When aphids suck the life from your milkweed, here’s how to safely get rid of them

The dreaded oleander aphids have arrived here and are trying to wreak havoc in my gardens. At a friend’s house today, I noticed that all of her milkweed is infested beyond hope….Are there any new ideas on how to deal with them? Thanks. –Jan LeVesque, Minneapolis

Jan LeVesque is not alone in her exasperation at the hands–rather, mouth parts–of plant sucking aphids.  Anyone who raises milkweed in an effort to attract Monarchs is familiar with the soft-bodied, squishy orange insects that seemingly take over anything in the Asclepias family.

Oleander aphids on Tropical milkweed

If you raise milkweed and Monarchs, you’re well acquainted with oleander aphids. Here they are on Tropical milkweed. Note the sticky, slick looking substance on the leaves. That’s honeydew. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Jan, like many before and after her, posted the above query on the Monarch Watch DPLEX list, an old school listserv that goes to hundreds of citizen and professional scientists and butterfly fans who follow the Monarch migration. And as usual, the community had plenty of ideas.

But before we explore how to kill them, let’s take a look at the interesting life cycle of these ubiquitous, annoying insects, known as oleander aphids, milkweed aphids, or by their Latin name, Aphis nerii.

First off, they are parthenogenic, which means they clone themselves and don’t require  mates to reproduce. In addition, the clones they produce are always female.  Yes, that’s right–all girls. “No boys allowed.”


All female aphid colonies undermine our milkweeds. Photo via University of Florida

According to the University of Florida’s Department of Entomology and Nematology “Featured Creatures” website, “The adult aphids are all female and males do not occur in the wild.”  Instead, the aphid moms deposit their all-female nymph broods on the stalks of our milkweed plants.  That generation morphs four more times until they grow up to become aphid moms who repeat the process.

Even more interesting, under normal conditions, adult female aphids do not sport wings, but get this: if conditions are crowded, or the plant is old and unappetizing (which happens as the summer progresses in our part of the world), the girls grow wings so they can fly away to greener pastures–or in this case, fresher milkweed. Aphids live 25 days and produce about 80 nymphs each.

This brilliantly efficient method of reproduction, says Featured Creatures, is one of the reasons “large colonies of oleander aphids…build quickly on infested plants.”

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Small populations of aphids are pretty harmless to the plants, but when you get a large colony, the milkweed suffers. The aphids insert their piercing mouthparts into the milkweed, literally sucking the life out of it as they enjoy the sweet liquid that courses through the plant. The high concentration of sugar in that liquid means the aphids have to eat a lot of it to get the protein they need.

That results in a profuse amount of excrement, called honeydew. It is prolific and forms a thin, sticky layer on the leaves of your milkweed, choking the absorption of essential nutrients.  It can also cause sooty mold, an ugly dark fungi that can cover your milkweed.

We have a fair amount of milkweed near the house and it’s been aphid free so far – except for one incarnata shoot on which a 3 inch long colony had formed with probably more than 500 aphids of all sizes. Not having mixed up any fancy aphid remedy and not having insecticidal soap, I looked under the sink for the handy spray bottle of 409. It wasn’t there – so, I grabbed the Windex instead. Last evening a quick inspection showed that all the aphids were blackened and dead. I checked again this morning and spotted one aphid. The plant seems unaffected by the treatment.  –-Dr. Chip Taylor, Founder of Monarch Watch

Once you have well-established infestation of aphids, the plant just goes downhill. The aphids themselves are also highly appetizing to Ladybugs, wasps and syrphid flies–all insects that eat aphids and Monarch or Queen eggs with equal abandon.

When I get a serious aphid infestation, I typically use a high pressure spray of water to blow the bugs off the plant. That simultaneously washes the honeydew off the milkweed, which will deter the arrival of ants and also clean the leaves so they can absorb sun, air, water and nutrients to fuel their growth.

My other method is to simply squish the aphids between my thumb and fingers and wipe them off the plant. Your thumb and fingers will turn bright gold, but will wash off.

Oleander aphids

A Ladybug’s favorite treat: aphids. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Some gardeners like to use alcohol or other additives with the water spray, but I prefer to keep that stuff off my plants.

As Dr. Karen Oberhauser of the University of Minnesota and founder of the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project wrote to the DPLEX list in July of 2015, “Detergent treatments will kill any live insects on aphid-infested plants, including Monarch eggs, Monarch larvae, and aphid predators like syrphid fly larvae, ladybug larvae, and lacewing larvae.”

Alas, even Dr. Oberhauser, who has decades of experience with aphids, admits “There is really no good way to kill aphids without killing everything else, except by trying to lower the population by carefully killing them by hand.”

If Monarch cats are not present, I spray with insecticidal soap and then rinse later with water hose. If that is ineffective, I move up to Neem oil and rinse it off also later. One and/or the other are very effective…. It is easy to go from 1 to 1,000s of aphids in a very short period of time.

— David Laderoute, Coordinator,  Missourians for Monarchs

Another option is biological control. Lady beetles or Ladybugs feed primarily on aphids. Somehow they seem to magically find their way to our milkweed gardens to feast on the yellow critters. Ladybugs can be purchased in bags at some garden centers and released to do their jobs.  But remember–they also eat butterfly eggs.

Hover flies and wasps also eat aphids. Wasps have a bizarre practice of laying their eggs on the aphids, then eating them from the inside out, leaving a brown shelled carcass in their wake. We often find these hollow corpses on our milkweed plants.

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

Pesticides will kill aphids, but they often remain in the plant for months and will also kill Monarch caterpillars. Photo by Sharon Sander

One good thing about aphids: if you see them on a plant in a nursery, you know the milkweed is clean, and has NOT been sprayed with systemic pesticides. We all want perfect looking plants, but the occasional aphid is a good sign that your plants are pure. See this post for more on that topic.

Need more ideas for getting rid of aphids?  Check out this useful post from The Monarch Butterfly Garden.  If you have new tips not covered here, please leave a comment below.  Good luck!

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That ain’t no Monarch: meet these OTHER caterpillars that feed on milkweed

More than any other, the caterpillars of Monarch butterflies are most closely associated with eating milkweed–anything in the Asclepias family. With their distinctive black, white and gold pin-striped suits and expressive dark tentacles reaching out into the universe, that’s no surprise.

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed

Monarch butterfly caterpillars are the most famous milkweed feeders. Photo by Monika Maeckle

They’re endearing, ubiquitous, easy to identify and we have a special relationship with them.

But there’s a at least three other caterpillars that eat milkweed for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Last week I noticed this fellow noshing on a pot of Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata. 

Garden striped caterpillar

That ain’t no Monarch. It’s a Striped garden caterpillar. Photo by Monika Maeckle

My first thought: “That ain’t no Monarch.”

Correct. It’s the Striped garden caterpillar, Trichordestra legitimata, which feasts not only on milkweed but other common garden greens–clover, goldenrod, yarrow, grasses and others. The Striped garden caterpillar turns into the rather nondescript Striped garden caterpillar moth, a grey, smallish creature with little black diamonds on his back. Check out these photos on Bugguide.net.

Here’s a better picture of the caterpillar, via Molly Jacobson.

