Five Texas Moths for Enjoying Year-Round Moth Week

National Moth Week is behind us.  We really enjoyed our Malt, Hops and Moths event at Alamo Brewery last weekend–but the fun doesn’t have to stop there.  The celebration of those night flying cousins of butterflies, often cast as ugly step sisters in the world of lepidoptery, can take place ANY night of the week.  Just wait for darkness, turn on a light, sit back and enjoy the show.

Here’s five moths that we have in Central and South Texas right now.  Open your eyes, look, and you will see them.

The Sphinx Moth

Known in its larval form as the much loathed Tomato or Tobacco Horn Worm, this attractive dusk flier also is often called the “hummingbird moth.”   Gardeners despise the Manduca sexta’s consumption of their tomato plants, but I suggest setting aside a few seedlings for these voracious caterpillars, who strike a sphinx-like pose when poked, arching their neck and staring blankly at who’s bothering them.

Sphinx Moth caterpillar on Jimsonweed

Tobacco hornworms on Jimsonweed.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

As moths, these impressive striped flyers move during daylight hours, hovering like helicopters to nectar and provide great observation opportunities.  They are members of the Sphingidae family.

Sphinx Moth

C’mon, admit it: she’s adorable. Sphinx Moth, photo courtesy Colorado State University extension office

Black Witch Moth

Large, bat like and harmless, the intriguing Ascalapha odorata, sometimes known as “the bat moth” resembles a bat in size and shape, and with its seven-inch wingspan is the largest moth in North America. They are common in these parts.

Black Witch Moth

Black Witch Moth photographed by Karen Herrmann in Kansas.

They often hang out near doors and flush when approached, causing quite a startle for the unsuspecting.  But remember, they’re completely harmless.   Much folklore surrounds their appearance.  Throughout the hemisphere, legend has them bringing good luck, a lottery win, or a death in the family, depending on the part of the world and the circumstances of their appearance.

Black Witch Moth caterpillar

Black Witch Moth caterpillar. Photo via

In the movie Silence of the Lambs, serial killer Hannibal Lechter inserted cocoons of Black Witch Moths into the mouths of his victims as a weird gesture of transformation. The moth on the movie poster is a Death’s Head Hawk Moth, but the actual cocoon was that of a Black Witch.

Polyphemus Moth

The Polyphemus Moth, Antheraea polyphemus, sports prominent, owl-like eye spots and  a six-inch wingspan.  The moth is dramatic.  We had a hatch of these guys at the ranch one night and several fluttered against the porch spotlights.  The sound of their wings hitting the the floodlight was so loud, you would have thought birds or bats had paid a visit.

Polyphemus moth

Polyphemus moth. Check out those eyespots!   Photo by Monika Maeckle

The Polyphemus gets its name from the Greek myth of the Cyclops Polyphemus (cyclops means one-eyed giant). They’re not unusual and live everywhere in the U.S. and Canada.   That they host on a variety of trees–oaks, birches, elms, willows and others–perhaps explains their widespread provenance.

Like many moths, these members of the Saturnid, or silk moth family, spend most of their life as caterpillars, eating up to 86,000 times their body weight at emergence in just two months.  Once they become a moth, however, their vestigial mouth parts make eating impossible.  Basically, their mouths don’t work any more.   Their sole focus as a moth is to reproduce.

Polyphemus moth caterpillar

Handsome boy! Polyphemus moth on oak leaves. Photo by our friend Mona Miller

Polyphemus change dramatically during the caterpillar cycle and in their final instar become a fantastic three- or four-inch green caterpillar with silver and/or red spots on the side.   See the photo above by our friend Mona Milller.

Ailanthus Webworm Moth

The first time I spotted one of these handsome creatures at the ranch I thought it was beetle.  They tuck their wings in a tidy fashion, leading you to believe they are of a different genre, but no–they are moths.

Ailianthus Webworm Moth

This guy fooled me. Thought he was a beetle, but no, it’s the Ailianthus Webworm Moth. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Members of the ermine moth family, the small, striped Atteva aua caterpillars build communal nests in the Ailanthus tree by pulling leaves together with webbing and spinning cocoons inside the webs.    They are native to Central America, but migrate north in the summer and host on the Ailanthus tree, sometimes called the Tree of Paradise.   Both the AWM and the Ailanthus tree are introduced species that have adapted.  Non native, but gorgeous creatures.

Ailanthus webworm moth caterpillars

Ailanthus Webworm Moth caterpillars are an introduced species, just like the tree they host on. Photo via

Luna Moth

This beauty, Actius luna, is one of the most dramatic moths that take to the night.   The lime green beauties host on various hardwoods and are apparently found in our area, although I have never seen one.

Luna Moth

One of the most dramatic moths, the long-tailed glamourous Luna Moth. Photo bu Mike McCafferty, via Wikipedia

In their caterpillar stage, Luna Moths are equally impressive, with chubby green body sections punctuated by prominent gold-brown-orange pegs. Like many moths, they only live a week as adults.  For that period, they do not eat (they have no mouth parts).  Their singular goal is to reproduce.

Luna moth caterpillar

Luna moth caterpillar, reared and photographed by Shawn Hanrahan. Photo via Wikipedia

Good luck hunting moths.  Please let us know what you find.

Related posts:

Like what you’re reading? Follow butterfly and native plant news at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam

Moth Night San Antonio: Lotsa MOTH-ers, Fewer Moths, $ for Urban Natural Areas

MOTH-ers and “mo-fos” (that is, moth followers) showed up by the hundreds Saturday night for Malt, Hops, and Moths:  Moth Night at the Alamo Brewery.  More than 250 attended the gathering, which ranked as the first official National Moth Week event ever staged in San Antonio.  The occasion put the Alamo City on the Moth Week map with 373 similar events staged in 38 countries around the world July 18 – 26.


Lots of MOTH-ers, not so many moths at the moth sheet at Alamo Brewery for the first official Moth Night San Antonio in honor of National Moth Week. Photo by Scott Ball, Rivard Report

While several interesting moth species made appearances, including the Texas Grey Moth,  moths, in all their biodiversity, largely avoided the venue. Extreme heat, high winds, and possibly too much urban light may have deterred their participation.

