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

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

Logging

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

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

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

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

Monarch migration map

Monarchs must pass through Texas coming and going to Mexico.

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

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

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

Resident Monarch butterfly at the San Antonio River Milkweed Patch

Milkweed shortages dogged Monarch butterflies this year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

American Snout Butterfly, photo via wikipedia

American Snout Butterfly, photo via wikipedia

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

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

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

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

Hackberry tree

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

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

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

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

I brake for butterflies via zazzle.com

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

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

Banner Butterfly Year Caused by “Ecological Release” in Texas, says Monarch Watch Founder Dr. Chip Taylor

Texas has been called the “most important state” to the Monarch butterfly migration by Monarch Watch founder Chip Taylor.   Now our Lone Star State is getting attention for spawning an “ecological release” that has resulted in a butterfly “season like no other,”  Taylor told the Hornell Evening Tribune in New York.

Banner year for butterflies, thank you, Texas!

Banner year for butterflies. Thank you, Texas!

“This year continues to amaze,” Dr. Taylor wrote to the DPLEX email list, well-read by hundreds of academics, enthusiasts and others who follow the Monarch butterfly migration.   Taylor detailed ample and early sightings of Monarchs, Sulphurs, Red Admirals, Buckeyes and other species to the Midwest.   Watch the video above for examples.

Taylor and others attribute the 2012 banner butterfly year to a perfect storm of circumstances in Texas, including:

  •  An historic drought which killed butterfly and caterpillar predators, notably fire ants, followed by
  • Generous, well-timed rains, a mild winter that caused host and nectar plants to flourish, and caterpillars and butterflies to thrive.

Eventually, host plant and nectar populations will drop back to normal, as will this year’s butterfly explosion.

In the meantime, enjoy the show.

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Want to Meet the Beetles? Better Hurry, Removal of Milkweed Beetles from San Antonio River’s Milkweed Patch Imminent

An invasion of red-and-black milkweed beetles have made a temporary eyesore of the San Antonio River’s celebrated Milkweed Patch on the Museum Reach.  The striking insects, whose colorful torsos suggest the patterns of a tiki mask, have moved into the 1200-square foot Tropical milkweed garden on the banks of the San Antonio River just south of the Pearl Brewery  in a classic play of nature’s cycles.

Milkweed Beetles have taken over the Milkweed Patch

Milkweed Beetles have taken over the Milkweed Patch

The beetles, which look like ladybugs on steroids, don’t bite, sting or carry diseases. They do, however, defoliate milkweed plants, and have left the highly trafficked stretch of the River with some unattractive bald spots.

Migrating Monarch butterflies moved through town earlier this spring, laying the first generation of eggs in their annual migration at the Milkweed Patch.  The resulting acrobatic caterpillars occupied the Patch, feasting on milkweed leaves, the Monarch butterfly host plant.  Late straggling Monarchs continue to mingle with our local colony but the pervasive milkweed beetle, Labidomera clivicollis, dominates.

Milkweed Patch going bald thanks to milkweed beetles

Milkweed Patch going bald thanks to milkweed beetles

Volunteers for the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project (MLMP), a citizen scientist program based at the University of Minnesota and which aims to better understand the Monarch life cycle and migration, have noticed fewer Monarch caterpillars and chrysalises during their weekly observations as beetles consume the milkweed leaves.

Discussions ensued about possibly pruning the milkweeds, which typically die back in winters when a hard freeze occurs.   That didn’t happen this year.  But San Antonio River Authority staff determined a better approach would be to hand-remove the beetles, THEN prune the plants.

Milkweed beetles have defoliated the Milkweed Patch. But aren't they cute?

Milkweed beetles have defoliated the Milkweed Patch. But aren't they cute?

“We believe this to be a holistic management approach with minimal negative impact to the environment that is consistent with our commitment to the local community for the project, ” said Steven Schauer, Manager of External Communications at the San Antonio River Authority (SARA), which oversees maintenance of the area.   The Museum Reach stretch of the San Antonio River was designed as a manicured, urban park setting, unlike the Mission Reach section, which is managed as a native riparian restoration.

