of them were netted about two miles downstream. Graduate student David Berman from the University of Oklahoma happened to be in town that day performing a study to determine how late generation Monarchs  might affect the migration.

According to Berman, 20 butterflies tagged at our Festival on October 22 were netted on the San Antonio River a day later, October 23. None of them had OE, which is one of the major concerns scientists have for commercially raised Monarchs.

That’s because breeders like Hodsdon run a tight shop. She is meticulous and even bleaches the plants that the butterflies eat to rid their food of potential spores, virus or bacteria. Hodsdon teaches a course on how to raise OE-free Monarchs to professional butterfly breeders via the International Butterfly Breeders Association. Her process includes rounds of bleaching, sanitary conditions,

Flutterby Gardens flighthouse in Bradenton, Florida. Photo by Connie Hodsdon

gloves and passion mixed with pragmatism. “Because every Florida Monarch I found in the wild tested positive for OE,” she said. “And not just a little, a lot of OE.” Hodsdon’s appreciation for butterflies is not limited to Monarchs. She raises 20 different species, shipping thousands out each week during high season. “And I’m not getting rich, because it takes so much work,” she said.

So if commercially bred Monarch butterflies can migrate and responsible breeders can raise them disease free, is it possible they could be tapped to bolster the declining migratory population?

The science is unfinished on that, but one can always hope.

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

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

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

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

first instar

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

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

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

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

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                                             photos by Nicolas Rivard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nola Hamilton Garcia with Monarch butterfly

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

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

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

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

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

Drake White

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Piedra Herrada

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monarch butterfly population numbers. Graphic via Journey North

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mikey the Monarch at Zoo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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