Llano River: Late season nectar plants await Monarch butterfly migration

Conditions were ideal along the Llano River last weekend with sprays of late season nectar plants poised for the arrival of Monarch butterflies in what is predicted to be a down year for their migration.

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Late season nectar plants like Swamp milkweed and Goldenrod await migrating Monarchs. The early male visited us on the Llano River last weekend. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Sprays of Goldenrod, Frostweed, Swamp milkweed and other late bloomers graced the river banks and surrounding watershed while migration forecasters called for a setback.

On March 8, a freak spring ice storm brought ice, snow and dramatic winds to the Oyamel forest where the Monarchs roost each winter. Just as they were heading north to lay the first generation of eggs in Texas, the storm destroyed 135 acres of forest and killed an estimated 6.2 million butterflies – about 7.4% of the 84 million roosting at that particular preserve, Mexico’s Attorney General for Environmental Protection Alejandro Del Mazo recently told the Associated Press.

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Hangin’ out on the Llano. Monarch butterfly caterpillars and eggs were abundant last weekend on the Llano River. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The squall set the 2016 season off to a bad start and will likely result in a setback to the threefold population increase the Monarchs enjoyed last year, scientists suggest.

Mother Nature’s deadly blow has hit especially hard here in San Antonio, the nation’s first Monarch Butterfly Champion City, so named by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF).

In the past year, here and elsewhere, the migrating orange-and-black insects have never enjoyed more fame and fortune, as government and educational institutions have increased pollinator habitat, earmarked millions for research on milkweed – the insects’ host plant – and raised public awareness of Monarchs and other pollinators to unprecedented heights.

Mayor Ivy Taylor shows off her Monarch butterfly earrings in City Council chambers. Photo by Monika Maeckle.

Mayor Ivy Taylor shows off her Monarch butterfly earrings in City Council chambers. Photo by Monika Maeckle.

“I know how much we all look forward to seeing the majestic Monarchs every year, and it saddens me to think that their population has been impacted so dramatically by the ice storm in Mexico,” said Mayor Ivy Taylor, who signed the NWF’s Mayor’s Monarch Pledge on Dec. 9 last year. “However, we will keep working to provide them with a safe haven here in San Antonio.”

Chip Taylor, Ph.D., founder of Monarch Watch, predicted in his annual summer Monarch Population Status blog post that 2016 would likely be comparable to 2014. The last three years have been closely monitored by Monarch aficionados: In 2013, the population dropped to 33.5 million butterflies, the lowest since records have been kept; in 2014, it increased to 56.5 million; and last year 200.5 million butterflies were recorded.

In 2015, President Obama released a National Pollinator Strategy that set out to increase the Monarch population to 225 million – the historic 20-year average.

The iconic insects make one of the most remarkable annual migrations on the planet, traveling up to 2,800 miles from Mexico through the United States to Canada and back over multiple generations.

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Monarch butterflies move through San Antonio coming and going in the spring and fall on the annual multigeneration migration. Graphic by Nicolas Rivard.

Their journey starts in March, where they spend the winter in the Oyamel fir forests. After a cue from the sun, they head to Texas where they lay their first generation of eggs on milkweed plants – the only plant they use to breed. Those eggs hatch into caterpillars who then grow into butterflies that continue the cycle over the summer, with fourth or fifth generation butterflies returning to Mexico in the fall to overwinter, despite never having been to the specific roosting site where their ancestors launched the journey. The following spring, those butterflies begin the cycle anew.

Glum predictions aside, conditions could not be more perfect in Texas to welcome the migrating butterflies this fall.

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Each year around Labor Day we see the first trickle of Monarchs, or what’s called the ‘pre-migration migration’ – a vanguard of reproductive Monarch butterflies that lay eggs which will hatch and become the final generation of migrating adults.

Last weekend, half a dozen adult Monarch butterflies showed up right on cue along the Llano River in the Texas Hill Country. Even more interesting, dozens of caterpillars and eggs were spotted on the Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, a Monarch butterfly host plant, and suggested that Monarchs had been passing through in the preceding weeks. Three late stage caterpillars literally hung out on the Llano, preparing to bust their stripes and go chrysalis.

Goldenrod, Purple mistflower, White boneset, Snow-on-the-prairie, Frostweed–all late season nectar plants that the butterflies use as fuel stops, exhibited their showy sprays along the Llano River and elsewhere in the Texas Hill Country over Labor Day weekend. Bees, wasps, moths, beetles, and aphids were seen in large numbers, following a series of rain events that followed a scorching South Texas summer.

A male Monarch butterfly nectars on Swamp milkweed along the Llano River in the Texas Hill Country as part of the "pre-migration migration." Photo by Monika Maeckle

A male Monarch butterfly nectars on Swamp milkweed along the Llano River in the Texas Hill Country as part of the “pre-migration migration.” Photo by Monika Maeckle.

A quick survey of local Monarch Watchers had few sightings to report.

“Nothing to report in Comfort yet,” said Monarch Watch Education Outreach Specialist Cathy Downs. Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project volunteer Mary Kennedy said the same thing. Master Naturalist Drake White, who manages the Phil Hardberger Park butterfly garden and runs the Nectar Bar, a Facebook page devoted to helping people raise butterflies, reported two Monarch sightings. Local botanist and landscaper Charles Bartlett of Greenhaven Industries reported seeing one Monarch locally.

Sightings throughout the spring and summer have been slim, with the freak sleet storm taking most of the blame for the Monarchs’ absence.  Read more here.