But no matter. Turns out MOTH-ers really like their beer.

Alamo Brewery had a banner night, ringing up substantial beer sales–mostly in a special edition Moth Night brew, Sphinx Moth Amber Ale. Partial proceeds of those sales, more than $1,000, will go to Friends of San Antonio Natural Areas, FoSANA, formerly known as the Friends of Friedrich Wilderness Park. The nonprofit organization serves as a steward and advocate for local urban wildlife spaces and promotes education and science to increase public understanding of nature.

Texas Gray Moth, Glenoides texanaria, was one of the few moths to join the party at Moth Night at the Alamo Brewery. We still had fun. Photo by Delmar Cain

Texas Gray Moth, Glenoides texanaria, was one of the few moths to join the party at Moth Night at the Alamo Brewery. We still had fun. Photo by Delmar Cain

“The great turnout affirms the San Antonio community’s desire to disengage from their screens and check out what our urban nature has to offer,” said Daniel Large, a board member of FoSANA and co-organizer of the event.  “We look forward to more events in the future.”

Eugene Simor, founder of Alamo Beer Company, agreed.  “It was one of our more unusual and successful events, and well worth the effort,” he said.


Three moth sheets were set up with mercury vapor and black lights in the Brewery’s massive yard as curious onlookers gaped from the Hayes Street Bridge, which remained completely dark this steamy summer evening by prior arrangement with the City of San Antonio.  Volunteers helped kids mix up moth bait–ripe bananas, Alamo beer, yeast and molasses. Kids and moth docents smeared the concoction on logs and trees in an attempt to attract the night flyers. Moths didn’t take much of the bait, but no one seemed to mind. A breezy summer evening, like-minded nature lovers, and cold brews with friends–who would complain?

spreading moth bait

Moth fan spreads moth bait on tree log to help lure moths to Alamo Brewery. Photo by Scott Ball, Rivard Report

“Moth night was so rad!  Thanks for putting this event on,” said Clarissa Perez, community relations coordinator for the San Antonio River Authority, via Facebook.

Delmar Cain, a retired attorney-turned-moth-enthusiast who assembled one of two educational slide shows that ran during the event, served as chief moth docent, explaining the life cycle of the fascinating insects.

“Beer looks to be a good magnet for people, and for moths,” said Cain, taking in the crowd Saturday night.

Delmar Cain

Moth docent Delmar Cain, answered questions and brought moth specimens to share with the crowd.   Photo by Scott Ball, Rivard Report

Armed with specimens  of moths he captured in the field and brought for viewing and explanation, Cain patiently answered questions from the crowd.  Also:  Cain showed off the dramatic Eastern Bloodsucking Cone-nose kissing bug.   The odd insect, a type of assassin bug, attacks and voraciously feeds on insects, small mammals and even humans occasionally with piercing-sucking mouthparts.   The bugs can carry the debilitating Chagas disease.   “If you see this guy, eliminate him,” said Cain, displaying the brown creature secured safely inside a glass vial.  One observer labeled the insect a “delightfully vile beast.”

It's Moth Night, ya'll. More than 250 folks showed up at Alamo Brewery for San Antonio's first official National Moth Week event.

It’s Moth Night, y’all. More than 250 folks showed up at Alamo Brewery for San Antonio’s first official National Moth Week event.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

Guests bought Jimsonweed plants (host plant to the  Sphinx Moth, national spokesmoth for  National Moth Week this year), examined a Tomato hornworm, handled Sphinx moth cocoons, and played with a woolly bear caterpillar, which morphs into the dramatic Leopard moth.

All in all, a lovely outing for a hot summer night.  When’s the next Moth Night, you ask?  Stay tuned for details.

Special thanks to our Malt, Hops and Moths Night sponsors:   Alamo Brewery, The Arsenal Group, City of San Antonio, Friends of San Antonio Natural AreasTexas Butterfly Ranch, Trinity University, and the Rivard Report.    And:  special thanks to Jeremy Karney and Genevieve Lillian Gaudet for developing our logo and ads, respectively.  GRACIAS!

Related posts:

Like what you’re reading? Follow butterfly and native plant news at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam


Q&A: Moth Week Spokesmoth Manduca Sexta Says Moths Get No Respect

Confession:  the Texas Butterfly Ranch is guilty of species-ism.

Of the 230 posts published here in the last five years, only 10 have been about moths.   Yet moths occupy a huge majority of the order of Lepidoptera–numbering an estimated 150,000-500,000 species vs. butterflies’ measly 20,000.

Sphinx moth

Manduca sexta says moths have suffered at the wings of butterflies with color. Photo via IronChris via Wikipedia Commons

Moth followers, or “Moth-ers” as they’re known, would say that butterflies are just day flying moths, yet we almost always refer to moths as the “night flying butterflies.”

In a salute to National Moth Week July 18 – 26, we attempt to rectify this wrong with a focus on moths.  A full week of moth festivities organized by our insect loving pals at the Friends of the Malt-Hops-Moths-greenlogoEast Brunswick Environmental Commission will be here soon, including our own San Antonio National Moth Week event.

Malt, Hops and Moths: Moth Night at the Alamo Brewery takes place July 23, 9 PM – Midnight. The FREE, family friendly  evening of exploring night-time nature will join hundreds of Moth Week events celebrated around the world. San Antonio is on the Moth Week map and makes one small flight toward species equality. Want to join us? Please let us know so we can plan properly with an RSVP.

This year’s featured moth family is the Sphingidae, which includes sphinx and/or hawkmoths.

Loathed by gardeners in its caterpillar stage, the Manduca quinquemaculata, or tomato hornworm, has 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. Both caterpillars turn into large moths with four- to six-inch wingspans in colors ranging from brown and gold to pink and grey.   They often are mistaken for small hummingbirds when they fly during the day and  hover helicopter-style to nectar on flowers, which is why they are also called Hummingbird or Hawk Moths.

tomato hornowrm caterpillar

Tomato hornworm morphs into the National Moth Week Spokesmoth, the Sphinx moth. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The hornworm caterpillars get their name from the signature horns that grace their backsides. The “Sphinx Moth” moniker results from the distinct pose the caterpillar assumes when disturbed. Upon the mildest poke, the creature rears its head in a thoughtful stance, hoisting the upper third of its body in a sphinx-like posture.


