Yo soy Mariposista! Butterfly Advocates Unite as Lepsters, MOTH-ers and Butterflyers

On a recent trip to Huatulco, Mexico, I was invited by the local guiding association to talk about the hobby of “butterflying.”  My Spanish is pretty decent since my husband and I lived in Costa Rica and El Salvador for years and now reside in San Antonio, a city closely tied to Mexico and populated largely by those who speak Spanish.  We embrace the language and enjoy speaking it.

Costa Rican butterflies

Too bad I wasn’t a mariposista when I lived in Costa Rica in the 80s. Could have seen all these beauties. Photo via nature.berkeley.edu

But I was stumped when attempting to come up with a word in Spanish that describes butterfly watcher.  “What is the word for birder?” I asked our guide Cornelio Ramos Gabriel.

Pajarero,” he said, suggesting the literal translation of “one who birds.”  When I consulted my iTranslate phone app, it cited “observadores de aves,” that is, observer of birds.

When I asked Cornelio the Spanish word for one who butterflies, he paused.

Mariposero?”  he asked, since mariposa is the Spanish word for butterfly.

We agreed that we could use the word “mariposero” for one who “butterflies”–but somehow it didn’t seem to catch what I meant.

As mentioned above, my husband and I lived in Central America during the Sandinista revolution and the Contra war–he, covering the wars of the region for Newsweek magazine and me as a magazine and newspaper freelancer.  I came to know the Spanish suffix “ista” as an add-on to any word that meant one who advocates for a certain belief.

Sandinistas, inspired by the failed revolution of Augusto César Sandino in the 1920s, overthrew the Somoza dynasty in 1979.  Panistas, on the other hand, pushed for the conservative, pro-business agenda of the National Action Party of Mexico while their counterparts, PRIistas, held power for nearly a century as Mexico’s ruling party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party.  In Argentina, Peronistas keep alive the progressive socialism of former president Juan Peron.  An anarquista, or anarchist, of course, would oppose all government.  And don’t forget, I was a periodista, or one who writes for a newspaper.

Given my fascination with languages and penchant for advocating for butterflies, it came to me:   Yo soy mariposista.

That word suggests a certain activist bent–just like Sandinista, Peronista, PANista, PRIista, all of which are political terms that connote a movement or advocacy of a point of view.

By such a definition, I am, indeed, a mariposista.    Yo soy mariposista, one who advocates for butterflies.

Por qué las Mariposas?

Por qué las Mariposas? Por qué no?                                                         –Photo by Monika Maeckle

Back here in the U.S.,  “butterflying,” that is, the act or hobby of watching butterflies for fun, is in its infancy.  Many argue that butterflying is where birding was in the 60s.  More on that in a future post.

Just a little bit of research suggests that in English “butterflying” as a verb was likely first used in 1776.  According to our friend Nigel Venters in Cordoba province of Argentina, “the earliest reference is a short statement by Moses Harris, in the world’s first ever, well illustrated, and detailed book on butterflies in the late 18th century called “The Aurelian, or Natural History of English Insects; Namely Moths and Butterflies, Together with the Plants on Which They Feed.”   Yeah, really.  That’s the title of the book!

More recently, Robert Michael Pyle used the term “butterflying” frequently in his 1987 book “Handbook for Butterfly Watching.”

Apparently regional variations exist in the words used to describe those who watch butterflies, according to Monica Miller of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.  Monica responded to my query posted on the DPLEX list, a butterfly listserv of hundreds of mariposistas, butterflyers and others.

“…I can confuse matters with the terminology we use up here in Pennsylvania,”  Monica  wrote via email.  “Since we include moths in our adventures, we refer to the collective targets as ‘leps’ and when we ‘lepsters’ go out looking we go ‘lepping’ as in  ‘Do you want to go lepping on Saturday?’ It’s more descriptive of what many of us do since a lot of us both butterfly and moth (both nouns and verbs there…)”

And speaking of moths, those who favor night flying lepidoptera point out that “MOTH-ers” are folks who prefer the observation of moths while “lepsters” go both ways, enjoying both the colorful beauties that grace our gardens during the day and the more mysterious creatures that pollinate plants at night.

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Mostly Native Urban Butterfly Garden Outperforms Lawn Anytime in San Antonio

Last year about this time, we detailed a turf-to-bed conversion in the front yard of our rent house in the downtown Lavaca neighborhood of San Antonio.  We thought it would be helpful to share what happened over the past year on that small square of yard, thoughtfully converted from a drought damaged lawn to a mostly native butterfly garden with a bit of edible landscape thrown in.

The garden is located in Southtown, near downtown San Antonio.  What follows is a month-by month lowdown of a Year in the Life of an Urban Butterfly Garden.   Hopefully you’ll be inspired to get busy and start your own.

January, 2012

Future butterfly garden in Lavaca

Austin transplants hold down the fort at our future Lavaca neighborhood butterfly garden in downtown San Antonio, January 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

It actually started in November of 2011.

At the time, work and personal circumstances pulled me back to San Antonio after 12 months of temporary duty in Austin.   I joined my husband at a distinctive green-built downtown “Cube,” one of a pair of rentals conceived by progressive architect/urban pioneer Hilary Scruggs of Operative Ventures.  Our plan was to live there one year while building a house on a nearby empty lot just a mile away on the border of the historic King William district.  We’re now well into Year Two of that plan.

The Cube’s front yard St. Augustine was badly burnt from months of 2011′s historic drought.   Scruggs agreed to let me have my way with part of the yard, planting it as a butterfly garden and edible landscape.

Austin to San Antonio translplants

Austin to San Antonio transplants: rue, milkweed, bulbine and some favorite lantanas.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Because I become irrationally attached to certain plants, I choose to recycle them, digging them up from one yard and moving them to another.   The prior year, upon moving from our large family home in Alamo Heights to Austin, I took along several beloved favorites from my well-established butterfly garden–a large rue bush, several milkweeds, reliable red and mealy blue sages, and a couple of bulbines.  These same plants, and a few new ones, made the 75-mile trek to Austin and were now returning with me.

