Caterpillar – palooza on the Llano River: No Monarch butterflies, but caterpillars galore

I was worried that the only Monarchs that I’ll be tagging this year will be ones I raise myself.  Until this guy showed up:

FOS Wild Monarch tagged

First of season wild Monarch tagged on the Llano River. October 2013. Photo by Monika Maeckle

What a beauty.

The perfect male, SLM027, appeared to be recently hatched.   That wouldn’t surprise me since the Llano River this weekend was ripe with Monarch caterpillars, while flying Monarchs were almost completely absent.

Monarch butterfly caterpillars on the LLano River

Caterpillar – palooza on the Llano River. Plenty of caterpillars, but few Monarch butterflies this weekend. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The freshly minted specimen above was one of only two Monarchs seen all weekend, and is only the third Monarch butterfly I’ve tagged this year.   That puts me way behind my usual activity, which by now should number in the dozens.  The other two were reared at home. You’ve all heard how this is likely to be the worst year in history for Monarchs.  So I won’t belabor it again.

My friend and fellow butterfly fan Jenny Singleton, who first introduced me to butterflies, shared the hope that a cold front hitting the Llano River this weekend would push down some major pulses from up North and we’d have the usual clusters roosting in our pecan trees.  But as is often the case, Jenny and I were ahead of our time.   Migrating Monarchs had not quite arrived.

Jenny was at her place in Hext, about 40 miles from me and said she didn’t see any, either.  We’re both betting on next weekend.  Monarch Watch predicts the peak migration for our latitude to hit between October 10 and the 22nd.  And judging from reports we’re getting early this week, Monarchs are on the move.

Spangled Fritillary

Spangled Fritillary nectaring on Frostweed. Llano River, Texas Hill Country

Plenty of other butterflies were flying whenever the North wind gales paused to catch their breath.   The dramatic temperature drop and wind gusts appeared to make many insects seek the comfort of the opposite sex, as these pictures of mating Queens and grasshoppers (we call them Jumbos) attest.

Queen butterflies doing it

Queen butterflies snuggle up as a cold front hits the Llano River this weekend. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Grasshoppers doing it

Get a room!  Grasshoppers find companionship on the Llano River, Texas Hill Country. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Eastern Swallowtail

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

The good news is that the Llano River is up substantially from a dreary low flow.   A two-and-a-half inch rain about two weeks ago lifted the waters four feet and scrubbed much of the muck and dredge from its karst bottom.  Plenty of Swamp milkweed, Frostweed, Cowpen daisy, Goldenrod and Purple mistflower await hungry travelers when they finally arrive.   A fresh hatch of Gulf Fritillaries, Eastern Swallowtails and Queens lighted on the nectar feast Saturday afternoon.

Llano River, October 2013

Llano River recovered nicely from a long, hot summer. Three inches of rain raised the river at least a foot.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

Interestingly, I found more than 20 Monarch caterpillars in various stages on the milkweed this weekend.  I have never retrieved so many caterpillars at once, so late in the season.   Not sure what that is about, except that perhaps the migration will be a bit late this year.  Upon returning home, my Tropical milkweed was filled with Monarch butterfly eggs.

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Don’t Miss a (Butterfly) Beat: How to Track the Monarch Butterfly Migration from your Desk

With recent rains and cooling temperatures, we’re hearing some upbeat news about the Monarch migration.  Numbers will doubtless be low this year–probably the lowest in history.  That said, the migration is on.  And in this historically low year, we’ll all be watching carefully.

Tagged Monarch butterfly

“I took this photo today in Enid Oklahoma. 6 PM 9-28-2013.” — Carolene Metscher, Monarch Watch
Facebook Page

So as not to miss a (butterfly) beat, consider tapping into some of the cool digital tools available via the web. Sure, we’d all rather be outside with our butterfly nets half-cocked, a stash of Monarch Watch tags stuffed in our pockets with a notebook for logging the data of our most recent catch of the migrating creatures.   But that’s not always possible. 

At the intersection of technology and nature lies a host of tools to track the Monarch butterfly migration without ever leaving your desk.  These myriad resources contribute much to citizen science.

A recent find for me is the wind map.  I just love this website, which shows us in real-time how the winds are blowing.

Wind Map

For those of us who live in the Texas funnel, the wind plays an especially significant role in planning for Monarch tagging outings.   I work full-time, so during Monarch season, I plot each weekend for maximum Monarch activity.

I check the Monarch Watch “peak migration” calendar, monitor the wind and weather, and poll my butterfly loving friends to see who might be available for a weekend of tagging on the Llano River.  Lucky for me my birthday is October 13, which makes for a great Monika’s Monarch birthday weekend.  This year will be no different.  I will, however, consult the wind map to see what might be in store.

If winds are coming from the South, Monarchs won’t be moving much;  that could mean they’re stranded in place, which could make for good tagging.

Winds from the North mean they’ll be riding the wave.   And they have to roost at night, so that could also be good.

Twitter Search

Using Twitter as a search engine is another great Monarch butterfly tracking tool.  It provides real-time updates of Monarch butterfly sightings.   Granted, not everyone uses Twitter, “only” an estimated 200+ million people.  For those who do and are interested in clocking the migration in real-time, it can be indispensable.

Twitter is a free, real-time search engine, as well as a broadcast outlet for individuals and organizations.  That means you can visit  http://search.twitter.com and punch in “monarch butterflies” or “monarch migration” or “monarch butterfly” and dozens of hours-old “tweets”–brief 140-character updates—will be returned, telling you where Monarchs are flying RIGHT NOW.

