Milkweed Shortage Sparks “Alternative Fuels” for Hungry Monarch Caterpillars

Monarch butterflies have made their way to Texas, but unfortunately not much milkweed greets them upon arrival.  A harsh, dry winter preceded by drought and schizophrenic weather have left the sought-after perennial a no-show in many Texas gardens–and on roadsides and ranch land.

Milkweeds, that is, any Asclepias species, are the host plants to Monarch butterflies and the only plant on which they will lay eggs to continue their life cycle.

PUmpkin fed Monarch

The Monarch butterfly on the left was fed with pumpkin during its final instar. Photo by Ellen Reid

Reliable DPLEX correspondent Harlen Aschen wrote to the listserv that reaches hundreds of butterfly fans that on a 1000-mile trip from Port Lavaca, Texas, past San Antonio to near Abilene and back around Austin “we saw no blooming milkweed.”

Not good.

Yet that hasn’t stopped a tenacious group of butterfly lovers from raising caterpillars and hatching butterflies on “alternative fuels.”

Professional butterfly breeders have been experimenting for years to keep their livestock well nourished when host plants become scarce.    Many of us who raise butterflies at home, especially in a year like this, also seek alternatives, since local nurseries seem to be having a hard time getting milkweed and keeping it in stock.   The recent news that the Monarch butterfly migration may soon become extinct because of a loss of milkweed habitat is driving the demand.

So what’s a hungry caterpillar to do?

Hungry caterpillars on milkweed seedlings

My boys are hungry! Six Monarch caterpillars have pretty much decimated this pot of milkweed seedlings planted in February. Good thing I have another one. Photo by Monika Maeckle

It’s a quandary.   At my house, I planted Tropical milkweed seeds in February and have several pots growing, including two filled with seedlings only two inches tall.  This will sate my caterpillars for a few days, at most.

I’m hoping that by the time the hungry cats finish up the tender seedlings, my garden milkweeds will have taken off.  Or perhaps local nurseries will get more milkweed in stock.

Over on the DPLEX list, butterfly buffs–and the Monarch caterpillars–are getting resourceful.  Several folks mentioned that by the time the caterpillars get to their fifth instar, or their final stage, before morphing into a chrysalis, they will eat pumpkin and cucumbers.

That’s right, folks.   See it with your own eyes.

Monarch caterpillars eating pumpkin

No milkweed? No problem. In the fifth instar, Monarch caterpillars will eat a variety of pumpkins. Photo courtesy Ellen Reid

“The butterfly on the left was fed with pumpkin during its final instar.  The one on the right was reared on milkweed,” Ellen Reid wrote via email all the way from St. Arnaud, Victoria, Australia.  ”We couldn’t distinguish between them in any way.”

Reid shared a photo of “pumpkin frass”–orange colored butterfly poop which is produced in volumes in the final stages of the caterpillars metamorphosis.   Usually the frass is dark green or even brown, but “pumpkin frass” looks like the food that fueled it.

Paul Addington tried feeding his Monarch caterpillars cucumbers.  It worked.

Monarchs eating cucumbers

Monarch caterpillars in the fifth instar will eat cucumbers. But they have to be FRESH cucumbers! Photo courtesy Paul Addington

“These cats are eating the skin of the cucumber,” relayed Addington. “These were organic, but still felt like they were waxy, so [they were] heavily scrubbed first.”

Addington said the caterpillars indeed preferred milkweed when given a choice.  ”All 52 of mine finished on cucumber, looked great and joined the wild,” he said, adding     “UPDATE: must be fresh, crunchy cucumbers.…two-weeks-in-the-fridge cukes were rejected with enthusiasm….what an uproar!”

Pumpkin frass

The frass, or butterfly poop, of pumpkin fed Monarch caterpillars reflects the food’s orange tint. Photo courtesy Ellen Reid

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, chimed in to the conversation, letting folks know that the alternatives have been known for a while.   “These alternatives have been utilized by many people in the past. They only seem to work for fifth instar larvae that are less than four days from pupating. Many of the larvae will not make these transitions successfully.”

So Monarch butterfly caterpillars appear to be more adaptable than we thought.

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2013′s Top Posts: Moths, Monarch Decline, How to Raise Butterflies, Move a Chrysalis

We close out 2013 as a banner year at the Texas Butterfly Ranch.  2013 marked our third year covering the life cycle of butterflies, moths and the plants that sustain them.  We published 35 posts this year and drew 107,000+ page views–up from 42,000 in 2012.   Thanks to all for reading.

The decline of the Monarch butterfly migration led butterfly news this year, with a post detailing the steady downward spiral topping the list.  Interestingly, posts about how-to-raise butterflies and what species of milkweed to plant also ranked highly–apparent responses to the severity of pollinator decline? Hmm.

Below, you’ll find the posts you enjoyed most in 2013.

Monarch butterflies in decline

Dire predictions became reality in November when news reports suggested that  only three million Monarch butterflies would make it to Mexico this year.  For the first time in recorded history, Monarch butterflies did not arrive at their ancestral roosts in Michoacán en masse by Day of the Dead, November 2.  Scientists were concerned at this historic tardy turn.

Monarch graph Journey North

Only three million Monarchs made it to Mexico and may occupy only 1.25 acres of forest this year, a record low. Graph via Journey North

The 2012 season, acknowledged as the worst year for the insects population wise, counted 60 million Monarchs.  In prime years, they numbered 450 million.  Looks like 2013 will hold the dubious distinction of the year the migration came unraveled.