To determine peak migration time for your area, consult the Monarch Watch website or Journey North.  In San Antonio, at 29 degrees latitude, we’re looking at seeing the butterflies sometime in late October.

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Monarch butterflies heading our way, but not as many as we hoped

Monarch butterflies are heading our way, but their numbers are likely to be down this year.  Climate change–combined with habitat loss and other threats–dealt a heavy blow to the population, which enjoyed a celebrated threefold increase last fall.

Will Monarchs be listed as "threatened" under the Endnagered SPecies Act? We'll know in 3 years. Monarch on Cowpen daisy.Photo by Scott Ball

Monarch butterflies are heading our way, but not as many as we had hoped.  Monarch on Cowpen daisy. Photo by Scott Ball

The weekend of March 8-9 proved to be a deadly setback for Monarchs. Just as they were heading to Texas from their winter roosts in Michoacán to create the first generation of 2016, a freak ice storm hit the forest where they overwinter. The frigid wind and weather killed an estimated 6.2 million butterflies–about 7.4 percent of the 84 million roosting there, Mexico’s attorney general for environmental protection Alejandro Del Mazo told the Associated Press this week.

Even worse, the storm destroyed 133 acres of the Oyamel fir forest which serves as the Monarchs’ winter home as well as habitat to hundreds of species of birds, mammals, vascular plants and mushrooms. That lost canopy will take years, perhaps decades, to recover. And its service as a protective, insulating blanket for the Monarchs and other wildlife may be gone forever.

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Millions of Monarch butterflies froze to death in the March storm in Michoacán. Photo via Monarca via  Facebook

The iconic insects make one of the most remarkable annual migrations on the planet,  traveling up to 2,800 miles from Mexico through the United States to Canada and back over multiple generations.

Their journey starts in March where they spend the winter in the Oyamel fir forests. After a cue from the sun, they head to Texas where they lay their first generation of  eggs on milkweed plants—the only plant they use to breed. Those eggs hatch into caterpillars who grow into butterflies that continue the cycle over the summer, with fourth or fifth generation butterflies returning to Mexico in the fall to overwinter–having never been to the specific roosting site where their ancestors launched the journey.  The following spring, those butterflies begin the cycle anew.

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The freak ice and wind storm  destroyed 135 acres of their roosting forest. Photo by Monika Maeckle

According to a brief released by the World Wildlife Fund on August 23, the protected forest lost to the March sleet storm was four times that destroyed by illegal logging last year. Here’s the breakdown: of the 179 acres of forest lost in the last year in the core zone of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, 29.5 acres were destroyed by illegal logging, 133 acres by wind-fallen trees during the storm, and 16 acres by drought.

Experts agree that the ice storm got the season off to a bad start. Those of us who follow Monarchs noticed far fewer this spring, as the depleted population made its way north. We hoped they would recover in the summer breeding grounds.

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The Monarch migration moves the iconic butterflies through the entire Eastern United States over the course of the summer. Graphic by Nicolas Rivard

“Normally I collect eggs in the spring and I was down about 65% percent over seasons’ past,” said Cathy Downs, Education Outreach specialist for Monarch Watch, the University of Kansas at Lawrence-based organization that runs the citizen science tagging program that tracks the migrating butterflies.  Downs operates out of Comfort, Texas, just outside San Antonio.  “I would definitely say this was a really, really down spring.”

Further up the migratory path, social media posts from the summer breeding grounds bemoaned the general lack of Monarch butterflies.

Two tagged Monarchs

Looking forward to seeing more of these guys. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“I only saw one Monarch a week ago up at Illinois Beach State Park, while we were walking the dunes, clearing them of white sweet clover,” Kathleen Garness of Forest Park, Illinois wrote to the DPLEX list June 20, an email list that reaches about 800 Monarch butterfly enthusiasts, scientists and citizen scientists.

Tony Kowall of Park Ridge, Illinois, agreed. “We really miss seeing and raising the Monarchs…. It is quite distressing to think how badly the population must of have hit with the storm earlier this year. Last year we raised 200 Monarchs.”

And this from Fred Kaluza in Detroit on the same email string: “Countryside looks like late July. Lots of uneaten milkweed. No Monarchs seen.”

Teresa Bailey‎, who lives north of Kansas City, Missouri, posted June 14 on Facebook:  “I still haven’t seen any Monarch butterflies yet. My common milkweed has grown six feet tall. Still no butterflies. I’m concerned. They should have been here a while ago.”

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Dr. Chip Taylor says we are likely to see the 2014 season again, second worst in history. Graph via Monarch Watch

Everyone’s worst suspicions were confirmed when  Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, issued his annual summer Monarch population status bulletin.

“All the data to this point in time suggest that this year will be a repeat of 2014 with a significant decline in the migration and the overwintering numbers,” wrote Taylor in July, citing below normal first-of-season sightings and the ice storm.  “We will never have a comprehensive assessment of the impact of this weather event but it does appear to have been significant,” wrote Taylor, noting that some scientists were suggesting 50% of Monarchs had perished in the storm.

Despite that sad turnaround from a tripling of the population last fall, the migration is underway.  “Sightings of southbound Monarchs, intense nectaring, and the first overnight roosts are being reported,” read the headline in this week’s bulletin by Journey North, which tracks Monarch butterflies and other migrating creatures.