Which came first, the SPhinx or the Sphinx Moth? The latter. Photo via Wikipedia

Sphinx moths have charms all their own, as noted in this exclusive interview with Manduca sexta, spokesmoth for National Moth Week.

Question: Why do butterflies get all the attention?


Manduca sexta

Manduca sexta: Lepidoptera of color definitely get all the glory. We are often grey or brown and perceived as drab or uninteresting.  We’re dismissively referred to as LBTs–“little brown things.”

Yet many of us are as colorful and glorious as our day flying cousins.  Only one family of moths consumes clothing, yet people brand us as pests even though most of us contribute necessary ecosystem services like pollination and serve as food to other creatures.  Perhaps because moths mostly fly at night…it might raise some shackles in folks.  They think we’re creepy.  I happen to be a dusk flyer.

Question:  Tell us about that–your reputation as a “hawkmoth.”

Manduca sexta: We Sphingidae are rightly proud of our flight capabilities.  We’ve been clocked at 30 miles per hour and have the ability to hover, which requires enormous energy. Our flight behavior is so exemplary that aeronautics companies study us to get ideas for making drones and other micro-aerial devices (MAVs). Yep, when it comes to scooting through the sky in the dark, nobody beats us.

Moth MAV

MAV by Phototronics inspired by moths and other insects. Photo via National Moth Week Blog

Question: What’s a typical night like for a hawkmoth?

Manduca sexta: It’s about finding food.   And us hawkmoths don’t visit just any flower for a nectar sip.  We’re very particular, drawn to white, yellow or super pale pink flowers.  Hawkmoth-pollinated flowers also are heavily scented.   Our sense of smell is excellent and allows us to find these flowers in total darkness, from up to a mile or more away. Jimsonweed is one of my favorites.

One study gave us some well-deserved credit as the primary pollinators of Agave plants in the Arizona desert–so I guess you could say that thanks to us, tequila happens.

It’s not all flitting around in the dark for some quick nectar high, though. The night flying is riddled with danger. At any moment we could be snatched up by a bat or nighthawk, run crosswise with a speeding truck, or find our way into a screened porch with no chance for escape. It’s a dangerous world out there, but we do our best.

Sphinx Moth on Datura, photo by Betsy Betros, via

This Sphinx moth smells the heavy scent of  Datura and is diving in with its long proboscis. photo by Betsy Betros, via

Question:  Why should human beings care about moths?

That is just so Homo sapiens of you.   Why is every living creature cast in the context of human beings?   Other species occupy this planet.

If we must cast our existence in such a context, I’ll reiterate that we perform important ecosystem services–at no charge, mind you–pollinating various plants as mentioned above.   We’re also are a primary source of protein for bats, birds and other creatures, providing a high nutrition pop with very little fat or carbs.  Were it not for us moths, other creatures would suffer a food shortage and perhaps perish.  And if bats and birds ceased to exist, you’d have an overpopulation of mosquitoes and other pests that sting, bite and cause disease.   So…as you can see, it’s not as simple as what’s in it for me?  It’s our role in the greater food chain that matters.

Question:  Anything else you want us to know?

Manduca sexta: I’d just like to clarify something.  That movie, The Silence of the Lambs, with Jodi Foster and Anthony Hopkins as the cannibalistic serial killer, Hannibal Lecter?  That did a real number on moths’  reputation.

You think moths are creepy? That crazy “Hannibal the Cannibal” puts hawkmoth cocoons in his victims mouths as some sort of sick gesture of transformation. And they have us flying around in a weird, dark basement evoking a strange terror.

The thriller, Silence of the Lambs, has contributed to moths' creepy reputation.

Quid pro quo, Clarice:The thriller, Silence of the Lambs, has contributed to moths’ creepy reputation.

It’s true that a bunch of tobacco hornworm moths used in the film were treated like celebrities by the filmmakers.  They flew us first class to the set in a fancy carrier and had special living quarters with controlled humidity and heat.  It was pretty sweet.

But just to be clear, on the movie poster, the moth on Jodi Foster’s mouth had a skeleton skull photoshopped onto a sphinx moth.  That was a pretty realistic portrayal of the Death’s Head hawkmoth–which is generally only found in Africa and southern Europe.

So, to be clear, we had NOTHING to do with Hannibal the Cannibal.  That was fiction.

Related posts:

Like what you’re reading? Follow butterfly and native plant news at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam
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.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Asclepias incarnata, Swamp milkweed

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

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

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

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

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

Antelope horns and Indian blanket

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

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

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

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

Monarch migration map

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related posts:

Like what you’re reading? Follow butterfly and native plant news at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam

Join us! Malt, Hops and Moths: Moth Night at the Alamo Brewery July 23

San Antonio will gain a greater understanding of moths July 23 when the Alamo Brewery stages a family friendly evening of nighttime nature that will shine a much-needed spotlight on the beauty, importance and diversity of moths, the underappreciated siblings of butterflies.


JOIN US. July 23, 2015 at the Alamo Brewery in downtown San Antoino.

Malt, Hops, and Moths will take place at the downtown brewhouse, 9PM – Midnight, Thursday, July 23, 2015, and will benefit the Friends of San Antonio Natural Areas. Admission is FREE.

The fun, educational event, sponsored by this website, the Alamo Brewery, Trinity University, the Rivard Report, and the Arsenal Group, coincides with the fourth annual National Moth Week 2015 July 18-26, a global citizen-science project that celebrates the beauty, incredible biodiversity and ecological importance of moths.

The three-hour nature night will occur outside the Brewery near the Hayes Street Bridge where mercury vapor lamp and black light moth magnets will be set up to attract moths and other insects for close-up viewing, inspection and recording.


Trinity University biology graduate Chris Robinson shows off his moth selfie. Join us for Malt, Hops and Moths on July 23 at the Alamo Brewery in San Antonio to snap yours. –Photo by Monika Maeckle

Would-be “moth-ers,” that is, folks interested in observing and enjoying the spectacle, can use their cell phones to snap “moth selfies” and help record data of observed species, then load them up to iNaturalist, a crowdsourced species identification cellphone app. Organizers plan to have moth host plants and caterpillars on hand, edible insect snacks, a slideshow and more.

