Scientists try to assess Monarch butterfly mortality after Mexican freeze

Scientists have been scrambling  to assess the mortality of the roosting Monarch butterfly population in Michoacán, Mexico, following a freak March 11 winter snowstorm that dropped temperatures to sub freezing and included wind gusts up to 50 miles per hour in the butterflies’ ancestral roosting sites.  For now, the estimates of how much of the migrating Monarch butterfly population perished are at best an educated guess.

The scene at Chincua two weeks after the storm. Photo by Dr. Isabel Ramíro

The scene at Chincua the day after the storm.   Photo by Dr. Isabel Ramírez

 

“I have no new information. We are ‘in limbo,’” said Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, the citizen science organization based at the University of Kansas that tags the butterflies each fall to track their migration.

Dr. Lincoln Brower has been working long distance from his home in Sweet Briar, Virginia, with a team of scientists on the ground in the 10,000-foot-tall plus mountains northwest of Mexico City where the butterflies roost each fall.  They’ve been gathering data, reviewing climatology information, making observations, and reviewing photos and historical accounts of a previous freeze in 2002.

“It’s been difficult and there are conflicting reports as you know,” said Dr. Brower via email, referring to Mexican tourism officials downplaying the severity of the situation. Soon after news of the storm broke, Mexican officials claimed that only 3% of the butterflies had been affected–about 1.5 million of the estimated 200 million roosting.

“The climate data we have suggest about 50% mortality in Chincua but observations suggest that Rosario was hit harder,” said Brower, referring to the El Rosario sanctuary, the preserve most often visited by tourists. The 50% number would mean 100 million butterflies took the hit–which still leaves us up over last year, just a disappointing and devastating turn of events, if true.

El Rosario Preserve in Michoacán. Photo by Monika Maeckle

El Rosario Preserve in Michoacán. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Dr. Cuatémoc Sáenz Romero, a forester who studies the Oyamel forest and is promoting an initiative to move it higher in elevation to save it from climate change, thus guaranteeing the Monarchs a future winter roost, said he visited the sanctuaries two weeks after the storm. “Except for some trees fallen, I did not see dramatic damages,” he said.

Many of us are wondering how many of the butterflies had already left the colony when the storm hit on March 11.  Typically the first and second week in March are when the Monarchs bust off the Oyamel trees in response to warmer temperatures and begin their journey north.  We start to see them moving into South Texas as they search for milkweed on which to lay the first generation of eggs in the multi-generation migration. Some Monarchs have definitely made it to San Antonio and South Texas as we are witnessing and hearing about first-of-season sightings and finding eggs on local milkweeds.

monarch eggs on milkweed

Who’s got Monarch eggs? We do in San Antonio. At least SOME Monarchs escaped the storm. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The question of how many Monarchs departed before the storm hit may be rhetorical, according to one scientist.

“Perhaps that doesn’t even matter given how widespread this storm was,” said Monarch and migration scholar Dr. Tyler Flockhart of the University of Guelph in Ontario.  Flockhart said that according to weather data, the winds were so strong that temperatures inside and outside the forest were pretty much the same, suggesting the “butterflies would have been exposed to very cold temperatures.”

Scientists consider the forest canopy as an insulation blanket.  As climate change and illegal logging conspire to undermine the forest in the roosting preserves, the unique ecosystem of moisture, temperature and protection from the elements becomes threatened.   Several scientists expressed more concern about the huge trees that had been taken by the storm than the mortality of the butterflies, since it will be extremely challenging to recreate the forest canopy in the short-term.

Meanwhile, a study conducted by the Monarch Conservation Science Partnership and released in the journal Scientific Reports March 21 found that the Monarch migration has an 11 to 57 percent chance of facing “quasi-extinction” in the next 20 years.

Dr. John Pleasants, an Iowa State University researcher who participated in the study, defined quasi-extinction to mean that not enough individual Monarch butterflies would exist to continue their migratory patterns.  The migration would collapse and the population would likely not recover.  That doesn’t mean there will no longer be Monarch butterflies;  it does suggest the phenomenon of the unique Monarch butterfly migration would cease to exist if the population falls to even more perilous levels.

We should have more definitive information in the next few weeks as the scientists review the collected data.  Stay tuned and keep those fingers crossed.

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At least 1.5 million Monarch butterflies perish in deadly ice storm in Michoacán

At least 1.5 million Monarch butterflies were hit with a deadly freeze this weekend as an unusual ice and wind storm moved through the mountains of Michoacán where the butterflies roost for the winter.   The storm hit just as the spring migration was beginning.   Luckily, many butterflies exited the mountains before the freeze arrived.

Frozen monarch butterflies

Preliminary estimates suggest 1.5 million Monarch butterflies froze to death in the recent ice storm in Michoacán. Photo via Monarca via  Facebook

Exactly how many butterflies perished in the freeze remains uncertain. An Associated Press report sounded upbeat, with Mexican authorities stating that “Monarch butterflies that winter in the mountains west of Mexico City survived the severe cold snap that hit the area this week.”

But the Mexican news agency El Universal on Saturday quoted Homero Gómez González, president of the administrative council that oversees the El Rosario butterfly sanctuary, as saying that 1.5 Monarch butterflies froze to death–about 3% of the estimated 50 million roosting.

According to Gomez Gonazaléz, the recent freeze registered temperatures of -12 degrees Celsius (about 10 Fahrenheit). Other reports had winds raging up to 50 miles per hour, leaving 13 inches of snow on the ground in some areas and taking out dozens of trees.  Those living in the area were without electricity for days and hundreds of lamb and sheep were lost.

“Historic snowfall at the El Rosario sanctuary,” read the headline of the el Rosario Facebook page on Thursday, March 10. “The Monarch butterfly suffers wind, snow, rain and sleet.” The post was accompanied by photos showing several inches of snow on the ground.

The news whipsawed those who follow Monarch butterfly news.  Monarch fans had been celebrating the much-anticipated announcement in February that the population of the migrating orange-and-black insects had tripled since last year.  Reports of the devastating freeze underscored the brutal reminder that Mother Nature is in charge.

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of citizen science group Monarch Watch, which tags the butterflies during their fall migration, weighed in from Kansas.

“Information is still sketchy about the degree of butterfly mortality,” Dr. Taylor told the  DPLEX list, an email listserv of about 800 butterfly aficionados.

Dozens of trees were lost in the storm.

Dozens of trees were also lost in the storm. Photo by Homero Gómez Gonzalez via Facebook.

“Most claims, observations and images suggest that mortality is low to moderate,” said Dr. Taylor.  “There is no evidence to date to indicate levels of catastrophic mortality (70-80%) that followed the winter storms of 2002 and 2004.” he said, adding that it will take at least a week to get more accurate information on the number of butterflies lost.

Taylor also reminded readers that “a significant portion of the population had already left” the roosting sites prior to the storm.

Dr. Lincoln Brower, who has studied Monarchs his entire life and is one of a group who submitted a petition to have the butterflies listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, seemed less optimistic.

“The current statements that the Monarchs have survived the storm are premature,” wrote Dr. Brower via email in response to the Associated Press story.  “I fear that optimistic assumptions are driving the news reports.”

Like Dr. Taylor, Brower cautioned that time will tell the accurate mortality counts.

“Based on our study of the 2002 storm, the butterflies that are killed or irreversibly damaged keep falling out of their clusters for days after the freezing event. Mortality counts need to be made at least a week after the storm.”

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Red Admiral butterflies everywhere

While we’re waiting for Monarch butterflies to leave their roosts in Mexico and make their way through South Texas, let’s take a moment to appreciate Red Admirals, a striking butterfly that often kicks off the season in late winter and early spring.

Red Admiral on tree

Classic Red Admiral pose: resting on a tree limb. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Red Admirals, Vanessa atalanta, have black wings with a white stripe and a distinctive red epaulet when their wings are open; with wings closed, they sport a mottled look like their close cousin, the Painted Lady.

Red Admirals are unusual in that they prefer oozing sap, rotten fruit and even dung to flower nectar. Perhaps their preference for sap, made accessible to them thanks to woodpeckers and yellow-bellied sapsuckers poking holes in trees, explains their penchant for hanging out on the edges of woods.

Red Admiral wings closed

With wings closed, Red Admirals sport a mottled coloration similar to Painted ladies. Photo by Monika Maeckle

They seem to be everywhere lately–lilting on the understory of brush, resting in tree limbs, puddling on damp ground or sunning on warm rocks. In Texas, Red Admirals show up early in the butterfly season. They host on pellitory and members of the nettles family. In the caterpillar stage, they appear blackish-grey with white flecks and harmless spikes.  Their chrysalis looks like a twisted, gold-dusted dead leaf.

“Territorial males like to patrol and perch in the late summer afternoon, darting rapidly after anything to investigate possible females,” said Todd Stout, owner of Raising Butterflies and a past president of the Utah Lepidopterists’ Society.

Adults overwinter and migrate much like their Painted Lady cousins and have even been spotted migrating with Painted Ladies during hatches of the latter, said Stout.  Check out Stout’s thorough account of the Red Admiral life cycle from egg to butterfly on his Raising Butterflies website.

Red admiral chrysalis

Red Admiral chrysalis looks like a dead leaf with gold flecks. Photo by Todd Stout, Raising Butterflies.

Red Admirals also have a reputation as one of the “friendliest” butterfly species.

“Unmistakeable and unforgettable,” reads the description of Red Admirals in the National Audubon Society Field Guide to Butterflies of North America. “The Red Admiral will alight on a person’s shoulder day after day in a garden.” Stories of the small butterflies landing on shoulders, hats and fingers, “riding” with humans are not uncommon.

Connie Hodsdon, a commercial butterfly breeder and owner of Flutterby Gardens of Manatee in Florida, once told me that none of the many species in her massive butterfly garden is as friendly as Red Admirals.

Hodsdon relayed that she once was talking with a friend and pointed to a Red Admiral in her butterfly garden.  “It landed on my finger,” said Hodsdon, who has been breeding butterflies for research, education and celebrations for more than a decade.

“When I reached for it with my other hand, it flew off.  Thinking that what had just happened was a fluke, I put my finger out again and the butterfly came back and landed.  This time, I just walked it back to the flight house and it rode on my finger all the way. ”

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Hodsdon added that you can watch Red Admirals “cleaning their feet,” as the sap makes them sticky.

If you think you might enjoy raising Red Admirals at home, check out the free tutorials on how to do so made available by the International Butterfly Breeders Association, a trade and educational organization for hobbyist and commercial butterfly breeders.

Part I:  https://vimeo.com/120015044
Part II: https://vimeo.com/120123630

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Good news! Monarch butterfly population triples

The 2015-2016 Monarch butterfly population census is in and the news is good:   the iconic migrating insect that has become a symbol for climate change and pollinator advocacy in three countries is on the rebound with a three-fold increase in its roosting population in the past year.

Michoacán Monarchs

The Monarch population is on the rebound with a threefold increase over last year. Here they are in Michoacán in March of 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Last year the population occupied 1.13 hectares (2.8 acres) of the Oyamel forest in the mountains of Michoacán that serve as the ancestral roosting site of the storied orange and black creatures.  This year:  4.01 hectares (9.9 acres) are occupied–more than triple last year’s figure, according to the Mexican government and the World Wildlife Fund.  Scientists calculate the population numbers by measuring the amount of forest occupied by the Monarchs.

monarch-population-figure-monarchwatch-2016

According to Journey North, a citizen science organization that tracks the Monarchs’ and other migrations, this year’s population numbers 200 million monarchs compared to a long-term average of 300 million and a peak of 1 billion.  The organization attributed the increase to ” favorable breeding conditions in summer 2015.”

The butterflies, which migrate each fall to the Mexican mountains after a multi-generation trek through the heartland of the United State’s to Mexico, have been in a perilous decline in recent years.   The 2013-2014 season in particular was frightening:  the entire Monarch population occupied only .67 hectares (1.65 acres) and could have fit into a Walmart store with 30,000 square feet to spare.

The insects made a slight comeback last year, as government officials in all three countries committed to work together to save the unique natural phenomenon.  Research and funding have been pouring into the cause, thanks, in part, to President Obama’s National Pollinator Strategy issued in May of 2015.

Chincua Journey north

As temperatures rise and the air dries, monarchs move out of their clusters in Michoacán during the day to the delight of sanctuary visitors. Photo via Journey North

Butterfly aficionados far and wide were delighted with the news. “Great progress!! Everyone still needs to do their part to help! We can’t lose these magnificent butterflies!!” wrote Eileen Cotte on Journey North’s Facebook page.

“It certainly is reason for hope following year after year of depressing declines,” wrote Richard Knowles on the DPLEX list, an old school listserv of about 800 butterfly aficionados run by citizen science organization Monarch Watch out of the University of Kansas at Lawrence. “It almost feels like everyone can give themselves a brief pat on the back before getting back to work.”

Even Monsanto Corporation, often blamed for the butterflies decline because of the indiscriminate pesticide use that results from their genetically modified corn and soybean seed, celebrated the news:  “Good news! Monarch population numbers were up in 2015. With help, they’ll keep increasing.”

We hope so. Let’s keep planting milkweed and nectar plants for all pollinators.

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San Antonio Zoo to stage three-day Monarch Fest March 4-6

Area butterfly buffs will have a unique opportunity to see exotic butterflies up close and personal while learning about the Monarch butterfly migration at the San Antonio Zoo’s

Laurie Brown Paper Kite

Hello, beautiful! Laurie Brown welcomes a Paper Kite butterfly to the San Antonio Zoo flight house for the Monarch Fest next week. Photo by Monika Maeckle

first Monarch Fest March 4 – 6. The inaugural event celebrates San Antonio’s recent national status as the first and only Monarch Champion City, so designated by the National Wildlife Federation’s Mayor’s Monarch Pledge program.

monarchchamplogoLaurie Brown, Zoo volunteer services manager, along with Zoo staff and volunteers, have been preparing for the event for months.   On the agenda for the 72-hour celebration: a native plant sale and seed giveaway, kid-friendly crafts and educational activities, and booths/displays by more than a dozen local pollinator advocacy organizations.  The event is free with zoo admission.  MonarchFestLogo400x287-021616021503

But for an extra $1.50, visitors can also stroll through the Zoo’s butterfly house, an experience well worth the cost. Proceeds go 100% to conservation and education efforts, says Brown.

Inside the flight house, hundreds of exotic flyers like the Malabar Tree nymph,  Idea malabaricaalso known as the Paper Kite,  will be on display in a natural, garden like setting. The wings of this gorgeous black-and-white butterfly, native to India and Southeast Asia, resemble rice paper with a Monarch-like painted glass pattern.

Interestingly, the Paper Kite’s host plant, Apocynaceae, belongs to the same plant family as the Monarch butterfly’s host plant–Asclepias (milkweeds).  Both are members of the dogbane family.  Is it a coincidence that the lovely wing pattern on these two butterflies from opposite sides of the world are similar?

Paper Kite

Excitable boy. Brown says Paper Kite butterflies are “sassy” and often land on visitors. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Not really, says Brown.  The Paper Kite and Monarch are distant relatives.

Also scheduled for appearances in the flight house:  the Common banded Peacock,   Papilio crino, sometimes called a Buddhist Heart, sports fluorescent wings can suggest blue or green, depending on the angle from which it is viewed.

Common banded peacock

The wings of the Common banded peacock can hint green or blue, depending on the light reflecting on them. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Brown promises a couple dozen other exotics, a mix of local butterflies and a handful of amazing Atlas Moths, Atacus atlas, one of the most dramatic looking Lepidoptera.   If you’ve never seen one of these impressive moths up close, you’re in for a treat.

Atlas moth

The San Antonio Zoo will offer a chance to see the Atlas moth up close at Monarch Fest next week. Photo via Wikipedia Dr. Raju Kasamb

These Saturnid moths rank as one of the 10 largest insects in the world and hail from Southeast Asia.  Their wingspans can reach 12 inches and in Taiwan, empty Atlas moth cocoons, spun from sturdy Fagara silk, are used as purses.

“Some vacated cocoons don’t need to be deconstructed—they can be used ‘as found’ as small pocket-change purses by simply installing a zipper,” according to the educational magazine Mental Floss.

Hmm.  New handbag trend?

Advance tickets are available online or you can buy them upon arrival.   Hope to see you there!

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How to plan a successful butterfly and pollinator garden

How do you plan a successful butterfly and pollinator garden?

With the increased awareness of pollinator decline, gardeners are asking that question alot lately.

Pollinators–bees, in particular–make two out of every three bites of food we eat possible, delivering billions of dollars of free ecosystem services to humanity each year.  Without them, the foods we know and love would become less available and more expensive. As climate change, pesticide abuse, genetically modified crops and urban sprawl conspire to limit pollinator habitat world-wide, governments are worried about food security in the face of their demise.

Insect pollinators make all these edibles--and much more--possible. Photo by Monika Meeckle

Insect pollinators make all these edibles–and many others–possible. Photo by Monika Maeckle

That thinking drove the announcement of President Barack Obama’s National Pollinator Strategy last year.  The 58-page document sets goals to reduce honey bee losses, increase the migrating Monarch butterfly population, and restore seven million acres of pollinator habitat over the next five years.

Large prairie restorations are already underway as funding and attention have focused on the IH-35 corridor, which serves as a major migration route for birds, insects and Monarchs.  Every yard can also make a difference.

Everyone loves Swamp milkweed. Here, aphids and a glamourous blue bumblebee pour over the blooms. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Everyone loves Swamp milkweed. Here, aphids and a glamorous blue bumblebee pour over the blooms. Photo by Monika Maeckle

In fact, an October 2015 study, An Evaluation of Butterfly Gardens for Restoring Habitat for the Monarch Butterfly, by Brian T. Cutting and Douglas W. Tallamy published in Environmental Entomology, a publication of the Entomological Society of America, demonstrated that Monarch butterflies are much more likely to lay their eggs in gardens than in natural sites–2.0  –  6.2 times more eggs per plant per observation.   That suggests planting butterfly and pollinator gardens can make a significant contribution to restoring habitat for these special creatures that keep our food web intact.

How to do it?   Here’s a few tips:

Ask:  How will I use my garden?

Do you want a deck or patio as part of your pollinator garden? A fire pit? Rain garden? Do you prefer a path for observing pollinators in the their various stages as well as the fruits, flowers and herbs you might be growing? Or maybe you just want a pretty yarden with bees buzzing, hummingbirds lighting and butterflies lilting on your flowers?

pollinator garden

I like a path in my pollinator garden so I can check for caterpillars and eggs, pick some okra, or snip some herbs for dinner. Photo by Monika Maeckle

How you will use your garden will determine how to plan the space. Personally, I like to come home from work and walk through my garden in the late afternoon and early evening, inspecting my milkweeds and other host plants for eggs and caterpillars, checking on the okra or tomatoes and perhaps snipping some herbs for dinner.  That’s why I’ve incorporated gravel and mulch paths that weave throughout the garden to allow access and close inspection, as well as close-up photography that you will often see in these webpages.

Pipevine Swallowtails

Pipevine swallowtail caterpillars on Dutchman’s Pipe. PHoto by Monika Maeckle

I understand that not everyone fancies that. Some folks want the focal point of their garden to be a barbecue zone or vegetable patch, or perhaps a hammock/reading area, a deck, a pond or rain garden. You decide. It’s your garden.  Plants can be identified to serve any situation—wet, dry, sunny, shady. So choose.

And while you’re at it: choose native and well adapted plants. 

I’m not a purist about native plants, but I do try to use them whenever possible.  Why?

Because natives are four times more likely to attract pollinators than exotics.  Makes sense, since the natives were born and raised here, thus the insects that interact with them are naturally predisposed to perform the valuable ecosystem services needed to be self-sustaining.  According to Pollinators of Native Plants, a fantastic book by Heather N. Holm, studies find that when eight or more species of native plants occupy a

lady bug aphids

Lady bug on the job tackling aphids on Swamp milkweed. Photo by Monika Maeckle

landscape, the population and variety of native bees increase.  Diverse native landscapes also support beneficial insects like lady bugs, who seemingly appear out of nowhere to combat the yellow aphids that gravitate to the milkweeds we all plant for Monarchs and other butterflies.

Choose nectar and host plants to draw your favorite butterflies.

Butterflies and moths feed mostly on nectar plants, their flowers providing a sugary fluid that fuels their flight and reproduction.  As caterpillars, they consume the leaves of particular plants known as host plants.   Bees, meanwhile, feed on a flower’s pollen (protein) and nectar (carbs).  If you plant a variety of nectar and host plants, you should attract butterflies and bees to your yard.  Most people focus on the flowers, failing to research and include host plants, but honestly host plants are the key to a successful  butterfly garden.

For example, we all know that Monarch butterflies eat milkweed, anything in the Asclepias family.   But did you know that Eastern Swallowtails, one of the most common and beautiful butterflies in our part of the world, eat plants in the carrot family, Apiaceae?  That means if you plant parsley, fennel, dill or rue, you will soon have Eastern Swallowtails in your yard.  They are magnificent caterpillars and dramatic, large flyers in the adult stage.

