NYTimes, Commercial Butterfly Breeders Raise Awareness of OE to Help Monarchs

In the last two weeks, both the New York Times and professional butterfly breeders have made progress in raising awareness of a little known but possibly significant factor in the decline of the Monarch butterfly migration–a spore driven, Monarch-centric disease known as OE.

OE Spores with Monarch Butterfly Scales

OE spores look like little footballs next to Monarch butterfly scales.  The spore-driven disease can be devastating to the butterflies.  Photo courtesy of MLMP

Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, known in the Monarch community as OE, infects Monarchs and other butterflies that host on milkweed, sometimes resulting in butterfly crippling or death. Spores transfer from creature to creature via physical contact with each other or the plants on which they rest or eat, thus scientists worry that local OE-infested Monarchs will infect populations that are passing through, possibly jeopardizing the migration.

Several sessions at the Butterfly Professionals Conference held in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, November 12 – 16, were dedicated to educating about 100 attendees on prevention of the disease.   The organization has been called to task in the recent petition to list the Monarch butterfly as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act for releasing butterflies that could carry OE into the wild population.

Connie Hodsdon, a butterfly breeder and owner of Flutterby Gardens in Bradenton, Florida, addressed the joint meeting of the International Butterfly Breeders Association (IBBA), the Association for Butterflies (AFB) and the International Association of Butterfly Exhibitioners and Suppliers (IABES), in a 90-minute session focused exclusively on OE.

Monarch on Tropical Milkweed at CPS Energy Pollinator garden

Monarch butterfly on Tropical milkweed. The Asclepias curassavica strain of milkweed, a Monarch favorite, can host overwintering OE spores in addition to Monarch butterflies and should be slashed to the ground each winter, scientists say. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“You have to start clean and stay clean,” said Hodsdon before sharing slides of mottled, dark speckled OE-infected Monarch chrysalises.  She then launched into a detailed description of the methodology she employs for preventing or eliminating OE from butterfly livestock.

Her approach includes multiple bleach baths of Monarch eggs, breeding vessels, and all plant material in a special product imported from Great Britain called Milton, separate rearing rooms for different broods of butterflies, and regular testing with a microscope for OE spores.

“We have to do everything in our power to make sure our Monarchs are an asset to the species,” Hodsdon told the conference crowd.  “If you can’t, find another species to raise.”

Later, butterfly breeder Edith Smith, owner of Shady Oak Butterfly Farm in Brooker, Florida, continued the call-to-action for breeders to be meticulously clean in their operations and monitor livestock closely–not just for OE, but for more pervasive and difficult-to-cure plagues.

Edith Smith

Edith Smith, Shady Oak Butterfly Farm

Smith, who teaches various workshops and seminars about butterfly diseases that nature uses for population control, has been raising butterflies commercially since 1999.   She proposed that OE should be eliminated before it even enters the breeding operation.

“These are diseases that butterfly breeders must keep out of their breeding facilities,” she said.

Both Smith and Hodsdon keep a 100x microscope on hand along with clear, invisible tape. They check Monarch and Queen butterflies for OE spores by rolling the abdomen of young butterflies along the tape, then viewing the tape under the microscope. If football-like spores are prevalent, the butterfly is destroyed rather than used as a breeder or sold as livestock.

“If this is done and any milkweed that wild butterflies can touch is disinfected, OE shouldn’t ever be an issue,” said Smith.

A week after the IBBA Conference, the New York Times caused a storm with citizen scientists and butterfly gardeners by focusing on possible negative impacts of planting Tropical milkweed to attract Monarch butterflies.  Some scientists believe that planting Asclepias curassavica, Tropical milkweed, outside certain ranges creates hotbeds of OE that could negatively impact the population and the migration. Monarchs will only lay eggs on their host plant, which is any member of the Asclepias species.

In an article headlined For the Monarch Butterfly, a Long Road Back, and promoted heavily online as “Monarch Butterflies:  Loved to Death?” science journalist Liza Gross explored the pros and cons of planting Tropical milkweed.   To read our original story on this topic, check out Tropical Milkweed:  To plant it or not, it’s not a simple question.

The article featured an interview with Dara Satterfield, a PhD student at the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia.  A native of Marietta, Georgia, Satterfield’s dissertation focuses on the relationship between migration and infectious disease in wildlife. Monarchs are her species focus.

Dara Satterfield

Dara Satterfield first visited San Antonio to inspect our milkweed patch along the San Antonio River Walk in early 2013. Photo by Monika MAeckle

Satterfield works closely with Monarch scientist Dr. Sonia Altizer, the foremost expert in the country on OE. (NOTE:  Dr. Altizer recently hosted a webinar for commercial butterfly breeders on how to prevent OE at their farms.)

This is the line that really whipped up butterfly fans:  “…Well-meaning efforts by butterfly lovers may be contributing to the Monarch’s plight.”  The piece then stated that planting Tropical milkweed, the only Asclepias species available commercially, might be doing more harm than good because it might cause butterflies to stick around, not migrate and spread the OE spores year-round.

Confused?  Are you wondering what to plant when scientists and conservationists encourage us to help Monarchs by planting milkweed, yet when we do, we’re told it promotes a deadly Monarch butterfly disease?

Me, too. What’s a butterfly gardener to do? I tracked down Satterfield to provide direction.

“The monarchs are showing us something…and the pattern is clear and consistent,” Satterfield said via email, explaining that Monarchs are much more likely to be sick in places where Tropical milkweed grows year-round.

“In a nutshell, this is how we would summarize for gardeners: Choose native milkweeds whenever possible,” she said.  Satterfield insists that Tropical milkweed should be limited in areas where it might survive the winter–coastal Texas, California, Florida, for example.   Overwintering of the plant enables winter-breeding and high levels of OE infection, she contends.

She recommends if you DO plant Tropical milkweed in a place that rarely freezes, best practice would include cutting the plant to the ground so as not to harbor overwintering OE spores.

For the record, consensus on the science of how Tropical milkweed effects or not the Monarch migration is as elusive as the butterflies themselves.   Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch told the New York Times that Tropical milkweed constitutes “a tiny, tiny portion” of the milkweeds encountered by Monarchs returning in the spring.  “Should they be there? Probably not. But will they do immense harm? Probably not.”

But, to play it safe, slash that Tropical milkweed to the ground this winter if a good freeze doesn’t do it for you.

LAST CHANCE TO TAKE OUR POLL!  Have you taken our Milkweed Poll?  Please do. Three questions, only takes a minute.  GRACIAS!  Please do it now, here’s the link.

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Resilience Required: Climate Change Turns up the Heat in the Butterfly Garden

Brace yourselves, butterfly gardeners: climate change is turning up the heat in the butterfly garden.

Not only do higher temperatures rule, but resilience and adaptability will be required for successful pollinator gardens in the coming years.

Butterfly Garden, Travis Heights, Austin, TX 78704, Summer 2011

An open mind and willingness to adapt will be keys to sustaining your butterfly garden in the wake of climate change.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

Surely you’ve noticed: Wacky weather, erratic extremes, traditional first and last frost dates that are routinely inaccurate.   As James Barilla wrote in the New York Times last week, “This past winter was a tough one in our backyard…. One week I’m sweating, the bees are buzzing, buds are breaking; the next, the birdbath is frozen and there’s snow on the ground.”

The crazy vacillations in daily temperatures make the usual gardening choices and chores more challenging. When it’s freezing one day, brazen sun and high temps the next, what’s a butterfly gardener to do? And if you’re feeling confused, imagine how birds, bees and butterflies are coping—not to mention the plants that sustain them.

From 80 degrees to 27 in 48 hours.  March 2 and 3, 2014.

From 80 degrees to 27 in 48 hours. March 2 and 3, 2014.

I suggest we all keep an open mind. Adaptability is key. For example, let’s not be doctrinaire about native plants.   Of course natives are preferred, but with changing range expansions and longer growing seasons, what does native really mean?

According to the National Arboretum, a native plant is one that was present at the time Europeans arrived in North America–that is, around  Columbus’s arrival in 1492.  I prefer the definition of the The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s Mr. Smarty Plants, who defines natives like this:

“It is actually pretty simple…to define a native plant as … a plant that occurs naturally in the place where it evolved.”

That makes sense.   But I also agree with Mr. Barilla’s pragmatic approach to the garden.  “It doesn’t makes sense to think in terms of native and nonnative when the local weather vacillates so abruptly.   A resilient garden is a diverse garden.”

Amen.

Monarch on milkweed

Monarch butterflies LOVE Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica  Photo by Monika Maeckle

My views on Tropical milkweed, Monarch butterflies favorite host plant, native to Mexico, are well-known. Some scientists will claim that the easy-to-grow orange bloomer encourages disease and its adoption will wipe out native milkweeds. I disagree. Besides, that train has left the station since Tropical Milkweed is the only Asclepias species widely available commercially.

No one says we have to choose between Tropical and native milkweeds.   Do both. While you’re struggling to get those natives established, Tropical milkweed can hold down the fort since it consistently delivers. Not only is it a reliable host plant for Monarch butterflies, but all butterflies flock to its bright blossoms for nectar.   And many scientists believe that it’s the plant on which Monarch butterflies evolved.

With my stretch of the world considered part of planting Zone 9A as of January 2012  (the same zone as coastal cities Corpus Christi and Houston) we’re not that far from “tropical,” anyway. This year, however, much of my Asclepias curassavica froze beyond recovery in the harsh winter and didn’t come back. Good thing it’s easy to propagate from seed and I have a private stash. I have replanted.

Chino Checkerspot

The endangered Chino Checkerspot moved to higher altitudes and changed its host plant of its own volition. Courtesy photo

Perhaps we should look to the butterflies themselves for inspiration.   One endangered species, the Quino Checkerspot, Euphydryas editha quino, found in Mexico and southern California, shifted to higher altitudes and switched its host plant to an entirely different species of its own volition.  Scientists were expecting the species to become extinct, but somehow it quickly adapted, according to research presented at the Butterfly Conservation’s seventh international symposium in April.

Meanwhile, we learned recently that professional and amateur butterfly breeders have also had luck feeding Monarch butterfly caterpillars pumpkin, butternut squash, even cucumbers in their fifth and final instar.  This news came at a good time this spring when a brutal winter and late spring made milkweeds unavailable, just as Monarchs began their migration.  While I received at least one email from a scientist chastising me for celebrating this news, taking it as a challenge to native milkweeds, my feeling is we should celebrate the fact that Monarchs appear to be more adaptable than we thought.

Monarch caterpillars on pumping and squash

Monarch butterfly caterpillars will eat pumpkin, squash, even cucumbers in the fifth instar or final stage. Photo courtesy Ellen Reid

Unpredictable weather will likely be the new normal for some time. As the third National Climate Assessment report suggests, Texas will continue to face severe shortages of ground and surface water. Floods caused by extreme rain events will interrupt the ongoing drought. Tornadoes, thunderstorms, hurricanes, and winter storms will occur with increasing frequency. Oh, and the wildfires will continue.

Science tells us this is a period of rapid climate change like no other. The plants, insects and gardeners that can adapt, will survive, and with luck, thrive.

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Milkweed Shortage Sparks “Alternative Fuels” for Hungry Monarch Caterpillars

Monarch butterflies have made their way to Texas, but unfortunately not much milkweed greets them upon arrival.  A harsh, dry winter preceded by drought and schizophrenic weather have left the sought-after perennial a no-show in many Texas gardens–and on roadsides and ranch land.

Milkweeds, that is, any Asclepias species, are the host plants to Monarch butterflies and the only plant on which they will lay eggs to continue their life cycle.

PUmpkin fed Monarch

The Monarch butterfly on the left was fed with pumpkin during its final instar. Photo by Ellen Reid

Reliable DPLEX correspondent Harlen Aschen wrote to the listserv that reaches hundreds of butterfly fans that on a 1000-mile trip from Port Lavaca, Texas, past San Antonio to near Abilene and back around Austin “we saw no blooming milkweed.”

Not good.

Yet that hasn’t stopped a tenacious group of butterfly lovers from raising caterpillars and hatching butterflies on “alternative fuels.”

Professional butterfly breeders have been experimenting for years to keep their livestock well nourished when host plants become scarce.    Many of us who raise butterflies at home, especially in a year like this, also seek alternatives, since local nurseries seem to be having a hard time getting milkweed and keeping it in stock.   The recent news that the Monarch butterfly migration may soon become extinct because of a loss of milkweed habitat is driving the demand.

So what’s a hungry caterpillar to do?

Hungry caterpillars on milkweed seedlings

My boys are hungry! Six Monarch caterpillars have pretty much decimated this pot of milkweed seedlings planted in February. Good thing I have another one. Photo by Monika Maeckle

It’s a quandary.   At my house, I planted Tropical milkweed seeds in February and have several pots growing, including two filled with seedlings only two inches tall.  This will sate my caterpillars for a few days, at most.

I’m hoping that by the time the hungry cats finish up the tender seedlings, my garden milkweeds will have taken off.  Or perhaps local nurseries will get more milkweed in stock.

Over on the DPLEX list, butterfly buffs–and the Monarch caterpillars–are getting resourceful.  Several folks mentioned that by the time the caterpillars get to their fifth instar, or their final stage, before morphing into a chrysalis, they will eat pumpkin and cucumbers.

That’s right, folks.   See it with your own eyes.

Monarch caterpillars eating pumpkin

No milkweed? No problem. In the fifth instar, Monarch caterpillars will eat a variety of pumpkins. Photo courtesy Ellen Reid

“The butterfly on the left was fed with pumpkin during its final instar.  The one on the right was reared on milkweed,” Ellen Reid wrote via email all the way from St. Arnaud, Victoria, Australia.  “We couldn’t distinguish between them in any way.”

Reid shared a photo of “pumpkin frass”–orange colored butterfly poop which is produced in volumes in the final stages of the caterpillars metamorphosis.   Usually the frass is dark green or even brown, but “pumpkin frass” looks like the food that fueled it.

Paul Addington tried feeding his Monarch caterpillars cucumbers.  It worked.

Monarchs eating cucumbers

Monarch caterpillars in the fifth instar will eat cucumbers. But they have to be FRESH cucumbers! Photo courtesy Paul Addington

“These cats are eating the skin of the cucumber,” relayed Addington. “These were organic, but still felt like they were waxy, so [they were] heavily scrubbed first.”

Addington said the caterpillars indeed preferred milkweed when given a choice.  “All 52 of mine finished on cucumber, looked great and joined the wild,” he said, adding     “UPDATE: must be fresh, crunchy cucumbers.…two-weeks-in-the-fridge cukes were rejected with enthusiasm….what an uproar!”

Pumpkin frass

The frass, or butterfly poop, of pumpkin fed Monarch caterpillars reflects the food’s orange tint. Photo courtesy Ellen Reid

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, chimed in to the conversation, letting folks know that the alternatives have been known for a while.   “These alternatives have been utilized by many people in the past. They only seem to work for fifth instar larvae that are less than four days from pupating. Many of the larvae will not make these transitions successfully.”

So Monarch butterfly caterpillars appear to be more adaptable than we thought.

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Plant Milkweed, Sign our Petition, Help Save the Monarch Butterfly Migration

Crazy, erratic weather arrived in Texas–again–this week, bringing freezing temperatures to much of the state.   Last Saturday temperatures rose to the 80s;  by noon on Sunday it was 27 degrees.   Surely plants and insects must be grossly confused and butterfly gardeners like me start thinking: what should we plant in our gardens?

Michelle Obama, please plant milkweed at the White House

Since Monarch butterflies are about to leave their overwintering roosts in Michoacán and head our way, it’s impossible to not consider milkweed, the only plant on which Monarch butterflies will lay their eggs.    A cold winter in San Antonio that included four “polar vortexes” has frozen all our milkweed to the ground, leaving little or nothing for the  migrating insects to host on if they show up in the next few weeks.   Even sturdy Asclepias asperula, Antelope Horns, which we usually see at the ranch by now haven’t shown their nubby heads.

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, told us via email this week that looking ahead, average temperatures are likely to prevail for the next 40 days, according to Accu-weather.   “That’s a more favorable forecast than the one from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association,” he wrote.   In his seasonal blogpost assessing the beginning of the 2014 Monarch migration, Dr. Taylor had speculated that temperatures would be higher than normal in Texas for March and April.   “Which wouldn’t be good,” he said.

Why?

It seems counterintuitive, but it creates a bad situation when early spring is warmer than usual because the Monarchs disperse further north faster.  That can cause them to get ahead of the milkweed plants they need to lay their eggs and provide food for hatching caterpillars.   When they travel further north too early, they arrive in locations where milkweed has neither germinated nor produced leaves for them to eat.  On top of that, subsequent cold spells  are more likely to occur as they move further north–and this can kill eggs and caterpillars they leave behind in the erratic weather.

Aslcepias curassavica, Tropical milkweed

Asclepias curassavica, Tropical milkweed seeds, were planted in February and are just showing their delicate leaves. Photo by Monika Maeckle

While the weather continues its uncertain patterns one thing is for sure:  we should all be planting milkweed.

I dropped some Asclepias curassavica, Tropical Milkweed, and Asclepias incarnata, Swamp milkweed, into several black buckets in early February and the sprouts are poking their dainty heads above the soil mix right now.  In about two weeks, I’ll re-pot those seedlings into two-inch square containers for later transplanting in the garden and sharing with friends.

You should all do the same.   If not with Tropical Milkweed, the most widely available, easy-to-grow variety, then with your local natives collected from the wild or bought at native nurseries and seed suppliers.  Check out the Texas Butterfly Ranch Milkweed Guide for details.

Asclepias incarnata, Swamp milkweed

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

Native plant purists sometimes contest the planting of Tropical milkweed outside of its natural range, which would limit it to parts of Mexico.  They suggest that it might cause disease or encourage migrating Monarchs to break their diapause and stick around locally.   I don’t buy that argument, especially when Monarchs are in such great need of milkweed and Tropical milkweed is the only one widely available commercially.   To me, that’s like saying you’re not going to feed a starving child anything but locavore, organic produce.  Given the circumstances, we can’t afford to be so choosy.   Read more about the Tropical milkweed quandary in this post.

However, for those who live in warm climates where Tropical milkweed might survive a mild winter, best practices suggest we should chop it to the ground at the end of the fall so  any undesireable spores that may carry disease won’t have the chance to fester on its stalks and be passed along to the next generation.  This year’s ample freezes took care of that for 2014.

While you’re waiting for those milkweed sprouts to take root, please sign our petition encouraging First Lady Michelle Obama to plant milkweed at the White House garden.   The First Lady has been lauded for planting an organic vegetable garden at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and for encouraging Americans to get out and get active through her Let’s Move initiative.   We feel that planting milkweed–Asclepias syriaca, Common milkweed, perhaps–in between the rows of broccoli and tomatoes at the White House would be an apt expression of her priorities, while also helping to raise awareness of the dramatic decline of the Monarch migration.

If you agree, please join us by signing our petition.

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NAFTA Presidents, Monsanto Say They Want to Help Save the Monarch Butterfly Migration

Thanks to the three leaders of North America I won a $5 bet with my son Alex Rivard last week.

Alex didn’t think the Presidents of the United States and Mexico, Barack Obama and  Enrique Peńa Nieto, nor Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada, would discuss the preservation of the Monarch butterfly migration when they met in Toluca, Mexico, last Wednesday, only 75 miles from the Monarch butterfly ancestral roosting sites.

President BArack Obama

Thanks, Obama! Our President met with the leaders of Canada and Mexico just 75 miles from the Monarch butterfly roosting sites. They committed to trying to save the Monarch butterfly migration. Courtesy photo

“It’s not a big deal to them,” he argued two days before the meeting.

Wanna bet?   I asked.  He did and I won.

And so did the Monarch butterfly migration and those of us who agitate on its behalf.

At the end of a long day of weighty negotiations that touched on immigration, border security, job creation and energy issues, “los tres amigos” determined that the miraculous migration of the iconic insect that knits our countries together is something worth salvaging.

“We have also agreed to work on the preservation of the Monarch butterfly as an emblematic species of North America which unites our three countries,”  President Enrique Peńa Nieto said at the end of the summit.   The leaders agreed to form a task force to study the situation and “ensure the conservation of the Monarch butterfly.”

Now that the Monarch butterfly migration registers on the radar of all three leaders of North America, the creature’s Pan-American journey creates an unprecedented opportunity to raise awareness and captivate attention for pollinator decline.  This focus has galvanized folks across North America.

Monarch butterfly at the San Antonio River Milkweed Patch

Monarch numbers plunged to historic lows this year, prompting predictions that its magnificent migration may soon become extinct.  Monarch butterfly on milkweed, its host plant. Photo by Monika Maeckle

On February 24, the National Resources Defense Council submitted a petition to the Environmental Protection Agency to review the use of glyphosates, the widely used broad spectrum herbicide often sold by Monsanto (see below) as  Round-Up.

“As monarch butterflies plummet, it’s time to rethink the widespread use of our nation’s top weedkiller,” read the headline on the NRDC’s Switchboard blog, trumpeting a post that detailed how glyphosate use has  “skyrocketed tenfold to 182 million pounds annually.  As a result, milkweed–which is the sole food source for monarch butterfly larvae–has all but been eliminated from farm fields across the Midwest.” According to the article, glyphosates were approved in 1993 before the advent of genetically modified crops that are tolerant of its use.  You can read the petition here.

Common milkweed

Will the Whitehouse add some common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, to the Whitehouse Garden? Photo via wikipedia

As noted here last week, ever since the news broke last month that 2013 numbers for the migrating Monarch butterfly population plunged to historic lows and scientists suggested that the migration may soon become extinct, Monarch and pollinator advocates have been energized, seeking solutions to the decline.   Planting more milkweed and resisting genetically modified crops and pesticide use are all good prescriptions, but the political approach exemplified by the Milkweed-Butterfly Recovery Alliance, an ad hoc group formed by Mexico-based  Grupo de los Cien Internacional  and Make Way for Monarchs contributed to the positive outcome of our leadership embracing the notion that the migration is worth saving.   Others seem to be following suit.

Over on Facebook, almost 600 people have “liked” a page created on February 21st called Mr. President – Save the Monarch – Please plant milkweed at the Whitehouse.”  I encourage you to do the same.   Can’t wait for Michelle, Malia and Sasha to add some Asclepias syriaca–common milkweed, the Monarch butterfly host plant–to the Whitehouse vegetable garden.

Whitehouse vegetable garden

All that’s missing? Plant some milkweed and we’re good to go. Photo via sheknowshouseandgarden.com

Even the folks at Monsanto Corporation, the NYSE-listed multinational chemical and biotech powerhouse often vilified as an evil empire, addressed the decline of the Monarch butterfly migration and pledged to look into it.

A February 24 post on the Monsanto “Beyond the Rows” blog generically labeled “The Monarch Butterfly” states:

“As research continues, the pressing question for all of us is: what can we do to help? We’re talking with scientists about what might be done to help the monarchs  rebound.  And we’re eager to join efforts to help rebuild monarch habitat along the migration path by joining with conservationists, agronomists, weed scientists, crop associations and farmers to look at ways to increase milkweed populations on the agricultural landscape.”

Interestingly, of the 696 posts published on the Monsanto blog since 2008, this is the first time the issue of the Monarch butterfly migration has been addressed.

This is progress, people. Monsanto, we look forward to good deeds following your words.  Los tres amigos, gracias for the exposure and galvanizing the continent on behalf of pollinators.  Alex, time to pay up that $5 bet.  Let’s keep it going.

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San Antonio Butterfly Fans, Join us Monday for How to Tag a Monarch Butterfly

Many of us believe the Monarch butterfly should be declared the Official Insect of San Antonio. Given our geographic location in the heart of the Texas flyway and the dramatic butterflies’ intimate connection to Mexico, it makes perfect sense.  Monarch butterflies have already been declared the official bug of Texas.

Since Monarch butterflies are on the move this week, the Texas Butterfly Ranch is joining its sister site, the Rivard Report, to perform a Monarch butterfly tagging demonstration for “Something Monday,” tomorrow, October 21.  Something Monday is a weekly learning outing sponsored by the site, co-founded by me and my husband Robert Rivard.

Meet us at 6:30 p.m. at the Milkweed Patch on the Museum Reach of the San Antonio River, tomorrow, October 21.   We’ll gather downstream from the Pearl (map below) and demonstrate How to Tag a Monarch Butterfly.   Park at the Pearl, cross the river, and walk south five minutes and you’ll be there.

Tagged Monarch butterfly

Join us at the Milkweed Patch for ‘Something Monday’ to see how Monarch butterflies are tagged en route to Mexico. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Tag a Monarch butterfly?  How does one do that?