In December, we  prepped the area via solarization, using mulch and newspaper to kill the turf.   Six-10 layers of newsprint or cardboard covered by three-four inches of mulch and  steady South Texas sunshine will typically kill grass and weeds in just a few weeks, creating a decent environment for transplants, which we installed right away.   Then, we waited.

February

One of the mainstays of my urban butterfly gardens has been various types of daisies, all members of the Helianthus family.  I love dramatic sunflowers in early spring and have a fondness for Cowpen Daisy, because it blooms from March to November and takes our Texas heat so well with little water.

Last year I planted daisy, sunflower and milkweed seeds indoors in  February.   The milkweed would be used for “caterpillar food,” when Monarchs started arriving in March.

Cowpen Daisy Seedlings, February 2012.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Cowpen Daisy Seedlings, February 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

March

By the time of our last official estimated freeze date, March 15, Mammoth Sunflower and  Cowpen Daisies started indoors were transplanted to the front yard.   Our transplanted milkweeds were already hosting dozens of migrating Monarchs, who graced us with eggs which we gladly brought inside for fostering.

Mammoth sunflowers were transplanted in early March.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Mammoth sunflowers were transplanted in early March. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Cowpen Daisy

Cowpen Daisy became the foundation of the Lavaca butterfly garden.  Transplanted up front in March, 2012.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch caterpillars brought inside for fostering, harvested from our front yard, March 2012.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch caterpillars brought inside for fostering, harvested from our front yard, March 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The hungry critters devoured sprouts of Tropical mlikweed we had planted in pots specifically for their consumption.

We also installed a few tomato, okra and pepper plants, and of course parsley, rue, and fennel, which double as Swallowtail host plant as well as culinary herbs.

April

Our first happy sunflower bloomers showed themselves in late April.  Unfortunately,

Happy Mammoth sunflower and a variegated fritillary, April 30, 2012  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Happy Mammoth sunflower and a variegated fritillary, April 30, 2012 Photo by Monika Maeckle

garden vandals saw fit to decapitate our sunny soldiers, leaving their seed heads drooping in the breeze.  In one case, a 12-foot tall sunflower was beheaded by a teen walking past.  A worker installing a fence for a neighbor called her out.   The girl dropped the sunflower head and another passing teen lay it on our front porch.  Such are the travails of the unfenced urban garden on a well-trafficked sidewalk.

May

May brought the first tomatoes and a couple of okra.   Cowpen Daisies flushed their yellow blossoms, drawing Bordered Patch butterflies, which use them as a host plant.

By now, Swallowtail butterflies regularly visited the garden, nectaring on the prolific daisies and leaving their lovely, round eggs on our fennel and my well-traveled rue.

Eastern Swallowtails love fennel, parsley and rue.   They show up in late spring and keep coming all summer.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Eastern Swallowtails love fennel, parsley and rue. They show up in late spring and keep coming all summer. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Swallowtail caterpillar

Acrobatic Swallowtail caterpillar on fennel.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

The Swallowtail caterpillars are highly entertaining, and sport crazy yellow tentacles that seem to reach out and fathom the universe when bothered, giving off a weird scent. Kids love them.

June

The sunflowers were losing their charm as the weight of their heavy heads caused them to slouch forward in sad fashion.   Sparrows and cardinals started perching on their stiff stems, pecking the protein-rich seeds.

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

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

Tomato and Jimsonweed plants became common hosts for Tomato and Tobacco hornworms, which later morph into the beautiful Sphinx moth.    Loathed by gardeners, I find these caterpillars charming with their eight V-shaped marks on each side and a signature horn on the rear.  Manduca sexta, the tobacco hornworm, closely resembles its tomato preferring cousin, but shows seven diagonal white lines on its sides and a curved horn.

Tobacco Hornworm on Jimsonweed

Look at that face! Tobacco Hornworm on Jimsonweed.   PHoto by Monika Maeckle

Because they are moths, the caterpillars drop to the ground, cover themselves with earth to later rise as a large, hovering night-flyer.

 July

Fourth of July brings peak summer–long, hot days.   Daisies, milkweed, Jimsonweed and sages are taking the heat well.  Sunflower seeds are ready for collection from their tired, dried heads–here’s how to harvest them.

July:  Time to harvest sunflower seeds.  Just scrape them from the flower head with a spoon. Photos by Nicolas Rivard

We also had our first brood of Bordered Patch butterfly caterpillars on our Cowpen Daisies.   The fuzzy black critters decimated a few leaves, but the birds soon came and made quick snacks of most of them.

Bordered Patch butterfly: Quick change artist?

Bordered Patch butterfly on Cowpen Daisy.   July 2012.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

August

We start to see Queens in late summer.  Queens, Danaus gillippus, share the multiple charms of Monarchs, Danaus plexippus.  Both flaunt large size, flashy, striped caterpillars, and chrysalises that resemble a jade crystal, flecked with gold.

Queens are back in town

Queens are back in town. Here, on  Tropical milkweed..  Male Queens adore Gregg’s Purple Mistfower.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

If you have flowers blooming during the most brutal summer days, you’re likely to see the burnt orange creatures.  Like Monarchs, Queens lay their eggs only on milkweed, but they nectar indiscriminately.  Males have a penchant for Gregg’s purple mist flower.   Apparently they extract minerals necessary for their virility from the native perennial.

September

Late August and early September signal the start of the Monarch migration in our part of the world.  We usually buy our tags from Monarch Watch in August and tag the first Monarchs over Labor Day weekend.

Use your thumbnail to lift tag from sheet and transfer to butterfly.

Labor Day Monarch tagging, 2012:  Use your thumbnail to lift tag from sheet and transfer to butterfly.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch Watch has run the citizen scientist tagging program for more than 20 years.  Hundreds of thousands of butterflies have been tagged in the two decades by nature lovers like you and me.   The data collected by those citizen scientists has helped piece together the many mysteries of the Monarch migration.

We’ve tagged about 2,000 over the years and had 26 recoveries from the forest floor in Michoacan.  Here’s how to tag Monarch butterflies, if you’re interested.