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Sightings of adult Monarch butterflies as of August 25, 2016, according to Journey North.  Map via Journey North

With all the press Monarch butterflies have been getting this year, we have never been better prepared to welcome them as they move through our landscapes and gardens. In the past 18 months, millions of dollars in research has been earmarked for mIlkweed and nectar plant restoration programs, Monarch and pollinator education efforts, and general awareness of the important role Monarchs and other pollinators play in our ecosystem food web. Awareness across the Americas has never been higher.

That said, climate change will have the last word on how many Monarch butterflies will make the trip this year.

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Want to be sure to see Monarchs this fall? Join us October 22 during peak Monarch migration week in San Antoino at the Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival at the Pearl. Events are FREE.

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When aphids suck the life from your milkweed, here’s how to safely get rid of them

The dreaded oleander aphids have arrived here and are trying to wreak havoc in my gardens. At a friend’s house today, I noticed that all of her milkweed is infested beyond hope….Are there any new ideas on how to deal with them? Thanks. –Jan LeVesque, Minneapolis

Jan LeVesque is not alone in her exasperation at the hands–rather, mouth parts–of plant sucking aphids.  Anyone who raises milkweed in an effort to attract Monarchs is familiar with the soft-bodied, squishy orange insects that seemingly take over anything in the Asclepias family.

Oleander aphids on Tropical milkweed

If you raise milkweed and Monarchs, you’re well acquainted with oleander aphids. Here they are on Tropical milkweed. Note the sticky, slick looking substance on the leaves. That’s honeydew. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Jan, like many before and after her, posted the above query on the Monarch Watch DPLEX list, an old school listserv that goes to hundreds of citizen and professional scientists and butterfly fans who follow the Monarch migration. And as usual, the community had plenty of ideas.

But before we explore how to kill them, let’s take a look at the interesting life cycle of these ubiquitous, annoying insects, known as oleander aphids, milkweed aphids, or by their Latin name, Aphis nerii.

First off, they are parthenogenic, which means they clone themselves and don’t require  mates to reproduce. In addition, the clones they produce are always female.  Yes, that’s right–all girls. “No boys allowed.”

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All female aphid colonies undermine our milkweeds. Photo via University of Florida

According to the University of Florida’s Department of Entomology and Nematology “Featured Creatures” website, “The adult aphids are all female and males do not occur in the wild.”  Instead, the aphid moms deposit their all-female nymph broods on the stalks of our milkweed plants.  That generation morphs four more times until they grow up to become aphid moms who repeat the process.

Even more interesting, under normal conditions, adult female aphids do not sport wings, but get this: if conditions are crowded, or the plant is old and unappetizing (which happens as the summer progresses in our part of the world), the girls grow wings so they can fly away to greener pastures–or in this case, fresher milkweed. Aphids live 25 days and produce about 80 nymphs each.

This brilliantly efficient method of reproduction, says Featured Creatures, is one of the reasons “large colonies of oleander aphids…build quickly on infested plants.”

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Small populations of aphids are pretty harmless to the plants, but when you get a large colony, the milkweed suffers. The aphids insert their piercing mouthparts into the milkweed, literally sucking the life out of it as they enjoy the sweet liquid that courses through the plant. The high concentration of sugar in that liquid means the aphids have to eat a lot of it to get the protein they need.

That results in a profuse amount of excrement, called honeydew. It is prolific and forms a thin, sticky layer on the leaves of your milkweed, choking the absorption of essential nutrients.  It can also cause sooty mold, an ugly dark fungi that can cover your milkweed.

We have a fair amount of milkweed near the house and it’s been aphid free so far – except for one incarnata shoot on which a 3 inch long colony had formed with probably more than 500 aphids of all sizes. Not having mixed up any fancy aphid remedy and not having insecticidal soap, I looked under the sink for the handy spray bottle of 409. It wasn’t there – so, I grabbed the Windex instead. Last evening a quick inspection showed that all the aphids were blackened and dead. I checked again this morning and spotted one aphid. The plant seems unaffected by the treatment.  –-Dr. Chip Taylor, Founder of Monarch Watch

Once you have well-established infestation of aphids, the plant just goes downhill. The aphids themselves are also highly appetizing to Ladybugs, wasps and syrphid flies–all insects that eat aphids and Monarch or Queen eggs with equal abandon.

When I get a serious aphid infestation, I typically use a high pressure spray of water to blow the bugs off the plant. That simultaneously washes the honeydew off the milkweed, which will deter the arrival of ants and also clean the leaves so they can absorb sun, air, water and nutrients to fuel their growth.

My other method is to simply squish the aphids between my thumb and fingers and wipe them off the plant. Your thumb and fingers will turn bright gold, but will wash off.

Oleander aphids

A Ladybug’s favorite treat: aphids. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Some gardeners like to use alcohol or other additives with the water spray, but I prefer to keep that stuff off my plants.

As Dr. Karen Oberhauser of the University of Minnesota and founder of the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project wrote to the DPLEX list in July of 2015, “Detergent treatments will kill any live insects on aphid-infested plants, including Monarch eggs, Monarch larvae, and aphid predators like syrphid fly larvae, ladybug larvae, and lacewing larvae.”

Alas, even Dr. Oberhauser, who has decades of experience with aphids, admits “There is really no good way to kill aphids without killing everything else, except by trying to lower the population by carefully killing them by hand.”

If Monarch cats are not present, I spray with insecticidal soap and then rinse later with water hose. If that is ineffective, I move up to Neem oil and rinse it off also later. One and/or the other are very effective…. It is easy to go from 1 to 1,000s of aphids in a very short period of time.