FSANAcolorlogoAlamo Brewery will serve a special editionSphinx Moth Amber Ale at the event in honor of National Moth
Week’s featured moth
this year, members of the Sphingidae family–hawk and sphinx moths.  The beer will be used to make “moth bait” and participants will be invited to mix up the stinky stew—Alamo beer, overripe, mashed bananas, yeast and molasses–and smear it on nearby trees and structures with a paintbrush. (Sound like fun? Gloves provided.) The concoction is irresistible to moths.

“Moth night is a great way to get kids and adults engaged in nature,” said Daniel Large, a habitat conservation plan coordinator for the Edwards Aquifer Authority who co-organized the event in collaboration with me and Trinity biology associate professor Dr. Kelly Lyons.

Sphinx Moth on Datura, photo by Betsy Betros, via

Ladies and gentlemen….the featured moth for National Moth Week 2015….the Sphinx Moth. Here, on Datura, photo by Betsy Betros, via

We encourage everyone to join the fun at the Brewery next month, but remind you that anyone can stage a moth night in your own backyard, the park or the neighborhood.

“It’s amazing what you can find once you start looking–even if it’s just from the comfort of your own home” said Large. “With moths and many other insects, just turn on a porch light at night and see what happens,” he said.

Dr. Lyons’ Trinity biology students will assist citizen scientists in identifying moth species and uploading the data to iNaturalist. “Crowdsourced data collection at events like Moth Night help us understand the greater ecosystem,” said Dr. Lyons.

nmwlogoPlus, it’s just fun to hang out in the dark, enjoy a beer and see what shows up.

While most people view moths as pests, only one family of the hundreds of thousands of species eats clothes. As one who has been partial to publicity hogging butterflies for many years, I was surprised to learn that moths outnumber butterfly species 10:1.   Scientists believe that somewhere between 160,000-500,000 species of moths exist.

Moths indisputably get a bad rap.  Not only beautiful and interesting, they play an important role in the food chain, serving as pollinators and food for pollinators and other creatures.

Bees pollinate the malt that makes our beer, but moths help make tequila happen, for example.  They serve as a primary protein for bats, which pollinate the Agave cactus from which tequila is distilled.   And the “worm” in the Mezcal bottle is actually the caterpillar of the Tequila Giant Skipper, Aegiale hesperiaris, a species that lies taxonomically between a moth and a butterfly.

San Antonio’s Malt, Hops and Moths Night joins hundreds of similar National Moth Week events around the world. Last year, more than 400 events took place in 50 states and 42 countries. To see the event roster, check out the map on the National Moth Week webpage, and please join us on July 23!

Special thanks to our Malt, Hops and Moths Night sponsors:   Alamo Brewery, The Arsenal Group, City of San Antonio, Friends of San Antonio Natural Areas, Texas Butterfly Ranch, Trinity University, and the Rivard Report.    And:  special thanks to Jeremy Karney of the MonksToolbox for developing our logo.  GRACIAS!

Related posts:

Like what you’re reading? Follow butterfly and native plant news at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam


Happy Pollinator Week! Unpaid Workers of Our Food Web Deserve Respect and Resources

Monday kicks off Pollinator Week, a seven-day celebration of those that make two out of every three bites of food we eat possible.

Bee on sunflower

Bees are the master pollinators and keep our food affordable. Photo courtesy FWS/Cristina De La Garza

Yes, that’s correct:   birds, butterflies, beetles, bats, and moths make our food happen.  Were it not for the free ecosystem services provided by these creatures, food would cost much more and many would go hungry.

Just like our underpaid food service industry workers whose minimum wages don’t aptly reflect their contribution to society, pollinators get little respect.  That’s changing.  But in the meantime, since we pay them nothing for their valuable services, can we at least make a greater effort to understand, appreciate and support pollinators?

pw15logoFINALbThat’s the goal of Pollinator Week, organized by the Pollinator Partnership, a nonprofit organization devoted to the greater understanding and appreciation of pollinators and their ecosystems. The week-long event seeks to call attention to these valued members of our food web through activities, outreach and education.

Pollinators have been making news lately.  Just last month, President Barack Obama released the National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and other Pollinators, a 58-page document that lays out a plan to reverse the disturbing trend of pollinator decline.  It results from the work of a Pollinator Task Force established by the President last June.

The strategy document reflects grave concern and a serious attempt to address these depressing  facts:  Bee populations plummeted 40% last year.  The magnificent Monarch butterfly migration is at risk, since the butterflies’ numbers have dropped 90% in recent years from their high in the 90s.  The butterfly is being considered for listing as  “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act.  Bats populations have also taken a deep dive, and they’re fighting a strange malady called white-nose syndrome.   All pollinators face massive habitat destruction, climate change, pesticide abuse and  agricultural and developement practices that don’t support their existence.


Thanks, Obama! For making pollinators a priority. Courtesy photo

Of the 100+ official Pollinator Week events listed on the Pollinator Partnership website, Texas lists seven–with no official events in San Antonio or Austin.   I’m embarrassed.  Next year, people, we will have our own events.  (NOTE:  Stay tuned for details on our Malt, Hops and Moths event at the Alamo Brewery, July 23, which will celebrate National Moth Week!)

Unofficially, though, several local organizations are staging events that happen to celebrate pollinators during Pollinator Week.  Here they are.

Butterfly Count at San Antonio Botanical Gardens and Hardberger Park

Get your citizen scientist on with Patty Leslie Pastzor, San Antonio’s local denizen of native plants.  Pastzor has organized a butterfly census as part of the official North American Butterfly Association count, Monday, June 15, and Thursday, June 18.

Cowpen Daisy is a butterfly magnet and easy to grow

Help count butterflies for the North American Butterfly Association and learn about native plants at the same time with Patty Leslie Pastzor this week. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The outings include hikes centered around identifying and collecting data on San Antonio area butterflies. The June 15 event takes place at the San Antonio Botanical Garden.  On Thursday morning volunteers will gather at Phil Hardberger Park. A $3 fee applies to register your data. Wear a hat, sunscreen and comfortable walking shoes. For more info or to RSVP, contact Pastzor at 210.837.0577 or email

Pollinator Talk at Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin

As part of their Nature Nights series, Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center will host a pollinator overview Thursday, June 18, 6 – 9 PM.  The event is FREE. Bat Conservation International, Travis Audubon Society and the Austin Butterfly Forum will pitch in to explain the importance of pollinators in our food chain.


