Good news! Monarch butterfly population triples

The 2015-2016 Monarch butterfly population census is in and the news is good:   the iconic migrating insect that has become a symbol for climate change and pollinator advocacy in three countries is on the rebound with a three-fold increase in its roosting population in the past year.

Michoacán Monarchs

The Monarch population is on the rebound with a threefold increase over last year. Here they are in Michoacán in March of 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Last year the population occupied 1.13 hectares (2.8 acres) of the Oyamel forest in the mountains of Michoacán that serve as the ancestral roosting site of the storied orange and black creatures.  This year:  4.01 hectares (9.9 acres) are occupied–more than triple last year’s figure, according to the Mexican government and the World Wildlife Fund.  Scientists calculate the population numbers by measuring the amount of forest occupied by the Monarchs.

monarch-population-figure-monarchwatch-2016

According to Journey North, a citizen science organization that tracks the Monarchs’ and other migrations, this year’s population numbers 200 million monarchs compared to a long-term average of 300 million and a peak of 1 billion.  The organization attributed the increase to ” favorable breeding conditions in summer 2015.”

The butterflies, which migrate each fall to the Mexican mountains after a multi-generation trek through the heartland of the United State’s to Mexico, have been in a perilous decline in recent years.   The 2013-2014 season in particular was frightening:  the entire Monarch population occupied only .67 hectares (1.65 acres) and could have fit into a Walmart store with 30,000 square feet to spare.

The insects made a slight comeback last year, as government officials in all three countries committed to work together to save the unique natural phenomenon.  Research and funding have been pouring into the cause, thanks, in part, to President Obama’s National Pollinator Strategy issued in May of 2015.

Chincua Journey north

As temperatures rise and the air dries, monarchs move out of their clusters in Michoacán during the day to the delight of sanctuary visitors. Photo via Journey North

Butterfly aficionados far and wide were delighted with the news. “Great progress!! Everyone still needs to do their part to help! We can’t lose these magnificent butterflies!!” wrote Eileen Cotte on Journey North’s Facebook page.

“It certainly is reason for hope following year after year of depressing declines,” wrote Richard Knowles on the DPLEX list, an old school listserv of about 800 butterfly aficionados run by citizen science organization Monarch Watch out of the University of Kansas at Lawrence. “It almost feels like everyone can give themselves a brief pat on the back before getting back to work.”

Even Monsanto Corporation, often blamed for the butterflies decline because of the indiscriminate pesticide use that results from their genetically modified corn and soybean seed, celebrated the news:  “Good news! Monarch population numbers were up in 2015. With help, they’ll keep increasing.”

We hope so. Let’s keep planting milkweed and nectar plants for all pollinators.

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Lawsuit seeks ESA Monarch butterfly listing, turns up heat on commercial breeders

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

Monarch on swamp milkweed Arsenal

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Lincoln Brower –photo via Monarch Butterfly Fund

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OE spores

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

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

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

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

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

Nola Hamilton Garcia with Monarch butterfly

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

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

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

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

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

Monarch Butterfly chrysalis envy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Texas Comptroller’s office provides update on Monarch butterfly research, ESA status

About 35 people attended the second Monarch Butterfly Task Force working group meeting in Austin on Thursday, December 17, to hear updates from the Texas State Comptroller’s office on the status of research and assessing whether or not to recommend the Monarch butterfly be listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.

Late season UTSA Monarch

UTSA is growing A LOT of milkweed. Here, late season Monarch, 12/8/2015 at the UTSA greenhouse. Photo courtesy UTSA.

In Texas, the Comptroller’s office oversees the Interagency Task Force on Economic Growth and Endangered Species. It’s charge: assist landowners, industries and local communities in working with endangered species issues and assessing their economic impact on the state.  Annual $5 million appropriations approved by the Texas Legislature fund the effort, lead by Dr. Robert Gulley of San Antonio.

Since the Monarch butterfly was submitted for consideration as a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act in August of 2014, research surrounding the ramifications of such a listing falls under the Task Force’s jurisdiction.

Dr. Gulley warmly welcomed the crowd with the prediction:  “I think we’re in for a very interesting meeting.”

And it was.  Dr. Janis Bush of the University of Texas at San Antonio kicked off the 9 AM session with updates on the $300K research grant awarded her in June to inventory milkweed, the Monarch butterfly host plant, in the state of Texas.

