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

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

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

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

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

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

Texas Drought, July 2014

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

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

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

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

Elizabeth Howard

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

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

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

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

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

Monarch butterfly caterpillars

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

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

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

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Summer Solstice, Pollinator Week, and Some Hopeful Monarch Butterfly News

Pollinator week is here (June 16 – 22), the Summer Solstice arrives this Saturday and Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch is bullish on Monarchs this season.

Journey NOrth Monarch

First Monarchs spotted in Quebec this week. Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch is predicting an increase in the Monarch numbers. Photo by Journey North

Taylor has been updating the DPLEX list of late with positive, upbeat messages suggesting that this year’s Monarch crop may be slightly larger than last year’s record low. That would be heartening.

“There will be a modest increase in Monarch numbers and most of that will come from the upper midwest,” Dr. Taylor wrote via email when asked to explain.

For those unaware, the D-PLEX list, named after the Monarch butterfly’s Latin designation, Danaus plexipus, is an old-fashioned email listserv started by Taylor that reaches hundreds of butterfly enthusiasts and scientists.  Sign up to receive D-PLEX emails on the Monarch Watch webpage.

Taylor bases his predictions on past history, warmer temperatures this spring and a late summer.   Also, this year’s tough winter has obliterated the usual natural predators to

Tachinid fly on Monarch

Tachinid flies lay their eggs on Monarch caterpillars,  using them as a host. Taylor says they are not as pervasive this year as in years past. Photo via University of Georgia Athens

Monarch larvae–the tachinid flies, wasps, spiders and other death threats that couple with climate change, habitat loss, genetically modified crops and insecticide use to pose a grave threat to the continuation of the Monarch butterfly migration.

Here’s what Dr. Taylor wrote on June 15:

The harsh winter may account in part for the lack of predators but the last three dry summers may have driven local predator populations down as well…. The tachinid flies also seem to be down….

Whatever the cause, or causes, of these low numbers of predators and parasites, Monarch larvae should survive in greater numbers. Elevated reproductive success in early generations usually leads to growth of the population.

We’ll take it.

The Solstice occurs this Saturday, June 21 at 5:51 AM CDT marking the astronomical moment when the sun reaches its northernmost point in the sky, resulting in the longest day of the year. From here til December, the days will get shorter.   Monarch butterflies use the sun compass in their antennae to pick up on these solar cues and by late August they’ll start heading south on their journey to Mexico to roost for the winter.  Won’t be long now.

Keep an eye out for those that respond to the sun’s signals and your fingers crossed that Dr. Taylor’s optimistic predictions are correct.

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Mexican Team Begins Year-long Project to Document Monarch Butterfly Migration

Mexican journalist Jaime Maussan passed through San Antonio for the second time in a month this week to gather information on a documentary he is making for Mexican public television.

Maussan has worked as a journalist for decades in Mexico serving various media outlets, including 60 Minutes, Telemundo and ABC Radio.  He’s well-known as Mexico’s premiere ufologist–that is, expert on UFOs–and devotes himself to hosting duties of an online TV program called Tercer Millenio.

He and producer Guillermo Figueroa and McAllen-based broadcast reporter Graciela Echeverria spent much of Thursday visiting with Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project volunteer and trainer Kip Kiphart, who they said spoke passionately about the threats to the Monarch butterfly migration.  Kiphart had not returned calls or emails to let us in on the details as of the time we posted this.  Kip, let’s hear it.

Jaime Maussan and Crew

Guillermo Figueroa, Jaime Maussan and Graciela Echeverria stopped by to chat Monarch migration for their documentary on the subject. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The team then stopped by to get my thoughts on the future of the migration and to take a look at my modest urban butterfly garden–a temporary gardening fix at my Lavaca neighborhood apartment.   The 25′ x 4′ plot has pacified my butterfly gardening needs for the past two years in the interim while my husband and I build a house that will have a real yard and my first, dedicated mariposario, or butterfly house.  We’re hoping to move in within a few months.

What are my thoughts?   Dreary.  The perfect storm of climate change, human encroachment on habitat, genetically modified crops, herbicide tolerant corn and soy, increased use of pesticides, historic drought–it’s not looking good.  For the first time in my life I said out loud into a microphone that I have made my peace with the possibility that the Monarch butterfly migration may cease to exist within my lifetime.   A troubling thought, but a real–even likely–possibility.

