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

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

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

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

Fried Green Tomatoes with Tomato Hornworms

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

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

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

Robert Nathan Allen

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapul Cricket flour protein bars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emperor Moth

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

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

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

Cooked Mopane Worm

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

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

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

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

chicatanas

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

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

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

Chapulines Sazonados

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

Chapulines high protein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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2013′s Top Posts: Moths, Monarch Decline, How to Raise Butterflies, Move a Chrysalis

We close out 2013 as a banner year at the Texas Butterfly Ranch.  2013 marked our third year covering the life cycle of butterflies, moths and the plants that sustain them.  We published 35 posts this year and drew 107,000+ page views–up from 42,000 in 2012.   Thanks to all for reading.

The decline of the Monarch butterfly migration led butterfly news this year, with a post detailing the steady downward spiral topping the list.  Interestingly, posts about how-to-raise butterflies and what species of milkweed to plant also ranked highly–apparent responses to the severity of pollinator decline? Hmm.

Below, you’ll find the posts you enjoyed most in 2013.

Monarch butterflies in decline

Dire predictions became reality in November when news reports suggested that  only three million Monarch butterflies would make it to Mexico this year.  For the first time in recorded history, Monarch butterflies did not arrive at their ancestral roosts in Michoacán en masse by Day of the Dead, November 2.  Scientists were concerned at this historic tardy turn.

Monarch graph Journey North

Only three million Monarchs made it to Mexico and may occupy only 1.25 acres of forest this year, a record low. Graph via Journey North

The 2012 season, acknowledged as the worst year for the insects population wise, counted 60 million Monarchs.  In prime years, they numbered 450 million.  Looks like 2013 will hold the dubious distinction of the year the migration came unraveled.

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, relayed a similar prognosis earlier in the season when he told the International Butterfly Breeders conference that the butterflies would likely occupy only 1.25 acres of forest in the mountainous roosting grounds west of Mexico City.  At their height, the creatures roosted in 50+ acres of forest.

Chip Taylor and Kathy Marshburn

Dr. Chip Taylor visits with IBBA president Kathy Marshburn at the organization’s combined conference with the Association for Butterflies in November. Photo by Monika Maeckle

How unspeakably sad that the entire population of Monarch butterflies east of the Rocky Mountains could fit into a space smaller than a strip shopping center.

People are doing what they can to help Monarchs on the home front

Our two-part feature on How to Raise Monarch Butterflies at Home ranked a top post  with readers.   In April I wrote that I had collected Monarch eggs from milkweed in my  front yard. Subsequent posts detailed step-by-step how easy it is to raise Monarch butterflies at home.

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed

Monarch butterfly caterpillar on milkweed, its host plant. You can raise them at home–it’s easy! Photo by Monika Maeckle

We started with the eggs, watching them hatch and become tiny caterpillars.  We fueled their growth with fresh, pesticide-free milkweed, then followed their whole lifecycle to the chrysalis stage and finally their eclosure to a butterfly. You can do it, too.  Read the two-part series here.

Moths:  Underappreciated, extremely interesting

While we call ourselves the Texas Butterfly Ranch, we try not to be speciesists.  That is, we try not to give too much attention to one species over another—although that’s pretty much impossible given America’s love affair with the Monarch butterfly.

We agree that Monarchs and other butterflies seem to get all the press at the expense of their less celebrated, night flying cousins.  That said, we try to spread the love around.

In fact, two of our top posts in 2013 didn’t even discuss butterflies.  Instead, they profiled two of the more interesting moths you’ll likely find in your gardens.

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

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

This post on tomato hornworms ran back in June 2012, yet climbed easily into one of the top reads of 2013—18 months after it posted in the height of summer.   Perhaps because so little is written about moths?  Or maybe thanks to National Moth Week, a relatively new celebration launched by the Friends of the East Brunswick Environmental Commission (Friends of EBEC), a group of citizen scientists that focus on the fascinating flyers every summer.  Mark your calendar for National Moth Week 2014, July 19 – 27, as a week that will celebrate their existence.

The truth is that even butterfly loving vegetable gardeners often squish the tomato and tobacco hornworms, which feast voraciously on tomato, pepper and potato plants and other members of the Solanaceae family.  We encourage ceding a few fruits or entire plants to these dramatic caterpillars, which later morph into beautiful Sphinx Moths.