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, relayed a similar prognosis earlier in the season when he told the International Butterfly Breeders conference that the butterflies would likely occupy only 1.25 acres of forest in the mountainous roosting grounds west of Mexico City.  At their height, the creatures roosted in 50+ acres of forest.

Chip Taylor and Kathy Marshburn

Dr. Chip Taylor visits with IBBA president Kathy Marshburn at the organization’s combined conference with the Association for Butterflies in November. Photo by Monika Maeckle

How unspeakably sad that the entire population of Monarch butterflies east of the Rocky Mountains could fit into a space smaller than a strip shopping center.

People are doing what they can to help Monarchs on the home front

Our two-part feature on How to Raise Monarch Butterflies at Home ranked a top post  with readers.   In April I wrote that I had collected Monarch eggs from milkweed in my  front yard. Subsequent posts detailed step-by-step how easy it is to raise Monarch butterflies at home.

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed

Monarch butterfly caterpillar on milkweed, its host plant. You can raise them at home–it’s easy! Photo by Monika Maeckle

We started with the eggs, watching them hatch and become tiny caterpillars.  We fueled their growth with fresh, pesticide-free milkweed, then followed their whole lifecycle to the chrysalis stage and finally their eclosure to a butterfly. You can do it, too.  Read the two-part series here.

Moths:  Underappreciated, extremely interesting

While we call ourselves the Texas Butterfly Ranch, we try not to be speciesists.  That is, we try not to give too much attention to one species over another—although that’s pretty much impossible given America’s love affair with the Monarch butterfly.

We agree that Monarchs and other butterflies seem to get all the press at the expense of their less celebrated, night flying cousins.  That said, we try to spread the love around.

In fact, two of our top posts in 2013 didn’t even discuss butterflies.  Instead, they profiled two of the more interesting moths you’ll likely find in your gardens.

Sphinx Moth on Datura, photo by Betsy Betros, via BugGuide.net

Sphinx Moth on Datura, photo by Betsy Betros, via BugGuide.net

This post on tomato hornworms ran back in June 2012, yet climbed easily into one of the top reads of 2013—18 months after it posted in the height of summer.   Perhaps because so little is written about moths?  Or maybe thanks to National Moth Week, a relatively new celebration launched by the Friends of the East Brunswick Environmental Commission (Friends of EBEC), a group of citizen scientists that focus on the fascinating flyers every summer.  Mark your calendar for National Moth Week 2014, July 19 – 27, as a week that will celebrate their existence.

The truth is that even butterfly loving vegetable gardeners often squish the tomato and tobacco hornworms, which feast voraciously on tomato, pepper and potato plants and other members of the Solanaceae family.  We encourage ceding a few fruits or entire plants to these dramatic caterpillars, which later morph into beautiful Sphinx Moths.

Sphinx Moth caterpillar on Jimsonweed

Look for Tobacco Hornworms on Jimsonweed and your tomato plants.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Then, our story on the mysterious, myth-laden Black Witch Moth: Large, Common, Bat-like, and Harmless drew lots of interest.

This “bat moth” resembles a bat in size and shape and its seven-inch wingspan ranks it as the largest moth in North America.  Black Witch Moths are common in Central and South Texas and frequently rest under the eaves of houses near doors, often startling folks as they arrive home.   Generous rains seem to have offered favorable conditions for them this year, as we had many questions about them.

Black WItch Moth Huatulco

Black Witch Moth seen in a kitchen on a full moon night.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

The folklore surrounding these harmless nightflyers runs the gamut.  They can be a harbinger of death–or a sign that your future includes a winning lottery ticket.

Butterfly 911:  lack of host plant results in milkweed emergency

This post on a “milkweed emergency” drew plenty of views and the most comments of any post ever on the Texas Butterfly Ranch  (76).

The quandary of too many caterpillars and no milkweed to feed them continues to find readers, especially at the end of the Monarch butterfly season when nurseries and gardens have exhausted their host plant supplies.

Monarch on Milkweed

It takes a lot of milkweed to grow a Monarch butterfly. The caterpillars consume 200x their birth weight in milkweed leaves. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Every fall, we receive frantic emails, Facebook posts and even phone calls from people who have plenty of Monarch caterpillars, but no milkweed on hand.   A milkweed shortage pretty much defines the plight of Monarch butterflies throughout the migration landscape.

Frequently, folks will run out to a nursery and buy a fresh pot of milkweed, unaware that plants have been sprayed with systemic pesticides, which can last six months.   This post details how to avoid the sad experience of finding all your caterpillars dead from toxic poisoning the morning after you’ve served them polluted host plant.

How to Move a Monarch Chrysalis

If you can get your caterpillars to the chrysalis stage, they often will build their jade jewel in an inconvenient location.   A post that draws steady interest year after year answers the frequently asked question:  Is Relocating a Monarch Chrysalis OK?

Monarch chrysalis and butterfly

The answer:  yes, you may relocate the creatures once they make their chrysalis.

The post details a few tips on how to handle a Monarch chrysalis with care and do’s and don’ts for successfully relocating them.

Got Milkweed?  Updated guide to Texas milkweeds

Finally, rounding out our top posts of 2013, an updated Milkweed Guide: Choose Best Plants for Monarch Butterflies.    Given the news of the decline of the Monarch butterfly migration, the call to plant milkweed and other wildflowers to make sure pollinators—not just Monarchs—continue their life cycle becomes urgent.