— David Laderoute, Coordinator,  Missourians for Monarchs

Another option is biological control. Lady beetles or Ladybugs feed primarily on aphids. Somehow they seem to magically find their way to our milkweed gardens to feast on the yellow critters. Ladybugs can be purchased in bags at some garden centers and released to do their jobs.  But remember–they also eat butterfly eggs.

Hover flies and wasps also eat aphids. Wasps have a bizarre practice of laying their eggs on the aphids, then eating them from the inside out, leaving a brown shelled carcass in their wake. We often find these hollow corpses on our milkweed plants.

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

Pesticides will kill aphids, but they often remain in the plant for months and will also kill Monarch caterpillars. Photo by Sharon Sander

One good thing about aphids: if you see them on a plant in a nursery, you know the milkweed is clean, and has NOT been sprayed with systemic pesticides. We all want perfect looking plants, but the occasional aphid is a good sign that your plants are pure. See this post for more on that topic.

Need more ideas for getting rid of aphids?  Check out this useful post from The Monarch Butterfly Garden.  If you have new tips not covered here, please leave a comment below.  Good luck!

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That ain’t no Monarch: meet these OTHER caterpillars that feed on milkweed

More than any other, the caterpillars of Monarch butterflies are most closely associated with eating milkweed–anything in the Asclepias family. With their distinctive black, white and gold pin-striped suits and expressive dark tentacles reaching out into the universe, that’s no surprise.

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed

Monarch butterfly caterpillars are the most famous milkweed feeders. Photo by Monika Maeckle

They’re endearing, ubiquitous, easy to identify and we have a special relationship with them.

But there’s a at least three other caterpillars that eat milkweed for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Last week I noticed this fellow noshing on a pot of Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata. 

Garden striped caterpillar

That ain’t no Monarch. It’s a Striped garden caterpillar. Photo by Monika Maeckle

My first thought: “That ain’t no Monarch.”

Correct. It’s the Striped garden caterpillar, Trichordestra legitimata, which feasts not only on milkweed but other common garden greens–clover, goldenrod, yarrow, grasses and others. The Striped garden caterpillar turns into the rather nondescript Striped garden caterpillar moth, a grey, smallish creature with little black diamonds on his back. Check out these photos on Bugguide.net.

Here’s a better picture of the caterpillar, via Molly Jacobson.

Garden striped moth caterpillar

Molly Jacobson found this Striped  garden caterpillar crossing a path and resting on a dead leaf. Photo by Molly Jacobson

Dr. David L. Wagner, author of the useful Caterpillars of Eastern North America, describes the milkweed feeder on page 415 of his seminal guidebook as a “handsome brown and yellow striped caterpillar.” He recommends looking for them in grass seed heads but adds that he often finds them on the flowers of Goldenrod in the fall.

Perhaps even more handsome is the fluffy Milkweed Tussock Moth caterpillar, Eucaetes Egle. Like so many other insects that use milkweed as their primary food, this creature expresses the cardiac glycosides found in the latex of the milkweed plants with orange and black coloring.

This photo of at late instar Euchaetes Egle was taken at 12:17pm on October 20, 2007 in Glen Rose, TX. The caterpillar was spotted walking across a hiking trail in a wooded area.

This Tussock moth caterpillar was spotted in Glen Rose, Texas in 2007 walking across a hiking trail in a wooded area.  Photo by J. Scott Kelley  via Wikipedia.

The adult form of this moth, below, also displays orange and black on its body, as it peeks through the wings to alert predators–WARNING: I don’t taste good!

Dr. Wagner’s description of the interesting larvae: “densely hairy caterpillar with numerous black, orange (or yellow) and white tufts and lashes.”  Yes, “lashes.”

That’s what these hairy protrusions look like–almost colorful bristles on a soft toothbrush extending from the caterpillars body. According to Wagner, the species occurs in Texas and the Southwest, but I have never seen one.  Would love to, though.

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Milkweed Tussock Moth, photo by Patrick Coin via Wikipedia.

A third milkweed fan, Cycnia inopinatus, also makes appearances now and then. Kip Kiphart, a trainer for Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project (MLMP) and volunteer at Cibolo Nature Center in Boerne, Texas, reports that the Cycnia pictured below was found in 2003 by Myrna Langford while checking milkweed on Laurel’s Ranch near Comfort, Texas.  The Cyncia is considered a first for the area.

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Cyncia inopinatus caterpillar. Another milkweed feeder. Photo by Kip Kiphart

Kiphart says Langford brought the caterpillar to a meeting, asking for help in identifying it. “Nobody had any idea what it was. I took it home, took photos, sent them to a number of people and nobody knew what it was,” said Kiphart. Eventually the Cyncia was identified.

It turns into the Unexpected Cyncia moth and feeds exclusively on milkweed. You can see the same orange-and-black expression of other milkweed consumers in the belly of the beast, below. The University of Minnesota, which oversees the MLMP, is seeking citizen science observations and documentation of the moth, which is considered rare and of conservation concern.

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Cyncia adult moth. Photos by Kip Kiphart

Judging from conversations with folks who work and play a lot with milkweed raising caterpillars and butterflies, these other milkweed eaters are not all that common.

Have you seen any of these other milkweed feeders?  Let us know.