SARA deserves praise for working with MLMP  volunteers and resisting the use of pesticides to address the problem.   A round of pesticides would quickly rid the area of

Gulf Fritillary

Gulf Fritillary, photo courtesy NABA.org

beetles (and other plant pests) and would also jeopardize the Monarchs’ and other butterflies’ continued colonization of the River.  Just north of the Milkweed Patch is a huge Passionflower planting, where Gulf Fritillary butterflies have made their home and are breeding.

If you’d like to “meet the beetles,”  better do so in the next few days.  The critters will be less visible once the hand removal is accomplished.

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Wings Over the Hills Nature Festival in Fredericksburg to Celebrate Butterflies, Bats and Birds this Weekend

Fredericksburg’s Wings Over the Hills Nature Festival takes place this weekend and brings a welcome respite from San Antonio’s 10-days of Fiesta.  Just a one-hour, wildflower-loaded drive from San Antonio or Austin, the event celebrates the unique winged wildlife of the Texas Hill Country.

The festival provides 72 hours of nature-oriented education and entertainment.   Guided nature walks, butterfly, birding and bat presentations, a raptor display, and a Star Party on Saturday night at a remote ranch that brags a 360-degree skyscape unsullied by light pollution, fill the three-day schedule.

I can’t wait.   Even though I’ll be presenting two talks on Monarch butterflies, I plan to grab a seat at award-winning nature photographer Rolf Nussbaumer‘s nature

Monarch buttefly on hummingbird feeder

I'll be talking about Monarch butterflies at the Wings Over the Hills Festival this weekend.

photography class, Ro Wauer‘s overview of Hill Country butterflies, Diane Oegard’s talk on bats, and James Laswell‘s presentation on dragonflies.  Early Saturday and Sunday mornings, birding, butterflying and dragonfly “chases” take place, guided tours held at Ladybird Johnson Park and other outdoor venues.

On Friday at 6 PM,  Master Falconer John Karger of Last Chance Forever, Birds of Prey will do his raptor show at the Fredericksburg High School Auditorium.   Karger helped me celebrate my birthday a couple of years ago by releasing two Coopers Hawks at our

John Karger, Last Chance Forever

John Karger, Last Chance Forever

place on the Llano River.   The raptors had tangled with an electrical line and were injured, unable to fly until Karger’s organization nursed them back to health.  I’ll never forget them perching momentarily on my leather-gloved forearm before they took flight.  Now whenever I see Coopers Hawks soaring over our stretch of the river, I assume they are my birthday raptors.

Karger’s work is laudable and his show starring rehabilitated owls, falcons, hawks, vultures and eagles unforgettable.

The Star Party on Saturday night, 9 PM, should be spectacular.  Anyone who has ever visited the McDonald Observatory’s weekend Star Parties in West Texas can attest to the majesty of a completely dark sky twinkling with millions of stars you’ve only seen in photographs.   Shooting stars are practically routine in such circumstances, so if you attend, bring your wish list and make a wish.

Members of the Fredericksburg Astronomy Club will be on hand with telescopes,  orientation talks and explanations of the constellations and satellites.  It should be a great time to see Venus, which is staging its last transit for more than a century before crossing the face of the sun on June 6. According to the stargazing website Stardate,   Venus will be at its most brilliant this weekend, “shining 20 times brighter than the brightest true star in the night sky.”

Organizers have done an excellent job breaking up the programs, field trips and events so visitors can partake at their own pace, picking and choosing all or some of the offerings.  A weekend pass goes for $40 and provides entry into many events;  day passes $15.  Star Party, raptor show, motor coach tours and photo class are separate, and some don’t require a festival pass at all.   For details, see the Wings Over the Hills website.

Number of Monarch Butterflies Down as They Leave Michoacan and Head through Texas

The Monarch butterfly population status report was made public this week. Given last year’s perfect storm of bad conditions–late freeze, historic drought, raging wildfires–butterfly followers were expecting bad news.  It was.  Overall Monarch butterfly numbers were down 28%.

Monarch butterflies are leaving Michoacan and heading to....Texas!

