Endangered Species Act Petition: Wrong Tool for Monarch Butterfly Conservation?

As Monarch butterflies finished their tardy, impressive sweep through Texas in early November demonstrating a 2014 population rebound, those in the Monarch community debated the wisdom of listing the iconic migrating butterfly as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Monarch butterflies on the Llano River

If the Monarch butterfly were listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, you could only harvest 10 from your own yard each year. Photo by Veronica Prida

In late August, the Xerces Society, Center for Food Safety, Center for Biological Diversity and Dr. Lincoln Brower submitted this petition to the Secretary of the Interior requesting the Monarch butterfly be listed as “threatened” under the ESA.

This year’s seemingly healthy population, predicted by experts to be two, perhaps three times as large as last year’s record low, is a welcome turnaround from the post-2010 decline associated with the prolonged Texas drought and other challenges to the migration. The rebound has created a bit of a disconnect, arriving the same year as the petition to consider the iconic migrants’ threatened status.

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. The ecosystem that supports the Monarch butterfly migration–and pollinator habitat in general–is tattered.  Dr. Chip Taylor stated it well in a recent blog post: “Monarchs clearly aren’t endangered. As this discussion proceeds, we need to make it clear in all communications that it’s about the migration and not the species per se.”

Agreed.

So, is petitioning the federal government to list our favorite butterfly as “threatened” the best way to accomplish that goal?  After giving it much thought, I think not.

Threatened status might motivate large corporations and government agencies to be more considerate of Monarchs and other pollinators, but for private citizens with no government or scientific affiliation, such status could be counter productive.

Monarch cateripllars

Not in your backyard: if ESA threatened status is applied to Monarchs, each household will be allowed to raise only 10 Monarchs per year. Photo by Monika Maeckle

As one who enjoys Monarchs visiting my urban garden eight months of the year and roosting along the Llano River in the fall, I take particular issue with the federal government telling me what I can do with my land.

Milkweed and nectar plants fill my San Antonio pollinator gardens.   We’ve also undertaken a riparian restoration in the Texas Hill Country where Monarchs roost each year, an effort that includes planting native milkweeds and other nectar plants along our riverbanks along the Llano River.

In the course of any given year, I raise several hundred butterflies, not just Monarchs, for fun, joy, and to give as gifts. My goal is to inspire appreciation and understanding of our outdoor world and reinforce the majesty of nature in a small, everyday way.

According to the 159-page petition’s final line,  if “threatened” status is approved, such activities would be a crime.  People like me and you will be allowed to raise “fewer than ten Monarchs per year by any individual, household or educational entity”–unless that activity is “overseen by a scientist, conservation organization, or other entity dedicated to the conservation of the species.”

This seems to strike at the very heart of what has made the Monarch butterfly so iconic and widely embraced–the crowdsourcing of understanding its migration and the groundswell of interest in conserving it.

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

Citizen scientists and individuals like Catalina Trail were instrumental in the discovery of the Monarch roosting spots in 1976.  File photo.

Let’s not forget that regular folks like us helped piece together the puzzle of the Monarch migration back in 1976 through Dr. Fred Urquhart’s monitoring project and the intrepid explorations of individuals like Catalina Trail, the first person to chance up on the roosts in Michoacán.  Making lawbreakers of regular folks for participating and reserving that privilege only for scientists would do more harm than good.

If milkweed becomes part of critical habitat as defined by the ESA under this petition, that would mean destroying milkweed–or getting caught destroying it–would become a crime punishable by fines or mitigation.   Civil penalties can come to $25,000 per ESA violation and criminal fines up to $100,000 per violation, and/or imprisonment for up to one year.

Many landowners will simply not plant milkweed or will do away with it entirely just to avoid problems.  In some parts of the universe, this is known as Shoot, Shovel and Shut-up, the “practice of killing and burying evidence of any plants or animals that might be threatened or endangered.”   We have seen this attitude first hand in Texas.  Ranchers have been known to destroy first growth Ashe Juniper to preserve grass lands and conserve water to avoid ramifications of disturbing the preferred habitat of the endangered Golden-cheeked warbler.

Also, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is cited as the enforcement agent for these rules– but how likely is it that agency personnel will have the bandwidth to do so? If enforcement is not practical, what is the point of the rule?

The petitioners take special issue with the commercial butterfly breeding industry, which supplies eggs, caterpillars, chrysalises and live butterflies for schools, nature exhibits, conservation activities and events. The petition specifically details how conservation education activities like the rearing of Monarchs in school classrooms or at nature centers will be immune to regulation, “provided that the Monarchs are not provided by commercial suppliers.”

That means if a teacher in a classroom or home school situation in New York City wants to teach metamorphosis to fifth graders using Monarch butterflies, she can only do that with  butterflies personally harvested in the Big Apple. The best intentions often lead to unintended consequences, and that is what I fear in this instance.

“If only wild caterpillars can be collected and brought into the classroom, we will run the risk of excluding urban children…. precisely what we don’t want,” Dr. David Wagner, author of the guide to Caterpillars of Eastern North America, Dr. Felix Sperling of the University of Alberta and Dr. Bruce Walsh, of the University of Arizona, co-wrote in a 2010 article in the News of the Lepidopterist’s Society.