Sphinx Moth caterpillar on Jimsonweed

Look for Tobacco Hornworms on Jimsonweed and your tomato plants.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Then, our story on the mysterious, myth-laden Black Witch Moth: Large, Common, Bat-like, and Harmless drew lots of interest.

This “bat moth” resembles a bat in size and shape and its seven-inch wingspan ranks it as the largest moth in North America.  Black Witch Moths are common in Central and South Texas and frequently rest under the eaves of houses near doors, often startling folks as they arrive home.   Generous rains seem to have offered favorable conditions for them this year, as we had many questions about them.

Black WItch Moth Huatulco

Black Witch Moth seen in a kitchen on a full moon night.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

The folklore surrounding these harmless nightflyers runs the gamut.  They can be a harbinger of death–or a sign that your future includes a winning lottery ticket.

Butterfly 911:  lack of host plant results in milkweed emergency

This post on a “milkweed emergency” drew plenty of views and the most comments of any post ever on the Texas Butterfly Ranch  (76).

The quandary of too many caterpillars and no milkweed to feed them continues to find readers, especially at the end of the Monarch butterfly season when nurseries and gardens have exhausted their host plant supplies.

Monarch on Milkweed

It takes a lot of milkweed to grow a Monarch butterfly. The caterpillars consume 200x their birth weight in milkweed leaves. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Every fall, we receive frantic emails, Facebook posts and even phone calls from people who have plenty of Monarch caterpillars, but no milkweed on hand.   A milkweed shortage pretty much defines the plight of Monarch butterflies throughout the migration landscape.

Frequently, folks will run out to a nursery and buy a fresh pot of milkweed, unaware that plants have been sprayed with systemic pesticides, which can last six months.   This post details how to avoid the sad experience of finding all your caterpillars dead from toxic poisoning the morning after you’ve served them polluted host plant.

How to Move a Monarch Chrysalis

If you can get your caterpillars to the chrysalis stage, they often will build their jade jewel in an inconvenient location.   A post that draws steady interest year after year answers the frequently asked question:  Is Relocating a Monarch Chrysalis OK?

Monarch chrysalis and butterfly

The answer:  yes, you may relocate the creatures once they make their chrysalis.

The post details a few tips on how to handle a Monarch chrysalis with care and do’s and don’ts for successfully relocating them.

Got Milkweed?  Updated guide to Texas milkweeds

Finally, rounding out our top posts of 2013, an updated Milkweed Guide: Choose Best Plants for Monarch Butterflies.    Given the news of the decline of the Monarch butterfly migration, the call to plant milkweed and other wildflowers to make sure pollinators—not just Monarchs—continue their life cycle becomes urgent.

Antelope horns

Asclepias asperula, Antelope Horns Milkweed on Texas Hill Country roadside in April 2011, photo by Monika Maeckle

We get many questions  in our emailbox regarding which species are best for San Antonio and Austin yards, ranches, or even a vacant lots that beg for a butterfly garden.   Our Milkweed Guide aims to point you in the right direction.

We’ve added a few links below to other favorite posts that we believe merit your time.   We hope they pique your interest.  Let us know by leaving a comment.

To all our readers, mariposistas, MOTH-ers, butterfly lovers near and far–cheers to a healthy, happy 2014.   Plant lots of wildflowers, host and pollinator plants in 2014.   Stay away from pollutants and pesticides. Enjoy and tend your gardens and wildscapes.

See you outside.

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Celebrate the Winter Solstice with Seedballs this Saturday

This Saturday at 11:11 AM, the sun will move directly over the Tropic of Capricorn and we’ll experience the official start of winter–the December solstice. The sun will set on Saturday at 5:40 PM, clocking only 10 hours and 15 minutes (and 35 seconds if you’re counting) of daylight.  This starts the march toward spring and marks the longest  night and shortest day of the year.

Earth

Get ready for a long night this SAturday, December 21.  It’s the winter solstice.  Photo via NASA

In 2012, millions of survivalists, doomsday believers and new age spiritualists bought into the false notion that the world would end on the day of the winter solstice.  A false reading of the Mayan calendar accounted for the madness.   And here we are again, noting the first day of winter and the march toward spring.

Let there be seedballs

Let there be seedballs! Mark the march toward spring and help make next year’s wildflowers happen by making seedballs.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

At my house we choose to celebrate the arrival of winter with an annual rite of making seedballs.   Some folks bake Christmas cookies.  Others craft tamales.   We like to mix soil, clay, water and seed with a generous dash of chile pepper to make seedballs, a facilitator of wildflowers, the nectar sources and hosts for next year’s butterflies.

What are seedballs?

Introduced in the 70s, seedballs are a form of “guerilla gardening” whereby seeds, soil and clay are mixed together into tidy germination bombs that are said to have an 80% higher success rate than simply broadcasting seeds onto soil.  Adding red potters’ clay to the mix protects the seeds from being blown away by wind and a dash of chile pepper makes the seeds less tasty to insects and birds.

Seeds for Seedballs

Collect seeds now for seedballs.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Generally, seedballs don’t require watering and you should NOT bury or plant them.

Simply toss them in a vacant lot, your front yard, or a wildscape situation like a ranch or roadside.  Wait for rain to melt away the clay casing, and nature will do the rest.

Monika Maeckle, Annie Schenzel, Shelley Ericson make seedballs

Seedball party?  Count me in.  Photo by Hugh Daschbach

Seedball recipes vary as much as those for Christmas cookies.  Some seedball aficionados recommend a 3:2:1 ratio of soil, clay and seed, adding nutrient rich ingredients like worm casings or other natural fortifiers.  The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center encourages a concoction that includes sifting, humus with good bacteria intact, your local soil, and

What do you need to make seedballs?  Seeds, soil, clay and water

What do you need to make seedballs? Seeds, soil, clay and water–and chile powder.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

sand.  I’ve had great success using three parts local or potting soil, one-two parts red potter’s clay powder (purchased from a pottery supply) and one part seeds. The clay binds the ingredients and keeps the balls intact.  Add water until you get a workable dough that allows you to roll a spoonful of seedball mix into a ball that doesn’t stick.  If you find that your seedball dough is too watery, just wait.  The soil soaks up the excess liquid with time.

Mix well until you get a consistency that easily formed into seedballs.

Soil, seeds, red clay, water–and chili pepper. Mix until you get a consistency that is easily formed into seedballs.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Put them on newspaper to set up and then add my secret ingredient: red chile pepper.  The pepper discourages insects, birds and other critters from denigrating or eating the seeds, giving them a better chance at germinating and becoming wildflowers for pollinators.

Seedball properly planted

Seedball properly tossed.  Throw them wherey they won’t compete with grass. Make sure it has contact with soil. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Once the seedballs set up, usually after 24 hours, store them in paper bags for later use or toss them right away.

When you toss them, make sure they land where they can make contact with soil, as in the photo above.    If the seedballs have to compete directly with grass, leaves or forbs, germination rates of the seeds decrease.

Remember to use only native seeds for wildscaping situations. Good luck and let us know how it goes.

Seedball

Seedball improperly tossed. Make sure it makes contact with soil. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Texas Butterfly Ranch Seedball Recipe

  • 3 parts local soil or potting soil
  • 1 – 2 parts red potter’s clay powder, also known as “terracotta powder” at pottery supply stores
  • 1 part native wildflower seeds
  • Water, as needed.
  • Newspaper and cookie sheets for drying seedballs
  • Stainless steal bowls or pots for mixing
 
 ****
 
1.  Assemble ingredients.
2.  Mix soil, clay and wildflower seeds together in bowl.  Mix well.
3.  Add water to attain dough-like consistency, much like tart or pie dough
4. Pinch off or use spoon to grab gumball-sized amounts of the mix.  Roll between your palms to get round form.  Drop onto newspaper covered cookie sheet to dry.
5.  Sprinkle generously with red chile pepper.  Let set for 24 hours.
6.  Toss and wait.  Nature will do the rest.

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

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

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

Queens on sponges

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

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

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

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

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

Cold weather for butterflies

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

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

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

The butterflies refused my nectar feast.

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

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

Queens in the cage

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

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

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

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

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Only Three Million Monarch Butterflies Make it to Mexico this Year

The dismal state of the Monarch butterfly migration came into closer focus this week, as reports from Mexico suggest that only three million butterflies had arrived at the ancestral roosts in Michoacán, the New York Times reported.  The 2012 season, acknowledged as the worst year for the insects population wise, counted 60 million Monarchs.  In prime years, they numbered 450 million.

Video may be as good as it gets from now on, when it comes to observing the Monarch butterfly migration.  Enjoy this one, taken in 2007, by Jesse Waugh.  

 

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, relayed a similar prognosis two weeks ago, addressing the International Butterfly Breeders conference.   Dr. Taylor stated that the butterflies would likely occupy only 1.25 acres of forest in the mountainous roosting grounds west of Mexico City.  At their height, the creatures roosted in 50+ acres of forest. How depressing that the entire population of Monarch butterflies east of the Rocky Mountains could fit into a space smaller than a strip shopping center.

Monarch graph Journey North

Only three million Monarchs made it to Mexico this year and may occupy only 1.25 acres of forest this year, a record low. Graph via Journey North

Each December, scientists measure the hectares occupied by the migrating butterflies at their ancestral overwintering sites in the mountains of Michoacán to determine the size of their population. (NOTE: one hectare equals 2.47 acres.)

Our friend and Monarch butterfly expert Dr. Lincoln Brower, quoted in the New York Times, forwarded an email from Mexico to the D-PLEX list (an email list for butterfly enthusiasts) last week.

“What I find worrisome is the late arrival of the butterflies,” wrote Dr. Brower, adding that the butterflies usually arrive in force at the very beginning of November.  Concern resulted when for the first time in recorded history, the Monarchs did not arrive in time for Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico.  Here’s an excerpt from the email:

The monarch population is very low, the trees are not fully covered by monarch like in past years. In Chincua, there are approximately 14 trees, in Rosario, a similar number of trees was found, however in the past few days there was a cold front that entered the country, there were trees that fell down as a result of the strong winds, especially in Rosario, right in the middle of the monarch colony. The colony at Pelon is still wandering about and also with very low numbers.

 

Biologist Gloria Tavera Alonso told the Spanish language news agency EFE that “More or less we’re estimating that we’ll have 50 percent fewer than this time last year.”   Last year, only 60 million butterflies made it to the roosting sites, the worst year in history–until now.

Monarch butterfly on milkweed, November, 11, 2011

You can help by planting milkweed, the Monarch butterfly’s host plant. Here, a Monarch butterfly on Tropical milkweed.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

What can you do?   We’ve suggested in the past that you plant milkweed.  That’s a start.

But we also need to encourage our lawmakers to approve the Save America’s Pollinators Act, H.R. 2692.   The bill would ban neonicotinoid pesticides, introduced three decades ago without appropriate field study to its side effects.    The newcomer pesticide, often referred to as the “new DDT,” is the first new class of pesticides introduced in the last 50 years and while apparently

Save America's Pollinators

Don’t delay, sign the petition today. Photo via Friends of the Earth

milder on human beings, has a devastating effect on bees, butterflies, and other pollinators.  Here’s a few facts from the Xerces Society, a pollinator advocacy organization.

  • Neonicotinoid residues are found in pollen and nectar consumed by pollinators such as bees and butterflies. The residues can reach lethal concentrations in some situations.
  • Neonicotinoids can persist in soil for months or years after a single application. Measurable amounts of residues were found in woody plants up to six years after application.
  • Untreated plants may absorb chemical residues left over in the soil from the previous year.
  • Products approved for homeowners to use in gardens, lawns, and on ornamental trees have manufacturer-recommended application rates up to 120 times higher than rates approved for agricultural crops.

Recent research suggests that neonicotinoids can cause increased levels of proteins in bees that inhibit key molecules involved in their immune response, making the insects more susceptible to attack by harmful viruses.   The much publicized Colony Collapse Disorder, which has decimated the bee population, has been linked to neonicotinoids as well.

Insects like bees and butterflies are responsible for pollinating 75 percent of our food crops–one of every three bites of food you take. Shortages of bees have increased the cost of growing food because farmers must rent them for pollination services, resulting in food cost production increases by as much as 20%.

Please help protect bees, butterflies and other important pollinators by supporting H.R. 2692, the Save America’s Pollinators Act. They are the glue that binds our ecosystem.   Sign the petition now.   And in the meantime, plant some milkweed.

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Dr. Chip Taylor to Butterfly Breeders: Monarch Roosts May Occupy Only 1.25 Acres This Year

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, told more than 100 butterfly breeders, enthusiasts and citizen scientists Saturday night that the entirety of this year’s migrating Monarch butterfly population may occupy only a half of a hectare–or about 1.25 acres–in Mexico.   That would make this year’s Monarch population the smallest in its recorded history.

Blue Sky Monarchs

The Monarch butterfly migration faces serious risks, says Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Scientists measure the hectares occupied by the migrating butterflies each spring at the ancestral overwintering sites in the mountains of Michoacán to determine the size of the population.

“We had some really robust Monarch butterfly populations in the 90s,” Taylor said.  ”But we’re never going to see those again.”

The decline of the Monarch butterfly population.  In the 90s, their roosting grounds averaged 22 acres.  Graphic via Monarch Watch

The decline of the Monarch butterfly population. In the 90s, their roosting grounds averaged 22 acres. In 2013, they’re predicted to be 1.25 acres. Graphic via Monarch Watch

A perfect storm of dire circumstances is to blame.  The increased use of genetically modified crops, climate change disrupting the insects’ life cycle, pervasive pesticide use, general habitat destruction in the U.S. breeding grounds and in the roosting sites in Mexico–all have created a set of obstacles that threaten the continuation of the unique phenomenon of the Monarch migration.

“We all have to work together to create Monarch habitat,” Taylor told the combined audience of International Butterfly Breeders Association and the Association for Butterflies in San Antonio.  The conference convened to celebrate the 15th birthday of the butterfly breeding business, widely acknowledged to be founded by Rick Mikula, “the butterfly guy.”

Taylor’s presence at the convention was a hopeful sign that the academic/scientist community might be able to find common ground with professional breeders who supply hundreds of thousands of butterflies, caterpillars and eggs each year to schools, festivals, exhibits and other events.   The relationship has been taxed in the past by differences of opinion on the appropriateness of butterfly releases.

One point of agreement:  Monarchs are not only the “money crop” for breeders, they also are the poster species for climate change and habitat destruction.

Rick Mikula

Rick Mikula, widely considered the “father of the commercial butterfly breeding business” poses with the convention birthday cake. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“Monarchs are the iconic species to which we can attach passion and do good for pollinators,” Dr. Taylor told the crowd.   “It’s not just about the Monarchs.  It’s everything else.”

Borrowing from lectures that he delivers regularly to students at the University of Kansas at Lawrence with titles like “The World of 2040″ and “Humans & Climate:  Past, Present and Future,” Taylor summarized the scenarios shared by the recently released United Nations Climate Change report.  The report includes research that suggests global warming will

Happy birthday, Butterfly biz!

The combine conference of the IBBA and AFB celebrated 15 years of the commercial butterfly breeding business. Photo by Monika Maeckle

reduce agricultural production by as much as two percent each decade for the rest of this century while demand for food climbs 14%.  Dr. Taylor underscored the point by adding that 75% of food crops are pollinated by birds, bees and butterflies.   The presentation put a sobering spin on the otherwise celebratory evening, which concluded with an oversized chocolate birthday cake decorated with edible soy and rice paper butterflies.

IBBA president Kathy Marshburn suggested that IBBA breeders, who live in at least 30 states and 13 different countries, could easily participate in the Monarch Watch’s Monarch Waystation program.  The program, launched in 2005, encourages the public, schools and others to create pollinator habitat by planting milkweed gardens for Monarch butterflies, something that every breeder does in the course of their business.

“That would be a simple thing to accomplish,” said Marshburn, who committed to discussing a resolution by the IBBA Board of Directors to implement such a program.  ”It makes perfect sense,” she said, “and will push us more toward conservation efforts.”

Chip Taylor and Kathy Marshburn

Dr. Chip Taylor visits with IBBA president Kathy Marshburn at the organization’s combined conference with the Association for Butterflies in San Antonio. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Dr. Taylor posed for photos with conference attendees, answered questions and generally wowed the crowd with his accessibility, Father Christmas demeanor and passion for the topic.   To climate change deniers, Taylor said:  ”It’s physics.  It’s chemistry.  It’s undeniable.  Are we on a sustainable path?  No.”

Taylor has a decades long passion for pollinators.   He began his career studying sulphurs,  the ubiquitous yellow butterflies that feed on legumes such as clovers and alfalfa.   He was forced to leave that field of study after developing an allergy to them–an apparently not uncommon occurrence in science when one spends lots of time with a particular species.

sulphur butterfly

Dr. Chip Taylor began his scientific career studying Sulphurs. Photo courtesy University of Florida

He then moved on to moved on to studies of the biology of neotropical African (killer) bees in South and Central America, a course he pursued for 22 years.   In 1994 he started Monarch Watch, the citizen science tagging program that started in 1992 and tracks the Monarch migration by having common folks net, tag and record the sex of migrating butterflies, then report the information to a central database managed by the Monarch Watch staff at the University of Kansas at Lawrence.  The program has contributed much to the understanding of the mysterious Monarch butterfly migration.

Perhaps most important, though, is how Monarch Watch has engaged average citizens in  hands-on understanding of conservation and the environment.

Taylor, 76, said he feels a sense of urgency to engage the public in pollinator protection.  He has no qualms about tapping the popularity of Monarch butterflies to do so.  ”There’s an innate interest in this mysterious insect,” he said.

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Dr. Chip Taylor to Address Commercial Butterfly Breeders in San Antonio Nov. 7-10

Dr. Chip Taylor, the founder of Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas at Lawrence, will address almost 100 professional butterfly breeders this week at their annual conference in San Antonio.   Dr. Taylor oversees the citizen scientist tagging program that tracks the Monarch butterfly migration from Mexico to Canada and back each year.

Dr. Chip Taylor, Founder of Monarch Watch

Monarch Watch founder Dr. Chip Taylor on the Llano River in the Texas Hill Country last year.  Dr. Taylor will be in town this week to address the International Butterfly Breeders and the Association for Butterflies combined annual convention.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

The conference, a combined effort of the International Butterfly Breeders’ Association (IBBA) and the Association for Butterflies (AFB), will bring professional butterfly breeders and butterfly enthusiasts–mariposistas, as I like to call them–to the Drury Inn at La Cantera Parkway in San Antonio, November 7-10. The far-flung butterfly fans will gather from as far away as Costa Rica and as close as Rockport, Texas for education, networking and fun.

Painted Lady

Painted Lady butterflies and Monarchs are the “money crops” of the commercial butterfly breeding industry. Photo courtesy Edith Smith, Shady Oak Butterfly Farm

This year’s convention commemorates the IBBA’s 15th year and the founding of the multimillion dollar commercial butterfly breeding industry.   The butterfly breeding business supplies butterflies to schools, museums, zoos and exhibits for education and scientific purposes.  Live butterflies also are tapped to commemorate weddings, funerals and other special occasions.

The conference is open to the public.   “Butterfly beginners are welcome,” said Kathy Marshburn of Vibrant Wings Butterflies in South Carolina and Texas. Marshburn, who serves as IBBA president and conference organizer, pointed to sessions on butterfly gardening, parasites and how to raise butterflies as worthy investments of beginners’ time.

Butterfly garden harvest, May 8, 2011

Getting a caterpillar to the chrysalis stage can be challenging. Come learn the tricks of the trade from the professionals. Photo by Monika Maeckle

This will be my fourth IBBA convention.   Back in 2010, I attended my first in the unlikely venue of Las Vegas.  It set me off on a learning streak.

By the end of 2011 I thought I might want to raise butterflies full-time, as a profession.  I quit my corporate marketing position, applied for USDA permits to ship butterflies to the 48 contiguous states and cultivated my membership in the IBBA.

While my fantasy of becoming a professional breeder lasted only five months (Raising butterflies is too stressful–I’d rather meet copywriting deadlines!), it has been a great investment in my butterfly education. I’ve learned an immense amount and continue to enjoy the friendship and enlightenment offered by my professional butterfly breeder friends. 

Most impressive is the amazing generosity and knowlege-sharing of this fine group of ferociously independent professionals, the majority of whom chose this career because of a sheer love of butterflies.