Did you know that bats pollinate agaves, which makes Tequila possible? Photo via Bat Conservation International

Wildflowers and Whiskey Sours at Cibolo Nature Center, Boerne

Judit Green, Texas Parks and Wildlife biologist and plant expert, will offer a tour and conversation during a plant walk through the wildflower bounty at the 60-acre Herff Farm in Boerne, Thursday, June 18. “Adult beverages” provided, as well as drinks for the kids.   6:30 -8:30 PM,  $10.  830.249.4616 for more info.

Further afield, the following are official “Pollinator Week” events.

Pollinator Week at the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge in Alamo, Texas 

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in Alamo has an entire week of pollinator festivities planned.   Tuesday-birds, Wednesday-butterflies and bats, Thursday-dragonflies, and Friday-pollinator habitat.   Plant giveaways and story time are also part of the programming.   Events start at various times and are FREE with your $5 vehicle entry fee. See the Santa Ana NWR Facebook page for details.

Hummingbirds also serve in the unpaid pollinator workforce.  Photo by Charles Sharp Photography

Hummingbirds also serve in the unpaid pollinator workforce. Photo by Charles Sharp Photography

Pollinator Workshop at the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center in Ft. Davis, Texas

Pollinator expert Cynthia McAllister of Sul Ross State University will lead a pollinator workshop June 20.  It starts indoors with a presentation/overview of the importance of pollinators, then moves outside for a tour of the pollinator garden with close-up binoculars to get a bee’s eye view of the pollination process.  10 AM – noon, Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center Visitor Center.  FREE.

For more Pollinator Week events and to learn what you can do to help foster their livelihoods, check out the Pollinator Partnership website.
Related posts:

Like what you’re reading? Follow butterfly and native plant news at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam

Trinity Students Tackle Invasive Johnson grass on Llano River

There was a fine lady from Lampasas
Who waged battle with invasive grasses
When a root so immense
of that Sorghum halepense
Knocked her and her friends on their Johnson grasses.

                          –Chris Best, Texas State Botanist
                             U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service


Monarch butterflies nectar on Frostweed along the Llano River in 2012. Now the native nectar source has to compete with Johnson grass. Photo by Monika Maeckle

On the Llano River, we’ve always enjoyed lovely stands of Goldenrod and Frostweed in the fall when the Monarchs pass through. Solidago altissima and Verbesina virginica, beautiful yellow and white fall bloomers, respectively, serve as important nectar and resting stops for migrating Monarch butterflies and other creatures.

Until recently.

In the last two years, we’ve noticed our uninterrupted stands of fall nectar plants persistently punctuated by invasive Johnson grass. A recent road project that busted the crust on our river frontage opened the gate for germination, and the record rains and floods have put our nectar rest stop for pollinators at risk. Where once stood a solid stand of fall blooms for migrating Monarch butterflies, local Swallowtails and native bees, now presides an uninvited patch of Johnson grass.

The pesky invasive, Sorghum halepense, first arrived in the U.S. from the Mediterranean in the 1800s when it was imported as a supplementary foraging crop.   We all know how that turned out.

Eastern gamma grass

On the Llano River: Eastern gamagrass, a lovely native and host to the bunchgrass skipper.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Now, Johnson grass is one of the Top 10 Most Noxious weeds in the world, according to the educational website, a public-private partnership of state and federal agencies, conservation organizations, green industry businesses, academia and others organized to protect Texas from the threat of invasive species.  Johnson grass is super aggressive, spreads through rhizomes and seeds, hogs space and resources, and crowds out natives that provide food, fodder and shelter to local wildlife.

Johnson grass has nasty rhizomes
Creeping through the clastic loams
The bunches measure three feet wide
And their leaves are stuffed with cyanide.

                                            –Chris Best

When stressed by drought, frost or herbicides, Johnson grass can produce toxic amounts of hydrocyanic acid that makes it poisonous to livestock–not a trait you typically seek in a grass meant for cattle grazing.  The seeds are also especially well protected by their casings and can survive the digestive tracts of birds and others that might eat them.

Oh, and Johnson grass likes moist conditions.  Like riversides.  After floods.   Are you getting the picture here?


Trinity biology student Austin Phillipe lets us know what he thinks of Johnson grass on the Llano. That’s Johnson grass on the left. Eastern gamagrass on the right. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Trinity University students to the rescue.   Last week, five students accompanied their biology professor, Dr. Kelly Lyons, a restoration ecologist and expert in invasive plants, to the Texas Butterfly Ranch to assist in a Johnson grass eradication project as part of Trinity University’s summer research program funded by the University, Texas Ecolab, and the National Science Foundation.

The project began in April when a team of students arrived at the ranch to set up plots and gather baseline data on plant density and diversity.   Four 15- x 2-meter plots were established and will be treated with different forms of Johnson grass control–grubbing, weedwhacking, herbicides, and fire in various combinations.

Last week, students Ann Adams, Cassandra Alvarado, Avva Bassiri-Gharb, Kendall Kotara and Austin Phillipe returned to check the effect floods had on the site and begin control treatments.  The messy job of reestablishing the plots started Thursday, as super-sized mosquitoes dogged the students.  “Wear a hazmat suit,” quipped Avva Bassiri-Gharb. Said Phillipe:  “A bad day in the field beats a good one in the lab. But we had a great day in the field so you can’t beat that!”

More data collection and Johnson grass removal continued Friday in the aftermath of yet another inch-plus of rain and two overnight tornado warnings.  Grubbing and herbicide applications followed, with herbicide applied via makeshift wand–actually barbecue tongs wrapped in towels–that kept the product from escaping to desirable plants.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Later this year we’ll test fire as a control method, and plant Eastern gamagrass, Tripsicum dactyloides, as a native replacement.   The project will continue into 2016.

Eastern gamagrass, a lovely, large bunchgrass related to corn that grows two – 10-feet tall, is well suited to the Llano River’s unpredictable moods of famine and flooding.