Again, this seems like a case where federal regulation will do more harm than good since the children that most benefit from the tactile experience of raising butterflies are often those living in urban settings with limited access to nature.

Nola Hamilton Garcia with Monarch butterfly

Limiting access to butterflies in the classroom to those found only in the wild will severely restrict access to Monarchs by urban children (who most need it), some scientists say.   Photo by Tracy Idell Hamilton

One of the most contentious issues in the petition is a claim on page 74 that “millions” of Monarch butterflies are released into the environment by commercial butterfly breeders each year.

The claim appears greatly exaggerated to the International Butterfly Breeders Association (IBBA), which challenged the number in a press release headlined, “Number of Monarch Butterflies Released Annually Closer to 32,000 than ‘millions and millions’ as Claimed by Endangered Species Act Petitioners.”

[DISCLOSURE:  I serve on the board of the International Butterfly Breeders Association but do not raise butterflies commercially.  I also am a member of the Xerces Society and have hosted both Dr. Chip Taylor and Dr. Lincoln Brower at our ranch.]

The IBBA challenged the basis for such a claim, noting that the “millions and millions” citation was, in fact, lifted from a single newspaper op-ed piece published eight years ago.  The author, Professor Jeffrey Lockwood, University of Wyoming, acknowledged the number was guesswork.

“That such an unverified claim surfaced in a formal petition before the Secretary of the Interior demonstrates a serious failure in documentation at best,” Kathy Marshburn, IBBA president, said in the press release.

Dr. Tracy Villareal, an IBBA board member, oceanographer, and part owner of Big Tree Butterflies butterfly farm in Rockport, Texas, called the claim “misleading and poor scholarship.” Villareal told me by phone that he would grade such secondhand references unacceptable in a graduate student’s dissertation.

“The authors made no attempt to determine the composition of the 11 million–how many of each species, for example. Nor did they attempt to contact the author to determine how he arrived at this number.  It took me about four hours from my initial email to Professor Lockwood to find out how it was done.”  Read the IBBA’s challenge to the numbers for yourself.

OE Spores with Monarch Butterfly Scales

OE spores can be debilitating for Monarch butterflies.   Concerns about infecting the wild population with the nasty spore persist, and studies continue.  Photo courtesy of MLMP

The petitioners believe that commercial breeders release diseased butterflies into the wild population, potentially damaging it. In particular, the unpronounceable Monarch-centric spore, Ophyrocystis elektroscirrha (OE), poses special concern since it debilitates the butterflies and appears to thrive in conditions where the creatures congregate en masse, are crowded, and/or where milkweeds overwinter, carrying the spores into the next season.

Yet, scientists agree that OE is present in the wild population, too, just as Streptococcus, the nasty sore throat-causing bacteria, is present in the human population. Only when health or conditions are degraded does the disease overtake the butterflies. The science is still uncertain on this.  Studies continue.

Like any industry, commercial butterfly breeding attracts good citizens and bad, but it seems highly unlikely that people who gravitated to the challenging task of breeding butterflies for a living would intentionally release damaged goods into nature. That just makes for bad business. Does the industry need better checks and balances on the health of livestock released into nature?  Absolutely.

The IBBA, an international organization of 104 breeders, plans to release new counts for the number of butterflies released annually at its conference that begins November 12 in Ft. Lauderdale. The organization also will host a discussion on changing or increasing self-policing practices of its membership to keep livestock as disease-free as possible.  As Villareal said in a recent email exchange on the DPLEX list, a listserv frequented by hundreds of folks in the Monarch community, “Working from clean breeders is a critical first step in production. I repeat this for everybody in the back row. CLEAN BREEDERS ARE CRITICAL.”

The ESA petition has created conflict in the small-but-passionate world of butterfly advocates.  A far better use of the community’s time and energy could be spent on initiatives and public education campaigns to restore migratory habitat.

It’s already happening in many ways, through government and small-but-significant public- private partnerships.

In June, President Obama issued a presidential memorandum calling for all federal agencies to “substantially expand pollinator habitat on federal lands, and to build on federal efforts with public-private partnerships.”  Pollinator Week Proclamations have been declared in 45 states, recognizing the vital services that pollinators provide.  The EPA released guidance to help scientists assess the potential risks various pesticides pose to bees, and the USDA announced an $8 million initiative to provide funding to farmers and ranchers who establish new pollinator habitats on agricultural lands as part of its Conservation Reserve Program.

Hardberger Park Land bridge

Yes, please.  Hardberger Park land bridge would facilitate safe movement of wildlife–including pollinators. Photo via Rivard Report

Here in my hometown, we are working with the leadership of San Antonio’s Hemisfair Area Redevelopment Corporation to include pollinator habitat in their upcoming reimagination of the historic 65-acre downtown park that was home to the city’s 1968 world’s fair. Our local public utility, CPS Energy, recently supported the installation of a pollinator garden right downtown at their headquarters on the San Antonio River Walk.   And on our city’s heavily developed northwest quadrant, Hardberger Park has a dedicated butterfly garden. The park conservancy is raising money for a spectacular land bridge that will facilitate safe movement of pollinators and other wildlife.

Let’s focus on individual actions and crafting effective public-private partnerships that raise awareness, plant more milkweed and nectar plants and make rebounds like 2014 common fare–and keep the federal government out of our yards.