Swallowtail on Fennel

Eastern Swallowtails eat plants in the carrot family–parsley, fennel, dill and rue.  Here, a Swallowtail noshing on fennel.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Eastern Swallowtail

Eastern Swallowtails, like many butterflies, are less particular about their nectar sources.  Here, Swallowtail nectaring on Tropical milkweed. Photo by Monika Maeckle

If you need help identifying appropriate native host and nectar plants that will attract the butterflies and other pollinators in your area, consult your local native plant society or Master Gardeners Chapter.  Typically they offer lists of “butterfly garden” plants appropriate for your locale.

Right plant in the right place.

Ideally, you want a sunny location.  Butterflies, bees and hummingbirds like flowers and flowers need sun–preferably six – eight hours per day. Determining the sun’s arc—that is, how the sun and shade play on your pollinator garden will determine where you place  particular plants. Sunflowers, mistflowers, sages and asters must have sun to bloom;  planting them under a tree or eave will only disappoint you–and the bees and butterflies, too.

Shade options include Columbine, Turk’s Cap, and certain Goldenrods as excellent pollinator plants. These and others thrive on the edge of a tree’s shade or in roofline’s shadow.  Again, consult your local native plant society and Master Gardener chapters to see what’s right for your situation.

Hummingbird on Turk's cap

Hummingbirds love Turk’s Cap, which grows in shade. Photo via npsot.org

Meanwhile, ask yourself: what kind of soil do I have? Blackland prairie or rock-filled caliche? Loam, sand, silty?  The soil is the foundation of the garden and some plants will only grow in particular circumstances with the requisite moisture and nutrients.  You can do a simple soil test or simply observe a similar natural landscape and copy Mother Nature.

Avoid pesticides.

Butterflies, caterpillars, beetles, ants, wasps, hummingbirds and moths are sensitive creatures that readily absorb pesticides, which are poisons.  When caterpillars, or butterflies-to-be as I like to call them, eat the leaves of plants sprayed with systemic pesticides, they perish.    Systemic pesticides can linger in a plant for months.

In the photo below, a trusted nursery assured our friend Sharon Sander that they had not sprayed the milkweeds she sought with any pesticides. Sander bought several one-gallon milkweeds to feed her hungry Monarch caterpillars.   The nursery employee was correct–they had NOT sprayed the plant.  But the grower did.  The systemic pesticide used remained in the milkweed leaves for months, killing all the caterpillars.

Boo-hoo! Dead Monarch caterpillars fall victim to pesticide laced milkweed

Boo-hoo! Dead Monarch caterpillars fall victim to pesticide laced milkweed.  Photo by Sharon Sander

Seek out growers and nurseries that do not use systemic pesticides.   And if you must use pesticides yourself, read and follow the directions carefully.  Choose a still day, not when it’s windy, and avoid spraying if rain is in the forecast, since the poisons might wash off and run into streams or drains.   Also, spray or apply surgically, ONLY to the plant that has issues, not some mass broadswipe.

For more on how to safely use pesticides in a pollinator garden, check out this helpful flyer from the Pollinator Partnership.

Create a puddling zone and wind break.

Butterflies need damp, wet areas to rehydrate and soak up minerals from the soil. A small swale or even a rain garden can satisfy this need and create a microhabitat within your garden that brings a new pollinator audience to your yard.

We installed a rain garden last year, planting its perimeter with various sedges, native grasses and Texas Frogfruit, Phyla nodiflora, a lovely semi-evergreen groundcover that thrives in extreme wet and dry conditions.  A member of the verbena family,

Crescentspot

Phaeon crescentspot on frogfruit. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Frogfruit’s tiny white flowers serve as an excellent nectar source for various butterflies and as host plant to the Common Buckeye, Phaeon Crescentspot, and White Peacock butterflies.

Bushes, trees, and tall shrubbery also are necessary to provide pollinators a place to rest, roost and overnight.  You can make these flowering plants if you like, but it’s not necessary.  Monarchs roost every fall in pecan trees that offer no nectar or hosting, only protection from the wind and the elements.

Monarch Butterflies Stalled in Pecan Trees on the Llano River

Monarch butterflies take a break from the wind by roosting and resting in pecan tress along the Llano River.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Don’t expect year-round tidiness.

This is one of the toughest lessons for city folk.  Pollinator and native gardens go through messy stages.  And for good reason.

Annuals like Cowpen Daisy, Verbesina encelioides, “go to seed” and when they do, some people consider them impossibly unattractive. I had a neighbor in Austin who loathed my butterfly garden adjacent to his well-manicured lawn. When I vacated my apartment in the autumn he took

San Antonio butterfly garden, October 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

San Antonio butterfly garden, October 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

it upon himself to mow down my Daisy patch and reinstall St. Augustine.  The same attitude removed a well established pollinator patch from our former family home in Alamo Heights.  When we turned over the keys, the new owners ripped out all the shrubs and natives and returned the lawn to water guzzling grass.

Lavaca garden, November 2012

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

It’s a fact: nature is messy.  Sometimes pollinator gardens are not that pretty.  Seedpods form and dry, become brittle, and hang on the plant, reminding us of better days. Dead vines and stalks may look raggedy and unsightly, yet they provide shelter and protection for all kinds of creatures.  Just remember that the pay-off for such temporary imperfection is a new round of beauty in seasons to come.

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Commercial butterfly breeders: industry has vested interest in raising OE-free butterflies

NOTE:  The following guest post by Dr. Barbara Dorf* arrived as a lengthy comment here at the Texas Butterfly Ranch last week.  I invited Dorf to expand her comment to a full-blown post because I think the perspective of professional breeders is important to various issues discussed here.

–Monika Maeckle

As a board member of the Association for Butterflies, an organization for about 80 professional and hobbyist butterfly breeders and a co-owner of Big Tree Butterflies  commercial butterfly breeding farm,  I am writing today to clarify our position in relation to the proposed petition to the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to list the Monarch butterfly as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Barbara Dorf and Tracy Villareal, owners of Big Tree Butterfly Farm in Rockport, Texas --Courtesy photo

Dr. Tracy Villareal and Dr. Barbara Dorf, owners of Big Tree Butterflies in Rockport, Texas –Courtesy photo

As stated in a recent post on this website, Lawsuit seeks ESA monarch butterfly listing, turns up heat on commercial breeders, the petitioners believe that commercial breeders release diseased butterflies into the wild population, potentially damaging it.  Such comments oversimplify the butterfly industry and misrepresent the efforts of many breeders who are very diligent and dedicated to raising healthy butterflies.

Butterfly disease is a concern for all ethical butterfly breeders and part of the larger issue of raising healthy butterflies in captivity. Our concern is at several levels.

We want to raise healthy butterflies and provide customers with the best value for their money. In addition, butterflies are living creatures and proper animal care practices need to be observed. Failure to adopt clean rearing procedures is costly and ultimately self-destructive. That said, there are areas of concern.

Ophyryocystis elecktroscirrha, or OE, has been studied extensively and is of particular concern because it can significantly impact Monarch populations. It is the most commonly mentioned disease problem in both the butterfly industry and popular press. OE occurs in nature, primarily infecting Monarchs and related butterflies. It is found in Monarch butterfly populations throughout the world, including North and South America, the Caribbean, Hawaii, and Australia.

OE spores transfer through physical contact or consumption of milkweed leaves. PHoto courtesy AFB

OE spores transfer through physical contact or consumption of milkweed leaves. Photo by Dr. Tracy Villareal

OE can be transmitted in two ways. In nature and during captive breeding, spores are transmitted from egg-laying females to their offspring when dormant spores on the female’s body scales are scattered on eggs or as they are passed onto milkweed leaves that are the Monarch’s only host plant. Newly emerged caterpillars consume spores when they eat their eggshell or when feeding on milkweed leaves. Spores can also be spread between adults through body contact, more likely to occur during captive breeding when adults are kept in higher concentrations than in the wild.

Once eaten, the spores have a rather complicated life cycle, with the end result being many more spores, which are often visible inside the chrysalis. When the butterfly emerges spores are located mostly on the abdomen.

OE can be debilitating, often killing or deforming caterpillars, chrysalises and adults. Infected adults have been shown to be smaller, have shorter lives, and mate and migrate less successfully. However, those that do mate can continue to lay eggs, passing on the OE spores to the next generation, both in nature and in captivity.

deformed Monarch OE

OE infected Monarchs can have trouble emerging from the chrysalis and may be deformed. Photo via UGA Monarch parasites website

If not controlled, all butterflies within a captive breeding colony will become infected with OE in very few generations, resulting in poor quality butterflies unable to successfully breed or migrate when released. This is a butterfly breeder’s worst nightmare.

Thus, the butterfly industry has a vested interest in producing OE-free butterflies and educating all breeders on how to produce healthy butterflies. The problem is not that all butterfly breeders raise and sell OE-contaminated Monarch butterflies. Rather, the problem is that customers cannot tell if the butterfly breeder they are purchasing from raises OE-free butterflies.

The AFB has been implementing programs over the last 10 years and has been anything but lethargic concerning OE in commercially raised butterflies.

Here is what the AFB is doing to address the problem:

1. Educational programs

The AFB offers educational programs developed by butterfly professionals and academic researchers available to anyone who wants to learn more about butterfly disease prevention.

Our annual “Disease Prevention in Lepidoptera” course (offered for the last 10 years!) is free to all members and has been taken by hundreds of professional breeders, hobbyists, enthusiasts and educators, and offers a Disease Seal and certification for participants who successfully complete weekly testing and a final exam.

2. Disease screening co-op

In addition to education, the AFB also offers its members a 3rd-party Disease Screening Co-op in conjunction with the Mississippi State Pathology Department.  Caterpillars are screened by pathologists for viruses, bacteria and parasites, helping breeders to detect issues in breeding butterflies before disease can cause serious issues.

3. OE Clean Screen Program

The AFB has initiated the OE Clean Screen Program, a butterfly industry first. This is a 3rd-party OE testing program in which professional breeders voluntarily submit Monarch chrysalises to an independent University laboratory for OE testing when the adult butterfly emerges. Submitting fresh chrysalises eliminates any possibility of “selection” for OE-free AFBlogo

butterflies. Acceptable OE levels reflect natural background levels, with 20% of all butterflies tested having either no OE or showing light contamination (less than 100 spores). The program was set up with comments and advice from Dr. Sonia Altizer, a leading Monarch butterfly researcher and world-expert on OE.

Testing is voluntary and anonymous. Breeders will receive a Clean Screen rating and be highlighted on the AFB website as part of a Preferred Listing. The rating indicates that the breeder has met standards for OE prevention that have been approved by academic researchers. No program with this level of rigor and independent evaluation has ever been attempted. This is a serious program to address a legitimate concern. It is open to all butterfly farmers, even if they do not belong to the AFB.

The purpose of this testing program is not to penalize breeders who may have OE-positive butterflies, but to get a better picture of the butterfly industry, offer support and education, troubleshoot, identify, and correct possible rearing problems, and to encourage all butterfly breeders to do a better job of keeping a clean operation. The result will be that customers will be able to compare butterfly breeders based on this independent standard. The marketplace will determine the rest. Independent, 3rd-party certification allows customers to know that the breeder was producing Clean Screen stock at the time and that they are taking an active interest in producing healthy butterflies. Thus, it is in the butterfly breeder’s best interest, once they have Clean Screen stock, to maintain them.

There are unscrupulous butterfly breeders out there who do not practice clean breeding techniques and give the entire butterfly industry an unfavorable image. Because these unscrupulous breeders exist, buying butterflies from breeders engaged in independent 3rd-party testing allows customers to know that they are buying from a butterfly breeder who is seriously working to produce healthy butterflies.

In closing, butterfly disease is a concern for all ethical butterfly breeders and the AFB is working hard to provide the best possible support to butterfly breeders for rearing healthy butterflies.

*When she’s not raising butterflies, Barbara Dorf works as a fishery biologist at Texas Parks and Wildlife.  She earned her PhD in biological oceanography at the University of Rhode Island and holds undergraduate degrees in wildlife and fisheries science and aquatic biology.
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Lawsuit seeks ESA Monarch butterfly listing, turns up heat on commercial breeders

The battle to list the Monarch butterfly as “threatened” under the federal Endangered Species Act inched forward last week, as the Center for Biological Diversity and Center for Food Safety announced they will file suit against the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) for failing to meet a December 26 deadline.

Monarch on swamp milkweed Arsenal

Will Monarch butterflies be listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act?  Photo by Monika Maeckle

The intent to file suit was announced in a January 5 press release and will be acted upon in 60 days if no ruling is made.

Those specializing in endangered species issues said such lawsuits are not unusual in the often convoluted listing process. After providing an update to the Texas State Comptroller’s Monarch Butterfly Task Force Working Group in Austin last moth, Katie Latta, USFWS Monarch Outreach Specialist, said such lawsuits at times delay the process and other times speed things up.

David Braun, Principal of Braun & Gresham, a Dripping Springs, Texas-based law firm that works with private landowners and communities on endangered species issues, said, “It’s not unusual, but frankly I think it sometimes slows things down.”

Dr. Lincoln Brower was among the first to share the news on the DPLEX list--photo via Monarch Butterfly Fund

Dr. Lincoln Brower –photo via Monarch Butterfly Fund

Monarch butterfly expert Dr. LIncoln Brower, who joined with the Center for Biological Diversity and Center for Food Safety in filing the petition in August of 2014, was among the first to share the news on the DPLEX email list, a listserv of about 800 Monarch butterfly enthusiasts, scientists and citizen scientists.

In sharing the news, Dr. Brower pointed out how powerful the petition has been in galvanizing support for Monarch butterfly and pollinator habitat.  It has stimulated “all sorts of positive national and international actions to help what is an increasingly serious problem,” wrote Brower.

Commercial butterfly breeders, who oppose clauses in the petition that support an end to the commercial breeding and shipping of Monarch butterflies, took the news in stride.

“Lawsuits resulting from an impassioned and hot button issue such as Monarch butterflies come as no surprise,” said Kathy Marshburn, president of the 100-member International Butterfly Breeders Association (IBBA), a trade association for those who make a living breeding and selling butterflies.

The Association for Butterflies, another butterfly breeding interest group of 81 commercial and hobbyist breeders (including me), quickly relayed the news to its membership which provoked a general consensus that “the lawyers” will be the only winners in the saga.

The petitioners believe that commercial breeders release diseased butterflies into the wild population, potentially damaging it.  In particular, the Monarch-centric spore, Ophyrocystis elektroscirrha (OE), poses a special threat. OE thrives in conditions where the butterflies congregate in large groups, are crowded (presumably as in breeding operations), and/or where milkweeds overwinter.  Recent studies by University of Georgia scientists raise concerns that OE spores, which transfer from the butterflies to their milkweed host plant,  will be consumed by and infect subsequent generations of caterpillars, carried into the next season, and ultimately, jeopardize the migration.

Yet scientists agree that OE already is present in the wild population, just as Streptococcus, the nasty sore throat-causing bacteria, is present in the human population. Scientists use a 1-5 rating system to determine the extent to which a Monarch butterfly is infected.  On her Monarch parasites webpage, OE expert Dr. Sonia Altizer and her University of Georgia team recommend destroying any Monarchs which are infected by putting them in the freezer for an hour.

Both the IBBA and the AFB have taken steps to educate their memberships about best practices for raising healthy, OE-free butterflies in response to the petition.

ibbaIBBA President Marshburn relayed that courses given by Monarch scientists Dr. Sonia Altizer and Dr. Jaap de Roode have been provided to IBBA members at no charge.  Coaching calls by the IBBA’s most experienced breeders and discounts for pathology screenings are also offered.

The AFB has also worked to educate its membership. President Tatia VeltKamp shared plans for a voluntary OE pupae screening with an independent lab as well as a seal farmers can earn and display on their websites when they complete a four-week disease course.

Education is a step in the right direction, but commercial breeders need to be more aggressive in creating some kind of mandatory self-regulation to ensure healthy livestock don’t damage the wild population.  Independent random OE testing of commercially bred butterflies would go a long way toward assuaging concerns.  The USDA already regulates the transport of butterflies across state lines, requiring shipping permits and forbidding certain species where they are not native.  But OE demands a special check.

OE spores

OE spores are the smaller dots. The larger football shapes are scales. Photo via Monarchparasites.uga.edu

Another option would be to have an independent firm inspect and certify OE free environments at farms. Findings would be published online and butterfly buying customers could choose the reputable “clean” breeders before making a purchase.

Presumably, breeders could also charge more for OE-free certified butterflies—like organic produce. To offset extra costs, breeders could increase prices or suggest a voluntary additional charge on each order. Monarch butterflies typically cost $7.50 and up retail,  depending on availability, time of year, and number ordered. Shipping charges also apply.

I admit to having a soft spot for commercial butterfly breeders. For a brief time, I wanted to become a breeder and joined the IBBA. I got to know this wonderful group of butterfly enthusiasts and learned to respect the challenge of breeding healthy butterflies on deadline.  It’s hard work.

In addition, every butterfly breeder I met through these organizations gravitated to the business because of pure passion for butterflies and a desire to share it.

Nola Hamilton Garcia with Monarch butterfly

The magic and engagement resulting from interactions with butterflies is one of the most powerful tools in the conservation arsenal. Photo by Tracy Idell Hamilton

There’s a place in Monarch butterfly conservation for commercial butterfly breeding. The magic, education and joy that result from the tactile experience of the inter-species connection of butterfly release events and education have the capacity to touch people and make them care.  Interacting with Monarchs in a tactile way serves as one of the most powerful tools in the conservation arsenal.  It should not be reserved only for scientists, professionals, or those with access to wild milkweed patches and gardens, which is what would happen if commercial butterfly breeding were outlawed by the petition’s enactment.  City kids would be completely cut out of this experience if the Monarch becomes listed. And that would be a shame.

Continued lethargy by the IBBA and AFB on self-regulation will contribute to more scrutiny of commercially bred butterfly livestock and could result in more government regulation of their industry.   At best, inaction fosters a PR problem; at worst, it spells the demise of their industry.

Meanwhile, this focus on professional breeders does nothing to address the many butterflies raised at home by people like me who know way less about clean breeding than those who make their living from it.  Based on personal experience and from the active exchanges on the DPLEX list, thousands and thousands of butterflies are raised and released by hobbyist enthusiasts each season. Do those rearing at home bleach their caterpillar cages, wear disposable plastic gloves, provide each caterpillar with their personal container?

Few of these home-reared butterflies, if any, are checked for OE.  Even if Monarchs are listed, I can’t imagine people stopping this practice, which would limit enthusiasts to 100 butterflies per person/per year.  That suggested number increased from 10 per year in the petition after much public outcry.  I agree with Dr. Brower that the petition has done much to galvanize interest and support in Monarchs and other butterflies–including raising them at home.

Monarch Butterfly chrysalis envy

Hobbyist breeders unleash thousands of Monarch butterflies into the universe each season. How many have OE? Photo by Tami Gingrich of northeastern Ohio via Facebook

The reasons for the general decline of Monarchs are well documented: genetically modified and herbicide tolerant crops, continued urbanization and habitat destruction along the migratory path, illegal logging in Mexico, climate change, and pesticide use.  Is OE, one of many diseases and natural threats to Monarchs and other milkweed feeders a major factor in the Monarchs’ decline?

Some scientists think so.  Dr. Andy Davis, who is married to Dr. Sonia Altizer, has stated emphatically that the Monarch butterfly is not endangered but that he supports the petition because he thinks OE is the number one threat to Monarchs.

In a recent blogpost on his extremely readable MonarchScience blog, Davis stated: “That’s right, the Monarch declines are not a sure thing.”

In a November 7, 2015 blogpost headlined Why I signed the petition to list Monarchs, even though the evidence for declines is shaky, Davis laid out his logic for supporting the petition. “If I don’t think Monarchs are declining, why did I sign it? It was actually because of a small clause that was buried in the fine print – that stated if the listing was enacted, it would become illegal for people to rear more than 100 Monarchs.”

Davis is adamantly opposed to people raising Monarch butterflies in large numbers because he feels that OE is the number one threat to the Monarch migration. As the contentious debate to answer that question continues, commercial breeders could make a huge contribution to the cause by developing credible ways to eradicate OE in their livestock.

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Texas Comptroller’s office provides update on Monarch butterfly research, ESA status

About 35 people attended the second Monarch Butterfly Task Force working group meeting in Austin on Thursday, December 17, to hear updates from the Texas State Comptroller’s office on the status of research and assessing whether or not to recommend the Monarch butterfly be listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.

Late season UTSA Monarch

UTSA is growing A LOT of milkweed. Here, late season Monarch, 12/8/2015 at the UTSA greenhouse. Photo courtesy UTSA.

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 assessing their economic impact on the state.  Annual $5 million appropriations approved by the Texas Legislature fund the effort, lead by Dr. Robert Gulley of San Antonio.

