Monarch butterflies are heading our way, but their numbers are likely to be down this year. Climate change–combined with habitat loss and other threats–dealt a heavy blow to the population, which enjoyed a celebrated threefold increase last fall.
The weekend of March 8-9 proved to be a deadly setback for Monarchs. Just as they were heading to Texas from their winter roosts in Michoacán to create the first generation of 2016, a freak ice storm hit the forest where they overwinter. The frigid wind and weather killed an estimated 6.2 million butterflies–about 7.4 percent of the 84 million roosting there, Mexico’s attorney general for environmental protection Alejandro Del Mazo told the Associated Press this week.
Even worse, the storm destroyed 133 acres of the Oyamel fir forest which serves as the Monarchs’ winter home as well as habitat to hundreds of species of birds, mammals, vascular plants and mushrooms. That lost canopy will take years, perhaps decades, to recover. And its service as a protective, insulating blanket for the Monarchs and other wildlife may be gone forever.
The iconic insects make one of the most remarkable annual migrations on the planet, traveling up to 2,800 miles from Mexico through the United States to Canada and back over multiple generations.
Their journey starts in March where they spend the winter in the Oyamel fir forests. After a cue from the sun, they head to Texas where they lay their first generation of eggs on milkweed plants—the only plant they use to breed. Those eggs hatch into caterpillars who grow into butterflies that continue the cycle over the summer, with fourth or fifth generation butterflies returning to Mexico in the fall to overwinter–having never been to the specific roosting site where their ancestors launched the journey. The following spring, those butterflies begin the cycle anew.
According to a brief released by the World Wildlife Fund on August 23, the protected forest lost to the March sleet storm was four times that destroyed by illegal logging last year. Here’s the breakdown: of the 179 acres of forest lost in the last year in the core zone of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, 29.5 acres were destroyed by illegal logging, 133 acres by wind-fallen trees during the storm, and 16 acres by drought.
Experts agree that the ice storm got the season off to a bad start. Those of us who follow Monarchs noticed far fewer this spring, as the depleted population made its way north. We hoped they would recover in the summer breeding grounds.
“Normally I collect eggs in the spring and I was down about 65% percent over seasons’ past,” said Cathy Downs, Education Outreach specialist for Monarch Watch, the University of Kansas at Lawrence-based organization that runs the citizen science tagging program that tracks the migrating butterflies. Downs operates out of Comfort, Texas, just outside San Antonio. “I would definitely say this was a really, really down spring.”
Further up the migratory path, social media posts from the summer breeding grounds bemoaned the general lack of Monarch butterflies.
“I only saw one Monarch a week ago up at Illinois Beach State Park, while we were walking the dunes, clearing them of white sweet clover,” Kathleen Garness of Forest Park, Illinois wrote to the DPLEX list June 20, an email list that reaches about 800 Monarch butterfly enthusiasts, scientists and citizen scientists.
Tony Kowall of Park Ridge, Illinois, agreed. “We really miss seeing and raising the Monarchs…. It is quite distressing to think how badly the population must of have hit with the storm earlier this year. Last year we raised 200 Monarchs.”
And this from Fred Kaluza in Detroit on the same email string: “Countryside looks like late July. Lots of uneaten milkweed. No Monarchs seen.”
Teresa Bailey, who lives north of Kansas City, Missouri, posted June 14 on Facebook: “I still haven’t seen any Monarch butterflies yet. My common milkweed has grown six feet tall. Still no butterflies. I’m concerned. They should have been here a while ago.”
Everyone’s worst suspicions were confirmed when Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, issued his annual summer Monarch population status bulletin.
“All the data to this point in time suggest that this year will be a repeat of 2014 with a significant decline in the migration and the overwintering numbers,” wrote Taylor in July, citing below normal first-of-season sightings and the ice storm. “We will never have a comprehensive assessment of the impact of this weather event but it does appear to have been significant,” wrote Taylor, noting that some scientists were suggesting 50% of Monarchs had perished in the storm.
Despite that sad turnaround from a tripling of the population last fall, the migration is underway. “Sightings of southbound Monarchs, intense nectaring, and the first overnight roosts are being reported,” read the headline in this week’s bulletin by Journey North, which tracks Monarch butterflies and other migrating creatures.
With all the press Monarch butterflies have been getting this year, we have never been better prepared to welcome them as they move through our landscapes and gardens. In the past 18 months, millions of dollars in research has been earmarked for mIlkweed and nectar plant restoration programs, Monarch and pollinator education efforts, and general awareness of the important role Monarchs and other pollinators play in our ecosystem food web. Awareness across the Americas has never been higher.
That said, climate change will have the last word on how many Monarch butterflies will make the trip this year.
Want to be sure to see Monarchs this fall? Join us October 22 during peak Monarch migration week in San Antoino at the Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival at the Pearl. Events are FREE.
Mark your calendars, butterfly and pollinator fans. San Antonio’s Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival at Pearl will take place October 21 – 22 this fall during peak Monarch butterfly migration week.
The event, organized by the Texas Butterfly Ranch, will celebrate the majesty of the Monarch butterfly migration and the insect pollinators that make one of every three bites of food we eat possible. Also: we hope to honor San Antonio’s unique geographic location on the Monarch flyway, its status as America’s first and only Monarch Champion City (so named by the National Wildlife Federation), the interconnectedness of our world, and our special relationship with Mexico.
With founding sponsorship from the Pearl, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the San Antonio River Authority, HEB, the Rivard Report and Trinity University, Saturday’s events will be FREE and open to the public.
Festivities kick off Friday evening, October 21, 6 – 9 PM, at the Pearl Studio with a symposium: Climate Change and the Monarch butterfly migration.
Confirmed speakers include Dr. Cuauhtémoc Sáenz-Romero, a PhD in forestry from Michoacán, Mexico. Dr. Sáenz-Romero has proposed moving the forest where the Monarch butterflies roost up the mountain to a higher elevation since changing climate suggests that within approximately 70 years, the forest will not be able to survive increased temperatures.
Also confirmed: Catalina Trail, the woman from Morelia, who at the age of 25 “discovered” the Monarch butterfly roosting sites in 1975. Trail, who now lives in Austin, appears on the August 1976 cover of National Geographic, which announced the news to scientists and the world.
Saturday, October 22, a People’s Pollinator Parade led by Earnabike Coop and San Antonio’s own Pedaling Pollinators butterfly bike troupe will convene and “migrate” through the Pearl complex. Costumes are encouraged.
Hundreds of tagged Monarch butterflies will be released in waves during the Festival. Ongoing demonstrations of How and Why to Tag a Monarch butterfly will take place.
Partner organizations will offer arts, crafts and learning activities for kids of all ages while our friends at the Pearl Farmer’s Market will feature the many insect pollinated foods that make one of every three bites of our food possible.
Restaurants at the Pearl will highlight foods made possible by pollinators while drinking establishments will offer “The Monarch” a special cocktail created especially for the Festival.
Special thanks to our sponsors for making the Monarch butterfly and pollinator festival at Pearl possible.
SPONSORSHIPS are still available. Check back here for schedules and updates.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that Dr. Saenz Romero was proposing moving the forest 2,000 feet higher in elevation because climate change suggested the forest would not survive within 20 years.
Like what you’re reading? Follow butterfly and native plant news at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery in the righthand navigation bar of this page, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam.
Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar announced Tuesday that Texas A&M University and Sam Houston State University will share about $500,000 in research funding to study the Monarch butterfly. That brings the total earmarked for researching America’s favorite
migrating insect by the Comptroller’s office to more than $800,000 in the Lone Star State, just since last June.
Texas A&M will receive $299,998 to evaluate the Monarch’s population status in Texas–specifically, the species’ lifecycle, migratory habits and the possible existence of overwintering populations. Dr. Robert Coulson, Entomologist and Director of the Knowledge Engineering Laboratory at A & M, will oversee the research, which he said will fuel the species status assessment required by US Fish and Wildlife as it gauges whether or not the Monarch should be listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Sam Houston State will receive $207,510 to research disease and pests that threaten the butterfly. Dr. Jerry Cook, Professor & Associate VicePresident for Research Entomology, will oversee the study.
Grant recipients submitted projects for consideration in response to a Request for Proposals (RFP) issued by the Comptroller’s office in February.
“Funding decisions were made based on recommendations by a non-biased evaluation committee with respect to the criteria detailed in the RFP,” a spokesperson for the Comptroller’s office said via email. After reviewing recommendations, the Comptroller’s office decided to contract with the two universities. Names of committee members were not made public.
The upcoming studies hope to build on research done by previous Comptroller’s office grant recipients.
Last June, the University of Texas at San Antonio received $300K to survey milkweeds across the state. In March of this year, Texas A&M – Commerce was awarded $10,141.04 to conduct a pilot study on how fire ants effect the Monarch life cycle.
All the attention is motivated by an August 2014 petition to list the Monarch butterfly as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
In Texas, the State Comptroller’s office oversees the Interagency Task Force on Economic Growth and Endangered Species. The Task Force works with landowners, industries, local communities and institutions to assess the economic impact of proposed ESA species listings in Texas. Research surrounding the ramifications of ESA listings are funded by annual $5 million appropriations approved by the Texas Legislature.
“If the butterfly is listed, many industries important to our state’s economy could be affected, from agriculture to land development to energy production,” said Hegar in a press release. “This crucial research will identify best practices for the voluntary protection of the species on private lands.”
The news comes on the heels of a court settlement also announced on July 5 that the USFWS, which rules on all endangered species listings, was awarded three more years to determine whether or not the Monarch butterfly should be listed. USFWS must issue a decision by June 30, 2019, as well as pay the legal bills of the Center for Biological Diversity and Center for Food Safety, the two environmental groups that launched the ESA petition in August 2014.
While USFWS was aware the Texas Comptrollers’ office was working to incorporate more universities into the Monarch research grant cycles, a spokesperson said the timing of the announcements was a coincedence. The recent ruling suggests that at least for the next three years, continued research grants will be focused on Monarch butterflies.
“We now know Fish and Wildlife Service will be making its decision whether or not to list the Monarch butterfly under the Endangered Species Act by June of 2019,” said Dr. Robert Gulley, director of economic growth and endangered species management for the Comptroller’s office. “We believe the research the Comptroller’s office has commissioned, which includes looking at the fifth generation of Monarchs in Texas and the fall migration, will be important in ensuring good science is available when that decision is made.”
Voting started slowly, but built to a crescendo of more than 400 likes, comments, tweets and clicks on behalf of your favorite Fiesta 2016 butterfly medal.
And the winner is…. SAWS, San Antonio Water System, the city’s public water utility.
Our local water saving warriors and sole suppliers of San Antonio’s H2O took first place in the Texas Butterfly Ranch poll to choose the BEST 2016 butterfly-themed Fiesta medal, garnering 229 of 440 votes cast.
The completely unscientific poll launched last Thursday. Votes were tallied from website and social media clicks, shares and comments.
In addition to hundreds of clicks and shares, the SAWS medal spawned more than 60 online comments. Several voters pointed out that the medal was the only one to include a caterpillar as well as flowers, thus better portraying the entire life cycle and the synergies that bind us.
“When I see the (SAWS) medal it makes me think of change, strength, and rebirth,” wrote Rachel Garza Carreon, who voted for the winner. “The caterpillar has to hope that as it changes into a butterfly it will work. There is always a danger of outside predators, etc. It is a journey we can all relate to. Change is scary, but you can come through it stronger than ever.”
That holistic reaction was exactly the desired effect, said Dana Nichols, SAWS Conservation Manager of Outdoor Programs, who helped design the medal. “We thought it was important to get the details right so we included the caterpillar and even the native Antelope horns milkweed,” said Nichols. “As with all of our GardenStyleSA.com information, we wanted our medal to be accurate, relevant, as well as remind us all of what it takes to see Monarchs in our area.”
The San Antonio River Authority, SARA, took second place. SARA’s medal featured a dramatic black ribbon, the Monarch’s orange-and-black color palette, with a butterfly and the SARA logo in the middle.
Voters had strong feelings about this medal, too. It generated dozens of comments like this one from Marilyn Rauch Cavicchia on Facebook: “I love this one so much. Simple and cool–and really makes the Monarch the star of the show.”
SARA spokesman Steven Schauer thanked all those who voted for SARA and congratulated SAWS for taking first place. “The real winner of this fun Fiesta medal competition is the Monarch butterfly and other pollinator species,” said Schauer.
CPS Energy‘s fancy gold Mariposa medal came in third, benefitting the Green Spaces Alliance, and the medal issued by Mayor Ivy Taylor, who is largely responsible for San Antonio’s newfound butterfly fixation, came in fourth.
The recent butterfly fascination can be attributed to raised awareness of pollinator decline, Monarch butterflies in particular. The iconic insects’ unique, captivating Pan American migration faces increasing obstacles as climate change, habitat destruction, abuse of pesticides and genetically modified crops challenge its future.
The bee collapse has also raised awareness of our insect friends’ huge contribution to making one of every three bites of food we eat possible. President Obama’s National Pollinator Strategy, issued in May 2015, has galvanized grass-roots advocacy in the last year, focusing grant monies and other funding to address threats to pollinators.
At the local level, our butterfly-friendly Mayor, who signed the National Wildlife Federation’s (NWF) Mayor’s Monarch Pledge in December, deserves much credit for making San Antonio the first and to date, ONLY Monarch Champion city in the country by agreeing to execute all 24 NWF’s recommended action items to increase pollinator habitat. Ever since, our city has gone a little butterfly crazy. Every department of the City has been tasked with doing something about pollinator decline–thus the crop of butterfly medals. That’s good news in our book.
Despite coming in last place, Mayor Taylor was gracious, congratulating SAWS for winning and the other butterfly medal issuers for promoting Monarch and pollinator awareness.
“Since signing the Mayor’s Monarch Pledge in December, it’s been such a pleasure watching the awareness and love of Monarchs spread,” said Mayor Taylor. “San Antonio is definitely doing its part to protect our state insect.”
Worth noting: butterfly Fiesta medals are not just for government entities. We learned from contest voters that at least two other butterfly medals were issued this year.
Leon Valley issued one with two colorful butterflies dancing above a Fiesta wreath and their tagline “deep roots, big ideas.” The Children’s Bereavement Center also issued a butterfly medal.
At least 1.5 million Monarch butterflies were hit with a deadly freeze this weekend as an unusual ice and wind storm moved through the mountains of Michoacán where the butterflies roost for the winter. The storm hit just as the spring migration was beginning. Luckily, many butterflies exited the mountains before the freeze arrived.
Exactly how many butterflies perished in the freeze remains uncertain. An Associated Press report sounded upbeat, with Mexican authorities stating that “Monarch butterflies that winter in the mountains west of Mexico City survived the severe cold snap that hit the area this week.”
But the Mexican news agency El Universal on Saturday quoted Homero Gómez González, president of the administrative council that oversees the El Rosario butterfly sanctuary, as saying that 1.5 Monarch butterflies froze to death–about 3% of the estimated 50 million roosting.
According to Gomez Gonazaléz, the recent freeze registered temperatures of -12 degrees Celsius (about 10 Fahrenheit). Other reports had winds raging up to 50 miles per hour, leaving 13 inches of snow on the ground in some areas and taking out dozens of trees. Those living in the area were without electricity for days and hundreds of lamb and sheep were lost.
“Historic snowfall at the El Rosario sanctuary,” read the headline of the el Rosario Facebook page on Thursday, March 10. “The Monarch butterfly suffers wind, snow, rain and sleet.” The post was accompanied by photos showing several inches of snow on the ground.
The news whipsawed those who follow Monarch butterfly news. Monarch fans had been celebrating the much-anticipated announcement in February that the population of the migrating orange-and-black insects had tripled since last year. Reports of the devastating freeze underscored the brutal reminder that Mother Nature is in charge.
Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of citizen science group Monarch Watch, which tags the butterflies during their fall migration, weighed in from Kansas.
“Information is still sketchy about the degree of butterfly mortality,” Dr. Taylor told the DPLEX list, an email listserv of about 800 butterfly aficionados.
“Most claims, observations and images suggest that mortality is low to moderate,” said Dr. Taylor. “There is no evidence to date to indicate levels of catastrophic mortality (70-80%) that followed the winter storms of 2002 and 2004.” he said, adding that it will take at least a week to get more accurate information on the number of butterflies lost.
Taylor also reminded readers that “a significant portion of the population had already left” the roosting sites prior to the storm.
Dr. Lincoln Brower, who has studied Monarchs his entire life and is one of a group who submitted a petition to have the butterflies listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, seemed less optimistic.
“The current statements that the Monarchs have survived the storm are premature,” wrote Dr. Brower via email in response to the Associated Press story. “I fear that optimistic assumptions are driving the news reports.”
Like Dr. Taylor, Brower cautioned that time will tell the accurate mortality counts.
“Based on our study of the 2002 storm, the butterflies that are killed or irreversibly damaged keep falling out of their clusters for days after the freezing event. Mortality counts need to be made at least a week after the storm.”
Area butterfly buffs will have a unique opportunity to see exotic butterflies up close and personal while learning about the Monarch butterfly migration at the San Antonio Zoo’s
first Monarch Fest March 4 – 6. The inaugural event celebrates San Antonio’s recent national status as the first and only Monarch Champion City, so designated by the National Wildlife Federation’s Mayor’s Monarch Pledge program.
Laurie Brown, Zoo volunteer services manager, along with Zoo staff and volunteers, have been preparing for the event for months. On the agenda for the 72-hour celebration: a native plant sale and seed giveaway, kid-friendly crafts and educational activities, and booths/displays by more than a dozen local pollinator advocacy organizations. The event is free with zoo admission.
But for an extra $1.50, visitors can also stroll through the Zoo’s butterfly house, an experience well worth the cost. Proceeds go 100% to conservation and education efforts, says Brown.
Inside the flight house, hundreds of exotic flyers like the Malabar Tree nymph, Idea malabarica, also known as the Paper Kite, will be on display in a natural, garden like setting. The wings of this gorgeous black-and-white butterfly, native to India and Southeast Asia, resemble rice paper with a Monarch-like painted glass pattern.
Interestingly, the Paper Kite’s host plant, Apocynaceae, belongs to the same plant family as the Monarch butterfly’s host plant–Asclepias (milkweeds). Both are members of the dogbane family. Is it a coincidence that the lovely wing pattern on these two butterflies from opposite sides of the world are similar?
Not really, says Brown. The Paper Kite and Monarch are distant relatives.
Also scheduled for appearances in the flight house: the Common banded Peacock, Papilio crino, sometimes called a Buddhist Heart, sports fluorescent wings can suggest blue or green, depending on the angle from which it is viewed.
Brown promises a couple dozen other exotics, a mix of local butterflies and a handful of amazing Atlas Moths, Atacus atlas, one of the most dramatic looking Lepidoptera. If you’ve never seen one of these impressive moths up close, you’re in for a treat.
These Saturnid moths rank as one of the 10 largest insects in the world and hail from Southeast Asia. Their wingspans can reach 12 inches and in Taiwan, empty Atlas moth cocoons, spun from sturdy Fagara silk, are used as purses.
“Some vacated cocoons don’t need to be deconstructed—they can be used ‘as found’ as small pocket-change purses by simply installing a zipper,” according to the educational magazine Mental Floss.
Hmm. New handbag trend?
Advance tickets are available online or you can buy them upon arrival. Hope to see you there!
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.
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).
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 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.
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:
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.
IBBA 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.
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.
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.
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.
Like what you’re reading? Don’t miss a single post from the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam. Like what you’re reading? Don’t miss a single post from the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam.
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.
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.
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.
In my yard right now, for example, I have
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.”
“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, 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.”
“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.”
Like what you’re reading? Don’t miss a single post from the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam. Like what you’re reading? Don’t miss a single post from the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam.