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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Mighty Monarch butterflies brave south winds, Hurricane Patricia to arrive in Mexico

Those of us who tag Monarch butterflies often compare the activity to fishing: you just never know what kind of day to expect.

Monarch cluster

South winds kept Monarchs in place the week of October 19. Cluster in Texas Hill Country. Photo by Jenny Singleton.

That pretty much describes this peak Monarch migration season. We anticipated a huge rebound with thousands of Monarchs gathering at their usual roosting spots along the streams and pecan groves of the Texas Hill Country.

Instead, upon entering the Texas funnel this season, the Monarchs veered west of their usual Hill Country trek. By Thursday of last week, they were arriving in Coahuila, Mexico, about 650 miles from their destination in Michoacán.  Then in a surprise twist, the migrating insects faced the prospect of a supposedly historic Category 5 Hurricane Patricia that delivered big worries, winds and rain–but ultimately fizzled fast.

Coahuila Monarchs

Journey North reported Monarchs arriving in Cuatrocienegas, Coahuila, Mexico on Thursday of last week. Photo via Journey North.

We had planned back-to-back tagging outings with a special group of butterfly enthusiasts to take advantage of the predicted peak migration weekends, October 16 and 23.  In August, 500 tags from Monarch Watch were ordered.  In mid October, nets were bleached and readied, picnics and campfires planned, and supplies secured.  In an overly optimistic move, I even retrieved unused tags from previous seasons–in the event that we ran out of our 2015 stash.

We knew that the major migratory wave had moved west of our Texas Hill Country because of more recent rains in that part of the state. One roost in Midland-Odessa hosted 20-25,000 Monarchs, according to Steve Schafersman, who posted to the Texas Butterfly Listserv on October 17. “Several experienced butterfly counters observed this concentration. The Monarchs were watched as they took off in great clouds when the temperature warmed,” he wrote on October 17.

Hurricane Patricia path

Thanks, Hurricane Patricia! You messed up our peak Monarch tagging weekend. Photo via

That same weekend, our tag team netted 137 tagged Monarchs–a small showing for peak migration week. Last year we tagged three times that many, and our record in 2008 was almost 500 in just a few hours.  We cancelled this past weekend’s outing because of the dramatic weather predictions that made the two-hour drive to the ranch appear a dangerous insanity.

As Hurricane Patricia approached Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, on Friday, October 23, Monarch butterfly social media and email lists ignited with concern.

“My heart was well and I felt so good that the Monarchs are about to reach their overwintering site,” wrote Michelle Nystrom of Minnesota on the DPLEX list, an email subscriber list of about 800 Monarch butterfly enthusiasts, scientists and citizen scientists.

Monarch on daisy

Prior to Hurricane Patricia, south winds in the Texas Hill Country made for great photos as Monarchs were held in place. Photo by Jenny Singleton

“Any news on how Hurricane Patricia is affecting the Monarchs?” asked Colleen Glass Smith on the Monarch Watch Facebook page.

Journey North, which tracks the migration in real-time with reports from citizen scientists from all over North America, posted this on October 23:

Many people are worried about the effect of Hurricane Patricia on the Monarch migration.
We don’t have any information at this time but we are in touch with people who will share what they know. We’ll be sure to include any news in next week’s monarch migration update.
The landfall for Hurricane Patricia is west of the monarch overwintering region; its path is predicted to stay to west and north of the region. By Sunday, the downgraded storm may reach the monarch migration pathway near Monterrey but presumably the winds will not be too strong by then.

“The bottom line–for the moment at least–is that there doesn’t appear to be any evidence that Monarchs have been adversely affected by the winds and rains that have accompanied Patricia,”  said Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch, answering repeated questions on the DPLEX list late Saturday.  “That said, Monarchs roosting in trees in areas

Monarchs Alpine

Monarchs filled the skies in Alpine, Texas October 21. Photo via Borderlands Research institute for nature Resource Management

with high winds and torrential rainfall, such as the four inches per hour reported for San Antonio, might well have been blown out of trees and drown.”

Our friend Jenny Singleton of Grapevine, who introduced me to the magical world of Monarch butterflies back in 2005 (thanks, Jenny!), was lucky enough to spend an entire peak migration week out in the Hill Country.  She left her ranch in Hext near Menard, Texas, on Friday, just as Hurricane Patricia made its approach to Mexico.  Her tally:  257 Monarchs–a fraction of her 2008 weekend record of 1200+.

“No rain right now,” Singleton texted me on Thursday.  “Kinda misty all AM….Still a strong southerly wind…they don’t want to be blown north so they just stay in the trees.  But they are very hard to catch.  Very wary and seem to see me way before I see them.”