Garden striped moth caterpillar

Molly Jacobson found this Striped  garden caterpillar crossing a path and resting on a dead leaf. Photo by Molly Jacobson

Dr. David L. Wagner, author of the useful Caterpillars of Eastern North America, describes the milkweed feeder on page 415 of his seminal guidebook as a “handsome brown and yellow striped caterpillar.” He recommends looking for them in grass seed heads but adds that he often finds them on the flowers of Goldenrod in the fall.

Perhaps even more handsome is the fluffy Milkweed Tussock Moth caterpillar, Eucaetes Egle. Like so many other insects that use milkweed as their primary food, this creature expresses the cardiac glycosides found in the latex of the milkweed plants with orange and black coloring.

This photo of at late instar Euchaetes Egle was taken at 12:17pm on October 20, 2007 in Glen Rose, TX. The caterpillar was spotted walking across a hiking trail in a wooded area.

This Tussock moth caterpillar was spotted in Glen Rose, Texas in 2007 walking across a hiking trail in a wooded area.  Photo by J. Scott Kelley  via Wikipedia.

The adult form of this moth, below, also displays orange and black on its body, as it peeks through the wings to alert predators–WARNING: I don’t taste good!

Dr. Wagner’s description of the interesting larvae: “densely hairy caterpillar with numerous black, orange (or yellow) and white tufts and lashes.”  Yes, “lashes.”

That’s what these hairy protrusions look like–almost colorful bristles on a soft toothbrush extending from the caterpillars body. According to Wagner, the species occurs in Texas and the Southwest, but I have never seen one.  Would love to, though.


Milkweed Tussock Moth, photo by Patrick Coin via Wikipedia.

A third milkweed fan, Cycnia inopinatus, also makes appearances now and then. Kip Kiphart, a trainer for Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project (MLMP) and volunteer at Cibolo Nature Center in Boerne, Texas, reports that the Cycnia pictured below was found in 2003 by Myrna Langford while checking milkweed on Laurel’s Ranch near Comfort, Texas.  The Cyncia is considered a first for the area.

UnkCaterpillar (1)

Cyncia inopinatus caterpillar. Another milkweed feeder. Photo by Kip Kiphart

Kiphart says Langford brought the caterpillar to a meeting, asking for help in identifying it. “Nobody had any idea what it was. I took it home, took photos, sent them to a number of people and nobody knew what it was,” said Kiphart. Eventually the Cyncia was identified.

It turns into the Unexpected Cyncia moth and feeds exclusively on milkweed. You can see the same orange-and-black expression of other milkweed consumers in the belly of the beast, below. The University of Minnesota, which oversees the MLMP, is seeking citizen science observations and documentation of the moth, which is considered rare and of conservation concern.

DSCN0003 (1)


Cyncia adult moth. Photos by Kip Kiphart

Judging from conversations with folks who work and play a lot with milkweed raising caterpillars and butterflies, these other milkweed eaters are not all that common.

Have you seen any of these other milkweed feeders?  Let us know.

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Texas Comptroller’s office provides update on Monarch butterfly research, ESA status

About 35 people attended the second Monarch Butterfly Task Force working group meeting in Austin on Thursday, December 17, to hear updates from the Texas State Comptroller’s office on the status of research and assessing whether or not to recommend the Monarch butterfly be listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.

Late season UTSA Monarch

UTSA is growing A LOT of milkweed. Here, late season Monarch, 12/8/2015 at the UTSA greenhouse. Photo courtesy UTSA.

In Texas, the Comptroller’s office oversees the Interagency Task Force on Economic Growth and Endangered Species. It’s charge: assist landowners, industries and local communities in working with endangered species issues and assessing their economic impact on the state.  Annual $5 million appropriations approved by the Texas Legislature fund the effort, lead by Dr. Robert Gulley of San Antonio.

Since the Monarch butterfly was submitted for consideration as a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act in August of 2014, research surrounding the ramifications of such a listing falls under the Task Force’s jurisdiction.

Dr. Gulley warmly welcomed the crowd with the prediction:  “I think we’re in for a very interesting meeting.”

And it was.  Dr. Janis Bush of the University of Texas at San Antonio kicked off the 9 AM session with updates on the $300K research grant awarded her in June to inventory milkweed, the Monarch butterfly host plant, in the state of Texas.

UTSA's Dr. Janis Bush is leading the $300K research grant. Courtesy photo

UTSA’s Dr. Janis Bush is leading the research. Courtesy photo

The Lone Star State has been deemed critically important to the health of the Monarch butterfly migration since the butterflies must pass through the “Texas funnel” coming and going on their epic migration to and from their roosting grounds in MIchoacán in the spring and fall.  Monarchs often lay the first generation of eggs in the multigeneration migration here; in autumn, they use Texas as a major nectar stop for fueling their long journey.

About 24 UTSA research associates, students and volunteers have already completed two milkweed surveys under Dr. Bush’s direction–one in July and another in October-November.   The study’s east-west transect stretches from PIneland to Ozona and the north-south from Wichita Falls to Alice.  Field crews stopped every 10 miles to survey the roadside for milkweed over several days. The research hopes to replicate the first such survey done by Dr. William Calvertt in 1996.

“This is just a snapshot in time” Bush said more than once.  She also mentioned that the “pattern between precipitation and milkweed is not clear….If you increase the amount of moisture in Austin, you don’t increase the number of hectares [of roosting Monarch butterflies} in Mexico.”

The UTSA team is also growing a lot of milkweed at a newly constructed UTSA greenhouse, said Bush–six native species as well as the controversial Monarch butterfly favorite, Asclepias curassavica, commonly known as Tropical milkweed.   The team aims to better understand what species Monarch butterflies prefer, seed viability and germination rates, soil, light and nutrient requirements, and drought tolerance.

Bush said she was surprised to learn that rats eat milkweed, something that butterfly breeders and Monarch butterfly enthusiasts have noticed for years.  Two different kinds of rats–a native cotton rat and nonnative Norwegian rat–made unwelcome visits to UTSA’s newly constructed milkweed greenhouse and decimated the plants.  “We don’t know if they got sick,” said Bush, alluding to the bitter-tasting cardiac glycosides found in milkweed that make Monarch butterflies unsavory to predators, “but they seem to like it.”

The UTSA research will also take a look at fire ant impacts on Monarchs and land management best practices.   For example, what effect does mowing have on milkweed?  How does milkweed respond to burning?  Bush also shared with the group San Antonio’s recently named status as the first and only Monarch Champion city by the National Wildlife Federation.  Mayor Ivy Taylor signed the NWF’s Mayor’s Monarch Pledge last week, making San Antonio the first city to adopt all 24 NWF recommended actions that aim to preserve and increase pollinator habitat.

“I’ve never seen the excitement for a species that I’ve seen with the Monarch,” said biologist Russell Castro of the USDA National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), following  Dr. Bush.  Castro described the NRCS Monarch Butterfly Habitat Development Project, which works with private landowners to increase pollinator habitat in Texas.  Budgeted for $4 million nationwide in 2016, “not that much money for Texas when you get down to it,” said Castro, “Monarch butterflies are the best thing going for conservation on the ground.”