Twitter search for tracking Monarchs

Check out Twitter search at http://search.twitter.com to see what’s happening with the Monarch migration RIGHT NOW.

Twitter was conceived as a mass text messaging tool, thus the brevity of the updates.  It refreshes constantly.  And to use Twitter as a search engine, you don’t even need to open an account.

Twitter search ONLY indexes recent updates.  Google and other search engines are more akin to archives for the entire web.   You can try searching Google News, but this won’t return the real-time reports Twitter delivers.

The results from these searches paint an immediate picture of what’s happening with the Monarch migration NOW.  Yes, there’s junk in there, but also insights, relevant news stories, photos and facts.  By clicking on the Twitterer’s profile, you learn their location.

Don’t scoff.  Give it a try and check out this Twitter search for the Monarch butterfly migration.

Monarch Watch Facebook Page

If you’re reading this and you’re on Facebook, then you likely have already “LIKED” the Monarch Watch Facebook page.  If not, go ahead, do it now, and join the party.  (And while you’re at it, why not LIKE the Texas Butterfly Ranch Facebook page?)

With more than 12,400 fans, Monarch Watch’s page serves as a delightful online plaza where the Monarch Watch team from the University of Kansas engages with the rest of us to share information, photos, and wax passionate about Monarch butterflies and their migration.   Citizen scientists, recreational observers, and professional and amateur biologists and entomologists join the conversation.  Like this:

Monarch Watch Facebook page

Monarch Watch Facebook page

I almost always learn something from the Monarch Watch Facebook page.  Here, veteran caterpillar wranglers offer wisdom born from hatched chrysalises, newbie enthusiasts pose curious questions and the sharp folks at Monarch Watch and the crowd set inaccuracies straight.  The photos are often amazing, like the one taken by Carolene Metscher of Enid, Oklahoma at the top of this post.  Nice shot, Carolene!

Billed as the nation’s premiere citizen scientist project for children, Journey North tracks wildlife migrations and seasonal change.   This time of year, they post a weekly migration update on Thursdays based on observations from Monarch butterfly enthusiasts of all ages, from Canada to Mexico.   Here’s an excerpt from Thursday’s report:

North Wind Continues
Migration picked up noticeably during the past week, as north winds carried monarchs southward. One busy stopover site was Dr. Lincoln Brower’s garden in Virginia, where a wave of monarchs arrived on September 18th:

 

“Today was the first migratory pulse here. The monarchs are coming in to nectar on our Zinnias and especially the Verbena. I saw and/or collected 25 monarchs in 50 minutes in the garden. I scanned the sky with binoculars but never saw them flying in. They just suddenly appear on the flowers!”

The Journey North website offers loads of useful tools and resources for teachers and others on the Monarch butterfly migration, including an app at the iTunes store.

Journey North's Migration App

Journey North recently launched an app for tracking the Monarch migration.

Monarch Watch Website

Journey North devotes itself to wildlife migrations besides Monarch butterflies (they also monitor hummingbirds, whales and birds), but the Monarch Watch website brags Monarch butterflies, all the time.

Monarch Watch website offers Monarch info 24/7/365

Based at the University of Kansas at Lawrence, Monarch Watch founded the citizen scientist tagging program embraced by thousands of us who tag Monarchs each fall.  Its comprehensive website offers information on how to tag a Monarch, raising milkweed, rearing Monarch caterpillars, and a database of all the Monarch tags recovered in Mexico, so those of us who tag can find out if any of our butterflies made it home.

The site also posts predictions for when the peak migration will occur at your latitude based on Monarch Watch scientists’ well-researched opinions.  The Monarch Watch blog is also worth a look.

D-Plex List

If the above won’t sate your migration curiosity, then consider signing up for the D-PLEX list,  an email exchange that includes about 650 scientists, conservationists, enthusiasts, and others, including some very interesting characters.

Named after the Monarch butterfly’s Latin designation, Danaus plexipus, the D-PLEX is an old fashioned email listserv started by Monarch Watch founder Dr. Chip Taylor and invites the public.  Sign up to receive D-PLEX emails on the Monarch Watch webpage.

Careful, though.  The D-PLEX can overtake your email inbox.   Conversations can escalate, generating dozens of emails a day, many of which you may not find useful.   I’ve set up all D-PLEX emails to forward to a special email box that I check once a day, so as not to be overwhelmed.

Don’t forget to check in with us here at the Texas Butterfly Ranch, too.  We’ll do our best to keep you posted.

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Caterpillar Cannibalism: Monarch butterfly caterpillar eats Monarch egg for lunch

I have heard that when Monarch caterpillars run out of milkweed to fuel their feeding frenzy en route to becoming a migrating butterfly, they can become cannibalistic.  That makes Darwinian sense.   Facing competition and a lack of food, it’s understandable that a creature might eat what’s before it to survive.   Nature can be cruel.

Monarch catepillars and eggs

Not interested:  Monarch caterpillars resisted a snack of a creamy yellow Monarch eggs–unlike a fellow caterpillar hours earlier. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Still, I was surprised this weekend when I watched a Monarch caterpillar retrieved from an aging milkweed plant nonchalantly devour a creamy yellow Monarch egg upon combining the two for safekeeping.    The second instar caterpillar appeared freshly minted, as if it had just shed its skin.  Its tentacles were still stuck to his head, not yet dry or perking up to explore the universe as they often do when in full form.  I’m betting that shedding your skin requires extra energy and works up an appetite.

This caterpillar was hungry.  As soon as I plucked the leaf on which he rested and placed it in a container with a Monarch egg found earlier, the caterpillar quickly gravitated to the egg and began noshing.  It took about five seconds to decimate the egg.  The caterpillar knocked it back like a high protein jello shot.