NOTE:  Have you taken our Milkweed Poll?  Please do. Three questions, only takes a minute.  GRACIAS!  Please do it now, here’s the link.

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Migrating Monarch Butterflies Stymied by Wind, Storms in Texas Hill Country

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Monarch butterflies clustered along the Llano River this weekend, clinging to pecan tree branches as strong winds from the south kept them in place, temporarily halting their journey south toward Mexico and making easy work for Monarch taggers.

Monarch butterflies along the Llano River fought the wind this weekend as the migration kicks into high gear.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch butterflies along the Llano River fought the wind this weekend as the migration kicked into high gear. Photo by Monika Maeckle

On Friday, winds shifted temporarily, blowing out of the north.  Temperatures dropped  40 degrees–from 93 to 53. The shift blew in a fresh crop of the migrating creatures.  Then early Saturday morning a dramatic thunderstorm dumped 1 – 4 inches of rain in the Texas Hill Country, knocking out electrical power and bringing heavy cloud cover that kept the butterflies once again in place for the day.

Tuf Singleton enjoys his first Monarch butterfly tagging outing with his Aunt Peggy Singleton in Hext, Texas.  Photo by Jenny Singleton

Tuf Singleton enjoys his first Monarch butterfly tagging outing with his Aunt Peggy Turlington in Hext, Texas. Photo by Jenny Singleton

“Last night was great,” Jenny Singleton texted regarding Friday night. Singleton, our friend and fellow Monarch butterfly enthusiast, first introduced me to Monarch butterflies back in 2006 when she invited me to her Texas Hill Country ranch to “tag some Monarch butterflies” along with a group of her friends and family.

The tradition continues today during peak migration each year.  I’ve borrowed the practice as well, inviting friends and family to celebrate my October 13 birthday at the ranch, tagging butterflies along the Llano.  I’m lucky my birthday falls right in the middle of peak migration season, which this year runs October 10-22 for our latitude.

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“Nothing tonight,” Singleton texted on Saturday. “Why? Too cold?” she asked, echoing my own thoughts about schizophrenic weather conditions.

As the sun returned on Sunday, Monarchs started moving again, clustering into groups of 20 -50 and making for a fantastic day of tagging.

The butterflies bunched up to stay warm and protect themselves from the wind, occasionally busting off the trees when the sun was just right, floating and flitting in the gorgeous autumn day. The pattern made for full nets, sometimes swooping 20 in one swing.  See the video above and you’ll get the idea.

Our team from Austin and San Antonio recorded more than 300 of the stymied migrants as peak migration kicked into gear right on schedule for the Texas Funnel. Singleton tagged 271 over four days this weekend, compared to 333 last year, and categorized the weekend as “disappointing.” Keep in mind this is a woman who has tagged more than 1,000 butterflies in a single weekend. “Crazy weather” was to blame for what she considered low tagging numbers in Hext, Texas, just 30 miles away from our stretch of river.

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What a handful! Winds out of the South made for fantastic tagging last weekend, keeping Monarch butterfly clusters temporarily in place. Photo by Monika Maeckle

With big winds out of the south followed by thunderstorms, cold temps and then a blast from the north, conditions made for “Perfect migrating, not great for tagging,” said Singleton.

The story was different for us.   Monarchs hugged the trees, protected by a limestone escarpment and a linear grove of pecans, making for easy–and often loaded–net swoops.  All in all, a “Monarch-u-mental” weekend of butterfly fun, and a hopeful sign for a Monarch butterfly rebound. We’ll be back for more on Friday.

NOTE:  Have you taken our Milkweed Poll?  Please do. Three questions, only takes a minute.  GRACIAS!  Please do it now, here’s the link.

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Monarch Migration Update: Lone “Cat” on Llano, Butterfly Cloud Spotted on Radar

No woman is an island, but this caterpillar had his own—right in the middle of the Llano River.

A quick kayak tour on Friday revealed another first in my eight years of tagging and monitoring Monarch butterflies: a fifth instar Monarch butterfly caterpillar clinging to a single milkweed stalk in the middle of the Llano.

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I had noticed this milkweed plant a week ago. How inspiring that a single, solitary Asclepias incarnata seed found its way to the silt surrounding one of the many limestone bedded “Chigger Islands” that dot our stretch of river.  A result of seed balls thrown last Fall?  Maybe–or Mother Nature’s grand plan.

It laid down roots, put out stalks, chutes and flowers, and attracted at least one female Monarch butterfly to grace its leaves with eggs. I recall gathering at least one egg from here on September 14.

But obviously I missed this guy–or was his egg laid later? Maybe he had just hatched and tucked himself into the petals of the pink flowers when I examined the plant last week.  In any case, eight days later, he’s ready to bust his stripes and go chrysalis at any moment. After two days of more milkweed in the well-fed, safe confines of a yogurt container-turned caterpillar cage in San Antonio, he formed a chrysalis. In another seven – 10 days, he’ll hatch and we’ll tag and release this Monarch so he/she can join the migration and head to Mexico.

The migration continues, with reports from Ontario and points south suggesting the rebound we hoped for will arrive in about two weeks. The latest report from Journey North has Monarchs skipping down the Atlantic coast.

Monarchs on  Atlantic coast via Journey North

Monarchs cling to pine trees to avoid winds along the Atlantic coast. Photo by Barbara Becker via Journey North

“The Atlantic Ocean is directing the migration now in the east,” wrote Journey North founder Elizabeth Howard in her report September 25.  “Monarchs hug the coast as they travel southward, trying to avoid the winds that can carry them out to sea.”

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch relayed to the DPLEX list, an old style list-serv that reaches hundreds of butterfly enthusiasts, academics and citizen scientists, that the peak had hit Lawrence, Kansas, where the Monarch Watch citizen scientist program is based.

“The numbers seen are certainly greater than observed during the last two migrations,” wrote Dr. Taylor, referencing good numbers of Monarchs for September 25-28 in Lawrence.  “This is another late migration,” he added.

“The leading edge of the migration usually reaches here between the 9-11th of September with an estimated peak on the 23rd. It’s hard to say but, it’s probable that the peak occurred yesterday – the 27th,”  he said.

In contrast, the Associated Press reported the first migrating Monarch butterflies arrived in the northern border state of Coahuila, earlier than usual.   The report characterized the early arrivals as “a tentative sign of hope” for the migration, given the historic drop in their numbers last year.

Bee on Frostweed

Bees were out in abundance this weekend, gathering pollen on Frostweed. Only a handful of Monarchs flying. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Luis Fueyo, head of Mexico’s nature reserves, told the reporter that the first butterflies have been seen entering Mexico earlier than usual. “…This premature presence could be the prelude to an increase in the migration,” he was quoted as saying. Usually the first arrivals don’t get to Mexico until October.

Here in the “Texas Funnel,” we saw a handful of Monarchs flying in the Texas Hill Country this weekend. Most appeared to be laying eggs and did not exhibit directional flight. Frostweed was the big draw, not only for Monarchs but other pollinators, especially bees.

Butterfly cloud in St. Louis

Butterfly cloud? Ya think? That’s what the National Weather Service of St. Louis said this week. Courtesy photo

In other news, a strange cloud spotted via radar above the city of St. Louis last week by the National Weather Service was identified as a Monarch butterfly mass, making its migratory trek south. “Sometimes our radars pick up more than precipitation,” the Facebook post read, provoking a social media flutter. The “butterfly cloud” even looked obtusely to be in the shape of a butterfly—well, if you used your imagination.

NOTE:  Have you taken our Milkweed Poll?  Please do. Three questions, only takes a minute.  GRACIAS!  Please do it now, here’s the link.

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Migration Update: It Takes a Village to Feed Hungry Monarch Butterfly Caterpillars

It takes a village to keep the Monarch butterfly migration going.

Last week I discovered dozens of Monarch butterfly eggs at the ranch when a cold front pushed a vanguard pulse of migrants down to the Texas funnel.   The early moving butterflies broke their reproductive diapause to lay hundreds of eggs.  I collected more than 70 from Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, along the banks of the Llano River and dozens more from our downtown San Antonio garden.

IMG_1440

Special delivery of milkweed by Tracy Idell Hamilton with an assist from Teresa Elliott. Photo by Teresa Elliott.

That’s the good news.

The problem:  where would we get enough “clean” milkweed this late in the season to feed the hungry critters, who eat more than 2,000 times their birth weight in milkweed leaves?  NOTE:  “clean” milkweed is plant material that has never been sprayed with systemic pesticides, which routinely kill the caterpillars.

I’ve written before about the scarcity of chemical free milkweed, especially this time of year.  In fact, we are exploring the idea of becoming a native, chemical free milkweed supplier.   Please take our poll and let us know if you would support such an endeavor.

Hungry Monarch caterpillar

What’s for dinner? Hungry Monarch caterpillar got a special delivery of Austin milkweed just in time to morph to the next stage. Photo by Monika Maeckle

San Antonio nurseries all told similar stories: “Sorry, we’re out,” or “Yes, we have some, but can’t guaranteed that it’s never been sprayed.”

One nursery had milkweed, but couldn’t guarantee it had not been sprayed by the grower with systemic pesticides, which can linger in the leaves for months.   And we all know how that turns out–just read one of our most read posts of all time, Desperately Seeking Milkweed, details the sorry stories of two friends who served pesticide laced milkweed to their hungry cats.

Boo-hoo! Dead Monarch caterpillars fall victim to pesticide laced milkweed

Dead Monarch caterpillars fall victim to pesticide laced milkweed.  No thank you!  Photo by Sharon Sander.

What to do?

Turn to the community, of course. In the case of Monarchs, that’s a broad collection of friends, family and acquaintances near and far. One of our favorite Austin nurseries, The Great Outdoors, almost always has a supply of chemical free milkweed on hand. A quick call to the native plant destination confirmed they had about a dozen large pots of clean, Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, left over from a spring shipment.  The plants could provide the massive foraging and feasting buffet required to take our dozens of ravenous crawlers to the butterfly stage of their life cycle.

But drive 150 miles roundtrip to Austin from San Antonio on the clogged IH-35 on a busy Saturday to collect plants? Sigh.  NOT very appealing.

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Good thing my dear friend Teresa Elliott lives a few blocks from Great Outdoors and volunteered to pick up a few plants for me at $15.95 a pop.  (Yeah, kind of expensive–but worth it.)  Teresa wouldn’t even let me reimburse her. “I’m doing it for the cause,” she said.

Meanwhile, another good friend and Monarch tagging pal, Tracy Idell Hamilton, agreed to pick up the bushy bloomers since she was already in Austin attending the Texas Tribune Festival. Teresa’s house happened to be just a few blocks away from where Tracy was staying.

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Such collaboration is commonplace in the sphere of the Monarch butterfly migration, where volunteers, citizen scientists, professional academics and entomologists routinely share data, tricks of the trade, and information to keep the migration going.  It’s the nature of the passion.

Upon arriving home from a day of errands last Saturday, three “ginormous” milkweed plants waited at my door.   The plants were mature, relatively aphid-free, and ready to be attacked by my hungry cats.

Hungry caterpillars

More, please! These hungry caterpillars outgrew their container and were ready for a bushy milkweed buffet. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The gang had been chomping happily on milkweed from my downtown garden, but even if we used every plant in the yard, it wouldn’t be enough to sustain them.   For the first few days, my mom, Hilde Maeckle, would help me daily clean out the caterpillars temporary plastic container home of frass, or caterpillar poop, which can be monumental. We would wipe down the container, lay out fresh leaves for them, and leave them to munch.

But now they were getting too big and too crowded, so it was time to transfer them to the plants–which arrived just in time.

Tropical milkweed

Thanks, ladies! “Ginormous” Tropical milkweed delivered to my door from Austin. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The caterpillars are now munching happily on these milkweeds, growing before our eyes.  In a day or so we’ll transfer the plants with the caterpillars to a large netted cage, or “caterpillar condo” to keep them from wandering off.  Eventually, each caterpillar will seek a quiet place, form an upside down “J” shape, then morph into a beautiful jade green chrysalis to hatch sometime during the second week in October, just as peak migration hits San Antonio.  We look forward tagging and sending them on their way.

Queen and Monarch Chrysalises

Monarch chrysalises coming soon. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Thanks to all the friends, family, professional and citizen scientists near and far who  work hard to sustain the seasonal miracle of the Monarch butterfly migration.

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Here They Come! Monarch Butterflies Headed our Way in Promising Rebound Season

The Monarch butterfly migration began in mid August. The progeny of butterflies that left the forests of Mexico in March have reproduced several times on their multi-generational journey north to Canada, and are now turning their attention south, as they head “home” for the winter.

Monarch Roost Wisconsin

The first Monarch roost was reported in Wisconsin this week. The migration is on and they’re heading our way. Photo by Pat Swerkstron via Journey North

While it’s too early for those of us who live in the “Texas funnel” to see masses of Monarchs moving through town, it’s hard to resist running out and checking our favorite butterfly destinations to see what’s flying and which species are in town.   We should be seeing a trickle of Monarchs from now until the peak migraiton in mid October.

A check-in at the San Antonio River Museum Reach Milkweed Patch this weekend didn’t disappoint.   Queens and Gulf Fritillaries were flying profusely, and one lone female Monarch joined the nectar party, frantically laying eggs on a dozen or more different Tropical Milkweed plants.

I checked the leaves she visited, hoping to spot some eggs–but no luck.   Just aphids.

Female Monarch laying eggs

Female Monarch butterfly “shooting blanks?” Apparently. Note how her abdomen is tucked under to lay eggs.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

So what was up, was she shooting blanks?

“Hard to say,” Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch told us via email.  “Could be blocked ducts, lacks mature eggs, having trouble moving an egg down the oviduct.  It happens frequently.”   Professional butterfly breeder Edith Smith of Shady Oak Butterfly Farm confirmed that this is not unusual.  “I’ve seen the same thing, normally caused by a clogged duct,” she relayed via email.

Since reproductive Monarchs do not migrate, this one will likely stay in the neighborhood.   Migrating Monarchs must preserve their energy for their long trip to Mexico.  Once they reach Michoacán, they roost for the winter, wake up in the spring, and reproduce then.  So if you see a Monarch laying eggs or mating, don’t tag it.

Nectar corridor

Monarchs nectar intensely when in migration mode–wouldn’t you, if you had to fly 3,000 miles? Photo via Journey North, by Elizabeth Howard

Monarch Watch discourages citizen scientists from tagging Monarchs before August 15 because it’s basically a waste of time.

“We generally send out tag orders starting in the first few days of August, giving priority to the most northerly areas. If we start sending tags in July, folks will tag more of the late breeders than they do now. This would be unproductive since the late breeders don’t migrate,”  Dr. Taylor explained to the DPLEX list, the email listserv that reaches hundreds of butterfly fans, academics, citizen scientists and others.

Monarch migration map

Texas Funnel:  Migrating Monarchs must pass through Texas coming and going to Mexico.  Map by Nicolas Rivard

But further north, folks are already tagging in what appears to be a rebound season.

According to Journey North, a citizen scientist-fueled website that posts updates on migrations of all kinds, the first overnight roost was reported on Monday by Pat Swerkstrom of Oceola, Wisconsin.  See the photo at the top of this post to see what it looked like.

We get this kind of action in mid October when the Monarchs move through the Texas Funnel on their way to Mexico.  Typically, those of us enamored with Monarchs stage tagging outings.

Along the Llano River, they roost in pecan trees during peak migration. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of Monarch butterflies cluster like grapes as the sun sets, settling in for the night to rest and wake the next morning to nectar up and continue on their journey.  In the weeks prior, we see Monarchs in ones and twos nectaring on flowers or resting in trees and shrubs.

