Hundreds of Monarch butterflies paused in the Texas Hill Country this weekend as winds from the south and temperatures in the 90s prevented the migrating insects from continuing their journey south.
Most late season nectar plants had passed their peak, with much of the Frostweed, Verbesina virginica, and Goldenrod, Solidago altissima, two late season nectar favorites, starting to go to seed. Cowpen daisies, Verbesina enceliodes, situated in shady spots produced lush, new blooms, offering the stymied flyers a fuel stop.
On the river banks, Swamp milkweed, Asclepius incarnata, host plant for Monarchs and Queens, showed fresh foliage for late season caterpillars, providing plenty of host plant for those Monarchs who chose to ditch the migration and reproduce locally.
David Berman, PhD candidate in the integrative biology program at Oklahoma State University, made the second of three scheduled visits to the ranch this weekend.
Berman is gathering data for a study funded by the Texas State Comptroller’s Office and other organizations, looking at the impacts of parasitoids and fifth generation Monarch butterflies on the migrating Monarch population.
In the back of his white Durango, Berman carried an entire ice chest filled with dead Monarch and Queen caterpillars collected in Texas and infected with Tachinid flies. The gross fly has a science fiction-like life cycle: it deposits its eggs on Monarchs and other caterpillars, which then hatch inside the caterpillar and eat it from the inside out.
Here along the Llano, known as the “last wild river” in Texas, dozens of Monarch butterfly caterpillars in all stages of development —eggs, caterpillars and adult butterflies in migrating mode—supplied plenty of data for his study.
“I’d have to agree with Dr. Chip Taylor that the migration will be late and long this year,” said Berman.
A small tagging team attempted to net the smaller-than-usual clusters of six-10 butterflies we usually encounter during peak Monarch season.
High temperatures in the low nineties and winds out of the south gusting at 29 mph thwarted the butterflies directional flight south. They also seemed more skittish than usual, clinging to pecan limbs close to the limestone escarpment that provides a scenic backdrop to our river bottom.
Every time they left a pecan limb or cedar branch to continue their travels, a rush of wind would push them back. The wind made netting the creatures more challenging than usual, as the slightest pivot of the Monarch’s wings or body would allow them to take a dramatic turn and avert our swoops. A full day on the river only netted 58 tagged, compared to three times that many last year.
As the sun set on a mid October day that called for shorts and t-shirts instead of the usual jeans and long sleeves, we all wondered: is this the new normal? Rather than dramatic dense clusters of hundreds or thousands of butterflies roosting a few nights as in peak seasons past, maybe we’ll be seeing smaller groups over many weeks.
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A male Monarch butterfly, tag number WMX658, paused Saturday morning October 1 around 11 AM on a fresh Frostweed bloom along the Llano River. Netted and retrieved, the faded Monarch was photographed, then released to set sail for his flight to Mexico.
Thanks to the miracles of social media and the tight-knit Monarch butterfly community, it soon became apparent that Mr. WMX658 was tagged at the Tishomingo National Wildlife Refuge in southern Oklahoma on September 22 about 10:30 AM by Justin Roach, wildlife biologist for the US Fish and Wildlife Service refuge there.
Roach said by phone that WMX658 was one of 15 butterflies tagged that day. About 350 miles later, I netted the butterfly in Kimble County near London, Texas.
That means WMX658 traveled about 44 miles per day, an impressive clip, to reach our nectar patch along the Llano. Hopefully, he’ll have fueled up enough in Texas to carry him the remaining 920 miles to the overwintering roosts in Mexico.
“It seems the migration is more consistent this year than I’ve ever seen. Every day there’s been a few,” said Roach, who usually tags between 100-200 butterflies annually. The day WMX658 was tagged, butterflies were nectaring on Smartweed, a member of the Polygonum family. Roach said a school outing was planned for that Thursday, but somehow the kids couldn’t make it so he just tagged with staff.
Having tagged about 1,000 Monarchs since 1997, Roach has had two recoveries in Mexico, where the butterflies are typically found on the forest floor after having made the full trip to Michoacán. This was the first time someone found a Monarch he had tagged and reported it live.
