New study: nectar plants more important than milkweed for Monarch butterfly migration

A research paper published April 27 in the journal Oikos is causing a stir in the Monarch butterfly world.  The paper challenges the conventional wisdom that the major cause of the decline of the Monarch butterfly migration is a lack of milkweed tied to the increased adoption of herbicide tolerant crops in the butterflies’ midwestern breeding grounds.

Monarch butterflies nectaring in the Chigger Islands in the Llano River on Frostweed

Migrating Monarch butterflies nectar on Frostweed in the Texas Hill Country, October, 2011. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Dr. Anurag Agrawal and his team of researchers at Cornell University tackle this widely held assumption in their recent paper, “Linking the continental migratory cycle of the monarch butterfly to understand its population decline.”  Agrawal suggests that the emphasis on milkweed may be misplaced and that solutions addressing habitat fragmentation, and most interesting and relevant to Texas, late season nectar plants should receive more attention.

“Planting milkweed is probably not a bad thing to do but it’s not going to increase their population or save them from some demise,” said Dr. Agrawal in a nine-minute video titled “Beyond milkweed:  Monarchs face habitat, nectar threats.” The video, below, was released in conjunction with the paper.

“Milkweed is probably not the limiting thing for the Monarch population,” he said.  “Perhaps planting milkweed will not improve or increase the populations as much as we thought in the past.”

Calling the decline of the Monarch butterfly migration a “very very gnarly problem,”  Agrawal gave kudos to citizen scientists for their involvement in the study and said more than once that  we must “get the science right.”

“We must identify the key weak points. It is absolutely critical.  If we don’t, we could be investing a lot of effort into conserving a portion of the migration but it may have ultimately no impact conserving the species overall,” he said.

Agrawal and his team matched Monarch butterfly counts made by citizen scientists and others to the different stages of the migration.   After doing so, they found that counts were not down until the end of the migratory cycle, when the butterflies started heading south.

“By the time they get to Mexico, their numbers are plummeting,” said Agrawal, “but at the end of the summer, when they start that migration, their numbers are not down.”

The research underscores the different needs of the species at the different stages of their life cycle.

In early spring, as Monarchs move north through the Texas funnel, they need milkweed on which to lay the first generation of eggs.  They continue to need milkweed through the summer as subsequent generations reproduce as they move north.

But in the fall when the Monarchs are heading south, they don’t need milkweed since they enter their reproductive diapause–that is, a temporary stage in which they postpone sexual activities and save their energy to migrate to Mexico.  At this point, they need water, ample nectar sources, trees or other protection at night for roosting, and connected habitats.

Monarch on Swamp milkweed

It’s not just about the milkweed.  Monarch butterfly on Swamp milkweed in downtown San Antonio, September 2014. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Agrawal’s point is well taken.  Immense focus has been devoted on increasing the Monarch butterfly host plant, milkweed.  Milkweed, anything in the Asclepias family, is necessary in the early stages of the migration when the Monarchs are reproductive.  But what about later in the game, when Monarchs are NOT reproductive?  They require nectar to fuel their flight.  Agrawal and his colleagues suggest that late season nectar plants and perhaps interconnected habitats–ie, pollinator corridors–would make their continuous route south more doable.

University of Georgia ecologist Dr. Andy Davis made a similar point last year when he spoke to the Washington Post. Davis challenged the idea of basing the Monarch butterfly population census on counting the number of hectares in Mexico occupied by the migrating creatures each winter.

Monarch caterpillars on Milkweed

Monarchs caterpillars eat only milkweed, but Monarch butterflies will nectar indiscriminately. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“If you were charged with figuring out how many people are participating in the Boston Marathon each year, you wouldn’t count the number of people who cross the finish line,” said Davis.  “For many years we’ve been counting the finishing Monarchs in Mexico….We’ve been doing it backwards.”

What Dr. Agrawal says about nectar plants makes sense, especially for Texas.