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Monarch weekend 2015 slideshow photos by Nicolas Rivard and Monika   Maeckle.  Video by Nicolas Rivard.

Yep.  That sounds like what we encountered the prior weekend. One unusual observation: a Monarch butterfly puddling, or drinking, from a mud puddle along the Llano. Never seen Monarchs do that in Texas before–only Mexico ( see photo in slideshow). I can only imagine the creature was dehydrated.

Other than that, it was winds from the south, skittish butterflies, and glorious sunsets with the late fall light beaming across the river bottom. Totally lovely.

Our tagging team spanned multiple generations this year with our youngest tagger, Nola Garcia Hamilton, age 8, personally orchestrating a catch-and-release program that concluded our tagging adventure with a dramatic release on the Chigger Islands platform right as the Saturday night sun set.  Check out the video below.

Butterfly tagging teammates included: Victoria Echeverri, Allison Hu and Nicolas Bradshaw, Nicolas Rivard, Alexander Rivard, Nola Garcia Hamilton and her mom, Tracy Idell Hamilton of San Antonio; and Leyla Shams and Chris Gannon of Austin.  Also in attendance, canine partners Cocoa, Brisket, Porsche, Gus and Walter, as well as one five-week-old kitten, Snowflake.

Thanks to all for participating.  Next year, perhaps, a less volatile season.

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How to tag a Monarch butterfly in six easy steps

NOTE:  The following post ran in September of  2012, but warrants reposting today.  Happy tagging!

One of the most common questions we get at the Texas Butterfly Ranch is how the heck do you tag a Monarch butterfly?

Ready to tag some butterflies?

Ready to tag some butterflies?

It’s pretty straightforward, really.  You’ll need a butterfly net, a clipboard or mini notebook and a writing utensil to record your findings.   You’ll also need tags issued by Monarch Watch ($15 for 25 tags).    I recommend a hat and camera, too.

Before you go, apply sunscreen or insect spray if you use them, then wash your hands thoroughly.   Monarchs and other butterflies are more resilient than we think, however, Deet, Paba  and other chemical contact with their scales, wings and bodies should be avoided.  There’s no need to sterilize your hands or wear gloves.  Just wash your hands.

Monarch Watch tags and data sheets

You’ll need Monarch Watch tags and data sheets to tag Monarch butterflies. And a butterfly net.

When should you go tagging?  I like late mornings after my second cup of coffee.   By then, the butterflies have had a chance to warm up their bodies and are out flying and nectaring.  Remember, butterflies won’t fly if the temperature is less than 60 degrees, so late mornings and afternoons on sunny days are ideal.   Right before sunset is good, too, especially when they’re migrating.  In the Hill Country in October, masses of Monarch butterflies will often drop from the sky around dusk and look for roosting spots—usually in protected tree limbs and often near water sources.

Ready for some tagging?  Here’s how to do it.

  1. Locate butterfly

Millions of migrating Monarch butterflies will pass through the “Texas funnel” on their way to their ancestral roosts in Michoacan, Mexico, over the coming weeks and months.    According to Monarch Watch, peak migration for San Antonio and Austin will be October 2 – 22.

Frostweed is a fall favorite nectar source for Monarch butterflies.

Frostweed is a fall favorite nectar source for Monarch butterflies. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Typically, we see a first pulse of vanguard Monarchs around Labor Day in the Hill Country and in our San Antonio and Austin gardens.  In September we’ll consistently see individual Monarchs trickling through town.  By October, groups will show up and form evening roosts in trees and large bushes like Poverty Weed along our rivers and other protected locations.

The best places to see them are along our streams and rivers where late season blooms offer a nectar rich rest stop.  Monarchs fuel up on their journey south, so anywhere with late season butterfly-friendly flowers—native and Tropical milkweeds, Gregg’s Purple mistflower, Cowpen daisies, Frostweed, Goldenrod, lantana, for example—should draw them, as well as other butterflies.

Your own garden, if it has butterfly-friendly flowers blooming, should draw Monarch butterflies.  Look, observe, wait.   And be patient.  For some prime Monarch butterfly spotting, stop by the Milkweed Patch along the Museum Reach of the San Antonio River this fall.

2.  Net butterfly

Netting a Monarch butterfly—or any butterfly for that matter—is more challenging than it looks. The flitting creatures exhibit extreme skittishness and their compound eyes afford them a 360-degree field of vision. The slightest movement can send them sailing.

When I first started tagging Monarchs, I diligently chased them in flight. After slipping in the river more than once and skinning my knee after tripping down the steps at my house while in hot pursuit, I resolved to only try and net Monarchs when they’re roosting or nectaring. I’ve witnessed several ace netters with excellent hand-eye coordination, quick reflexes, and a sniper’s aim nab butterflies in flight, but I’m not among them.