It was a first for me as well. In 11 years of tagging more than 3,000 Monarch butterflies with 29 recoveries, I had never netted a Monarch tagged elsewhere.
Our Oklahoma Monarch was just one of about two dozen spotted and 11 tagged on the Llano this weekend–all males. Just a week prior, on September 26, more than five inches of rain fell in the Texas Hill Country and parts of South Texas. The storm system left the landscape thoroughly drenched and primed for sustaining late season blooms for peak migration visitors later this month.
Many Swamp milkweed stands, Asclepius incarnata, that exhibited packs of aphids, milkweed beetles and bugs just two weeks ago, were now washed clean, losing lower milkweed leaves to “drowning” by water levels that rose 4 – 6 feet. Seedpods have replaced the pink flowers while other late season bloomers drew literally thousands of butterflies.
--all photos by Monika Maeckle
Frostweed, Verbesina virginica, was a favorite draw for Queens, Spangled, Gulf and other fritillaries, Giant, Pipevine and Eastern Swallowtails, skippers, snouts, sulphurs–everyone swarmed to the nectar fest that the recent weather pattern has made possible. And the wilted, yellowed, washed out milkweed leaves didn’t stop Monarchs and Queens from laying their eggs on remaining healthy foliage. At least one more hatch will occur before peak migration arrives the last two weeks of October.
The snout-nosed butterfly invasion that hit us two weeks ago seems to bode well for butterflies in general. While the snouts were not quite as obvious this weekend at the ranch, they made a repeat–even exaggerated appearance in San Antonio midweek.
The small, orange-and-black brushfooted butterflies made headlines in early September because of their staggering presence. Just last Thursday, on September 29, literally millions of the small orange and black flyers filled the skies of downtown San Antonio, clogging car grills, spattering windshields, and confusing many who thought they were Monarchs.
“I looked outside and it was like a butterfly highway,” said Rebecca Guererro, a stylist at Mint Salon in downtown San Antonio on Thursday.
Monarchs have begun showing up in steady trickles in these parts just in the last week. The storied migrants were pushed south by a recent cold front and the dry-wet weather has set the stage for a bounty of nectar.
A kayak tour of the Llano revealed no caterpillars this trip, although plenty of Queen and Monarch eggs were present on the mud-coated Swamp milkweeds that bowed to the floodwaters which rose about six feet.
Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch issued a migration update on September 26 predicting a late migration this year.
“A while back I pointed out the probability that the migration would be late and long this year. That is likely to be the case,” said Taylor, pointing to hot weather as the cause. “Last week was a scorcher through much of the midwest with temperatures in the 90s and high-80s over a broad area. The migration advances slowly, if at all, under these conditions. The ideal temperatures for the migrants are in the 70s and 60s,” he said.
The Journey North website reported streams of Monarchs heading south through the central and eastern flyways. The site attributed the movement to a cold front that “dropped down from the north and finally ended the unseasonably hot weather — with associated south winds — that have been holding the butterflies back,” wrote Elizabeth Howard, founder of Journey North, in last week’s Thursday migration newsletter. Howard cited peak flights along the ridges of the Appalachian Mountains over the weekend as “the first strong pulse in the Eastern Flyway.”
There’s a new Monarch Butterfly Champion City in the Lone Star State: McAllen.
For the past 10 months, San Antonio ranked as the only National Wildlife Federation (NWF) Monarch Butterfly Champion City. San Antonio Mayor Taylor signed the NWF’s Mayor’s Monarch Pledge last December, committing to all 24 action items recommended in the national campaign to encourage mayors and local governments to increase Monarch butterfly and pollinator habitat.
But that unique status is now behind us. Last week, McAllen Mayor Jim Darling, citing San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor as “an inspiration,” became the second mayor in the country to step up to the plate and make pollinators a hometown priority.
Darling made the announcement at the September McAllen City Commission Meeting. Darling also declared Sept. 12 “Mayor’s Monarch Pledge Day in the City of McAllen.”
“Mayor Darling has made a major commitment to help save this iconic, declining species in a city that sits right in the middle of the Monarch butterflies’ migratory flyway,” said Patrick Fitzgerald, National Wildlife Federation senior director of community wildlife, in response to the news.
The Lower Rio Grande Valley’s McAllen-Edinburg-Mission triangle has long been a place with much wildlife diversity due to its location at the intersection of myriad ecosystems that host more than 300 species of butterflies and 520 species of birds.
Bird- and butterfly-viewing destinations such as Quinta Mazatlan in McAllen, the National Butterfly Center, the annual Texas Butterfly Festival in Mission, and the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in Hidalgo County draw nature lovers from all over. The City of McAllen attributes an annual $460 million in eco-tourism to its “natural beauty and sunny and temperate year-round climate,” according to a press release.
San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor welcomed McAllen to the elite club of NWF Monarch Champion Cites.
“Like us, McAllen obviously understands the significance of helping protect and promote our State Insect,” Taylor said. “I’d like to issue a challenge for all other mayors in Texas to sign the pledge and help make us the first Monarch Champion State in the U.S.”
In an email exchange, Darling gave special credit to Colleen Hook, director of Quinta Mazatlan, a McAllen wildlife sanctuary that promotes knowledge about birds, plants, and environmental stewardship in South Texas, for “leading the effort for the Mayor.” Hook became aware of the challenge through press coverage of San Antonio’s pledge, the Mayor’s office stated via email.
“We have a big responsibility in South Texas to enhance the migratory ‘Texas Funnel’ used by butterflies, birds and many other creatures of the land,” said Hook.
Hook refers to the remarkable “Texas funnel,”the passage through which Monarch butterflies migrate coming and going each spring and fall over multiple generations, moving from Mexico to Canada and back before settling into their roosts for the winter in the mountainous forests west of Mexico City.
“We welcome anybody else trying to help Monarchs,” said North American Butterfly Association President Jeffrey Glassberg, who also is founder of the National Butterfly Center (NBC) in Mission. The NBC was recently featured in a Texas Monthly article titled “Mission’s Quest to Become the Butterfly Capital of the World.”
Status as a Monarch Butterfly Champion City doesn’t come easy. Municipalities must agree to adopt all 24 specific actions suggested by the NWF to support the declining Monarch butterfly migration and other pollinator habitat.
Participation in the pledge requires at a minimum for Mayors to execute three of the 24 items; to be in the “leadership circle” they must commit to eight; to become a Monarch Champion, they must do all 24. Actions range from citizen science projects and installing a pollinator garden at City Hall or another highly visible public space, to hosting a butterfly festival and changing landscape ordinances and city mowing schedules.
Since the Mayor’s Monarch Pledge was launched in September of last year, 190 entities across North America have committed to create habitat and encourage their citizens to do the same.
In recent years, the Monarch butterfly migration has declined dramatically– by 80% from the 21-year average across North America. Scientists attribute the decline to habitat loss, the increase in genetically modified crops in their primary breeding zone in the Midwest, increased pesticide use, illegal logging in Mexico, and climate change.
In August of 2014, several organizations submitted a petition to list the Monarch butterfly as a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act. The petition is currently under review. In May of 2015, President Obama announced a National Pollinator Strategy that addressed not only the decline of Monarch butterflies, but the demise of bees. The 58-page document also committed the federal government to restore seven million acres of pollinator habitat over the next five years, with a special focus on the IH-35 corridor.
Monarch butterflies are heading our way, but their numbers are likely to be down this year. Climate change–combined with habitat loss and other threats–dealt a heavy blow to the population, which enjoyed a celebrated threefold increase last fall.
The weekend of March 8-9 proved to be a deadly setback for Monarchs. Just as they were heading to Texas from their winter roosts in Michoacán to create the first generation of 2016, a freak ice storm hit the forest where they overwinter. The frigid wind and weather killed an estimated 6.2 million butterflies–about 7.4 percent of the 84 million roosting there, Mexico’s attorney general for environmental protection Alejandro Del Mazo told the Associated Press this week.
Even worse, the storm destroyed 133 acres of the Oyamel fir forest which serves as the Monarchs’ winter home as well as habitat to hundreds of species of birds, mammals, vascular plants and mushrooms. That lost canopy will take years, perhaps decades, to recover. And its service as a protective, insulating blanket for the Monarchs and other wildlife may be gone forever.