You’ll  have to join us to find out. But show some respect – the dramatic orange and black butterflies have had a tough year.  Many of us believe that 2013 is shaping up to be their worst in history, population wise.

Professional and citizen scientists have been “tagging” the storied creatures since the ’50s.  That’s how they figured out that the Monarchs that are passing through town right now are the great-great grandchildren of the ones that left Mexico last spring.

Museum Reach Milkweed Patch

The Milkweed Patch before the drought. Don’t worry, the butterflies still show up. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Yep, that’s right.  The butterflies that are migrating to Mexico this month through the “Texas Funnel” have never been to the roosting spot that is their final destination.   That would be like finding your way to the home of your great-great grandmother without ever having known her address.

The methodology for unraveling this mystery entailed professional and citizen scientists “tagging” the butterflies throughout the Eastern U.S.

Monarch Watch, a citizen scientist program based at the University of Kansas at Lawrence, continues the program today.

The butterflies migrate to a remote mountainous area of southern Mexico in the winter, rouse in the spring, mate, then die.  Their bodies are found on the forest floor.  These days, scientists pay the local people of Michoacán $5 per recovered tag.  In 1976, thanks to an intrepid Austin woman named Catalina Trail, scientists finally pieced together the puzzle and determined that Monarch butterflies are the only creatures on the planet to undertake a multi-generational migration.

Milkweed Patch on the San Antonio River Museum Reach

“A” Marks the spot for the Milkweed Patch

And why the Milkweed Patch, you say?

Monarch butterflies will only lay their eggs on a particular plant–milkweed. The beautiful orange bloomer serves as the insects’ host plant and also provides nectar for fueling up for its long journey. The San Antonio River Authority planted a stand of milkweed on the Museum Reach four years ago when the River Walk was extended north.

National Geographic cover of Monarch migration

Scientists didn’t piece together the puzzle of the Monarch butterfly migration until 1976.

The butterfly garden has since become known as The Milkweed Patch and is a regular hangout for Monarchs in the Spring and Fall, and other butterflies year-round. The Patch also is monitored by citizen scientists on behalf of the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project.

Join us at the Milkweed Patch at 6:30 PM.  Bring the kids.  They’ll love it.

I’ll have a couple of butterfly nets  and tags on hand to show you how its done.  We’ll tag the butterflies, record their tag numbers, and make note if they are male and female. All that info will be to Monarch Watch and entered into a database that is accessible from the web.

We’ll release tagged butterflies to the wind with the hope they find their way to Mexico. Perhaps our ‘Something Monday’ Monarchs will be fortunate enough to complete the trip.

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First of Season Monarchs Spotted on Llano River–Another “Worst Year” for Migration?

Two FOS (First of Season) Monarch butterflies made an appearance on the Llano River this weekend–pretty early for migrants.  They looked to be in good shape and were heading south.

Monarch butterfly

Veronica Prida holds a Monarch for tagging in 2007 on the Llano River. File photo by Monika Maeckle

We generally don’t start seeing Monarchs until Labor Day weekend, three weeks from now.  These early arrivals are called the “premigration migration” and typically show up about a month before the “real migration.”  If this is the case, we’ll be seeing pulses of Monarchs by mid September.

Recent years have been tough on Monarch butterflies.  Climate change and drought have messed with their host and nectar plants’ life cycles and genetically modified crops have sterilized their breeding grounds in the Midwest.  Wildfires and aerial pesticide spraying wreaked havoc with their journey through North Texas last Fall, and logging threatened their roosting sites in Mexico upon their arrival.

Could it get any worse?

Probably.  Last year, their population dropped to its lowest level in history.  They occupied less than three acres of the ancient Oyamel forest in Michoacán, Mexico, where they roost each winter.    That’s right: the entire migratory population of Monarch butterflies occupied a space smaller than most shopping malls.

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

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

Scientists, enthusiasts and butterfly watchers have been bemoaning the lack of Monarch butterflies on various listservs all year.  The Spring season was skimpy, and Fall doesn’t look any better.

“One of my monarch students, a 15-year-old budding biologist told me tonight that he’s seen NO sign of eggs nor larvae on hundreds of plants. He lives in a rural area; milkweed is abundant on roadsides, fields and his garden.”

                     –Debbie Jackson, Davisburg, MI, August 5

“There weren’t many Monarchs in Canada and the mid-west. I’ve been reading the butterfly counts that Don Davis has posted. Most listed zero Monarchs.”

                             –Mona Miller, Herndon, VA, July 20

 “Where are the Monarch butterflies?” asked the headline on a MSN News story August 7. “Michigan is missing its monarch butterflies. So are Delaware, Minnesota and Montreal,” it continued.  “We go out and are looking, looking, inspecting thoroughly,” Holli Ward, executive director of the Michigan Butterflies Project near Grand Rapids, told the Detroit Free Press….We have not seen a single egg or caterpillar.”

Monarch butterflies hit record lows nationwide,” read the headline of the Rockford Register Star in Illinois on July 26.

Our friend and founder of Monarch Watch Dr. Chip Taylor told the publication that the population crash can be attributed to weird weather in 2012, including one of the hottest, driest summers in decades. “The heat shortened the lifespan and lessened the egg-laying capacity of female monarchs,” Dr. Taylor explained.

I’m predicting a new worst year in history.

Cocoa on the Llano river

Cocoa could practically walk across the Llano River this weekend. Doesn’t bode well for nectar sources this fall. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Our drought marches on, dropping water tables, shrinking our rivers and the riparian systems that sustain them and no end seems in sight.  Cocoa, my loyal butterflying assistant pictured above, could just about walk across the Llano River this weekend without getting her feet wet.  This is a first and doesn’t bode well for sustaining the milkweed host and nectar sources Monarchs need to get to Mexico.

Goldenrod on the Llano

Goldenrod busted out in big blooms following a nice 3.5-inch rain. If it can stay robust another month, whatever Monarchs arrive will have plenty of nectar. Photo by Monika Maeckle

We did have some well-timed rains this month, however.   The rain gauge showed a stout 3.5 inches.  Blooming Goldenrod awaited ubiquitous Sulphurs and Swallowtails as occasional Queens mingled with the two solo Monarchs referenced earlier.  Scattered showers are predicted for next week, which may keep the blooms in shape until our first wave of migrants typically show up–around Labor Day.

Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata

Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, present but scrawnier and less abundant than usual. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, a Monarch host plant, also began its late summer bloom, in smaller stands and scrawnier than usual, but present nonetheless.  We found four eggs which could be either Queens or Monarchs.  We’ll keep you posted.

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Mostly Native Urban Butterfly Garden Outperforms Lawn Anytime in San Antonio

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

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

January, 2012

Future butterfly garden in Lavaca

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

It actually started in November of 2011.

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

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

Austin to San Antonio translplants

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

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

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

February

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

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

Cowpen Daisy Seedlings, February 2012.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Cowpen Daisy Seedlings, February 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

March

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

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

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

Cowpen Daisy

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

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

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

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

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

April

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

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

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

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

May

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

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

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

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

Swallowtail caterpillar

Acrobatic Swallowtail caterpillar on fennel.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

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

June

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

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

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

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

Tobacco Hornworm on Jimsonweed

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

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

 July

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

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

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

Bordered Patch butterfly: Quick change artist?

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

August

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

Queens are back in town

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

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

September

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

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

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

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

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

October

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monarch caterpillar on Tropical milkweed

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

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

November

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

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

Tagged Monarch butterfly on leftover Halloween pumpkin

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

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

December

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

Seeds for next year

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

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

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

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

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Got Milkweed? Updated Plant Guide for Central and South Texas

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

Slide1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Texas Butterfly Ranch Suggested Milkweed Species for our Area

Antelope HornAsclepias asperula  

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

Antelope horns

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

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

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

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

 Green MilkweedAsclepias viridis 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Swamp MilkweedAsclepias incarnata

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

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

Monarch on Swamp Milkweed on the Llano River

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

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

 Butterfly Weed, Asclepias tuberosa

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

Ascelpias tuberosa

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

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

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

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

Tropical Milkweed, Asclepias curassavica

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matelea reticulata  Pearl Milkweed vine

Milkweed vine

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

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

Anyone have experience with Milkweed vine as a host?

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

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

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Part One: How to Raise Monarch Butterflies at Home

Remember those Monarch eggs I wrote about two weeks ago that I found on my front yard milkweed?  The photos below illustrate how easy it is to raise Monarch butterflies at home.  It’s fun and gratifying to bring the eggs inside for fostering.

Caterpillar condo

It’s not pretty, but it works. Iced latte cup serves as “caterpillar condo.” Photo by Monika Maeckle

Now’s the time of year you’ll find Monarch butterfly eggs on your milkweed.  Just turn over the leaves, look on the underside and you’ll see them.  Your helping hand could give those eggs a higher chance–from 10% to 90%–of completing their life cycle and becoming a butterfly.   Mother Nature can be brutal.  The tiny eggs represent a protein pop for beetles, ants, and wasps and serve as the equivalent of a highly nutritious smoothie.  

Once the eggs hatch and start munching on milkweed leaves, the holes and “chew marks” they leave in their wake signal to predators that a tasty morsel is near.   While birds generally don’t find Monarchs tasty, they don’t know that until they have their first bite.

Monarch egg on Tropical mlkweed

Bring eggs in to give them a better chance of completing the life cycle. You’ll find them on the underside of milkweed leaves. Photo by Monika Maeckle

It’s not difficult to nurture an egg all the way through the life cycle–from teeny creamy yellow dot to chubby waddling caterpillar to jewel-like chrysalis to beautiful butterfly.  Chrysalises also make fantastic, unique gifts for life’s transitional occasions–weddings, funerals, graduations, a job or other life change.

If you’re up for fostering Monarch caterpillars, you must have ample, chemical-free milkweed.   Any type of Asclepias species will do.  As much as I like native plants, I’m a big fan of Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, for at-home butterfly gardens:  it’s easy-to-grow, widely available, a reliable bloomer, and its leaves serve as Monarchs’, Queens’ and other milkweed feeders’ sole food source.   Other butterflies adore nectaring on its orange and yellow flowers.