If you want to learn or refine your butterfly rearing or caterpillar wrangling, I strongly encourage you to check out the program.  Depending on how many sessions you attend, cost ranges from $35 to hear Dr. Chip Taylor at the keynote dinner on Saturday night to $50 for a day pass.  Or you can spring for the whole three-day conference, which includes meals, for  $95–truly a butterfly bargain.   You can register online.

Todd Stout

Todd Stout, of Raising Butterflies, will lead a “butterfly hunt” in San Antonio. Courtesy photo

The conference kicks off on Thursday with a “butterfly hunt” led by Todd Stout, of Raising Butterflies, a butterfly breeder and lepidopterist who has scouted some of the best places to see butterflies in San Antonio.

“We’re looking forward to seeing lots of butterflies, including common mestra, variegated fritillary, lysine sulphurs, sleepy orange, and dainty sulphure,” Stout relayed via email.

You can learn how to raise Monarchs and Painted Ladies, what to plant in a butterfly garden, enter “The Secret World of the Monarch Metamorphosis,” take classes on pests and parasitoids, and meet the authors of more than half a dozen books on rearing, chasing, and gardening for butterflies.   Oh, and if you’re a devotee of butterfly oriented jewelry or merchandise, don’t miss the silent auction.  Vendors of butterfly paraphernalia, breeding supplies, books and more will also be on hand during breaks.

The conference will peak on Saturday evening when Dr. Taylor addresses the group.  Taylor has been involved in Monarch conservation for decades and is synonymous with the citizen scientist tagging program which he and his team oversee each year.  He’ll tackle the complex topic of the Monarch migration in the context of climate change.

“All of us face the challenge to engage in conservation of pollinator habitat,” said Dr. Taylor by phone.  ”Monarchs are the poster child and the threats to their migration are symbolic of what we’re doing to pollinators in this country–ignoring the fact that 80% of our crops require insect pollination and 70% of our vegetation, period, requires insect pollination.  We do this at our own peril.”

Hmm….is there a role in there for professional butterfly breeders?  Can’t wait to find out.

Take a look at the program.   I look forward to seeing you there.

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Lots of Butterflies, but No Monarchs on the Llano River this Weekend

It was a disappointing weekend of Monarch tagging.   Again.

This weekend was a repeat of last–with only one Monarch butterfly spotted, none tagged.   I’m betting Monarchs migrated further west.  Or more likely, this year’s crop was extremely thin.  I don’t foresee more tagging weekends this fall.  It’s over.

And honestly, we did not see the masses enjoyed in recent years.   Sightings of 10 – 20 have replaced masses of 100-200.

According to the Journey North website, Monarchs crossed the border into Mexico this week.  That suggests they have passed the Texas funnel.  We may still see singles and strays, but the “massive” migration–a shadow of its former self–has passed.

From Nuevo Leon:  ”Today, Monarchs were spotted for miles over three hours in some parts of Monterrey this morning,” wrote Rocio Treviño of Mexico’s Monarch tracking project, Correo Real, on October 23.  Similar bulletins were cited for Coahuila and Tamaulipas.

Tagged Monarch

Tagged Monarch, raised at home. Many of the Monarchs we tagged this year we raised ourselves. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The butterflies have not arrived at their ancestral roosts in the mountains of Michoacán.  On Thursday, Estela Romero, the Journey North correspondent on the ground in Michoacán, reported:

Our graph recording Monarchs’ arrival this week, filled in inside our VW due to the intense rain:   Z E R O on October 24.”

It’s difficult to be optimistic about the future of the Monarch migration.   Every obstacle has been thrown in its path.  Habitat destruction in the flyway, the breeding grounds and the roosting sites.   Drought and climate change messing with the butterflies’ inherent cycles.   Aerial spraying of pesticides and the use of herbicide tolerant crops.   Continued illegal logging in Mexico.

The one good note is that people are paying attention.  We are planting milkweed.   Monarch butterfly festivals are hatching across the hemisphere.  More people are raising butterflies at home.

Last fall, a 3-D IMAX movie, “Flight of the Butterflies” was released, sharing the story of the Monarch migration to rave reviews and multiple awards.  And scientist-turned-eloquent-author Barbara Kingsolver‘s latest novel, “Flight Behavior,” used Monarch butterflies to tackle the complex subject of climate change.

