Commercial butterfly breeders: industry has vested interest in raising OE-free butterflies

NOTE:  The following guest post by Dr. Barbara Dorf* arrived as a lengthy comment here at the Texas Butterfly Ranch last week.  I invited Dorf to expand her comment to a full-blown post because I think the perspective of professional breeders is important to various issues discussed here.

–Monika Maeckle

As a board member of the Association for Butterflies, an organization for about 80 professional and hobbyist butterfly breeders and a co-owner of Big Tree Butterflies  commercial butterfly breeding farm,  I am writing today to clarify our position in relation to the proposed petition to the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to list the Monarch butterfly as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Barbara Dorf and Tracy Villareal, owners of Big Tree Butterfly Farm in Rockport, Texas --Courtesy photo

Dr. Tracy Villareal and Dr. Barbara Dorf, owners of Big Tree Butterflies in Rockport, Texas –Courtesy photo

As stated in a recent post on this website, Lawsuit seeks ESA monarch butterfly listing, turns up heat on commercial breeders, the petitioners believe that commercial breeders release diseased butterflies into the wild population, potentially damaging it.  Such comments oversimplify the butterfly industry and misrepresent the efforts of many breeders who are very diligent and dedicated to raising healthy butterflies.

Butterfly disease is a concern for all ethical butterfly breeders and part of the larger issue of raising healthy butterflies in captivity. Our concern is at several levels.

We want to raise healthy butterflies and provide customers with the best value for their money. In addition, butterflies are living creatures and proper animal care practices need to be observed. Failure to adopt clean rearing procedures is costly and ultimately self-destructive. That said, there are areas of concern.

Ophyryocystis elecktroscirrha, or OE, has been studied extensively and is of particular concern because it can significantly impact Monarch populations. It is the most commonly mentioned disease problem in both the butterfly industry and popular press. OE occurs in nature, primarily infecting Monarchs and related butterflies. It is found in Monarch butterfly populations throughout the world, including North and South America, the Caribbean, Hawaii, and Australia.

OE spores transfer through physical contact or consumption of milkweed leaves. PHoto courtesy AFB

OE spores transfer through physical contact or consumption of milkweed leaves. Photo by Dr. Tracy Villareal

OE can be transmitted in two ways. In nature and during captive breeding, spores are transmitted from egg-laying females to their offspring when dormant spores on the female’s body scales are scattered on eggs or as they are passed onto milkweed leaves that are the Monarch’s only host plant. Newly emerged caterpillars consume spores when they eat their eggshell or when feeding on milkweed leaves. Spores can also be spread between adults through body contact, more likely to occur during captive breeding when adults are kept in higher concentrations than in the wild.

Once eaten, the spores have a rather complicated life cycle, with the end result being many more spores, which are often visible inside the chrysalis. When the butterfly emerges spores are located mostly on the abdomen.

OE can be debilitating, often killing or deforming caterpillars, chrysalises and adults. Infected adults have been shown to be smaller, have shorter lives, and mate and migrate less successfully. However, those that do mate can continue to lay eggs, passing on the OE spores to the next generation, both in nature and in captivity.

deformed Monarch OE

OE infected Monarchs can have trouble emerging from the chrysalis and may be deformed. Photo via UGA Monarch parasites website

If not controlled, all butterflies within a captive breeding colony will become infected with OE in very few generations, resulting in poor quality butterflies unable to successfully breed or migrate when released. This is a butterfly breeder’s worst nightmare.

Thus, the butterfly industry has a vested interest in producing OE-free butterflies and educating all breeders on how to produce healthy butterflies. The problem is not that all butterfly breeders raise and sell OE-contaminated Monarch butterflies. Rather, the problem is that customers cannot tell if the butterfly breeder they are purchasing from raises OE-free butterflies.

The AFB has been implementing programs over the last 10 years and has been anything but lethargic concerning OE in commercially raised butterflies.

Here is what the AFB is doing to address the problem:

1. Educational programs

The AFB offers educational programs developed by butterfly professionals and academic researchers available to anyone who wants to learn more about butterfly disease prevention.

Our annual “Disease Prevention in Lepidoptera” course (offered for the last 10 years!) is free to all members and has been taken by hundreds of professional breeders, hobbyists, enthusiasts and educators, and offers a Disease Seal and certification for participants who successfully complete weekly testing and a final exam.

2. Disease screening co-op

In addition to education, the AFB also offers its members a 3rd-party Disease Screening Co-op in conjunction with the Mississippi State Pathology Department.  Caterpillars are screened by pathologists for viruses, bacteria and parasites, helping breeders to detect issues in breeding butterflies before disease can cause serious issues.

3. OE Clean Screen Program

The AFB has initiated the OE Clean Screen Program, a butterfly industry first. This is a 3rd-party OE testing program in which professional breeders voluntarily submit Monarch chrysalises to an independent University laboratory for OE testing when the adult butterfly emerges. Submitting fresh chrysalises eliminates any possibility of “selection” for OE-free AFBlogo

butterflies. Acceptable OE levels reflect natural background levels, with 20% of all butterflies tested having either no OE or showing light contamination (less than 100 spores). The program was set up with comments and advice from Dr. Sonia Altizer, a leading Monarch butterfly researcher and world-expert on OE.

Testing is voluntary and anonymous. Breeders will receive a Clean Screen rating and be highlighted on the AFB website as part of a Preferred Listing. The rating indicates that the breeder has met standards for OE prevention that have been approved by academic researchers. No program with this level of rigor and independent evaluation has ever been attempted. This is a serious program to address a legitimate concern. It is open to all butterfly farmers, even if they do not belong to the AFB.

The purpose of this testing program is not to penalize breeders who may have OE-positive butterflies, but to get a better picture of the butterfly industry, offer support and education, troubleshoot, identify, and correct possible rearing problems, and to encourage all butterfly breeders to do a better job of keeping a clean operation. The result will be that customers will be able to compare butterfly breeders based on this independent standard. The marketplace will determine the rest. Independent, 3rd-party certification allows customers to know that the breeder was producing Clean Screen stock at the time and that they are taking an active interest in producing healthy butterflies. Thus, it is in the butterfly breeder’s best interest, once they have Clean Screen stock, to maintain them.

There are unscrupulous butterfly breeders out there who do not practice clean breeding techniques and give the entire butterfly industry an unfavorable image. Because these unscrupulous breeders exist, buying butterflies from breeders engaged in independent 3rd-party testing allows customers to know that they are buying from a butterfly breeder who is seriously working to produce healthy butterflies.

In closing, butterfly disease is a concern for all ethical butterfly breeders and the AFB is working hard to provide the best possible support to butterfly breeders for rearing healthy butterflies.

*When she’s not raising butterflies, Barbara Dorf works as a fishery biologist at Texas Parks and Wildlife.  She earned her PhD in biological oceanography at the University of Rhode Island and holds undergraduate degrees in wildlife and fisheries science and aquatic biology.
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Lawsuit seeks ESA Monarch butterfly listing, turns up heat on commercial breeders

The battle to list the Monarch butterfly as “threatened” under the federal Endangered Species Act inched forward last week, as the Center for Biological Diversity and Center for Food Safety announced they will file suit against the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) for failing to meet a December 26 deadline.

Monarch on swamp milkweed Arsenal

Will Monarch butterflies be listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act?  Photo by Monika Maeckle

The intent to file suit was announced in a January 5 press release and will be acted upon in 60 days if no ruling is made.

Those specializing in endangered species issues said such lawsuits are not unusual in the often convoluted listing process. After providing an update to the Texas State Comptroller’s Monarch Butterfly Task Force Working Group in Austin last moth, Katie Latta, USFWS Monarch Outreach Specialist, said such lawsuits at times delay the process and other times speed things up.

David Braun, Principal of Braun & Gresham, a Dripping Springs, Texas-based law firm that works with private landowners and communities on endangered species issues, said, “It’s not unusual, but frankly I think it sometimes slows things down.”