Monarch butterflies are leaving Michoacan and heading to Texas.

The much anticipated document issued each spring by the World Wildlife Fund assesses the overall health of the migrating population by calculating the physical space they occupy in the Oyamel fir forests of Michoacan, Mexico.  This year, the millions of butterflies occupied a little more than seven acres.   The average is almost 18 acres.

Monarch Watch, a Monarch butterfly monitoring program based at the University of Kansas at Lawrence, put a positive spin on the findings, tagging the report “relatively good news,”  given dismal expectations.  ”Nevertheless, this represents another low population – one well below the long term average near seven hectares,” the citizen scientist and academic collaborative reported.

The report was issued especially late this year, on March 15, an act that aggravated scientists and left others wondering why it took so long.  ”The international scientific community is baffled why it  took so long for WWF and others to release the colony data for the current overwintering season,” wrote renown Monarch butterfly scientist Dr. Lincoln Brower in an email to the DPLEX list, a butterfly listserv followed avidly by

Monarch butterflies are on the move in Texas

Monarch butterflies are on the move in Texas

butterfly enthusiasts and scientists.  ”The long delay actually hampered research planning for important molecular studies by the scientific community.”   Brower challenged WWF officials on the reasons for the decline, suggesting that while crazy weather and habitat loss tied to herbicide tolerant crops are factors, illegal logging and “severe degradation of the Oyamel forest ecosystem has been and still is occurring.”

Interestingly, a spokesperson for PROFEPA, the equivalent of the Environmental Protection Agency in Mexico, said earlier this year that illegal logging at the roosting grounds had been contained to 3.7 acres.

The good news is that the butterflies have left their Mexican roosts and are coming our way. Reports from Twitter, Facebook and butterfly listservs detail FOS (first of season) sightings of the migrating butterflies flitting through Texas, laying eggs on native and tropical milkweed plants, delighting gardeners and butterfly fans.

Kip Kiphart, a volunteer for the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project at Cibolo Nature Center in Boerne reported via email that he found 27 eggs on his native milkweed plants in Bergheim, Texas this week.  Others chimed in:   “Saw two in my  yard in southwest Austin,” said Helen Boudny Fremin. “We’ve had a couple in Marathon this past week,” reported Mathew York.  ”Pretty sure I saw a Monarch butterfly yesterday,” tweeted Mike Leggett, an outdoor writer in Austin. Those migrating Monarchs presumably will visit San Antonio’s local colony over at the Museum Reach Milkweed Patch for some mixed company nectar sipping.

Monarch butterflies have left Michoacan and been spotted all over Texas

Monarch butterflies have left Michoacan and been spotted all over Texas

Texas has been called the “most important state” to the Monarch butterfly migration because of its strategic location between the roosting grounds and the milkweed beds and nectar prairies that serve as hosts and food sources for the famous insects.   Millions of Monarchs pass through Texas each spring and fall as they make their multi-generation migratory flight from the Mexico to Canada and back.  Spring in Texas is a critical time for the Monarchs, as they seek out milkweed plants–their host, and the only plant on which they will lay eggs–to continue their multi generation migration north.

With our exceptional and well-timed South Texas rains this winter, the Monarchs will have plenty of wildflowers for nectar and milkweed  for reproducing. Time to plant more milkweed in our gardens to get the migration off to a good start.

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“Friendly” Red Admirals and Other Nymphs Slurp Sap in San Antonio, Bode Well for 2012 Butterfly Numbers

My friend Veronica Prida called to let me know that the beautiful Red Admiral butterflies we’ve often admired in her Alamo Heights front yard were clustering on the trunk of her yet-to-bud Burr Oak tree.    The lovely black-and-white creatures, distinguished by a red epaulet, gathered on the tree bark, slurping up tree sap as if it were some high octane smoothie.

Red Admiral Slurping Sap on Burr Oak tree

Red Admiral slurping sap on Burr Oak tree--photo by Veronica Prida

How did they get to it?   A Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker, a small woodpecker that passes through town each spring, made it easy by drilling the holes, allowing the sap to ooze out.  Nature’s teamwork is a marvel.

Mary Kennedy of Boerne shared a similar story.  Kennedy frequently finds herself at Cibolo Nature Center as a volunteer for the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project.  She relayed via email that plum and oak trees there were covered in Red Admirals, Mourning Cloaks and Painted Lady butterflies nectaring on sap.  The Sapsucker (yes, it’s a real name of a real bird) made the butterflies’ meal possible.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, photo courtesy dcnr.state.al.us

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, photo courtesy dcnr.state.al.us

Those of us who pay attention to butterflies have noticed Red Admirals before, but not like this.  Not in these numbers.   Our consensus:   this year will be BIG for butterflies.   Unlike the spring and summer of 2011 when lack of rainfall and pervasive wildfires discouraged all butterflies and the plants that sustain them, conditions this year couldn’t be better for a huge butterfly showing.

Austin and San Antonio have experienced double and triple their normal February rainfall this year (see chart below from the National Weather Service).   Wildflowers are just starting their stupendous showing.  And if the numbers of Red Admirals are any indication, it will be a butterfly year of record.

 

 

Via the Nation Weather Service                                    FEBRUARY 2012 WAS THE FOURTH WETTEST FEBRUARY IN SAN ANTONIO SINCE1871...AND THE 9TH WETTEST AT AUSTIN BERGSTROM SINCE 1943.
AT DEL RIO FEBRUARY 2012 TIED WITH FEBRUARY 1932 FOR THE 26TH
WETTEST FEBRUARY SINCE 1906.  AT AUSTIN MABRY FEBRUARY 2012
WAS THE 40TH WETTEST FEBRUARY SINCE 1856.

THE TABLE BELOW LISTS RAINFALL FOR FEBRUARY 2012 AND COMPARES
THIS TO THE LATEST 30 YEAR FEBRUARY NORMAL AND FEBRUARY RECORD
RAINFALL.

LOCATION          FEBRUARY 2012    1981-2010     FEBRUARY RECORD
                    RAINFALL        NORMAL          RAINFALL

AUSTIN BERGSTROM...3.86 INCHES        2.37      7.34 FEBRUARY 1958
AUSTIN MABRY.......3.04 INCHES        2.02      9.41 FEBRUARY 1903
DEL RIO............1.20 INCHES        0.88      7.82 FEBRUARY 1949
SAN ANTONIO........5.63 INCHES        1.79      7.88 FEBRUARY 1903

Red Admirals, Vanessa atalanta, and other “nymph” butterflies are among the most common on the planet.  Closely related to Painted Ladies, which are often used in science classes to teach metamorphosis, Red Admirals prefer oozing sap, rotten fruit and even dung to flower nectar.

Red Admirals also have a reputation as one of the “friendliest” butterfly species.   Stories of the small butterflies landing on shoulders, hats and fingers, “riding” with humans are not uncommon.

Commercial butterfly breeder Connie Hodson, of Flutterby Gardens of Manatee in Florida, says none of the many species in her massive butterfly garden are as friendly as Red Admirals.

“Last year I saw the first Red Admiral of the season, was talking with a friend and pointed to the butterfly.  It landed on my finger,” says Hodson, 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. ”  Hodson adds that you can watch Red Admirals “cleaning their feet,” as the sap makes them sticky.

“That Sapsucker thing goes way back, evolutionarily speaking,” says Austin entomologist Mike Quinn.  Quinn explains that these types of butterflies reside in wooded, shady areas with fewer flowers resulting in less nectar for butterfly food.  ’These butterflies have adapted to forested understories and to eating sap.”   Preumeably, Burr Oak sap has a high sugar content, much like maple syrup.

We might have to try that on our pancakes sometime.

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Mexican President Felipe Calderon Visits Monarch Butterfly Preserves in Michoacan

President Felipe Calderon of Mexico visited the Monarch butterfly preserves in Michoacan last week to film an IMAX film and call attention to the importance of the butterflies’ unique ancestral roosting spots to the sustainable economic development of the impoverished communities surrounding them.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon visits the Monarch butterfly sanctuaries in Michoacan

Mexican President Felipe Calderon visits the Monarch butterfly sanctuaries in Michoacan--photo by La Voz

Late February and early March are ideal for visiting the sanctuaries since rising temperatures warm up the butterflies and make them more active.

Unfortunately, tourism at the roosting areas, including visits from scientists who make such pilgrimages the basis for their life’s work, has fallen dramatically in recent years because of narco violence and instability in the region.   U.S.-based tour operators have pretty much ceased offering Monarch butterfly sanctuary tours because of potential liabilities.  (An exception:  Bill Toone’s EcoLife Foundation.)

Deforestation in Mexico is still a problem

Deforestation in Mexico is still a problem

The U.S. State Department advised Americans to avoid “non-essential travel” to 14 of Mexico’s 31 states in an amped-up  travel warning on February 8.   The warning came on the heels of a 15-ton meth seizure outside Guadalajara and expanded on previous advisories that has Mexican tourism authorities annoyed.

While informal reports of this years’ visitor count to El Rosario Sanctuary list slight increases ecotourism (up to 100,000 from 80,000 last year), the butterfly preserves need all the help they can get.  Fewer visitors means locals will have to seek other ways of earning a living, including illegal logging.  My husband and I braved Mexico last year to visit the sanctuaries and it was a memorable, monumental trip;  however, not sure I would do it again until the situation changes there.

It’s unfortunate, but travel in Mexico right now is just too potentially dangerous.  Driving through the Mexican provinces, once a common adventure for many Texans, now is fraught with risk, sometimes death.  Says the advisory:   “TCOs [Transnational Criminal Organizations] have erected their own unauthorized checkpoints, and killed or abducted motorists who have failed to stop at them. You should cooperate at all checkpoints.”   Doesn’t sound like much of a vacation.

The good news is that migrating Monarch butterflies are already on their way to Texas.   The active DPLEX list, a Monarch butterfly list-serv that charts the creatures’  every move, has reports of first-of-season sightings and egg-laying on South Texas milkweeds, which are emerging early this year because of our warm winter.

As the Spring Equinox approaches and the migrating insects leave Mexico, they’ll nectar up for their journey north,  head our way, and grace us with their joyous presence.    On March 15, the state-of-the-union report of the Monarch butterfly population for 2011-2012 will be released by Mexican authorities.   We’ll keep you posted.

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Scientific Research in Progress at the San Antonio River Museum Reach Milkweed Patch

Mary Kennedy and Mobi Warren showed up right around 10 AM on Saturday for their shifts as volunteers of the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project (MLMP) citizen science program.

Milkweed Patch Citizen Science Project

Milkweed Patch Citizen Science Project

With temperatures in the 50s, not much was flying at the Milkweed Patch at the San Antonio River Museum Reach just south of the Pearl Brewery.  But that didn’t deter these novice lepidopterists from perusing dozens of milkweed plants, and noting the profuse life teeming in the understory.

What, exactly, do volunteers for the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project do?

Simply, they monitor milkweed plants for all stages of the Monarch butterfly lifecycle–eggs, caterpillars in five stages, the lovely jade-green gold-flecked chrysalises, and the butterflies.  The goal:  to better understand how and why Monarch populations change over time and space and to conserve Monarchs and their threatened migration.

One aspect of the project requires inspecting adult butterflies for the unpronounceable Ophryocystis elektroscirrhaor OE, protozoan.   Mary Kennedy, a former science teacher who has been involved with MLMP since 1999, demonstrates.

Kennedy carefully lifts a recently hatched Monarch, rubs a sterile Q-tip on its belly and tucks the sample into a zip-lock bag to be sent to a laboratory at the University of Minnesota.  She then takes a special piece of round tape, holds it against the creature’s abdomen, and lifts scales and spores onto the adhesive.

OE Spores with Monarch Butterfly Scales

Eeeew! OE spores look like little footballs next to Monarch Butterfly Scales–photo courtesy of MLMP

The tape is secured onto a sheet of paper and later will be viewed under a microscope for OE spores, which can be deadly to Monarch butterflies. The butterfly is then marked gently with a black marker as well as a cut-in-half Monarch Watch tag (used in the fall to help track their migration) so that it’s not inadvertently monitored again.  Check out the slideshow above to see how it works.

Interested in helping out at the Milkweed Patch?  Volunteers meet on Saturdays at various times, depending on the weather.  Contact Mary Kennedy at mbkenned@sbcglobal.net for more information.

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San Antonio Museum Reach Milkweed Patch Becomes Official Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project Site

Monarch butterflies, who usually pass through town like so many other fleeting visitors, have taken up permanent residence at a 1200 square-foot milkweed garden known by local butterfly aficionados as “the Milkweed Patch” on the San Antonio River Museum Reach.  The year-round colony is a first for San Antonio.

Resident Monarch butterfly on the San Antonio River Museum Reach

Resident Monarch butterfly on the San Antonio River Museum Reach

We’ve written about the Milkweed Patch here many times, but just this month the Patch gained national attention from Monarch researchers when it became one of hundreds of  sites in the nation to be observed weekly by volunteer citizen scientists associated with the University of Minnesota-based Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project (MLMP).

Monarch butterflies traditionally pass through San Antonio and the “Texas Funnel” each spring and fall to and from their ancestral roosting grounds in the the mountains of Michoacan, Mexico.   Year-round local Monarch butterfly communities are relatively common along the Gulf Coast, in Houston and in Florida, yet they’ve been unheard of in San Antonio–until now.

“Its historic,” says Mary Kennedy of Boerne, who monitors Monarch caterpillars, at Boerne’s Cibolo Nature Center and at Mitchell Lake. “We’ve never had anything

Mary Kennedy, volunteer at the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project

Mary Kennedy, volunteer at the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project

like this before,” says the retired science teacher.  Kennedy used Monarch butterflies in her classroom for years at Texas Military Institute.  ”This is not a place they would normally be this time of year.”

Kennedy suggests warmer winters and advantageous conditions at the protected, well-kept milkweed garden get credit for attracting the creatures that have captivated observers for millennia.

Dr. Karen Oberhauser, founder of the MLMP, calls the San Antonio Museum Reach Milkweed Patch “unique” and explains why scientists are especially interested in what goes on here.

“All Monarchs pass through Texas in the fall and again in the spring, and their use of resources in this state in many ways determines the success of the migration. Additionally, many Monarchs stay to breed in Texas in the fall, and understanding what drives this behavior will help us understand how monarchs might respond to climate change and how they are reacting to the presence of non-native milkweed.  The site is particularly interesting because it is basically an island of habitat, and understanding what happens there will help us understand how monarchs use habitat patches of different sizes and with different amounts of isolation from other sites.”

Dr. Oberhauser also points out that the visibility of the Milkweed Patch in our highly trafficked River Walk will engage many more people in “the wonders of monarch biology.”

The first weeks of monitoring have yielded more than 30 chrysalises–17 alive and 15 dead–and some surprising results, says Kennedy.  All butterflies were tested for Ophryocystis elektroscirrhaor OE, a nasty protozoan disease that infects Monarchs and other milkweed feeders.  Some Monarch scientists have speculated that cultivating Monarch butterflies on Tropical milkweed year round can result in undesirable colonies of OE, which seems to flourish on the plant in southern climates late in the year.  In colder climates and the wild, milkweeds die off in the winter, apparently purging OE to a large degree.

Kennedy was pleasantly surprised that not a single one of the Milkweed Patch Monarchs collected this month showed signs of the crippling, often fatal disease.

San Antonio River Milkweed Patch

"A" marks the approximate spot for the San Antonio River Milkweed Patch

And San Antonians will be pleasantly surprised by a saunter to the Milkweed Patch.  As the Spring Equinox approaches March 20, Monarchs will start to stream through San Antonio from Mexico, making their journey north and laying the first generation of eggs that will hatch, morph into their various stages, eclose and continue the multi-generation migration.  Go take a look.

Directions:  Park at the Pearl Brewery and cross to the west side of the River.  Follow the trail about five minutes and watch for butterflies.  You can also park on the deadened street at Elmira and Myrtle Streets, and descend the stairs to the River.  Walk south about one minute and you’ll be there.   

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