Urban butterfly garden

My urban butterfly garden–if I can do it here, you can, too. Get busy. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Efforts to raise red flags and awareness can postpone that.   Maussan and team secured a $600,000 budget from Television Edukativo, the Mexican equivalent of public television in the U.S. to make the documentary.   Making people care–and it appears that they do–is a starting point.

 “We plan to make this documentary within the year and release it on February 19, 2015, exactly one year after the meeting in Toluca,” he said, sitting in a rocking chair on my porch near downtown San Antonio.

As you may have heard, on February 19, the Presidents of the United States and Mexico, Barack Obama and  Enrique Peńa Nieto, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada, discussed the preservation of the Monarch butterfly migration when they met in Toluca, Mexico, just 75 miles from the Monarch butterfly ancestral roosting sites.   The meeting made international headlines and put the Monarch butterfly migration on the radar of politicos throughout North America.   Seven weeks later, First Lady Michelle Obama planted milkweed at the White House vegetable garden for the first time in history.

 

Monarch butterfly freshly minted

Only two of 11 eggs collected in my downtown butterfly garden made it to the butterfly stage this spring. This male was released hours after Maussan’s visit. Another Monarch, a female, followed shortly. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Maussan has had a long history of Monarch butterfly activism.   He did a story in Mexico on the location of the Monarch roosting spots way back in 1976, and continues to help raise awareness of the threat to the migration.   After our visit, he and his team planned to hit the highway for Austin to visit with Dr. William Calvert, one of several folks who revealed the location of the Monarch butterfly roosting sites to the world in 1976 following Dr. Fred Urquardt’s National Geographic cover story, which declared the discovery of the sites, but kept their exact location secret.

Maussan and his crew plan to return throughout the year to document the entire migration–from Michoacán through Texas to Canada and back. The undertaking reminds me a little of Ari Shapiro’s Google Earth tour of the Monarch Butterfly Migration, above, take a look.  Maussan also mentioned that he plans to ask the American ambassador and top officials of the Canadian government to share the documentary with their public television entities once it is complete.

We look forward to seeing the final product.

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Milkweed Shortage Sparks “Alternative Fuels” for Hungry Monarch Caterpillars

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

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

PUmpkin fed Monarch

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

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

Not good.

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

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

So what’s a hungry caterpillar to do?

Hungry caterpillars on milkweed seedlings

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

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

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

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

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

Monarch caterpillars eating pumpkin

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

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

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

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

Monarchs eating cucumbers

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

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

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

Pumpkin frass

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

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

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

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First Lady Michelle Obama Gets Milkweed as White House Adds First Pollinator Garden

Congratulations, pollinator advocates!   Last week, First Lady Michelle Obama added a “first-ever pollinator garden,” including two types of milkweed and dozens of flowering nectar plants, to the White House Kitchen Garden.

First Lady Michelle Obama busy at the White House Kitchen Garden where she recently added pollinator plants, including two species of milkweed.  Photo via Obama Foodorama

First Lady Michelle Obama busy at the White House Kitchen Garden where she recently added pollinator plants, including two species of milkweed. Photo via Obama Foodorama Blog

On April 2, during its spring installation, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue added Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata and Butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa to the 1500-square-foot garden.  The milkweed species will serve as Monarch host plant as well as a favored nectar source to bees and other butterfly species.

Swamp milkweed

Coming soon to the first ever pollinator garden at the White House: Asclepias incarnata, Swamp Milkweed. Photo by Monika Maeckle

In her remarks to the 25 school children assisting in the planting, Mrs. Obama explained  she was adding flowering inedible plants to the vegetable garden because she wants to “help bees and butterflies.”  Until now, herbs and vegetables have occupied all 34 of the garden’s beds since it was first planted in 2009. 

“A pollinator garden helps to encourage the production of bees and Monarch butterflies.  They pollinate the plants, they help the plants grow,” said the First Lady.  “They’re dying because of disease–we don’t even know why some beehives are just totally disappearing.”

Ascelpias tuberosa

Asclepias tuberosa, or Butterfly Weed, will be growing soon at the White House Pollinator Garden. Photo courtesy Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center

The loss of the insects “could be a problem for the planet because if you don’t have insects and great pollinators to pollinate the plants, it could affect our food source, it could affect our ability to continue to grow things,” Mrs. Obama explained.

“So this garden is going to help to contribute to improving that problem,” she said.  “Pretty cool, huh?”

VERY cool.

The addition of milkweed to this symbolic presidential garden must be viewed as a small victory for pollinator advocacy.

Ever since the news broke in January that this year’s migrating Monarch butterfly population plunged to historically low numbers and scientists suggested that the migration may soon become extinct, Monarch and pollinator advocates have been energized, seeking solutions to the decline.

On February 19, the Presidents of the United States and Mexico, Barack Obama and Enrique Peńa Nieto, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada, met in Toluca, Mexico to discuss weighty matters of state–border security, economic issues, energy issues, and  immigration.  By the end of the day, they had also agreed to work together to try and save the Monarch butterfly migration, which binds all three countries through the magnificent insects’ North American migration.

Now here we are only seven weeks later–enough time for a Monarch butterfly egg to move through its five instars, form a chrysalis and hatch into a butterfly–and milkweed has been added to the White House garden.   

Coincidence?   We think not.

Michelle Obama, please plant milkweed at the White House
We did it!  First Lady Michelle Obama added milkweed to the White House kitchen garden, creating the first-ever pollinator garden at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue last week.

What happened in between is a testament to what is possible when individuals and citizen scientists take action.   As written here previously, the NAFTA gathering galvanized awareness of pollinator decline.  

Two groups, the Mexico-based Grupo de los Cien Internacional and Make Way for Monarchs here in the U.S., banded together to form the Milkweed-Butterfly Recovery Alliance  and wrote a letter to the three presidents beseeching them to work together for cross-continent solutions to restoring milkweed habitat. More than 160 scientists, conservationists, artists, naturalists and others signed the letter.

Facebook pages were created, petitions launched (including one by the Texas Butterfly Ranch–thanks to all 508 of you who signed!) and organizations as diverse as the NRDC, the Xerces Society, Pollinator Partnership, Monarch Watch, Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project –even Monsanto expressed commitments to help.

Awareness is the first step in addressing the problem and this small garden cultivates attention at the highest level.  This is progress, pollinator peeps.   Let’s keep pushing.

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Historic Rendezvous of Those Who Located Monarch Butterfly Roosting Sites Draws Crowd of 200

Almost 200 butterfly aficionados gathered at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center auditorium in South Austin Monday night to hear from four speakers responsible for discovering and sharing the location of the Monarch butterfly roosting sites in Mexico almost 40 years ago.

Catalina Trail in Michoacán, 1975

Even in the 70s, logging took a toll on the Monarchs’ roosting sites as witnessed by this stump, enveloped in butterflies.  Catalina Trail on right.  Photo Copyright Catalina Trail

Dr. Lincoln Brower, one of the foremost Monarch butterfly entomologists in the country, was flown in from Virginia by the Austin Butterfly Forum to join three Austinites instrumental in Monarch butterfly history:  Catalina Trail, Dr. William “Bill” Calvert and John Christian.   The historic occasion was orchestrated by Mike Quinn, guardian of Texas Monarch Watch and the president of the Austin Butterfly Forum.

Trail is the only living founder of three people present at the “discovery” of the site where millions of Monarch butterflies roost each winter.  Calvert and Christian, in collaboration with Dr. Brower, revealed that location to the world two years after the site was first explored by Westerners. NOTE:  Native peoples had known about the roosts for centuries, but had no idea the butterflies had migrated from the United States and Canada.

Monday night’s presentation, staged by the Austin Butterfly Forum and billed as “a discussion of The Monarch’s Mexican Overwintering Refugia” did not disappoint.

Austin Butterfly Forum

Left to right: John Christian, Dr. Bill Calvert, Catalina Trail, and Dr. Lincoln Brower at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center. Photo Copyright by Mike Quinn

Wearing a lovely Pineda Covalin silk shawl festooned with lifelike Monarch butterflies,  Trail opened the discussion by sharing rarely seen photos of the ancestral roosting grounds as they appeared in the 70s.  Such was the state of the Oyamel forests when she and her then-husband, North American Ken Brugger, came upon the roosts after searching the rugged Sierra Madre mountains by motor home in the mid-70s.

thickmonarchsontreetrunks

“Butterflies on the ground, covering the trees, all the way to the top like a cathedral,” Catalina Trail said of the Monarch roosting sites’ appearance in 1975.   Photo Copyright Catalina Trail

“I was speechless,” said Trail in her soft Spanish accent.  “They were one-foot high, on the ground and covering the trees all the way to the top, like a cathedral.”

She described how she and Brugger had answered an ad placed in the Mexico City News by Canadian entomologist Dr. Fred Urquhart and his wife Nora for “interested persons” that would help track down the Monarch butterfly roosting sites.   The Urquharts had been working on the puzzle for decades.   Born on a ranch in Michoacán, Trail worked with Brugger to search the mountains for several years before discovering the ancestral roosts in January of 1975.

catalinatalkingtolocals

On the Monarch butterfly trail with Catalina Trail. She toured the Sierra Madre asking the locals if they had seen Monarch butterflies in the mid 1970s. Photo Copyright Catalina Trail

“I kept wishing the whole world had my eyes so they could see what I was seeing and feel what I was feeling,” she said, upon witnessing the millions and millions of butterflies covering every surface in the forest.   To hear the sound of the Monarchs taking flight was akin to “a symphony of the wings.”

ridgewheremonarchswerediscovered

According to Trail, this is the ridge where she and her husband Ken Brugger first found the roosts. Photo Copyright Catalina Trail

The day they found the Monarchs, she and her husband rushed back to town to call Dr. Urquhart and then came the hardest part:  “We had to keep it a secret.”

That’s because Dr. Urquhart wanted to keep the news quiet until he and his wife could visit and he could prepare a scientific paper.  Because of poor health, they didn’t make the trip until almost a year later.   Eventually Urquhart broke the news with a cover story in National Geographic in August of 1976.  That story rocked the world of entomology but left out the specifics of the location and caused devoted scientists like Dr. Brower, who had also been working on Monarch butterflies for years, and Dr. Bill Calvert, to set out on a quest to reveal the butterflies’ location.

The saga has been well documented in the book, Four Wings in a Prayer by Sue Halpern.

While Trail was the star of the show on Monday, the crowd also heard from the soft-spoken John Christian, a quiet, Spanish-speaking photographer and documentarian, who grew up in Mexico and was approached by Dr. Calvert at the University of Texas to accompany him on an adventure in search of the butterflies.   Calvert had teamed up with Brower, Dr. Victoria Foe, and her boyfriend (no one can remember his name)  to figure out the location of the roosting sites.  His role was to set out for Mexico via pick-up truck in search of the location.

“Bill Calvert asked me one day if I wanted to go help him find the butterflies as a translator,” said Christian from the stage, wearing a Huichol bag across his left shoulder.  “I said yes, and it was quite an honor.”

Like Trail, and many of us who have visited the roosting sites, Christian was permanently effected by the experience.  “It was extraordinary.  Not religious, but spiritual. Like a Church of Nature.  It’s a sacred place.”

Calvert also spoke, putting all the memories in context by pointing out that with the passage of time, testimony frequently comes riddled with “embellishments and omissions and aggrandizements…resulting in no idea of the truth.”

Calvert recalled how he met Dr. Brower at a seminar and when he realized the entomologist was making the study of Monarch butterflies his life’s work, soon drove all the way to Bustamante, Mexico, to retrieve 200 for him.

“He immediately ground them up into paste and did a cardenolide study on them,” said Calvert.

In those days, Dr. Brower was on the cutting edge of research using chemical fingerprinting to determine lipid content and what type of milkweed the Monarchs were eating.   Surely this had to be threatening to Dr. Urquhart, who had mastered the quaint-but-effective (and still utilized) practice of physically putting tags on Monarchs to determine their migratory pattern.

Brower gets credit for figuring out that the toxins in milkweed, the cardiac glycosides, are what make Monarch butterflies distasteful to predators, and in fact, may be the key to their roosting survival.

As Dr. Brower pointed out in his own fascinating presentation, cold butterflies don’t move fast and are quite vulnerable for several months at 10,000 feet in the cool Mexican forest.   Why are predators not feasting on them in this most vulnerable state?

Because they don’t taste good.  Brower’s famous barfing bluejay photo proved that point, below.

Barfing Bluejay

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

Calvert said that when he and Brower contacted Urquhart to ask him the location of the butterflies so they could deepen their understanding and study of the Monarchs, Urquhart “suggested we goto Appalachicola Bay along the Florida coast and retrieve some.”  That led to their travels and Monarch findings in Mexico.

The duo realized two important clues dropped by Urquhart in the National Geographic article and in a paper published in the the Journal of the Lepidopterists’ Society:  the roosting sites were somewhere at 3,000 meters elevation and on a slope of volcanic mountains in the northern part of Michoacán.