Monarch nectaring on swamp milkweed

It’s easier to net Monarch butterflies when they’re nectaring. Sneak up on them from behind.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Suggestions:  wear low-key clothing that blends into the environment, move slowly, keep quiet and sneak up on them from behind.  Once you swing your net, the butterflies will scatter.  It resembles fishing in that sense;  when you cast your line, the fish get spooked and flee, but they’ll be back. After a few minutes, the butterflies will resume their activities—nectaring, resting or roosting.  Or they may fly out of your reach.

Once you get a butterfly in your net, be sure to flip the net sock over the circle of the rim—otherwise the clever insects can slip out.   With the net sock folded over the net structure, they will remain in your net.

Annie Schenzel demonstrates proper net technique

Annie Schenzel demonstrates proper net technique. See how the net sock is draped over the rim? No butterflies can escape.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

Some folks take the net down to the ground after they swoop the butterfly into the net to ensure the butterfly doesn’t escape.   This is especially helpful when you capture many at once.

3. Collect butterfly/butterflies from net

Once the butterfly or butterflies are in the net, gently reach in and clasp an individual in your cupped hand, wings folded together if possible.  (No insecticides or sunscreen on your hands, please.)  The butterflies will flail around in the net, so try to calm them by folding their wings closed and gently pressing the net fabric on them. Also, try holding the butterfly upside down;  it seems to calm them.

Keep the net closed so that other butterflies don’t fly out as you remove the one in your grasp, then pull out your catch and take a look.

Tracy Hamilton shows how to retrieve a Monarch from the net.

Tracy Hamilton shows how to retrieve a Monarch from the net.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

4.  Examine butterfly, establish its sex.

This is when you examine the butterfly to determine its sex.   Open the wings gently and look for the two pheromone sacs on the lower half of the butterfly’s wings.  If you see two black dots, it’s a male.  If not, it’s a female.   Also note the state of the butterfly—is it

Male Monarch Butterfly

Male Monarch Butterfly: it’s a boy! See the two black dots on the veins of his lower wings? Those are pheromone sacks–supposedly they drive the lady butterflies CRAZY.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

weathered and raggedy, or fresh and healthy?  If the butterfly is extremely worn out and highly unlikely to make it to Mexico, refrain from tagging it.  Let the poor creature fly off.  Note the info on your data sheet or notebook, as well as the tag number.

Raggedy Monarch butterfly

Raggedy Monarch butterfly. I don’t tag beat-up butterflies like this. Doubtful she’ll make it to Mexico. Plus, don’t want to waste tags.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

5.  Remove tag from sheet and adhere to butterfly

Holding the butterfly between two fingers with wings closed with one hand, remove a Monarch Watch sticker from the tag sheet.  I like to use my thumbnail and get them on the tip of my nail so they’re easy to slip onto the discal cell of the butterfly’s wing. Some people like to use a toothpick to lift the tag from the paper.

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

Use your thumbnail to lift tag from sheet and transfer to butterfly. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Place the tag on the discal cell, as illustrated in the tagging sheet sent to you by Monarch Watch.  Press gently, but firmly.  Congratulations!  You’ve tagged a Monarch butterfly.

Press the tag onto the discal cell in the middle of the lower wing, as shown.

Press the tag onto the discal cell in the middle of the lower wing, as shown. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Make sure you’ve noted the tag number, butterfly’s sex, any other useful data, on your data sheet or notebook.

6.  Release

Open your grasp and let the butterfly go.  If you’re so inclined, send her off with a kiss and best wishes for safe travels to Mexico.

Off she goes!

Off she goes!   Photo by Monka Maeckle

After the Monarch migration season, send all your data to Monarch Watch by December 1 so it can be entered into the online tag recovery database.   In the spring, you can check  to see if any of your Monarchs were recovered in Mexico.

Monarch butterfly recoveries

Of about 2400 Monarchs tagged, we’ve had 28 recoveries in Mexico.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

Good luck with your tagging.  Please let us know how it goes.

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Butterfly FAQ: How to move a Monarch butterfly chrysalis

One of the most frequently asked questions we get this time of year, especially in a rebound season like 2015, is how to move a Monarch chrysalis.

Janine Robin wrote via email last week that she found six Monarch chrysalises in her backyard in Folsom, Louisiana.  “Most are in a safe spot, but two are on a large clay pot. They are secure, but in the afternoon sun for about three hours.  Should they be moved?”