Since the Monarch butterfly was submitted for consideration as a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act in August of 2014, research surrounding the ramifications of such a listing falls under the Task Force’s jurisdiction.

Dr. Gulley warmly welcomed the crowd with the prediction:  “I think we’re in for a very interesting meeting.”

And it was.  Dr. Janis Bush of the University of Texas at San Antonio kicked off the 9 AM session with updates on the $300K research grant awarded her in June to inventory milkweed, the Monarch butterfly host plant, in the state of Texas.

UTSA's Dr. Janis Bush is leading the $300K research grant. Courtesy photo

UTSA’s Dr. Janis Bush is leading the research. Courtesy photo

The Lone Star State has been deemed critically important to the health of the Monarch butterfly migration since the butterflies must pass through the “Texas funnel” coming and going on their epic migration to and from their roosting grounds in MIchoacán in the spring and fall.  Monarchs often lay the first generation of eggs in the multigeneration migration here; in autumn, they use Texas as a major nectar stop for fueling their long journey.

About 24 UTSA research associates, students and volunteers have already completed two milkweed surveys under Dr. Bush’s direction–one in July and another in October-November.   The study’s east-west transect stretches from PIneland to Ozona and the north-south from Wichita Falls to Alice.  Field crews stopped every 10 miles to survey the roadside for milkweed over several days. The research hopes to replicate the first such survey done by Dr. William Calvertt in 1996.

“This is just a snapshot in time” Bush said more than once.  She also mentioned that the “pattern between precipitation and milkweed is not clear….If you increase the amount of moisture in Austin, you don’t increase the number of hectares [of roosting Monarch butterflies} in Mexico.”

The UTSA team is also growing a lot of milkweed at a newly constructed UTSA greenhouse, said Bush–six native species as well as the controversial Monarch butterfly favorite, Asclepias curassavica, commonly known as Tropical milkweed.   The team aims to better understand what species Monarch butterflies prefer, seed viability and germination rates, soil, light and nutrient requirements, and drought tolerance.

Bush said she was surprised to learn that rats eat milkweed, something that butterfly breeders and Monarch butterfly enthusiasts have noticed for years.  Two different kinds of rats–a native cotton rat and nonnative Norwegian rat–made unwelcome visits to UTSA’s newly constructed milkweed greenhouse and decimated the plants.  “We don’t know if they got sick,” said Bush, alluding to the bitter-tasting cardiac glycosides found in milkweed that make Monarch butterflies unsavory to predators, “but they seem to like it.”

The UTSA research will also take a look at fire ant impacts on Monarchs and land management best practices.   For example, what effect does mowing have on milkweed?  How does milkweed respond to burning?  Bush also shared with the group San Antonio’s recently named status as the first and only Monarch Champion city by the National Wildlife Federation.  Mayor Ivy Taylor signed the NWF’s Mayor’s Monarch Pledge last week, making San Antonio the first city to adopt all 24 NWF recommended actions that aim to preserve and increase pollinator habitat.

“I’ve never seen the excitement for a species that I’ve seen with the Monarch,” said biologist Russell Castro of the USDA National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), following  Dr. Bush.  Castro described the NRCS Monarch Butterfly Habitat Development Project, which works with private landowners to increase pollinator habitat in Texas.  Budgeted for $4 million nationwide in 2016, “not that much money for Texas when you get down to it,” said Castro, “Monarch butterflies are the best thing going for conservation on the ground.”

 

ESA process

The process for getting a species listed is convoluted and takes years. Graphic via USFWS

Then Katie Latta, USFWS Monarch Outreach Specialist, took the podium to offer a quick update on the status of the Monarch’s endangered species status listing.

At the moment, we are in the status review phase, which means USFWS is reviewing information and research to determine whether or not the listing of the Monarch as “threatened” is warranted. At some time in 2017 or 2018, USFWS will rule whether the listing is warranted or not.  Lawsuits could delay the process further, or make the listing happen more quickly,  she said.

Finally, the session closed with Cary Dupuy of the Comptroller’s office explaining future funding opportunities and likely areas of research focus.

Sometime in early 2016, a Request for Proposal will be circulated and published in the Texas Register inviting public universities to apply for grants. (Gulley pointed out that the Comptroller’s office is not obliged to issue RFPs, but in the interest of transparency, is doing so.)  Subjects likely to be given serious consideration include best ways to eradicate red imported fire ants, as well as research on answering the intriguing question: “What’s going on with the fifth generation of Monarchs?” said Dupuy.

Got questions? Edith has the answers. In this case, this is one fertile female Monarch. Photo courtesy Edith Smith

Monarch butterfly laying eggs.   Apparently, lates season Monarchs ARE reproductive. Photo courtesy Edith Smith

For years scientists believed that Monarch butterflies migrating to Mexico late in the season were not reproductive.  Conventional wisdom said migrating Monarchs  suspended reproduction to conserve energy for the long flight to Mexico by assuming diapause, which is a state of suspended development of the reproductive organs.

Yet many of us have witnessed late season Monarchs engaging in reproduction as well  laying their eggs on any milkweeds they can find, often bearing fifth and sometimes sixth generation offspring well into November and sometimes December.

This information has been collected anecdotally and through various citizen science efforts, including the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project and Monarch Watch.  Dupuy suggested that scientific research would be helpful in determining the reality of the situation. Do the offspring of those late season Monarchs migrate, or do they become local residents?  With climate change and more milkweeds available later in the year, the question will become even more interesting.

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Monarch Champion status NOT “just talk,” will change how San Antonio manages land

Wednesday, December 9 was a banner day for Monarch butterflies and all pollinators in San Antonio, Texas. That’s when Mayor Ivy Taylor announced that the Alamo City has been named the first Monarch Champion in the country by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF).

Mayor Ivy Taylor's Monarch butterfly wing bling

San Antoino Mayor Ivy Taylor sported Monarch butterfly wing bling when she announced San Antonio’s Monarch Champion status and her signature on the Mayor’s Monarch Pledge December 9. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Standing before a group of pollinator enthusiasts at City Hall and wearing stylish Monarch butterfly wing earrings, Mayor Taylor shared the proclamation that commits our city to adopting all 24 recommended actions cited by the NWF in their nationwide initiative known as the Mayor’s Monarch Pledge.

“I am pleased that we have set the bar so high in our efforts to attract and care for one very important set of visitors, migrating Monarch butterflies,” said Mayor Taylor in a prepared statement.

That high bar means San Antonio can expect more citizen science projects, a pollinator garden at City Hall or another highly visible public space, more pollinator-friendly landscape ordinances and city mowing schedules, and my personal favorite–a butterfly festival.  Insecta Fiesta, anyone?

We’re talking changes in building codes, recommendations for landscaping by the City’s Sustainability Office and increased grassroots activities like city-sanctioned native plant sales and seed exchanges.

Doug Melnick, Chief Sustainability Officer for the City of San Antonio, said the Mayor’s Pledge is not “just talk.” It will bring about real change. “This will positively impact how we manage city-owned land,” he said.