Think about it:  as Monarchs migrate south in the fall through the Texas funnel, they are  not reproductive. Their goal during this part of the migratory cycle is to fuel up on late season nectar plants and build up their body fat so they can make it to Mexico and survive the winter.  There, in early March of the following spring, they will leave their mountain roosts to mate, lay eggs on milkweed, and start the cycle all over again.

Monarch on duranta

Monarch nectaring on Duranta at Texas Butterfly Ranch urban butterfly garden, downtown San Antonio, November 2015. Photo by Monika Maeckle

That suggests that in the fall in Texas, there really is no need for milkweed for migratory Monarchs.  In fact, one could argue (and many scientists have) that having milkweed available late in the season will encourage Monarchs to break their diapause and reproduce, thus never arriving in Mexico.  This also suggests what Monarchs DO need in the fall: late season nectar sources.

The point is important and timely, given that millions of dollars in conservation funding and grants are being awarded as we speak. Should those grants and initiatives be focused on cultivating more milkweed or developing more sources and locations for late season nectar plants?

In much of Texas, called “the most important state” to the migration by Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch and others, the fall garden trumps the abbreviated spring garden season.  Temperatures climb into triple digits so early here that it’s challenging to grow many fruits, vegetables and flowers until the fall when things cool off.  In such a context, and given the timing of the Monarchs arrival here in the fall, late season perennial blooming plants should be encouraged.   We are well-suited to provide them.

Goldenrod Llano River

Goldenrod, a favorite nectar source for Monarch butterflies during the fall migration, awaits on the Llano River in the Texas Hill Country. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Need ideas?  Try Goldenrod, Frostweed, Autumn sage, Late flowering boneset, Asters, Cowpen daisy in your fall garden if you want to help Monarchs.  In my downtown San Antonio butterfly garden last year, Duranta, sometimes called Brazilian skyflower, was a big draw for Monarchs and other pollinators.  It’s not native, but a well adapted flowering bush–and highly appropriate, fantastic plant.

Monarch Watch offers this super useful list of appropriate nectar plants by season. The Xerces Society also has a guide for useful pollinator friendly plants.  And the Pollinator Partnership offers plant guides for every region in the country.

Scientists will continue this debate.  Dr. Chip Taylor recently took Dr. Agrawal’s paper to task in a rebuttal paper, “Conclusion of No Decline in Summer Monarch Population Not Supported” and Dr. Davis rebutted the rebuttal on his highly educational Monarch science blog.

Meanwhile, those of us in Texas should plan and plant late season bloomers.  Doing so will offer the bonus of providing fuel and sustenance not only for Monarchs but other pollinators.

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Red Admiral butterflies everywhere

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

Red Admiral on tree

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

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

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

Red Admiral wings closed

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

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

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

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

Red admiral chrysalis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mega Grower Color Spot Nursery to Consider Growing Clean, Chemical-free Milkweed

Color Spot Nursery, one of the top national wholesale growers in the country, said this week they will explore heeding the call for clean, chemical-free, preferably native milkweed plants.   The company said they are considering growing select Asclepias species, the only plant on which Monarch butterflies will lay their eggs, WITHOUT any systemic pesticides.  Thanks to Craig the Butterflyman for the tip.

Kevin Grossberndt, Colorspot Nursery

Kevin Grossberndt, Colorspot Nursery

The California-based mega grower, which has seven nursery locations in Texas including one in San Antonio, said they were responding to their customers, which include Lowes, Home Depot, Wal-Mart and hundreds of independent nurseries across the country. Color Spot does not sell directly to the public.

“Our customers got in trouble with the community,” said Kevin Grossberndt, Commercial Sales Manager for the Southwest Division of Color Spot.   “We all learned a lesson.”

Gorssberndt said Color Spot is well aware of Monarch butterfly enthusiasts’ dismay at buying milkweeds to feed hungry Monarch caterpillars, and being misinformed by retail nursery staff that milkweed plants had not been sprayed with systemic pesticides.