Dr. Lincoln Brower was among the first to share the news on the DPLEX list--photo via Monarch Butterfly Fund

Dr. Lincoln Brower –photo via Monarch Butterfly Fund

Monarch butterfly expert Dr. LIncoln Brower, who joined with the Center for Biological Diversity and Center for Food Safety in filing the petition in August of 2014, was among the first to share the news on the DPLEX email list, a listserv of about 800 Monarch butterfly enthusiasts, scientists and citizen scientists.

In sharing the news, Dr. Brower pointed out how powerful the petition has been in galvanizing support for Monarch butterfly and pollinator habitat.  It has stimulated “all sorts of positive national and international actions to help what is an increasingly serious problem,” wrote Brower.

Commercial butterfly breeders, who oppose clauses in the petition that support an end to the commercial breeding and shipping of Monarch butterflies, took the news in stride.

“Lawsuits resulting from an impassioned and hot button issue such as Monarch butterflies come as no surprise,” said Kathy Marshburn, president of the 100-member International Butterfly Breeders Association (IBBA), a trade association for those who make a living breeding and selling butterflies.

The Association for Butterflies, another butterfly breeding interest group of 81 commercial and hobbyist breeders (including me), quickly relayed the news to its membership which provoked a general consensus that “the lawyers” will be the only winners in the saga.

The petitioners believe that commercial breeders release diseased butterflies into the wild population, potentially damaging it.  In particular, the Monarch-centric spore, Ophyrocystis elektroscirrha (OE), poses a special threat. OE thrives in conditions where the butterflies congregate in large groups, are crowded (presumably as in breeding operations), and/or where milkweeds overwinter.  Recent studies by University of Georgia scientists raise concerns that OE spores, which transfer from the butterflies to their milkweed host plant,  will be consumed by and infect subsequent generations of caterpillars, carried into the next season, and ultimately, jeopardize the migration.

Yet scientists agree that OE already is present in the wild population, just as Streptococcus, the nasty sore throat-causing bacteria, is present in the human population. Scientists use a 1-5 rating system to determine the extent to which a Monarch butterfly is infected.  On her Monarch parasites webpage, OE expert Dr. Sonia Altizer and her University of Georgia team recommend destroying any Monarchs which are infected by putting them in the freezer for an hour.

Both the IBBA and the AFB have taken steps to educate their memberships about best practices for raising healthy, OE-free butterflies in response to the petition.

ibbaIBBA President Marshburn relayed that courses given by Monarch scientists Dr. Sonia Altizer and Dr. Jaap de Roode have been provided to IBBA members at no charge.  Coaching calls by the IBBA’s most experienced breeders and discounts for pathology screenings are also offered.

The AFB has also worked to educate its membership. President Tatia VeltKamp shared plans for a voluntary OE pupae screening with an independent lab as well as a seal farmers can earn and display on their websites when they complete a four-week disease course.

Education is a step in the right direction, but commercial breeders need to be more aggressive in creating some kind of mandatory self-regulation to ensure healthy livestock don’t damage the wild population.  Independent random OE testing of commercially bred butterflies would go a long way toward assuaging concerns.  The USDA already regulates the transport of butterflies across state lines, requiring shipping permits and forbidding certain species where they are not native.  But OE demands a special check.

OE spores

OE spores are the smaller dots. The larger football shapes are scales. Photo via Monarchparasites.uga.edu

Another option would be to have an independent firm inspect and certify OE free environments at farms. Findings would be published online and butterfly buying customers could choose the reputable “clean” breeders before making a purchase.

Presumably, breeders could also charge more for OE-free certified butterflies—like organic produce. To offset extra costs, breeders could increase prices or suggest a voluntary additional charge on each order. Monarch butterflies typically cost $7.50 and up retail,  depending on availability, time of year, and number ordered. Shipping charges also apply.

I admit to having a soft spot for commercial butterfly breeders. For a brief time, I wanted to become a breeder and joined the IBBA. I got to know this wonderful group of butterfly enthusiasts and learned to respect the challenge of breeding healthy butterflies on deadline.  It’s hard work.

In addition, every butterfly breeder I met through these organizations gravitated to the business because of pure passion for butterflies and a desire to share it.

Nola Hamilton Garcia with Monarch butterfly

The magic and engagement resulting from interactions with butterflies is one of the most powerful tools in the conservation arsenal. Photo by Tracy Idell Hamilton

There’s a place in Monarch butterfly conservation for commercial butterfly breeding. The magic, education and joy that result from the tactile experience of the inter-species connection of butterfly release events and education have the capacity to touch people and make them care.  Interacting with Monarchs in a tactile way serves as one of the most powerful tools in the conservation arsenal.  It should not be reserved only for scientists, professionals, or those with access to wild milkweed patches and gardens, which is what would happen if commercial butterfly breeding were outlawed by the petition’s enactment.  City kids would be completely cut out of this experience if the Monarch becomes listed. And that would be a shame.

Continued lethargy by the IBBA and AFB on self-regulation will contribute to more scrutiny of commercially bred butterfly livestock and could result in more government regulation of their industry.   At best, inaction fosters a PR problem; at worst, it spells the demise of their industry.

Meanwhile, this focus on professional breeders does nothing to address the many butterflies raised at home by people like me who know way less about clean breeding than those who make their living from it.  Based on personal experience and from the active exchanges on the DPLEX list, thousands and thousands of butterflies are raised and released by hobbyist enthusiasts each season. Do those rearing at home bleach their caterpillar cages, wear disposable plastic gloves, provide each caterpillar with their personal container?

Few of these home-reared butterflies, if any, are checked for OE.  Even if Monarchs are listed, I can’t imagine people stopping this practice, which would limit enthusiasts to 100 butterflies per person/per year.  That suggested number increased from 10 per year in the petition after much public outcry.  I agree with Dr. Brower that the petition has done much to galvanize interest and support in Monarchs and other butterflies–including raising them at home.

Monarch Butterfly chrysalis envy

Hobbyist breeders unleash thousands of Monarch butterflies into the universe each season. How many have OE? Photo by Tami Gingrich of northeastern Ohio via Facebook

The reasons for the general decline of Monarchs are well documented: genetically modified and herbicide tolerant crops, continued urbanization and habitat destruction along the migratory path, illegal logging in Mexico, climate change, and pesticide use.  Is OE, one of many diseases and natural threats to Monarchs and other milkweed feeders a major factor in the Monarchs’ decline?

Some scientists think so.  Dr. Andy Davis, who is married to Dr. Sonia Altizer, has stated emphatically that the Monarch butterfly is not endangered but that he supports the petition because he thinks OE is the number one threat to Monarchs.

In a recent blogpost on his extremely readable MonarchScience blog, Davis stated: “That’s right, the Monarch declines are not a sure thing.”

In a November 7, 2015 blogpost headlined Why I signed the petition to list Monarchs, even though the evidence for declines is shaky, Davis laid out his logic for supporting the petition. “If I don’t think Monarchs are declining, why did I sign it? It was actually because of a small clause that was buried in the fine print – that stated if the listing was enacted, it would become illegal for people to rear more than 100 Monarchs.”

Davis is adamantly opposed to people raising Monarch butterflies in large numbers because he feels that OE is the number one threat to the Monarch migration. As the contentious debate to answer that question continues, commercial breeders could make a huge contribution to the cause by developing credible ways to eradicate OE in their livestock.

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Guidance on milkweed management confuses butterfly gardeners

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

monarch laying eggs on swamp milkweed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Egg on Texana

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

In my yard right now, for example, I have

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

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

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

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

Right?

“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 Accuweather.com

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.”

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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 chrysalis 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=”http://texasbutterflyranch.com/2012/07/10/founder-of-the-monarch-butterfly-roosting-sites-in-mexico-lives-a-quiet-life-in-austin-texas/” 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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