Later, as an experiment, I put several caterpillars in with several eggs to see if they would do the same.  They did not.  Were they just not that hungry?  Scientists will have to answer that one.

“Cannibalism in monarchs is not unheard of – it usually occurs due to overcrowding and/or insufficient food availability, but this is not always the case,” wrote Jim Lovett of Monarch Watch when the “caterpillar cannibalism” question was posed on a Monarch Watch forum. Most folks here will tell you to give the caterpillars plenty of room and to raise similarly-sized caterpillars together (don’t keep the larger caterpillars with the smaller ones).”

Sounds like good advice.   I generally keep eggs and tiny instars separate from their more voracious brethren.  In the case above, I was moving caterpillars and eggs from the river to the ranch house, holding them together temporarily.

Jacqueline Stearns responded on the same string that she had witnessed Monarch cannibalism.  ”My first cat ever earlier this summer ended up killing my 2nd and 3rd cats and scaring my 4th and eating 3 eggs before I finally figured out what was happening,” Stearns posted on the forum.   She isolated the aggressive caterpillar and segregated the rest by size.   Since, she wrote, “have not had issue with any of the others until just last week. I found my youngest ones fighting and separated them (one is now a chrysalis) so I’m guessing they are safe together now.”

Whew.

Frostweed on the Llano

Frostweed on the Llano River awaits migrating Monarchs. Lookin’ good for a nectar fest in a few weeks. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Meanwhile, on the Llano River this weekend, we found plenty of eggs and caterpillars upon making our milkweed rounds.   Three Monarchs, four Queens were spotted in flight.  Swamp Milkweed stands of Asclepias incarnata are numerous but thin, and we even found one egg on Antelope Horns milkweed, Asclepias asperula.

Parched Goldenrod on the Llano River

Last year, this is what it looked like:  parched Goldenrod on the Llano River served no use to migrating Monarch butterflies except as a place to rest.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Frostweed, a Monarch butterfly mainstay in the fall with its puffs of white flowers, is just starting to bloom.  Goldenrod is still pervasive, but fading.  The timing is excellent for good nectar possibilities a month from now, October 10-22,  when Monarch Watch predicts peak Monarch Migration for latitude 29, which is San Antonio.  Austin, at latitude 30, would be around the same.

Peak Migration dates

Peak migration for San Antonio is predicted to be October 10 -18 according to Monarch Watch. Screengrab and info via Monarch Watch.org

My Monarch Watch tags arrived this week.  I had procrastinated buying them and only ordered 100 this year as I expect another dreary turnout for the migration given the myriad challenges Monarchs face. Weather seems to be cooperating and cooling off, though.

When the small troop arrives, nectar sources should be plentiful, boding a restorative rest stop as they make their way to Mexico.

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Caterpillar Quiz: How to Tell the Difference between Monarchs and Eastern Swallowtails

“Hello, I planted dill and it is dying.  The bad news is that tons of Monarch caterpillars are on it.  I’m not sure what to do, or how to keep the dill alive.  Any suggestions?”
–Jennifer L.
Eastern Swallowtail caterpillar on fennel, one of its host plants.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Eastern Swallowtail caterpillar on fennel, one of its host plants. Photo by Monika Maeckle

First of all, Jennifer, a Monarch caterpillar would not be found eating dill, since it only hosts on milkweed species.  Host plants–the plant a caterpillar eats and lays eggs on–are often the best clue to what kind of caterpillar is visiting your garden.

In their caterpillar stages, Eastern Swallowtails and Monarchs are often confused with each other.  That’s no surprise, since later in their development, both sport stylish green, yellow, cream and black-striped suits. 

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed

Monarch butterfly caterpillar on milkweed, its host plant. Photo by Monika Maeckle

These two very different butterflies–Monarchs and Swallowtails–grace our Central and South Texas skies regularly.  The migrating Monarch appears in spring and fall during its annual migration.   The Eastern Swallowtail seems to be present just about year-round, except in extreme cold.  

As butterflies, you can’t mistake these beauties for each other.  The Monarch, Denaus plexippus, exhibits orange-and-black markings that resemble a stained glass window.  

Monarch butterfly at the San Antonio River Milkweed Patch

Monarch butterfly, with wings closed, on milkweed, its host plant. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch butterfly nectaring on milkweed.  PHoto by Monika Maeckle

Monarch butterfly, with wings open, nectaring on milkweed. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The dark blue-and-black Swallowtail,  Papilio polyxenes, boasts elegant cream, gold and orange dots.   Both are large, lovely and can be drawn to your gardens with the right plants.

Eastern Swallowtail

Eastern Swallowtail, wings closed, nectaring on milkweed. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Swallowtail nectaring on milkweed.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Eastern Swallowtail, wings open,  nectaring on milkweed. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Yet as caterpillars, the Monarch and Swallowtail are often confused with each other, as the email that opens this post suggests.  Here’s a few tips that should help you pass the “caterpillar quiz” in distinguishing the Monarch and Swallowtail caterpillars from each other.

1.  Note the plant the caterpillars are eating.

Checking out the plant a caterpillar is eating generally is the easiest way to tell what kind of caterpillar you’re watching.

Monarchs only lay their eggs on and eat milkweed, members of the Asclepias family.  Swallowtails will host on members of the Apiaceae family, which includes parsley, Queen Anne’s Lace, carrot, celery, fennel and dill.