Antelope horns

Antelope horns milkweed for San Antonio’s “inferno strips”?   GREAT IDEA!  Photo by Monika Maeckle

“I hope to see a citywide conversion of useless streetside inferno strips to Antelope horns milkweed,” said another city staffer who works for our award-winning water utility, SAWS.  The staff person referred to the overheated and challenging-to-landscape swatch of land found between a city sidewalk and the street.   SAWS has done much to raise awareness of native, pollinator-friendly plants through its GardenStyleSA website and WaterSaver coupons that offer rebates to those who replace water-guzzling  turf with native plants.

The timing couldn’t be better, said Melnick.  The City is currently developing three plans under the umbrella of SA Tomorrow: Comprehensive, Sustainability, and Strategic Multi-Modal plans. “We have a great opportunity to further the protection of Monarch butterfly habitats and enhance our biodiversity by incorporating these key strategies into our plans, which will provide a framework for growth through 2040,” he said.

Mayor Ivy Taylor reads a proclamation to butterfly conservationists led by Nationa Wildlife Federation Monarch Outreach Specialist Grace Barnett (center). Photo by Scott Ball.

Mayor Ivy Taylor reads the proclamation to butterfly conservationists led by National Wildlife Federation Monarch Outreach Specialist Grace Barnett (center). Photo by Scott Ball.

NWF officials were “stunned” by San Antonio’s commitment, said Grace Barnett, NWF Monarch outreach coordinator who works out of Austin for the Washington, D.C. conservation group. In fact, after Mayor Taylor signed the Pledge on Monday, Dec. 7, NWF had to arrange a quick conference call to come up with a new category of support: Monarch Champion. “No one expected a city to take on all of the potential actions associated with the Pledge,” said Barnett.

To date, 46 cities have signed up for the national campaign to encourage mayors and local governments to increase Monarch butterfly and pollinator habitat.

Seven cities including Austin, Dallas, and St. Louis signed the Pledge and agreed to adopt eight or more of the 24 items to join the “leadership circle” of Monarch Mayors. Another 38 cities agreed to do three of the items. Only San Antonio agreed to 24 of 24. See the full list.

Monarch migration map

Monarchs must pass through the “Texas funnel”  coming and going to Mexico.  Graphic by Nicolas Rivard

As those of you that read the Texas Butterfly Ranch well know, Monarch butterflies migrate each spring and fall over multiple generations, moving from Mexico to Canada and back before settling into their roosts for the winter in the mountainous forests west of Mexico City. At the beginning and end of their journey, they pass through the “Texas funnel,” making our part of the world especially strategic to their migration. San Antonio lies in the heart of that migratory path and often serves as the first stop on the migration north in the spring and as the last stop in the funnel south in the fall.

In recent years, the Monarch butterfly migration has declined dramatically–by 80% from the 21-year average across North America, according to the pollinator advocacy organization the Xerces Society.  Scientists attribute the decline to habitat loss, the increase in genetically modified crops in their primary breeding zone in the Midwest, increased pesticide use and climate change.

In August of 2014, several organizations submitted a petition to list the Monarch butterfly as a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act. The petition is under review. In May of 2015, President Obama announced a National Pollinator Strategy that addressed not only the decline of Monarch butterflies, but the demise of bees. The 58-page document also committed the federal government to restore seven million acres of pollinator habitat over the next five years, with a special focus on the IH-35 corridor.

All that focus on Monarchs and pollinators has made San Antonio’s long commitment to pollinator advocacy ripe for the Pledge.

Volunteers like Mary Kennedy, Kip Kiphart and Mobi Warren have worked tirelessly with the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project (MLMP), a citizen scientist initiative developed at the University of Minnesota.   Local MLMP volunteers have meticulously inventoried natural cycles of milkweeds (the Monarch host plant), eggs, caterpillars, chrysalises and butterflies at Cibolo Nature Center and the Museum Reach Milkweed Patch for years.

Citizen scientist volunteer Mobi Warren prepares to condusct reserach for MLMP at the San Antonio River Museum Reach Milkweed Patch. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Citizen scientist volunteer Mobi Warren prepares to condusct reserach for MLMP at the San Antonio River Museum Reach Milkweed Patch. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Just a short walk south of the Pearl on the San Antonio River, San Antonio’s Milkweed Patch serves an important inland urban monitoring site for overwintering Monarchs and has been the site of research conducted by some of the top Monarch scientists in the country, including Dr. Karen Oberhauser of the University of Minnesota and Dr. Sonia Altizer of the University of Georgia.

Some of us in the San Antonio area tag Monarch butterflies in the fall, as part of the Monarch Watch citizen science tagging program based out of the University of Kansas at Lawrence. Butterflies tagged in San Antonio and the Texas Hill Country have been recovered in the mountains of Michoacán, proving migratory patterns and providing data for scientists. (Personally I have tagged more than 2,000 butterflies, with 27 recoveries.) Programs and pollinator gardens have been established via Phil Hardberger Park, San Antonio Botanical Garden, Mitchell Lake Audubon Center, the Native Plant Society and elsewhere, as well as at community and private gardens all over town.

Tagged Monarch

Many of us tag Monarch butterflies as citizen scientists for Monarch Watch.  This one was raised and tagged in the Lavaca neighborhood  in downtown San Antonio. Photo by Monika Maeckle

That’s not to say we’re limited to citizen science in San Antonio. A recent $300K grant awarded UTSA by the State Comptroller’s Office to perform a statewide milkweed survey also contributed to our Monarch Champion status.  Combine that with our unique geographic location, special relationship with Mexico (the winter home to the mariposa monarca), the work of SAWS and San Antonio River Authority (SARA)  on the Museum and Mission Reach restorations with our passionate volunteers and grass roots efforts,   and San Antonio looks ideally suited to live up to the Mayor’s Monarch Pledge.

UTSA students milkweed survey

University of Texas at San Antonio students conduct research for a statewide milkweed survey. Photo courtesy UTSA

For a while, we wondered if it were going to happen.

NWF’s Grace Barnett, Dr. Terri Matiella of UTSA and I met with the Mayor’s office in October requesting that Mayor Taylor sign the Pledge. By doing so, she would have joined mayors in St. Louis, Austin, Grand Prairie, and six other cities along the IH-35 corridor that were among the vanguard to sign up. All we expected was participation–a commitment to three of the 24 items. The Mayor’s office was very receptive, but as is often the case when dealing with city government, nothing happened immediately.

Later we met with the City sustainability office. Joan Miller of the Native Plant Society of Texas joined us.  Again, very receptive. Yet….by early December, cities like Oklahoma City, Houston and Garrett, Texas, (population 800) had signed the Pledge while San Antonio continued to consider its options.

Butterfly advocates speculated as recently as the weekend before its signing that the Pledge was dead. Little did we know that what was taking so long was that the Mayor’s office was working with departments across the City to assure they could come through with all 24 items and make us the nation’s first Monarch Champion city.

In addition to the NWF reccomendations, Mayor Taylor said she is even considering a pollinator garden in her Dignowity Hill front yard as well as at the historic Dignowity Park, which her home fronts.  Whenever you’re ready, Mayor, let us know. Our pollinator posse will bring shovels, spades, native milkweeds and nectar plants to help make it happen.

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