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Save the date: Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival in San Antonio Oct. 20-22

Mark your calendars, butterfly and pollinator fans. San Antonio’s Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival at Pearl will take place October 20 – 22 this fall during peak Monarch butterfly migration week. Join us for three fun days of events to celebrate the majesty and magic of Monarch butterflies and other pollinators.butterflyfest_wordpressThursday, Oct. 20th, 6 PM – 8 PM: Buen Viaje, Mariposa Monarca! at the Instituto Cultural Mexicano in HemisFair Park. FREE ADMISSION. Mexican artist Ignacio Arcas presents “Buen Viaje, Mariposa Monarca!,” a nature photography exhibit of Monarchs’ roosting sites in Michoacán, Mexico. Arcas will be present to discuss his artwork, and Mexican forester and symposium panelist Dr. Cuauhtémoc Saenz Romero from Michoacán will join us to chat with the audience about the Monarch migration.  

Silk scarves by Piñeda- Covalent. Courtesy photo.Textile designer Pineda-Covalín will present a collection of their Monarch butterfly inspired wares, and an installation by artist David J. Romero replicating the Monarch butterfly roosting sites will welcome guests to the Instituto.

Sponsored by the Instituto Cultural Mexicano and Texas Butterfly Ranch

 

Friday, October 21st, 6 PM – 8 PM: Climate Change and the Monarch Butterfly Migration Symposium at the Pearl Studio. $10; LIMITED SEATING. Tickets are now on sale here.

Dan Goodgame, VP of Corporate Communications for Rackspace, will moderate a timely discussion with the distinguished panelists listed below.

Dr. Cuauhtémoc Saenz Romero

Dr. Cuauhtémoc Saenz Romero, a forester from Michoacán, Mexico, who proposes moving the Monarchs’ roosting sites higher up the mountain to save them from the impacts of climate change.

 

 

Catalina Trail, then known as Cathy Aguado, was the woman on the cover of National Geographic in 1976.Catalina Trail “discovered” the Monarch roosting sites in Michoacán, Mexico after years of searching as a citizen scientist. Trail, from Morelia, graced the cover of National Geographic Magazine in 1976 as a 25-year-old mexicana. She and her then husband Kenneth Brugger led scientists to the site where the Monarchs roost, and the news rocked the butterfly world. She currently lives in Austin.
UPDATE: Catalina Trail will not be able to attend due to health matters. Monika Maeckle, founder of the Texas Butterfly Ranch, will take her place as a panelist at the symposium.

 

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Dr. Katharine Hayhoe is an evangelical Christian, climate change expert, and the director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. She holds a Ph.D in atmospheric science and coauthored the book A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions with her husband, Andrew Farley.

 

cathyCathy Downs, a conservation specialist for Monarch Watch based in Comfort, Texas, teaches hundreds of children and adults each year about the magic and science of the Monarch butterfly migration.

 

 

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Dan Goodgame, moderator, is vice-president for executive communications at Rackspace, a global leader in cloud computing. A Pulitzer Prize finalist and best-selling author, Goodgame describes himself as a “recovering journalist.” He worked as a top editor at TIME and FORTUNE, a White House correspondent, and a foreign correspondent in the Middle East and Europe.

 

Sponsored by the Pearl, Trinity University, HEB, San Antonio River Authority, Rivard Report, Hispanic Chamber and Texas Butterfly Ranch.

Saturday, October 22nd, 9 AM – 1 PM: Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival at the Pearl. FREE ADMISSION.

Join us as we honor Monarchs and other pollinators everywhere. The People for Pollinators Parade, lead by San Antonio’s Pedaling Pollinators and Earn-A-Bike Coop, kicks off the festivities at 9:30 AM with custom built bikes that resemble butterflies. COSTUMES ENCOURAGED.

Pedaling Pollinators

The EarnaBike Coop’s Pedaling Pollinators will lead the People for Pollinators Parade. Courtesy photo.

Two Monarch butterfly releases will be held at 10:30AM and 12PM. Throughout the event, butterfly docents will hold demonstrations on How and Why to Tag a Monarch Butterfly.

The Pearl Farmer’s Market will include Monarch- and pollinator-themed food and drinks, Monarch Jeopardy, native plant sales and more.

Sponsored by the Pearl, Trinity University, HEB, San Antonio River Authority, Rivard Report, Hispanic Chamber and Texas Butterfly Ranch

Special thanks to our sponsors and to Mayor Ivy Taylor for signing the National Wildlife Federation Mayor’s Monarch Pledge.

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SPONSORSHIPS are still available. Check back here for schedules and updates.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that Dr. Saenz Romero was proposing moving the forest 2,000 feet higher in elevation because climate change suggested the forest would not survive within 20 years.

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Texas Comptroller awards $500K in Monarch research grants to Texas universities

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar announced Tuesday that Texas A&M University and Sam Houston State University will share about $500,000 in research funding to study the Monarch butterfly. That brings the total earmarked for researching America’s favorite

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Pennies from heaven? Monarch butterflies have generated more than $800K in research grants for state universities in Texas, thanks to the Texas State Comptroller’s Office. Photo by Monika Maeckle

migrating insect by the Comptroller’s office to more than $800,000 in the Lone Star State, just since last June.

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Dr. Robert Coulson, Texas A&M University

Texas A&M will receive $299,998 to evaluate the Monarch’s population status in Texas–specifically, the species’ lifecycle, migratory habits and the possible existence of overwintering populations.  Dr. Robert Coulson, Entomologist and Director of the Knowledge Engineering Laboratory at A & M, will oversee the research, which he said will fuel the species status assessment required by US Fish and Wildlife as it gauges whether or not the Monarch should be listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Sam Houston State will receive $207,510 to research disease and pests that threaten the butterfly. Dr. Jerry Cook, Professor & Associate VicePresident for Research Entomology, will oversee the study.

Grant recipients submitted projects for consideration in response to a Request for Proposals (RFP) issued by the Comptroller’s office in February.

Dr. Jerry Cook, Sam Houston State University

Dr. Jerry Cook, Sam Houston State University

“Funding decisions were made based on recommendations by a non-biased evaluation committee with respect to the criteria detailed in the RFP,” a spokesperson for the Comptroller’s office said via email. After reviewing recommendations, the Comptroller’s office decided to contract with the two universities. Names of committee members were not made public.

The upcoming studies hope to build on research done by previous Comptroller’s office grant recipients.

Last June, the University of Texas at San Antonio received $300K to survey milkweeds across the state. In March of this year, Texas A&M – Commerce was awarded $10,141.04 to conduct a pilot study on how fire ants effect the Monarch life cycle.

All the attention is motivated by an August 2014 petition to list the Monarch butterfly as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

In Texas, the State Comptroller’s office oversees the Interagency Task Force on Economic Growth and Endangered Species. The Task Force works with landowners, industries, local communities and institutions to assess the economic impact of proposed ESA species listings in Texas. Research surrounding the ramifications of ESA listings are funded by annual $5 million appropriations approved by the Texas Legislature.

“If the butterfly is listed, many industries important to our state’s economy could be affected, from agriculture to land development to energy production,” said Hegar in a press release. “This crucial research will identify best practices for the voluntary protection of the species on private lands.”

Will Monarchs be listed as "threatened" under the Endnagered SPecies Act? We'll know in 3 years. Monarch on Cowpen daisy.Photo by Scott Ball

Will Monarchs be listed as “threatened” under the Endamgered Species Act? We’ll know in three years. Monarch on Cowpen daisy. Photo by Scott Ball

The news comes on the heels of a court settlement also announced on July 5 that the USFWS, which rules on all endangered species listings, was awarded three more years to determine whether or not the Monarch butterfly should be listed. USFWS must issue a decision by June 30, 2019, as well as pay the legal bills of the Center for Biological Diversity and Center for Food Safety, the two environmental groups that launched the ESA petition in August 2014.

While USFWS was aware the Texas Comptrollers’ office was working to incorporate more universities into the Monarch research grant cycles, a spokesperson said the timing of the announcements was a coincedence. The recent ruling suggests that at least for the next three years, continued research grants will be focused on Monarch butterflies.

“We now know Fish and Wildlife Service will be making its decision whether or not to list the Monarch butterfly under the Endangered Species Act by June of 2019,” said Dr. Robert Gulley, director of economic growth and endangered species management for the Comptroller’s office. “We believe the research the Comptroller’s office has commissioned, which includes looking at the fifth generation of Monarchs in Texas and the fall migration, will be important in ensuring good science is available when that decision is made.”

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US Fish and Wildlife Service gets three more years to evaluate Monarch butterfly ESA status

A Washington DC Court yesterday awarded the US Fish and Wildlife Service three more years to evaluate whether or not the Monarch butterfly should be listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act in a settlement between the government agency and the Center for Food Safety (CFS) and the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD).

IMG_4197

Three more years: That’s how long USFWS will get to determine if this guy should be listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The settlement also called for reimbursement of reasonable attorneys’ fees for the two environmental groups who initiated the lawsuit.

In August of 2014, CFS, CBD, the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, and Dr. Lincoln Brower petitioned the Service to list the Monarch butterfly as a “threatened.” On Dec. 31, 2014, USFWS published a 90-day finding that listing the Monarch might be warranted, and initiated a status review of the species. The Service then failed to rule on the petition by the statutory 12-month deadline.

ESAprocess

The complex, convoluted ESA listing process: we are still caught in the second blue bubble from the top. Courtesy graphic

As a result, in March 2016, CBD and CSF filed a complaint against the Service. Yesterday’s settlement is the Court’s answer to that complaint.

The CBD saw the three-year extension as a positive development.

“In the big picture of slow-cogged bureaucracy, a wait of three years is, relatively speaking, a good outcome,” said Tierra Curry, senior scientist for CBD, adding that many species have had to wait decades for a protection decision.

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

A freak ice and wind storm blew through the Preserve in March, just as Monarchs were taking flight on their journey north.  Photo by Dr. Isabel Ramíro

Curry cited threats to the Monarch: milkweed loss, logging in Mexico, the proposed mine in the Monarch Biosphere Reserve, and high mortality and habitat damage caused by a freak winter storm in March that swept through the reserve just as many Monarchs were taking flight on their journey north.

“I would like to see them gain protection sooner rather than later,” she said.

Read the CBD’s press release.

USFWS viewed the settlement as a pragmatic move.

“The settlement provides the least costly alternative to a court case the Service would have had no grounds to contest,” read a statement issued by USFWS spokesperson. “It commits the Service to submit to the Federal Register a 12-month finding for the Monarch butterfly by June 30, 2019, thereby providing a realistic timeframe for the Service to evaluate carefully whether this species warrants protection under the ESA.”

The USFWS statement also noted that the settlement “does not predetermine the Service’s decision, which must be based solely on what the best available science prescribes.”

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Mexico, Canada and Obama recommit to conserving Monarch butterfly migration

President Barack Obama, President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada met in Ottawa, Canada, on Wednesday and reconfirmed their commitment to preserve the Monarch butterfly migration.

President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada greet President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico upon arrival for the North American Leaders' Summit at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, Canada, June 29, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico, President Justin Trudeau of Canada and U.S. President Barack Obama met in Ottawa, Canada this week and talked climate change, clean energy and Monarch butterflies. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

Three Amigos summit touches on climate change, terrorists and butterflies,” read the headline in the Toronto Sun.