ESA process

The process for getting a species listed is convoluted and takes years. Graphic via USFWS

Then Katie Latta, USFWS Monarch Outreach Specialist, took the podium to offer a quick update on the status of the Monarch’s endangered species status listing.

At the moment, we are in the status review phase, which means USFWS is reviewing information and research to determine whether or not the listing of the Monarch as “threatened” is warranted. At some time in 2017 or 2018, USFWS will rule whether the listing is warranted or not.  Lawsuits could delay the process further, or make the listing happen more quickly,  she said.

Finally, the session closed with Cary Dupuy of the Comptroller’s office explaining future funding opportunities and likely areas of research focus.

Sometime in early 2016, a Request for Proposal will be circulated and published in the Texas Register inviting public universities to apply for grants. (Gulley pointed out that the Comptroller’s office is not obliged to issue RFPs, but in the interest of transparency, is doing so.)  Subjects likely to be given serious consideration include best ways to eradicate red imported fire ants, as well as research on answering the intriguing question: “What’s going on with the fifth generation of Monarchs?” said Dupuy.

Got questions? Edith has the answers. In this case, this is one fertile female Monarch. Photo courtesy Edith Smith

Monarch butterfly laying eggs.   Apparently, lates season Monarchs ARE reproductive. Photo courtesy Edith Smith

For years scientists believed that Monarch butterflies migrating to Mexico late in the season were not reproductive.  Conventional wisdom said migrating Monarchs  suspended reproduction to conserve energy for the long flight to Mexico by assuming diapause, which is a state of suspended development of the reproductive organs.

Yet many of us have witnessed late season Monarchs engaging in reproduction as well  laying their eggs on any milkweeds they can find, often bearing fifth and sometimes sixth generation offspring well into November and sometimes December.

This information has been collected anecdotally and through various citizen science efforts, including the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project and Monarch Watch.  Dupuy suggested that scientific research would be helpful in determining the reality of the situation. Do the offspring of those late season Monarchs migrate, or do they become local residents?  With climate change and more milkweeds available later in the year, the question will become even more interesting.

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Guidance on milkweed management confuses butterfly gardeners

Confusion reigns for gardeners and Monarch butterfly enthusiasts trying to “do the right thing” managing their late season milkweed, the host plant of Monarch butterflies.

monarch laying eggs on swamp milkweed

Monarch laying eggs on Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, in downtown San Antonio November 15, 2015. Photo by Monika Mae

For the last few years, scientists like doctoral student Dara Satterfield and Dr. Sonia Altizer of the University of Georgia as well as renown Monarch scientist Dr. Lincoln Brower have recommended slashing Tropical milkweed, Aslcepias curassavica, to the ground late in the season.  Studies suggest that the year-round availability of Tropical milkweed makes Monarchs more prone to contracting Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, a debilitating protozoan parasite commonly known in Monarch butterfly circles as OE.

Until recently, Tropical milkweed, technically nonnative, has been the only host plant available for butterfly gardeners hoping to lure the migrating butterflies to their yards.  The reliable bloomer will thrive year-round in warmer and coastal climates, especially in Texas and Florida.  Scientists believe this year-round availability creates a hotbed of nasty OE spores and spreads the disease.  Its presence can also encourage Monarch butterflies to break their diapause–or temporarily suspended non reproductive state–and lay eggs, thus unable to complete their migration to Mexico.

No doubt about it: Monarch caterpillars LOVE Tropical milkweed. Photo taken 11/24/2015 by Monika Maeckle

No doubt about it: Monarch caterpillars LOVE Tropical milkweed. Photo taken 11/24/2015 by Monika Maeckle

But now, for the first time ever, native milkweeds are more available.  And judging from the government funding pouring in to milkweed cultivation and the valiant Monarch butterfly habitat conservation effort, even MORE milkweeds will be coming to market soon.  Gardeners will soon have choices beyond Tropical milkweed.

“Plant only species of milkweed that are native to your region, whenever possible.”

That’s what the Monarch Joint Venture OE Fact sheet advises pollinator gardeners like me and you.

We did that.  And like good stewards, we’ve been cutting Tropical milkweed to the ground late in the season.

But guess what?  Those native milkweeds, which have recently become available because of all the attention on Monarch habitat restoration, are thriving late in the season, too.

Egg on Texana

Egg found on Texana milkweed, Aslcepias texana, 11/19/2015. Not sure if it’s a Queen or monarch (and it hasn’t hatched yet.)  Photo by Monika Maeckle

In my yard right now, for example, I have

  • Asclepias texana, Texana milkweed
  • Asclepias incarnata, Swamp milkweed
  • Aslepias curassavica Tropical milkweed
  • Aslcepias tuberosa Butterfly weed
  • Asclepias oenotheroides, Zizotes milkweed
  • Matelea reticulata, Pearl Milkweed vine.

I sought out these various milkweeds at native plant sales, the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, from our family’s Llano River ranch.  I also traded seeds with other pollinator fans, friends and butterfly breeders. At this moment, all but those I’ve cut back (tuberosa and curassavica) still flaunt green foliage, days before Thanksgiving.

Should I cut these native milkweeds to the ground as well?

The theory of OE spores building up over the season, possibly infecting migrating Monarchs would seem to hold true for other milkweeds available late in the year, not just Tropical milkweed.


“You’re right that it’s less about the plant itself and more about the seasonality of the plant,” wrote Satterfield via email.  “Any plant that grows 365 days a year in the southern U.S. and supports Monarchs year-round could lead to high levels of disease, as we understand it.”

Swamp milkweed seed pod

Drawback to cutting back native milkweeds: we then can’t harvest the seedpods. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“My personal leaning is that if the species are native, they don’t need to be cut back on a regular basis,” said Dr. Altizer via email.  “Any natives that routinely remain in lush green foliage into the fall and winter are likely going to be rare species, or it will be a rare year when this happens, whereas with the Tropical milkweed, these commonly remain in green foliage until they are hit by a hard frost or cut back.”

Dr. Lincoln Brower, always the purist, suggests even cutting late season nectar plants back–if they are growing in close proximity to Tropical milkweed.

“I have given some thought to your question of whether nectar sources might accumulate OE spores,” wrote Dr. Brower via email.  “I think the answer to this is one of probability and proximity to curassavica [Tropical milkweed]. I think that nectar sources are so diverse and abundant in the natural environment that the probability of Monarchs infecting the plants with spores is very small. …unless the nectar plant is growing adjacent to curassavica. Again, yank it out.”

Confused?  You’re not the only one.

Mary Kennedy, volunteer at the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project

Mary Kennedy, volunteer at the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project

Mary Kennedy, a longtime Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project volunteer and trainer said she is no longer going to advise folks to cut back their Tropical milkweed. “If milkweed is on the ground late in the season, I don’t see why it makes any difference what species it is,” said Kennedy, a former science teacher. “Grow up kids, and make your own decisions.”

One drawback to cutting milkweeds back late in the season is that we then are unable to harvest the seeds. I cut back a patch of Swamp milkweed in August as it was riddled with aphids and gangly.  The plants failed to produce any more flowers; thus, no seeds have been harvested from that patch to propagate future native milkweeds.