After customers purchased milkweed plants from local nurseries and later placed their caterpillars on them to feed on the milkweed leaves, the caterpillars perished within hours.   That’s because large growers like Color Spot often spray the plants with systemic pesticides early in the year and the poisons used can linger for many months.  The phenomenon has been well documented on these webpages.  We call it Desperately Seeking Milkweed syndrome.

Kevin Grossberndt Colorspot

Kevin Grossberndt stands in a quanset hut of Tropical milkweed and Butterfly weed at Colorspot Nursery in western San Antonio. The company is exploring cultivation of chemical free milkweeds. –PHoto by Monika Maeckle

Bernhardt, trained as a horticulturist, said Color Spot is considering which species to plant and is likely to go with Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, and Butterfly weed, Aslcepias tuberosa.

The Texas Butterfly Ranch and our hydroponic milkweed growing partner Local Sprout made a pitch to Bernhardt to consider cultivating Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, since it is relatively easy-to-grow, a great nectar and host plant and prolific pink bloomer native to the area.  Most native Texas milkweed species are famously persnickety to grow. Swamp milkweed is not.  Check out the Texas Butterfly Ranch milkweed guide for more info.

Dr. Chip Taylor, the founder of Monarch Watch, chimed in via email, suggesting that Color Spot might try Green Antelope Horn milkweed, Asclepias viridis.  “Viridis is probably the second most important plant on the Monarch’s menu,” Dr. Taylor said.  “It’s the main host for first generation Monarchs. It’s also the most abundant of the Texas milkweeds and survives in pastures quite well.”

Which is absolutely true, but it’s famously challenging to grow from pots and transplants.

“Texas is too dry and hot for syriaca,” Taylor added.

During a tour of Color Spot’s 400-acre growing facility in western San Antonio near Lackland Airforce base, Grossberndt described the special challenges commercial growers will face in growing chemical-free milkweed.

As we all know, milkweed is an aphid magnet, and many people will not buy plants with aphids on them.   Traditionally, Color Spot deals with aphids and other pests via pesticides in order to deliver pristine plants to retail outlets.

Swamp milkweed loaded with aphids this weekend on the Llano River.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Aphids and milkweed have a symbiotic relationship. Photo by Monika Maeckle

With labor one of their highest costs, hand removal of aphids may not be practical.    Color Spot already uses robots to move plants around.   The R2D2-like machines rearranged a plot of potted rose bushes as we all watched in amazement.  But since its doubtful that an aphid-squishing robot will be developed anytime soon, Color Spot will have to be resourceful.

“We might be able to do it with a soap knock-down or possibly explore using beneficials like ladybugs or parasitoid wasps,” said Grossberndt. “We’ll have to see.”

Video by Mitchell Hagney

Dr. Taylor also recommended beneficial insects.  “We are happy to recommend various biological control agents. They seem pricey until you see how effective they are but the grower has to have personnel that is alert to the build-up of pests so that the biologicals can be deployed effectively,” he said.    Grossberndt agreed that training of personnel, especially Color Spot’s technology services team, would have to be part of the plan.

Since the nursery typically sprays ornamental and other inventory with systemic pesticides, the growhouse would also need to be strategically placed out of any possible wind drift and would require polyurethane sides, versus less expensive shade cloth or plastic to assure no chemicals entered the clean zone.

Milkweed at Color Spot Nursery

To be sprayed or not to be sprayed? Milkweed plants at Color Spot Nursery. Kevin Gorssberndt is hoping the nursery can figure out a way to produce lots of milkweed without chemicals. Photo by Mitchell Hagney

Grossberndt showed us one quanset hut filled with a mix of Tropical milkweed and Butterfly weed–some newly sprouted from seed this year, others cut back and sprouting new growth from last season.   Aphids adorned the underside of the older plants, suggesting the plants had not been sprayed with pesticides.

Yet.