Swallowtails will also host on plants in the citrus (Rutaceae) family, including rue bushes and lemon, lime and orange trees. If you find a green-striped caterpillar noshing on fennel, it’s a Swallowtail; a stripe-suited chomper chowing down on your Antelope Horns is a Monarch.

Swallowtail showing tubercles

Who goes there?!? Note the yellow “tentacles” which the Swallowtail shows off when bothered. Monarchs don’t do that. Photo by Monika Maeckle

2.  Check the tentacles/antennae.

Monarch caterpillars have tentacles on either end of their bodies.  The ones in front are technically antennae and have special sensory cells, while the ones on the back are “just for show”–to throw off predators.

Swallowtails, on the other hand, don’t always show their antennae.  When bothered or poked, yellow tentacles pop out of their head and emit a distinctive, sickly sweet odor.  Kids are always impressed when you provoke the Swallowtail’s tentacles.

3.  Note the body shape.

Monarch caterpillars’ body type is consistent in its breadth, while Swallowtail caterpillars are thicker in general, and mass into a “hooded” shape at the head.

In answer to Jennifer’s question about what to do about a lack of dill, I suggest planting plenty of it–some for yourself, and some for the caterpillars.   Dill tends to die as summer heats up, so you can also try some of the other Swallowtail host plants.  Rue and fennel have worked well for me, thriving even in our Texas heat.

An emergency run to a local nursery might also be in the cards to pick up some caterpillar food.  Just make sure it hasn’t been sprayed with any systemic pesticides.

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Monarch Butterfly Google Earth Tour Marries Epic Journey With Epic Technology

Some stories never grow old no matter how often we hear them.  Especially when cool, appropriate technologies are tapped to amplify a known tale with delightful graphics and interesting maps.

Monarch Butterfly Google Earth Tour

Google Earth Tour of Monarch Butterfly Migration marries their epic journey with epic technology. Photo via EncyclopediaofLife

Such is the case with the recently released Monarch Butterfly Google Earth Tour, produced by Ari Daniel Shapiro and the gang at Atlantic Public Media and the Encylopedia of Life.

Sometimes technology injected into a natural phenom like the Monarch migration can seem intrusive and inappropriate.  But in this case, Google Earth mapping software lends a new perspective to the Monarchs’ epic journey, providing differing perspectives–from Monarchs’ flying in the sky to citizen scientists on the ground.

What is a “Google Earth Tour“?   As you may know, Google Earth is an amazing 3D virtual globe software program that allows one to travel the world without ever leaving your desk.   Developed by the CIA-funded Keyhole, Inc., and purchased by Google in 2004, the technology makes it possible to give a “tour” of most patches of the planet without ever leaving home.  The program also uses digital modeling data collected by NASA to provide 3D views of faraway places.

Ari Daniel Shapiro

Ari Daniel Shapiro

Shapiro said the idea for the tour resulted from a reporting trip he took to Winnipeg, Canada, last year.   “I visited someone’s home who had a monarch butterfly waystation.  I thought about how far those butterflies had to travel, and the way in which people feel connected to these insects.  It felt like it would make a great story,” he said via email.

Shapiro, like the Monarchs, starts this virtual tour in March in Michoacán.  Environmental geographer Dr. Isabel Ramirez of the Universidad Autonoma de Mexico tells us that Monarchs are “small pieces of sunlight.”

From there, they journey north. Dr. Karen Oberhauser of the University of Minnesota’s Monarch Lab details their travels through northern Mexico, the “Texas funnel,” on to the spring ranges in the Midwest and then to the summer breeding grounds further north.   The first half of the 12-minute video provides a view from the butterflies’ perspective, flying high above the varied terrain, stopping periodically to lay eggs and continue the life cycle.   Given the obstacles–ants, birds, wasps, diminished habitat and climate change–their tenacity is remarkable. In her plainspoken Minnesota accent, Dr. Oberhauser declares:  ”Yeah.   It’s incredible.”

Then Shapiro switches gears.   He introduces citizen scientists and butterfly lovers, from Mark Garland and Paige Cunningham in New Jersey to Mary Beth Curry in Sylvester, Georgia.   Garland and Cunningham tag Monarchs near Cape May, and Cunningham likes to whisper “Have a good journey” upon releasing them to fly on their way.  Curry, a teacher, shares Monarch caterpillars with her students.

The story continues into Fall when the butterflies arrive at our famous Texas funnel–the channel through which ALL migrating Monarchs must pass to reach their ancestral roosts in Mexico.   That’s where we come in.

I heard about Shapiro’s project through the DPLEX email list, an old style email listserv that reaches hundreds of professional scientists, citizen scientists, and butterfly lovers.  Journey North had forwarded Shapiro’s solicitation for volunteers in which he invited  contributions of audio files and photos for the project.

________________________________________________________________________

Ari Daniel Shapiro's Email soliciting volunteers to help with Monarch Butterfly Google Earth Tour, November, 2012_________________________________________________________________________

I couldn’t resist, so in early December of 2012, I contacted Shapiro.  My contribution appears in minute 10:51, where he plays my allergy congested sound bite, which describes Monarchs “clustered like grapes” on the pecan trees that line our stretch of the Llano River, a favorite Fall overnight roosting spot.

Shapiro also plugged in a couple of my photos, including a shot of family friend Annie Alice Schenzel of Austin with her back to the camera, netting Monarchs on the Chigger Islands.   The caption reads “Monika Maeckle” and as much as I wish I were 24 years old again, that’s not the case.