Monarch chrysalises

Happy Monarch butterfly chrysalises.  We fostered many Monarchs from wild eggs and caterpillars this year. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Are Monarch butterflies the panda bears of climate change?   The beloved creatures hold universal appeal.   They don’t sting or bite.  They are beautiful and accessible.  They migrate across three countries, serving as a living metaphor for our innate interconnectedness.

Pandas are endangered, Monarchs are not.  But many would argue that the Monarch migration is rushing toward a dangerous path of extinction.

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San Antonio Butterfly Fans, Join us Monday for How to Tag a Monarch Butterfly

Many of us believe the Monarch butterfly should be declared the Official Insect of San Antonio. Given our geographic location in the heart of the Texas flyway and the dramatic butterflies’ intimate connection to Mexico, it makes perfect sense.  Monarch butterflies have already been declared the official bug of Texas.

Since Monarch butterflies are on the move this week, the Texas Butterfly Ranch is joining its sister site, the Rivard Report, to perform a Monarch butterfly tagging demonstration for “Something Monday,” tomorrow, October 21.  Something Monday is a weekly learning outing sponsored by the site, co-founded by me and my husband Robert Rivard.

Meet us at 6:30 p.m. at the Milkweed Patch on the Museum Reach of the San Antonio River, tomorrow, October 21.   We’ll gather downstream from the Pearl (map below) and demonstrate How to Tag a Monarch Butterfly.   Park at the Pearl, cross the river, and walk south five minutes and you’ll be there.

Tagged Monarch butterfly

Join us at the Milkweed Patch for ‘Something Monday’ to see how Monarch butterflies are tagged en route to Mexico. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Tag a Monarch butterfly?  How does one do that?

You’ll  have to join us to find out. But show some respect – the dramatic orange and black butterflies have had a tough year.  Many of us believe that 2013 is shaping up to be their worst in history, population wise.

Professional and citizen scientists have been “tagging” the storied creatures since the ’50s.  That’s how they figured out that the Monarchs that are passing through town right now are the great-great grandchildren of the ones that left Mexico last spring.

Museum Reach Milkweed Patch

The Milkweed Patch before the drought. Don’t worry, the butterflies still show up. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Yep, that’s right.  The butterflies that are migrating to Mexico this month through the “Texas Funnel” have never been to the roosting spot that is their final destination.   That would be like finding your way to the home of your great-great grandmother without ever having known her address.

The methodology for unraveling this mystery entailed professional and citizen scientists “tagging” the butterflies throughout the Eastern U.S.

Monarch Watch, a citizen scientist program based at the University of Kansas at Lawrence, continues the program today.

The butterflies migrate to a remote mountainous area of southern Mexico in the winter, rouse in the spring, mate, then die.  Their bodies are found on the forest floor.  These days, scientists pay the local people of Michoacán $5 per recovered tag.  In 1976, thanks to an intrepid Austin woman named Catalina Trail, scientists finally pieced together the puzzle and determined that Monarch butterflies are the only creatures on the planet to undertake a multi-generational migration.

Milkweed Patch on the San Antonio River Museum Reach

“A” Marks the spot for the Milkweed Patch

And why the Milkweed Patch, you say?

Monarch butterflies will only lay their eggs on a particular plant–milkweed. The beautiful orange bloomer serves as the insects’ host plant and also provides nectar for fueling up for its long journey. The San Antonio River Authority planted a stand of milkweed on the Museum Reach four years ago when the River Walk was extended north.

National Geographic cover of Monarch migration

Scientists didn’t piece together the puzzle of the Monarch butterfly migration until 1976.

The butterfly garden has since become known as The Milkweed Patch and is a regular hangout for Monarchs in the Spring and Fall, and other butterflies year-round. The Patch also is monitored by citizen scientists on behalf of the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project.

Join us at the Milkweed Patch at 6:30 PM.  Bring the kids.  They’ll love it.

I’ll have a couple of butterfly nets  and tags on hand to show you how its done.  We’ll tag the butterflies, record their tag numbers, and make note if they are male and female. All that info will be to Monarch Watch and entered into a database that is accessible from the web.

We’ll release tagged butterflies to the wind with the hope they find their way to Mexico. Perhaps our ‘Something Monday’ Monarchs will be fortunate enough to complete the trip.

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