The iconic insects make one of the most remarkable annual migrations on the planet, traveling up to 2,800 miles from Mexico through the United States to Canada and back over multiple generations.
Their journey starts in March where they spend the winter in the Oyamel fir forests. After a cue from the sun, they head to Texas where they lay their first generation of eggs on milkweed plants—the only plant they use to breed. Those eggs hatch into caterpillars who grow into butterflies that continue the cycle over the summer, with fourth or fifth generation butterflies returning to Mexico in the fall to overwinter–having never been to the specific roosting site where their ancestors launched the journey. The following spring, those butterflies begin the cycle anew.
According to a brief released by the World Wildlife Fund on August 23, the protected forest lost to the March sleet storm was four times that destroyed by illegal logging last year. Here’s the breakdown: of the 179 acres of forest lost in the last year in the core zone of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, 29.5 acres were destroyed by illegal logging, 133 acres by wind-fallen trees during the storm, and 16 acres by drought.
Experts agree that the ice storm got the season off to a bad start. Those of us who follow Monarchs noticed far fewer this spring, as the depleted population made its way north. We hoped they would recover in the summer breeding grounds.
“Normally I collect eggs in the spring and I was down about 65% percent over seasons’ past,” said Cathy Downs, Education Outreach specialist for Monarch Watch, the University of Kansas at Lawrence-based organization that runs the citizen science tagging program that tracks the migrating butterflies. Downs operates out of Comfort, Texas, just outside San Antonio. “I would definitely say this was a really, really down spring.”
Further up the migratory path, social media posts from the summer breeding grounds bemoaned the general lack of Monarch butterflies.
“I only saw one Monarch a week ago up at Illinois Beach State Park, while we were walking the dunes, clearing them of white sweet clover,” Kathleen Garness of Forest Park, Illinois wrote to the DPLEX list June 20, an email list that reaches about 800 Monarch butterfly enthusiasts, scientists and citizen scientists.
Tony Kowall of Park Ridge, Illinois, agreed. “We really miss seeing and raising the Monarchs…. It is quite distressing to think how badly the population must of have hit with the storm earlier this year. Last year we raised 200 Monarchs.”
And this from Fred Kaluza in Detroit on the same email string: “Countryside looks like late July. Lots of uneaten milkweed. No Monarchs seen.”
Teresa Bailey, who lives north of Kansas City, Missouri, posted June 14 on Facebook: “I still haven’t seen any Monarch butterflies yet. My common milkweed has grown six feet tall. Still no butterflies. I’m concerned. They should have been here a while ago.”
Everyone’s worst suspicions were confirmed when Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, issued his annual summer Monarch population status bulletin.
“All the data to this point in time suggest that this year will be a repeat of 2014 with a significant decline in the migration and the overwintering numbers,” wrote Taylor in July, citing below normal first-of-season sightings and the ice storm. “We will never have a comprehensive assessment of the impact of this weather event but it does appear to have been significant,” wrote Taylor, noting that some scientists were suggesting 50% of Monarchs had perished in the storm.
Despite that sad turnaround from a tripling of the population last fall, the migration is underway. “Sightings of southbound Monarchs, intense nectaring, and the first overnight roosts are being reported,” read the headline in this week’s bulletin by Journey North, which tracks Monarch butterflies and other migrating creatures.
With all the press Monarch butterflies have been getting this year, we have never been better prepared to welcome them as they move through our landscapes and gardens. In the past 18 months, millions of dollars in research has been earmarked for mIlkweed and nectar plant restoration programs, Monarch and pollinator education efforts, and general awareness of the important role Monarchs and other pollinators play in our ecosystem food web. Awareness across the Americas has never been higher.
That said, climate change will have the last word on how many Monarch butterflies will make the trip this year.
Want to be sure to see Monarchs this fall? Join us October 22 during peak Monarch migration week in San Antoino at the Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival at the Pearl. Events are FREE.
Mark your calendars, butterfly and pollinator fans. San Antonio’s Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival at Pearl will take place October 20 – 22 this fall during peak Monarch butterfly migration week. Join us for three fun days of events to celebrate the majesty and magic of Monarch butterflies and other pollinators.Thursday, Oct. 20th, 6 PM – 8 PM: Buen Viaje, Mariposa Monarca! at the Instituto Cultural Mexicano in HemisFair Park. FREE ADMISSION. Mexican artist Ignacio Arcas presents “Buen Viaje, Mariposa Monarca!,” a nature photography exhibit of Monarchs’ roosting sites in Michoacán, Mexico. Arcas will be present to discuss his artwork, and Mexican forester and symposium panelist Dr. Cuauhtémoc Saenz Romero from Michoacán will join us to chat with the audience about the Monarch migration.
Textile designer Pineda-Covalín will present a collection of their Monarch butterfly inspired wares, and an installation by artist David J. Romero replicating the Monarch butterfly roosting sites will welcome guests to the Instituto.
Sponsored by the Instituto Cultural Mexicano and Texas Butterfly Ranch
Friday, October 21st, 6 PM – 8 PM: Climate Change and the Monarch Butterfly Migration Symposium at the Pearl Studio. $10; LIMITED SEATING. Tickets are now on sale here.
Dan Goodgame, VP of Corporate Communications for Rackspace, will moderate a timely discussion with the distinguished panelists listed below.
Dr. Cuauhtémoc Saenz Romero, a forester from Michoacán, Mexico, who proposes moving the Monarchs’ roosting sites higher up the mountain to save them from the impacts of climate change.
Catalina Trail “discovered” the Monarch roosting sites in Michoacán, Mexico after years of searching as a citizen scientist. Trail, from Morelia, graced the cover of National Geographic Magazine in 1976 as a 25-year-old mexicana. She and her then husband Kenneth Brugger led scientists to the site where the Monarchs roost, and the news rocked the butterfly world. She currently lives in Austin.
UPDATE: Catalina Trail will not be able to attend due to health matters. Monika Maeckle, founder of the Texas Butterfly Ranch, will take her place as a panelist at the symposium.
Dr. Katharine Hayhoe is an evangelical Christian, climate change expert, and the director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. She holds a Ph.D in atmospheric science and coauthored the book A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions with her husband, Andrew Farley.
Cathy Downs, a conservation specialist for Monarch Watch based in Comfort, Texas, teaches hundreds of children and adults each year about the magic and science of the Monarch butterfly migration.
Dan Goodgame, moderator, is vice-president for executive communications at Rackspace, a global leader in cloud computing. A Pulitzer Prize finalist and best-selling author, Goodgame describes himself as a “recovering journalist.” He worked as a top editor at TIME and FORTUNE, a White House correspondent, and a foreign correspondent in the Middle East and Europe.
Sponsored by the Pearl, Trinity University, HEB, San Antonio River Authority, Rivard Report, Hispanic Chamber and Texas Butterfly Ranch.
Join us as we honor Monarchs and other pollinators everywhere. The People for Pollinators Parade, lead by San Antonio’s Pedaling Pollinators and Earn-A-Bike Coop, kicks off the festivities at 9:30 AM with custom built bikes that resemble butterflies. COSTUMES ENCOURAGED.
Two Monarch butterfly releases will be held at 10:30AM and 12PM. Throughout the event, butterfly docents will hold demonstrations on How and Why to Tag a Monarch Butterfly.
The Pearl Farmer’s Market will include Monarch- and pollinator-themed food and drinks, Monarch Jeopardy, native plant sales and more.
Sponsored by the Pearl, Trinity University, HEB, San Antonio River Authority, Rivard Report, Hispanic Chamber and Texas Butterfly Ranch
Special thanks to our sponsors and to Mayor Ivy Taylor for signing the National Wildlife Federation Mayor’s Monarch Pledge.
SPONSORSHIPS are still available. Check back here for schedules and updates.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that Dr. Saenz Romero was proposing moving the forest 2,000 feet higher in elevation because climate change suggested the forest would not survive within 20 years.
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Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar announced Tuesday that Texas A&M University and Sam Houston State University will share about $500,000 in research funding to study the Monarch butterfly. That brings the total earmarked for researching America’s favorite
migrating insect by the Comptroller’s office to more than $800,000 in the Lone Star State, just since last June.
Texas A&M will receive $299,998 to evaluate the Monarch’s population status in Texas–specifically, the species’ lifecycle, migratory habits and the possible existence of overwintering populations. Dr. Robert Coulson, Entomologist and Director of the Knowledge Engineering Laboratory at A & M, will oversee the research, which he said will fuel the species status assessment required by US Fish and Wildlife as it gauges whether or not the Monarch should be listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Sam Houston State will receive $207,510 to research disease and pests that threaten the butterfly. Dr. Jerry Cook, Professor & Associate VicePresident for Research Entomology, will oversee the study.
Grant recipients submitted projects for consideration in response to a Request for Proposals (RFP) issued by the Comptroller’s office in February.
“Funding decisions were made based on recommendations by a non-biased evaluation committee with respect to the criteria detailed in the RFP,” a spokesperson for the Comptroller’s office said via email. After reviewing recommendations, the Comptroller’s office decided to contract with the two universities. Names of committee members were not made public.
The upcoming studies hope to build on research done by previous Comptroller’s office grant recipients.
Last June, the University of Texas at San Antonio received $300K to survey milkweeds across the state. In March of this year, Texas A&M – Commerce was awarded $10,141.04 to conduct a pilot study on how fire ants effect the Monarch life cycle.
All the attention is motivated by an August 2014 petition to list the Monarch butterfly as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
In Texas, the State Comptroller’s office oversees the Interagency Task Force on Economic Growth and Endangered Species. The Task Force works with landowners, industries, local communities and institutions to assess the economic impact of proposed ESA species listings in Texas. Research surrounding the ramifications of ESA listings are funded by annual $5 million appropriations approved by the Texas Legislature.
“If the butterfly is listed, many industries important to our state’s economy could be affected, from agriculture to land development to energy production,” said Hegar in a press release. “This crucial research will identify best practices for the voluntary protection of the species on private lands.”
The news comes on the heels of a court settlement also announced on July 5 that the USFWS, which rules on all endangered species listings, was awarded three more years to determine whether or not the Monarch butterfly should be listed. USFWS must issue a decision by June 30, 2019, as well as pay the legal bills of the Center for Biological Diversity and Center for Food Safety, the two environmental groups that launched the ESA petition in August 2014.
While USFWS was aware the Texas Comptrollers’ office was working to incorporate more universities into the Monarch research grant cycles, a spokesperson said the timing of the announcements was a coincedence. The recent ruling suggests that at least for the next three years, continued research grants will be focused on Monarch butterflies.
“We now know Fish and Wildlife Service will be making its decision whether or not to list the Monarch butterfly under the Endangered Species Act by June of 2019,” said Dr. Robert Gulley, director of economic growth and endangered species management for the Comptroller’s office. “We believe the research the Comptroller’s office has commissioned, which includes looking at the fifth generation of Monarchs in Texas and the fall migration, will be important in ensuring good science is available when that decision is made.”
Voting started slowly, but built to a crescendo of more than 400 likes, comments, tweets and clicks on behalf of your favorite Fiesta 2016 butterfly medal.
And the winner is…. SAWS, San Antonio Water System, the city’s public water utility.
Our local water saving warriors and sole suppliers of San Antonio’s H2O took first place in the Texas Butterfly Ranch poll to choose the BEST 2016 butterfly-themed Fiesta medal, garnering 229 of 440 votes cast.
The completely unscientific poll launched last Thursday. Votes were tallied from website and social media clicks, shares and comments.
In addition to hundreds of clicks and shares, the SAWS medal spawned more than 60 online comments. Several voters pointed out that the medal was the only one to include a caterpillar as well as flowers, thus better portraying the entire life cycle and the synergies that bind us.
“When I see the (SAWS) medal it makes me think of change, strength, and rebirth,” wrote Rachel Garza Carreon, who voted for the winner. “The caterpillar has to hope that as it changes into a butterfly it will work. There is always a danger of outside predators, etc. It is a journey we can all relate to. Change is scary, but you can come through it stronger than ever.”
