Monarch Butterflies: the Panda Bears of Climate Change?

A late Monarch butterfly season comes to a close this month in what may be the worst year, numbers wise, in the history of the migration.  The storied insects arrived at El Rosario sanctuary in Michoacán, Mexico, last week, “thousands of them,” according to Journey North, a nonprofit organization that engages students and citizen scientists around the globe in tracking wildlife migration and seasonal change.

Monarch butterfly season comes to a close

Monarch butterfly season comes to a close in what may be the worst year, numbers wise in history.

The insects endured a rollercoaster ride in 2012.   The year began in the hangover of an historic Texas drought.  A wet, mild winter and a banner wildflower season followed in the spring.  The drought moved to the Midwest in the summer, crippling the Monarchs’ milkweed breeding grounds and stifling the growth of summer blooms for nectar.  By fall, storms hit the East Coast and aerial insecticides filled North Texas skies in an attempt to control West Nile virus-carrying mosquitoes–just as Monarchs were set to move through the “Texas funnel” en route to their ancestral roosts in Mexico later in the season.  Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, aptly categorized 2012 as “a year like no other.”

And yet as we gather our tagging data to send to Monarch Watch by the December 1 deadline in a year of seemingly record low numbers, Monarch butterfly awareness seems to be enjoying an all-time high.

A Butterfly Haven somewhere in Michoacan

A Butterfly Haven somewhere in Michoacán –Photo courtesy SK Films

In October, the IMAX 3-D film “Flight of the Butterflies” opened with a soiree at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.  The $12 million Monarch butterfly natural history epic drew the “flutterati”–my word for the Monarch scientist celebrity pack–from across the hemisphere.   Dr. Chip Taylor, Dr. Karen Oberhauser, Dr. Lincoln Brower  joined forest restoration patrons, citizen scientists and others along with Mexican President Felipe Calderon to attend the premiere.  Mainstream awareness of the history and plight of the migrating insects made international news.

On November 5, the savvy PR folks at Southwest Airlines agreed to fly a Monarch butterfly and  “the Butterfly lady” Maraleen Manos-Jones, author of the Spirit of the Butterflies, from Albany, New York, to San Antonio, Texas.  The Dallas-based airline sent a Southwest Airlines escort to meet Ms. Manos-Jones and her precious cargo from New

Monarch butterflies make front page news

Monarch butterflies made front page news when Southwest Airlines flew a late season Monarch from Albany to San Antonio

York to the Lone Star State. Upon arrival, a Southwest Airlines video crew met the butterfly and its entourage, documenting the event for future use and generating more international media buzz.  The AP picked up the story, NPR ran a segment, and the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and other media outlets labeled the story “a talker” as local TV stations covered the spectacle.

The butterfly was released at the San Antonio Botanical Garden on a warm Fall afternoon, as dozens of butterflies fluttered around milkweed and other late season blooms.   Presumeably, the well-traveled insect joined its butterfly brethren for the trip south to Michoacán.

Then, on November 18, scientist-turned-eloquent-author Barbara Kingsolver released her latest book, “Flight Behavior.” The novel uses the Monarch butterfly migration to tackle the complex subject of climate change.  When asked why she used Monarch butterflies to make the wonky topic understandable, Kingsolver responded:  “The more I studied it, the more I realized this was a perfect vehicle for what I wanted to say.”

Kingsolver is on to something.   Monarch butterflies hold universal appeal.   They don’t sting or bite.  They are beautiful and accessible.  They migrate across three countries, serving as a living metaphor for our innate interconnectedness.

In 1961, Chi-Chi, a giant panda with lots of fur and appealing, black-patched eyes arrived at the London Zoo.  The cuddly, distinctive bear captured the imaginations of Londoners and quickly became the “poster species” of the World Wildlife Fund, which was founded the same year.

According to the WWF website, the first sketches were done by the British environmentalist and artist, Gerald Watterson.   “We wanted an animal that is beautiful, is endangered, and one loved by many people in the world for its appealing qualities.”

Like the panda, Monarchs are a beloved species.   Pandas are endangered, Monarchs are not, but many would argue that the Monarch migration is rushing toward a dangerous path of extinction.

Monarch butterflies’ range is moving north as temperatures rise.   We see them later in the year, and further north, with each passing season.   They also endure the climate changing extremes of heavy, unpredictable rain and storms (Storm Sandy this year), unexpected freezes, and persistent drought.   They adapt, they adjust, and they tell us much about our changing climate and the abilities of other pollinators to adapt to these rapid changes–or not.

Recent media coverage and attention suggest Monarchs are on their way to becoming the “poster species” of climate change.   We applaud this new awareness.

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

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

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

Logging

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

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

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

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

Monarch migration map

Monarchs must pass through Texas coming and going to Mexico.

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

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

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

Resident Monarch butterfly at the San Antonio River Milkweed Patch

Milkweed shortages dogged Monarch butterflies this year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black Witch Moth: Large, Common, Bat-like, and Harmless

In European folklore, moths were regarded as witches.  Not a big stretch.  Witches are creatures of the night.  Moths are creatures of the night.  Witches can transform themselves….  Moths can transform themselves (metamorphosis)…. Witches fly.  Moths fly.  Witches have long noses.  Moths have long noses.

–John Himmelman, in the book, Discovering Moths

All hail the Black Witch Moth.  It might be a harbinger of death–or a sign that your future includes a lucky lottery ticket.

Black Witch Moth Female

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

The  intriguing Black Witch Moth, sometimes known as “the bat moth” resembles a bat in size and shape and with a a seven-inch wingspan is the largest moth in North America.  They are common in these parts.

”People often come across it by causing it to fly up and around them,” said entomologist Mike Quinn, who has been tracking the migration of Ascalapha odorata for his Texasento.net website.  “There’s a real startle factor.”

Reports of large,  bat-like moths surprising people, frequently as they return home and are unlocking their front door, are not uncommon.   We spooked several Black Witch Moths on a recent visit to the Santa Ana Wildlife refuge in the Rio Grande Valley, where they roosted under wooden benches and in the eaves of the breezeway near the entrance to the visitor center.    When these big boys flush, they get your attention.

Black Witch Moth Caterpillar

Black Witch Moth Caterpillars like legumes and can reach three inches. Photo via www.texasento.net

Females have a white, sometimes iridescent stripe across their wings with wings open.  Males exhibit the plain, grey, brown mottled pattern commonly associated with moths, but with small dark eyespots on each forewing.   Black Witch Moth caterpillars eat legumes, and favor acacia and mesquite.   They are perfectly harmless, not an agricultural pest, and have no teeth or stingers.

The folklore surrounding Black Witch Moth, like the moth itself, is all over the map.  In Mexico they are known as “mariposa de la muerte,” the butterfly of death.   Some believe if a Black Witch Moth enters the home of someone who is ill, the person will die.

A variation on the folk wisdom suggests that the moth must travel to each corner of the house for death to occur.  The Mayans called the Black Witch x-mahani-nail, which means “the habit of entering buildings.” This moth apparently has a long history of inviting itself inside.

Interestingly, in the Carribean, the Black Witch Moth is known as the “Money Moth” and if it visits your home, you are likely to come into cash.   Here in South Texas, some believe if a Black Witch Moth roosts over your door, you will win the lottery.

Native to Central America and Mexico, the Black Witch starts migrating north in late spring.  “The migration has been going on since June,” said Quinn.  Because of our timely rains and climate change, several Black Witch Moth “records” have been set, meaning the moths have appeared further north earlier in the year than ever.

Black Witch Moth Records 2012

More than 500 Black Witch Moth Records Have been set in 2012. For details, click on the map. Map courtesy www.texasento.net

“This year may end up as the best year yet for Black Witch Moth (BWM) records,” wrote Quinn to the University of Houston Texas Butterfly Listserv, which includes more than 250 novice and professional lepidopterists.   Quinn has recorded more than 500 records so far, including a significant record in Maine, in mid June.

The Black Witches’ seven-inch wingspan allows them to cover a lot of ground quickly.  Entomologists note that  Monarch butterflies start crossing the Rio Grande and take two months to reach Canada.  Black Witches start migrating in June and have been recorded

Hannibal Lechter used actual Black Witch Moth cocoons

Serial killer Hannibal Lechter inserted actual Black Witch Moth cocoons into the mouths of his victims in the movie, Silence of the Lambs.

reaching Maine by June 9 and Manitoba, Canada, by June 28.  That’s a rapid pace for a moth.  Scientists wonder why the Black Witch Moth migrates so far north with no southbound return?  Hmm.

 

In the movie Silence of the Lambs, serial killer Hannibal Lechter inserted cocoons of Black Witch Mothsinto 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.

If you’d like to have one roost above your door to inspire a winning lottery ticket, you might try setting out a cocktail of fermented fruit or stale beer.   Black Witch Moths also like tree sap.  Good luck!

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

Happy Darwin Day! Would Charles Darwin be Pleased or Horrified at Butterflies as Quick Change Artists?

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”  Charles Darwin

Tomorrow, on what would have been Charles Darwin’s 203rd birthday, the scientist would have been impressed with butterflies’ capacity to adapt–and simultaneously horrified at their need to do so rapidly.

That’s what we’re taking from a recent study.

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin: Adapt or Die -- PHOTO BY FLICKR.COM/SERKEL

European researchers found recently that butterflies and birds are increasingly unable to adapt quickly enough to keep pace with rapid climate change.  The research, published Jan. 9, 2012 in the journal Nature Climate Change, used two decades of data, much of it collected by citizen scientists, and indicated that climate zones in Europe have moved on average 71 miles north for butterflies and 22 miles for birds.

“Both butterflies and birds respond to climate change, but not fast enough to keep up with an increasingly warm climate. We don’t know what the long-term ecological effects of this will be,” said one of the study’s authors, Professor Åke Lindström from Lund University, Sweden, in an article on Balkans.com.

Bordered Patch butterfly:  Quick change artist?

Bordered Patch butterfly: Quick change artist?

Butterflies have adapted more quickly to the changing temperatures, the study showed. The researchers suspect that this difference can be attributed to the butterflies’ shorter lifespans that make it easier for them to adapt quickly to climate change. Because birds like to return to the same breeding ground year after year, they show more resistance to changing behavior patterns.

Since caterpillars–that is, butterflies-to-be–are one of the primary food sources for many birds, scientists express concern about how this disconnect in their interdependence may play out in the long run.  Lindström explained:   “A worrying aspect of this is if birds fall out of step with butterflies, because caterpillars and insects in general represent an important source of food for many birds.”

For the past 50 years, agriculture, forestry and urbanization have been the main factors affecting bird and butterfly numbers and distribution. “Climate change is now emerging as an increasingly important factor in the development of biodiversity,” said Professor Lindström.

As we wrestle with the warmest winter in recent history, it’s difficult to disagree.   How we and other creatures adapt to these rapid climate changes remains to be seen.

Darwin Day, celebrated on or around February 12, is promoted and celebrated by the International Darwin Foundation.

Like what you’re reading?  Don’t miss a single post from the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery in the right navigation bar on this page, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @butterflybeat.

It’s official: Warmer Winters Cause USDA to Revise Plant Hardiness Zones, San Antonio’s Moves Closer to the Coast

The USDA announced changes in plant hardiness zones this week, moving San Antonio into the same planting zone as Houston and Corpus Christi while Austin, Dallas and Houston zones remain unchanged.   The backsides of seed packets will never be the same.

The new map reflects 30 years of temperature data, from 1976 – 2006, and includes 26 specific zones, each with a five-degree temperature differential.

For example, San Antonio moved from zone 8b, with annual lows of 15 – 20 degrees, to zone 9a, with annual lows of 20-25 degrees.  Of 34 cities listed on the key of the map, 18 have new zoning designations.

New USDA Plant Hardiness Zones Announced

New USDA Plant Hardiness Zones Announced

Here’s the new zones for the four largest Texas cities:

  • Dallas–Zone 8a, 10-15 degrees
  • Houston–Zone 9a, 20 – 25 degrees
  • San Antonio–9a, 20 – 25 degrees (from 8b)
  • Austin–8b, 15-20 degreees

The new maps employ useful new interactive GPS, whereby you can plug in your zip code and find out your zone.  The data also reflects microclimate effects like nearby water sources and elevation.

The redefined heartiness zones tell us what butterflies and blooms have been communicating for the past few years.  As Monarchs and other butterflies reproduce on the San Antonio River well into the winter, it’s apparent that it’s just not as cold as it used to be.

Like what you’re reading?  Don’t miss a single post from the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery in the right navigation bar on this page, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @butterflybeat.