October

April and October are always some of the best months in the garden in South Texas.  If you’re lucky and plan ahead, you can still be pulling okra off your plants, get a second round of tomatoes and harvest some peppers.

Lavaca butterfly garden, October 2012.  Cowpen daisy is a rock star foundation plant. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Lavaca butterfly garden, October 2012. Cowpen daisy is a rock star foundation plant. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Perhaps now you can see why I love the Cowpen Daisy so much.   The plant just keeps on giving blooms.  The more you cut it back, the more it puts out.  You can shape it into a hedge, let it grow tall and gangly, or chop it short and bushy.  And of course the butterflies love it.

Cowpen Daisy continues to bloom through the fall, drawing all kinds of butterflies

Cowpen Daisy continues to bloom through the fall, drawing all kinds of butterflies as a nectar source. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch caterpillar on Tropical milkweed

Monarch caterpillar on Tropical milkweed in October, 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Butterflies and other pollinators are ubiquitous this time of year because the weather is so perfect for blooms.   

November

November is a great time to collect seeds for next year’s butterfly garden.  It’s prime time for planting many native wildflowers, too.
Some dislike the brown woody look of native annuals that must be  allowed to “go to seed” in order to produce blooms next year.   But for me, the seeds add to the charm of these reliable plants.
Lavaca garden, November 2012

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

Tagged Monarch butterfly on leftover Halloween pumpkin

Tagged Monarch butterfly on leftover Halloween pumpkin. November 2012 Photo by Monika Maeckle

And while you’re gathering those seeds, the butterflies just keep on coming.  Our typical first freeze in San Antonio is supposed to be in mid-late November, but climate change has made that so unpredictable that we, like the birds, butterflies, bats and bees, should seize every sunny, warm day and make the most of it.

December

The last month of the year is a good time to make use of those seeds you’ve collected.  Brush them off the sidewalk, put them in a brown paper bag and share them with friends.

Seeds for next year

Seeds for next year, gathered from Lavaca garden, December 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

 We also like to make seedballs for ranch wildscaping and guerilla gardening projects. The recipe is easy, inexpensive, and makes for a great group activity.
Rollyo seedballs--why wouldn't you?

Rollyo seedballs–why wouldn’t you?   Makes a fun group activity.  Photo by Hugh Daschbach

Looking back over the year, can you believe how much life–and fun–can be culled from a small butterfly garden?   A modest patch of earth populated with appropriate, native and well-adapted plants beats a vast green lawn anytime.

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Monarch Tagged With Dr. Lincoln Brower in 2011 Texas Drought Recovered at El Rosario

The same week I saw my FOS (First of Season) Monarch butterfly, more happy news came my way in the wake of the recent dreary Monarch butterfly population report.

From the Texas Hill Country to Michoacan!  MJR894 was recovered on the florest floor and reported last week.  The butterfly was tagged on October 11, 2011 with Dr. Lincoln Brower.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

From the Texas Hill Country to Michoacan! Monarch MJT894 was recovered on the forest floor here and reported last week. The butterfly was tagged on October 11, 2011, at the height of the Texas drought with Dr. Lincoln Brower.      Photo by Monika Maeckle

One of 34 butterflies we tagged during the historic Texas drought of 2011 while on a field trip with Dr. Lincoln Brower was recently recovered at El Rosario sanctuary in Michoacan.  The particular butterfly, MJT 894, was tagged at a private springs among the late season Frostweed at the Whispering Waters Ranch.

Tienes "steekers?"  Native folks are paid $5 each for recovered Monarch tags, often called "stickers."   Photo by Monika Maeckle

Tienes “steekers?” Native people are paid $5 each for recovered Monarch tags, often called “stickers.” Photo by Monika Maeckle

The news arrived via an email on the DPLEX list, a listserv that reaches hundreds of butterfly enthusiasts, scientists and academics.  Diane Pruden, who recently returned from a visit to the Monarch sanctuaries in Michoacan, Mexico, shared the news topped with the subject line:  “More tags from Mexico.”  While unpacking from her trip, “Low and behold, I found more tags that were not included in earlier Emails,” she wrote.  “So, attached is another list of tags from El Rosario.”

For those unaware, the people of Michoacan are paid about $5 per butterfly tag found on the recovered bodies of dead butterflies of the floor of the Michoacan forest.   Visitors are often approached by native people and offered “steekers,” a Spanish pronunciation of “stickers” which are how the tags are often identified there.   Visitors then share the tag numbers with Monarch Watch to assist in gathering data for their Monarch tag recovery database.

Here's what the drought map looked like the day our MJT 894 was tagged.  Courtesy graphic

Here’s what the drought map looked like the day our MJT 894 was tagged. Courtesy graphic

About a week after Prudden’s email, Singleton responded that after checking her logs, she realized that nine of the tags on the new list had been Monarchs tagged during an October 7 – 13 stay in the Hill Country, at the tail end of the historic 2011 Texas drought.

All nine were from Menard County in Texas, and MJT 894 was tagged 10/10/11 at Whispering Waters Ranch “along a natural spring that did not dry up in the Texas drought,” said Singleton.   “Lincoln Brower and Kip (Kiphart) were collecting specimens at this spot with us that day.”

Dr. Brower had made a field trip to Texas that brutal Texas fall.  Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project volunteer extraordinaire Kip Kiphart had contacted me to see if we might be able to take Brower out into the campo to see  butterflies in their natural setting in the Texas funnel flyway.  I was glad to oblige.

My first call was to Jenny Singleton, a dear friend who wrangled me into this whole butterfly seduction way back in 2005 by inviting me to “come tag Monarchs” at her place on the San Saba River.  Singleton is involved in Monarch outreach in Grapevine, Texas, and helps organize the annual Grapevine Flutterby Festival.  She also spends alot of time at her ranch where she pursues Monarchs and myriad naturalist interests.

Austin entomologist Mike Quinn also joined us on that fall outing, and took many photos, some of which you’ll see below.   We first went to our special stretch of the Llano River, and later visited the Whispering Waters Ranch Resort…..well, I’ll just let you read the story below.   What a great day it was.