Amidst discussions of clean energy and climate change cooperation and comments that compared Donald Trump to Hitler, the “Tres Amigos” used the Monarch butterfly migration as an example of the three countries’ inherent connectedness in a time of political isolationism.

President Peña Nieto of Mexico mentioned in remarks that Monarch butterflies “no longer need visas” and used the migrating insects as an example of globalism. “This is a species that, in its pilgrimage, we can see how our countries are intertwined,” said Peña Nieto.

President Obama called Monarchs “spectacular.”

“I love the story of the Monarch butterflies,” he said. “They’re not just any species — they are spectacular and we want to make sure that our children, our grandchildren can see them as well.”

Monarch butterflies on the Llano River

President Peña Nieto of Mexico suggested the Monarch migration symbolizes how our three countries are intertwined. Photo by Veronica Prida

By the end of the day, the North American leaders had jointly issued “The North American Climate, Clean Energy and Environment Partnership Action Plan.”

In a section labeled “Conserve the Monarch butterfly and its habitat,” the North American leaders committed to:

  • Continue to address habitat loss and degradation of the Monarch butterfly and other pollinators.
  • Promote sufficient breeding, staging, migration, and overwintering habitat and assure it is made available domestically to support the 2020 Eastern Monarch population target represented by its occupation of six hectares of overwintering habitat in Mexico.
  • Continue collaborating through the Tri-national Monarch Science Partnership to coordinate priority research, monitoring, information sharing, and tools development.
President BArack Obama

Thanks, Obama! We think Monarchs are “spectacular,” too.  Courtesy photo

The NAFTA Presidents’ reunion came 26 months after they first gathered in Toluca, Mexico and agreed to form a task force to study the situation and “ensure the conservation of the Monarch butterfly.”

In the two years and four months since that declaration, much has changed.

Here in the United States, President Obama ordered up a National Pollinator Strategy upon returning from that trip. When the 58-page document was released a year later in May of 2015, it created a public focus on the plight of pollinators, the Monarch butterfly migration in particular.  Millions of dollars in research grants, educational programs and government supported initiatives began pouring into the cause of restoring pollinator habitat and educating the public, including the National Wildlife Federation’s Mayor’s Monarch Pledge, which encourages communities along the IH-35 corridor to increase pollinator habitat for Monarchs and other species.

Since the 2014 meeting, the Monarch butterfly population has climbed significantly, tripling this last season. But then climate change dealt the recovery a brutal blow with an unseasonable freeze in March, sweeping through the Oyamel forest where the butterflies roost, killing millions of the migrating butterflies and wrecking the forest “blanket” that ensures their warmth in the winter. Scientists are still assessing the damage. Some projections suggest up to 100 million butterflies were killed.

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

A freak snowstorm in March killed millions of Monarch butterflies this year, just as they were beginning their journey north.Photo by Dr. Isabel Ramíro

Such uncertainty makes a continued North American cooperative effort all the more welcome.

From the Whitehouse press office:

“We reaffirm our commitment to work collaboratively to achieve our long term goal of conserving North America’s Monarch migratory phenomena and to ensure that sufficient habitat is available to support the 2020 target for the eastern Monarch population.

Read the White House press release.

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Texas brakes for butterflies: “Monarch Highway” comes to IH35

A year after President Obama announced a National Pollinator Strategy with plans to create a pollinator corridor along Interstate Highway 35 (IH35), the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) signed an agreement to work with five other states to make the “Monarch Highway” a reality.

Common milkweed

Common milkweed, host plant to the Monarch butterfly, is one of two native milkweeds to be planted along the Monarch Highway in Texas by TxDOT. Photo by Mark Hixson via Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center

On May 26, Texas joined Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma in signing a Memorandum of Understanding initiated by the Federal Highway Administration. The agreement encourages collaboration among the states to establish best practices and promote public awareness of the Monarch butterfly and other pollinators, and commits the states to plant native milkweeds and nectar plants along IH35, the primary flight path for the migrating insects. A Monarch Highway logo and signage are also in development.

“The I-35 Hill County rest areas are going to be planted with pollinator gardens in the next two months,” said Mark Cross, a spokesman for TxDOT.

TxDot has planned four pollinator gardens at rest stops along the Monarch Highway, aka IH35. Graphic by Texas Butterfly Ranch

TxDOT has planned four pollinator gardens at rest stops along the Monarch Highway, aka IH35. Graphic by Texas Butterfly Ranch

Cross added that the agency is contracting with Texas A&M University to develop short videos that will run at all four rest areas along the I-35 corridor–in Hill County at Mile Marker 362A, La Salle County at Mile Marker 59, Medina County at Mile Marker 130, and in Bell County at Mile Marker 281. The agency is also working with the Native Plant Society of TexasTexas Master Gardeners and the Gulf Coast Prairie Association.

Literature and handouts promoting pollinators will be created for distribution at all TxDOT rest areas and travel centers, and the agency will convert “several acres” at each designated rest area into pollinator habitat, said Cross, adding, “This will change the landscape from a highly maintained area to a pollinator area.”

Fifteen species of wildflowers comprise the seed mix that TxDOT is planning, said Cross, including Butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa, and Common milkweed, Aslcepias syriaca. 