Antelope horns

Asclepias asperula, Antelope Horns Milkweed on Texas Hill Country roadside in April 2011, photo by Monika Maeckle

We get many questions  in our emailbox regarding which species are best for San Antonio and Austin yards, ranches, or even a vacant lots that beg for a butterfly garden.   Our Milkweed Guide aims to point you in the right direction.

We’ve added a few links below to other favorite posts that we believe merit your time.   We hope they pique your interest.  Let us know by leaving a comment.

To all our readers, mariposistas, MOTH-ers, butterfly lovers near and far–cheers to a healthy, happy 2014.   Plant lots of wildflowers, host and pollinator plants in 2014.   Stay away from pollutants and pesticides. Enjoy and tend your gardens and wildscapes.

See you outside.

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Caterpillar Cannibalism UPDATE: Monarch butterfly caterpillar eats another for lunch

In a recent post on caterpillar cannibalism we invited others to share their testimonials of seeing caterpillars eat their brethren eggs or caterpillars.  Edith Smith of Shady Oak Butterfly Farm sent along the following photos that rival a science fiction movie.  Thanks, Edith for sharing the gory–but informative–photos.

Monarch Caterpillar cannibalism

Somebody’s hungry.  Monarch caterpillar eats its brother. Photo by Edith Smith, Shady Oak Butterfly Farm

Monarch cannibalism

Monarch caterpillar eats Monarch egg. PHoto by Edith Smith, Shady Oak Butterfly Farm

Monarch cannibalism

Monarch caterpillar eats Monarch chrysalis. Photo by Edith Smith, Shady Oak Butterfly Farm

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Caterpillar Cannibalism: Monarch butterfly caterpillar eats Monarch egg for lunch

I have heard that when Monarch caterpillars run out of milkweed to fuel their feeding frenzy en route to becoming a migrating butterfly, they can become cannibalistic.  That makes Darwinian sense.   Facing competition and a lack of food, it’s understandable that a creature might eat what’s before it to survive.   Nature can be cruel.

Monarch catepillars and eggs

Not interested:  Monarch caterpillars resisted a snack of a creamy yellow Monarch eggs–unlike a fellow caterpillar hours earlier. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Still, I was surprised this weekend when I watched a Monarch caterpillar retrieved from an aging milkweed plant nonchalantly devour a creamy yellow Monarch egg upon combining the two for safekeeping.    The second instar caterpillar appeared freshly minted, as if it had just shed its skin.  Its tentacles were still stuck to his head, not yet dry or perking up to explore the universe as they often do when in full form.  I’m betting that shedding your skin requires extra energy and works up an appetite.

This caterpillar was hungry.  As soon as I plucked the leaf on which he rested and placed it in a container with a Monarch egg found earlier, the caterpillar quickly gravitated to the egg and began noshing.  It took about five seconds to decimate the egg.  The caterpillar knocked it back like a high protein jello shot.

Later, as an experiment, I put several caterpillars in with several eggs to see if they would do the same.  They did not.  Were they just not that hungry?  Scientists will have to answer that one.

“Cannibalism in monarchs is not unheard of – it usually occurs due to overcrowding and/or insufficient food availability, but this is not always the case,” wrote Jim Lovett of Monarch Watch when the “caterpillar cannibalism” question was posed on a Monarch Watch forum. Most folks here will tell you to give the caterpillars plenty of room and to raise similarly-sized caterpillars together (don’t keep the larger caterpillars with the smaller ones).”

Sounds like good advice.   I generally keep eggs and tiny instars separate from their more voracious brethren.  In the case above, I was moving caterpillars and eggs from the river to the ranch house, holding them together temporarily.

Jacqueline Stearns responded on the same string that she had witnessed Monarch cannibalism.  ”My first cat ever earlier this summer ended up killing my 2nd and 3rd cats and scaring my 4th and eating 3 eggs before I finally figured out what was happening,” Stearns posted on the forum.   She isolated the aggressive caterpillar and segregated the rest by size.   Since, she wrote, “have not had issue with any of the others until just last week. I found my youngest ones fighting and separated them (one is now a chrysalis) so I’m guessing they are safe together now.”

Whew.

Frostweed on the Llano

Frostweed on the Llano River awaits migrating Monarchs. Lookin’ good for a nectar fest in a few weeks. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Meanwhile, on the Llano River this weekend, we found plenty of eggs and caterpillars upon making our milkweed rounds.   Three Monarchs, four Queens were spotted in flight.  Swamp Milkweed stands of Asclepias incarnata are numerous but thin, and we even found one egg on Antelope Horns milkweed, Asclepias asperula.

Parched Goldenrod on the Llano River

Last year, this is what it looked like:  parched Goldenrod on the Llano River served no use to migrating Monarch butterflies except as a place to rest.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Frostweed, a Monarch butterfly mainstay in the fall with its puffs of white flowers, is just starting to bloom.  Goldenrod is still pervasive, but fading.  The timing is excellent for good nectar possibilities a month from now, October 10-22,  when Monarch Watch predicts peak Monarch Migration for latitude 29, which is San Antonio.  Austin, at latitude 30, would be around the same.

Peak Migration dates

Peak migration for San Antonio is predicted to be October 10 -18 according to Monarch Watch. Screengrab and info via Monarch Watch.org

My Monarch Watch tags arrived this week.  I had procrastinated buying them and only ordered 100 this year as I expect another dreary turnout for the migration given the myriad challenges Monarchs face. Weather seems to be cooperating and cooling off, though.

