Baby, it’s Cold Outside: What to do with Late Season Butterflies?

A frequent question this time of year:  what to do with a late season butterfly?

Crazy, unpredictable weather has become routine.  “Fall” is an extension of a lesser summer while “Winter” constitutes cool evenings and days punctuated by sunshine and temperatures that climb into the 70s.  For mariposistas–those of us who love butterflies and enjoy raising them at home–the blending of the seasons is a mixed bag.

Queens on sponges

Baby, it’s cold outside: soak scrubbers in Gatorade so butterflies can fuel up for when the weather turns. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Here’s the good news:  as long as host plant is available, butterflies will lay eggs, resulting in caterpillars and future flyers.  That means more butterflies, even in November and December.

The tough part comes when the butterflies hatch and it’s freezing outside.  Generally, butterflies won’t fly when temperatures are less than 55 or 60 degrees.  And after spending weeks fostering an egg, then a caterpillar, and finally a chrysalis to the point of becoming a butterfly, the idea of unleashing it into a cold, wintery wind seems brutally unacceptable.

Unfortunately, when weather turns harsh for butterflies, we can’t all take the route of Maraleen Manos-Jones, the “butterfly lady” of Shokan, New York.  Last November,   Manos-Jones convinced Southwest Airlines to fly her and a late season Monarch to San Antonio so the creature might have a better chance of joining her butterfly siblings to  roost in the mountains of Michoacán for the winter. Read that amazing story here.  

Just last week, I experienced a similar conundrum:  a dozen Queen chrysalises had hatched from eggs collected in late October.  But as they emerged and readied for flight, a serious cold front hit San Antonio, dropping temperatures into the 30s.

Cold weather for butterflies

Brrrrr. Too cold to release freshly hatched butterflies. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The cold spell would remain for several days–and then, temperatures would climb into the 70s.  What to do with the butterflies in the meantime?  They had to eat.

I brought in cut flowers and laid out a spread of overripe fruit in the butterfly cage.   Cotton balls soaked in sugar-water and apple juice were strewn on shallow dishes.

The butterflies refused my nectar feast.

On day three, I turned to my butterfly breeder friend Connie Hodson of Flutterby Gardens in Florida.  Connie has raised tens of thousands of butterflies and has moody weather in Tampa Bay similar to ours in South Texas.

Hodson recommended sponges–scrubbers, actually–soaked in grape- or punch-flavored Gatorade laid out in shallow dishes in the butterfly cage. Since butterflies taste with their feet, you have to set them on the sponge so they can “taste” the fake nectar, whetting their appetite.   At that point, they will extend their long proboscis and slurp some fuel to power their flight.

Queens in the cage

Queens said “no thanks” to my offerings of fruit, flowers and sugar water. Photo by Monika Maeckle

If the butterflies resist the sponge or scrubber, Hodson suggests taking a Q-tip, dipping it in the Gatorade and gently touching the creatures’ proboscis so they get the hang of it.

“They’re not hungry for the first 24 – 48 hours,” Hodson assured me by phone.  “Give it a try.”

I did, and it worked.  Two days after the Gatorade buffet, temperatures climbed into the high 60s.  On that sunny Friday, I took the cages outside, unzipped the door, and off they went.

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Mostly Native Urban Butterfly Garden Outperforms Lawn Anytime in San Antonio

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

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

January, 2012

Future butterfly garden in Lavaca

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

It actually started in November of 2011.

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

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

Austin to San Antonio translplants

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

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

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

February

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

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

Cowpen Daisy Seedlings, February 2012.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Cowpen Daisy Seedlings, February 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

March

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

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

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

Cowpen Daisy

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

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

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

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

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

April

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

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

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

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

May

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

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

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

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

Swallowtail caterpillar

Acrobatic Swallowtail caterpillar on fennel.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

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

June

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

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

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

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

Tobacco Hornworm on Jimsonweed

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

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

 July

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

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

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

Bordered Patch butterfly: Quick change artist?

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

August

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

Queens are back in town

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

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

September

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

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

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

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

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

October

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monarch caterpillar on Tropical milkweed

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

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

November

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

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

Tagged Monarch butterfly on leftover Halloween pumpkin

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

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

December

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

Seeds for next year

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

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

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

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

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Queen, Monarch Caterpillars and Butterflies: How to Tell the Difference

Found a Monarch caterpillar on my milkweed!

                               –my friend Hugh Daschbach, via text message

How to tell the difference between a Queen or Monarch caterpillar

Every year around this time as the Queen butterflies start to show up, we get lots of questions about how to tell the difference between Queens, Danaus gilippus, and Monarchs, Danaus plexippus.  And with the warm weather that has gripped South Texas throughout November and now December, many of us are still finding eggs and caterpillars in the leaves of our milkweed.   Queens are here en masse.

Three Queen butterflies

Queens have been flying and reproducing this Fall.

As it turned out, the caterpillar in question that my friend Hugh texted me about (excuse the typos) was in fact a Queen.  The giveaway:  it had three sets of protuberances–frequently called antennae, but actually only one set are antennae and the other two are filaments.  The antennae have special sensing properties while the filaments are mostly for show, and to throw off predators.

Queens on Purple Mistflower

Queens on Purple Mistflower

Hugh’s confusion is common:  because of their similar color, size and affinity for milkweed as a host plant, Queens and Monarchs are often mistaken for each other in their various life stages.

But once you look closely, it’s not that hard to tell the difference between Monarchs and Queens.

First, Queens appear solid orange compared to the varying shades of a Monarch.  In the photo above, notice how with their wings folded, the Queens’ solid dark orange is interrupted with occasional white dots–nothing like the striking stained glass veins and color pattern of the Monarch below.

Resident Monarch butterfly on the San Antonio River Museum Reach

Monarch butterfly on the San Antonio River Museum Reach

With their wings open, the difference is even more obvious.  The Queen is solid, the Monarch has varied coloration.  Both of the examples below are male butterflies, as you can see by the prominent display of their family jewels–the defunct pheremone sacs that presumably once drove the lady butterflies wild.

Queen butterfly, wings open

Queen butterfly.  It’s a male.

Female Queens and Monarchs don’t have these prominent markings with wings open.   In Monarchs, the black veins are generally wider and more pronounced in the females.

Monarch butterflies are on the move in Texas

Male Monarch butterfly.  Notice the two dark spots, his “family jewels.”

In the caterpillar stage, the most obvious difference is that Queens have one set of antennae and two sets of filaments, while Monarchs have one set of antennae and one set of filaments. Antennae are on the head of the butterfly, while filaments are at the rear–and in the case of the Queen, in the middle.

Queen caterpillar with three filaments

Queen caterpillar sports three sets of protuberances–two sets of filaments, one set of antennae.

Notice in the photo above, the Queen has what appear to be THREE sets of protuberances.  The Monarch caterpillar only has TWO.  Both wear distinctive yellow, black and white striped suits.   The Queen often will have a slight red blend as the filaments connect to the caterpillar’s torso.  The patterns of the stripes can vary depending on time of year, humidity and diet.

Monarch butterfly caterpillar has two filaments

Monarch butterfly caterpillar has one set of antennae, one of filaments–two total sets.

Scientists don’t fully understand the biological purpose of the filaments, which seem to reach out and “feel” the universe around them.   They swerve and turn in various directions, almost punctuating caterpillar moves like a roving eye or arched eyebrows on the human face.

For the sake of identification, let’s just say their purpose is to signal the difference between Queens and Monarchs.   For more on filaments and what we do and don’t know about them, check this link on the Monarch Watch page.

Queen and Monarch chrysalises

Queen and Monarch chrysalises. Monarch in the middle.

In the chrysalis stage, Queen chrysalises are almost identical to Monarchs, except they are generally smaller.  They also sometimes offer a subtle pink hue, as evidenced in the picture above, Monarch in the middle, Queen on the sides.

Like what you’re reading?  Follow butterfly and native plant news at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery in the righthand navigation bar of this page, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam.  You can also read our stuff on the Rivard Report.

Let the Royal Butterfly Parade Begin: First Come the Queens, with Monarchs to Follow

We start seeing Queens in August, and this year is no different.  Queens, Danaus gillippus, share the multiple charms of Monarchs, Danaus plexippus.  Both flaunt large size, flashy, striped caterpillars and chrysalises that resemble a jade crystal flecked with gold.

Queens are back in town

Queens are back in town. Here, on Butterflyweed, Asclepias tuberosa.

If you’re lucky enough to have flowers blooming these brutal summer days, you’re likely seeing the burnt orange creatures.  Like Monarchs, Queens lay their eggs only on milkweed, but they nectar indiscriminately.   We had a few pass through our urban front yard garden this week, nectaring on lantana, Tropical milkweed and their favorite, Gregg’s purple mist flower.

Male Queens LOVE purple mistflower

Male Queens LOVE purple mistflower.

If you want Queens in your garden, we recommend planting mistflower. The bloom of the mistflower contains a special alkaloid that male Queens ingest, sequester, and later release as an aphrodisiac to attract females.

Distinguishing Monarchs from Queens can challenge butterfly observers. They appear identical on first glance, but look closely and you’ll see that Queens are a solid dark orange,  with wings folded.  Monarchs have much more variation in their coloring.   With wings open, the difference is more striking.  Queens

Queen butterfly, wings open

Queen butterfly wings open.  This one’s a male.

display none of the “stained glass” veins of Monarchs (see the banner photo at the top of this web page).  Queens’ open wings boast a solid orange-brown, with only white specks on the outer edges and a black outline.

In the caterpillar stage, Queens flaunt similar Monarch-like yellow and black stripes, but they also sport three sets of filaments, the amusing antennae-like protuberances that seem to feel the world around them in expressive contortions.  Monarchs display only two. Queens also wear a red accent where those filaments connect to the caterpillar, presumably a warning sign to predators.

Queen caterpillar with three filaments

Queen caterpillar with three filaments. Monarchs only have two.

As a chrysalis, Monarchs and Queens could be twins, except that Queens are slightly smaller.  Both attach themselves vertically from a a horizontal surface with a silk button after forming a “J” shape, then spin a shiny green chrysalis flecked with gold dots.  While

Queen and Monarch chrysalises

Queen and Monarch chrysalises. Monarch in the middle.

some butterfly species opt for disguises verging on the disgusting in the chrysalis stage–as bird droppings (Red-spotted Purples) and dried crinkled leaves (Gulf Fritillaries)–Queens and Monarchs win the chrysalis beauty pageant.  Their fantastic jade coloring and intriguing gold flecks provoke some folks to wear them as jewelry.  (Not something I recommend.)

For more tips on how to tell the difference between Queens and Monarchs, see these blogposts from the Texas Butterfly Ranch archives:

Queen Butterfly or Monarch Butterfly? Sometimes it’s Hard to Tell the Difference
How to tell the Difference between Future Monarch Butterflies and Future Queen Butterflies, Part II
Like what you’re reading?  Follow butterfly and native plant news at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery in the righthand navigation bar of this page, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam.  You can also read our stuff on the Rivard Report.
 

A Year in the Life of A Butterfly Garden: From Turf to a Butterfly Host and Nectar Garden, with Edible Landscape In Between

OK, no excuses people.  Time to get outside and get the butterfly garden going.  It’s not hard.  Doesn’t take all that much time.  And every day it inspires.  For proof, check out the slideshow below.

Turf to bed conversion: What are you waiting for?

Turf to bed conversion: why wait?

The photos below reflect 12 months in the life of a butterfly garden.  On November 17, 2010, I converted the Bermuda grass infested front yard of  my Austin apartment into a productive, fun and fascinating butterfly garden and edible landscape.  A year later, I’m leaving it behind and moving back to San Antonio to begin another yard transformation.

For help getting started, check out Part I and Part II of our Turf to Bed Conversion Series.  All the drought-damaged lawns around Austin and San Antonio beg to be converted from turf to beds.

Fair warning: a butterfly garden has the occasional dose of drama.  Consider the case of my Heirloom Tomato Thief.

In June, someone stole the perfectly robust, ripe heirloom tomatoes I had incorporated into my butterfly landscape.   I only had two tomato plants, so this was especially aggravating.  Each day I passed  these plants en route to work via the walkway from my apartment to the car, and was clocking their optimal harvest time.

Just as they reached their prime, a thief snatched the purply red tomatoes from their destiny as a Caprese salad.  Then someone chopped down my remaining six-foot tall sunflower a day later.  These garden violations drove me to borrow a digital game camera and bungee-cord it to a tree, where it snapped photos every five minutes for two days.  The backside of the alleged tomato robber was captured by “the Gardencam”–but she wasn’t.  Take a look.  Nothing conclusive, but I felt a bit better and the thievery stopped.

Butterfly gardens can make productive use of even a small plot.  In my limited space, I raised dozens of caterpillars and butterflies, grew handfuls of fruits and vegetables, and burned calories, worked on my tan, and made new friends as neighbors walked by commenting and asking questions.

What’s stopping you?  Your butterfly garden is waiting.  Make it happen.  Let us know if you have questions, and good luck!

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Butterfly Plant Walk, Monarch Talk and Caterpillar Crawl to Kick off San Antonio Botanical Garden’s Amazing Butterflies Exhibit

The San Antonio Botanical Garden celebrates the whole life cycle with the aptly named “Amazing Butterflies” exhibit, an interactive nature maze created by London’s Natural History Museum in collaboration with Minotaur Mazes.   The exhibit kicks off this weekend with special events and will run through January 8, 2012.

Amazing Butterflies aims to give visitors a chance to experience the challenges of being a caterpillar by wandering through a nature maze of larger-than-life leaves, grass and trees before morphing into a butterfly. Enroute, participants learn how caterpillars move, what they eat and how other creatures help them during their life cycle. Ultimately, participants have the chance to flap their wings and even do a wacky dance–maybe like the one in the video above?  (Apologies to old friend Kim Wilson and the Fabulous Thunderbirds.)

“The timing of Amazing Butterflies couldn’t be better, since fall is when our local butterflies are most active and people can watch their magical life cycle unfold in their own backyards,” said Bob Brackman, executive director of the San Antonio Botanical Garden.  “And what a bonus that the fall is when the Monarch butterflies are migrating through San Antonio.”

Of course, you don’t have to convince the Texas Butterfly Ranch that butterflies are amazing.  We know it.  That’s why I’ve signed up to talk about Milkweed, Monarchs, Migrations and More* at 11 AM on Saturday at the exhibit.  Hope to see you there.

Opening weekend activities run 10 am – 2 pm this Saturday and Sunday and include butterfly workshops for children and adults, children’s arts and craft activities, live butterfly tent, and more. The Austin Bike Zoo will make an appearance with their much lauded amazing butterfly bicycles, offering rides and fun.

Saturday
10:00 am Butterflies & Plants Walk
Patty Leslie Pasztor, Naturalist & Horticulturist
Wisteria Arbor
11:00 am Milkweed, Monarchs, Migration & More
Monika Maeckle, Texas Butterfly Ranch
Auld House
11:00 am  Storytime: Emily’s Butterfly Bouquet
Children’s author Kathy Luders. Book signing until 1 PM
Auld House Patio
1:00 pm Build it and They Will Come
Norman Winters, Executive Director, NABA National Butterfly Center
Auld House
 
Sunday
10:00 am Butterfly Gardening
Diane Lewis, Horticulturist
Auld House
11:00 am  Storytime: Emily’s Butterfly Bouquet
Children’s author Kathy Luders. Book signing until 1 PM
Auld House Patio
1:00 pm Build it and They Will Come
Norman Winters, Executive Director, NABA National Butterfly Center
Auld House
 

*If the Monarchs are out, we’ll do a demonstration on how to tag them.  Join us!

The San Antonio Botanical Garden is located at  555 Funston Avenue in San Antonio, TX  78209.  Amazing Butterflies exhibit continues through January 8, 2012.  Access to the exhibit is free with paid admission to the San Antonio Botanical Garden–$8 for adults; $6 for students, seniors, and military; and $5 for children age 3-13. Botanical Society members enjoy free admission.

 


 

Queen and Monarch Butterflies Share Beauty, Charm and Gold Dotted Chrysalises: How to Tell the Difference

Monarch butterflies get all the press as our most beloved species while the Queen, a close cousin, goes largely ignored.   Life’s not fair, even for butterfly beauties.

Upon close inspection, you’ll find that Queens share the charms of their closely related Monarch sisters, including large size, bright-striped caterpillars and chrysalises that resemble a gold-dotted jade crystal.

If you have flowers blooming now, you’re likely seeing Queens, Danaus gillippus.  Like Monarchs, Queens host only on milkweed, but they nectar indiscriminately.   During this historic Texas drought, they’re clinging to river bottoms, seeking the goldenrod and swamp milkweed that blooms in late summer.  In our gardens, they gravitate to lantanas, pentas, milkweed and purple mistflower.

Queens on Purple Mistflower                                                   Queen butterflies, wings folded, on Purple Mistflower

Queens generally precede the Fall Monarch parade.  While they don’t migrate like Monarchs, they are seasonal, showing up in the Spring and Fall.

Telling the difference between the two can challenge butterfly observers. On first glance, Queens and Monarchs seem identical, but look closely and you’ll see that Queens are solidly burnt orange, almost brown, with wings folded.  Monarchs have much more variation in their coloring.   With wings open, the difference is more striking.  Queens

Queen butterfly, wings openQueen Butterfly, wings open.  Oh, and it’s a male.

display none of the “stained glass” veins of Monarchs (see the banner photo at the top of this web page).  Queens’ open wings boast a solid orange-brown, with only white specks on the outer edges and a black outline.

In the caterpillar stage, Queens flaunt similar Monarch-like yellow and black stripes, but they also sport three sets of filaments, the amusing antennae-like protuberances that seem to feel the world around them in expressive contortions.  Monarchs display only two. Queens also wear a red accent where those filaments connect to the caterpillar, presumably a warning sign to predators:  Stop, don’t eat me!

Queen caterpillar on milkweedQueen Caterpillar on milkweed

As a chrysalis, Monarchs and Queens could be twins, except that Queens are slightly smaller.  Both attach themselves vertically from a a horizontal surface with a silk button after forming a “J” shape, then spin a shiny green chrysalis flecked with gold dots.  While some butterfly species opt for disguises verging on the disgusting in the chrysalis stage–as bird droppings (Red-spotted Purples) and dried crinkled leaves (Gulf Fritillaries)–Queens and Monarchs win the chrysalis beauty pageant.  Their fantastic jade coloring and intriguing gold flecks provoke some folks to wear them as jewelry. (Not something I recommend.)

Queen and Monarch ChrysalisesQueen Chrysalises are usually smaller than Monarch Chrysalises

For more tips on how to tell the difference between Queens and Monarchs, see these blogposts from the Texas Butterfly Ranch archives:

Queen Butterfly or Monarch Butterfly? Sometimes it’s Hard to Tell the Difference

How to tell the Difference between Future Monarch Butterflies and Future Queen Butterflies, Part II

Happy First Birthday! Cheers to the Texas Butterfly Ranch and to the Evolution of this Butterfly Blog

This week marks the first birthday of the Texas Butterfly Ranch blog.  We’ve come a long way since our first blogpost.  Friends and family often wonder why I write this blog.  The answer is:  I can’t help myself.

What brought me to my enchantment with butterflies and their life cycle? Becoming a Master Gardener, managing a weekend ranch for wildlife, exploring the creek as a childhood tomboy–all of these set up me up to become a novice lepidopterist.  And working in new media at my corporate day job equipped me with the blogging skills to share my passion.

Monarch butterfly on hummingbird feeder

When the going gets tough, Monarchs get resourceful.

My love affair with butterflies and their life cycle began on October 1, 2005. Here’s what I wrote in an email to friends and family with the subject line, “Magical Monarch Saturday.”

The pagan goddess was smiling on me Saturday when I kayaked upstream from Lucky Boy Ranch about 10 minutes.  I saw a steady supply of Monarch butterflies drifting around and across the river, mostly from our side to the opposite.

It was dry and windy and hotter than the average October 1.  The goldenrod was in bloom,  and there’s still a bit of snow-on-the-mountain (a white, Edelweiss type plant), even some purple aster. As I scooted upstream along the shallow river and near the bank beyond our usual wading spot, I noticed two low hanging pecan trees surrounded by small cedars and blooming milkweed, the Monarch’s favorite nectar source.

I pulled up my kayak  and stepped onto the gravel bank.  As I approached the trees, the riverbank erupted with butterflies.  Hundreds of them floated up from the knee-high milkweed, as each of my steps disturbed their peace.

Floating, flitting, fleeting, they danced, lighting on the milkweed flowers and occasionally roosting in clusters on bare pecan  limbs.

I got my tags out and my net and started swooping.  I started at 4:51 PM.  One netting swooped 22 butterflies.   Most of the time I nabbed only one or two, and each time it was magical.  I tagged their wings with the dot-sized tags purchased from Monarchwatch.org, recorded the tag number, if the specimen was male or female, and noted the time I caught each one.   In one productive stint, I tagged eight Monarchs in 10 minutes.

Tagging accomplished, the best part followed:  holding a Monarch in my palm, opening my soft grasp, then grinning widely as she floats to freedom, lighting in the breeze.

I ran out of tags and kayaked back to the house about 5 PM, returning to the river within 20 minutes.  Upstream from the Monarch trees was another pecan shading a thick milkweed field.  Monarchs perched like small birds on the flowertops, sipping  nectar.  By 7 PM I’d tagged 50 Monarchs.

The next day, I dragged Bob down there to see if the Magic was still present.  It was! We tagged another 25 Monarchs in about 20 minutes (it goes really fast with two people).  Boy and girl Monarchs were equally abundant and like a soothing balm, cast their spell over macho Bob.

What an enchanting retreat from the pressures of the week.  I hope each of you has the chance to experience this wonder some day.

Monika

That transcendent outing to0k place about a year after my first exposure to Monarch tagging which occurred  the prior fall, when my friend Jenny Singleton invited me, Bob, and another couple to “come tag Monarchs” near Menard, Texas.

I had no idea what she was talking about.  But we were game.

As the sun set on the San Saba River, the four of us raced around the river bottom with other members of Jenny’s “tag team,” our nets hoisted by 12-foot long PVC pipes, snagging dozens of Monarch butterflies as they sought an evening roost.  I’ll never forget the sensation of unbridled life the first time I stuck my hand into a butterfly net filled with 37 Monarch butterflies.

We parked them in ice chests for tagging, assembly line style.  After collecting their data–male or female–we placed the tiny stickers on their wings that Jenny had purchased from Monarch Watch, the University of Kansas citizen scientist program that tracks the Monarch migration each year.  We then released them to roost for the night.

Butterfly blogger Monika Maeckle with Monarch Butterfly Motherlode in 2008

Me and a Monarch Motherlode in 2008. We tagged 567 in one day and ran out of tags! --photo by Clint Howell

That night I learned that Monarch butterflies migrate to and from Mexico and Canada each year, moving through the Texas “funnel” each fall on their way to their ancestral roost in the mountains of Mexico.  How did I not know about this?

I was intrigued.

The next October, I ordered 100 tags from Monarch Watch.  Then, on the sunny October afternoon described above, I set out in my kayak to find a roosting spot on our stretch of river. As I combed the Llano’s shores in my kayak, I had no idea of the magic awaiting me.

And so began the Texas Butterfly Ranch, a state of mind and place that encompasses San Antonio (my home), Austin (where I work) and Lucky Boy Ranch (our weekend retreat on the Llano River).

Since that wondrous autumn day, I’ve learned everything I could about butterflies and their life cycle. I’ve tagged more than 1200 Monarchs, 20 of which have been recovered in Mexico.  I’ve turned my front yard into a butterfly garden, and my kitchen into an incubator, bringing Monarch, Queen, Eastern Swallowtail and Gulf Fritillary eggs inside, hatching chrysalises from milkweed stands at the ranch and host plants in my yard.

I’ve been known to bring caterpillars to work when they’re about to “go chrysalis” or ready to eclose to the butterfly stage.  My colleagues are always delighted to witness the daily miracle of metamorphosis. I’ve also given chrysalises to friends and family to mark life transitions like birthdays, weddings, loss, graduations and death. And I’ve written 63 blogposts with thousands of views.

Thank you for joining me.  My education continues.  See you outside.

How to Raise Butterflies-to-Be: Rearing Caterpillars the Topic at Monday’s Austin Butterfly Forum

Ever wonder about the best way to raise caterpillars at home for fun?  I do, and experiment all the time–with mixed success.  That’s why I’m so looking forward to the Austin Butterfly Forum’s “How to Raise Caterpillars” meeting on Monday, April 25 at the Zilker Botanical Center.   The show starts at 7 PM and it’s free.

Eastern Swallowtail Caterpillar

Tips for raising Eastern Swallowtails and other caterpillars will be covered at the Austin Butterfly Forum on Monday

San Antonio butterfly lovers, I encourage you to make the drive Monday night.  The chance to learn such esoteric skills directly from passionate butterfly enthusiasts doesn’t happen that often–and it’s free.  Also, it’s a great chance to connect with your community of fellow butterfly enthusiasts.

According to organizer Dan Hardy, several Forum members,  all of whom have years of experience raising caterpillars and hatching butterflies, will lead the session.  You’ll learn:

  • Which butterfly species are best for novices
  • How to trouble shoot illness and disease
  • What kind of gear you need to get started
  • Where to find eggs and caterpillars and how to transport them, plus
  • How to watch for females laying eggs.

“We’ll talk about all the ways caterpillars get into trouble, ” says Dan, a pathologist by training, matter-of-factly. “Problem is, there’s rarely a cure!”

The Austin Butterfly Forum was founded in 1993 and is a nonprofit organization devoted to education and enlightenment about butterflies, with occasional forays into moths.  The membership includes about 50 hobbyists and butterfly gardeners.   Dan says several bonified entomologists participate as well, as do moth lovers.

Sounds like my kind of crowd. Hope to see you there.

PS.  The Austin Butterfly Forum will also hold an all-day workshop on Saturday, May 7 at the same location.  The session runs 10 AM – 4 PM, costs $35, and will offer the basics of butterflying, identification, gardening, and caterpillar rearing tips, as well as a guided walk around Zilker garden.  The fee gets you lunch and set of plants to get started.  For more information, contact Jeff Taylor, 512.825.8368.

Pollinators Gone Wild: 32 Monarch Butterflies Tagged as Predators Make for a Dangerous World for Butterflies

It was a “pollinator-palooza” this weekend at the ranch, as Monarch butterflies, Queens, Swallowtails, gorgeous red wasps and exotic blue bumblebees competed for nectar on robust Swamp Milkweed stands.   The aphids did their best to suck the life out of the party, but our team of Monarch taggers nabbed 32 in just a few hours.   Oddly, only seven were females.

The abundance of insects made for an irresistible buffet for predators.  Praying mantises, spiders, and birds took their toll on our migrants and their mimics, with Monarch and Queen butterfly detritus littering the Llano River and the banks.  The cruelty of Nature makes for a dangerous world for butterflies–which makes Monarch butterflies’ miraculous 3,000-mile migration to Michoacan, Mexico all the more remarkable.

Wing of dead Queen butterfly in Llano River

Wing of dead Queen butterfly in the Llano River

Spider Eats Monarch Butterfly

Orb weaver spider feasts on Monarch butterfly

In his book, The Dangerous World of Butterflies:  the Startling Subculture of Criminals, Collectors and Conservationsists, award-winning journalist Peter Laufer, Ph.D., explores butterflies’ historically central role in nature, mythology, spirituality and art and how human beings are making the creatures’  existence more challenging.

Praying mantid on milkweed

Lurking in the shadows, praying mantid awaits a butterfly snack

While he doesn’t delve too much into the perils that natural predators pose to butterflies, his comprehensive investigation of what people are doing to make things tougher for lepidoptera is compelling.  Laufer’s chapter on accompanying a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Special Agent who’s been assigned to track and arrest the world’s most wanted butterfly smuggler is a page turner.

Who knew that butterfly smuggling was a rampant black market trade that carries prison sentences of five years and fines of $250,000?  It’s true.  Sneaking endangered specimens into the U.S. for sale to collectors and museums can result in big money for those willing to take the risk.  Sadly, an entire economy has evolved around the breeding, capturing and smuggling of very rare and endangered butterflies all over the world. Until I read Laufer’s book, I had no idea of the magnitude of this problem.

Laufer also offers one of the best descriptions of the process of metapmorphosis I have ever read, describing it as “the ultimate butterfly magic.”   With the help of biologist Rachel Diaz-Bastin in San Francisco, he strikes the appropriate balance of awe and acceptance as Diaz-Bastin fills in the scientific blanks.

“All of their body parts, every cell, liquefies…This is weird stuff.  All of their cells differentiate and begin forming the adult butterfly,”  she says.  “It’s basically this big butterfly soup inside….It is amazing.”

Agreed. No wonder we’re so fascinated with butterflies.