Based on those two simple clues, Calvert determined a small area west of Mexico City that met the criteria and he and Christian set out to find the site.   When they arrived in Angangueo, a small town near the roosting sanctuaries, they recruited the Mayor’s son to help them.   “He seemed incredulous that anyone would be interested in these insects,” said Calvert.

On New Year’s Eve, 1976, almost exactly two years after Catalina Trail first trod on the spot, they located the roosting sanctuaries.

“That’s what science is,” said Brower, summing up the feat of connecting the dots and following the clues.

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Right on time: First of Season Monarchs Arrive in San Antonio

Reports of Monarch butterfly sightings in South Texas are hitting email lists, the web and social media this week, as the hearty orange-and-black butterflies begin their massive departure from Michoacán, Mexico, making their multi-generational journey north.

Mating Monarchs

Get a room! Monarch butterflies drop to the ground in a mating frenzy upon departing their roosts in Michoacán. Photo by Estela Romero via Journey North

“The massive leaving is occurring right now!” wrote Journey North correspondent Estela Romero from Morelia, Mexico, on March 13, as millions of butterflies fled their roosts. “Monarchs are clouding our town, flying by the towers of our downtown churches in a majestic performance as if dancing to music!”  Romero provides regular dispatches from the ancestral roosting sites to the educational organization that tracks the Monarch and other migrations. Read Romero’s updates here.

The butterflies leave Mexico each year right around the Equinox, which occurred  at precisely at 11:57 AM CDT in San Antonio on Thursday.   The butterflies get their cues from the sun, rouse themselves from a semi-hibernative state, and mate.   Then they start heading north, following the blooming flowers that provide fuel in the form of nectar in search milkweed–the only plant on which they will lay their eggs and be able to continue their life cycle. The “Texas Funnel”–South Texas and the Hill Country– is often the first stop for egg-laying, and thus begets the first generation of new migrating Monarchs.

I spotted my FOS (First of Season) Monarch on Friday, March 20, about 6:30 PM, along the San Antonio River Walk right near downtown.  Alex Rivard reported a Monarch in the Dignowity Hill neighborhood of the Alamo City the same day. The faded beauty observed on my evening walk was nectaring on purple Mountain Laurel flowers, the early spring trees that offer a distinct grape Kool-aid scented bloom. As I approached the butterfly, she lighted upstream.

First of Season Monarchs are arriving in San Antonio

Harlen Aschen, a regular butterfly watcher  based in Port Lavaca, Texas, shared his  FOS Monarch spotting March 19 with the DPLEX-list, an old school style list serv that reaches hundreds of butterfly buffs.

Late this afternoon a monarch flew from the SSW out across the open pasture and finally picked a mesquite just north of the cabin to land in and spend the night.  It wasn’t new but not close enough to tell sex.  We will all be out for a few more days to see if any others follow and if we can get any to pose for a photo.  This would put this one about 640 miles north of the sanctuaries … 65 miles ESE of San Antonio. A light north breeze today and in mid-70′s. –Harlen

Last year, my FOS arrived on March 17.   That was a different year, with ample, well-timed rains and an abundance of milkweed waiting.  This year our spring follows a brutally dry winter and extremely cold temperatures–including three hard freezes–that have resulted in a delayed start to spring.

Just keep doing your thing, girl. She laid about 10 eggs on Sunday. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Front yard milkweed 2013:  Look how big the milkweed was in my yard on March 17 compared to the same plant, a year later, below.  This butterfly laid 12 eggs here that day. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, in my yard is barely out of the ground, and the Swamp milkweed Asclepias incarnata, on the Llano River is not even showing.   Antelope Horns, Asclepias asperula?  Haven’t see any at our place, but others report a bounty.

As noted in a previous post, cold winters are actually good for the migration, since not only do colder temps kill fireants and other predators, but they slow down the butterflies and prevent them from getting ahead of the plants.  Check out the difference between last year (above) and this year’s milkweed foliage (below).

Tropical milkweed, spring 2014

Front yard Tropical milkweed March 21, 2014: barely out of the ground. Photo by Monika Maeckle

One common thread carried over from 2013:  again, this year looks to be the worst in history, population wise for Monarchs.  Last year we bemoaned the paltry 2.93 acres of Oyamel forest occupied by the Monarchs in Mexico.  But 2014 knocked out that dreary record, with only 1.65 acres–about 72,000 square feet–of  forest occupied by Monarch butterflies.  Scientists measure the number of acres occupied by the butterflies each year at their ancestral roosts to estimate how many butterflies exist.