When the small troop arrives, nectar sources should be plentiful, boding a restorative rest stop as they make their way to Mexico.

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Got Milkweed? Updated Plant Guide for Central and South Texas

Our first Milkweed Guide posted back in the fall of 2010 and has continued to be one of our most-read blogposts.   With spring here and butterfly gardeners chomping at the bit to create host and nectar habitat for Monarchs and other butterflies, it’s a good time to talk milkweed choices and availability.

Slide1

Much has changed since that 2010 post.  A three-year, drought-induced emphasis on native, drought-hearty plants has created a greater demand for native milkweeds. That said, supply continues to be lacking.

Monarch Watch recently launched its Milkweed Market on its homepage, a virtual marketplace of native milkweed seed.    When you click on the vendors, though, most species are not available.

Monarch Watch, The Xerces Society, a pollinator advocacy organization, and the Native Plant Society have all engaged in milkweed restoration initiatives.    This is good news, but it will take time to develop the market commercially.

Those of us who have attempted cultivation of native milkweeds from seed in our home gardens have often met frustration and failure.   The very traits that make native plants so hardy also often make them extremely particular about their soil, drainage, moisture and available light.  As George Cates, chief seed wrangler at Native American Seed Co. in Junction, Texas told me:  ”These milkweeds have a mind of their own.”

Monarch caterpillars will ONLY eat Asclepias species, or milkweed.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch caterpillars will ONLY eat Asclepias species, or milkweed. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Plugs for native milkweeds are practically impossible to find in nurseries and because of their extremely long tap roots, transplanting them successfully often fails.   Texas longterm drought has sparked a broader interest in native plants, so the availability of milkweeds and other “from here” pollinator plants will continue to grow.

For now, though, planting from seed is the most viable option.  If you can collect your own seed in the wild, go for it.  Native milkweed seed is expensive–as it should be.  When you realize what it takes to produce the seed, you won’t begrudge its price tag.  Read that saga here.

Since the time to take cuttings and collect seed will soon be upon us, we offer guidance below, based on personal experience.  Other appropriate milkweeds are suggested in this article by the Native Plant Society.  Keep an eye out for your local botanical garden or native seed society’s pop-up plant sales to score some proven homegrown natives.

Texas Butterfly Ranch Suggested Milkweed Species for our Area

Antelope HornAsclepias asperula  

The most common native milkweed in these parts has fuzzy leaves and an odd greenish-white bloom and can stand two-feet tall.  During dry spring seasons, the hearty perennial is sometimes the ONLY plant blooming.  Last year in Central Texas when we had an exceptionally wet winter, the Antelope Horns were not as pervasive as you would think.   Too much moisture and too much competition from less hardy plants kept these guys laying low. 

Antelope horns

Asclepias asperula, Antelope Horns Milkweed on Texas Hill Country roadside in April 2011,    photo by Monika Maeckle

Antelope horns is especially appropriate for wildscapes, ranches, and large plantings.  It can best be propagated by seed, which is available commercially from native seed suppliers.  

Be mindful that stratification is recommended for successful germination.   According to the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, Antelope horns can also be propagated from root cuttings taken in the spring.  If you have it growing in nearby fields, ranches or wildscapes, you might give this a try.  If you choose to plant seeds you’ve gathered yourself, collect those in June.  

Typically 30 – 45 days of stratification will be required before installing in moist soil.  See our post on how to get Antelope Horns milkweed to germinate, courtesy of Native American Seed Company in Junction, Texas.

 Green MilkweedAsclepias viridis 

This common native milkweed in our area is sometimes called Green Antelope Horn Milkweed or Green Mlikweed and is the most common milkweed in the state of Texas.   The Edwards Plateau is the western reach of its range, which starts in East Texas.

Asclepia Viridis, Green Milkweed or Green Antelopehorn Milkweed Photo courtesy Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center

Asclepia Viridis, Green Milkweed or Green Antelopehorn Milkweed Photo courtesy Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center

I have a single one of these plants growing under a porch at the ranch.   The solitary bloomer never receives supplementary water and barely enjoys rain, given its location tucked under a breezeway.

Yet every year it pushes out a batch of blooms and seedpods, peeking from under the  deck, reaching for the sun.   Those of us who raise Monarch caterpillars like the fact that Green milkweed has larger leaves than other available milkweed, which makes feeding voracious caterpillars a bit easier.

Green milkweed can range from one-three feet in height and is best propagated by seed which is commercially available.  Like Antelope Horns, it sports showy whiteish-green globes of flowers that attract Monarchs as a host, and huge bees and other butterflies for its nectar.

Swamp MilkweedAsclepias incarnata

Another excellent native milkweed for our area is Swamp Milkweed, a lovely pink bloomer that sports lush pink flowers in August and blooms through September.

Swamp milkweed grows along rivers and streams and is an excellent choice for riverbanks in the Hill Country or perhaps in an area where you have air conditioning condensate draining.  Spiders LOVE this plant.  I have witnessed “death in the afternoon” more often than I care to remember: Monarch butterflies snagged by orb weaver spiders as they perch on Swamp Milkweed leaves, in search of an easy feast.

Monarch on Swamp Milkweed on the Llano River

Monarch on Swamp Milkweed on the Llano River, photo by Monika Maeckle

For years we’ve had this milkweed growing along the banks and on the Chigger Islands of our Llano River ranch, but recent, prolonged drought has taken a severe toll, lowering our water table so much that much Swamp milkweed has died.

 Butterfly Weed, Asclepias tuberosa

This bushy orange bloomer is often confused for Tropical Milkweed (see below) and is frequently mislabeled at nurseries.  One of the best ways to tell if a milkweed in question is tuberosa is to break off a leaf and see if  milky latex pours out.  If it doesn’t, then it’s Butterfly Weed.

Ascelpias tuberosa

Asclepias tuberosa, or Butterfly Weed, is a great nectar plant for Monarchs and other butterflies. Photo courtesy Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center

Detractors of Butterfly Weed point out that it doesn’t contain the toxic cardenolides that protect Monarchs from predators, thus should be avoided.   The toxins, contained in the latex of  most milkweed species, give the Monarch its bright warning colors and bad taste that deters predators.

The 18-inch-tall perennial serves as a fantastic nectar plant.  Its abundant orange blooms attract all kinds of butterflies.   If you’re trying to stick with natives, choose this one to grace your butterfly garden.

Butterfly weed can sometimes be found locally at nurseries. The plant is propagated easily from seeds and cuttings and blooms through the Fall, when nectar sources are wanting.

Tropical Milkweed, Asclepias curassavica

Tropical milkweed is not native, but it is widely available at garden centers in one-gallon pots and it also germinates easily from seed and cuttings. As much as I support native plants, this is my favorite Monarch host plant.  It’s easy to grow, not a water hog, propagates easily from seeds and cuttings, blooms prolifically and draws Monarchs like a magnet.  Commercial butterfly breeders and even organizations like Monarch Watch rely on Tropical milkweed to raise butterflies in captivity.

Asclepias curassavica, Tropical milkweed, NOT native, but a great Monarch host and nectar plant for all butterflies.  Photo by Moniak Maeckle

Asclepias curassavica, Tropical milkweed, NOT native, but a great Monarch host and nectar plant for all butterflies. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The plant can be controversial for native plant purists and some scientists.   Theories abound on the appropriateness–or not–of Tropical milkweed in Central and South Texas.

The plant originated in Central America and has gradually moved north.   Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, points out that Tropical milkweed is the plant on which Monarch butterflies evolved.

In my completely unscientific kitchen experiments, I’ve noticed that Monarch caterpillars PREFER Tropical milkweed. When offered a choice of Tropical milkweed, Swamp Milkweed or Antelope horns, Monarch caterpillars inevitably choose Tropical milkweed.

Studies show that the toxins in Tropical Milkweed inoculate Monarch moms and their young. While it can be challenging to find Tropical milkweed in the Fall when Monarchs are moving through Texas, it’s easy to cut back your spring plants to encourage new growth for migrating visitors.   My butterfly breeder friend Connie Hodson, of Flutterby Gardens in Manatee, Florida, says you can cut any six-inch stalk of Tropical milkweed in a potting soil and vermiculite mix, and have new plants in no time.    You can also order seeds or harvest them yourself from fellow gardeners.

NOTE:  If you choose to plant Tropical milkweed, best practice suggests slashing it to the ground in late fall or early winter.   It will push out new shoots as the weather warms. This  will discourage overwintering of organisms possibly harmful to Monarchs.

Matelea reticulata  Pearl Milkweed vine

Milkweed vine

Milkweed vine, lovely addition to the garden!  Photo by Monika Maeckle

While Milkweed vine is in the Asclepias family, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that Monarchs and Queens use this vine as a host plant. It grows in the wild in the Texas Hill Country.

Anyone have experience with Milkweed vine as a host?

I include it today because it is an absolutely delightful plant with its heart-shaped leaves, perfect green symmetrical flowers, and a lovely, intriguing pearl-like dot in the middle. Someone needs to make earrings out of these flowers.

In the Fall, Milkweed vine produces huge seed pods, about three times the size of Tropical milkweed.  The plant climbs and curls for six – 12 feet and is sometimes called Green milkweed vine, Net vein milkvine, and Netted milkvine.

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Persnickety Texas Milkweeds “May not Lend Themselves to Mass Seed Production”

Native American Seed Company is on a mission to restore the earth, one native seed at a time.

The 300-acre spread about 115 miles west of San Antonio on the banks of the Llano River just northeast of Junction, Texas, boasts 75 acres of native plants in production

Antelope horns milkweed seed pods

Antelope horns milkweed pods last June at Native American Seed in Junction, Texas.                Photo courtesy Native American Seed

for the distinct purpose of harvesting native seed.

The company’s nondescript cedar post gate opens onto a caliche drive that winds through classic Hill Country mesquite, agarita and sotol, then spills into planted rows of huisache daisy, standing cypress, gayfeather, American blanketflower and other native wildflowers and grasses.   Water pumped from the nearby Llano River maintains the verdant fields, and allows the company to grow, harvest, process, package and ship more than 170 species of native seed and 30 seed mixes nationwide.

Antelope Horns milkweed

Antelope Horns milkweed last June, after well-timed and regular rains in early 2012. Photo courtesy Native American Seed

Among the seed stock, two native Texas milkweeds, Asclepias asperula, commonly known as Antelope horns, and Asclepias viridis, often called Green milkweed, have challenged the 25-year-old seed company’s experts.  The Monarch butterfly host plants are essential to the Monarch butterfly migration, which funnels south through the Texas Hill Country each fall.  Native milkweeds are famously difficult to propagate, even for professionals. “Species in Texas may not lend themselves to mass seed production,” said George Cates, chief “seed wrangler” at Native American Seed.

Native Texas milkweeds require stratification–cold and moisture to soften up their outer shells.   They need 45 days of moist conditions, specific soil conditions, and alternate wet and dry periods.   Worst thing you can do: overwater them.  (Check out Native American Seed’s Milkweed Stratification process at this post.)

Gardeners and butterfly fans committed in theory to propagating and planting native milkweeds (and I consider myself among them) have been vexed in practice by their persnickety ways.   That’s what often drives us to plant Tropical Milkweed, the nonnative Asclepias curassavica that is easy-to-grow, widely available and the favorite of Monarch butterflies for hosting and other butterflies for nectar. While the practice bothers some scientists and native plant purists, our rationale is that Monarch caterpillars need to eat.   In short, it’s better to provide SOME host plant for migrating Monarchs than NONE as they pass through Texas.

George Cates

George Cates stands in a field of future Antelope Horns in April. Nothing sprouting yet. PHoto by Monika Maeckle

Native American Seed and the Portland-based Xerces Society, a nonprofit organization devoted to protecting invertebrates and their habitats, hope to change all that.

In 2010, the Xerces Society approached the 18-person staff of the Native American Seed Company about establishing a partnership to restore native milkweeds to the American landscape.  Xerces had recieved a $117,000 conservation innovation grant from the USDA’s National Resources Conservation Service.   “We call it the ‘milkweed CIG,’” said Brianna Borders, project manager for the undertaking, since renamed Project Milkweed.  A requirement of the grant was that the recipients match the sum by raising an equal amount.

Project Milkweed identified several U.S. regions for milkweed seed production–California, the Great Basin, Arizona, New Mexico, Florida, and Texas. “Texas was a clear choice, arguably the most important state to the Monarch migration,” said Borders.  The $334,000 was pretty much divied up equally between the areas, she said.

xerceslogo

Native American Seed was an ideal candidate for the project, said Borders, because of the company’s long involvement in native seed production and its opportune location on the Monarch flyway.  Founder Bill Nieman, a high school dropout who turned a trash hauling business into a successful landscaping and design firm and then into Native American Seed, has a long history as a conservationist. The company’s mission aligned perfectly with the task.

The company’s 100-page catalogue practically serves as a free native plant guide. The vivid and abundant photography, renderings of how seeds look when they sprout, and descriptive verbiage describing each plant’s soil type, sunlight needs, and other traits

Irrigating at Native American Seed

Native American Seed will use its full irrigation alltoment from the Llano River to produce native seeds. Photo by Monika Maeckle

offer a broad overview of the life cycle of many plants native to the U.S.   Especially entertaining is Nieman’s annual introductory letter in which he tackles topical environmental issues–from invasive plants and water waste to wind power lines.

Results for the Mlikweed Project have been mixed so far.  The program launched just as Texas entered the ongoing historic drought.  In April 2011, the milkweeds didn’t flower or produce seed (which is expected, given they are perennials).  Borders said the first seed harvest last year (2012) was “pretty modest.”The 2,400 linear feet of native milkweeds  produced 1.5 pounds of seed, which, at an average of 65,000 seeds per pound, amounts to almost 100,000 seeds.  Of those 100,000 seeds, 95% have been restratified and replanted.

“We didn’t set a target for how much seed has been produced because there are so many unknowns,” said Borders.

Meanwhile, others have tackled the daunting task of producing milkweed plugs.  Monarch Watch, based at the University of Kansas at Lawrence, launched a “Bring Back the Monarchs” milkweed restoration campaign back in 2010.  Last fall, the program got a second life here in Texas when it partnered with the Native Plant Society to recruit volunteers to gather native seed, then mail them to Kansas for cultivation there.

bring-back-the-monarchs

The milkweed restoration campaign previously used a Texas grower. Pat McNeal, of McNeal Growers in Manchaca, Texas, assumed those duties in 2012,  but said recently that Monarch Watch “had better success in Kansas where they have four real seasons.”

McNeal suggested that the best way to propagate Texas native milkweeds would be to cultivate the tubers for two years, then plant those in the fall.   “These milkweeds don’t adapt their schedules for us,” he said, adding that Texas native milkweeds don’t do well in containers.  The plants can have a two-meter long tap root making them difficult to transplant.  ”It’s like trying to grow a potato in a pot,” said McNeal.

Dr. Chip Taylor, who oversees the program, continued cultivation this year with a Kansas grower.  He said he anticipates that 25,000 native milkweed plugs will have been produced this spring.  All have been sold on preorder. Monarch Watch will soon set up  a “Milkweed Market” for retailers on its website so people can connect with growers in their area.

Antelope Horns milkweed root stok at American Native Seed

Cates points out root stock from 2012′s Antelope Horns milkweed crop, which has yet to sprout this year because of a lack of rain.    Photo by Monika Maeckle

At Native American Seed, the battle for Texas native milkweed seed plods on.  Cates assumes primary responsibility for their production.   He joined the company in 2003 as a student intern in ecological sciences at Austin College in Sherman, Texas.  After graduating he came on fulltime in 2007.

On a windy Friday afternoon in April, Cates pointed to the dry landscape.  ”The grass hasn’t been green since 2010,” he said. With the Llano River flowing at an historic low, Cates mentioned the seed company will once again use its entire irrigation allotment, strategically watering wildflowers and native grasses, supplementing with a recently installed rainwater collection system.

Monarch on Tropical Milkweed

Cates says voting for Tropical milkweed is a vote against native milkweeds. Photo by Monika Maeckle

A dry winter coupled with early, hot tempertures, watering restrictions on the Llano, and an unpredictable climate suggest months of hard work and frustration ahead for Cates.  But the difficulties haven’t dampened his zeal for restoring native plants with seeds.  ”A plant in the ground will produce 100x more seed than tubers,”  he said.  ”That’s where we’re at–we’re trying to grow a substantial amount of this seed material.”

Cates has little patience for Tropical milkweed, the easy answer for gardeners in the long haul of native plant restoration. “We’re all about having it right now,” said Cates.  “These kinds of conservation efforts can’t be done ‘right now.’  It takes time.”

“Every time you vote for Tropical milkweed with your dollar, you vote against this,” he said, pointing to tidy, dry rows of future Antelope horns, which had yet to sprout this year.

Cates kneeled down and dug his fingers into the soil to find root stock from the 2012 milkweed crop. “Half of what we do fails, but that doesn’t make us stop.”

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How to Get Texas Native Milkweed Seeds to Germinate

Our friends at Native American Seed have been working for years on the best way to get persnickety Texas native milkweed seeds to germinate.   “Native milkweeds simply don’t do well in containers,” said George Cates, seed wrangler at the seed farm and land restoration company in the Hill Country town of Junction.  ”They require a very specific set of conditions and have an extremely long tap-root, making containerization untenable.”

Want native Texas milkweed?  Start with seeds.  Photo courtesy Native American Seed Co.

Want native Texas milkweed? Start with seeds.

So what’s the solution to getting native milkweeds into our landscape?  Start with seeds.

The process has been perfected by Cates, who has germinated thousands of seeds in the last year for Native American Seed‘s customers and the Xerces Society.    Read a report about the project and the status of native Texas milkweed seed production here.   Here’s Cate’s process:

Milkweed Stratification Procedures, Courtesy Native American Seed

NOTE:  Cates insists that sterile rubber (latex) gloves be worn at all times and that containers and implements be sterile.   Otherwise, mold can grow in the vermiculite and damage the seeds.

1. Mix seeds with pre-chilled distilled water and let soak for 24 hours in the fridge.

2.  After 24 hours, pour seeds into strainer and rinse with distilled water.

3. Moisten vermiculite with distilled water, the exact quantity required varies with different media, moist but not dripping is best.

4.  Mix rinsed seeds into vermiculite using your hands, and wear sterile gloves.

5.  Seal container and store in fridge for 30-45 days at 35-45 degrees.  Remove and plant immediately if you see mold.

6.  Plant entire mixture or sift seeds out and plant in prepared seed bed when soil temps are warm (70 degrees+).

7.  Water often until germination occurs.

 

Antelope horns milkweed, a Monarch butterfly host plant, in bloom.  Photos by Native American Seed

Antelope horns milkweed, a Monarch butterfly host plant. Photos by Native American Seed

Soaking and washing the seeds removes natural chemicals that inhibit germination.  When the seeds are moved from the cold darkness of the refrigerator to the bright light and warmth of the sun, they are “shocked” into sprouting.  ”The stratification process is meant to mimic nature,” he said, adding that the plants likely developed this dormancy strategy as an answer to drought conditions.

Good luck with your milkweed seeds and let us know how it goes!

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Queen, Monarch Caterpillars and Butterflies: How to Tell the Difference

Found a Monarch caterpillar on my milkweed!

                               –my friend Hugh Daschbach, via text message

How to tell the difference between a Queen or Monarch caterpillar

Every year around this time as the Queen butterflies start to show up, we get lots of questions about how to tell the difference between Queens, Danaus gilippus, and Monarchs, Danaus plexippus.  And with the warm weather that has gripped South Texas throughout November and now December, many of us are still finding eggs and caterpillars in the leaves of our milkweed.   Queens are here en masse.

Three Queen butterflies

Queens have been flying and reproducing this Fall.

As it turned out, the caterpillar in question that my friend Hugh texted me about (excuse the typos) was in fact a Queen.  The giveaway:  it had three sets of protuberances–frequently called antennae, but actually only one set are antennae and the other two are filaments.  The antennae have special sensing properties while the filaments are mostly for show, and to throw off predators.

Queens on Purple Mistflower

Queens on Purple Mistflower

Hugh’s confusion is common:  because of their similar color, size and affinity for milkweed as a host plant, Queens and Monarchs are often mistaken for each other in their various life stages.

But once you look closely, it’s not that hard to tell the difference between Monarchs and Queens.

First, Queens appear solid orange compared to the varying shades of a Monarch.  In the photo above, notice how with their wings folded, the Queens’ solid dark orange is interrupted with occasional white dots–nothing like the striking stained glass veins and color pattern of the Monarch below.

Resident Monarch butterfly on the San Antonio River Museum Reach

Monarch butterfly on the San Antonio River Museum Reach

With their wings open, the difference is even more obvious.  The Queen is solid, the Monarch has varied coloration.  Both of the examples below are male butterflies, as you can see by the prominent display of their family jewels–the defunct pheremone sacs that presumably once drove the lady butterflies wild.

Queen butterfly, wings open

Queen butterfly.  It’s a male.

Female Queens and Monarchs don’t have these prominent markings with wings open.   In Monarchs, the black veins are generally wider and more pronounced in the females.

Monarch butterflies are on the move in Texas

Male Monarch butterfly.  Notice the two dark spots, his “family jewels.”

In the caterpillar stage, the most obvious difference is that Queens have one set of antennae and two sets of filaments, while Monarchs have one set of antennae and one set of filaments. Antennae are on the head of the butterfly, while filaments are at the rear–and in the case of the Queen, in the middle.