On the Llano River: Assessing Texas Drought and Chasing Monarch Butterflies with the Legendary Dr. Lincoln Brower

It felt like a Monarch butterfly dream team visited the Texas Butterfly Ranch yesterday: four Monarch butterfly devotees–two scientists and two veteran Monarch taggers–accompanied Monarch butterfly scientist Dr. Lincoln Brower for a tour of the Texas Hill Country to collect specimens that would help assess the impact of the Texas drought on Monarch butterflies and their migration.  What a great excuse to take off work!

Monarch Butterfly Texas Team

Monarch Butterfly Dream Team: Kip Kiphart, Jenny Singleton, Dr. Lincoln Brower, Monika Maeckle, Mike Quinn

A student of Monarch butterflies for more than 65 years, Dr. Brower knows as much about the migrating creatures as anyone on the planet. Equally impressive is the 80 year-old’s physical stamina and untainted enthusiasm for the insect that has captivated him since he was a graduate student at Yale and snapped the famous “barfing blue-jay” photos that proved Monarch butterflies don’t taste good.

Dr. Lincoln' Brower's Barfing Blue Jay

Dr. Brower’s “barfing Blue Jay” proved Monarchs don’t taste good

Joining our butterfly chasing dream team were Mike Quinn, Texas  Monarch Watch coordinator and former statewide entomologist for Texas Parks and Wildlife, Kip Kiphart, award-winning volunteer manager/trainer for the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project at Cibolo Creek Nature Center in Boerne, and Jenny Singleton, a dear friend, teacher and fellow tagger who looped me into Monarch mania back in 2005.   While Jenny and I hold no PhDs, we DID hold our own, making all citizen scientists proud by delivering dozens of live Monarch butterflies to Brower for his drought experiment.

Dr. Brower flew into San Antonio this week with the goal of observing the drought firsthand and collecting specimens to take back to his lab in Virginia. There, he will freeze and dry them, extract and weigh their fat,  and assess their health and chances of surviving at their winter roosts in the mountains of Michoacan.

We started our day on the Llano River,  between Mason and Junction.  With a cloudy sky, not much was flying, but we netted six.

Brower quickly appraised each butterfly–”skinny,” “fat,” “she looks pretty good,” “porker”–taking copious notes in a charming old-school notebook while deftly folding them into waxed paper envelopes for storage in an icechest.  He also shared new ways to determine male from female butterflies without unfolding their wings (males have obvious pincers on their rearends) and how to tell if a female is carrying eggs (she has a “bead” in her abdomen which you can feel when gripping her gently).

Next: a stop in Menard at the beautiful Whispering Water Ranch Resort, where the generous Carolyn Dippel led us to a spring-fed pond rimmed with dinosaur tracks and tall, white Frostweed.  There we tagged another 34 butterflies, all nectaring on the late season bloomer.  Quinn, Singleton and I left the tour here, as Brower and Kiphardt continued on to Junction for a visit to the liatris fields at Native American Seed company where 40 more butterflies were gathered.

“When someone gets the Monarch bug, they’re bit hard,” remarked Dr. Brower. No argument here.  I look forward to reading the results of his study.

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Oh, those Crazy Chrysalises: Bringing Caterpillars Inside Can Result in Chrysalises in Surprising Places

Judy Nevin of San Antonio was concerned about Monarch chrysalises she’d been monitoring in her garden this week.   One had crawled under some plant cloth and frozen when the temperatures dipped below 32.   Another had relocated to a former basil plant and formed its green, gold-flecked container on a dead limb, perhaps to emerge on a day like those we experienced this weekend when the sun warmed parts of Bexar County to springlike temperatures in the 70s.

Swallowtail chrysalis on electrical chord of a flat-iron

This Swallowtail wandered 25 feet from its host plant across a dining room to form its chrysalis on an electrical chord in a nearby bedroom. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“I had two chrysalises until two nights before last,” said Nevin by phone.  One froze and she brought the other inside.

Our schizophrenic weather, freezing one day and balmy the next, has provoked frequent questions from readers about what to do with chryalises found in the winter.  Should you bring them inside?   And why do they form away from their host plant?

chrysalis in hat

Monarch chrysalis formed inside my hat! Photo by Mike Quinn

Bringing a chrysalis inside for protection from the elements is a judgement call.  We already covered the quandary of moving late season caterpillars indoors in this December post.    The same logic applies to chrysalises.   Will you be around to release the butterfly or do you plan to keep it inside if the weather is ornery?  Do you have nectar for it–either artificial or natural?  Depending on where you live and the time of year, the newborn butterfly may have few prospects for food or mating.

Monarch chrysalis on an indoor plant cart

Wheels up! Monarch chrysalis formed on the wheel of this indoor garden cart. The caterpillar’s host plant was directly above the wheel.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Again, there’s no “right” answer here.

As for caterpillars forming their chrysalises AWAY from their hostplants, this is common practice.  We’ve brought hundreds of caterpillars and chrysalises inside, and yet it still provokes smiles when we find a chrysalis in an unlikely place.

MOnarch chrysalis on napkin

Monarch chrysalis formed on a napkin at my kitchen table. Photo by Monika Maeckle

We’ve found them under chairs, on curtains, napkins, blank walls, glass windows, and other unexpected locations.

Monarch chrysalis on wall.

Monarch chrysalis on wall. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Once a Swallowtail chrysalis wandered 20 feet from the host plant in my Austin apartment to form its chrysalis on the electrical chord of a flat iron.   Another time a Monarch caterpillar I was transporting to a speaking event in my car wandered away during the drive.  Later I found the chrysalis inside my summer straw hat. I moved the perfectly formed chrysalis to a stick, tying its silk button with dental floss to a horizontal branch so it could hang vertically until it was ready to emerge.  A week later, it did, nonplussed.