That said, we must marvel at the tenacity and endurance of these small, slight creatures.  Those spotted this week have just traveled 850 miles in search of milkweed so they can lay eggs and continue the life cycle. They just don’t give up.

And we won’t either.

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Austin Butterfly Forum to Feature Historic Gathering Of Monarch Butterfly Flutterati

Butterfly aficionados in Texas are in for a treat March 24 in Austin:  the Austin Butterfly Forum will host a quartet of players responsible for discovering and sharing the location in Mexico of the Monarch butterfly roosting sites back in 1976.   For butterfly buffs, it will be an historic night, as Dr. Lincoln Brower, Catalina Trail, Dr. William “Bill” Calvert and John Christian gather to share stories billed as “a discussion of The Monarch’s Mexican Overwintering Refugia.”

I can’t wait.

The event takes place at Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, 4801 La Crosse Avenue, Austin, TX 78739  7PM Monday, March 24. Tickets are $10 per person.   For more information, see the Austin Butterfly Forum website.

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

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

Dr. Lincoln Brower, one of the foremost Monarch butterfly entomologists in the country and a tireless advocate for the migrating creatures, will fly in from Sweet Briar, Virginia, to join the discussion and lead two field trips–one on Saturday and one on Monday.  Unfortunately, both of those are full.

Catalina Trail, the only living founder of the roosting sites, lives in Austin.  Her story and historic contribution to the discovery of the Monarch wintering grounds were first profiled on this website in July of 2012. 

Back in the 70s, Trail and her then husband, North American Ken Brugger, answered an ad placed in the Mexico City News by Canadian entomologist Dr. Fred Urquhart and his wife Nora seeking “research assistants” to help piece together the mystery of the Monarch butterfly migration, a puzzle they had been working on for decades.   Born on a ranch in Michoacán, Trail worked with Brugger to search the Sierra Madre for years before discovering the ancestral roosts in January of 1975.

Catalina Trail, always a bit of a free spirit, traveled the hemisphere in the 70s.

Free spirit and itinerant traveler Catalina Trail traveled the hemisphere in the 70s.                      Photo copyright Catalina Trail

Urquhart refused to disclose the site to the scientific community and the world.  In the story he wrote for National Geographic that broke the news in August of 1976, coy language described a vague destination in the Sierra Madre at an elevation of 10,000 feet.  Many entomologists and citizen scientists who had contributed for years to unraveling the Monarch mystery wondered exactly where the millions of Monarch butterflies documented in the magazine’s pages were roosting.

Enter Dr. Bill Calvert, labeled a “cowboy entomologist” in the book Four Wings and A Prayer, which chronicles the events.

University of Texas entomologist Calvert teamed up with Brower on a quest to track down the mysterious location and make the whereabouts of the butterflies public.  He enlisted in this adventure an intrepid, Spanish-speaking researcher, writer and photographer named John Christian, also of Austin, whose Mexican upbringing and natural curiosity made him the perfect traveling companion and guide.

Catalina and Bill

Catalina Trail and William “Bill” Calvert at an Austin coffee shop in June of 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

All four of these characters will stand before us on March 24 to share their tales of adventure and discovery of one of the most amazing natural phenomena on earth.   That scientists are predicting the possible extinction in the near future of the Monarch migration makes this gathering even more poignant.

For those who can’t sate their butterfly curiosity with just one event, Dr. Brower will offer an extra lecture on Tuesday, The Grand Saga of the Monarch Butterfly Research.

Dr. Lincoln Brower

Dr. Lincoln Brower                                                 Photo courtesy Austin Butterfly Forum

Mike Quinn and his colleagues at the Austin Butterfly Forum deserve a lot of credit for assembling this historic entourage of Monarch butterfly celebrities.

Quinn said the idea for the gathering was sparked by the chronicling of Catalina’s story here at the Texas Butterfly Ranch.  Trail had received little attention or recognition of her role in the saga until recently.  “That story got me thinking…” he said.  “Catalina, Bill Calvert, even Ken Brugger lived in Austin.  And now John Christian.  Austin is an epicenter of butterfly discoveries.”

As the founder of Texas Monarch Watch, the highly educational Texasento.net insect site and the president of the Austin Butterfly Forum,  Quinn fits right in with this crowd.