UTSA's Dr. Janis Bush is leading the $300K research grant. Courtesy photo

UTSA’s Dr. Janis Bush is leading the research. Courtesy photo

The Lone Star State has been deemed critically important to the health of the Monarch butterfly migration since the butterflies must pass through the “Texas funnel” coming and going on their epic migration to and from their roosting grounds in MIchoacán in the spring and fall.  Monarchs often lay the first generation of eggs in the multigeneration migration here; in autumn, they use Texas as a major nectar stop for fueling their long journey.

About 24 UTSA research associates, students and volunteers have already completed two milkweed surveys under Dr. Bush’s direction–one in July and another in October-November.   The study’s east-west transect stretches from PIneland to Ozona and the north-south from Wichita Falls to Alice.  Field crews stopped every 10 miles to survey the roadside for milkweed over several days. The research hopes to replicate the first such survey done by Dr. William Calvertt in 1996.

“This is just a snapshot in time” Bush said more than once.  She also mentioned that the “pattern between precipitation and milkweed is not clear….If you increase the amount of moisture in Austin, you don’t increase the number of hectares [of roosting Monarch butterflies} in Mexico.”

The UTSA team is also growing a lot of milkweed at a newly constructed UTSA greenhouse, said Bush–six native species as well as the controversial Monarch butterfly favorite, Asclepias curassavica, commonly known as Tropical milkweed.   The team aims to better understand what species Monarch butterflies prefer, seed viability and germination rates, soil, light and nutrient requirements, and drought tolerance.

Bush said she was surprised to learn that rats eat milkweed, something that butterfly breeders and Monarch butterfly enthusiasts have noticed for years.  Two different kinds of rats–a native cotton rat and nonnative Norwegian rat–made unwelcome visits to UTSA’s newly constructed milkweed greenhouse and decimated the plants.  “We don’t know if they got sick,” said Bush, alluding to the bitter-tasting cardiac glycosides found in milkweed that make Monarch butterflies unsavory to predators, “but they seem to like it.”

The UTSA research will also take a look at fire ant impacts on Monarchs and land management best practices.   For example, what effect does mowing have on milkweed?  How does milkweed respond to burning?  Bush also shared with the group San Antonio’s recently named status as the first and only Monarch Champion city by the National Wildlife Federation.  Mayor Ivy Taylor signed the NWF’s Mayor’s Monarch Pledge last week, making San Antonio the first city to adopt all 24 NWF recommended actions that aim to preserve and increase pollinator habitat.

“I’ve never seen the excitement for a species that I’ve seen with the Monarch,” said biologist Russell Castro of the USDA National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), following  Dr. Bush.  Castro described the NRCS Monarch Butterfly Habitat Development Project, which works with private landowners to increase pollinator habitat in Texas.  Budgeted for $4 million nationwide in 2016, “not that much money for Texas when you get down to it,” said Castro, “Monarch butterflies are the best thing going for conservation on the ground.”

 

ESA process

The process for getting a species listed is convoluted and takes years. Graphic via USFWS

Then Katie Latta, USFWS Monarch Outreach Specialist, took the podium to offer a quick update on the status of the Monarch’s endangered species status listing.

At the moment, we are in the status review phase, which means USFWS is reviewing information and research to determine whether or not the listing of the Monarch as “threatened” is warranted. At some time in 2017 or 2018, USFWS will rule whether the listing is warranted or not.  Lawsuits could delay the process further, or make the listing happen more quickly,  she said.

Finally, the session closed with Cary Dupuy of the Comptroller’s office explaining future funding opportunities and likely areas of research focus.

Sometime in early 2016, a Request for Proposal will be circulated and published in the Texas Register inviting public universities to apply for grants. (Gulley pointed out that the Comptroller’s office is not obliged to issue RFPs, but in the interest of transparency, is doing so.)  Subjects likely to be given serious consideration include best ways to eradicate red imported fire ants, as well as research on answering the intriguing question: “What’s going on with the fifth generation of Monarchs?” said Dupuy.

Got questions? Edith has the answers. In this case, this is one fertile female Monarch. Photo courtesy Edith Smith

Monarch butterfly laying eggs.   Apparently, lates season Monarchs ARE reproductive. Photo courtesy Edith Smith

For years scientists believed that Monarch butterflies migrating to Mexico late in the season were not reproductive.  Conventional wisdom said migrating Monarchs  suspended reproduction to conserve energy for the long flight to Mexico by assuming diapause, which is a state of suspended development of the reproductive organs.

Yet many of us have witnessed late season Monarchs engaging in reproduction as well  laying their eggs on any milkweeds they can find, often bearing fifth and sometimes sixth generation offspring well into November and sometimes December.

This information has been collected anecdotally and through various citizen science efforts, including the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project and Monarch Watch.  Dupuy suggested that scientific research would be helpful in determining the reality of the situation. Do the offspring of those late season Monarchs migrate, or do they become local residents?  With climate change and more milkweeds available later in the year, the question will become even more interesting.

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Monarch Champion status NOT “just talk,” will change how San Antonio manages land

Wednesday, December 9 was a banner day for Monarch butterflies and all pollinators in San Antonio, Texas. That’s when Mayor Ivy Taylor announced that the Alamo City has been named the first Monarch Champion in the country by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF).

Mayor Ivy Taylor's Monarch butterfly wing bling

San Antoino Mayor Ivy Taylor sported Monarch butterfly wing bling when she announced San Antonio’s Monarch Champion status and her signature on the Mayor’s Monarch Pledge December 9. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Standing before a group of pollinator enthusiasts at City Hall and wearing stylish Monarch butterfly wing earrings, Mayor Taylor shared the proclamation that commits our city to adopting all 24 recommended actions cited by the NWF in their nationwide initiative known as the Mayor’s Monarch Pledge.

“I am pleased that we have set the bar so high in our efforts to attract and care for one very important set of visitors, migrating Monarch butterflies,” said Mayor Taylor in a prepared statement.

That high bar means San Antonio can expect more citizen science projects, a pollinator garden at City Hall or another highly visible public space, more pollinator-friendly landscape ordinances and city mowing schedules, and my personal favorite–a butterfly festival.  Insecta Fiesta, anyone?

We’re talking changes in building codes, recommendations for landscaping by the City’s Sustainability Office and increased grassroots activities like city-sanctioned native plant sales and seed exchanges.

Doug Melnick, Chief Sustainability Officer for the City of San Antonio, said the Mayor’s Pledge is not “just talk.” It will bring about real change. “This will positively impact how we manage city-owned land,” he said.

Antelope horns

Antelope horns milkweed for San Antonio’s “inferno strips”?   GREAT IDEA!  Photo by Monika Maeckle

“I hope to see a citywide conversion of useless streetside inferno strips to Antelope horns milkweed,” said another city staffer who works for our award-winning water utility, SAWS.  The staff person referred to the overheated and challenging-to-landscape swatch of land found between a city sidewalk and the street.   SAWS has done much to raise awareness of native, pollinator-friendly plants through its GardenStyleSA website and WaterSaver coupons that offer rebates to those who replace water-guzzling  turf with native plants.

The timing couldn’t be better, said Melnick.  The City is currently developing three plans under the umbrella of SA Tomorrow: Comprehensive, Sustainability, and Strategic Multi-Modal plans. “We have a great opportunity to further the protection of Monarch butterfly habitats and enhance our biodiversity by incorporating these key strategies into our plans, which will provide a framework for growth through 2040,” he said.

Mayor Ivy Taylor reads a proclamation to butterfly conservationists led by Nationa Wildlife Federation Monarch Outreach Specialist Grace Barnett (center). Photo by Scott Ball.

Mayor Ivy Taylor reads the proclamation to butterfly conservationists led by National Wildlife Federation Monarch Outreach Specialist Grace Barnett (center). Photo by Scott Ball.

NWF officials were “stunned” by San Antonio’s commitment, said Grace Barnett, NWF Monarch outreach coordinator who works out of Austin for the Washington, D.C. conservation group. In fact, after Mayor Taylor signed the Pledge on Monday, Dec. 7, NWF had to arrange a quick conference call to come up with a new category of support: Monarch Champion. “No one expected a city to take on all of the potential actions associated with the Pledge,” said Barnett.

To date, 46 cities have signed up for the national campaign to encourage mayors and local governments to increase Monarch butterfly and pollinator habitat.

Seven cities including Austin, Dallas, and St. Louis signed the Pledge and agreed to adopt eight or more of the 24 items to join the “leadership circle” of Monarch Mayors. Another 38 cities agreed to do three of the items. Only San Antonio agreed to 24 of 24. See the full list.

Monarch migration map

Monarchs must pass through the “Texas funnel”  coming and going to Mexico.  Graphic by Nicolas Rivard

As those of you that read the Texas Butterfly Ranch well know, Monarch butterflies migrate each spring and fall over multiple generations, moving from Mexico to Canada and back before settling into their roosts for the winter in the mountainous forests west of Mexico City. At the beginning and end of their journey, they pass through the “Texas funnel,” making our part of the world especially strategic to their migration. San Antonio lies in the heart of that migratory path and often serves as the first stop on the migration north in the spring and as the last stop in the funnel south in the fall.