Here’s the plant list: Black-eyed Susan, Bluebonnet, Butterfly Weed, Common Milkweed,  Crimson Clover, Indian Blanket, Lance-Leafed Coreopsis, Mexican Hat, Missouri Primrose,  Prairie Verbena, Purple Coneflower, Annual Phlox, Pink Evening Primrose,  Plains Coreopsis, and Purple Horsemint.

Purple coneflower

Purple coneflower, an excellent nectar plant, will be part of the seed mix for the Monarch Highway rest stops. Photo by Monika Maeckle

TxDOT also is working with South Texas Natives, a project of the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, to promote and make available appropriate native seed mixes for Texas.

From its start in Gainesville, Texas at the Red River to its finish in Laredo on the Rio Grande, IH35 in Texas brags almost 590 miles–more than any other state. The Lone Star State also serves as the “Texas Funnel” for the Monarch butterfly migration, since all migrating Monarchs must pass through Texas as they move north in the spring and south in the fall, to and from their ancestral roosting sites in Michoacán, Mexico.

In the spring, the butterflies seek their host plant, milkweed, on which to lay their eggs; in the fall, they fuel up on late season nectar plants to power their flight to Mexico, which can exceed 2,500 miles.

Local Native Plant Society of Texas President Joan Miller applauded the news and said that planting of the sites will be incorporated as a service project at NPSOT’s annual symposium in Glen Rose the week of October 14. “The educational value of the installations are extremely important to understanding the use of native plants in landscaping whether it is on public or private property,” said Miller.

As cast in a press release byTxDOT, the Monarch Highway will attract millions of Mexican and Canadian visitors to IH35 each year–but Texas drivers need not worry about more traffic snarls. “They won’t be traveling by road; these visitors will arrive by air as part of a fascinating and fragile migration that happens twice a year.”

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Trinity students continue battle with Johnson grass–Goldenrod winning

Biology students from Trinity University returned to the Texas Butterfly Ranch last week to continue battle with invasive species–specifically, Johnson grass. Four students arrived last Friday to take stock of an ongoing experiment that began last April on the banks of the Llano River and will continue through next year. The goal: figure out which methods are most effective in killing Johnson grass.

Johnson grass experiment

Levanya Hospeti and Molly Lenihan assist Dr. Kelly Lyons  in collecting data for a Trinity University biology experiment. Foreground: Johnson grass. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“We successfully reduced Johnson grass abundance using both grubbing and herbicide,” said biology professor Dr. Kelly Lyons, a restoration ecologist and invasive plant expert who organized the experiment for her students. While it’s too soon to say whether grubbing (physically removing the Johnson grass) or herbicide (aquatic-safe glyphosate) is more effective, preliminary data suggest that where Johnson grass was reduced, biodiversity increased.

“We also found that in these rainy seasons, Goldenrod competes well with Johnson grass, albeit to the exclusion of most other species,” said Dr. Lyons.

That’s good news for migrating Monarch butterflies who use the late season bloomer as a nectar stop as they move through the Texas Funnel each fall on their way to Mexico.

Goldenrod Llano River

Goldenrod, a favorite nectar source for Monarch butterflies during the fall migration, competes will with Johnson grass and shields Swamp milkweed from harsh sun and flooding. Llano River, Texas Hill Country. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The project began last April as part of Trinity University’s ongoing research funded by the University, Texas Ecolab, and the National Science Foundation. Last spring, a team of students arrived at the ranch to set up plots and gather baseline data on plant density and diversity. Students established four 15- x 2-meter plots were established and applied  different forms of Johnson grass control–grubbing, weedwhackjng, and herbicides, in various combinations.

On this visit, Levanya Hospeti, Molly Lenihan, Austin Philippe and Olivia Roybal joined Dr. Lyons to collect data and plant plugs of native Eastern gamagrass, Tripsicum dactyloides, a boisterous grower that Dr. Lyons believes can compete heftily with the rambunctious Johnson grass. Students planted 20 Eastern gamamgrass plugs and will continue monitoring the site over the course of the next year.

EEG

Olivia Roybel watches as Austin Phillipe drills a hole to plant Eastern gamagrass plugs. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Texas Invasives cites Johnson grass as one of the Top 10 Most Noxious weeds in the world. It arrived from the Mediterranean in the 1800s when it was imported as a supplementary foraging crop–even though when stressed, it can produce toxic amounts of hydrocyanic acid that makes it poisonous to livestock. The super aggressive grass spreads through rhizomes and seeds, hogs space and resources, and crowds out natives that provide food, fodder and shelter to local wildlife.

monarchsonfrostweed

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

For years we’ve enjoyed lovely stands of Goldenrod and Frosted on the Llano in the fall when the Monarchs pass through. Solidago altissima and Verbesina virginica, beautiful yellow and white late season nectar sources, respectively, serve as important fuel and resting stops for migrating Monarch butterflies and other creatures. But ever since a road project disrupted our stream bank and hauled in uninvited Johnson grass, we’ve been fighting the battle to win back our native nectar plants.

Eastern gamma grass

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

Dr. Lyons thinks that the Goldenrod and Eastern gamagrass, a lovely, large bunchgrass related to corn that grows two – 10-feet tall, are up to the task.

Dr. Kelly Lyons

Dr. Kelly Lyons

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

So the battle continues.  No surprise that we’re rooting–pardon the pun–for Eastern gamagrass. It offers multiple benefits to our local creatures, including service as a host plant to the Bunchgrass skipper. It also appears to be a steady companion to our Llano River Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, host plant to Monarch butterflies. Tall mounds of Eastern gamagrass already occur naturally all along the Llano, providing shade for late season milkweed from harsh summer sun.

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

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

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

 

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