Queen caterpillar with three filaments

Queen caterpillar sports three sets of protuberances–two sets of filaments, one set of antennae.

Notice in the photo above, the Queen has what appear to be THREE sets of protuberances.  The Monarch caterpillar only has TWO.  Both wear distinctive yellow, black and white striped suits.   The Queen often will have a slight red blend as the filaments connect to the caterpillar’s torso.  The patterns of the stripes can vary depending on time of year, humidity and diet.

Monarch butterfly caterpillar has two filaments

Monarch butterfly caterpillar has one set of antennae, one of filaments–two total sets.

Scientists don’t fully understand the biological purpose of the filaments, which seem to reach out and “feel” the universe around them.   They swerve and turn in various directions, almost punctuating caterpillar moves like a roving eye or arched eyebrows on the human face.

For the sake of identification, let’s just say their purpose is to signal the difference between Queens and Monarchs.   For more on filaments and what we do and don’t know about them, check this link on the Monarch Watch page.

Queen and Monarch chrysalises

Queen and Monarch chrysalises. Monarch in the middle.

In the chrysalis stage, Queen chrysalises are almost identical to Monarchs, except they are generally smaller.  They also sometimes offer a subtle pink hue, as evidenced in the picture above, Monarch in the middle, Queen on the sides.

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.  You can also read our stuff on the Rivard Report.

Tales of a Butterfly Evangelist Shared at Pecha Kucha Night San Antonio

When Vicki Yuan invited me to present on butterflies to the San Antonio chapter of the American Architecture Foundation’s periodic Pecha Kucha Night event, I had no idea what a challenge it would be to frame the amazing story of the Monarch butterfly migration into 20 20-second slides.

That’s right.  Twenty slides, each timed exactly to 20 seconds.  That’s the strict format for Pecha Kucha, a program launched in Tokyo in 2003 for sharing people’s passions by two British architects.    Pecha Kucha means “chit chat” in Japanese.

There’s so much to tell when you’re talking butterflies.  Those who know me can attest to my tendencies to natter on about their charms.  Convey a multi-generation, 3,000-mile migration made by creatures that weigh less than a gram and find their way “home” to a place they’ve never been–all in six minutes, 40 seconds?

If Monarch butterflies can complete such a journey, I should be able to share their story–and my own evolution as a butterfly evangelist–in under seven minutes.  It was a great exercise in expository discipline.  I hope you enjoy it.

For more on Pecha Kucha Night San Antonio, see the Rivard Report’s coverage of the event.

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Want to Meet the Beetles? Better Hurry, Removal of Milkweed Beetles from San Antonio River’s Milkweed Patch Imminent

An invasion of red-and-black milkweed beetles have made a temporary eyesore of the San Antonio River’s celebrated Milkweed Patch on the Museum Reach.  The striking insects, whose colorful torsos suggest the patterns of a tiki mask, have moved into the 1200-square foot Tropical milkweed garden on the banks of the San Antonio River just south of the Pearl Brewery  in a classic play of nature’s cycles.

Milkweed Beetles have taken over the Milkweed Patch

Milkweed Beetles have taken over the Milkweed Patch

The beetles, which look like ladybugs on steroids, don’t bite, sting or carry diseases. They do, however, defoliate milkweed plants, and have left the highly trafficked stretch of the River with some unattractive bald spots.

Migrating Monarch butterflies moved through town earlier this spring, laying the first generation of eggs in their annual migration at the Milkweed Patch.  The resulting acrobatic caterpillars occupied the Patch, feasting on milkweed leaves, the Monarch butterfly host plant.  Late straggling Monarchs continue to mingle with our local colony but the pervasive milkweed beetle, Labidomera clivicollis, dominates.

Milkweed Patch going bald thanks to milkweed beetles

Milkweed Patch going bald thanks to milkweed beetles

Volunteers for the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project (MLMP), a citizen scientist program based at the University of Minnesota and which aims to better understand the Monarch life cycle and migration, have noticed fewer Monarch caterpillars and chrysalises during their weekly observations as beetles consume the milkweed leaves.

Discussions ensued about possibly pruning the milkweeds, which typically die back in winters when a hard freeze occurs.   That didn’t happen this year.  But San Antonio River Authority staff determined a better approach would be to hand-remove the beetles, THEN prune the plants.

Milkweed beetles have defoliated the Milkweed Patch. But aren't they cute?

Milkweed beetles have defoliated the Milkweed Patch. But aren't they cute?

“We believe this to be a holistic management approach with minimal negative impact to the environment that is consistent with our commitment to the local community for the project, ” said Steven Schauer, Manager of External Communications at the San Antonio River Authority (SARA), which oversees maintenance of the area.   The Museum Reach stretch of the San Antonio River was designed as a manicured, urban park setting, unlike the Mission Reach section, which is managed as a native riparian restoration.

SARA deserves praise for working with MLMP  volunteers and resisting the use of pesticides to address the problem.   A round of pesticides would quickly rid the area of

Gulf Fritillary

Gulf Fritillary, photo courtesy NABA.org

beetles (and other plant pests) and would also jeopardize the Monarchs’ and other butterflies’ continued colonization of the River.  Just north of the Milkweed Patch is a huge Passionflower planting, where Gulf Fritillary butterflies have made their home and are breeding.

If you’d like to “meet the beetles,”  better do so in the next few days.  The critters will be less visible once the hand removal is accomplished.

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