Will they be?  “I’m hoping they won’t,” said Bernhardt.  “These plants were in the middle of other plants, so we’ll just have to see how it goes,” said Bernhardt.  “I’m making the case.”

Grossberndt suggested that Color Spot might have some clean plants on the market by late summer or early fall–hopefully in time for the fall migration when those of us who raise Monarchs often run out of milkweed for those butterflies that break their diapause and reproduce here.  ” I can’t really guarantee a timeline,” said Grossberndt.

P.S. Have you taken our What Kind of Milkweed Survey?   Help us convince Color Spot and other commercial growers to offer clean, chemical free milkweed by voting for the species you’d like to see in local nurseries.  Here’s the link and feel free to share the survey.  GRACIAS!

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Four Fine Texas Moths for National Moth Week

Happy National Moth Week!   The celebration of the night flying cousins of butterflies, often cast as ugly step sisters in the world of lepidoptery, began only three years ago and takes place this week, July 15 – 27.

Wish I had planned better and organized an event.  Anybody?

Maybe next year. Dang work always gets in the way of the fun stuff.  Anyone interested in helping me organize a Moth Night in San Antonio, whereby we would set up a black light with a sheet and await/celebrate the arrival of moths, please leave a comment below.  Perhaps we can make something happen.

Moth light night trap

Anybody want to do this? I’m in.  We just need a mercury vapor light. Photo via www.exploratorium.edu

Meanwhile, you can still keep watch for some of the most common and amazing moths to be found in our area.  I had no idea how fascinating moths can be until I was seduced by butterflies. Turns out moths outnumber butterfly species 15 to one.  Really. That’s what happens….you start paying attention, and next thing you know, you’re raising caterpillars in the kitchen.

Here’s four moths that we have in Central and South Texas right now.  Open your eyes, look, and you will see them.

The Sphinx Moth

Known in its larval form as the much loathed Tomato or Tobacco Horn Worm, this attractive dusk flier also is often called the “hummingbird moth.”   Gardeners despise the Manduca sexta’s consumption of their tomato plants, but I suggest setting aside a few seedlings for these voracious caterpillars, who strike a sphinx-like pose when poked, arching their neck and staring blankly at who’s bothering them.

Sphinx Moth caterpillar on Jimsonweed

Tobacco hornworms on Jimsonweed.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

As moths, these impressive striped flyers move during daylight hours, hovering like helicopters to nectar and provide great observation opportunities.  They are members of the Sphinginae family.

Sphinx Moth

C’mon, admit it: she’s adorable. Sphinx Moth, photo courtesy Colorado State University extension office

Black Witch Moth

Large, bat like and harmless, the intriguing Ascalapha odorata, sometimes known as “the bat moth” resembles a bat in size and shape, and with its seven-inch wingspan is the largest moth in North America. They are common in these parts.

Black Witch Moth

Black Witch Moth photographed by Karen Herrmann in Kansas.

They often hang out near doors and flush when approached, causing quite a startle for the unsuspecting.  But remember, they’re completely harmless.   Much folklore surrounds their appearance.  Throughout the hemisphere, legend has them bringing good luck, a lottery win, or a death in the family, depending on the part of the world and the circumstances of their appearance.

Black Witch Moth caterpillar

Black Witch Moth caterpillar. Photo via wikipedia.org

In the movie Silence of the Lambs, serial killer Hannibal Lechter inserted cocoons of Black Witch Moths into the mouths of his victims as a weird gesture of transformation. The moth on the movie poster is a Death’s Head Hawk Moth, but the actual cocoon was that of a Black Witch.

Polyphemus Moth

The Polyphemus Moth, Antheraea polyphemus, sports prominent, owl-like eye spots and  a six-inch wingspan.  The moth is dramatic.  We had a hatch of these guys at the ranch one night and several fluttered against the porch spotlights.  The sound of their wings hitting the the floodlight was so loud, you would have thought birds or bats had paid a visit.