In recent years, the Monarch butterfly migration has declined dramatically–by 80% from the 21-year average across North America, according to the pollinator advocacy organization the Xerces Society.  Scientists attribute the decline to habitat loss, the increase in genetically modified crops in their primary breeding zone in the Midwest, increased pesticide use and climate change.

In August of 2014, several organizations submitted a petition to list the Monarch butterfly as a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act. The petition is under review. In May of 2015, President Obama announced a National Pollinator Strategy that addressed not only the decline of Monarch butterflies, but the demise of bees. The 58-page document also committed the federal government to restore seven million acres of pollinator habitat over the next five years, with a special focus on the IH-35 corridor.

All that focus on Monarchs and pollinators has made San Antonio’s long commitment to pollinator advocacy ripe for the Pledge.

Volunteers like Mary Kennedy, Kip Kiphart and Mobi Warren have worked tirelessly with the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project (MLMP), a citizen scientist initiative developed at the University of Minnesota.   Local MLMP volunteers have meticulously inventoried natural cycles of milkweeds (the Monarch host plant), eggs, caterpillars, chrysalises and butterflies at Cibolo Nature Center and the Museum Reach Milkweed Patch for years.

Citizen scientist volunteer Mobi Warren prepares to condusct reserach for MLMP at the San Antonio River Museum Reach Milkweed Patch. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Citizen scientist volunteer Mobi Warren prepares to condusct reserach for MLMP at the San Antonio River Museum Reach Milkweed Patch. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Just a short walk south of the Pearl on the San Antonio River, San Antonio’s Milkweed Patch serves an important inland urban monitoring site for overwintering Monarchs and has been the site of research conducted by some of the top Monarch scientists in the country, including Dr. Karen Oberhauser of the University of Minnesota and Dr. Sonia Altizer of the University of Georgia.

Some of us in the San Antonio area tag Monarch butterflies in the fall, as part of the Monarch Watch citizen science tagging program based out of the University of Kansas at Lawrence. Butterflies tagged in San Antonio and the Texas Hill Country have been recovered in the mountains of Michoacán, proving migratory patterns and providing data for scientists. (Personally I have tagged more than 2,000 butterflies, with 27 recoveries.) Programs and pollinator gardens have been established via Phil Hardberger Park, San Antonio Botanical Garden, Mitchell Lake Audubon Center, the Native Plant Society and elsewhere, as well as at community and private gardens all over town.

Tagged Monarch

Many of us tag Monarch butterflies as citizen scientists for Monarch Watch.  This one was raised and tagged in the Lavaca neighborhood  in downtown San Antonio. Photo by Monika Maeckle

That’s not to say we’re limited to citizen science in San Antonio. A recent $300K grant awarded UTSA by the State Comptroller’s Office to perform a statewide milkweed survey also contributed to our Monarch Champion status.  Combine that with our unique geographic location, special relationship with Mexico (the winter home to the mariposa monarca), the work of SAWS and San Antonio River Authority (SARA)  on the Museum and Mission Reach restorations with our passionate volunteers and grass roots efforts,   and San Antonio looks ideally suited to live up to the Mayor’s Monarch Pledge.

UTSA students milkweed survey

University of Texas at San Antonio students conduct research for a statewide milkweed survey. Photo courtesy UTSA

For a while, we wondered if it were going to happen.

NWF’s Grace Barnett, Dr. Terri Matiella of UTSA and I met with the Mayor’s office in October requesting that Mayor Taylor sign the Pledge. By doing so, she would have joined mayors in St. Louis, Austin, Grand Prairie, and six other cities along the IH-35 corridor that were among the vanguard to sign up. All we expected was participation–a commitment to three of the 24 items. The Mayor’s office was very receptive, but as is often the case when dealing with city government, nothing happened immediately.

Later we met with the City sustainability office. Joan Miller of the Native Plant Society of Texas joined us.  Again, very receptive. Yet….by early December, cities like Oklahoma City, Houston and Garrett, Texas, (population 800) had signed the Pledge while San Antonio continued to consider its options.

Butterfly advocates speculated as recently as the weekend before its signing that the Pledge was dead. Little did we know that what was taking so long was that the Mayor’s office was working with departments across the City to assure they could come through with all 24 items and make us the nation’s first Monarch Champion city.