Once the eggs hatch, you’ll need to provide fresh milkweed regularly–and in later stages, daily–to these voracious eating machines, so make sure you’re well stocked.

Former salad greens box converts to a caterpillar container.  You'll have to provide fresh milkweed each day.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Former salad greens box converts to a caterpillar container. You’ll have to provide fresh milkweed each day. Photo by Monika Maeckle

You’ll also need a pot, container or “cage” in which to store the milkweed and sequester the caterpillars.  They make quite a mess.  Some people use tupperware boxes, others will put milkweed leaves in a vase and let the caterpillars crawl around, munching as they please.   I like to use a beverage bottle or a plastic iced coffee cup with a lid, which makes a simple “caterpillar condo.”   Be sure to put some newspaper underneath to catch the enormous amount of caterpillar poop, also known as frass, that will result from the constant eating.  Clipping the paper with a clothespin to create a catch for the frass will keep it from rolling onto your floor.

Caterpillar poop or frass

Whole lotta caterpillar poop! Known as frass, caterpillar excrement can be monumental. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Another option, if you have chemical-free potted milkweed available, is to bring the plant inside the house or on a porch and let the caterpillars consume the plant.   That’s one of the easiest methods.

Professional butterfly breeders often take this approach, devoting entire greenhouses to seeded milkweed pots.    Others will use cut milkweed supplied fresh daily after cleaning the containers.

Caterpillar-palooza

Professional breeders and Monarch enthusiasts plant Tropical milkweed seeds in January so they’ll be sprouting in time for the caterpillar-palooza that arrives in the spring. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Cages must be kept clean and free of frass. You can empty out the frass and wipe down the inside of the cup or container with a paper towel.  Trapped frass can cause a germ problem, as the caterpillars waddle through the mess, track it onto leaves, then consume the nastiness, possibly getting sick.

Beyond fresh milkweed and a container, cage, or potted plant, you’ll need little else but time.  The life cycle from egg to butterfly usually takes about a month.   The egg stage lasts about four days.   Then the caterpillar hatches and remains in its first instar, or stage, for several days.   As it eats and outgrows its skin, it morphs to become a second instar caterpillar.

Caterpillar spinning silk

This guy is forming his silk button and will soon make a j-shape to morph into his chrysalis. See the silk? Photo by Monika Maeckle

The process continues, to third, fourth and fifth instar “cats,” until finally, the caterpillar is almost as big as your ring finger and appears as if it will bust its stripes.   Usually the process from egg to fifth instar takes about 10 -14 days, depending on conditions.   And, if there’s less milkweed available, the caterpillars will hurry up and form their chrysalises, eating less and forming more petite chrysalises.

When that time nears, the caterpillar typically wanders away from its host plant or attaches itself to the top of the cage if confined.   It seeks a nice, quiet place, out of direct sunlight to form its chrysalis.    We have found chrysalises in the most unusual places.

About to go chrysalis, he's forming his j-shape.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

About to go chrysalis, he’s forming his j-shape. Photo by Monika Maeckle

For that reason, many people prefer pop-up cages rather than cups or potted plants since you can put a potted plant inside, sit back and wait.   Personally, I love watching the cats’ acrobatics as they go through the process and I don’t mind finding caterpillars on or under my furniture or curtains.  My husband is also quite tolerant.   But…I understand not everyone feels that way.

When the caterpillar is ready to go chrysalis, it sits quietly for a while, seeming to ponder the possibilities.  But actually, it’s spinning a tough, sturdy silk button that will support its weight for the period in which it hangs upside down as a chrysalis for about a week.

When it’s ready, it hangs vertically and forms a j-shape.   At some moment, when you see its tentacles hanging

Monarch chrysalises

These three caterpillars formed their chrysalises on the underside of the newspaper protecting my floor. Photo by Monika Maeckle

limply, it will begin its transformation from caterpillar to chrysalis with an exotic twisting dance that allows it to shed its skin for the fifth and final time.  It  forms the most fantastic jade colored jewel, flecked with gold specks and rimmed with black.   The chrysalis remains for 10 – 14 days, depending on the weather and humidity.

Finally, when it’s ready to become a butterfly, the green chrysalis will turn opaque, then dark, then black, then clear.   You can see the gorgeous orange-and-black coloration of the Monarch butterfly

clear chrysalis

When the chrysalis turns clear, a butterfly is about to be born. Photo by Monika Maeckle

waiting to be born through the shell.   To watch the butterfly eclose, or emerge, from this form warrants a toast of champagne or a sip of Bordeaux. It happens quickly, so don’t leave the scene if you’re hoping to catch the moment.

When the butterfly first hatches, its wings are soft and malleable.   The butterfly needs to hang vertically so its wings can take shape and firm up.  After about two hours, the butterfly’s wings have dropped completely and are fully formed, ready for first flight.  When you see the butterfly start to beat its wings slowly, as if it’s revving up its engines, its time to take her outside and send her on her way.

Newborn Monarch butterfly

Newborn Monarch butterfly: almost ready for flight.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

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

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