Polyphemus moth

Polyphemus moth. Check out those eyespots!   Photo by Monika Maeckle

The Polyphemus gets its name from the Greek myth of the Cyclops Polyphemus (cyclops means one-eyed giant). They’re not unusual and live everywhere in the U.S. and Canada.   That they host on a variety of trees–oaks, birches, elms, willows and others–perhaps explains their widespread provenance.

Like many moths, these members of the Saturnid, or silk moth family, spend most of their life as caterpillars, eating up to 86,000 times their body weight at emergence in just two months.  Once they become a moth, however, their vestigial mouth parts make eating impossible.  Basically, their mouths don’t work any more.   Their sole focus as a moth is to reproduce.

Polyphemus moth caterpillar

Handsome boy! Polyphemus moth on oak leaves. Photo by our friend Mona Miller

Polyphemus change dramatically during the caterpillar cycle and in their final instar become a fantastic three- or four-inch green caterpillar with silver and/or red spots on the side.   See the photo above by our friend Mona Milller.

Ailanthus Webworm Moth

The first time I spotted one of these handsome creatures at the ranch I thought it was beetle.  They tuck their wings in a tidy fashion, leading you to believe they are of a different genre, but no–they are moths.

Ailianthus Webworm Moth

This guy fooled me. Thought he was a beetle, but no, it’s the Ailianthus Webworm Moth. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Members of the ermine moth family, the small, striped Atteva aua caterpillars build communal nests in the Ailanthus tree by pulling leaves together with webbing and spinning cocoons inside the webs.    They are native to Central America, but migrate north in the summer and host on the Ailanthus tree, sometimes called the Tree of Paradise.   Both the AWM and the Ailanthus tree are introduced species that have adapted.  Non native, but gorgeous creatures.

Ailanthus webworm moth caterpillars

Ailanthus Webworm Moth caterpillars are an introduced species, just like the tree they host on. Photo via www.urbanwildlife.net

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How to Raise Eastern Swallowtail Butterflies at Home

Monarch butterflies get all the press, but the Eastern or Black Swallowtail, Papillio polyxenes, a large blue, black and gold and cream-specked beauty, flies in our neck of the world from April through November.   The Texas native provides lots of action in the garden when Monarchs are elsewhere.

Eastern Swallowtail

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

We’ve been getting questions about raising Swallowtail butterflies in recent weeks. The wet June has made for a long season for dill, fennel, parsley and rue–the plants on which Swallowtail butterflies lay their eggs.  Below are some tips for raising them at home.

Eastern Swallowtail egg on Dill Weed

Eastern Swallowtail egg on Dill Weed.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

First, locate the eggs. The tiny yellow spheres perch prominently on the leaves of dill, fennel, parsley and rue. Check your plants frequently, as wasps, ladybugs, spiders and others will slurp up these protein pops as soon as they are spotted.  When you’re looking, you may notice some clear, dry, empty spheres, exactly the size of the eggs.  Those are empty egg shells already visited and consumed by predators.

Swallowtail egg

Close-up of Swallowtail egg on dill. Photo by Monika Maeckle

I usually snap off a piece of the plant with the eggs on them and take them inside to rest in a jar with the lid loosely closed.  Don’t worry about “smothering” the egg.   They’ll do fine until they hatch, usually within four days.

Once the little guys hatch, you’ll want to provide fresh air to prevent mold from growing on the host plant.  Bring in some sprigs of fresh plant and put them in the jar. I usually leave the eggs alone until the caterpillars are big enough to spot with a naked eye–generally two days.   You’ll see they’re tiny and hard to monitor, so again, leave them alone and just provide fresh air and fresh host plant until they grow bigger.

After a few days you’ll see a small black creature, perhaps 1/16th of an inch long.  If you look closely, you might notice a white or orange band in the middle of the body.  That’s your first instar, or stage, Swallowtail caterpillar.  They will eat quietly and consistently for several days before they morph to the next stage.   They’re rather nondescript and not yet as interesting as they will become.  Just wait.