In addition to the NWF reccomendations, Mayor Taylor said she is even considering a pollinator garden in her Dignowity Hill front yard as well as at the historic Dignowity Park, which her home fronts.  Whenever you’re ready, Mayor, let us know. Our pollinator posse will bring shovels, spades, native milkweeds and nectar plants to help make it happen.

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Guidance on milkweed management confuses butterfly gardeners

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

monarch laying eggs on swamp milkweed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Egg on Texana

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

In my yard right now, for example, I have

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

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

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

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

Right?

“You’re right that it’s less about the plant itself and more about the seasonality of the plant,” wrote Satterfield via email.  “Any plant that grows 365 days a year in the southern U.S. and supports Monarchs year-round could lead to high levels of disease, as we understand it.”

Swamp milkweed seed pod

Drawback to cutting back native milkweeds: we then can’t harvest the seedpods. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“My personal leaning is that if the species are native, they don’t need to be cut back on a regular basis,” said Dr. Altizer via email.  “Any natives that routinely remain in lush green foliage into the fall and winter are likely going to be rare species, or it will be a rare year when this happens, whereas with the Tropical milkweed, these commonly remain in green foliage until they are hit by a hard frost or cut back.”

Dr. Lincoln Brower, always the purist, suggests even cutting late season nectar plants back–if they are growing in close proximity to Tropical milkweed.

“I have given some thought to your question of whether nectar sources might accumulate OE spores,” wrote Dr. Brower via email.  “I think the answer to this is one of probability and proximity to curassavica [Tropical milkweed]. I think that nectar sources are so diverse and abundant in the natural environment that the probability of Monarchs infecting the plants with spores is very small. …unless the nectar plant is growing adjacent to curassavica. Again, yank it out.”

Confused?  You’re not the only one.

Mary Kennedy, volunteer at the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project

Mary Kennedy, volunteer at the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project

Mary Kennedy, a longtime Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project volunteer and trainer said she is no longer going to advise folks to cut back their Tropical milkweed. “If milkweed is on the ground late in the season, I don’t see why it makes any difference what species it is,” said Kennedy, a former science teacher. “Grow up kids, and make your own decisions.”

One drawback to cutting milkweeds back late in the season is that we then are unable to harvest the seeds. I cut back a patch of Swamp milkweed in August as it was riddled with aphids and gangly.  The plants failed to produce any more flowers; thus, no seeds have been harvested from that patch to propagate future native milkweeds.

Satterfield insisted that the scientists’ statements are “still correct and not mutually exclusive.”

Swamp milkweed in the "wild" of the Llano River, 11/21/2015. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Swamp milkweed in the “wild” of the Llano River, 11/21/2015. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“Our research suggests that milkweeds that support Monarch breeding year-round in the U.S. could put Monarchs at higher risk of disease. The milkweeds enabling these non-migratory Monarchs are exotic species, like Tropical milkweed and Family Jewels milkweed. We are not aware of any native species supporting large numbers of Monarch caterpillars during the winter in the Gulf states. So, we do not have any scientific support right now that says we should cut back native milkweeds.”

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

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

Monarch cluster

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

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

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

Coahuila Monarchs

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

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

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

Hurricane Patricia path

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

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

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

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

Monarch on daisy

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

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

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

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

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

Monarchs Alpine

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Q & A: Journey North’s Elizabeth Howard talks tech, citizen science, mass butterfly releases

We’ve all read her bulletins.  From the appearance of the first eggs in March and April to the massive wave of Monarchs pulsing through the Texas funnel in the fall, Elizabeth Howard, 60, keeps Monarch butterfly aficionados apprised of the whereabouts and status of our favorite migrating butterfly.

In 1994, the educator, conservationist, and citizen scientist pioneer founded Journey North, a website and program funded by Annenberg Learner, a division of the Annenberg Foundation devoted to advancing excellent teaching in American schools.  The site offers an app, tracking maps, teaching and curriculum tips, and the call to “Go outside. Explore your own backyard. Get ready to share what you see!”

Monarch roost near Junction

Monarch butterflies roost near Junction, Texas in early October 2015. Photo by Judy and Tony Hall

Journey North has embraced that creed for decades, engaging 60,0000 students, citizen scientists, and naturalists of all ages in tracking seasonal change and wildlife migrations around the world–Monarchs, hummingbirds, whales, eagles and others.  The program encourages people to report sightings of eggs, caterpillars and adults through its website or via the Journey North app.