The event will be crowded, so show up early.   Folks are flying in from Michigan, Wisconsin, Nebraska and making the trip from Dallas and the Rio Grande Valley.  A crew of four documentary filmmakers contracted by public television of Mexico will also be on hand from Mexico City.

See you there.

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Plant Milkweed, Sign our Petition, Help Save the Monarch Butterfly Migration

Crazy, erratic weather arrived in Texas–again–this week, bringing freezing temperatures to much of the state.   Last Saturday temperatures rose to the 80s;  by noon on Sunday it was 27 degrees.   Surely plants and insects must be grossly confused and butterfly gardeners like me start thinking: what should we plant in our gardens?

Michelle Obama, please plant milkweed at the White House

Since Monarch butterflies are about to leave their overwintering roosts in Michoacán and head our way, it’s impossible to not consider milkweed, the only plant on which Monarch butterflies will lay their eggs.    A cold winter in San Antonio that included four “polar vortexes” has frozen all our milkweed to the ground, leaving little or nothing for the  migrating insects to host on if they show up in the next few weeks.   Even sturdy Asclepias asperula, Antelope Horns, which we usually see at the ranch by now haven’t shown their nubby heads.

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, told us via email this week that looking ahead, average temperatures are likely to prevail for the next 40 days, according to Accu-weather.   “That’s a more favorable forecast than the one from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association,” he wrote.   In his seasonal blogpost assessing the beginning of the 2014 Monarch migration, Dr. Taylor had speculated that temperatures would be higher than normal in Texas for March and April.   “Which wouldn’t be good,” he said.

Why?

It seems counterintuitive, but it creates a bad situation when early spring is warmer than usual because the Monarchs disperse further north faster.  That can cause them to get ahead of the milkweed plants they need to lay their eggs and provide food for hatching caterpillars.   When they travel further north too early, they arrive in locations where milkweed has neither germinated nor produced leaves for them to eat.  On top of that, subsequent cold spells  are more likely to occur as they move further north–and this can kill eggs and caterpillars they leave behind in the erratic weather.

Aslcepias curassavica, Tropical milkweed

Asclepias curassavica, Tropical milkweed seeds, were planted in February and are just showing their delicate leaves. Photo by Monika Maeckle

While the weather continues its uncertain patterns one thing is for sure:  we should all be planting milkweed.

I dropped some Asclepias curassavica, Tropical Milkweed, and Asclepias incarnata, Swamp milkweed, into several black buckets in early February and the sprouts are poking their dainty heads above the soil mix right now.  In about two weeks, I’ll re-pot those seedlings into two-inch square containers for later transplanting in the garden and sharing with friends.

You should all do the same.   If not with Tropical Milkweed, the most widely available, easy-to-grow variety, then with your local natives collected from the wild or bought at native nurseries and seed suppliers.  Check out the Texas Butterfly Ranch Milkweed Guide for details.

Asclepias incarnata, Swamp milkweed

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

Native plant purists sometimes contest the planting of Tropical milkweed outside of its natural range, which would limit it to parts of Mexico.  They suggest that it might cause disease or encourage migrating Monarchs to break their diapause and stick around locally.   I don’t buy that argument, especially when Monarchs are in such great need of milkweed and Tropical milkweed is the only one widely available commercially.   To me, that’s like saying you’re not going to feed a starving child anything but locavore, organic produce.  Given the circumstances, we can’t afford to be so choosy.   Read more about the Tropical milkweed quandary in this post.

However, for those who live in warm climates where Tropical milkweed might survive a mild winter, best practices suggest we should chop it to the ground at the end of the fall so  any undesireable spores that may carry disease won’t have the chance to fester on its stalks and be passed along to the next generation.  This year’s ample freezes took care of that for 2014.

While you’re waiting for those milkweed sprouts to take root, please sign our petition encouraging First Lady Michelle Obama to plant milkweed at the White House garden.   The First Lady has been lauded for planting an organic vegetable garden at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and for encouraging Americans to get out and get active through her Let’s Move initiative.   We feel that planting milkweed–Asclepias syriaca, Common milkweed, perhaps–in between the rows of broccoli and tomatoes at the White House would be an apt expression of her priorities, while also helping to raise awareness of the dramatic decline of the Monarch migration.

If you agree, please join us by signing our petition.

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NAFTA Presidents, Monsanto Say They Want to Help Save the Monarch Butterfly Migration

Thanks to the three leaders of North America I won a $5 bet with my son Alex Rivard last week.

Alex didn’t think the Presidents of the United States and Mexico, Barack Obama and  Enrique Peńa Nieto, nor Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada, would discuss the preservation of the Monarch butterfly migration when they met in Toluca, Mexico, last Wednesday, only 75 miles from the Monarch butterfly ancestral roosting sites.

President BArack Obama

Thanks, Obama! Our President met with the leaders of Canada and Mexico just 75 miles from the Monarch butterfly roosting sites. They committed to trying to save the Monarch butterfly migration. Courtesy photo

“It’s not a big deal to them,” he argued two days before the meeting.

Wanna bet?   I asked.  He did and I won.

And so did the Monarch butterfly migration and those of us who agitate on its behalf.

At the end of a long day of weighty negotiations that touched on immigration, border security, job creation and energy issues, “los tres amigos” determined that the miraculous migration of the iconic insect that knits our countries together is something worth salvaging.

“We have also agreed to work on the preservation of the Monarch butterfly as an emblematic species of North America which unites our three countries,”  President Enrique Peńa Nieto said at the end of the summit.   The leaders agreed to form a task force to study the situation and “ensure the conservation of the Monarch butterfly.”

Now that the Monarch butterfly migration registers on the radar of all three leaders of North America, the creature’s Pan-American journey creates an unprecedented opportunity to raise awareness and captivate attention for pollinator decline.  This focus has galvanized folks across North America.

Monarch butterfly at the San Antonio River Milkweed Patch

Monarch numbers plunged to historic lows this year, prompting predictions that its magnificent migration may soon become extinct.  Monarch butterfly on milkweed, its host plant. Photo by Monika Maeckle

On February 24, the National Resources Defense Council submitted a petition to the Environmental Protection Agency to review the use of glyphosates, the widely used broad spectrum herbicide often sold by Monsanto (see below) as  Round-Up.

“As monarch butterflies plummet, it’s time to rethink the widespread use of our nation’s top weedkiller,” read the headline on the NRDC’s Switchboard blog, trumpeting a post that detailed how glyphosate use has  “skyrocketed tenfold to 182 million pounds annually.  As a result, milkweed–which is the sole food source for monarch butterfly larvae–has all but been eliminated from farm fields across the Midwest.” According to the article, glyphosates were approved in 1993 before the advent of genetically modified crops that are tolerant of its use.  You can read the petition here.

Common milkweed

Will the Whitehouse add some common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, to the Whitehouse Garden? Photo via wikipedia

As noted here last week, ever since the news broke last month that 2013 numbers for the migrating Monarch butterfly population plunged to historic lows and scientists suggested that the migration may soon become extinct, Monarch and pollinator advocates have been energized, seeking solutions to the decline.   Planting more milkweed and resisting genetically modified crops and pesticide use are all good prescriptions, but the political approach exemplified by the Milkweed-Butterfly Recovery Alliance, an ad hoc group formed by Mexico-based  Grupo de los Cien Internacional  and Make Way for Monarchs contributed to the positive outcome of our leadership embracing the notion that the migration is worth saving.   Others seem to be following suit.

Over on Facebook, almost 600 people have “liked” a page created on February 21st called Mr. President – Save the Monarch – Please plant milkweed at the Whitehouse.”  I encourage you to do the same.   Can’t wait for Michelle, Malia and Sasha to add some Asclepias syriaca–common milkweed, the Monarch butterfly host plant–to the Whitehouse vegetable garden.

Whitehouse vegetable garden

All that’s missing? Plant some milkweed and we’re good to go. Photo via sheknowshouseandgarden.com

Even the folks at Monsanto Corporation, the NYSE-listed multinational chemical and biotech powerhouse often vilified as an evil empire, addressed the decline of the Monarch butterfly migration and pledged to look into it.

A February 24 post on the Monsanto “Beyond the Rows” blog generically labeled “The Monarch Butterfly” states:

“As research continues, the pressing question for all of us is: what can we do to help? We’re talking with scientists about what might be done to help the monarchs  rebound.  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.”

Interestingly, of the 696 posts published on the Monsanto blog since 2008, this is the first time the issue of the Monarch butterfly migration has been addressed.

This is progress, people. Monsanto, we look forward to good deeds following your words.  Los tres amigos, gracias for the exposure and galvanizing the continent on behalf of pollinators.  Alex, time to pay up that $5 bet.  Let’s keep it going.

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