That holistic reaction was exactly the desired effect, said Dana Nichols, SAWS Conservation Manager of Outdoor Programs, who helped design the medal. “We thought it was important to get the details right so we included the caterpillar and even the native Antelope horns milkweed,” said Nichols. “As with all of our GardenStyleSA.com information, we wanted our medal to be accurate, relevant, as well as remind us all of what it takes to see Monarchs in our area.”
The San Antonio River Authority, SARA, took second place. SARA’s medal featured a dramatic black ribbon, the Monarch’s orange-and-black color palette, with a butterfly and the SARA logo in the middle.
Voters had strong feelings about this medal, too. It generated dozens of comments like this one from Marilyn Rauch Cavicchia on Facebook: “I love this one so much. Simple and cool–and really makes the Monarch the star of the show.”
SARA spokesman Steven Schauer thanked all those who voted for SARA and congratulated SAWS for taking first place. “The real winner of this fun Fiesta medal competition is the Monarch butterfly and other pollinator species,” said Schauer.
CPS Energy‘s fancy gold Mariposa medal came in third, benefitting the Green Spaces Alliance, and the medal issued by Mayor Ivy Taylor, who is largely responsible for San Antonio’s newfound butterfly fixation, came in fourth.
The recent butterfly fascination can be attributed to raised awareness of pollinator decline, Monarch butterflies in particular. The iconic insects’ unique, captivating Pan American migration faces increasing obstacles as climate change, habitat destruction, abuse of pesticides and genetically modified crops challenge its future.
The bee collapse has also raised awareness of our insect friends’ huge contribution to making one of every three bites of food we eat possible. President Obama’s National Pollinator Strategy, issued in May 2015, has galvanized grass-roots advocacy in the last year, focusing grant monies and other funding to address threats to pollinators.
At the local level, our butterfly-friendly Mayor, who signed the National Wildlife Federation’s (NWF) Mayor’s Monarch Pledge in December, deserves much credit for making San Antonio the first and to date, ONLY Monarch Champion city in the country by agreeing to execute all 24 NWF’s recommended action items to increase pollinator habitat. Ever since, our city has gone a little butterfly crazy. Every department of the City has been tasked with doing something about pollinator decline–thus the crop of butterfly medals. That’s good news in our book.
Despite coming in last place, Mayor Taylor was gracious, congratulating SAWS for winning and the other butterfly medal issuers for promoting Monarch and pollinator awareness.
“Since signing the Mayor’s Monarch Pledge in December, it’s been such a pleasure watching the awareness and love of Monarchs spread,” said Mayor Taylor. “San Antonio is definitely doing its part to protect our state insect.”
Worth noting: butterfly Fiesta medals are not just for government entities. We learned from contest voters that at least two other butterfly medals were issued this year.
Leon Valley issued one with two colorful butterflies dancing above a Fiesta wreath and their tagline “deep roots, big ideas.” The Children’s Bereavement Center also issued a butterfly medal.
At least 1.5 million Monarch butterflies were hit with a deadly freeze this weekend as an unusual ice and wind storm moved through the mountains of Michoacán where the butterflies roost for the winter. The storm hit just as the spring migration was beginning. Luckily, many butterflies exited the mountains before the freeze arrived.
Exactly how many butterflies perished in the freeze remains uncertain. An Associated Press report sounded upbeat, with Mexican authorities stating that “Monarch butterflies that winter in the mountains west of Mexico City survived the severe cold snap that hit the area this week.”
But the Mexican news agency El Universal on Saturday quoted Homero Gómez González, president of the administrative council that oversees the El Rosario butterfly sanctuary, as saying that 1.5 Monarch butterflies froze to death–about 3% of the estimated 50 million roosting.
According to Gomez Gonazaléz, the recent freeze registered temperatures of -12 degrees Celsius (about 10 Fahrenheit). Other reports had winds raging up to 50 miles per hour, leaving 13 inches of snow on the ground in some areas and taking out dozens of trees. Those living in the area were without electricity for days and hundreds of lamb and sheep were lost.
“Historic snowfall at the El Rosario sanctuary,” read the headline of the el Rosario Facebook page on Thursday, March 10. “The Monarch butterfly suffers wind, snow, rain and sleet.” The post was accompanied by photos showing several inches of snow on the ground.
The news whipsawed those who follow Monarch butterfly news. Monarch fans had been celebrating the much-anticipated announcement in February that the population of the migrating orange-and-black insects had tripled since last year. Reports of the devastating freeze underscored the brutal reminder that Mother Nature is in charge.
Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of citizen science group Monarch Watch, which tags the butterflies during their fall migration, weighed in from Kansas.
“Information is still sketchy about the degree of butterfly mortality,” Dr. Taylor told the DPLEX list, an email listserv of about 800 butterfly aficionados.
“Most claims, observations and images suggest that mortality is low to moderate,” said Dr. Taylor. “There is no evidence to date to indicate levels of catastrophic mortality (70-80%) that followed the winter storms of 2002 and 2004.” he said, adding that it will take at least a week to get more accurate information on the number of butterflies lost.
Taylor also reminded readers that “a significant portion of the population had already left” the roosting sites prior to the storm.
Dr. Lincoln Brower, who has studied Monarchs his entire life and is one of a group who submitted a petition to have the butterflies listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, seemed less optimistic.
“The current statements that the Monarchs have survived the storm are premature,” wrote Dr. Brower via email in response to the Associated Press story. “I fear that optimistic assumptions are driving the news reports.”
Like Dr. Taylor, Brower cautioned that time will tell the accurate mortality counts.
“Based on our study of the 2002 storm, the butterflies that are killed or irreversibly damaged keep falling out of their clusters for days after the freezing event. Mortality counts need to be made at least a week after the storm.”
Area butterfly buffs will have a unique opportunity to see exotic butterflies up close and personal while learning about the Monarch butterfly migration at the San Antonio Zoo’s
first Monarch Fest March 4 – 6. The inaugural event celebrates San Antonio’s recent national status as the first and only Monarch Champion City, so designated by the National Wildlife Federation’s Mayor’s Monarch Pledge program.
Laurie Brown, Zoo volunteer services manager, along with Zoo staff and volunteers, have been preparing for the event for months. On the agenda for the 72-hour celebration: a native plant sale and seed giveaway, kid-friendly crafts and educational activities, and booths/displays by more than a dozen local pollinator advocacy organizations. The event is free with zoo admission.
But for an extra $1.50, visitors can also stroll through the Zoo’s butterfly house, an experience well worth the cost. Proceeds go 100% to conservation and education efforts, says Brown.
Inside the flight house, hundreds of exotic flyers like the Malabar Tree nymph, Idea malabarica, also known as the Paper Kite, will be on display in a natural, garden like setting. The wings of this gorgeous black-and-white butterfly, native to India and Southeast Asia, resemble rice paper with a Monarch-like painted glass pattern.
Interestingly, the Paper Kite’s host plant, Apocynaceae, belongs to the same plant family as the Monarch butterfly’s host plant–Asclepias (milkweeds). Both are members of the dogbane family. Is it a coincidence that the lovely wing pattern on these two butterflies from opposite sides of the world are similar?
Not really, says Brown. The Paper Kite and Monarch are distant relatives.
Also scheduled for appearances in the flight house: the Common banded Peacock, Papilio crino, sometimes called a Buddhist Heart, sports fluorescent wings can suggest blue or green, depending on the angle from which it is viewed.
Brown promises a couple dozen other exotics, a mix of local butterflies and a handful of amazing Atlas Moths, Atacus atlas, one of the most dramatic looking Lepidoptera. If you’ve never seen one of these impressive moths up close, you’re in for a treat.
These Saturnid moths rank as one of the 10 largest insects in the world and hail from Southeast Asia. Their wingspans can reach 12 inches and in Taiwan, empty Atlas moth cocoons, spun from sturdy Fagara silk, are used as purses.
“Some vacated cocoons don’t need to be deconstructed—they can be used ‘as found’ as small pocket-change purses by simply installing a zipper,” according to the educational magazine Mental Floss.
Hmm. New handbag trend?
Advance tickets are available online or you can buy them upon arrival. Hope to see you there!