Howard directs the effort with a fluctuating staff of up to six during peak season from her office in Vermont.  Each week during migration season she spends a day and a half crafting the Thursday Monarch butterfly migration bulletins.  The most time-consuming part, she says, is managing the data which is expertly done by her Journey North colleague, Cindy Schmid.

“With a gentle push from the north wind, the migration began to flow into Texas this week,” wrote Howard in the October 8 newsletter.  “The average roost-size in Texas has been 1,000 Monarchs so far, and numbers should build to peak over the coming week.”

I’ve admired Howard from afar for years, impressed by her relatively early embrace of technology in the service of nature. The celebration of all things tech sometimes seems to steamroll the importance of the natural world.

Trained as a biologist, Howard holds special status as a citizen scientist and advocate.

“I consider myself a citizen scientist — and also a ‘real scientist.’” she said via email. “I’m someone who has learned on the job (and I’m secretly proud of that). I think it’s great that the scientific field can make room for people who take the route I have; experience must be at least as valuable as advanced degrees.”

elizabeth_howard_092413

Elizabeth Howard, founder of Journey North, directs the citizen science program from Vermont. Photo via Journey North

That attitude has afforded her special stature with many of us. When Howard speaks, citizen scientists listen.

Her newsletter’s recent inclusion of a press release announcing a statement authored by 10 scientists discouraging the purchase of commercially bred butterflies for fear of unleashing the debilitating Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE) spore on the wild population gave many of us pause.

Under the headline, “Concern about Monarch releases,” Howard included the press release with a link to the statement accompanied by a quote from Sarina Jepsen, Endangered Species Program Director of The Xerces Society in her weekly newsletter.

“Breeding and releasing monarchs might seem like a harmless activity, something that might even help struggling populations. Unfortunately, the practice holds the potential to actually harm wild monarchs and disrupt research that is critical to their conservation,” said Jepsen.

The Xerces Society, along with the Center for Biological Diversity and Dr. Lincoln Brower, submitted the petition last August to list the Monarch butterfly as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.

Howard touches on that and more, below.

1. How did you arrive at the notion of crowdsourcing information about the Monarch butterfly and other migrations?

As a winter-worn resident of the northern US, waiting for spring was always a challenge. Toward the end of winter, I’d follow bird migrations by listening to ‘rare bird alerts’ from the states to my south. (At the time, bird sightings were compiled on telephone answering

machines.) So, when I heard about ‘the internet’ — and how it could connect people — it struck me immediately that the technology could be used to track migrations. I actually remember the instant the idea occurred to me; I pictured a map with lights turning on as migrants arrived successively across the landscape.

2. When you started Journey North in 1994, that was extremely early Internet. Obviously, much has changed since then, but what has been the most astounding or impressive change in the technology and in citizen science?

What’s been most impressive is the pace of change. When we began in 1994 e-mail was new and there was no web. Now we have images, voice, video, social media, apps, ever-increasing band-width and immediate access to people across the planet. I love having had a job that incorporates these advancements so closely and directly. Truly, not a week goes by where we don’t see new and creative applications – and we can build them right into our work.

Follow the migration at Journey North.

As for citizen science, I’m still impressed that we can track butterflies across the continent simply by sharing sightings and that the information is so valuable. For example, we now know that even weekly differences in spring temperatures can impact the subsequent size of that year’s population. Who knew?

3. Are you generally optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the Monarch butterfly migration? Do you think your great-grandchildren will experience it?

I guess I’m optimistic in the short-term but I hate to think about the long-term because conservation work is going to get even harder. The pace of habitat destruction is projected to accelerate and, on top of that, there’s climate change. At a recent meeting scientists were grappling to determine the migration’s “extinction threshold.” We know we’re flirting with it and we don’t know the tipping point.

What’s heartening is the outpouring of support for Monarchs. If people decide it’s important, maybe we can save them.

4. The Monarch butterfly community has been “aflutter” about the possibility of the Monarch’s possible listing as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. Where do you come down on this?

If this is what it will take to protect the Monarch migration, I’m all for it. However, I do have questions about how and whether this approach would work.

For example, a landowner might rid his/her property of milkweed out of concern that he/she won’t be allowed to do so later. Any regulation should be written so we can learn as we go and make sure unintended consequences don’t make matters worse.

5. You told me via email once that your favorite migrating creature is a toss-up between hummingbirds and Monarchs. Do you still feel that way, and if so, what is it about one or the other that is most interesting? Also, which species garners the most attention/views on the Journey North site? ( I bet I know the answer to that one.)