Monarchs on pot

Two Monarch caterpillars made their chrysalis on Janine Robin’s outdoor pot. Photo by Janine Robin

Good question.   That’s a judgement call.   Caterpillars are pretty intelligent about locating their chrysalises in safe places.  But like all of us, sometimes they misjudge.

For example, the Queen chrysalis pictured below formed on the edge of my kitchen door.

Queen chrysalis on door

Queen chrysalis on door. Not a good spot to hatch a butterfly. Photo by Monika Maeckle

I didn’t even notice until today (and I looked for her!) when I found a smashed newborn Queen caught in the door.  Sadly, she perished.

So if the chrysalis is in a dangerous or inopportune spot–or, if you just want to witness the magical moment of eclosure, when it hatches–then yes.  Move it.

The tricky part is often getting the chrysalis OFF of the surface to which it is attached without damaging the chrysalis itself.

You may have noticed that before caterpillars make their chrysalis, they are very still and quiet for about a day.  I like to think that they are deep in thought during this transformative stage.  It must take a lot of concentration and mindfulness to morph caterpillar legs into butterfly wings.

But what’s actually happening is they are spinning a vast silk web that you often don’t notice.  If you rub your finger on the surface around the stiff, black cremaster, which serves as a hook to hold the chrysalis in place, you’ll feel a thin, soft layer of silk.  That’s what you need to gather up to remove the chrysalis safely.  See the slide show below to learn how.

How do you know if the chrysalis is in a dangerous spot?

Newborn Monarch butterfly

Newborn Monarch butterfly will hang for about two hours before ready to fly. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Consider that the newly hatched butterfly will spend about two hours hanging from its empty chrysalis shell while it’s wet, crumpled wings drop and form properly. It’s advantageous for the butterfly in this delicate state to have something to climb on or cling to–a stick, netting, paper towel, leaves.

Winds blow. Animals or people walk by and brush up on the butterflies–possibly knocking them off. As Janine Robin wrote today, “Of the two chrysalises on the large clay pot, the lower one either fell off or was brushed off by an armadillo, possum or raccoon….I think it’s damaged.” Robin said she was able to reattach the cocoon with a spot of glue.

Also, if after hatching the butterflies fall and can’t climb back up (which seemingly could happen in the above pot and appears to be what happened with my Queen), their wings will dry crumpled and they will die. Having an easy-to-grab surface or twig/branch/leaf to grab would definitely help hoist heavy, damp wings in the event of a fall.

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                     All slide show photos by Monika Maeckle

For more on this subject, see our previous post: Is moving a Monarch chrysalis OK? Yes, and here’s how to do it.

Meanwhile, check out the slide show above to master the tricky task of getting a chrysalis off the surface to which it is attached.  Good luck, and let us know how it goes.

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Q & A: Catalina Trail, founder of the Monarch butterfly roosting sites

None of us who care about Monarch butterflies can ever forget the image of the beautiful, intrepid young woman busting through a wall of Monarch butterflies on the cover of the August 1976 National Geographic Magazine. “Discovered:  the Monarchs’ Mexican Haven,” read the headline.

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

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

The woman, Catalina Trail, known as Cathy Aguado at the time, lives in Austin, Texas. She and her husband Ken Brugger were the first westerners to “discover” the Monarch butterfly roosting sites.  Before meeting Trail, I would sometimes gaze at the cover photo and wonder:  Wow, who is she? What was she thinking? She’s so lucky.  

In the summer of 2012, I had the opportunity to meet Trail.  She reached out to me here at the Texas Butterfly Ranch.  I was astounded she lived 75 miles up the road from me and told her so.  Would she agree to an interview?   She did. Over several weeks, we met, talked by phone and corresponded by email.href=”” target=”_blank”>The untold story of her role in discovering the Monarch butterfly roosting sites posted on July 10, 2012.  We have stayed in touch.

For various reasons, Trail parked her interest in Monarchs and role in the discovery of their roosting grounds shortly after the news went public in the summer of 1976. “My priorities were elsewhere at the time,” she said, adding that she also was disappointed in how the story was being told.  But when the Canadian producers of Flight of the Butterflies tracked her down via private investigator to work as a consultant on the making of their IMAX film in early 2012, she felt the need to re-engage–perhaps to set the record straight.

Much has changed in the three years since.  The Monarch butterfly has attained status as the poster child for pollinators.  And Trail has become a Monarch butterfly celebrity.  Shy, thoughtful, soft-spoken and unassuming, she typically shuns the limelight but makes occasional appearances on behalf of Monarchs and pollinators.

A Butterfly Haven somewhere in Michoacan

The SK Film, Flight of the Butterflies, tapped Catalina Trail as a consultant.  –Photo courtesy SK Films

Trail will appear at the upcoming Pollinator Powwow in Kerrville this Sunday and will also be on hand at a FREE screening of the Flight of the Butterflies organized by the National Wildlife Federation at the Mexican American Cultural Center in Austin September 30.

Trail and I shared a bahn mi sandwich and caught up at a favorite Austin eatery recently.  Here’s what she had to say.

Q. How has your life changed since you “came out” as the person who discovered the Monarch butterfly roosting sites?  And what are the best and worst parts about your newfound fame?

Since it became known that I was instrumental in the discovery of The Monarch overwintering sites in Mexico, my life has changed only in that the discovery story has been told in a way that is closer to the truth.

I have been acknowledged by SK films of Canada with the release of the film Flight of the Butterflies, and, of course, Monika Maeckle who wrote the first article in this country about my role in the discovery of the Monarch Overwintering Sanctuaries.  Many more people have recognized my work in the discovery and that lead to receiving The 2012 Gold Medal Award “Jose Maria Luis Mora” presented to me by the government of The State of Mexico for “relevant and eminent merits and conduct of notable service to humanity, Mexico, and The State of Mexico” which lead to the conservation of the Monarch Butterfly.

Catalina Trail and Shaun Benson

Catalina Trail with Shaun Benson, the actor who played the role of her husband Ken Brugger in the IMAX movie Flight of the Butterflies. Photo by Catalina Trail

The best part of being recognized is meeting people, especially children, who are passionate about the life cycle of the Monarch Butterfly, their epic migration, and their fascinating behavior. Another important part is also being able to participate in the story and let the World know that in the early 1970’s in Rural Mexico a young woman was looking to the sky and was doing fantastic things. The worst things about being known are that people wonder where I was for 38 years and why I did not participate in Monarch conservation activities. I hope to answer those questions in the future.

A. Do you feel that your role in Monarch butterfly history has been fairly and accurately portrayed?

Since the beginning, my role in Monarch butterfly history was unfairly and inaccurately portrayed.  We’re getting closer. The current version is more accurate but so many decades have a way of eroding the truth.

3. What has been the most exciting/rewarding thing to come out of your debut as the woman who led the expedition to the roosting spots?

The most exciting and rewarding thing is the realization that the truth still matters and that we as human beings appear to have an inherent need for honesty and truth in all aspects of our lives. Of course, it is also rewarding to be placed back where I belong in the discovery story of the Monarch butterfly overwintering home and not be seen only as the young woman on the magazine cover.

4. You told me a few years ago that you were back at the roosting sites in 2012. Have you been since then? If so, what were your impressions? If not, why not, and do you have any desire to return there?

I have not been to the Monarch overwintering sites since 2012. Some of the reasons I have for not going to the Monarch overwintering sites are that my job and personal situation have not allow me the freedom to go.

Catalina Trail, January 2, 1975, the day she and Ken Brugger "discovered" the Monarch butterfly Overwintering Sites

Catalina Trail, January 2, 1975, the day she and Ken Brugger “discovered” the Monarch butterfly Overwintering Sites –Photo copyright Catalina Trail

My desire to return to the sites to see the Monarchs is so strong that it overwhelms me every year when I see them going south. I find myself talking to them like a fool and wishing aloud that I could take to the sky and fly with them to spend the winter in their amazing company.

5. What are you doing these days, and what would you like people to know about you that they don’t already know?

These days, I spend my time at home growing vegetables, reading, looking up to the heavens, and making my yard more attractive for pollinators. Since I quit my job, I joined a gardening club and I am also beginning to attend Monarch butterfly and or pollinator related events with hope of becoming more active in conservation efforts.

What I would like people to know about me is that I spend a lot of time thinking about and admiring life in general.  I choose to not consume any animal products due to my affection and empathy with their struggles for survival. More important, I want people to know that I have great admiration for the superior human intelligence–especially when it is coupled with the ability to respect and see oneself as no more or no less than the (lesser) creatures living with us on this beautiful earth.

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Monarch Butterfly Release “Better than any church service”

My 93-year-old father John Maeckle passed away August 2 after a long battle with dementia.  An avid hunter and fisherman, “Opa” disdained organized religion even more than politicians and preferred Sundays at the deer lease or the lake over church.  He taught me to waterski, fish and garden, to find solace and adventure in the great outdoors, and that “life is full of compromises.”

Opa butterfly release

On the count of three–Eins, zwei, drei–and off they went. Photo by Scott Ball

After serving as a Luftwaffe pilot in the German Air Force and as a prisoner of war in England until 1947, he and my mom Hilde immigrated to the U.S from Germany in 1953 after humble, difficult beginnings in southern Germany.   Not unlike migrating Monarchs each fall, they left unwelcoming circumstances to build a better life.  My dad become a custom home builder in the Dallas area during the 1960s building boom, supported his family, and sent me to college to become the first Maeckle to ever earn a degree.  He and my mom lived the American Dream. Read his full story here.

John Maeckle 1921-2015

John Maeckle        1921-2015

Given that profile, and my passion for butterflies, our family thought it appropriate to celebrate my father’s life with a butterfly release.  A church service or funeral home reception simply wouldn’t fit.

I thought long and hard about it.  Some people I respect think that butterfly releases are wrong and I appreciate their point of view.

In our case, a butterfly release was the perfect gesture for celebrating my father’s life.  I ordered 93 butterflies from my friends Barbara Dorf and Tracy Villareal of Big Tree Butterflies in Rockport, Texas.  I’ve come to know them through my memberships in the International Butterfly Breeders’ Association and the Association for Butterflies.   Barbara and Tracy are both scientists and butterfly breeders who follow best practices and run a professional breeding operation.

It was the right move.

Following a poem by our neighbor and renown poet Naomi Nye, a duet sung in German by family opera singers Melinda Maeckle Martin and her husband Robert Martin, and fond memories recalled by family members, we moved from the air-conditioned living area of our downtown home into the late afternoon sun of the butterfly garden.

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Each of about 50 friends and family received a healthy Monarch butterfly in a glycine envelope–the same type of envelope Dr. Lincoln Brower used to store butterflies when he came to visit the Texas Hill Country during the horrific 2011 drought.

The rest of the butterflies were safely secured in a pop-up cage (actually a converted laundry hamper) until the appropriate moment, which in this case, was the finale of our gathering. Following Robert Martin’s beautiful baritone rendition of the German version of Taps, we released the butterflies.   On the count of three, in German:  “Eins, zwei, drei!” off they went.

day of dead mask

The return of Monarchs return to Michoacán, Mexico, early each November made indigenous peoples believe their ancestors were coming home to visit.  Courtesy photo.

Ooos and ahs filled the yard as guests aged six to 82 marveled. The Monarchs lilted on guests’ shirts and shoulders, danced on Cowpen Daisies and milkweeds, and drifted around the yard in their dreamy flight pattern–floating, flitting, fleeting, like so many old souls. You could easily understand why the indigenous peoples of Mexico thought Monarchs were their ancestors returning to visit each fall for Day of the Dead in early November.

“It was better than any church service,” said my 82-year-old mother Hilde.

Because I have a magnificent butterfly garden with plenty of nectar sources including five different types of milkweed, the Monarchs have stuck around.   One week later, I’m still enjoying a half-dozen of them, nectaring on late summer blooms.

Monarch on swamp milkweed Arsenal

A week later, Monarchs are still nectaring in our butterfly garden. Photo by Monika Maeckle

I’ve gathered dozens of eggs and found several first instar caterpillars, too.  In fact, my partner Local Sprout founder Mitchell Hagney and I hope to raise the caterpillars and offer them as Milkweed and Monarch rearing kits at a future pop-up plant sale in about a month.  I can’t imagine a better way to honor my father and celebrate the life cycle.  Opa would approve.

First instar caterpillar and egg

First instar Monarch caterpillar and egg. The life cycle continues. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Upon considering writing this post, I revisited some of the negative press on butterfly releases.   They “turn butterflies into baubles.”  They might “mess with the migration” or “pollute the gene pool.”

It’s true that a handful of shoddy breeders have damaged the commercial butterfly breeding business by sending unhealthy livestock out into the universe while ignorant customers take the blame for mishandling precious butterfly livestock.  Here’s a tip for a successful butterfly release:  Read the handling instructions and don’t leave live butterflies out in the blazing sun while you touch up your wedding make-up, people.

For those of us who know what we’re doing and which breeders are reputable, I cannot fathom how any of this can be bad or wrong.

Opa butterfly Nola's

“Opa butterfly” collage by family friend Nola Grace Hamilton Garcia, age 8, assembled at Opa’s gathering. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Fifty people who had never thought twice about butterflies have now had a tactile experience with them and will view them forever differently.   My niece and nephew Amara, 8, and Alaric Martin, 6, and good friend Nola Grace Hamilton Garcia, 8,  chased butterflies around the yard for hours following the release, completely enchanted and forever touched by them.

Conservationists will tell you the most effective path to protecting a species or an ecosystem is engagement.   A butterfly release does that.