Swallowtail

First instar Eastern Swallowtail caterpillar on rue. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Up until this point, I may have had the Swallowtails in a jar or container with a loose lid or netting.  But now it starts to get interesting and I like to watch them eat and grow, although it can make a small mess.

Usually I gather fresh host plant and put it in a vase with newspaper underneath so I can observe the caterpillars literally grow before my eyes. The newspaper catches the frass, or caterpillar poop, that the caterpillars produce in volume.  The small, black odorless pellet-like droppings may seem gross, but they’re actually not.  Well, maybe for some people.  Generally I will set such a vase in a highly trafficked place in my home or office so I won’t miss the action in the course of any day. (Yes, I’ve been known to take caterpillars to work.)

Swallowtail bouquet

Bouquet of Swallowtail caterpillars in vase on fennel. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The caterpillars will continue to eat and morph for about 10 days.   What’s amazing is how different they look at each stage.   As they move through their instars, they completely transform, going from the unremarkable black cat with a white band to a prickly orange, white and black form, then to a black, green, yellow and white-striped creature often confused with Monarch caterpillars.

Throughout the process these boys eat voraciously–lots of fresh host plant.  In our hot Texas summers, I find dill expires early in the season but that Swallowtails will easily transition to the more abundant and heat-hardy rue or fennel.   At the ranch we have wild parsley and I have brought that home for feeding.  Once I bought organic fennel or parsley at the grocery store to feed a slew of Swallowtails when I had run out of fresh host.  The caterpillars didn’t seem to like it much (like us, they prefer FRESH greens) but they ate it in the later stages.

Swallowtail showing tubercles

Who goes there?!? Note the yellow “tubercles” which the Swallowtail shows off when bothered. Photo by Monika Maeckle

One of the most amusing aspects of raising Swallowtails is their interesting tentacles.  When they get to the last stages, they show distinctive yellow antennae when poked or bothered. This orange forked gland, called the osmeterium, shows itself when the butterfly perceives danger.  Upon the slightest nudge or threat, the 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.

Swallowtail caterpillar sheds its skin. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Swallowtail sheds skin. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The caterpillars will continue to eat, shed their skins and morph to the next stage over about 10 days until they get to the fifth instar at which time they will cease eating and seek a quiet place to form their chrysalis. Swallowtails are famous for wandering far from the host plant and taking their time to emerge from the chrysalis at unpredictable times.  Monarch caterpillars are generally reliable in taking 10-14 days to eclose, or make the transition from chrysalis to butterfly.

 

Swallowtails, in contrast, can take a few weeks to many months to emerge.  Their unpredictability is also manifested in the varied color of the chrysalis that results from the final morphing.   Sometimes brown, sometimes green, you just never know what color a Swallowtail chrysalis will be.

Swallotwails wear chrysalis coats of many colors. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Swallowtails wear chrysalis coats of many colors. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Because Swallowtails can wander, it’s smart to contain them in a cage when they get large enough to bust their stripes and go chrysalis.  I use a net laundry hamper and simply put the vase inside.

Swallowtail

The Swallowtail will bow its head and make a silk button and saddle before going chrysalis. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The Swallowtail, when ready, will stop eating.  He will bow his head in an upside down J-shape, and spin a silk button to attach itself by its head to a twig, branch or net siding.   He then makes a silk saddle to hold itself snugly in place for the time it takes to transform its DNA into a butterfly–again, an often unpredictable amount of time.   Some Swallowtails will overwinter to the next season, depending on the conditions present at the time of forming the chrysalis.

Newborn Swallowtail butterfly with sister chrysalis. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Newborn Swallowtail butterfly with sister chrysalis. Photo by Monika Maeckle

When the day finally comes, though, you will know because the chrysalis will turn dark, then clear. Thereafter, the Swallowtail will emerge when ready.

Give it a few hours to allow its wings to harden. When she starts beating them slowly, you know she’s ready for flight. Take her outside and send her on her way.

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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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