That’s right, I can’t choose. Monarchs are perhaps more awe-inspiring; I mean, how DO they migrate to a place they’ve never been? But we can experience hummingbirds on a more individual, personal level. I love their chutzpah; they’re so much fun to have around. Plus, they make me laugh which a Monarch never has.

Hummingbirds surpass Monarch in popularity on Journey North and that fits. Google “hummingbird” and you’ll get 31 million hits compared to the Monarch’s meager 1 million.

Future citizen scientists

Howard is most proud of engaging future citizen scientists like these boys discovering some Monarch eggs on milkweed. –Photo via Journey North

6. What is your proudest moment as the founder of Journey North?

I’m proud that Journey North provides such an easy entry point to citizen science, and that we have brought so many people into the fold. We now have 60,000 participants spread across Canada, the US, and Mexico. People are telling the Monarch’s story, right down to those who live near the sanctuaries in Mexico and announce the butterflies’ arrival. How neat is that?

7. You recently issued a news release discouraging people from buying Monarch butterflies in any form from mass breeders for release in the wild. Do you honestly think that commercial butterfly breeders have no place in Monarch conservation?

In my view, this is about what the monarchs need — we have to put their needs first. The surest way to help monarchs is to provide healthy habitat and leave the breeding to them. If nature’s taught us any lesson it’s that ecological systems are always more complex that we expect. Think of the pictures of millions of monarchs overwintering together — having come from across the continent — and then imagine some carrying a communicable disease. There’s so much we don’t know. I don’t think we can be too cautious.
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How to tag a Monarch butterfly in six easy steps

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

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

Ready to tag some butterflies?

Ready to tag some butterflies?

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

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

Monarch Watch tags and data sheets

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

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

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

  1. Locate butterfly

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

Frostweed is a fall favorite nectar source for Monarch butterflies.

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

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

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

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

2.  Net butterfly

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

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

Monarch nectaring on swamp milkweed

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

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

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

Annie Schenzel demonstrates proper net technique

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

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

3. Collect butterfly/butterflies from net

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

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

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

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

4.  Examine butterfly, establish its sex.

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

Male Monarch Butterfly

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

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

Raggedy Monarch butterfly

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

5.  Remove tag from sheet and adhere to butterfly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6.  Release

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

Off she goes!

Off she goes!   Photo by Monka Maeckle

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

Monarch butterfly recoveries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the summer of 2012, I had the opportunity to meet Trail.  She reached out to me here at the Texas Butterfly Ranch.  I was astounded she lived 75 miles up the road from me and told her so.  Would she agree to an interview?   She did. Over several weeks, we met, talked by phone and corresponded by email.href=”http://texasbutterflyranch.com/2012/07/10/founder-of-the-monarch-butterfly-roosting-sites-in-mexico-lives-a-quiet-life-in-austin-texas/” target=”_blank”>The untold story of her role in discovering the Monarch butterfly roosting sites posted on July 10, 2012.  We have stayed in touch.

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

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

A Butterfly Haven somewhere in Michoacan

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catalina Trail and Shaun Benson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Increased cash, awareness, rain, egg-laying: good news for 2015 Monarch butterfly migration

What a difference a year makes.

At the end of 2014, we were hanging our heads contemplating the end of the Monarch butterfly migration.  The 2013 -2014 season was the worst in history, with roosting populations numbering the lowest since records have been kept.   The entire Monarch breeding population had fallen from highs of more than half a billion 20 years ago to only 34 million in 2014.

Got questions? Edith has the answers. In this case, this is one fertile female Monarch. Photo courtesy Edith Smith

Dr. Chip Taylor released an upbeat revision to his Monarch population status report based on increased egg laying in the summer breeding grounds. Photo of captive Monarch in egg-laying mode.  Courtesy Edith Smith

But then in February of this year, scientists reported a bit of rebound. The population of roosting Monarchs climbed to about 56 million. Still a long way from its peak, but progress. NOTE: For those unaware, scientists measure the number of hectares Monarch butterflies occupy at the roosting sights in Michoacán, Mexico, each winter to calculate their population. Each hectar (about 2.5 acres) occupied represents 50 million butterflies.

The good news continues. On August 6, Dr. Chip Taylor released an upbeat Monarch population status report, based on robust egg laying in the Dakotas to Michigan this summer. “I’m encouraged by the egg data,” Dr. Taylor wrote on August 6. “The size of the migration is strongly influenced by the number of eggs laid between 20 July and 7 August.”

Taylor revised a previous forecast upward, stating the population might jump to occupy 1.8 – 2.3 hectares in Michoacán.  That would translate to 90 – 115 million Monarchs–continuing the rebound and doubling 2014’s numbers.

Monarch butterflies nectaring in the Chigger Islands in the Llano River on Frostweed

Late summer rains will help sustain nectar sources for migrating Monarch butterflies, like these nectaring on Frostweed on the Llano River  in 2013. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The weather and political climate both seem to be cooperating.   Texas, home to the “Texas  funnel” through which all migrating Monarchs pass each spring and fall on their way from and to their roosting spots, has had a delightfully wet spring and relatively mild summer.  An end-of summer dry spell has been broken by periodic thunderstorms that can hopefully keep nectar sources viable for Monarchs when they cruise through the strategically situated Texas Hill Country later this season.

The drought has seen relief and meteorologists are predicting a “Godzilla el Niño” this winter, which conceivably could return our rivers and springs to their former free-flowing status.

Texas drought monitor, mid August 2014 and same time 2015. via droughtmonitor.edu

On the public awareness front, concern, understanding and resources directed at the Monarch butterfly migration and pollinator advocacy have never been stronger or more dedicated.

President Obama used his office to call attention to pollinators with his visit to Toluca, Mexico in February of 2014, where he and the Presidents of Canada and Mexico vowed to protect the Pan-American Monarch migration.   Two months later, First Lady Michelle Obama planted the first pollinator garden at the White house.  In June of 2014, Obama issued a Presidential memorandum calling for a National Pollinator Strategy, which was delivered in May of 2015.  The goals of the strategy are ambitious and far-reaching:

1. Reduce Honey bee colony losses by more than 15% within 10 years.

2. Increase the migrating Monarch butterfly population to 225 million (their historic average), with an occupation of 15 acres in Michoacán by 2020.

3. Restore or enhance seven million acres of pollinator habitat over the next five years.

Just in the last 18 months, millions of dollars have poured into Monarch butterfly and pollinator research and restoration efforts–from US Fish and Wildlife Service, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, US Department of Agriculture–even the Texas State Comptroller’s office.  As one federal employee stated, “Every department of the federal government has been tasked to contribute [to Monarch conservation] in some way.”  Monsanto Corporation, oft-vilified makers of Round-Up and neonicinitoids, has contributed millions to research–more than $4 million in matching grants and other support over three years.

Here’s just a 2015 sampling of Monsanto’s and your tax dollars at work on behalf of Monarch and pollinator restoration:

US Fish and Wildlife Service                 $2 million

Texas State Comptroller’s Office           $300,000

National Fish and Wildlife Fdn.            $1 million

Bureau of Land Management               $250,000

US Dept. of Agriculture National         $250,000
Resource Conservation Svce.

US Forest Service                              $100,000

Monsanto Corporation                         $4 million

Thanks to all the newfound attention and investment–about $8 million from the incomplete list above–butterfly and pollinator advocates have been able to partake in a free webinar series on Monarch conservation staged by US Fish and Wildlife.  Private landowners (including

President BArack Obama

Thanks, Obama! For raising pollinator awareness. Courtesy photo

yours truly) have the option to work with the federal government to be reimbursed for pollinator improvements on private land throught the Partners for Wildlife program.  And greater understanding of milkweed types and Monarch diseases is resulting from work being done at Monarch Watch, the Monarch Joint Venture, Journey North, and the recently established Monarch Conservation Fund as well as higher learning institutions like University of Texas at San Antonio.

Regional educational conferences like the upcoming Texas Pollinator Powwow are also reaching new audiences, taking pollinators mainstream.   The private sector is also responding.   From mega grower Colorspot Nursery to boutiques like the Natural Gardener in Austin–which had five different native milkweeds available last weekend–nurseries are offering more clean, chemical free milkweeds and other pollinator plants to the gardening public.

Tagged Monarch butterfly

Monarch butterflies are on the move. Should be a banner year.  Get your tags soon from Monarch Watch.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

While the millions being directed to pollinator conservation are minuscule compared to the billions directed to farm subsidies each year, it’s still good news and more than has ever been focused on the issue.  We expect more as the grants mentioned above are executed, more data is collected and ways of restoring our native landscapes and milkweed stocks are researched and shared.   Whether or not the Monarch butterfly migration will continue as a natural phenomenon to be enjoyed by our grandchildren is an open question.

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