Satterfield insisted that the scientists’ statements are “still correct and not mutually exclusive.”

Swamp milkweed in the "wild" of the Llano River, 11/21/2015. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Swamp milkweed in the “wild” of the Llano River, 11/21/2015. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“Our research suggests that milkweeds that support Monarch breeding year-round in the U.S. could put Monarchs at higher risk of disease. The milkweeds enabling these non-migratory Monarchs are exotic species, like Tropical milkweed and Family Jewels milkweed. We are not aware of any native species supporting large numbers of Monarch caterpillars during the winter in the Gulf states. So, we do not have any scientific support right now that says we should cut back native milkweeds.”

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Tropical Milkweed OK for Monarch Butterflies, “Just Cut the Dang Stuff Down”

“Can well-meaning people sometimes make things worse?”

That was the provocative subhead on an article by Dr. Jeffrey Glassberg, founder and president of  the North American Butterfly Association (NABA) in that organization’s most recent edition of American Butterflies Magazine.

Glassberg, who holds a PhD in biology, a law degree and credentials as an entrepreneur, author and butterfly advocate, challenged the recent scientific assertions made by Satterfield et al  that Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, is bad news for Monarch butterflies.

Tropical milkweed:  The debate continues.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Tropical milkweed: The debate continues. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Glassberg challenges the study’s claims about Tropical milkweed’s appropriateness in South Texas, where the North American Butterfly Center operates in Mission along the Texas-Mexico border.

Dara Satterfield

Dara Satterfield  Photo by Monika Maeckle

In case you missed it, Dara Satterfield, a PhD candidate at the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia, and her graduate advisor, Dr. Sonia Altizer, a disease ecologist at Georgia and one of the foremost experts on Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, a Monarch-centric spore driven disease known as OE, suggest in their research that sedentary winter-breeding butterflies are at increased risk of OE. They speculate that Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, the most widely available but technically nonnative milkweed and favorite host plant of the Monarch butterfly, may be damaging the Monarchs’ abilities to stay healthy, on track and make their way to Mexico.

Native to Central America and Mexico, Tropical milkweed grows well and sometimes year round in Texas and Florida.  Scientists worry that it might be confusing Monarchs, making them skip their migration and reproduce locally.  When they do that, spores from butterflies infected with OE build up on the plant and may transfer the disease to other caterpillars, chrysalises, and later, butterflies, resulting in crippling and even death.  Read the Tropical milkweed fact sheet.

Just to be clear:  Satterfield, et al DO NOT THINK TROPICAL MILKWEED IS EVIL.  In fact, they say exactly that in a statement issued by Monarch Joint Venture and shared via the DPlex, a listserv that reaches about 800 butterfly followers.

“Tropical milkweed itself is not ‘bad.’ (It provides larval food for Monarchs in many places where it occurs naturally, such as across the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central America.),” the scientists said in a statement released in January following the milkweed kerfuffle.

“The truth is that we don’t really know,” if butterflies infected with OE at winter-breeding locations will impact the Monarch population as a whole, the statement said.

So to be fair,  the scientists admit that much is still to be determined about the impact of Tropical milkweed on the Monarch butterfly population.   That’s why they suggest cutting Tropical milkweed to the ground over the fall and winter–so the OE spores can’t build up.

Glassberg takes the Satterfield et al. study to task, challenging the assertions with his own data fueled theories.

Monarchs and other milkweed feeders host on the evergreen Pineneedle milkweed in Arizona and have lower than average OE infection rates.  Courtesy photo via Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, Sally Wasorski

Monarchs and other milkweed feeders host on the evergreen Pineneedle milkweed in Arizona and have lower than average OE infection rates. Courtesy photo via Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, Sally Wasowski

Nonmigrating Monarch butterflies in Hawaii  and Arizona have lesser-than-average levels of OE infection, notes Glassberg, pointing out that some Monarchs overwinter and sustain themselves on evergreen milkweeds like Fringed twinevine and Pineneedle milkweed.

Such examples “suggest that the level of OE infection might not be as highly correlated with non-migratory behavior and that the presence of an evergreen supply of milkweeds doesn’t necessarily mean that OE levels will be high, as Satterfield et al. conclude,” he writes.

“Perhaps the higher levels of infection that Satterfield et al. found to be associated with Tropical milkweeds were due to temperature effects or other factors not intrinsic to Tropical milkweed,” Glassberg writes, suggesting that global warning and higher temperatures beg the question: what is a native plant, anyway?

Climate change is already making the range for Tropical milkweed creep north and “if and when that happens, wouldn’t it be a good thing for there to be extensive areas in the southern United States that might serve as reservoirs for Monarchs that would then be able to repopulate more northern areas, much as Painted Ladies and American Ladies do now?”

Hardiness zones redefined by USDA

In 2012, the USDA redefined hardiness zones in response to climate change.  San Antonio moved to Zone 9a from Zone 8b.  Will Tropical milkweed eventually rank as “native”?  Screengrab via USDA

When asked about the article, Satterfield responded by email that “We do plan to address why our paper rules out effects of temperature and geography and points to year-round milkweed as the source of the high levels of disease.”

Glassberg makes a lot of sense here.   His characterization of Tropical milkweed as a “life buoy” for Monarchs until the commercial market for native milkweeds can be developed holds great appeal.  In a recent webinar staged by US Fish and Wildlife Service  on creating Monarch butterfly habitat in the U.S., experts stated that it will take a minimum of five years to create a commercial market for native milkweeds.   That’s a long time for Monarchs to wait around for the perfect locavore food, especially when Tropical milkweed is already on the market, easy-to-grow and very affordable.

Troipcal milkweed:  "Life buoy" for Monarchs and other milkweed feeders until the native milkweeds are available.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Tropical milkweed: “Life buoy” for Monarchs and other milkweed feeders until the native milkweeds are available. Photo by Monika Maeckle

My approach in the garden includes Tropical milkweed as a foundation, natives preferred, but more challenging to grow.  And I’m not alone.  Plenty of us who follow Monarchs believe the Tropical milkweed debate is bloated and misguided.

Here’s what Edith Smith, one of the most seasoned, experienced and thoughtful commercial butterfly breeders on the planet and owner of Shady Oak Butterfly Farm in Florida, thinks about the focus on Tropical milkweed:   “…They’re so fussy about that plant. If only they’d stop to think, they’d realize that if a couple of treaties had been written a bit different and the southern border of our country had been drawn a hundred miles further south, Tropical milkweed WOULD be a U.S. native.  SHEESH!”

Edith Smith

Edith Smith, Shady Oak Butterfly Farm

She adds:  “As far as it being good/bad for Monarchs … let’s remove all the Tropical milkweed from Mexico and see what happens to the Monarch population in the US. That in itself should answer the question.”

Another Monarch expert suggested everyone just chill on the Tropical milkweed fixation, pointing out that a better investment of time, energy and money would be replenishing the million-plus acres of pollinator habitat lost each year.  Arguing about narrow strips of Tropical milkweed along the coastline constitutes a huge misplaced priority.

“Just cut the dang stuff down at the end of the season–maybe twice. We’re wasting too much time on this issue. There are bigger problems,” said the source.