“A physical connection is absolutely crucial to getting people to care about something,” said Jim Lovett of Monarch Watch, the citizen scientist Monarch butterfly tagging and advocacy organization based at the University of Kansas.  “You’ve got to have face time with the species.”

As for speculative claims that thousands of commercially raised butterflies released into the ecosystem will “pollute” the gene pool, there’s no evidence of that to date.   And the numbers just don’t add up.

One source close to the industry said an internal survey of breeders suggested fewer than 250,000 Monarch butterflies are released each year around the United States–less than a half a percent of the 57 million Monarch butterflies that migrated last year.   On top of that, those butterflies are released at different times and dispersed throughout the 3.8 million square miles of these United States.  As Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch has said repeatedly, “Releases, in the present form, are a minor issue but they sure generate a lot of heat.”

But this post is not meant to argue that point.  It hopes to celebrate the life cycle we all share.   And to acknowledge, as my wise father would often say, that “life is full of compromises.”  In this case, the engagement with butterflies and the resulting embrace of their conservation far outweigh the unproven risks claimed by butterfly release detractors.

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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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Thanks, El Niño: Llano River Hosts Milkweed Buffet for Monarchs and other Butterflies

First I’d like to say, “Thank you, el Niño.”

I haven’t seen the Llano River or the milkweed and other wildflowers this robust since 2010, the year before the historic Texas drought hit our state.

Milkweed buffet

Decisions, decisions. What’s your pleasure, Monarch caterpillar? photo by Monika Maeckle

A weekend in the Texas Hill Country included a series of thunderstorms, warm temperatures and a bounty of roadside milkweed as well as a variety of Asclepias species on our property we haven’t seen in years.  Our caterpillars literally had a milkweed buffet awaiting them–four different Asclepias species, the Monarch butterfly host plant.

Antelope horns, Asclepias asperula, made a hearty showing in front of our porch.  Under the breezeway deck, a lone Texas milkweed, Asclepias texana, was already sporting blooms.  Down the trail, Pearl milkweed vine, Matelea reticulata, the lovely climber that boasts an attractive pearl-dotted flower, snuck up a nearby pencil cactus.  Along the banks of the Llano River, Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, the pink-blooming host plant offered hearty stalks, broader-than-usual leaves and new stands in places we’ve never noticed.

Antelope horns and Indian blanket

Antelope horns and Indian blanket dotted Highways 1871 and 87 in the Texas Hill Country this weekend. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Texas milkweed

Texas milkweed, what a trooper–no water, little light, growing under the breezeway. Haven’t seen this one in years. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Along the trail, this Pearl milkweed vine peeked above the mulch to climb a pencil cactus.  Can't wait for the flowers.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Along the trail, this Pearl milkweed vine peeked above the mulch to climb a pencil cactus. Can’t wait to see the flowers. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Robust stands of thick Swamp milkweed in new places along the River.  Gotta love it.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Robust stands of thick Swamp milkweed in new places along the Llano River. Gotta love it. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Only the Swamp milkweed hosted caterpillars and eggs.   The chubby chutes reached out of the Chigger Islands like thin stalks of asparagus.  What a heartening improvement over the scrawny plants of the past few years.

Only one Monarch was spotted flying this weekend, but others had obviously passed through since their offspring were observed in various stages–eggs, just-hatched cats,  second instar larvae and fifth instar caterpillars ready to bust their stripes and go chrysalis.

Two Monarch eggs over easy--well, under the leaves of Swamp milkweed on the Llano.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Two Monarch eggs over easy–well, under the leaves of Swamp milkweed, on the Llano. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Two stages of Monarch caterpillars munch on Swamp milkweed.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

Two stages of Monarch caterpillars munch on Swamp milkweed. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Anybody recognize this bloom?  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Anybody recognize this bloom? Photo by Monika Maeckle

The wildflower display along Highways 1871 and 87 around Mason and Fredericksburg was among the most spectacular I’ve seen in recent memory. Some mysterious (to me) newcomers joined the bouquet, like the white flower above showing in our watershed. Anybody know what it is?

Prediction:  2015 will be a fantastic year for butterflies, Monarchs in particular.   While the first three months of 2015 clocked as the hottest first quarter in history, it’s been mild and wet in our neck of the woods   And that bodes well for butterflies and other pollinators.

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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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Marine Biologist Launches App to Track Monarch Butterflies on Oil Rigs in Gulf


Monarch butterflies resting on an oil rig rope in the Gulf of Mexico in Oct.-Dec.  1993. Photo courtesy Dr. Gary Noel Ross

“The experience on the rig was certainly an unforgettable one…to see the cloud coming from all around in a mass that settled on every available space from the top of the derrick to the floors. Everything was covered…. There were butterflies on top of butterflies. The deck hands were busy with wash-down hoses and had to keep it up to be able to handle the gear while drilling. Some of the older hands said it was a yearly occurrence in the area.”

 –Mrs. Hylma Gordon of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, as told to  Bryant Mather and published in News of the Lepidopterists’ Society (July/August 1990), No. 4, page 59:

Dr. Tracy Villareal is atypical in the butterfly world.   He’s a PhD–but not in entomology.  He’s a butterfly breeder–but as a marine biologist at the University of Texas at Austin, he spends his days looking at small marine plants called phytoplankton
rather than coaxing caterpillars to morph to the next stage. Dr. Villareal and his partner Dr. Barbara Dorf, who serves as a Fishery Biologist at

Dr. Tracy Villareal, courtesy photo

Dr. Tracy Villareal, courtesy photo

Texas Parks and Wildlife Dept. along the Gulf, operate the Big Tree Butterflies farm in Rockport, Texas, when they’re not pulling duty at their full-time jobs.

So it seems the perfect marriage of passion and profession for Villareal to develop an app to track Monarch butterflies crossing the ocean–that is, the Gulf of Mexico.  “As an oceanographer I can’t bring much to bear in the terrestrial world, but this is flying over water,” he said in a series of conversations discussing his latest project.

As if migrating 3,000 miles were not impressive enough, evidence suggests that Monarch butterflies, like the ruby-throated hummingbird, cross the vast 450+ mile expanse of the Gulf of Mexico each year to make their famous trek to Michoacán in the mountains of Mexico.   Another scientist, Baton Rouge-based Gary Noel Ross, who holds a PhD in entomology,  documented the existence of myriad Monarch roosts on oil rigs as late as 1993.

Dr. gary Noel Ross, courtesy photo

Dr. Gary Noel Ross, courtesy photo

Dr. Villareal heard about the ocean crossings via the DPLX list, a listserv for butterfly enthusiasts, and began researching the idea of verifying whether or not the phenom continues today.

Given the lack of population on oil rigs, Dr. Villareal figured the best way to collect data would be to develop a very simple app that oil rig workers, fisher persons, even helicopter pilots might use to collect data on the whereabouts of Monarch butterflies. The app would register and automatically geolocate the datapoint, which would load to the cloud and populate a map, providing a real-time picture of where Monarchs are congregating at sea.  The app would work in a similar fashion to the well-utilized Journey North app, but it could go global and would be cloud-, rather than server-based.

“This needs to be as simple as possible,” said Dr. Villareal by phone.  “I don’t want (oil company) management out there telling people this is too distracting.”

But will oil rig workers take the time to contribute citizen science data? It wouldn’t be the first time.

Photos published in the Southern Lepidopterist Society newsletter by Dr. Ross, taken in the 90s, show oil rig workers netting butterflies. See below.

Oil rig workers tagging Monarch butterflies

Oil rig workers netting and tagging Monarch butterflies in October 1991. Photo via Southern Lepidopterist Society Newsletter

Dr. Ross supports the introduction of technology to the phenomenon he labeled the “Trans Gulf Express.”

“Technology has a lot to offer for field biologists,” said Dr. Ross via email, adding that if Dr. Villareal’s project gets underway and the app widely embraced, good data will be harvested that can be easily analyzed using digital tools.  “At the time of my work I had to rely on helicopter pilots and rig workers calling in to me at my location,” he recalled.  Dr. Ross offered that he personally thinks that Monarchs continue to cross the Gulf.

Monarch butterflies resting on oil rig rail in Oct. - Nov. 1993.  Photo courtesy Dr. Gary Noel Ross

Monarch butterflies resting on oil rig rail in Oct. – Nov. 1993. Photo courtesy Dr. Gary Noel Ross

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, the University of Kansas-based citizen scientist program that tags Monarch butterflies, agrees.

“As long as there are Monarchs, they will appear from time to time on rigs in the Gulf,” said Dr. Taylor.  Dr. Taylor and Monarch Watch are partners in the venture, kicking off a fundraising effort to raise $8,000 for Villareal’s app with a $4,000 matching grant–half the total.  The funds will be used to take the app beyond the development phase.  “It may help us learn more about the how and why,” said Dr. Taylor. “The survival question will be more difficult to answer,” he said.

Monarchs on oil rigs app

Dr. Tracy Villareal’s app will track Monarch butterflies on oil rigs. Click on over and help raise the needed funds to take the app out of the beta stage.

Want to help?   Check out the fundraising campaign, Tracking Monarch Butterflies on Offshore Oil Platforms, which launched today on Hornraiser, a University of Texas- sponsored crowd funding platform. 

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