Nope, not me.  That's Annie Alice Shenzel of Austin, TX.  That IS my voiceover, though.  Photo via Encyclopedia of LIfe

Nope, not me. That’s Annie Alice Shenzel of Austin, TX. That IS my voiceover, though. Photo via Encyclopedia of LIfe

When the video came out, I contacted Shapiro, but it was too late to make the change.   Lucky for us, Ms. Schenzel is gracious in being misidentified. “I am not even close to being offended by this,” she relayed via email, when told about the mix-up.  Thanks, Annie!

The entire project would not have been possible without the new technologies that bind and sometimes divide us.  In fact, citizen science would be nowhere near its current zenith without crowdsourcing tools like Facebook, Twitter, Google Earth, listservs, Smartphones, and blogs/websites like the one you’re reading.   We would all be marveling alone, unable to share the wealth of magic and information.

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Got Milkweed? Updated Plant Guide for Central and South Texas

Our first Milkweed Guide posted back in the fall of 2010 and has continued to be one of our most-read blogposts.   With spring here and butterfly gardeners chomping at the bit to create host and nectar habitat for Monarchs and other butterflies, it’s a good time to talk milkweed choices and availability.

Slide1

Much has changed since that 2010 post.  A three-year, drought-induced emphasis on native, drought-hearty plants has created a greater demand for native milkweeds. That said, supply continues to be lacking.

Monarch Watch recently launched its Milkweed Market on its homepage, a virtual marketplace of native milkweed seed.    When you click on the vendors, though, most species are not available.

Monarch Watch, The Xerces Society, a pollinator advocacy organization, and the Native Plant Society have all engaged in milkweed restoration initiatives.    This is good news, but it will take time to develop the market commercially.

Those of us who have attempted cultivation of native milkweeds from seed in our home gardens have often met frustration and failure.   The very traits that make native plants so hardy also often make them extremely particular about their soil, drainage, moisture and available light.  As George Cates, chief seed wrangler at Native American Seed Co. in Junction, Texas told me:  ”These milkweeds have a mind of their own.”

Monarch caterpillars will ONLY eat Asclepias species, or milkweed.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch caterpillars will ONLY eat Asclepias species, or milkweed. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Plugs for native milkweeds are practically impossible to find in nurseries and because of their extremely long tap roots, transplanting them successfully often fails.   Texas longterm drought has sparked a broader interest in native plants, so the availability of milkweeds and other “from here” pollinator plants will continue to grow.

For now, though, planting from seed is the most viable option.  If you can collect your own seed in the wild, go for it.  Native milkweed seed is expensive–as it should be.  When you realize what it takes to produce the seed, you won’t begrudge its price tag.  Read that saga here.

Since the time to take cuttings and collect seed will soon be upon us, we offer guidance below, based on personal experience.  Other appropriate milkweeds are suggested in this article by the Native Plant Society.  Keep an eye out for your local botanical garden or native seed society’s pop-up plant sales to score some proven homegrown natives.

Texas Butterfly Ranch Suggested Milkweed Species for our Area

Antelope HornAsclepias asperula  

The most common native milkweed in these parts has fuzzy leaves and an odd greenish-white bloom and can stand two-feet tall.  During dry spring seasons, the hearty perennial is sometimes the ONLY plant blooming.  Last year in Central Texas when we had an exceptionally wet winter, the Antelope Horns were not as pervasive as you would think.   Too much moisture and too much competition from less hardy plants kept these guys laying low. 

Antelope horns

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

Antelope horns is especially appropriate for wildscapes, ranches, and large plantings.  It can best be propagated by seed, which is available commercially from native seed suppliers.  

Be mindful that stratification is recommended for successful germination.   According to the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, Antelope horns can also be propagated from root cuttings taken in the spring.  If you have it growing in nearby fields, ranches or wildscapes, you might give this a try.  If you choose to plant seeds you’ve gathered yourself, collect those in June.  

Typically 30 – 45 days of stratification will be required before installing in moist soil.  See our post on how to get Antelope Horns milkweed to germinate, courtesy of Native American Seed Company in Junction, Texas.

 Green MilkweedAsclepias viridis 

This common native milkweed in our area is sometimes called Green Antelope Horn Milkweed or Green Mlikweed and is the most common milkweed in the state of Texas.   The Edwards Plateau is the western reach of its range, which starts in East Texas.

Asclepia Viridis, Green Milkweed or Green Antelopehorn Milkweed Photo courtesy Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center

Asclepia Viridis, Green Milkweed or Green Antelopehorn Milkweed Photo courtesy Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center

I have a single one of these plants growing under a porch at the ranch.   The solitary bloomer never receives supplementary water and barely enjoys rain, given its location tucked under a breezeway.

Yet every year it pushes out a batch of blooms and seedpods, peeking from under the  deck, reaching for the sun.   Those of us who raise Monarch caterpillars like the fact that Green milkweed has larger leaves than other available milkweed, which makes feeding voracious caterpillars a bit easier.

Green milkweed can range from one-three feet in height and is best propagated by seed which is commercially available.  Like Antelope Horns, it sports showy whiteish-green globes of flowers that attract Monarchs as a host, and huge bees and other butterflies for its nectar.

Swamp MilkweedAsclepias incarnata

Another excellent native milkweed for our area is Swamp Milkweed, a lovely pink bloomer that sports lush pink flowers in August and blooms through September.

Swamp milkweed grows along rivers and streams and is an excellent choice for riverbanks in the Hill Country or perhaps in an area where you have air conditioning condensate draining.  Spiders LOVE this plant.  I have witnessed “death in the afternoon” more often than I care to remember: Monarch butterflies snagged by orb weaver spiders as they perch on Swamp Milkweed leaves, in search of an easy feast.

Monarch on Swamp Milkweed on the Llano River

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

For years we’ve had this milkweed growing along the banks and on the Chigger Islands of our Llano River ranch, but recent, prolonged drought has taken a severe toll, lowering our water table so much that much Swamp milkweed has died.

 Butterfly Weed, Asclepias tuberosa

This bushy orange bloomer is often confused for Tropical Milkweed (see below) and is frequently mislabeled at nurseries.  One of the best ways to tell if a milkweed in question is tuberosa is to break off a leaf and see if  milky latex pours out.  If it doesn’t, then it’s Butterfly Weed.

Ascelpias tuberosa

Asclepias tuberosa, or Butterfly Weed, is a great nectar plant for Monarchs and other butterflies. Photo courtesy Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center

Detractors of Butterfly Weed point out that it doesn’t contain the toxic cardenolides that protect Monarchs from predators, thus should be avoided.   The toxins, contained in the latex of  most milkweed species, give the Monarch its bright warning colors and bad taste that deters predators.

The 18-inch-tall perennial serves as a fantastic nectar plant.  Its abundant orange blooms attract all kinds of butterflies.   If you’re trying to stick with natives, choose this one to grace your butterfly garden.

Butterfly weed can sometimes be found locally at nurseries. The plant is propagated easily from seeds and cuttings and blooms through the Fall, when nectar sources are wanting.

Tropical Milkweed, Asclepias curassavica

Tropical milkweed is not native, but it is widely available at garden centers in one-gallon pots and it also germinates easily from seed and cuttings. As much as I support native plants, this is my favorite Monarch host plant.  It’s easy to grow, not a water hog, propagates easily from seeds and cuttings, blooms prolifically and draws Monarchs like a magnet.  Commercial butterfly breeders and even organizations like Monarch Watch rely on Tropical milkweed to raise butterflies in captivity.

Asclepias curassavica, Tropical milkweed, NOT native, but a great Monarch host and nectar plant for all butterflies.  Photo by Moniak Maeckle

Asclepias curassavica, Tropical milkweed, NOT native, but a great Monarch host and nectar plant for all butterflies. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The plant can be controversial for native plant purists and some scientists.   Theories abound on the appropriateness–or not–of Tropical milkweed in Central and South Texas.

The plant originated in Central America and has gradually moved north.   Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, points out that Tropical milkweed is the plant on which Monarch butterflies evolved.

In my completely unscientific kitchen experiments, I’ve noticed that Monarch caterpillars PREFER Tropical milkweed. When offered a choice of Tropical milkweed, Swamp Milkweed or Antelope horns, Monarch caterpillars inevitably choose Tropical milkweed.

Studies show that the toxins in Tropical Milkweed inoculate Monarch moms and their young. While it can be challenging to find Tropical milkweed in the Fall when Monarchs are moving through Texas, it’s easy to cut back your spring plants to encourage new growth for migrating visitors.   My butterfly breeder friend Connie Hodson, of Flutterby Gardens in Manatee, Florida, says you can cut any six-inch stalk of Tropical milkweed in a potting soil and vermiculite mix, and have new plants in no time.    You can also order seeds or harvest them yourself from fellow gardeners.

NOTE:  If you choose to plant Tropical milkweed, best practice suggests slashing it to the ground in late fall or early winter.   It will push out new shoots as the weather warms. This  will discourage overwintering of organisms possibly harmful to Monarchs.

Matelea reticulata  Pearl Milkweed vine

Milkweed vine

Milkweed vine, lovely addition to the garden!  Photo by Monika Maeckle

While Milkweed vine is in the Asclepias family, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that Monarchs and Queens use this vine as a host plant. It grows in the wild in the Texas Hill Country.

Anyone have experience with Milkweed vine as a host?

I include it today because it is an absolutely delightful plant with its heart-shaped leaves, perfect green symmetrical flowers, and a lovely, intriguing pearl-like dot in the middle. Someone needs to make earrings out of these flowers.

In the Fall, Milkweed vine produces huge seed pods, about three times the size of Tropical milkweed.  The plant climbs and curls for six – 12 feet and is sometimes called Green milkweed vine, Net vein milkvine, and Netted milkvine.

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Part Two: More Tips for Raising Monarch Caterpillars and Butterflies at Home

Last week’s post on raising Monarch butterflies at home sparked a a slew of questions, comments and emails.   I figured I’d better get back here and clarify a few things.

Newborn male Monarch

This newborn male Monarch hatched this week from my first “crop” of eggs. Off he went! Photo by Monika Maeckle

First, I left out the part about what to do with the egg, once you bring it inside.

I usually tear off the leaf that the egg is on and put it in a jar or plastic container with the lid on.  This keeps it moist and at a stable temperature.  Sometimes the leaves will start getting moldy or condensation will form on the sides of the jar or lid.  If that happens, just open the container and let the fresh air in.  You might even wipe off the condensation.  Too much humidity may cause mold to grow and is not a good thing.

Monarch butterfly egg

Put fresh Monarch butterfly egg inside a plastic container or jar with lid on. Photo by Monika Maeckle

But often as the torn leaves decay, they  smell “ripe”–that is, you can tell they are starting to degrade.   The eggs usually hatch within three – four days, so hopefully they will show themselves as tiny caterpillars before that happens.  That said, it seems that caterpillars don’t mind that earthy aroma as much as we humans do.

Once the egg hatches, you can start the process discussed in last week’s post.  There, I shared photos and info mostly about raising caterpillars in a vase-like setting with cut milkweed set in water and caterpillars munching happily on the leaves.   But when you have LOTS of caterpillars, that’s hard to do.

Seven baby Monarch caterpillars

Seven baby Monarch caterpillars occupy this former cheese container. You can see one pretty clearly at 10 o’clock. Photo by Monika Maeckle

When I have more than two-three caterpillars at once, I use the contained “caterpillar condo” approach I alluded to but didn’t describe in detail last week.  I will do that now.

I like to have a large stalk of milkweed that I place inside the container.  Taking a small piece of dampened paper towel and wrapping it around the end of the milkweed helps keep it fresh and assists in extending its appeal to the caterpillars.  Like us, caterpillars prefer fresh greens.

Caterpillar condo

Paper towel on the bottom of the container helps in cleaning frass and changing milkweed. Note wet paper towel wrapped around stem on right side.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

As the caterpillars get bigger and indulge in their 10-14-day feeding frenzy, massive amounts of caterpillar poop, or frass, result.   The problem compounds with more caterpillars.  When I have several caterpillars, a paper towel in the bottom of the plastic container helps to absorb dampness and makes for easy clean-up.

Move caterpillars from container to assist in easy clean-up

Just lift the stem and move the caterpillars out of the way while you clean the container. PHoto by Monika Maeckle

When the caterpillars reach their third instar, or stage, you’ll find you may need to supply fresh milkweed daily, sometimes more than once a day. Of course it depends on how many caterpillars you are raising.  NOTE:   When there’s nothing to eat, caterpillars can become cannibalistic.  We don’t want that.

Caterpillar just shed its skin

This Monarch caterpillar just shed its skin. Leave him alone to do his thing. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Some people may struggle with moving the caterpillars around.   Often you can simply lift what remains of the stem and put the caterpillars aside while you wipe down the container.  If a caterpillar is stuck in an inconvenient position, take a leaf and slide it under her.  Usually she will climb right on, getting out of your way.  I’ve used a spoon or paintbrush to move the caterpillars.  Handling with your fingers should be discouraged.  Usually they will ball up and drop to the ground and it can be difficult to get a grip on them.

Cleaned caterpillar condo

After cleaning out the container, return the caterpillars to their “condo.” Photo by Monika Maeckle

Sometimes,  the caterpillar is in the middle of shedding its skin and won’t want to move.   In that case you should try to wait til the process is complete.   Caterpillars seem to gravitate to the roof of the containers, too.  I just let them hang out there while I clean up, then put the roof back on.

Fresh milkweed for Monarch caterpilalrs

Fresh milkweed for Monarch caterpillars. Note damp paper towel on stem tip. Photo by Monika Maeckle

When it’s time to go chrysalis, I will move all these caterpillars to a chemical free milkweed plant.   They will wander off and find a good place to transform themselves.   As stated previously, I’m not squeamish about caterpillars in my house.

You can also put them inside the pop-up cages that I mentioned last week, and they will form a chrysalis on the side of the netting or the roof of the cage.

Caterpillar condo

Put the lid on your caterpillar condo and wait til it’s time to go chrysalis. PHoto by Monika Maeckle

Good luck, and let us know how it goes!

For more information, check out the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project page on raising Monarchs or Monarch Watch.

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Faded FOS Monarch Butterfly Lays Eggs in San Antonio Despite Dreary Population Reports

My first day of earnest butterfly gardening of 2013 met with a sweet surprise:  my FOS (First of Season) Monarch butterfly, Sunday, March 17.

And, it was a faded female, fluttering in my mulched front yard garden, lighting from one Tropical milkweed plant to another.  In her wake, about a dozen creamy, white Monarch eggs were deposited on the undersides of select leaves.  I retrieved a handful for safekeeping inside.

FOS Monarch butterfly

WELCOME! FOS Monarch butterfly, a female, met me in the garden on Sunday.                                  Photo by Monika Maeckle

The sight was especially reassuring given that we just endured the worst news in history on Monarch butterfly numbers this week.   The official report from the World Wildlife Fund preserves in Michoacan, Mexico, confirmed what many of us had suspected for 2012.

Monarch egg on Tropical mlkweed

She left about a dozen creamy white eggs on the tenderest milkweed leaves she could find.      Photo by Monika Maeckle

The migrating butterflies occupied a mere 2.93 acres (1.19 hectares) of Oyamel forest in Mexico, the smallest recorded population in history. The number represents a 59% drop,  down from 7.14 acres (2.89 hectares) last year and the lowest population since record keeping began 20 years ago.  During the 1990s, the amount of forest typically occupied by Monarch butterflies averaged more than 20 acres.

Here's a close-up.  Never mind the dirty fingernails.  This egg is coming inside for safekeeping!  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Here’s a close-up. Never mind the dirty fingernails. This egg is coming inside for safekeeping! Photo by Monika Maeckle

Why is anyone surprised?  Climate change, drought, wildfires, illegal logging in Mexico, and pervasive pesticides have brewed a perfect storm that threatens the continuation of the magnificent Monarch  migration. Genetically modified crops leave our heartland void of milkweed, the Monarch host plant, starving the migrants of the only food that feeds their caterpillars.

Screen Shot 2013-03-18 at 2.13.43 PM

Passage: the Decline of Monarch butterflies via CBS news.

Our friend Dr. Lincoln Brower co-authored an op-ed piece with Homer Aridjis, a Mexican author and former ambassador, for the New York Times headlined:  ”The Winter of the Monarch.”  ”Today the winter monarch colonies, which are found west of Mexico City, in an area of about 60 miles by 60 miles, are a pitiful remnant of their former splendor,” wrote Brower, who has been studying Monarchs for decades.

Scientists see ominous decline in Mexico’s Monarch butterflies,” read the headline topping an AP story that ran on NBC news’ webpage and many other news sites.   The listservs and Facebook exploded with angst from butterfly fans.

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

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

“Bad omen: More than half of the monarch butterflies in Mexico have gone missing,”  tweeted Steve Silberman, as scores of others chimed in to express their dismay.  The Monarch Watch Facebook page posted the news and dozens of comments resulted.   “Terrible news” and “So sad” typified responses, along with myriad calls to plant more milkweed.
Just keep doing your thing, girl. She laid about 10 eggs on Sunday. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Just keep doing your thing, girl. She laid about 12 eggs on Sunday. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“All in all, it was not a good year for monarchs,” said Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, in his response to the report.

Yet…thinning my thick patch of Cowpen daisies to make more room for milkweed, I couldn’t help but marvel at the tenacity required for this small, slight creature to have traveled so far to complete her life cycle.   More than 850 miles. Faded, fluttering, she sought just a few good leaves for her babies.   She didn’t give up.

And we shouldn’t either.

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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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Catalina Trail, Dr. Chip Taylor, Black Witch Moths, Tomato Hornworms and IMAX Movie make Top Posts of 2012

What were the most-read stories at the Texas Butterfly Ranch this year?  Beyond the homepage and the “about us” tab, these were the most widely read posts over the past 12 months.  Take a look and happy holidays to you.

#1  Catalina Trail, founder of the Monarch Butterfly Roosting Sites, Lives a Quiet Life in Austin

Our most-read blogpost written in 2012 is the story of Catalina Trail, a lovely, quiet woman who ‘s role in Monarch butterfly natural history was relatively uncelebrated until

Catalina Trail, always a bit of a free spirit, traveled the hemisphere in the 70s.

Free spirit and itinerant traveler Catalina Trail traveled the hemisphere in the 70s. Photo copyright Catalina Trail

recently.    We consider it a privilege to have made her acquaintance and found a friend in Catalina this year.    She lives just 75 miles up the road in Austin, Texas.

#2   The Intriguing Black Witch Moth, Large, Batlike and Harmless

This enormous dark, batlike moth loves to rest under eaves and around doorways, a habit that results in quite a “startle factor” when flushed, as explained by our friend and

Black Witch Moth Female

Black Witch Moth Female, photo via www.whatsthatbug.com

entomologist Mike Quinn.  The drought seems to have helped the moth’s population grow and extended its migration, making it more common than usual this year.

#4 Desperately Seeking Milkweed:  Monarch Butterflies Appetites Create Milkweed Emergency

This post created a bit of a stir, as it called out a local nursery for selling chemical laced milkweed to a friend who was feeding hundreds of Monarch caterpillars.   Read on

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

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

for tips on determining if milkweed bought from local nurseries is riddled with systemic pesticides that spell death for Monarch caterpillars.

#4  Tomato Hornworms, Loathed by Gardeners, Morph into the Magnificent Sphinx Moth

Gardeners often can’t tolerate the tomato hornworm, which appears in early summer and decimates those heirloom and cherry hybrids so painstakingly tended.   But the chubby

Tobacco Hornworm on Jimsonweed

Look at that face! Tomato Hornworm on Jimsonweed.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

green “worm” is actually a caterpillar that morphs into a gorgeous pink-and-black moth that hovers and dances much like a hummingbird.

#5  Chasing Monarchs on the Llano River with Dr. Chip Taylor

It was a butterfly evangelist’s fantasy come true, to tag Monarch butterflies with one of the foremost experts on Monarchs on the planet, Dr. Chip “Orly” Taylor, founder of

Dr. Chip Taylor, Founder of Monarch Watch

Monarch Watch founder Dr. Chip Taylor on the Llano River in the Texas Hill Country.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch Watch, the citizen scientist program that has been a fixture of my autumn each year.   Read about my kidnapping Dr. Taylor from a conference in Kerrville for a quick trip to our Llano River ranch to take the pulse of the 2012 migration in  October.

#6   FAQ:  Is it OK to Move a Monarch Chrysalis?

This post gets a lot of action when folks find a lonely Monarch or other butterfly chrysalis in an inopportune spot.    We frequently are asked if it’s ok, and if so, how to relocate the

Queen and Monarch Chrysalises

Sure it’s ok to move chrysalises to a safer spot. Photo by Monika Maeckle

chrysalis to a safer, perhaps more welcoming place.  Here’s tips on how to do it.

#7 IMAX Film Might be as Good As it Gets for Monarch Butterflies 

The fabulous IMAX film, Flight of the Butterflies, opened in September, just as we were anticipating the Monarch migration.    All the hubbub surrounding the film’s debut made it seem that the 3D footage assembled by SK Films might be as good as it could possibly

A Butterfly Haven somewhere in Michoacan

A Butterfly Haven somewhere in Michoacan –Photo courtesy SK Films

get for Monarchs this year–and that is likely the case.   Monarchs may have had their worst year yet, numbers-wise.  Texas Butterfly Ranch later reviewed the film in this post.

Other favorite posts that were written in years past:

Butterflies Made a Darwin Doubter out of Valdimir Nabokov

I continue to be perplexed why this post consistently ranks as one of the most read in Texas Butterfly Ranch history.  Perhaps referencing the conservative Discovery Institute is what continues to provoke readers. Hmm.

Milkweed Guide:  Choose Best Plants for Monarch Butterflies

This plant guide for Texas milkweeds has been a perpetual most-viewed post since it was published in November of 2010.   Time for us to update it, which we hope to do soon.

Antelope Horns Milkweed

Antelope Horns Milkweed is a great choice for Texas gardens and wildlscapes.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

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