Dr. Kelly Lyons

Dr. Kelly Lyons

“The species is already present in high abundance and provides high quality habitat,” said Dr. Lyons, adding that Eastern gamagrass also works as a great soil stabilizer in river ecosystems. “Restoration ecologists often refer to it as ‘riparian rebar’ since its rhizomes are even more substantial than Johnson grass,” she said.

Eastern gamagrass also competes well with overzealous Johnson grass and uses niche space in a similar way, said Dr. Lyons. “We hypothesize that it will hold its own when Johnson grass tries to reinvade.”

So the war is on.  No surprise that we’re rooting–pardon the pun–for Eastern gamagrass.  It offers multiple benefits to our local creatures, including service as a host plant to the Bunchgrass skipper.   It also appears to be a steady companion to our Llano River Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, which is a host plant to Monarch butterflies.  The tall  mounds of Eastern gamagrass provide shade for late season milkweed from harsh summer sun and shield it from flooding.

Bunchgrasss skipper hosts on Easern gamma grasss and other bunch grasses.  Photo by Charles T. and John R. Bryson, -

Bunchgrasss skipper hosts on Eastern gamagrass and other bunch grasses. Photo by Charles T. and John R. Bryson, –

We spend a lot of time and energy talking about restoring native milkweeds and other pollinator plants to the prairies that we’ve lost.   It’s equally important to manage and combat the deluge of invasive species that infect our wildscapes.  Johnson grass is just one interloper.    Check out the Texas Invasives website for more information.   We’ll keep you posted on the progress of the project.


Related posts:

Like what you’re reading? Follow butterfly and native plant news at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Bees are master pollinators. –photo via

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

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

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

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

Hand pollination in China

Hand pollination in China. Photo courtesy Oakland Museum of California

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

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

IH35 mileage by state

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

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

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

Skipper on Swamp Milkweed, Llano River

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related posts:

Like what you’re reading? Follow butterfly and native plant news at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam

Eastern Black Swallowtail Butterflies Everywhere: Here’s How to Raise Them at Home

Monarchs generally make headlines, but the Eastern Black Swallowtail caterpillar and butterfly also merit attention.  Especially in this mild, wet year.

Swallowtail Monarch caterpillar

Frequently confused in the late caterpillar stage: Swallowtail, on the left on rue, Monarch, on milkweed on the right. Photo by Monika Maeckle

In my downtown plot, every fennel, dill and rue plant is loaded with Eastern Black Swallowtail caterpillars. Even along the Llano River, we’re finding hungry Swallowtail cats on wild carrot and parsley.  One hungry critter decimated three newly-planted Finochio seedlings down to the nub.  Yes, butterfly gardening is full of compromises–like sharing your herbs and edibles with a slew of hungry caterpillars.

Swallowtail fennel

Down to the nub! Swallowtail caterpillar devoured three new Fennel seedlings. Photo by Monika Maeckle

That said, just like Monarchs, Eastern Black Swallowtails wear black, green, yellow and white-striped suits in their later caterpillar stages, and are fun to raise at home.  Unlike Monarchs, they make an amazing saddle-type chrysalis, sport amusing tentacle-like “tubercles” that reveal themselves when disturbed, and are vexing in their unpredictability.   Since several readers haved asked about raising Swallowtails this season, we’re recycling a post from July, 2014, that offers tips on how to do it.

How to Raise Eastern Swallowtail Butterflies at Home

Monarch butterflies get all the press, but the Eastern or Black Swallowtail, Papillio polyxenes, a large blue, black and gold and cream-specked beauty, flies in our neck of the world from April through November.   The Texas native provides lots of action in the garden when Monarchs are elsewhere.

Eastern Swallowtail

Eastern Swallowtail, recently hatched, resting in the grass. Llano River, Texas Hill Country. Photo by Monika Maeckle

We’ve been getting questions about raising Swallowtail butterflies in recent weeks. The wet June has made for a long season for dill, fennel, parsley and rue the plants on which Swallowtail butterflies lay their eggs.  Below are tips for raising them at home.

Eastern Swallowtail egg on Dill Weed

Eastern Swallowtail egg on Dill Weed.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

First, locate the eggs. The tiny yellow spheres perch prominently on the leaves of dill, fennel, parsley and rue. Check your plants frequently, as wasps, ladybugs, spiders and others will slurp up these protein pops as soon as they are spotted.  When you’re looking, you may notice some clear, dry, empty spheres, exactly the size of the eggs.  Those are empty egg shells already visited and consumed by predators.

Swallowtail egg

Close-up of Swallowtail egg on dill. Photo by Monika Maeckle

I usually snap off a piece of the plant with the eggs on them and take them inside to rest in a jar with the lid loosely closed.  Don’t worry about “smothering” the egg.   They’ll do fine until they hatch, usually within four days.

Once the little guys hatch, you’ll want to provide fresh air to prevent mold from growing on the host plant.  Bring in some sprigs of fresh plant and put them in the jar. I usually leave the eggs alone until the caterpillars are big enough to spot with a naked eye–generally two days.   You’ll see they’re tiny and hard to monitor, so again, leave them alone and just provide fresh air and fresh host plant until they grow bigger.

After a few days, you’ll see a small black creature, perhaps 1/16th of an inch long.  If you look closely, you might notice a white or orange band in the middle of the body.  That’s your first instar, or stage, Swallowtail caterpillar.  They will eat quietly and consistently for several days before they morph to the next stage.   They’re rather nondescript and not yet as interesting as they will become.  Just wait.


First instar Eastern Swallowtail caterpillar on rue. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Up until this point, I may have had the Swallowtails in a jar or container with a loose lid or netting.  But now it starts to get interesting and I like to watch them eat and grow, although it can make a small mess.

Usually I gather fresh host plant and put it in a vase with newspaper underneath so I can observe the caterpillars literally grow before my eyes. The newspaper catches the frass, or caterpillar poop, that the caterpillars produce in volume.  The small, black odorless pellet-like droppings may seem gross, but they’re actually not.  Well, maybe for some people.  Generally I will set such a vase in a highly trafficked place in my home or office so I won’t miss the action in the course of any day. (Yes, I’ve been known to take caterpillars to work.)

Swallowtail bouquet

Bouquet of Swallowtail caterpillars in vase on fennel. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The caterpillars will continue to eat and morph for about 10 days.   What’s amazing is how different they look at each stage.   As they move through their instars, they completely transform, going from the unremarkable black cat with a white band to a prickly orange, white and black form, then to a black, green, yellow and white-striped creature often confused with Monarch caterpillars.

Throughout the process these boys eat voraciously–lots of fresh host plant.  In our hot Texas summers, I find dill expires early in the season but that Swallowtails will easily transition to the more abundant and heat-hardy rue or fennel.   At the ranch we have wild parsley and I have brought that home for feeding.  Once I bought organic fennel or parsley at the grocery store to feed a slew of Swallowtails when I had run out of fresh host.  The caterpillars didn’t seem to like it much (like us, they prefer FRESH greens) but they at it in the later stages.

Swallowtail showing tubercles

Who goes there?!? Note the yellow “tubercles” which the Swallowtail shows off when bothered. Photo by Monika Maeckle

One of the most amusing aspects of raising Swallowtails is their interesting tentacles.  When they get to the last stages, they show distinctive yellow antennae when poked or bothered. This orange forked gland, called the osmeterium, shows itself when the butterfly perceives danger.  Upon the slightest nudge or threat, the yellow tentacles pop out of their head and emit a distinctive, sickly sweet odor. Kids are always impressed when you provoke the Swallowtail’s tentacles.

Swallowtail caterpillar sheds its skin.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

Swallowtail sheds skin. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The caterpillars will continue to eat, shed their skins and morph to the next stage over about 10 days until they get to the fifth instar at which time they will cease eating and seek a quiet place to form their chrysalis. Swallowtails are famous for wandering far from the host plant and taking their time to emerge from the chrysalis at unpredictable times.  Monarch caterpillars are generally reliable in taking 10-14 days to eclose, or make the transition from chrysalis to butterfly.

Swallowtails, in contrast, can take a few weeks to many months to emerge.  Their unpredictability is also manifested in the varied color of the chrysalis that results from the final morphing.   Sometimes brown, sometimes green, you just never know what color a Swallowtail chrysalis will be.

Swallotwails wear chrysalis coats of many colors.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Swallowtails wear chrysalis coats of many colors. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Because Swallowtails can wander, it’s smart to contain them in a cage when they get large enough to bust their stripes and go chrysalis.  I use a net laundry hamper and simply put the vase inside.


The Swallowtail will bow its head and make a silk button and saddle before going chrysalis. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The Swallowtail, when ready, will stop eating.  He will bow his head in an upside down J-shape, and spin a silk button to attach itself by its head to a twig, branch or net siding.   He then makes a silk saddle to hold itself snugly in place for the time it takes to transform its DNA into a butterfly–again, an often unpredictable amount of time.   Some Swallowtails will overwinter to the next season, depending on the conditions present at the time of forming the chrysalis.

Newborn Swallowtail butterfly with sister chrysalis.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Newborn Swallowtail butterfly with sister chrysalis. Photo by Monika Maeckle

When the day finally comes, though, you will know because the chrysalis will turn dark, then clear. Thereafter, the Swallowtail will emerge when ready.

Give it a few hours to allow its wings to harden. When she starts beating them slowly, you know she’s ready for flight. Take her outside and send her on her way.

Related posts:

Like what you’re reading? Follow butterfly and native plant news at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam

Tropical Milkweed OK for Monarch Butterflies, “Just Cut the Dang Stuff Down”

“Can well-meaning people sometimes make things worse?”

That was the provocative subhead on an article by Dr. Jeffrey Glassberg, founder and president of  the North American Butterfly Association (NABA) in that organization’s most recent edition of American Butterflies Magazine.

Glassberg, who holds a PhD in biology, a law degree and credentials as an entrepreneur, author and butterfly advocate, challenged the recent scientific assertions made by Satterfield et al  that Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, is bad news for Monarch butterflies.

Tropical milkweed:  The debate continues.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Tropical milkweed: The debate continues. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Glassberg challenges the study’s claims about Tropical milkweed’s appropriateness in South Texas, where the North American Butterfly Center operates in Mission along the Texas-Mexico border.

Dara Satterfield

Dara Satterfield  Photo by Monika Maeckle

In case you missed it, Dara Satterfield, a PhD candidate at the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia, and her graduate advisor, Dr. Sonia Altizer, a disease ecologist at Georgia and one of the foremost experts on Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, a Monarch-centric spore driven disease known as OE, suggest in their research that sedentary winter-breeding butterflies are at increased risk of OE. They speculate that Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, the most widely available but technically nonnative milkweed and favorite host plant of the Monarch butterfly, may be damaging the Monarchs’ abilities to stay healthy, on track and make their way to Mexico.

Native to Central America and Mexico, Tropical milkweed grows well and sometimes year round in Texas and Florida.  Scientists worry that it might be confusing Monarchs, making them skip their migration and reproduce locally.  When they do that, spores from butterflies infected with OE build up on the plant and may transfer the disease to other caterpillars, chrysalises, and later, butterflies, resulting in crippling and even death.  Read the Tropical milkweed fact sheet.

Just to be clear:  Satterfield, et al DO NOT THINK TROPICAL MILKWEED IS EVIL.  In fact, they say exactly that in a statement issued by Monarch Joint Venture and shared via the DPlex, a listserv that reaches about 800 butterfly followers.

“Tropical milkweed itself is not ‘bad.’ (It provides larval food for Monarchs in many places where it occurs naturally, such as across the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central America.),” the scientists said in a statement released in January following the milkweed kerfuffle.

“The truth is that we don’t really know,” if butterflies infected with OE at winter-breeding locations will impact the Monarch population as a whole, the statement said.

So to be fair,  the scientists admit that much is still to be determined about the impact of Tropical milkweed on the Monarch butterfly population.   That’s why they suggest cutting Tropical milkweed to the ground over the fall and winter–so the OE spores can’t build up.

Glassberg takes the Satterfield et al. study to task, challenging the assertions with his own data fueled theories.

Monarchs and other milkweed feeders host on the evergreen Pineneedle milkweed in Arizona and have lower than average OE infection rates.  Courtesy photo via Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, Sally Wasorski

Monarchs and other milkweed feeders host on the evergreen Pineneedle milkweed in Arizona and have lower than average OE infection rates. Courtesy photo via Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, Sally Wasowski

Nonmigrating Monarch butterflies in Hawaii  and Arizona have lesser-than-average levels of OE infection, notes Glassberg, pointing out that some Monarchs overwinter and sustain themselves on evergreen milkweeds like Fringed twinevine and Pineneedle milkweed.

Such examples “suggest that the level of OE infection might not be as highly correlated with non-migratory behavior and that the presence of an evergreen supply of milkweeds doesn’t necessarily mean that OE levels will be high, as Satterfield et al. conclude,” he writes.

“Perhaps the higher levels of infection that Satterfield et al. found to be associated with Tropical milkweeds were due to temperature effects or other factors not intrinsic to Tropical milkweed,” Glassberg writes, suggesting that global warning and higher temperatures beg the question: what is a native plant, anyway?

Climate change is already making the range for Tropical milkweed creep north and “if and when that happens, wouldn’t it be a good thing for there to be extensive areas in the southern United States that might serve as reservoirs for Monarchs that would then be able to repopulate more northern areas, much as Painted Ladies and American Ladies do now?”

Hardiness zones redefined by USDA

In 2012, the USDA redefined hardiness zones in response to climate change.  San Antonio moved to Zone 9a from Zone 8b.  Will Tropical milkweed eventually rank as “native”?  Screengrab via USDA

When asked about the article, Satterfield responded by email that “We do plan to address why our paper rules out effects of temperature and geography and points to year-round milkweed as the source of the high levels of disease.”

Glassberg makes a lot of sense here.   His characterization of Tropical milkweed as a “life buoy” for Monarchs until the commercial market for native milkweeds can be developed holds great appeal.  In a recent webinar staged by US Fish and Wildlife Service  on creating Monarch butterfly habitat in the U.S., experts stated that it will take a minimum of five years to create a commercial market for native milkweeds.   That’s a long time for Monarchs to wait around for the perfect locavore food, especially when Tropical milkweed is already on the market, easy-to-grow and very affordable.

Troipcal milkweed:  "Life buoy" for Monarchs and other milkweed feeders until the native milkweeds are available.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Tropical milkweed: “Life buoy” for Monarchs and other milkweed feeders until the native milkweeds are available. Photo by Monika Maeckle

My approach in the garden includes Tropical milkweed as a foundation, natives preferred, but more challenging to grow.  And I’m not alone.  Plenty of us who follow Monarchs believe the Tropical milkweed debate is bloated and misguided.

Here’s what Edith Smith, one of the most seasoned, experienced and thoughtful commercial butterfly breeders on the planet and owner of Shady Oak Butterfly Farm in Florida, thinks about the focus on Tropical milkweed:   “…They’re so fussy about that plant. If only they’d stop to think, they’d realize that if a couple of treaties had been written a bit different and the southern border of our country had been drawn a hundred miles further south, Tropical milkweed WOULD be a U.S. native.  SHEESH!”

Edith Smith

Edith Smith, Shady Oak Butterfly Farm

She adds:  “As far as it being good/bad for Monarchs … let’s remove all the Tropical milkweed from Mexico and see what happens to the Monarch population in the US. That in itself should answer the question.”

Another Monarch expert suggested everyone just chill on the Tropical milkweed fixation, pointing out that a better investment of time, energy and money would be replenishing the million-plus acres of pollinator habitat lost each year.  Arguing about narrow strips of Tropical milkweed along the coastline constitutes a huge misplaced priority.

“Just cut the dang stuff down at the end of the season–maybe twice. We’re wasting too much time on this issue. There are bigger problems,” said the source.

Monarch caterpillars tropical milkweed

Monarch caterpillars on Tropical milkweed, April, 2015  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Even Catalina Trail, the woman who discovered the Monarch butterfly roosting sites in Mexico back in 1975, plants Tropical milkweed in her Austin garden.  “I would prefer to have native milkweeds in my yard, but they’re impossible to grow,” she said by phone.  “I have two Tropical milkweeds in my yard.”

This website has reported repeatedly on this topic and I am at peace with my stance:   Tropical milkweed fills a gap for Monarch butterflies. Just cut it back.

Both early and late in the season, Tropical milkweed is often the ONLY milkweed available for migrating Monarchs.   The eggs of the caterpillars pictured above were laid in late March and because of our cool spring, no native milkweed was up and out of the ground yet.   My Tropical milkweed from last year, which had been cut to the ground in December as per best practice, had plenty of fine, tender new leaves ready for the hungry critters when they arrived.

Had I not this Tropical milkweed in my yard, the migrating Monarch who laid the eggs that became today’s caterpillars in my yard would have had to keep flying, seeking milkweed that in this cool Texas spring was mostly absent until now.  Who knows where/if she would have found a place to lay her eggs before perishing?

Meanwhile, in the Fall, the only native milkweed I see is Swamp milkweed along the Llano River, and it’s usually in bad shape, ravaged by aphids and the summer heat.   Tropical milkweed is the only food available for late season caterpillars, and the lack of available caterpillar food often results in a caterpillar food emergency, with folks calling around town to friends and local nurseries to see if anyone has clean, chemical free milkweed available.   Some breeders and enthusiasts have taken to offering pumpkin, cucumbers and other “alternative fuels” for late season Monarchs.

Monarch caterpillars eating pumpkin

In the fifth instar, Monarch caterpillars will eat a variety of pumpkins. Photo by Ellen Reid

Making an issue about Tropical milkweed reminds me of the locavore food movement: idealistic, admirable, but now always practical.   The caterpillars have to eat.

Imagine you’re driving cross-country with your family and you and the kids find yourselves famished. Sure, you’d prefer to stop at a local diner where good food was whipped up from scratch from local organic ingredients, responsibly harvested, lovingly prepared, delicious, nutritious and affordable.

But that’s not always possible.   Sometimes you have to hit the drive-through of a fast-food joint because that’s all there is.  And that will get you to the next place.

Related posts:

Like what you’re reading?  Follow butterfly and native plant news at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam