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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Little Herds Bug Banquet brings Eating Insects to Austin, Texas

More than 150 people turned out to sample a variety of foods made with insects at Little Herds’ Future Food Salon event held at the Brazos in Austin last Wednesday.

Cricket flour polenta

Cricket flour polenta topped with tempura fried veggies at the Little Herds Future Food Salon. YUM. Photo by Monika Maeckle

LIttle Herds, an Austin start-up and wannabe trade association for human grade entomophagy (that’s the consumption of insects as food) partnered with Alimentary Initiatives of Toronto, Canada, to host the bug banquet.

The evening capped a day when the three leaders of North America met in Toluca, Mexico, just 75 miles from the ancestral roosting sites of the Monarch butterfly.   By the end of the day, some of us had consumed mealworm and cricket snack mix for the first time (along with other entomophogical selections) and the decline of Monarch butterflies and other pollinators rose to prominence on the radars of Presidents Barack Obama and Enrique Peńa Nieto of Mexico and Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada.

Bob Rivard and cricket polenta

Bob Rivard samples cricket flour polenta topped with tempura fried veggies. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Is there a connection here?

Absolutely.   The consequences for continuing to destroy our natural landscapes and manage the planet only for the benefit of Homo sapiens include an inability to feed the expected nine billion people who will inhabit the earth by 2050.  Just read this 185-page report, Edible insects: future prospects for food and feed security,  assembled by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Serious concerns exist regarding our ability to feed the world as a burgeoning population will require us to produce twice as much food as we do today.  Sooner or later, those of us in the United States will join the two billion folks in other countries that tap more than 1,900 insect species for their high protein, low carb, low-fat, and extremely easy-to produce sustainable production needs.

Aruna Handa, Alimentary Initiatives

Aruna Handa, Founder of Alimentary Initiatives of Toronto, passes a bowl of crickets and grasshoppers.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

A small group of us went ahead and took the plunge last week.   We tried cricket flour polenta with tempura fried veggies, collard greens with mealworms, butternut squash soup with crunchy mealworms on top and dark chocolate drops topped with grasshoppers.

Most tasty were the delicious Chapul brand protein bars.  I prefer the Thai flavor, a chewy mix of coconut, ginger, lime, dates, almond butter, cashews–and of course, dehydrated crickets.  With 190 calories and 8 grams of protein, the bars are a nutritional bargain.

Don’t scoff.   It wasn’t that long ago that we snubbed sushi.   Swallow raw fish?   And now the Japanese mainstay can be found at most local grocery stores.  Won’t be long and insects will achieve the same status.

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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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Will Obama talk Monarch Butterflies with Presidents of Canada and Mexico this week?

President Barack Obama, President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico and Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada will gather Wednesday in the Mexican city of Toluca, only 75 miles from the ancestral roosting sites of Monarch butterflies in the mountains of Mexico.

Monarch on the Llano River

The fate of the Monarch migration is in our hands. PHoto by Monika Maeckle

According th the White House, the three leaders will discuss a range of issues important to the people of North America.

OK, but will they discuss what can be done to ensure the future of the epic Monarch butterfly migration, a unique natural phenomenon that binds our three countries geographically, spiritually and scientifically?

President BArack Obama

President Barack Obama will meet with the presidents of Canada and Mexico just 75 miles from the Monarch butterfly roosting sites. Will they talk Monarch butterflies?

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. Most suggestions have take the form of encouraging the planting of more milkweed and resisting genetically modified crops and pesticide use. But two groups, the Mexico-based Grupo de los Cien Internacional and Make Way for Monarchs here in the U.S., have banded together to form the Milkweed-Butterfly Recovery Alliance to take a political approach.

Led by Mexican poet, environmentalist and human rights activist Homero Aridjis, Monarch butterfly expert Dr. Lincoln Brower and Dr. Gary Paul Nabhan, the group of artists, intellectuals and scientists, 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, which encouraged planting milkweed on roadsides and between fields, and suggested subsidies for farmers to set aside land that is free of herbicides.

Mexican poet/activist/enviornmentalis Homero Aridjis helped craft a letter to the three presidents of North America.  Courtesy photo

Mexican poet/activist/enviornmentalist Homero Aridjis helped craft a letter to the three presidents of North America. Courtesy photo

The group cites the recent dramatic declines documented at the overwintering roosts in Michoacán–from a 20-year average of about 16.5 acres to this year’s record low of 1.65 acres. That’s a 90% decrease.

The letter correctly assigns blame to illegal logging and habitat destruction at the roosting sights in Mexico, but also points the finger at atrocious agricultural policies in the United States. Among those pollinator-unfriendly policies: the approval of pesticides that are known to poison pollinators and the practice of wholesale spraying of herbicides on genetically modified corn and soybean crops immune to their toxins. Where fertile wildflowers, including the Monarch host plant milkweed, once flourished between the rows and on the fringes of farmland, now sterile space exists. Who knows what else is being eliminated.

In addition, the 2007 Renewable Fuel Standard mandated that a rising percentage of domestic gasoline be made from biofuels such as corn-based ethanol. The economic incentives for planting corn to produce ethanol have caused farmers to expand the ubiquitous starch to cover 97 million acres of farmland in 2013, up from 78 million acres in 2006. “Fallow fields, row crops and roadsides that used to support the growth of milkweed and substantial acreage of land previously set aside in the U.S. Conservation Reserve Program have been converted to monoculture crops,” the letter notes.

Antelope Horns Milkweed

It’s all about the milkweed–and a lack thereof. Asclepias asperula, Antelope Horns Milkweed on Texas Hill Country roadside in April 2011. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The alliance suggests the very reasonable notion of managing roadsides for native plants, including milkweeds and more extensive buffers of native plant communities at field margins. “A milkweed corridor stretching along the entire migratory route of the Monarch butterfly through our three countries must be established,” the letter states.

“This is a viable proposal. It is not impossible,” Aridjis told the the New York Times. “Otherwise, we face an ecological genocide, because if we take away the monarchs’ plants, we kill the monarchs.”

What an outrageous shame that would be. Thiseloquent essay written by Carter Roberts and Omar Vidal on the CNN website calls on the spirit of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the countries of our hemisphere working together for our greater good to literally spare common ground that might save the Monarch migration.

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Wake-up Call: As Monarch Butterfly Numbers Plummet, will their Migration become Extinct?

More alarming news from the Monarch butterfly roosting sites in Michoacán last week: the 2013 season will surpass 2012 as the all time worst year for Monarch butterflies since records have been kept.

Ever since 1994, scientists have measured the hectares occupied by the migrating insects in the high altitude forests west of Mexico City to get an idea of their numbers.  That information typically works as a key indicator on the state of the union of Monarch butterflies and other pollinators, which fertilize 70% of the world’s flowering plants and two-thirds of the world’s food crops.

Monarch population status 2014

Monarch population status 2014: less than two acres!  Graphic via Monarch Watch

For the 2013 season, the entire migrating Monarch butterfly population occupies only .67 hectares.  That’s 1.65 acres, 72,000 square feet–or about 35 million butterflies, down from highs of 450 million in years’ past.  Think about it:  the entire population of migratory Monarch butterflies could easily fit into the average Walmart store, with 30,000 square feet to spare.

Headlines trumpeted the end of the migration.

“Monarch butterflies drop, migration may disappear,” the Washington Post reported.  On January 29, NBC Nightly News anchor Bryan Williams told viewers–incorrectly–that the head of the World Wildlife Fund in Mexico said the Monarch butterfly is in serious risk of disappearing.  In fact, it’s the migration that’s endangered, NOT the butterflies.  Important point.

The New York Times put the dismal news in proper perspective:  “The migrating population has become so small—perhaps 35 million, experts guess—that the prospects of its rebounding to levels seen even five years ago are diminishing. At worst, scientists said, a migration widely called one of the world’s great natural spectacles is in danger of effectively vanishing.”

Blue Sky Monarchs

The Monarch butterfly migration faces serious risks and may become extinct. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The news cast a pall over Monarch watchers and other nature lovers.

“My whole day got grayer,” said David Braun, an attorney, naturalist, and founder of Braun & Gresham, a law firm that specializes in environmental and land management issues in Dripping Springs, Texas.

Like me, Braun lives in the Texas Funnel, the primary flyway through which all migrating Monarchs must pass  in the fall on their way to Mexico.  He has accompanied me over the years on Monarch tagging outings along the Llano River and led ecotravelers to the roosting spots in Michoacán for Victor Emanual Tours back in the 1980s.  He was the first person to spark my imagination about how truly awesome it would be to witness the spectacle of hundreds of millions of butterflies unleashed in a mountain forest.

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

Look at all those Monarchs!  Catalina Trail, then known as Cathy Aguado, discovered  the roosting sites and appeared on the cover of National Geographic in 1976.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

“I remember clearly my excitement when the National Geographic story came out in 1976 announcing the discovery of the wintering grounds,” Braun wrote via email.  “I also remember my first trip there, the magic of walking through the hushed, cathedral-like fir forest and hearing the sound of millions of Monarch wings flapping.  Today, I have to wonder if that entire awe-inspiring, glorious natural wonder will disappear in my lifetime.  It makes my short life seem even more insignificant if the great cycles of nature aren’t timeless.”

Thousands of others echoed those sentiments via social media, in comments on dozens of news articles, and in emails, on listservs and conversations near and far.  For a sampling of angst, see the Monarch Watch Facebook page comments.

“What’s happening to Monarchs is probably happening to lots of species,” Dr. Karen Oberhauser, a professor at the University of Minnesota and founder of the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project, told the Washington Post. “This is a species, unlike most other insects, that we can count and look at what we’ve done to it. So this really should serve as a wake-up call.”

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, which oversees the citizen scientist tagging program in which I participate,  reinforced the connection to other pollinators on the public radio program Here and Now.

In a comprehensive interview with WBUR, Taylor underscored the idea that this extreme and rapid decline is not just about Monarchs.  “Monarchs are simply a flagship species for everything else that’s happening out there,” he said.

Taylor noted that Monarchs live in marginal habitats that support most of our pollinators– in roadside wildflower patches, between rows of cultivated crops and in native wildflower prairies.  These spaces are too often decimated by habitat loss.  Read his compelling explanation of the decline on the Monarch Watch Population Status Report.

“Those marginal habitats support a lot of small mammals and ground-nesting birds, and if we lose the monarchs, it means we’re going to lose all those things,”  Dr. Taylor said. “People perhaps do not grasp…that it’s the pollinators that keep everything knitted together out there….there’s a fabric of life out there that maintains these ecosystems, and it’s the pollinators that are critical.”

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Austin Bug Eating Soiree February 19: Munch on Insects to Sustain the Planet

How many crickets does it take to make a pound of flour?

Hard to say, says Robert Nathan Allen, founder of the nonprofit Little Herds in Austin, an organization devoted to educating us on why we should all be eating insects.   “About five pounds of crickets makes a pound of high protein flour,” he told us by phone this week.

Allen reached out to me after reading last week’s post on eating bugs. “Great article on edible insects,” he wrote via email.

Fried Green Tomatoes with Tomato Hornworms

YUM! Fried green tomatoes topped with Tomato Hornworms, from the Eat A Bug Cookbook

But unlike many of us who live in the United States,  Allen doesn’t view entomophagy–that is, the consumption of insects as food–as an attention-getting gimmick or weird antic.  He believes devoutly that we should join the two billion people worldwide who regularly eat crickets, caterpillars, tarantulas and a variety of larvae.   His start-up nonprofit, Little Herds, claims status as North America’s first charity dedicated to promoting the eating of insects. The name salutes the small, ubiquitous creatures the organization suggests we consume as food.  It also tips a hat to children, seen as the target market most likely to embrace the message.

Along those lines, Little Herds in Austin has partnered with Alimentary Initiatives of Toronto, Canada, to host their third Future Food Salon event, February 19, 7 – 11 PM  at Vuka in Austin.

Robert Nathan Allen

Robert Nathan Allen, founder of Little Herds, an Austin nonprofit organization devoted to the promotion of entomophagy, the eating of insects as food. Courtesy photo

The “unforgettable party” will feature local chefs, bakers, musicians, and artists who will deliver an evening of edible insects. Tickets are $40 and available online.  Hope to see you there.

Allen makes a convincing case why eating bugs is good for our health and the health of the planet.  He cites their high protein, low-fat, low carb constitution.  Their production results in fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and insects often eat the detritus and trash we cast away–”the hops and grains that brewers toss, for example,” says Allen.   “Bugs are so efficient in converting that waste to protein…it can close a lot of loopholes in the ecosystem” he says.

“Take cricket flour,”  says Allen.  “More than 50% of its dry weight is a complete protein, with no fat.  It’s like a superfood powder.  Add it to tortillas or chocolate chip cookies or banana bread and it makes the food more healthy.”

Allen has done just that at events like pot luck insect cook-outs,  demos at SXSW Eco, East Austin Studio Tours and elsewhere.   He believes “kids are the key” since they don’t have the hang-ups of their parents and think eating bugs is cool.   “This is a way for us to teach the next generation of consumers,” he says.

An international studies graduate of the University of North Texas, Allen left college in 2009, moved to Austin and fell into the role as chief entomophagy promoter by chance.  Upon graduation, he couldn’t find a job and worked as a bartender, then sales.  One day his Mom sent him a video about entomophagy as a joke.  “I  thought it was really interesting and researched it online,” says Allen.  “It shocked me that Austin didn’t have anybody doing anything with it.”

Chapul Cricket flour protein bars

Why eat insects? Because they’re better–nutritionally and for the planet.                                        Graphic via Chapul website, makers of cricket flour and high protein bars

As Allen grew more educated on the subject, he identified the need for a nonpartisan, noncompetitive voice to enlighten the public on the myriad reasons for eating bugs.  He also realized that businesses need help in developing rules and standards for growing human consumption-grade insects.  “And without chemicals or antibiotics,” he says.  “They should be held to a higher standard.”  Little Herds was born.

Allen is staging a Little Herds fundraising campaign through StartSomeGood, a Kickstarter type website for raising money for good causes. His goal:  $50,000.   As of this writing, he’s raised $2,350.  Feel free to chip in.

As for combatting the “ick factor” so many of us experience when faced with bugs IN our food, much less AS as an entree, Allen remains optimistic.

“I really don’t think it’s that big of a challenge,”  he says.  “Sushi took 20 years to go from dangerous and disgusting to commonplace.  Lobster went from peasant prison food to a high class luxury.  Most of the world doesn’t think it’s weird.  Just us.”

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Caterpillar Canapes, anyone? Eating Bugs Could be Answer for Hungry Planet

One of my favorite radio programs, the Splendid Table, aired an interesting segment on Eating Bugs recently.

The show introduced the Mopane worm–technically a caterpillar–and how in just about every corner of the earth, people consume insects as food. The practice is called entomophagy.  The Mopane “worm,” so named because he hosts on the Mopane tree, morphs into the magnificent Emerald Moth, Gonimbrasia belina.

Emperor Moth

Would you eat this guy? The caterpillar stage of the  Emperor moth is a delicacy in parts of Africa and high in protein, too. Photo by Mark Goldstein, the Photography Blog

Stefan Gates, the “British gastronaut” interviewed on the public radio cooking show, spent 10 days eating insects in Cambodia and Thailand as research for the documentary.   Gates readily admits that he accepted the assignment to consume crickets, grasshoppers and giant water bugs because it makes  great TV.  “That’s the shallow side of me,” he said.  But Gates and program host Lynn Rosetto Caspar also explored why many of us are simply disgusted by the idea of eating bugs.

Insects are perfectly edible and yet we have such negative reactions to the idea.  “Why are we disgusted and what lies beneath it?” he wondered aloud, noting that insects are everywhere, readily available, prolifically fertile and high in protein.

Cooked Mopane Worm

Cooked Mopane “worms” with onions.       Photo via Comquat and Wikipedia Commons

Other countries are not nearly as squeamish as the United States.

In Mexico, eating chapulines, a grasshopper of the Sphenarium species, is common practice. (They’re also the namesake of the famous Chapultepec Park in Mexico City.  “Grasshopper Hill.”)

I grabbed two jars of the crispy, fried grasshopper carcasses seasoned with lime, chili and salt at the airport upon my return from a butterfly adventure in Huatulco, Oaxaca. The crispy bugs are not half bad with a beer.

chicatanas

Plump, juicy, available in the rainy season. Rip the wings off chicatanas and make a delicious molé. Photo by Veronica Prida

And check out the nutritional data–a third of an ounce has 39 calories and five grams of protein.  Half a cup of chapulines added to a soup recently escaped notice–except for the knowledge that my broth was more healthy.

On the same trip, our guide Cornelio Ramos Gabriel, tried to track down for me the seasonal delicacy chicatanas in Oaxaca.  The huge flying ants hatch after the first downpour of the rainy season.  Locals scramble to collect them, remove their wings, roast them on a griddle, then grind them up to make a delicious molé that’s considered a delicacy.  Alas, we had missed the season.

Chapulines Sazonados

Fried, spiced and ready-to-eat: chapulines–that is, crickets. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Chapulines high protein

Got crickets? Check out the nutritional data–high protein, low fat, low cal, low carb.
Photo by Monika Maeckle

According to the United Nations, edible insects could be the answer to ensuring our future food security.  In  the 185-page report Edible insects: future prospects for food and feed security,  the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations notes that nine billion people will inhabit our planet by 2050 and require us to produce twice as much food as we do today.  At least two billion people already tap more than 1,900 species of insects as part of their traditional diets.

The report, published last year, cited the most commonly eaten insects:

    • Beetles Coleoptera                                                    31 percent
    • Caterpillars Lepidoptera                                           18 percent
    • Bees, wasps and ants, Hymenoptera                       14 percent
    • Grasshoppers, locusts and cricket, Orthoptera        13 percent
    • Cicadas, leafhoppers, planthoppers, and true bugs,                               Hemiptera                                                                  10 percent
    • Termites Isoptera                                                       3 percent
    • Dragonflies, Odonata                                                 3 percent
    • Flies, Diptera                                                              2 percent,  and
    • Other orders                                                              5 percent.
ant egg salad

Ant egg salad. Bug eating gastronaut Stefan Gates says it’s a “cacophony” of taste, like “insect caviar.” Photo via spendidtable.org

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas, is no insect noshing neophyte.   The good doc has sampled June bugs, drone honeybees and their larvae (lightly browned in butter), wax worm larvae and roasted white-lined Sphinx moth caterpillars.

“The only one of these with an appealing taste was the sauteed drone larvae,” said Dr. Taylor, comparing their flavor to roasted peanuts.  Taylor added that when he’s served the butter-sopped larvae as party snacks and in classes at the University of Kansas, supplies run out fast. “Everybody comes back for more,” he said.

Dr. Karen Oberhauser, who oversees the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project at the University of Minnesota said via email that she’s eaten her fair share  of bugs in Mexico and enjoyed them.  “I’ve also swallowed a lot of flying insects by accident,”  she added.

Mike Quinn, our favorite local insect expert just up the road in Austin, said he’s tried stir- fried mealworms.  “Entomologists have been eating bugs for decades.  This is nothing new,” said Quinn.

In fact, even if you can’t imagine eating insects, you already do. According to The Food and Drug Administration’s Food Defect Levels Handbook, an online guide that advises consumers of the imperfections of the foods we eat, our food supply is riddled with insects in all their stages.  The online guide details how common staples like frozen veggies and canned tomatoes often contain insect body parts, entire caterpillars, or collections of aphids, thrips, maggots or flies.  See below.

BRUSSELS SPROUTS, FROZEN Insects
(MPM-V95)
Average of 30 or more aphids and/or thrips per 100 grams

 

TOMATOES, CANNED Drosophila fly
(AOAC 955.46)
Average of 10 or more fly eggs per 500 grams
OR
5 or more fly eggs and 1 or more maggots per 500 grams
OR
2 or more maggots per 500 grams
Above, from the FDA’s Food Defect Levels Handbook

The FDA thankfully explains that most of these inadvertent insect additives are harmless.   So enjoy your dinner tonight knowing that an extra bit of protein has been added to the meal.

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