Monarch Chrysalises

You can tie Monarch chrysalises onto a horizontal stick with dental floss to keep a close eye on them. Photo by Monika Maeckle

We’ve also made the dreary discovery of a perfectly formed dead butterfly that eclosed and was belatedly found–under a couch, near a window, or on the floor by a glass door when we were away for the weekend.  A sad event, and something to consider should you bring in a chrysalis from the cold.

Why do these intriguing creatures wander so far from what they know so well and what has sustained them?

Chrysalis on agave

Safe place to form a chrysalis? We think so. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Scientists suggest this is a survival mechanism.   If a caterpillar forms its chrysalis on the host plant and other caterpillars defoliate it, that leaves the chrysalis more visible and vulnerable to predators.   My personal unscientifc theory is that caterpillars need a quiet spot to transform themselves into a completely different lifeform. Growing wings and planning your first flight must require deep concentration.

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Queen, Monarch Caterpillars and Butterflies: How to Tell the Difference

Found a Monarch caterpillar on my milkweed!

                               –my friend Hugh Daschbach, via text message

How to tell the difference between a Queen or Monarch caterpillar

Every year around this time as the Queen butterflies start to show up, we get lots of questions about how to tell the difference between Queens, Danaus gilippus, and Monarchs, Danaus plexippus.  And with the warm weather that has gripped South Texas throughout November and now December, many of us are still finding eggs and caterpillars in the leaves of our milkweed.   Queens are here en masse.

Three Queen butterflies

Queens have been flying and reproducing this Fall.

As it turned out, the caterpillar in question that my friend Hugh texted me about (excuse the typos) was in fact a Queen.  The giveaway:  it had three sets of protuberances–frequently called antennae, but actually only one set are antennae and the other two are filaments.  The antennae have special sensing properties while the filaments are mostly for show, and to throw off predators.

Queens on Purple Mistflower

Queens on Purple Mistflower

Hugh’s confusion is common:  because of their similar color, size and affinity for milkweed as a host plant, Queens and Monarchs are often mistaken for each other in their various life stages.

But once you look closely, it’s not that hard to tell the difference between Monarchs and Queens.

First, Queens appear solid orange compared to the varying shades of a Monarch.  In the photo above, notice how with their wings folded, the Queens’ solid dark orange is interrupted with occasional white dots–nothing like the striking stained glass veins and color pattern of the Monarch below.

Resident Monarch butterfly on the San Antonio River Museum Reach

Monarch butterfly on the San Antonio River Museum Reach

With their wings open, the difference is even more obvious.  The Queen is solid, the Monarch has varied coloration.  Both of the examples below are male butterflies, as you can see by the prominent display of their family jewels–the defunct pheremone sacs that presumably once drove the lady butterflies wild.

Queen butterfly, wings open

Queen butterfly.  It’s a male.

Female Queens and Monarchs don’t have these prominent markings with wings open.   In Monarchs, the black veins are generally wider and more pronounced in the females.

Monarch butterflies are on the move in Texas

Male Monarch butterfly.  Notice the two dark spots, his “family jewels.”

In the caterpillar stage, the most obvious difference is that Queens have one set of antennae and two sets of filaments, while Monarchs have one set of antennae and one set of filaments. Antennae are on the head of the butterfly, while filaments are at the rear–and in the case of the Queen, in the middle.

Queen caterpillar with three filaments

Queen caterpillar sports three sets of protuberances–two sets of filaments, one set of antennae.

Notice in the photo above, the Queen has what appear to be THREE sets of protuberances.  The Monarch caterpillar only has TWO.  Both wear distinctive yellow, black and white striped suits.   The Queen often will have a slight red blend as the filaments connect to the caterpillar’s torso.  The patterns of the stripes can vary depending on time of year, humidity and diet.

Monarch butterfly caterpillar has two filaments

Monarch butterfly caterpillar has one set of antennae, one of filaments–two total sets.

Scientists don’t fully understand the biological purpose of the filaments, which seem to reach out and “feel” the universe around them.   They swerve and turn in various directions, almost punctuating caterpillar moves like a roving eye or arched eyebrows on the human face.

For the sake of identification, let’s just say their purpose is to signal the difference between Queens and Monarchs.   For more on filaments and what we do and don’t know about them, check this link on the Monarch Watch page.

Queen and Monarch chrysalises

Queen and Monarch chrysalises. Monarch in the middle.

In the chrysalis stage, Queen chrysalises are almost identical to Monarchs, except they are generally smaller.  They also sometimes offer a subtle pink hue, as evidenced in the picture above, Monarch in the middle, Queen on the sides.

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“Flight of the Butterflies” in 3D a Special Holiday Treat for Kids, Seniors and all of us in Between

The new 3D IMAX film, “Flight of the Butterflies,” made the perfect Thanksgiving Day preface to a nontraditional dinner for my parents, Hilde and John Maeckle, 80 and 91 years young, respectively, and affectionately known as “Oma” and “Opa.”

Flight of the Butterflies in 3D

Thanksgiving Day treat: Flight of the Butterflies in 3D.  L-R  Hilde, John, and Monika Maeckle –Photo by Robert Rivard

Apart from the fantastic story and stunning effects, the sound was loud enough for my hard-of-hearing dad to enjoy the soothing rhythm of millions of butterflies’ wings beating.    The three-dimensional cinematography so captured his imagination that he, like the rest of us, couldn’t resist reaching into the darkness in attempts to touch the butterflies as they seemingly flit before our eyes.

This familiar story, well-told, never gets old–even to a butterfly evangelist well-versed in Monarch butterfly natural history.  Only one scene gave me pause, making me wonder if the filmmakers had taken their cinematic license too far.

The film weaves the compelling narrative of Dr. Fred Urquhart and his wife Norah, who studied the Monarchs for 40 years and are credited with piecing together the mystery of their migration. Their tenacious efforts included the development of the first citizen scientist tagging programs.   The climax of the story occurs when the Urquharts finally visit the ancestral roosts in early 1976, after Mexican national Catalina Trail and her husband Ken Brugger lead them to the mountaintop in Michoacan province near Angangueo where the butterflies wait out the winter each year.