Small roost of Monarch butterflies on the Llano River, October 5, 2012

Looking forward to seeing this:  roost of about 200 Monarchs in a pecan tree on the Llano River in October 2012.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

This year looks like it could be a rebound for Monarchs.   Conditions are favorable in the midwestern breeding grounds and milder temperatures than recent years prevail in the Southwest.

For those with no access to roosting sites who want to see Monarchs, seek out nectar destinations like pollinator gardens, wildflower patches on roadsides–any place with flowers that will draw the migrants on their journey south.  Remember, their primary goal when migrating is to fuel up and store fat for the long winter.

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Llano River Ready for “Premigration Migration” of Monarch Butterflies

Email lists have been filled with optimistic reports on the Monarch migration in recent weeks. We’re feeling hopeful of a rebound.

Folks from Canada to Pennsylvania sang a buoyant chorus:  more butterflies than last year.  Of course, it’s all relative:  with 2013 holding the distinction as the worst migration in history, even a slight uptick in Monarch butterfly numbers would call for celebration.

Monarch on swamp milkweed

Pretty, early girl. Faded female Monarch on Swamp Milkweed in downtown San Antonio, August 14, 2014. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Here’s a sampling of updates:

It has been the best year finding them, in 11 years of doing this. Most were from our yard.

–J Agazzi, SE Wisconsin on the Illinois border

I also live in SE WI and have about 30 just-born instars taken from swamp milkweed more than common milkweed. I agree also that this has been a good year and I’m still finding them.

–Chris Mason,  Lake Geneva, WI

A BIG comeback for Monarchs this year…. Having gathered and raised hundreds of Monarchs for past ten years; having been very sad over numbers next to nothing in 2012 & 2013, this year ‘s population is back up to 75 releases and more to come. I am amazed, overjoyed.   (Interestingly, I and others observed only a single Monarch here and there during this entire season. But how joyfully ‘active’ these ‘singles’ have been!)
                                –Cindy Ziebell, Eua Claire, Wisconsin

I have to agree with you all….although it is not scientific, I have recorded seeing at least one monarch every day for the last 4.5 weeks!! Sometimes I have seen as many as five in a day. This has not happened in at least 20 years! I really hope that our fall migration numbers follow these trends. It is also the only year I can remember collecting more than one or two eggs. This week, I have collected eight. Good to hear all this news from this central region.

–Jim and Linette Langhus, Monona Iowa

IMG_1637We learn in Monarch Migration 101 that the migratory generation of Monarchs do not reproduce.  Rather, they go into a reproductive diapause, a biological state of arrested development that interrupts their usual instinct to procreate.  Presumably, they do this to save their energy for the long flight and months-long overwintering in Mexico, conserving biological resources to awake in the spring and reproduce then.

Yet in late summer, we generally see a pulse of Monarchs over Labor Day weekend and many leave eggs as evidence of the reproductivity and their travels.

So what’s going on with these “joyfully active” single butterflies described above?

Goldenrod Llano River

Goldenrod, a favorite nectar source for Monarch butterflies during the fall migration, awaits on the Llano River in the Texas Hill Country. Photo by Monika Maeckle

For years, scientists like  Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch and Dr. Karen Oberhauser of Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project (MLMP) have described a “premigration migration” that begins in mid-July and carries a final reproductive generation of Monarchs south.

Candy Sarikonda explains the phenomenon in this issue of the MLMP newsletter. 

Taylor has speculated that late season reproduction is selectively advantageous for some Monarchs who are born too far north too late in the year to complete the lifecycle.   Dr. Karen Oberhauser, founder of the MLMP, and an evolutionary scientist at the University of Minnesota, told Sarikonda that “It makes evolutionary sense that some monarchs would fly south as they laid their eggs, since an egg laid in August in Missouri or Virginia is probably more likely to develop and migrate to Mexico than one laid in Minnesota, where a hard freeze in early September is not that uncommon.”

What'syour latitude.  Monarch Watch predicts peak Monarch activity by latitude each fall.

What’s your latitude? Monarch Watch predicts peak Monarch activity by latitude each fall.

We don’t fully understand the reasons for this premigration migration, but we do know that here in Texas, the Llano River is well-stocked with milkweed for those premigratory migrants.   Last Sunday we saw ample Swamp Milkweed and Goldenrod lining the banks, and heavy rains this weekend will keep the host and nectar plants fresh for Monarchs arriving later this summer.

For our area, latitude 28, the peak migration will occur somewhere between October 10 and 27.  Check the chart above to see when peak migration is expected in your neighborhood–or goto the Monarch Watch website.

How convenient: eggs laid over Labor Day weekend will be hatching just as the peak migration passes through the Texas Hill Country in mid October.  That means our freshly hatched, well-fed Monarchs will have an excellent chance of making it to Michoacán.

From the Texas Hill Country to Michoacan!  MJR894 was recovered on the florest floor and reported last week.  The butterfly was tagged on October 11, 2011 with Dr. Lincoln Brower.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

From the Texas Hill Country to Michoacan! two Monarch butterflies tagged at the ranch 10/12/13 were recovered on the florest floor and recovered 2/22/14. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Perhaps that was the case with two Monarch butterflies tagged at the ranch last year on October 12.  Monarch Watch just posted a preliminary report on the 2013 season’s recoveries. 

SLM131, a male, was tagged along the Llano River by friends Omar Rodriguez and Veronica Prida and was found at EL Rosario in February.   A female I tagged the same day, SLM181, was also found at the sanctuary on 2/22/14.

All the elements are in place for a recovery of the Monarch population this year.  Stay tuned for updates.

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2014 Monarch Butterfly Migration: Worst in History or a Hopeful Rebound?

Moth week is behind us and next up on the pollinator calendar is the Monarch butterfly migration. The storied insects start moving south on their 3,000-mile fall migration from Canada to Mexico around August 15th.

This year started with only 33 million Monarchs leaving the Oyamel forests of Michoacán in March–that’s the lowest count in history, down from more than one billion in 1994. It’s no surprise that Monarch watchers are on the edge of their seats, wondering if the majestic orange-and-black butterflies will rebound.

I saw my first-of-season (FOS) Monarch since the spring migration on Sunday, July 20, enroute to help our son Alex Rivard move into his first home. As I  crossed the driveway to my car, I noticed a Monarch butterfly on Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, in my front yard pollinator garden in downtown San Antonio.

There she was, tucking her abdomen to reach the underside of milkweed leaves, laying dozens of eggs in the process.  See the video above. I collected 34 eggs, took them inside for fostering, and left about that many on the plant.  Days later, little round “chew marks” on the garden’s milkweed plants proved that the eggs had hatched, but not a caterpillar was in sight.  Wasps, ants, spiders, ladybugs, a bird–who knows what got them?  Nature is brutal.

Still, I couldn’t help associate the FOS, egg-laying Monarch with the “new beginning” of our son’s arrival as a mortgage-paying, first-time homeowner. Alex will get a chrysalis as a housewarming gift.  And I am feeling hopeful about the 2014 migration.

Texas Drought, July 2014

Better rains, less drought translates to more welcoming conditions for Monarch butterfly migration. Map by U.S. Drought Monitor

So is Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch. He told us via email that he suspects a modest increase in monarch numbers.

“I’m not ready to say what ‘modest’ means in terms of hectares but all the indications remain positive. Monarch production from the upper midwest from the eastern Dakotas through Wisconsin and parts of southern Missouri will be above that of last year–areas to the east will be low again but not quite as low as last year.”

In June, Taylor pointed out that the harsh winter we experienced after three dry summers has driven down the predator population, increasing the survival rate of Monarch caterpillars in the central breeding grounds.   “Monarch larvae should survive in greater numbers. Elevated reproductive success in early generations usually leads to growth of the population.”

Elizabeth Howard

Elizabeth Howard, founder of Journey North, a website that tracks the Monarch migration. Courtesy photo

Elizabeth Howard, founder of Journey North, agrees. “Yes, I do think this fall’s migration will be larger than last year’s,” she told us via email.  “However, considering how dismal last year’s migration was, that isn’t saying a whole lot.”

Journey North taps citizen scientists across the hemisphere to collect data about Monarch sightings and posts the info on a handy map so you can track the migration from your desk (see above).   They also provide weekly reports summing up the state of the migration and Monarchs’ move through the hemisphere, like this one:

“There are hopeful signs of successful reproduction from the Upper Midwest and across much of Ontario. People are reporting up to a half-dozen monarchs at a time, and more eggs and larvae than all of last year.”

“Hopeful signs of reproduction.”  Yes, we like the sound of that. Because if we can just get a slew of Monarchs produced in the midsection of the country they can start their trip to Mexico through the Texas Funnel and this year we can offer a much more welcoming reception than we’ve been able to provide in the recent past.

Monarch butterfly caterpillars

Yes, please.  More Monarch caterpillars mean more migrating Monarch butterflies.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

While the drought continues, we’ve had a relatively mild summer, with few days over 100 degrees.  Sporadic rains–more than 10 inches at the ranch just in July–have fueled the growth of late summer flowers.  Nectar plants await our favorite migrants: Frostweed, Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnate), and Goldenrod stand at the ready, about to bust out their blossoms for a full-on nectar party.  Send some Monarchs our way, please, and we’ll make sure they’re well fueled for the rest of their journey.

In the meantime, it’s not too early to order your tags from Monarch Watch.  Tagging season begins soon. Related posts:

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Summer Solstice, Pollinator Week, and Some Hopeful Monarch Butterfly News

Pollinator week is here (June 16 – 22), the Summer Solstice arrives this Saturday and Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch is bullish on Monarchs this season.

Journey NOrth Monarch

First Monarchs spotted in Quebec this week. Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch is predicting an increase in the Monarch numbers. Photo by Journey North

Taylor has been updating the DPLEX list of late with positive, upbeat messages suggesting that this year’s Monarch crop may be slightly larger than last year’s record low. That would be heartening.

“There will be a modest increase in Monarch numbers and most of that will come from the upper midwest,” Dr. Taylor wrote via email when asked to explain.

For those unaware, the D-PLEX list, named after the Monarch butterfly’s Latin designation, Danaus plexipus, is an old-fashioned email listserv started by Taylor that reaches hundreds of butterfly enthusiasts and scientists.  Sign up to receive D-PLEX emails on the Monarch Watch webpage.

Taylor bases his predictions on past history, warmer temperatures this spring and a late summer.   Also, this year’s tough winter has obliterated the usual natural predators to

Tachinid fly on Monarch

Tachinid flies lay their eggs on Monarch caterpillars,  using them as a host. Taylor says they are not as pervasive this year as in years past. Photo via University of Georgia Athens

Monarch larvae–the tachinid flies, wasps, spiders and other death threats that couple with climate change, habitat loss, genetically modified crops and insecticide use to pose a grave threat to the continuation of the Monarch butterfly migration.

Here’s what Dr. Taylor wrote on June 15:

The harsh winter may account in part for the lack of predators but the last three dry summers may have driven local predator populations down as well…. The tachinid flies also seem to be down….

Whatever the cause, or causes, of these low numbers of predators and parasites, Monarch larvae should survive in greater numbers. Elevated reproductive success in early generations usually leads to growth of the population.

We’ll take it.

The Solstice occurs this Saturday, June 21 at 5:51 AM CDT marking the astronomical moment when the sun reaches its northernmost point in the sky, resulting in the longest day of the year. From here til December, the days will get shorter.   Monarch butterflies use the sun compass in their antennae to pick up on these solar cues and by late August they’ll start heading south on their journey to Mexico to roost for the winter.  Won’t be long now.

Keep an eye out for those that respond to the sun’s signals and your fingers crossed that Dr. Taylor’s optimistic predictions are correct.

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Mexican Team Begins Year-long Project to Document Monarch Butterfly Migration

Mexican journalist Jaime Maussan passed through San Antonio for the second time in a month this week to gather information on a documentary he is making for Mexican public television.

Maussan has worked as a journalist for decades in Mexico serving various media outlets, including 60 Minutes, Telemundo and ABC Radio.  He’s well-known as Mexico’s premiere ufologist–that is, expert on UFOs–and devotes himself to hosting duties of an online TV program called Tercer Millenio.

He and producer Guillermo Figueroa and McAllen-based broadcast reporter Graciela Echeverria spent much of Thursday visiting with Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project volunteer and trainer Kip Kiphart, who they said spoke passionately about the threats to the Monarch butterfly migration.  Kiphart had not returned calls or emails to let us in on the details as of the time we posted this.  Kip, let’s hear it.

Jaime Maussan and Crew

Guillermo Figueroa, Jaime Maussan and Graciela Echeverria stopped by to chat Monarch migration for their documentary on the subject. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The team then stopped by to get my thoughts on the future of the migration and to take a look at my modest urban butterfly garden–a temporary gardening fix at my Lavaca neighborhood apartment.   The 25′ x 4′ plot has pacified my butterfly gardening needs for the past two years in the interim while my husband and I build a house that will have a real yard and my first, dedicated mariposario, or butterfly house.  We’re hoping to move in within a few months.

What are my thoughts?   Dreary.  The perfect storm of climate change, human encroachment on habitat, genetically modified crops, herbicide tolerant corn and soy, increased use of pesticides, historic drought–it’s not looking good.  For the first time in my life I said out loud into a microphone that I have made my peace with the possibility that the Monarch butterfly migration may cease to exist within my lifetime.   A troubling thought, but a real–even likely–possibility.

Urban butterfly garden

My urban butterfly garden–if I can do it here, you can, too. Get busy. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Efforts to raise red flags and awareness can postpone that.   Maussan and team secured a $600,000 budget from Television Edukativo, the Mexican equivalent of public television in the U.S. to make the documentary.   Making people care–and it appears that they do–is a starting point.

 “We plan to make this documentary within the year and release it on February 19, 2015, exactly one year after the meeting in Toluca,” he said, sitting in a rocking chair on my porch near downtown San Antonio.

As you may have heard, on February 19, the Presidents of the United States and Mexico, Barack Obama and  Enrique Peńa Nieto, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada, discussed the preservation of the Monarch butterfly migration when they met in Toluca, Mexico, just 75 miles from the Monarch butterfly ancestral roosting sites.   The meeting made international headlines and put the Monarch butterfly migration on the radar of politicos throughout North America.   Seven weeks later, First Lady Michelle Obama planted milkweed at the White House vegetable garden for the first time in history.

 

Monarch butterfly freshly minted

Only two of 11 eggs collected in my downtown butterfly garden made it to the butterfly stage this spring. This male was released hours after Maussan’s visit. Another Monarch, a female, followed shortly. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Maussan has had a long history of Monarch butterfly activism.   He did a story in Mexico on the location of the Monarch roosting spots way back in 1976, and continues to help raise awareness of the threat to the migration.   After our visit, he and his team planned to hit the highway for Austin to visit with Dr. William Calvert, one of several folks who revealed the location of the Monarch butterfly roosting sites to the world in 1976 following Dr. Fred Urquardt’s National Geographic cover story, which declared the discovery of the sites, but kept their exact location secret.

Maussan and his crew plan to return throughout the year to document the entire migration–from Michoacán through Texas to Canada and back. The undertaking reminds me a little of Ari Shapiro’s Google Earth tour of the Monarch Butterfly Migration, above, take a look.  Maussan also mentioned that he plans to ask the American ambassador and top officials of the Canadian government to share the documentary with their public television entities once it is complete.

We look forward to seeing the final product.

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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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