Monarch caterpillars tropical milkweed

Monarch caterpillars on Tropical milkweed, April, 2015  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Even Catalina Trail, the woman who discovered the Monarch butterfly roosting sites in Mexico back in 1975, plants Tropical milkweed in her Austin garden.  “I would prefer to have native milkweeds in my yard, but they’re impossible to grow,” she said by phone.  “I have two Tropical milkweeds in my yard.”

This website has reported repeatedly on this topic and I am at peace with my stance:   Tropical milkweed fills a gap for Monarch butterflies. Just cut it back.

Both early and late in the season, Tropical milkweed is often the ONLY milkweed available for migrating Monarchs.   The eggs of the caterpillars pictured above were laid in late March and because of our cool spring, no native milkweed was up and out of the ground yet.   My Tropical milkweed from last year, which had been cut to the ground in December as per best practice, had plenty of fine, tender new leaves ready for the hungry critters when they arrived.

Had I not this Tropical milkweed in my yard, the migrating Monarch who laid the eggs that became today’s caterpillars in my yard would have had to keep flying, seeking milkweed that in this cool Texas spring was mostly absent until now.  Who knows where/if she would have found a place to lay her eggs before perishing?

Meanwhile, in the Fall, the only native milkweed I see is Swamp milkweed along the Llano River, and it’s usually in bad shape, ravaged by aphids and the summer heat.   Tropical milkweed is the only food available for late season caterpillars, and the lack of available caterpillar food often results in a caterpillar food emergency, with folks calling around town to friends and local nurseries to see if anyone has clean, chemical free milkweed available.   Some breeders and enthusiasts have taken to offering pumpkin, cucumbers and other “alternative fuels” for late season Monarchs.

Monarch caterpillars eating pumpkin

In the fifth instar, Monarch caterpillars will eat a variety of pumpkins. Photo by Ellen Reid

Making an issue about Tropical milkweed reminds me of the locavore food movement: idealistic, admirable, but now always practical.   The caterpillars have to eat.

Imagine you’re driving cross-country with your family and you and the kids find yourselves famished. Sure, you’d prefer to stop at a local diner where good food was whipped up from scratch from local organic ingredients, responsibly harvested, lovingly prepared, delicious, nutritious and affordable.

But that’s not always possible.   Sometimes you have to hit the drive-through of a fast-food joint because that’s all there is.  And that will get you to the next place.

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Let the Migration Begin: Milkweeds Sprout as Monarch Butterflies Arrive in Texas

Monarch butterflies left their roosts in Michoacán, Mexico, on March 24 in what appears to be their latest departure on record, citizen science organization Journey North reported this week.   “”Hundreds of Monarchs are flying over Angangueo—right now—with a clear direction northward!” the organization’s Michoacán-based correspondent Estela Moreno  relayed in their weekly migration newsletter.

Worn migrant Monarch

Migrant Monarch on verbena. Note how the tattered wings and faded color. Photo by Carol Clark

As is their fashion, the butterflies typically leave their roosts around the Spring Equinox and head north, making initial migratory stops in Texas.   Since the butterflies will ONLY lay their eggs on Asclepias species, that is, various milkweeds, conditions here determine  future generations’ success.   This year, with a late start following a wet, mild winter, they’ll find a bounty of wildflowers waiting and milkweed just beginning to sprout.

“I just returned from outdoors and checking my pots,” Carol Clark, a Monarch butterfly follower in Dallas relayed via email on Thursday.  “My large potted Asclepias viridis from last year finally has sprouts today–just in time.”

Monarch on lantana

Wildflowers besides milkweed like this native lantana are also important to Monarchs and other pollinators as nectar sources. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Mary Kennedy, a longtime volunteer for the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project (MLMP) here in San Antonio, provided this report: “I spotted the first milkweed in my yard day before yesterday. If I have 20 milkweed plants, see 10 monarchs, find 15 eggs, and see any of them make it to fifth instars without being eaten by fire ants, that will be a great year!”

Kip Kiphardt, MLMP volunteer in Boerne, offered that the first milkweeds were sprouting at the Cibolo Nature Center just outside San Antonio on March 28.  “Just came up,” he said.  And Chuck Patterson, from Driftwood, Texas, reported that Antelope Horns milkweed, Asclepias Asperula, was three – four inches tall in some locations.

Antelop Horns, Asclepias asperula

Milkweed in Driftwood, Texas was three-four-inches tall on March 28. Photo by Chuck Patterson

While Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, said it was too early to make predictions about the 2015 Monarch season, Austin entomologist and Austin Butterfly Forum president Mike Quinn reminded us that that cool weather in Texas usually benefits Monarchs. “This should be good news,” he said.  He explained that mild temps “slow down their larval predators and the exhaustion of their adult lipid reserves.”

If 2015 turns out to be a good year for the Monarch population or not remains to be seen. There’s no doubt, however, that this year will reap continued political tumult.

After their worst year in history followed by a 70% rebound in 2014, the butterflies have taken center stage in pollinator advocacy and habitat restoration circles in recent months. A petition submitted last August requesting they be listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act continues to be debated.  Strong reactions have resulted–from lawsuits by the National Resource Defense Council taking the EPA to task for dragging its feet on Monarch protection to admirable public-private partnerships like the $3.2 million in federal grants announced recently by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Here in Texas, the State Comptroller’s office recently announced the appointment of San Antonio water hero and endangered species expert Dr. Robert Gulley to head a task force that will assess the financial consequences of endangered species listings on the state.   The Monarch butterfly will be one of five species on which the task force will focus.

Swamp milkweed

Who’s winning? Soil grown Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, on the left. Hydroponic milkweed on the right. Photo by Monika Maeckle

In the meantime, scientists, citizen scientists, nature lovers and gardeners have all awakened to the fact that we can each help sustain the Monarch butterfly migration by planting clean, chemical-free, preferably native milkweeds. Asclepias as a native wildflower is considered undesireable by some, and not everyone agrees on the appropriateness of the Monarchs’ favorite, Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica. No one, however, contests the fact that pollinator habitat in the form of native and pocket prairies featuring appropriate indigenous plants must be made a priority.

Here at the Texas Butterfly Ranch, we’ve been experimenting with Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, with our friends at Local Sprout to assemble Monarch and milkweed kits for sale later this spring. Our friend Mitch Hagney and I have waged a contest to see who could get Swamp milkweed growing faster, better, soonest.  Scarified seeds were planted hydroponically by Hagney and in soil by me on February 10. Hard to say who’s winning the growth contest–you decide, see above.

Like many, as a safeguard, I have planted and overwintered the reliable Tropical milkweed.   Detractors have their concerns, but I’m a huge fan and provide the host plant in my downtown San Antonio garden.  Leaves are lush on those I overwintered, after slashing them to the ground in December as recommended.

Tropical milkweed

Tropical milkweed looking good, ready for Monarch butterfly eggs. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, Native Plant Society, San Antonio Botanical Garden and your local gardening and conservation organizations will be staging plant sales in the next few weeks.   These pop-up plant sales often feature the hard-to-find, coveted native milkweeds.   Keep an eye out for the sales and grab them while you can.  Like the Monarchs, we have to take what we can get.