The film depicts the elderly couple huffing up a challenging trail, seemingly gasping for air in the thin mountain air.  Upon first sight of  the forest filled with  Monarch butterflies, Dr. Urquhart appears teary.

In his first person account in National Geographic Magazine in August of 1976, Urquhart mentions the possibility that he might perish before seeing the subject of his life’s work.   Here’s what he wrote:

“Norah and I are no longer young.   At 10,000 feet, as we walked along the mountain crest, our hearts pounded and our feet felt leaden.

The rather macabre thought occurred to me:  Suppose the strain proved too much?  It would be the ultimate irony to have come this far and then never witness what we’d waited so long to see!”

But Urquhart and Norah lived to see the Monarchs and tell the tale. In the movie, he sits down in a field to absorb the magnificence of millions and millions of butterflies–floating, flitting, fleeing the ancient Oyamel trees as the sun warms them for a midday flight.  He looks down to see a tagged butterfly near his feet–thus proving that these butterflies migrated from the United States.

Watching this scene, I couldn’t believe it happened like that.   Did it?

The Urquharts as they find a tagged butterfly in Michoacan

In the movie, Flight of the Butterflies, Norah and Fred Urquhart find a tagged butterfly in Michoacan. The real story was even more amazing. Photo courtesy SK Films

“They couldn’t film what really happened.”  said Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas at Lawrence and a longtime Monarch butterfly scholar.  “A lot of people questioned that scene.”  Taylor relayed the real story, an Isaac Newton moment.

“What really happened, he was sitting by a tree, and a branch fell down,” Taylor said by phone.   “And one of the butterflies on the branch had the tag on it.”   Taylor said the filmmakers couldn’t replicate the situation exactly without harming the butterflies.  Deliberately breaking a branch off the tree in the protected sanctuaries where the scene was shot would have been illegal.  The tag was applied in Chaska, Minnesota.

Monarch butterflies cluster on Oyamel Trees in Michoacan

Monarch butterflies cluster on Oyamel Trees in Michoacan–Photo courtesy SK Films

Catalina Trail, the only living member of the team that discovered the Monarch roosting spots in Michoacan and who was present at that moment, confirmed the story.  “That’s how it happened,” she said by phone from Austin.

As difficult as it is to grasp, branches often break from the weight of millions of butterflies.   “It happens all the time,”  said Taylor.  Each butterfly weighs half a gram. That means 907 butterflies weigh one pound.  And a million butterflies weigh 1,102 pounds.   The roosting spots can host half a billion butterflies.   Do the math.

“It just blows me away,” said Taylor, recalling a trip to the Monarch sanctuaries and an inch-and-a-half round sapling, 20 feet tall, with a sprig of foliage on the branch.  “It would literally fold over double from the weight of the butterflies.”  And when they flew off, the branch would spring back to an erect posture, he said.

Catalina Trail, January 2, 1975, the day she and Ken Brugger "discovered" the Monarch butterfly Overwintering Sites

Catalina Trail, January 2, 1975, the day she and Ken Brugger “discovered” the Monarch butterfly overwintering sites.     Photo copyright Catalina Trail

Urquhart described the moment on page 173 of the August 1976 edition of National Geographic:   “”While we stared in wonder, a pine branch three inches thick broke under its burden of languid butterflies and crashed to earth…..There, to my amazement, was one bearing a white tag!”

The IMAX movie, Flight of the Butterflies, was released last week, and chronicles the "discovery" of the Monarch butterfly roosting spot.

The IMAX movie, “Flight of the Butterflies,” chronicles the “discovery” of the Monarch butterfly roosting spot.  Photo courtesy SK Films.

Some have suggested that the movie misses a chance to make a strong case for conservation.  But one could also argue that that’s a different movie. The film does much more than any other single piece of media to raise awareness of the magic of the  Monarch butterfly migration.    Once people feel the magic, then doing something constructive to help often follows–like planting milkweed.

Flight of the Butterflies, a spectacular 44-minute show, simultaneously suits children, seniors and all of us in between.   The film continues in San Antonio at the Rivercenter IMAX theater and opens at Austin’s Bob Bullock IMAX Theater in January.

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Illegal Logging “Stopped,” but Climate Change, Aerial Insecticides Spell Challenges for Monarch Butterflies

Good news from the Monarch butterfly roosting sites in the mountains of Michoacan this week: for the first time since the creation of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Preserve in 2000, officials declared that illegal logging there has practically been eliminated.

Logging

Illegal logging in Mexico has practically been eliminated, says the World Wildlife Fund, Mexico

Mexican government officials and the World Wildlife Fund, Mexico, made the announcement after a review of aerial photographs of the Oyamel forests in Michoacan province this week revealed no detectable loss of forest to logging.  Approximately 50 acres fell victim to drought, erosion and disease.

“The battle is not yet won,” Omar Vidal of the environmental group WWF Mexico, told the Associated Press in a widely circulated report.

Unfortunately the good news in Mexico was tempered with the harsh reality that 2012 will be tough for the Monarch butterfly migration this fall.  A year “like no other,” according to Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch–and a year that includes climate change, drought, wildfires, and now massive aerial insecticides in the strategic North Texas migration flyway.

Monarch migration map

Monarchs must pass through Texas coming and going to Mexico.

The year started with a wet spring that arrived strong and early, creating a timing snafu here in the “Texas funnel.” The Lone Star State is always the first stop on the multi-generation Monarch migration spring tour.  A sound launch here in April, based on mild temperatures and fresh, ample milkweed host plant, sets up a successful first generation of Monarch butterflies to lay eggs, hatch caterpillars and chrysalises, and carry the torch northward.

But that didn’t happen this year.  The Texas spring came on hot, early, and accompanied by strong winds.  When Monarchs arrived in March, a lot of wild milkweed wasn’t even out of the ground yet.    The wet, mild winter provoked a bountiful wildflower showing, creating serious competition from more aggressive species.

Then we had a slew of 80- and 90-degree days that sped up growth of both the caterpillars and plants.  Readers of this blog contacted us with tales of a serious milkweed shortage.  “Plants grew rapidly this spring with many species blooming 10-30 days earlier than normal,” wrote Taylor in his annual Monarch Population Status blogpost, published July 30.  “Plants that typically flower in the fall began blooming in June and reports continue of water stressed plants blooming early.”

Resident Monarch butterfly at the San Antonio River Milkweed Patch

Milkweed shortages dogged Monarch butterflies this year.

That’s a problem because Monarch caterpillars prefer young, healthy plants rather than those that are over-the-hill and “senescing,” as scientists call it.  Studies of caterpillars reared on older, mature milkweed suggest less healthy butterflies, and problems like the OE virus and tachinid flies are more common.

Summer brought extreme heat and no rain, with the historic drought suffered in Texas last year now expanding to the Midwest–not good for butterflies and devastating for host and nectar plants.  Successive generations of Monarchs seem to having a tough time syncing their schedules with the new climate calendar and plants seem confused, too.

It will be an interesting migration.   We generally start to see the vanguard of migrating Monarchs in late August here in Texas.  By Labor Day, a dribble of early arrivals grace our goldenrod at the ranch.  On the way, they will have seen a torched landscape from wildfires in the Midwest and Oklahoma, and now, massive aerial insecticide sprays in Dallas, a response to an outbreak of West Nile virus there.

The aerial spraying of insecticides like Duet, the chemical dispersed last night over 106,00 acres of Dallas county, has not taken place since 1966.  The Environmental Protection Agency and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have said that Duet, comprised of synthetic pyrethenoids, are safe and pose no health risk to humans or pets.  Descriptions of the chemical provided by Clarke Corporation say the chemical is even safe for bees.

Scientists and citizens expressed reservations about aerial spraying.  The Dallas-area town of Lancaster even voted to not participate in the program.

Dr. John Abbott, Curator of the Entomology Collection at the University of Texas at Austin, questioned the effectiveness of such a measure.  “All this will do is knock out the adults that are flying, but it doesn’t do anything about the eggs and larvae,” he said.

“Aerial spraying will kill some, but not all adult mosquitoes, but it won’t solve the problem since the spraying will not impact the breeding sites,” said Dr. Taylor via email.   “Why aren’t they attacking the breeding sites?”

Dr. Mike Merchant, Professor and Extension Urban Entomologist at the Texas AgriLife Extension Service in Dallas, dismissed concerns of Duet effecting the Monarch migration.  “I wouldn’t anticipate that Duet would have much impact on Monarch migrations or survival, ” he said via email.  “The insecticide lasts for just a few hours before degradation or evaporation.”   Merchant added that since spraying is done at night, butterflies would be less likely to encounter it and that studies suggest these insecticides are less toxic to larger insects.

“That said, we are taking a wait and see approach,” he wrote.

And that’s what we will do, as we await the first arrivals of this year’s Monarch migration.

Like what you’re reading?  Follow butterfly and native plant news at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery in the righthand navigation bar of this page, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam.  You can also read our stuff on the Rivard Report.

Alamo, Texas, a Great Base for South Texas Sojourn of Bugs, Butterflies and Birds

For a fun outdoor getaway filled with butterflies and birds, look no further than Alamo, Texas. No, not The Alamo.  Alamo, Texas.

Empress Louisa butterflies at the Alamo B & B Inn

Empress Louisa butterflies at the Alamo B & B Inn

The small town in Hidalgo County may seem like an unworthy stop on the drive to South Padre Island with its strip malls and fast food joints dotting the highway.   But the former headquarters of the Alamo Sugar and Land Company sits in the center of the Rio Grande Valley and makes a perfect base for exploring the bird and butterfly hotspots of South Texas.

A Fourth of July trip took Bob and me to the National Butterfly Center, the Global Birding Center and the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in a 48-hour off-season nature sojourn that made us want to rebook in the “high season” of October or March.

We stayed at the Alamo Inn B & B, a historic naturalists’ retreat just five miles from the fabulous Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge.  Our new friend Ro Wauer, butterfly guidebook author extraordinaire, who we met at the Wings Over the Hills Festival in Fredericksburg this spring, recommended it highly.  And despite the historic part of the hotel being closed for the off-season, Proprietor Keith Hackland made us feel welcome with his profound hospitality, charming South African accent, and dog friendly accommodations in adjacent studio apartments (Cost:  $78 per night).  Our dog Cocoa made friends with Hackland’s sweet pooch Henry, and roamed a huge, fenced yard.

Hackland offered hefty 20-page handouts of bird species we were likely to see upon check-in, retrieved from his well-stocked outdoor store which was also closed for the off-season.  Alas, we’re not serious birders and I’m a novice (but extremely enthusiastic) lepidopterist, more interested in the whole life cycles of plants, creatures and ecosystems than checking species off a life-list.  Yet the pages and pages of species had me intrigued:  were there really 500 species of birds and at least 200 different butterflies cruising the area around our hotel?  Apparently so.

Termite hatch left bug detritus everywhere

Termite hatch left bug detritus everywhere

We arrived Sunday afternoon and planned a late morning visit to the National Butterfly Center.   (One of the best things about chasing butterflies is that they don’t get up early.) As we sat on our front porch Sunday evening and watched buff-bellied hummingbirds nectar on Turk’s Cap, a thunderstorm blew in, dropping a quarter-inch of rain on the Alamo Inn’s garden.

Ten minutes later, a torrent of flying creatures filled the air–a massive hatch like we had never witnessed.  I thought at first they were Mayflies, but Hackland nabbed one with one hand and provided a positive I.D.: termites. “This happens pretty regularly after it’s been dry,” he said.

Empress Louisa butterflies at the National Butterfly Center

Empress Louisa butterflies at the National Butterfly Center

The next day, Empress Louisa, Asterocampa louisa, butterflies filled the air at the National Butterfly Center.  They fluttered along the pathways, nectared on lantana, and rested on miniature log roosts assembled by the Center.    This video provides a great overview.

The 100-acre park, opened in 2004, is a project of the North American Butterfly Association, which planted hundreds of host plants to draw butterflies from all corners of the Valley and northern Mexico.  More than 200 species have been identified along the Center’s trails.

Lake Flato's World Birding Center Headquarters in Mission, Texas

World Birding Center Headquarters in Mission, Texas, photo courtesy Lake|Flato Architects

Ambling the park-like grounds last week, we saw Queens, Sulphers, Whites, Swallowtails, Zebra Longwings, unusual hairstreaks and brush foots.  We had the place to ourselves, and enjoyed the solitude in spite of a muggy heat.  Tip:  be sure to bring your own snacks and drinks as the Butterfly Center offers no refreshments.  According to office manager Flora Vela, the Center had contracted with a restaurant to open a cafe on the premises earlier in  its history, but the deal fell through.

At the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge in the Rio Grande Valley

At the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge in the Rio Grande Valley

Next stop: the World Birding Center ecotourism headquarters, built by San Antonio’s  AIA Firm of the Year, Lake|Flato Architects.  The award-winning building anchors nine birding destinations that dot the Valley and draw thousands of ecotourists each winter.  Unfortunately our trip here was cut short by another downpour.  A lovely Black Witch Moth kept us company under the eaves of the magnificent galvanized metal quonset-hut style patio. As a drumbeat of raindrops pounded on the tin roof, we were able to observe the rainwater collection system in action.  It felt like the tropics.

Canopy Walk, feels like the jungle at Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge

Bob Rivard on the Canopy Walk at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge

At the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, some of the wetlands were dry, but those back-to-back thunderstorms created a steamy, fertile backdrop for a hike.  We hoped to spot the Valley’s signature Green Jay, and helpful attendants at the front desk offered to spread birdseed in the feeding area to increase our chances.

No luck, but Kiskadees, Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, and other flying creatures kept our walk interesting and the screaming cicada chorus and tropical bird sounds provided an apt soundtrack as we traversed the Canopy Walk and climbed the Tree Tower.

An off-season visit has the advantage of  no crowds, but we’re already planning our high season return.

Like what you’re reading?  Follow butterfly and native plant news at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery in the righthand navigation bar of this page, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam.  You can also read our stuff on the Rivard Report.

American Snout Butterflies Inundate South Texas–enroute to San Antonio, Austin?

Butterfly listservs were all aflutter this week with news of butterflies inundating South Texas.  The American Snout butterflyLibytheana carinenta, arrived en masse in Brownsville and McAllen this week, firing up Facebook, Twitter and email lists with tales of snout butterfly overload.  “American snout butterflies swarm into the Valley,” reported the Brownsville Herald this morning.

American Snout Butterfly, photo via wikipedia

American Snout Butterfly, photo via wikipedia

“Clouds of those butterflies,” Carina A. Wyant Brunson posted on Facebook from McAllen, Texas.  “It’s hard to walk without bumping into one.”

Dalia R. Salinas of Brownsville relayed that she was sitting outside with her granddaughter “when all of a sudden a swarm of butterflies flew right in front of us. It was amazing, and to see my granddaughter’s face light with amazement was so delightful.”

We had an American snout outbreak in San Antonio in the summer of 2006. The migrating masses clogged car grills, gummed up windshields, and massed on local asters, dogwood, goldenrod and anything else bearing nectar.  There’s a good chance they’re coming our way again soon.

The mottled grey insects disguise themselves as dead leaves when their wings are closed.  In an open-winged pose, they flaunt orange, black and white accents.   They lay their eggs on hackberry trees, a drought-tolerant native considered a trash shrub by some.   But the hackberry is actually a fantastic wildlife plant.  Its leaves provide food for

Hackberry tree

Hackberry, beloved by the American Snout butterfly, photo via Texas A&M

Snout caterpillars and its berries offer important winter sustenance for birds.  The large numbers of migrating Snout butterflies can completely defoliate a hackberry tree, but  “It’s nothing to worry about,” said Michael Nentwich, Forester for the City of San Antonio.   “The trees will recover.  These are seasonal things that happen.”

This year’s weather pattern has lent itself to a butterfly boom, as we’ve written before.   And with temperatures rising earlier in the year, it makes sense the Snouts are arriving in June, rather than August, as they did last time.

In the annals of American Snout butterfly migrations, 1921 ranks as a most remarkable year.

I brake for butterflies via zazzle.com

After a world record downpour in Central Texas on September 9-10, 1921, when 36.4 inches of rain fell in an 18-hour period, a Snout butterfly breakout resulted a few weeks later.   “An estimated 25 million per minute southeasterly-bound snout butterflies passed over a 250 mile front from San Marcos to the Rio Grande River,” according to Austin entomologist Mike Quinn’s website Texas Entomology, a trusted and entertaining  source for Texas insect news and info.  Scientists noted at the time that the butterflies’ flight “lasted 18 days and may have involved more that 6 billion butterflies.”

Wow.  So no complaining if a few of the migrating insects get hung up in your car grill.  And remember to brake for the butterflies.

Tales of a Butterfly Evangelist Shared at Pecha Kucha Night San Antonio

When Vicki Yuan invited me to present on butterflies to the San Antonio chapter of the American Architecture Foundation’s periodic Pecha Kucha Night event, I had no idea what a challenge it would be to frame the amazing story of the Monarch butterfly migration into 20 20-second slides.

That’s right.  Twenty slides, each timed exactly to 20 seconds.  That’s the strict format for Pecha Kucha, a program launched in Tokyo in 2003 for sharing people’s passions by two British architects.    Pecha Kucha means “chit chat” in Japanese.

There’s so much to tell when you’re talking butterflies.  Those who know me can attest to my tendencies to natter on about their charms.  Convey a multi-generation, 3,000-mile migration made by creatures that weigh less than a gram and find their way “home” to a place they’ve never been–all in six minutes, 40 seconds?

If Monarch butterflies can complete such a journey, I should be able to share their story–and my own evolution as a butterfly evangelist–in under seven minutes.  It was a great exercise in expository discipline.  I hope you enjoy it.

For more on Pecha Kucha Night San Antonio, see the Rivard Report’s coverage of the event.

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