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Late-but-Great Wildflowers to Greet Monarchs and other Pollinators

A banner wildflower season will greet Monarch butterflies when they begin their migratory trek north later this month. The slow soak of winter has set the stage for a late-but-great bloom season. According to Journey North, a citizen scientist organization which tracks the migrating insects, roosting Monarchs are unlikely to leave their roosts in the forests of  Michoacán until March 29, about two weeks behind schedule.

Monarchs in MIchoacaán

Monarchs are taking their time leaving their roosts in Michoacán. Photo via Journey North

That’s probably a good thing, since  the Monarchs’ host plant, milkweed, is JUST beginning to sprout in Texas.  Texas is the Monarchs’ first stop on their multi-generation, Pan-American migratory journey north and typically the first generation in the butterflies’  spring migration is born in the Lone Star State.

The Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center released its annual wildflower forecast last week, predicting a delayed start to a “stunning” season.


Won’t be long and bluebonnet stands like this one in Big Bend will dot the Texas Hill Country. Give it two weeks. Photo via Ladybird Johnson Wildfower Center

“It’s going to be good,” said horticulturist Andrea DeLong-Amaya, Senior Program Coordinator for the Center. DeLong-Amaya cited well-paced rains that benefit all wildflowers, especially annuals with shallow roots. Some plants will be “a teeny bit late, others right on time,” she said, adding “as soon we get some warm days with full sun, we’ll be cooking with gas.”

On a recent bike ride on San Antonio’s Mission Reach, bluebonnet rosettes were abundant but not quite showing. “At this point there are no large patches,” said Lee Marlowe, sustainable landscape superintendent at San Antonio River Authority (SARA), which manages the linear park. “We’re seeing some good bluebonnet stands that should be really nice, probably in April,” she said.

Over at the San Antonio Botanical Garden (SABOT), horticulturist Amanda Wielgosh also predicted a great wildflower season. She credited ideal precipitation and cool temps as reasons. “We’re already seeing a nice display of wildflowers here at the garden,” she said.

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“It’s looking absolutely spectacular,” out in Bandera County outside San Antonio, said botanist and horticulturist Charles Bartlett, president of Greenhaven Industries, a San Antonio landscaping company. Bartlett visited his ranch in Bandera County last week and reported fields of three-five acres of Indian paintbrush with grand stands of bluebonnets in the bud stage. He also mentioned that the Texas buckeyes in Medina County are gorgeous, but that milkweed is taking its time.

Both DeLong-Amaya and Marlowe reported that milkweed is not quite ready and a weekend HIll Country outing to the Llano River confirmed the laid-back growth pace of the Monarch’s host plant.

Monarch butterfly, recently hatched, readies for flight on mulch at the Museum Reach Milkweed patch. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch butterfly, recently hatched, readies for flight on mulch at the Museum Reach Milkweed patch. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“It’s still pretty early for milkweeds to come out–they don’t have a rosette in the spring like others, they just come up,” DeLong-Amaya said. At Cibolo Nature Center in Boerne, Ben Eldredge reported that no milkweeds were up yet, but plenty of nectar plants are available. Bartlett cited four-inch tall Antelope Horns, a Texas native milkweed found out in the campo, but mentioned it was just beginning to bud. The more refined atmosphere of the SABOT coaxed milkweeds to show early. SABOT’s Wielgosh said “a plethora of milkweed” will be ready for Monarchs when they arrive later this month.

Trimmed Tropical milkweed at the Milkweed Patch on the San Antonio River Museum Reach.  Not much flying--yet.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Trimmed Tropical milkweed at the Milkweed Patch on the San Antonio River Museum Reach. Not much flying–yet. Nice lantanas there on the sidewalk.Photo by Monika Maeckle

At the Milkweed Patch at San Antonio’s Museum Reach, a favorite gathering spot for Monarchs and other butterflies, the Tropical Milkweed stand got a trim this winter and has not fully recovered. Marlowe said the plant, while technically not native but a preferred host plant to Monarchs and other milkweed feeders, was cut back in February to stimulate healthy growth. A recent visit there found a freshly hatched local Monarch resting in the mulch getting ready for her first flight.

Bastard Cabbage

Damn you, bastard cabbage! This invader displaces wildflowers and other native vegetation. Photo courtesy SARA

One plant that’s pervasive but unwelcome is the ubiquitous “bastard cabbage.” You’ll see this yellow blooming member of the mustard family all over Central Texas and in select spots along the river. According to Dr. Kelly Lyons, a native grass and invasive species expert who teaches plant ecology at Trinity University, our warmer winters make plants like bastard cabbage flourish.  “As our climate gets more Mediterranean, we’ll see more of it,” she said.

Marlowe said she would even look the other way if someone yanked it out when strolling the river. Managing bastard cabbage continues to vex SARA’s landscape managers.

While the yellow blooms are attractive enough, don’t be fooled. This extremely aggressive invader can grow five feet tall and will take over and displace native vegetation.

As the sun comes out we’ll be in for the Big Bloom of 2015.  In the meantime, keep in mind that Texas is still in a drought.  Summer will be here soon enough, so enjoy the mild weather–and the wildflowers–while you can.

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Q & A: Dr. Lincoln Brower talks Ethics, Endangered Species, Milkweed and Monarchs

At 83, Dr. Lincoln P. Brower has studied Monarch butterflies longer than anyone on the planet. He first became enamored of butterflies as a five-year-old in New Jersey and later

Dr. Lincoln Brower--photo via Monarch Butterfly Fund

Dr. Lincoln Brower–photo via Monarch Butterfly Fund

by Monarchs when he learned they don’t taste good to predators. His famous  “Barfing Bluejay” photo, below, proved their unpleasant taste to predators and always gets a chuckle when I share it in presentations.

Brower followed his passion and turned his attention to Monarch biology as a grad student at Yale in 1954. He has visited the roosting sites in Mexico more than 50 times since his first trip in 1977–15 years BEFORE Dr. Chip Taylor, the other grandpa of the Monarch community, started the citizen scientist Monarch butterfly tagging program, Monarch Watch, in 1992.

So it’s no surprise that after a lifetime invested in the dramatic orange-and-black butterflies, Brower takes Monarchs personally. When he recently lent his name to the petition to list the Monarch butterfly as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), few people were surprised. NOTE: The period to join 306 others who have commented on the petition closes March 1, 2015.

Barfing Bluejay

Dr. Brower’s famous “Barfing Bluejay” photo of a bird wretching after eating Monarchs, proved Monarchs don’t tast good. Photo courtesy Dr. Lincoln Brower

Dr. Brower graced the Texas Butterfly Ranch with a visit back in October of 2011 when he toured the Texas Hill Country during the peak of the historic Texas drought.

The man is amazing. Tromping across the limestone watershed, butterfly net in hand, we tagged dozens of butterflies that day for a study he was doing.  Between net swoops, Brower taught me how to identify male from female Monarchs without having
to open up their wings, a trick I still use today.

Brower can be a purist.  He’s said that Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, should only be planted in a laboratory or controlled environment because it might spread disease in Monarchs–a directive he recently amended. Now he advises the Monarchs’ favorite host plant be planted no further north than Orlando, Florida. Brower also called the recent 70% increase in Monarch numbers “catastrophic.” “That change is trivial,” said Brower. “We were thinking it would be more than two hectares. What we need is up to five hectares.”

Monarch Butterfly Texas Team

Monarch Butterfly Dream Team: Kip Kiphart, Jenny Singleton, Dr. Lincoln Brower, Monika Maeckle, Mike Quinn

Since the petition was submitted, much attention has been focused on our favorite migrating insects, who’s “canary in the corn field” status makes them pollinator decline’s apt and timely poster child. Climate change, overzealous pesticide use, genetically modified crops and general human domination of the planet all play their role in challenging Monarch butterflies and the entire food web.

Awareness of these critical issues is fundamental to addressing them and the ESA petition has raised unprecedented awareness. Some of us may disagree that ESA status for Monarchs is the best tool for the job, but it’s impossible to not recognize how the petition has served to raise the profile of Monarch butterfly and pollinator decline. So thanks to Brower and the petitioners for creating needed drama.

We recently chatted with Dr. Brower, who currently serves as Distinguished Service Professor of Zoology Emeritus at the University of Florida and Research Professor of Biology at Sweet Briar College. The conversation migrated from email to phone and back. Here, in his words, is how he sees the current landscape.

Dr. Lincoln P. Brower at Sierra Chincua in 201?.  Photo by Medford Taylor, courtesy Dr. Lincoln Brower

Dr. Lincoln P. Brower at Sierra Chincua in 2007, one of more than 50 trips he’s made to the roosting sites. Photo by Medford Taylor, courtesy Dr. Lincoln Brower

Q. Recent events, including your participation in filing a petition to list the Monarch butterfly as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, have brought unprecedented attention to the decline of the Monarch butterfly migration.    Was this the honest intent of filing the petition–to bring attention to the situation rather than actually list it?  Or do you still believe that listing the insect as endangered is the appropriate approach to conservation?

Brower: Those involved in writing the petition had, I think, two goals:  One, to raise public and government awareness; and two, to generate funding of varied mitigation programs, private and public.

Q.  Do you still believe that listing the Monarch butterfly is the best option or have you changed your mind?

Brower: I did when I signed onto the petition and the evidence I have seen so far seems to be supporting that contention. I think we will have to wait and see what happens. It is possible that nothing we can do will preserve the Monarch’s migration and overwintering biology spectacle.

Catalina Trail, then known as Cathy Aguado, was the woman on the cover of National Geographic in 1976

Citizen scientists like Catalina Trail were instrumental in pieceing together the mysteries of the Monarch butterfly migration.

Q. If the Monarch becomes listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and milkweed and physical contact with Monarch butterflies will likely be controlled, do you share concerns about the disenfranchisement of the citizen scientists and Monarch butterfly enthusiasts that have for decades been instrumental in unraveling the mystery of their migration?

Brower:  Appendix B page 162 of the petition is worded in confusing legalese but states that citizen scientists’ participation and conservation efforts will not be restricted. I have recommended that the stated limit of ten butterflies per person be raised to 100.

Q. Recent studies link Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, to increases of OE in Monarchs. If other species of milkweed–Swamp or Common, for example–had been the species widely cultivated and made available commercially to gardeners, would we be having the same issues with those plants?

Brower: Curassavica likely would not normally have entered Texas from Mexico in the past or future even with global warming. It does not tolerate desert conditions in its natural geographic distribution. As I have stated elsewhere, I think it is a mistake to plant it north of the City of Orlando, Florida latitude in the US.

The recent paper by Satterfiled, et al, is relevant. Propagation of locally occurring native milkweeds and planting them widely in gardens along roads, etc., is what should be done.  The Monarch community needs to jump on this bandwagon and influence plant nurseries to do this for their sales. Bring everyone together to do the best we can to increase native milkweed habitat.

Got milkweed?

Tropical milkweed is technically not native but the most widely available species of Monarch host plant. Native milkweeds are best.

Q.  Is it at all arrogant of us, the human species, to insist that the Monarch migration continue as climate change, human impacts and other factors conspire to make it possible for Monarch butterflies to continue their life cycles and reproduce without migrating 3,000 miles? And if the need to migrate changes or no longer exists, who are we to say that it should continue? (I wonder what a Monarch butterfly would say if we gave them a choice of migrating or not?)

Brower: As we discussed at length, these are ethical questions. Should we try and preserve natural phenomena such as the Monarch migration? Analogously, should we try and save pandas, polar bears, endangered plants. etc.

Turn the question around: is it ethical to let these things go extinct when we have the ability to prevent that from happening? Are people the only creatures with a right to rich and natural lives on this planet?

You know my answer, it is dead wrong not to try to prevent loss of natural species and what they do from bacteria to humans. If rabies were to take over, the view of letting it be would mean the end of dogs. How can anyone even think that is tolerable. I feel the same way about the Monarch…In addition, preserving it is symbolically important:  it is the “canary in the corn field” telling us something very broad and serious is wrong with managing our planet.

Q:  Dr. Brower, I agree with you regarding species going extinct, however we are talking about the migration.  Few folks believe the Monarch butterfly will become extinct.  Do you make a distinction that some behaviours outlive their usefulness–such as, perhaps, the Monarch migration?

Brower: My colleagues and I have referred to the Monarch migration/overwintering behavior as an endangered biological phenomenon. My thesis above also applies exactly to this category of biodiversity.

Should we work to restore the bison migrations or just keep them in a few zoos and confined pastures? What about the bamboo forests of China: let them and the panda inhabitants be destroyed while keeping a few panda breeding programs going to make sure zoos are profitable? Bioethics again.

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Survey: Monarch Butterfly Enthusiasts Will Pay More for Clean, Chemical Free Milkweed

A Texas Butterfly Ranch survey conducted in late 2014 found that Monarch butterfly enthusiasts are willing to put extra money where their beloved Monarch caterpillars mouths are:  on clean, chemical-free (preferably native) milkweed.

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed

Got clean milkweed?   Great, we’ll pay more.   Is it native?  Yes, please–even better.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Are you listening, American nursery industry?   You can make more money if you grow milkweed without chemicals.  Make them native and you can likely charge another premium.

“Truthfully, I’ll pay anything to keep my cats safe!”

Our online poll of 363 respondents found that 96% responded “Yes” to the question:  “Would you pay more for “clean,” chemical-free milkweed that is raised organically, sustainably and locally?”


The survey, which ran in various online forums from September 24 through December 31, 2014, resulted from the annual angst that arrives with each fall migration.  Late in the season, when masses of Monarchs move through town and some lay eggs on local milkweed plants, those who hope to raise the caterpillars to the butterfly stage bring them inside for “fostering.” It’s not uncommon so late in the year for people to run out of milkweed for their hungry caterpillars.

This typically sends folks running to their local nursery to buy fresh host plant–most often Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, since that’s all that’s commercially available.  Typically, when asked the provenance of the milkweed, nursery staff tell milkweed buyers the plants have NOT been sprayed with pesticides.

“When my caterpillars are down to stems, I’m just happy to be able to get ‘clean and safe’ milkweed at almost any price….They will starve otherwise! I’ve bought ‘bad’ milkweed and lost thirty or more caterpillars… it was horrible.”

Yet, upon moving their Monarch larvae to the milkweed plants, the caterpillars perish within hours.   That’s because many commercial growers use systemic pesticides to keep the plants aphid-free before selling them to our local nurseries.  Often the local nursery staff is unaware that these pesticides have been sprayed on the plants.  Nor do they seem to know that the chemicals  remain active for months.

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

Always a bummer: dead Monarch caterpillars fall victim to pesticide laced milkweed.  Photo by Sharon Sanders

The syndrome has been dubbed by those of us who follow it Desperately Seeking Milkweed and has been well documented on this website as well as referenced in comments (some of which you’ll find throughout this post) in our recent milkweed survey.

So how much, exactly, are Monarch caterpillar foster parents willing to pay for clean, chemical free milkweed?

“I grow my own plants but when I run out of food I have to run to a garden center…I always ask, ‘have these plants been sprayed with insecticide?’ and the answer is always ‘No, ma’am.’ I buy the plants and my cats die when they eat it…very sad so I would definitely pay more to keep my babies alive!  🙂 “


About 48% said “it would depend” on the time of year and how badly they wanted/needed the plant.  Another 21% of respondents said they would pay $5 more, 5.5% said $4 more would be their limit, 10.5% said they would pay $3 more and 16.5% said they would pay $2 more.

The geographic diversity of the respondents played out like this:
Where do you live?Missing from the survey was a question asking whether or not buyers of milkweed prefer that NATIVE species in addition to chemical free and clean.  My bad.  Of the 183 comments, many expressed a desire for NATIVES.  Here’s a sampling of comments:

“NATIVE, clean milkweed please.”

“Prefer the non-tropical, if possible… Native Texas milkweed would be preferred.”

“Is there any place to buy native milkweed plants?”

“Native milkweed is hard to find in the nursery trade. I’m  rich, but I would pay a fair price.”

“What about native milkweed?”

The survey launched about a month after an August 26  petition to list the Monarch butterfly as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act made its way to the Department of the Interior. That petition is under a 12-month review and has provoked many discussions about the gross loss of native milkweeds in our landscape in addition to a lack of available native milkweeds in commercial nurseries.

Since, interest in native milkweeds has ballooned, bringing much needed attention to Monarch butterfly native habitat restoration in our fields, landscapes, gardens–even in our caterpillar nurseries in the late fall during the migration as well as in the spring.

So listen up, commercial growers.   Native milkweeds are in high demand and short supply.  A business opportunity awaits those who pounce.   The Texas Butterfly Ranch is exploring such a venture with our hydroponic partner, Local Sprout. Stay tuned for details.

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FINALLY! Monarch Butterfly News Spurs Extreme Interest in Native Milkweeds

Last week, the Mexican government announced the number of Monarch butterflies counted at the ancestral roosting sites in the oyamel forests of Michoacán, Mexico.

The population grew by almost 70% since last year–from 34 million butterflies occupying 1.65 acres (.67 hectares) in 2014 (the worst year in history) to 56.5 million butterflies occupying 2.79 acres (1.13 hectares) in 2015.

Good news:  Monarch butterfly numbers up.  Bad news:  numbers still dangerously low.  Graphic via Monarch Watch

Good news: Monarch butterfly numbers up. Bad news: numbers still dangerously low. Graphic via Monarch Watch

Good news, right?

That depends on where you sit.   Dr. Lincoln Brower, perhaps the person on the planet who has studied the Monarch butterfly migration longer than anyone, called the 69% increase  “catastrophic” in a phone interview.

Dr. Lincoln Brower--photo via Monarch Butterfly Fund

Dr. Lincoln Brower–photo via Monarch Butterfly Fund

“That change is trivial,” said Brower.  “We were thinking it would be more than two hectares. What we need is up to five hectares.”

George Kimbrell, senior attorney for the Center for Food Safety, said in a press release posted on that organization’s website that despite the increase, the Monarch population is still “severely jeopardized by milkweed loss in their summer breeding grounds due to increasing herbicide use on genetically engineered crops.”

Kimbrell’s organization, with the Center for Biological Diversity, the Xerces Society and Dr. Brower, filed a petition in August to list the Monarch butterfly as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.  The petition is currently under review.

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

If only we could all grow native milkweeds like this Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, found on the Llano River in the Texas Hill Country. Aphids come with the territory. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“Extremely vulnerable” is how Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of the citizen scientist Monarch tagging organization Monarch Watch, categorized the increase in a January 27 blogpost.   While population increase represents improvement, “Winter storms or poor conditions for breeding in the spring and summer could have a severe impact on a population of this size,” wrote Taylor.  He added that if we can get through the winter with no major storms “the long-range forecasts suggest that the population has a good chance of increasing again next year.”

So…numbers up slightly, but still dangerously low.   Bad news, right?


Well, not entirely.

Thanks to all the angst and attention, awareness of the decline of the Monarch butterfly migration has reached unprecedented heights.  And everyone–even the folks at Monsanto– seems to agree on one point:  habitat loss, specifically restoration of native milkweeds, must be addressed on a grand scale if we are to keep the migration from becoming a memory.

We couldn’t agree more.  This website has documented and addressed the dearth of native milkweed over the years, answering many questions from readers who want to do the right thing.  Where to get them?  Should one plant seeds or seedlings?  What are the best practices for getting native milkweeds to grow?

The problem is that it’s near impossible to find native milkweed plugs locally. The only milkweed plants available in commercial nurseries each spring is Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, which some scientists have suggested might increase diseases in Monarchs. (I don’t necessarily buy this theory.) To play it safe, best practice suggests cutting Tropical milkweed to the ground in the winter in warmer climates so nasty OE, Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, spores, which infect Monarchs and other milkweed feeding butterflies, can’t collect on old plants and infect migrating Monarch butterflies.

MIlkweed seeds

So many milkweeds. Which ones to plant, and how to do it? Photo by Monika Maeckle

That said, we would all prefer to plant native local species–IF we could find them. Native seeds are relatively available, but getting them to germinate can be tricky. As George Cates, chief seed wrangler at Native American Seed in Junction, Texas, once told me, Texas milkweeds “may not lend themselves to mass seed production.”  Personally, I have spent hundreds of dollars and many many hours spreading native milkweed seeds and homemade native milkweed seedballs at our Llano River Ranch.  In 10 years, only three–count ’em–Antelope Horns, Asclepias asperula, milkweed plants have taken root.

That brings us to plugs. I’ve tried those, too.   One year I finally coaxed some Antelope Horns seed to germinate after following these directions from the experts at Native American Seed, only to have the seedlings die once transplanted.

In response to a survey conducted by the Texas Butterfly Ranch in late 2014, we’re exploring the possibility of growing native Texas milkweed here in San Antonio with a hydroponic partner, Local Sprout.  We haven’t figured out all the details, but we’re working on growing Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, from seeds harvested on the banks of the Llano River.

Meanwhile, we challenge local nurseries and growers to rise to the challenge and make local, native chemical free milkweeds available for the spring migration as well as in the fall.

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