Monarch butterfly expert Dr. Karen Oberhauser to speak in San Antonio Nov. 8

Didn’t get enough of Monarch butterflies at our Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival last month? Well here’s your chance to learn even more about the hemisphere’s favorite insect.

Dr. Karen Oberhauser, Monarch Joint Venture and the University of Minnesota –Photo via Oberhauser Lab

Dr. Karen Oberhauser, one of the top Monarch butterfly experts in the world and founder of Monarch Joint Venture, will share the state-of-the-union of North American Monarchs at a Celebrating Monarchs event next Tuesday, November 7, at the San Antonio Zoo.

The presentation should be an interesting one, given this year’s odd, mega-late migration. Monarch butterflies continue to gather in tardy, record numbers along the Atlantic coast while simultaneously arriving en masse at their roosting sites in Michoacán. We’ve never seen anything quite like it. Scientists are concerned that the long, drawn out journey south will burn up the Monarchs’ stored fats, possibly jeopardizing their ability to make it through the winter and start the cycle again in spring.

Oberhauser is well-known for spearheading Monarchs in the Classroom, an initiative she launched in 1992 at the University of Minnesota Monarch Lab, and as the co-chair of Monarch Joint Venture (MJV).  With more than 65 organizations under its umbrella, the MJV functions much like a United Way for Monarch butterfly oriented nonprofits and NGOs, lending credibility and sometimes funding to research, conservation and education of Monarchs and their migration. Grants are

Biologist David Berman noticed this female, XSC 637, released at our Festival on Oct. 22 laying eggs at the Nueva St. pollinator garden along the San Antonio River Oct. 30. Photo by David Berman

awarded through a collaborative process overseen by a steering committee and board made up of academics, citizen scientists and government and agency representatives.

Oberhauser’s Monarchs in the Classroom program came about after she supplied surplus caterpillars from her research at the University of Minnesota to her daughter’s elementary school classroom. Once she saw the positive reaction by children and teachers to the critters at school, a pilot program evolved to use Monarch butterflies to teach science.

That program became a flagship, the first of dozens to result from Oberhauser’s penchant for collaboration and public-private partnerships. In 2008, Oberhauser and other Monarch conservation organizations joined forces with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the University of Minnesota to form MJV.

Among the  MJV partners: our good friends at Journey North and Monarch Watch;  the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project, which monitors milkweed patches across the country for Monarchs in all their stages and reports the data;

the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary Foundation, which focuses on conservation and education efforts in Mexico; and Monarch Lab, a University of Minnesota-based research effort focused on the iconic migrant.

Oberhauser’s talk, which will take place at a reception and dinner called Celebrating Monarchs, will kick off the annual MJV conference. The two-day meeting takes place at the downtown University of Texas campus November 8 and 9, but is closed to the public.

Oberhauser’s first trip to the roosting sites in Mexico occurred in 1992. By 1997, she led her first crew of graduate students on a tour to Michoacán. That was the year the Monarch butterfly population peaked at almost a billion butterflies, occupying 18 hectares of forest–almost 45 acres. Last year, the migrating Monarch population numbered only 146 million, occupying less than three hectares–about seven acres.

Monarch butterfly population numbers. Graphic via Journey North

“I’ve seen that whole decline,” Oberhauser said in an interview earlier this year. “I’ve seen it up here in the summer and down there in the winter,” That perspective drives her today.

A silent auction, dinner, and the chance to visit the Zoo’s butterfly house will also be on the program with Oberhauser’s talk, 6:30 – 8:30, Tuesday, November 7. Tickets available here.

See you there.

Did you attend our Festival in October? Please take our survey! GRACIAS!

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Happy Monarch butterfly birthday suggests spectacular 2017 migration season

My Friday the 13th birthday arrived with a weekend of good luck this year.

Family and friends gathered at the ranch for the ritual birthday tagging outing as clusters of Monarch butterflies appeared for a birthday chorus sung by chittering cicadas. A fifth instar caterpillar greeted me on my kayak rounds. Swamp milkweed pods, plump with seeds, perched ready to spread their wealth. And Monarch eggs, gathered from native milkweed stems, hatched within hours of collection.

Happy Monarch birthday weekend suggests a spectacular season. Photo by Monika Maeckle

All the good fortune bode well for my next twirl around the sun–and suggests a spectacular 2017 Monarch butterfly migration.

Plenty of nectar pitstops await. A variety of insects and butterflies, including hundreds of migrating Monarchs, enjoyed late season blooms that lined the Llano River banks in the glorious Texas Hill Country.

Elegant Swallowtails on Frostweed. Spangled Gulf fritillaries on Cowpen Daisy. Lemon yellow Sulphurs on past-their prime Goldenrods. Golden brown Queens fluttering on Late flowering boneset. Crickets, cicadas, gnats, and diverse bees populated the riverbanks. And Monarchs, pushed down from a cold front earlier this week, floated between pecan trees before gathering in small clusters. There, they awaited the next southbound wind that would give them a lift home.

With peak Monarch migration time for our latitude forecast for October 10-22, this is just the beginning. Many more Monarchs are heading our way.

The headwinds that have been holding butterflies back yielded in the Midwest this week, according to Journey North, the wildlife tracking initiative that keeps tabs on Monarchs and other wildlife. In her Thursday, October 12 bulletin, founder Elizabeth Howard noted “The migration’s leading edge advanced across Texas” this week. Howard will join us this Friday for our Butterflies Without Borders Symposium. (Tickets still available.)

“We live on Lake Travis in Austin, Texas,” Tammy Marshall told Journey North on October 10th.  “We looked out the window and saw hundreds of butterflies right before sunset. They formed roosts in the trees. This morning we looked again and they were gone. What an amazing sight!”

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Journey North reported migrating rabbles (yes, that’s the official word for groups of butterflies) in Canada, Kansas, the Atlantic Coast–even in the Big Apple.”In New York City this week, an incredible 600 monarchs were sighted in LaGuardia Corner Garden in the heart of Greenwich Village. Others were counted as they traveled by an office window on the 39th floor of a skyscraper.”

Throughout the Texas Hill Country, Monarchs were spotted in small clusters, a good sign for the next few weeks. On Friday, temperatures peaked in the 90s when we gathered for a birthday celebration. A quick hike to the river yielded hundreds of Monarchs settling in for the night. Gabriela Santiago and I netted and tagged about 40 in quick swoops and tagging sessions before the sun set. Gabriela even netted a Monarch pair locked in their impressive courtship flight.

Journey North has the peak migration moving into Texas this week. Graphic via Journey North.

On Saturday, the Rivard boys joined us with a custom net extender. Nicolas Rivard rigged a 16-foot tree trimming pole with a butterfly net that reached well into the tall pecan tree limbs. Soon the men were competing to see who could net the most butterflies in one swoop. The record: 16 butterflies–one butterfly netted per foot of pole. A coincedence?

With a dreamy sunset as a backdrop, 169 Monarchs were tagged by day’s end. By Sunday morning, a cold front that would drop temperatures into the 40s arrived with a dramatic rain shower. By the afternoon as winds picked up, the Monarchs were on their way again. We look forward to the next round of visitors.

Scientists and Monarch followers have been predicting a spectacular rebound season for 2017. Judging from everything witnessed on the Llano River this weekend, it appears the Texas Funnel is in for a big showing.

Hundreds of Monarchs will also make an appearance this Friday – Sunday at San Antonio’s 2017 Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival. Three days of art, science, education and celebration of our most iconic species will take flight at the Historic Pearl and around town. Please join us, details here.

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Nice job, Michigan: milkweed and nectar plants bolster Monarch butterfly migration

My husband and I just returned from the “Top of the Mitten,” an area that covers the northern most reaches of our favorite mitten-shaped state. We took a circuitous, 1400-mile drive around Lake Michigan that included stops at his boyhood stomping grounds in Petoskey and Kalamazoo.

A Monarch prepares to take flight across Lake Michigan from Peninsula Point. Photo by Dale Nemeth

For decades Bob has waxed nostalgic about growing up in northern  Michigan. Becoming acquainted with his boyhood home and escaping the South Texas’ summer heat were reasons enough to make the trip. But seeing this amazing part of the world and its unique geology and ecosystems turned the adventure into an awakening. What a beautiful place. Our visit also coincided with the beginning of the Monarch butterfly migration in that part of the world. Monarchs are just starting to take flight from southern Canada, thus we encountered some of our Danaus plexippus friends along the way.

My my Michigan milkweed, what big seedpods you have! Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park –Photo by Monika Maeckle

At Mackinac Island’s Mission Point Resort, Blackeyed Susans fill a beachfront prairie. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Most surprising: milkweed appears to be growing EVERYWHERE along the roadside in Michigan. True, we hugged the Great Lakes on our driving tour, but it seems that everywhere we turned–on highways, sunny clearances in forests, even at historic Mackinac Island Fort, milkweed flourished. Whether this was intentional or accidental, it doesn’t matter. Plenty of host plant exists for super generation Monarchs passing through  the Wolverine State and bode well for a healthy southbound population. Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, predicted in a recent blog post that Monarchs will experience a healthy rebound this year. Prospects call for “an increase from the 2.91 hectares of last year to 4 hectares or better this coming winter or better” in the amount of space the Monarchs occupy in their winter roosting sites.  Scientists calculate the Monarch population by counting the number of hectares they occupy in their roosting sites each winter in Michoacán, Mexico. The imperfect formula is currently 50 million butterflies per hectare.

Nectar plants were also abundant. Black-eyed Susan, (Rudbeckia hirta,) Smooth Aster (Aster laevis), Boneset or Thoroughwort (Eupatorium perfoliatum) and other flowers filled the roadsides and pocket prairies. Houghton’s Goldenrod (Solidago Houghtonii), a different species from the Solidago altissima that grows in Texas in late summer, can only be found in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, or  “U.P.,” as Michiganders call it. The dramatic plant, which sometimes includes strange galls that host a local moth, occupies the sandy shores of Lake Michigan, its stout yellow blooms braving the constant wind.

Houghton’s Goldenrod, a specialty of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, grows prolifically along the windy shores of Lake Michigan. Photo by Monika Maeckle

A highlight of the trip was Peninsula Point, a famous Monarch butterfly staging area. The migrating insects gather on the milkweed-studded shore of this skinny stretch of sand, which juts out into Lake Michigan. A historic lighthouse marks the Point, and just as ships sailing the lake use it for orientation, Monarch butterflies utilize the strategic location to navigate their migration.

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According to a plaque on the Peninsula Point Lighthouse, the area serves as one of few places in the country where one can witness Monarchs migrating en masse. The southbound butterflies gather here and use the area as a “nursery.” Just like our migrating Monarchs sometimes take a break along the Llano River or other Hill Country river bottom to wait out an unfavorable  wind, these pragmatic Monarchs have patience for an optimal wind current they can jump to cross the lake.

Raspberry brambles populated the forest at Peninsula POint. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Bob and I parked about a mile from the Point and chose to take a hike through the woods to reach our destination. We didn’t see many Monarchs until we came to the water, but in the forest where the sun peaked through the tree canopy, hundreds of wild raspberry brambles distracted us from our Monarch butterfly search.

Upon arriving at the Peninsula Point shoreline, we ran into Dale Nemeth, a Michigander from Stonington, not far up the road. He and his family rent a cabin every year across the water at Garden Peninsula. Nemeth sported a fancy camera with a long lens, and agreed

Dale Nemeth photographs Monarch butterflies getting ready to head south at Peninsula Point. Photo by Monika Maeckle

to share the picture at the top of this post. He says many Monarchs frequent the Garden Peninsula as well. “Their chrysalis amazes me…They remind me of a green pill capsule with gold engraving!” he wrote via email.

Janet Ekstrum, wildlife biologist for Rapid River/Manistique District of the Hiawatha National Forest, says the University of Minnesota operates a Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project (MLMP ) at Peninsula Point. Barring a projected frost next week which could cut monitoring short, she says MLMP will continue monitoring into mid September this year since they’re still finding eggs and caterpillars.

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Agrawal: Milkweeds don’t need Monarch butterflies, but Monarchs need milkweed

Monarch butterflies and milkweed. We’ve explored the subject many times right here at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. But author Anurag Agrawal’s recently published Monarchs and Milkweed, A Migrating Butterfly, a Poisonous Plant, and their Remarkable Story of Co-evolution adds a new dimension to our understanding of the testy relationship between our favorite migrating butterfly and its poisonous host plant.

Anurag Agrawal, author of Monarchs and Milkweed, released this spring by Princeton University Press  –Courtesy photo

Agrawal, a recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Ecology Award in 2016,  wades far into the milkweeds to make this complicated story highly readable. The Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Sciences and Faculty Fellow at the Atkinson School of a Sustainable Future at Cornell University was the first scientist to suggest that Monarch butterfly conservation might be better served if we looked beyond planting more milkweeds–anything in the Asclepias family. Agrawal proposed increasing late season nectar plants, required by the butterflies in the fall to fuel their migratory flight.

In this beautifully illustrated book, he compares the co-evolution of milkweeds and Monarchs to an “arms race,” a parallel drawn previously by Monarch butterfly expert Lincoln Brower and other scientists. To Monarch butterfly lovers, the metaphor may seem off-putting, perhaps exaggerated. But after reading Agrawal’s detailed explanation of the continuous one-upmanship that occurs between the iconic creature and its host plant, the label makes perfect sense.

One of Agrawal’s most unexpected assertions: “The butterflies are simply no good as pollinators. Monarchs are strictly pests.” With Monarch butterflies bandied about as the poster child for pollinator advocacy in recent years, we naturally assume that the storied migrants are effective pollinators.

But they’re not. Especially for milkweeds, which have an unusual pollinator strategy, similar only to orchids in the natural world. Milkweed pollen is not disseminated by individual pollen grains like those we notice clinging to the bodies of bees.

Polonium

The dangling yellow pollen sac is the pollinium of an orchid. Photo via Wikipedia

Instead, members of the Asclepias family reproduce via pollinia, evolved pollen packages–sticky masses of pollen that look like tiny yellow bags. We sometimes see these teeny yellow bulbs attached to bees’ wooly heads or fuzzy legs after they’ve dug into a flower. The pollen sac attaches to the bee. As they dive into flowers, the pollinia somehow is inserted into the flower’s reproductive slit, resulting in pollination.

Monarch butterflies, because of their size, form, and the way they sit atop flowers, simply don’t have the capacity to carry these hefty pollen vessels. And they rarely come into contact with the pollinia, nor its reproductive destination in the female part of the flower.

“This nonpollinating aspect of Monarchs is not widely appreciated,” writes Agrawal.

Now there’s an understatement. Given the Monarch’s Pan-American status as the great pollinator ambassador, that fact will come as a harsh revelation to many.

Agrawal will be in town for a session at the San Antonio Book Festival April 8. Come join us, buy a book, and get it signed.

As it happens, milkweeds don’t need Monarchs, but Monarchs DO need milkweeds. Monarch butterflies will only lay their eggs on plants that are members of the Asclepias or milkweed family, a species known for its sticky, milky latex sap, which tastes bitter and contains potentially heart stopping toxins that protect the butterflies that consume it as caterpillars because it makes them distasteful to predators.

Monarch caterpillars eat the milkweed leaves, morph through their stages, transform into  chrysalises, then emerge as adult butterflies. As the Monarchs attack the milkweed by eating it, the milkweed responds by ratcheting up its toxic properties, making the larval food ever more toxic as the season wears on. This is how the plant protects itself and makes for the intriguing “coevolutionary arms race” which is the premise of the book.

Monarch butterflies will only lay their eggs on the toxic milkweed Asclepias species. Courtesy photo

Agrawal notes, and some of us have witnessed first hand, how tiny Monarch caterpillars sometimes perish upon eating perfectly healthy milkweed. The reason may be the milkweed is simply too toxic for the Monarchs to process. As Agrawal points out, “the dose makes the poison.”

In chapter seven, titled “The Milkweed Village,” Agrawal goes into entertaining detail about the 11 different species of insects that have made milkweed “their bed and breakfast.”  We’ve seen them all–aphids, milkweed bugs and beetles, wasps, ants. Agrawal introduces each in gory and glorious detail–the “seed eaters,” the “suckers,” the “chewers, miners and borers.” For anyone who raises Monarchs and milkweeds in the garden, many questions will be answered here.

As Monarch caterpillars decimate milkweeds, the plant responds by increasing the levels of cardiac glycosides it produces as a defense. Courtesy photo.

Throughout, Agrawal writes deeply but accessibly about biology, botany, and chemical ecology, only rarely straying into the hyper-scientific jargon that can make such writing impossible to understand for those without PhDs. That is one of the greatest strengths of this book in my view: making the science understandable to nonscientists.

Speaking of eating milkweed, Agrawal also shares that young stalks of certain milkweeds are perfectly edible as a side dish for humans. I had heard this from my friend, hydroponic farmer and adventurous vegetarian Mitchell Hagney of Local Sprout, but had never had it explained.

cooked milkweed stalks

Anurag Agrawal cooked milkweed for his wife and child. Courtesy photo

Agrawal cites wild plant proponent Euell Gibbons, author of the 1962 classic, Stalking the Wild Asparagus. Young milkweed shoots can apparently be gathered in late spring when they’re four- to eight-inches high, sautéed and served for supper or as a side dish. Agrawal suggests several cold water rinses to remove extreme bitterness from the milkweed but preserve its unique flavor. “Season with salt, pepper and butter. Serve proudly,” he writes. He offers a color photo of a cast iron skillet filled with young milkweed shoots that he served to his family. The Asclepias veggies appear amazingly similar to asparagus. Perhaps a milkweed cookbook will be next?

Such accessible, fun anecdotes mixed with hardcore science are exactly what make this book a must-read for Monarch followers and generalists alike.

Want to meet Anurag Agrawal? Join us at the San Antonio Book Festival Saturday, April 8, 10 AM, to meet him. We’ll discuss his book and answer your questions. Books will be available for purchase and signing. Hope to see you there! Details here.

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Monarch butterflies head north as Mexican scientists try to move their forest

One of the hottest winters in history poses good news and bad news for migrating Monarch butterflies this season. The good news: warm weather and well-timed rains translate into a grand wildflower season with plenty of milkweed in South Texas. The bad news: those same high temperatures in Mexico where the Monarchs overwinter mean that many butterflies have burned up much of their stored winter fats, creating a lack of fuel and extra stress for their journey north.

Some of the migrating creatures that arrived in the Mexican mountains last fall have already left the roosting sites. In fact, we found our first-of-season caterpillar this week on Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassivaca, along the San Antonio River Walk.

But the bulk of the overwintering butterflies have yet to depart, head north and lay the first round of eggs that will launch the 2017 edition of their epic multigenerational migration. The success of that first generation, often born in Texas, sets the stage for a successful-or-not Monarch butterfly season. Subsequent generations make their way north to Canada over the summer, reproducing along the way. In the fall, they fly home to Mexico to roost until one day in March, they leave for good, head north, reproduce and die–starting the cycle anew.

first instar

First instar Monarch caterpillar found on the San Antonio River, March 9, 2017. Photo by Monika Maeckle

A recent trip to the roosting sites in Mexico found the butterflies fluttering from their roosts on the sacred firs in search of water and nectar–not unusual this time of year. The butterflies puddled in the damp mud of shallow mountain streams to rehydrate and sip nutrients. They also nectared on stands of asters, sages and various verbenas. Many butterflies lay dead on the ground–again, not unusual.

According to Dr. Cuauhtémoc Sáenz Romero, a forest geneticist at the University of Michoacán, the winter storm of March 2016 punched dangerous holes in the forest canopy. An intact canopy serves as a blanket for the butterflies and prevents temperatures from dropping below freezing, while the butterflies wait out the winter in a semi-hibernative state.  A lack of activity in the context of cold weather and insulation provided by the forest helps them conserve lipids (previously accumulated fats in their bodies), needed for the spring remigration. Gaps in the forest canopy and hot temperatures–the warmest winter in history–force the butterflies to burn up their fats.

Sáenz Romero expressed concerns that the condition of the forest coupled with climate change could have devastating consequences when the weather turns chilly and humid. This creates a deadly combination, forming ice on the Monarchs’ wings, he said, often causing their death.

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                                             photos by Nicolas Rivard

Such concerns motivated Sáenz Romero, ecological sciences professor Arnulfo Blanco García, and a crew of University of Michoacán students to establish an experimental forest plot on the Ejido La Mesa en Sierra Campanario near San Jose del Rincon in the state of Mexico.

While the area officially serves as a Monarch sanctuary and is part of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, few butterflies were present upon our visit there earlier this month. Signs of high temperatures, drought and the March 2016 storm that decimated more than 100 acres of forest and millions of butterflies were evident, however.

Sáenz Romero pointed out trees with skinny tops and a lack of foliage, which suggests a lack of water. A wet season and dry season typify the usual weather pattern here, he explained. But when the wet

Drought and high winds make the trees where the Monarchs roost vulnerable. Photo by Nicolas Rivard

season offers less rain than average and the dry season is warmer than usual, the trees can’t absorb enough water from the soil to reach the tallest limbs. Leaf and branch shedding result, creating weakened, scrawny treetops. This unhealthy state also makes the forest more susceptible to wind damage and insect attacks, said Sáenz Romero.

It wasn’t always this way, said Blanco García, taking in the vast expanse of oaks, pines and Oyamel, preferred by overwintering Monarchs. This area of Mexico has long relied on mining, which has posed different threats to the forest in the past, such as water pollution and deforestation.

Three-year-old Oyamel, sacred fir,  planted in full sun. Photo by Nicolas Rivard

Three-year-old Oyamel, sacred fir, in mixed plant community that provides partial shade. Photo by Nicolas Rivard

“Sixty years ago, there was no forest here,” he said. “But when mining stopped in the area, the forest regenerated itself.”  That was before climate change became the dominant factor it is today.

Saáenz Romero and Blanco García believe that within 70 years, the sacred firs hosting the Monarchs each winter will not be able to survive the increased temperatures and volatile weather predicted to rule the forest. The tree has a narrow window of temperature and altitude in which it can thrive, said Sáenz Romero.

With funding from Monarch Butterfly Fund in Minnesota, the Mexican Council of Science and TEchnology (CONACyT in Spanish), the Mexican Fund for the Nature Conservancy and the University of Michoacán, an experimental plot of Oyamel seedlings was placed  1,000 feet higher up the mountain than the existing sanctuaries–at 3,440 meters/11,286 feet. The approach, called assisted migration, has been successfully deployed in Canada. It aims to grow a replacement forest that in this case can be occupied by overwintering Monarchs when the roosting sites further down the mountain expire.

During a tour of the plot, now three years old, the scientists pointed out how Oyamel seedlings planted in combination with sage bushes and other tall perennials fared better than those placed in full sun. Because of the more severe dry season and higher temperatures, the Oyamels do better in a diverse plant community that offers shade at least part of the day.

“Weather proof” temperature monitor at the experimental forest in La Mesa. Photo by Nicolas Rivard

Also evident: the team’s unique resourcefulness. As students measured temperatures and moisture levels of the soil, an upside-down styrofoam cup wired to a stick raised questions.  What is that?

“It’s our weather proof temperature monitor,” said Blanco García.

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Monarch butterfly Valentine: how do we love thee? Let us count the ways…

My love affair with Monarch butterflies began in earnest in 2005. My friend Jenny Singleton had introduced us the year before. But the following October, on a warm Saturday afternoon, I stepped from my kayak in the Llano River and approached a stand of pecan trees bowed to the ground in submission from serial floods. My red rubber boots stuck for a moment in the mud, but when I looked up, I was struck. A silent eruption of Monarch butterflies wafted from the earth. Hundreds of them drifted skyward–floating, flitting, and fleeting before settling on bare tree limbs.

Yes, I’m smitten–how can you not be? That’s me at the 2016 Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival at the Pearl. Photo by Scott Ball

That was the day—the day I call my Magical Monarch Saturday–I fell profoundly, entirely in love with these insects. I’ve been reading and writing about them ever since, as well as raising them at home.

I’m not alone. Tens of thousands of people are smitten with Denaus plexipus. The species even has its own listserv, the DPLEX, with more than 800 subscribers.

Hundreds of websites and social media pages are devoted to Monarchs and their conservation, some of which flaunt tens of thousands of fans–Monarch Watch on Facebook with 38K+ followers, for example. Festivals celebrate Monarch butterflies in spring, summer and fall in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico.  The Monarch serves as the official insect of seven states in the U.S.  A 2013 survey published in Conservation Letters indicated U.S. households are willing to spend $4.78–$6.64 billion–yes, BILLION– for Monarch conservation through direct contributions and the purchase of milkweed and appropriate nectar plants. Monarchs are among the most studied insects in the world, with  multi-millions of dollars devoted to researching their life cycle, habitat and diseases/threats. Tens of thousands of Monarchs are also bred commercially and by hobbyists each year for use in classrooms and educational events to teach metamorphosis. Some folks even tap the Monarch to commemorate special occasions like weddings, funerals and life changes.

Monarch butterfly expert Dr. Lincoln Brower with overwintering monarch butterflies. Rosario overwintering colony, 4-6 February 1991. (Photo by Perry Conway.)

“I think of them as magical bottles of wine. You can pour it all out and when you go back, it’s full again. There is no end to the questions you can ask.”  That’s how Dr. Lincoln Brower, who has studied Monarchs for more than five decades, summed up the Monarch’s charms in the 2004 book Four Wings and A Prayer.

So why do we love Monarch butterflies so much? Lots of reasons.

First, they don’t sting or bite. Their bold, orange-and-black, stained-glass wings make them stand out and ward off predators. A dreamy flight pattern suggests confidence. Their elusive flits and turns connote flirtatiousness. Turning legs into wings—now that’s magical. And navigating thousands of miles “home” to a sacred forest never seen demonstrates tenacity and strength. It commands our admiration. Monarchs’ back story is also loaded with intrigue—scientific rivalries, mysterious chemical powers, a strong codependence on members of the milkweed family. All this makes for an incessantly interesting long-term relationship.

For Valentine’s Day in this year of such dramatic political change and on the heels of news that their numbers are down by almost a third, we thought it appropriate to ask Monarch butterfly lovers to articulate their feelings for the Americas’ most beloved insect. Their loving quotes follow, but perhaps more telling are the looks of pure joy on their faces in the photos they shared.

Nola Garcia of San Antonio, age 9, recalled receiving a gift of caterpillars on milkweed. She’s been raising and tagging Monarchs ever since.

“I remember the excitement of finding them all over my room when it was time for them to become chrysalises,” said Nola. “I saw one split its skin and pulsing as it changed. I love seeing them right after they come out when their wings unfold. My favorite part is letting them go and watching them fly off. I love how they look.”

Nola Hamilton Garcia with Monarch butterfly

Nola Garcia enjoys a freshly hatched male Monarch butterfly in her kitchen before releasing him to the wind. Photo by Tracy Idell Hamilton

Dara Satterfield of Georgia studies Monarch butterflies as a James Smithson Fellow at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. She sees a transformation myth in Monarch butterfly biology. “Monarchs grow up, reinvent themselves (in the chrysalis), and undertake a long journey that is all-at-once beautiful and treacherous and difficult,” said Satterfield, who has studied with Dr. Sonia Altizer, the foremost expert on the Monarch centric spore-driven disease, OE. “This story seems familiar, even personal, to us. It’s much like the human experience, in miniature. So we root for Monarchs. We want to see them thrive.”

Cathy Downs, Monarch Watch Conservation Specialist, welcomes a freshly hatched Monarch into the world. Courtesy photo

“As a child, I loved Monarchs because they were at times amusing, cartoonish and full of wonder and discovery,” explained Cathy Downs, Monarch Watch Conservation Outreach Specialist in Central and South Texas. “During career years, the sight of a Monarch took me back with a sigh, if only for a moment in a busy life, to my childhood. In retirement, Monarchs have opened thousands of doors for me to new people, new places and new passions.”

Drake White, founder of the Nectar Bar, a Facebook page devoted to educating people how to raise butterflies at home has a special greeting when she welcomes someone or signs off from her page: “Peace, love and butterflies.”  White manages the butterfly house at Phil Hardberger Park in San Antonio and does pollinator landscape consulting on the side. She loves all butterflies, but admits Monarchs are her favorite. Their metamorphosis “always makes me understand just how amazing nature truly is,” she said.  “I never want to lose that. It keeps me bonding with nature.”

Drake White

Drake White of the Nectar Bar’s signature butterfly greeting is Peace, Love and Butterflies. Photo by Drake White

Hope, beauty and perseverance are consistent themes among Monarch butterfly lovers. Jeanette LaVesque, who follows Monarchs from Minneapolis, said the butterflies “give me hope for a beautiful transformation for myself someday–either here or beyond. They prove to me that miracles happen in this world….Butterlies make my garden feel like a little paradise when they are present.”

Dr. Karen Oberhauser of the University of Minnesota and founder of the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project, has been studying Monarch butterflies and working to bring them to children and classrooms since 1984. And yet, ”I’ll never tire of bringing the eggs and larvae into my house and watching them undergo their amazing metamorphosis, or walking into my lab full of students helping to unravel monarch mysteries,” she said, adding that Monarchs are beautiful, familiar, interesting, and impressive. “They evoke deep connections between people and nature,” said Oberhauser.

Mayor Taylor wears Monarch butterfly wing bling earrings and releases another type of butterfly at the San Antonio Zoo Monarch Festival in 2016. Photo by Monika Maeckle

San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor became the first in the country to sign the National Wildlife Federation’s Mayor’s Monarch pledge in 2015. Taylor, who grew up in Queens, New York, was completely unfamilar with the Monarch migration until shortly before signing the pledge. But once she and Monarchs got acquainted, it was a pretty quick romance. “The story of the Monarch’s migration is what really caught my attention,” she said. “It’s amazing that such a fragile creature has the perseverance to travel thousands of miles every year.”

Anurag AGrawal, author, scientist, Monarch butterfly lover. Courtesy photo

Finally, Dr. Anurag Agrawal, conservation biologist at Cornell University and author of the soon-to-be-released Milkweed and Monarchs: A Migrating Butterfly, A Poinsonous Plant, and their Remarkable Story of Coevolution told us that while he is first and foremost a scientist, he sees beauty in biology.

He recalled seeing Monarchs in the fields of Pennsylvania as a child and attributes their magic to their transformative metamorphosis. “Who does that? Going from leaf-eating worm to flying machine. Going from Canada to Mexico. And going from a billion butterflies to too few,” said Agrawal. “Don’t leave us magnificent Monarchs. We need you for inspiration, for study, and to remind us of our place.”

Why do YOU love Monarch butterflies? Leave a comment below to let us know.

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Monarch butterfly migrating population drops 27%, freak sleet storm to blame

Officials in Mexico announced Wednesday that the population of migrating Monarch butterflies dropped 27% this season, marking a setback in two consecutive years of growth from the historic low of 2014. A freak sleet storm gets the blame.

Piedra Herrada

Our friend Regina Moya went to visit la familia in Valle del Bravo with a side trip to Piedra Herrada Sanctuary in the state of Mexico. PHoto by Regina Moya

Just last year, we celebrated a tripling of the population, a reassuring turn of events from the grim news of 2014 when the total migrating population of Monarch butterflies could fit into a single Wal-Mart store with 30,000 square feet to spare. That sad fact had butterflies occupying only .67 hectares (1.65 acres) of high elevation forest at their winter roosting grounds in Michoacán and the state of Mexico. The numbers grew in 2015 to 1.13 hectares (2.8 acres), then jumped in 2016 to 4.1 hectares (10 acres).

This year, the butterflies covered only 2.91 hectares (7.19 acres).

Scientists and conservationists estimate the population by counting the number of hectares occupied and multiplying the estimated number by 50 million Monarchs per hectare. That suggests this year’s population numbers 145.5. million. The goal of conservationists is to rebuild the population to its historic average of 6.07 hectares (15 acres), or about 300 million butterflies.

The scene at El Chincua sanctuary  two weeks after the February 2016 storm.
Photo by Dr. Isabel Ramírez

Scientists and others who follow Monarch butterflies were not surprised by the findings. Dr. Lincoln Brower said by phone that he thought the numbers would be even worse. Many of us noted fewer Monarch butterflies than usual. Ruth Bowell of Troy, Ohio, shared her thoughts on the 2016 season on the DPLEX-list, an email listserv that reaches about 800 scientists, citizen scientists and Monarch butterfly fans. “My numbers this year were dismal until late August when I started really seeing caterpillars…If they have a good winter, maybe we’ll see more returning than last year.” Dr. Cuauhtémoc Saenz Romero, who studies the forest where the Monarchs roost, expressed the same sentiment, remarking “That was due to the winter storm in March.”

The storm to which he refers quashed the optimism of February 2016’s dramatic population growth within a few weeks of its announcement when, on March 11, climate change dealt a deadly blow to the rebounded Monarch population. A freak freeze and sleet storm descended on Mexico’s Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Preserves, decimating 100 acres of Oyamel firs and killing an estimated 50 million butterflies. The tragedy occurred at a most vulnerable time. Typically the first and second week in March are when the Monarchs begin to flee the forest and head north for South Texas in search of milkweed on which to lay the first generation of eggs.

Those of us who live in the flyway hoped for a robust recovery over the course of the spring and summer breeding seasons. The weather cooperated, but apparently even good conditions–plenty of rain in the Texas Funnel, ample milkweed and nectar plants in the spring and fall–couldn’t make up for season’s cursed beginning.

Monarch butterfly population numbers. Graphic via Journey North

Omar Vidal, head of the Mexico office of the World Wildlife Fund, told the Associated Press that the unusual winter storm likely played a role in the steep dip in Monarch numbers. “The reduction in the area of forest they occupied this year is most probably due to the high mortality caused by storms and cold weather last year,” he said. Here’s the full report, in Spanish.

Conservation efforts including pollinator habitat restoration and outreach continue, but it remains to be seen if that will be enough. Just today, the National Wildlife Federation, NWF met in San Antonio, the first Mayor’s Monarch Champion City, and finalized the completion of a citywide Monarch butterfly conservation plan. The document, assembled over several months and with the input of more than a dozen local organizations under the umbrella name Alamo Area Monarch Collaborative will lay out a comprehensive conservation and pollinator habitat restoration strategy. The effort will kick off and the plan shared at the upcoming San Antonio Monarch Butterfly Festival March 4 -5 at the San Antonio Zoo.

“During the meeting, the population count from Mexico was announced,” said Grace Barnett, Monarch Outreach Coordinator, South Central Regional Center for NWF. “It was read aloud–a strong reminder of  how important our work is and how much more there is to be done.”

Vidal underscored the work ahead when he told the Associated Press, “We cannot control the climate, but we can do much better in eradicating illegal logging in the reserve and tackling habitat loss in the U.S. and Canada,” Vidal said. “But, even if Mexico’s overwintering sites never lose another tree, without food and habitat along the migration routes, the forests will soon bid farewell” to the Monarchs.

Reports from the sanctuaries have been extremely upbeat, including one issued the same day as the declining population report. Journey North shared its first bulletin from roosting grounds correspondent Estella Romero, coupled with a note that tried to manage readers’ expectations with a prediction that numbers would be low this year.

Estela Romero of Journey North visited the roosting sites last week and raved about what appeared to be high numbers. But the population actually slipped from last year. Photo via Journey North

Under the headline “Population News: Waiting for the Official Count” Elizabeth Howard, founder of the citizen science initiative that tracks the migrations of Monarchs and other species, warned that observations made throughout the year suggested “a small population has been predicted — perhaps as low as 1 hectare.”

But Romero was effusive in describing her recent visit to El Rosario and El Chincua sanctuaries on February 4, sharing a dispatch hailing their seemingly high numbers.

“As I got nearer to the core of the colony, I just could not believe my eyes! It seemed as if I was looking to one of the best spectacles of the last years, in terms of population….Tens and tens of trees were full with clusters – more than 50 trees covered– on top, by one side, by the middle, with heavy clusters or lighter clusters hanging…It was a wonderful spectacle,” wrote Romero.

Edith Smith, a commercial butterfly breeder and owner/founder of Shady Oak Butterfly Farm in Florida, expressed exasperation about the negative headlines in an email to the Association for Butterflies email list, a listserv for commercial and hobbyist butterfly breeders. “Am I the only one who wishes positive information about Monarch butterflies was shared at times?,” wrote Smith. “Numbers are down by 27 percent from last year. BUT they are UP from the year before….We’re up over four times the lowest we had. That is still GOOD news.”

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Monarch Champions: San Antonio elected officials submit to butterfly’s charms

It doesn’t get much better for a butterfly evangelist than to have hometown elected officials raise Monarch caterpillars at City Hall. That’s what happened less than a year after the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) named San Antonio its first Monarch Butterfly Champion City.

Mikey the Monarch at Zoo

Does your Mayor do this? Mikey the Monarch raised by San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor’s office, released at the San Antonio Zoo. Photo via Twitter

San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor set the bar for the NWF’s Mayor’s Monarch Pledge (MMP) on December 9, 2015. That Wednesday, she made San Antonio the nation’s first and only Monarch Butterfly Champion City by committing to all 24 action items recommended by NWF to increase Monarch butterfly and pollinator habitat. Actions include installing pollinator gardens, encouraging citizen science, hosting a butterfly festival and changing landscape ordinances and city mowing schedules.

Mikey the Monarch caterpillar takes lunch at San Antonio City Hall. Courtesy photo

Taylor’s office raised her first Monarch, named Mikey, almost exactly a year later. Since Mikey emerged when it was too cold to fly   (temperatures hovered in the 40s), the San Antonio Zoo offered its flighthouse as a “butterfly B and B” until the weather warmed.

District 1 City Councilman Roberto Treviño became a  Monarch butterfly buff in October after attending all three events that comprised San Antonio’s first Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival. Treviño, an architect by training, served as a docent during the dozens of one-on-one tag- and-release demonstrations the Festival staged October 22. After accepting a milkweed loaded with two eggs and a couple of caterpillars as a gesture of thanks, Trevińo succumbed to the flashy orange-and-black butterflies’ charms–even releasing a Monarch butterfly at City Hall with Jonah Nirenberg, son of District 8 City Councilman Ron Nirenberg.

Treviño posted updates on his caterpillars’ progress on Facebook and had a sign at his City Hall office reminding visitors to shut the door because butterflies were in progress. “It’s such an opportunity to share the wonder,” he said.

To date, more than 240 cities have signed the Mayor’s Monarch Pledge. Only one – McAllen, Texas – has become a Monarch Champion City like San Antonio. The National Wildlife Federation is looking to expand the popular program to Mexico.

“The San Antonio administration and landscape team have really committed themselves to Monarch conservation,” said Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch,  the citizen science organization that tracks the migrating butterflies at the University of Kansas at Lawrence. San Antonio was the first city to call Monarch Watch’s Milkweed Market after the pledge, ordering 1,000 plants which have been planted in pollinator gardens around town.

Progress in the Alamo City has been consistent and impressive. Pollinator gardens have replaced invasive species along the San Antonio River South Channel and new gardens have been created at Phil Hardberger Park, Woodlawn Lake, UTSA, at the San Antoino River Authority and at many private residences. In April, four city agencies featured the Monarch butterfly on their Fiesta medals – the Mayor’s Office, SAWS, CPS Energy, and the San Antonio River Authority. A survey of 400 locals conducted by the Texas Butterfly Ranch website found the SAWS medal was the best.

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San Antonio has hosted two Monarch butterfly festivals since the Pledge was signed. The San Antonio Zoo’s first Monarch Fest took place in early 2016 and will take place this year March 4 and 5. In October, the Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival took place at the Pearl wowed an estimated 5-7,000 people. Plans are underway for a repeat.

According to Cathy Downs, a Monarch Conservation Specialist for the national citizen scientist program Monarch Watch, more requests for teacher training on how to use Monarchs in the classroom occurred in 2016 than prior years. And working closely with the NWF, local Monarch advocates are about to finalize the first San Antonio Monarch Conservation Plan as the City’s Sustainability Office integrates pollinator friendly guidelines into its strategic plans.

More pollinator habitat, sustainability plans, Fiesta medals, and Festivals are in store for 2017. But perhaps our most powerful tool in Monarch and pollinator conservation is one we should leverage more often: encounters with “the wonder” Monarchs generate. Giving caterpillars to elected officials and other with influence, affording them the opportunity to witness metamorphosis first hand may be just the inspiration we need. Try it. Let us know how it goes.

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Frostweed earns its name with intriguing ice sculptures upon first frost

The first frost of the season hit our Llano River ranch last weekend, a month later than the average November 15 first frost date prescribed by gardening buffs, farmer’s almanacs and the National Climate Data Center. On December 18, temperatures dropped a dramatic 60 degrees–from 78 to 18 in just a few hours.

Frost Flowers: The Frost Awakens from Roy Spencer on Vimeo.

Butterflies were absent Sunday morning, but we witnessed a different natural majesty. One of our favorite late season nectar plants, Frostweed, Verbesina virginica, graced us with the annual ritual of splitting her stems and producing amazing, delicate ice sculptures.

The airy, fragile constructions pour out of the plants’ stems like Nature’s artisanal meringues. I couldn’t help but think San Antonio’s thriving cocktail culture would appreciate the natural treasures as adornments on fancy adult beverages.

In the fall, Frostweed serves as a prime nectar source for Monarchs and other butterflies. The sturdy Verbesina virginica, with its odd square-like stalks, sports fleshy green flanges on its stems. The wildflower produces lush white blossoms from late August through November in semi-shade that provides respite from the late summer sun. The flowers bloom in big colonies along the rivers and streams of the Texas Hill Country.

Buckeyes share a Frostweed nectar stop with a Gulf Fritillary. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Along our stretch of the Llano River, Frostweed lines the riverbanks. This last year was spectacular with our well-timed rains. In September and October, the Frostweed forest was home to myriad butterfly species, bees, beetles and wasps. This plant is gorgeous, drought tolerant, a generous seed and nectar producer, and the butterflies love it. I don’t understand why it’s not more available in local nurseries.

Queens on Frostweed, Llano River Photo by Monika Maeckle

Bumblebees are also Frostweed fans. Photo by Monika Maeckle

As a member of the aster family, Frostweed can reach six-eight feet in height in a good year. Upon first frost, the stem splits, the sap oozes out and freezes to form fascinating curled ice ribbons and intriguing sculptures. That’s why it’s called Frostweed, or sometimes, Iceweed. See the amazing video by Roy Spencer, above, to witness the process.

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Only a handful of species commonly exhibit this behaviour. Bob Harmes of the University of Texas coined the term, crystallofollia, to describe the phenomenon, from the Latin crystallus, ice, and folium, leaf.

Frostweed is a magnet and important nectar source for migrating Monarchs in the fall. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Another student of Frostweed and crystafollia, Dr. James Carter, a professor emeritus in the department of geography and geology at Illinois State University, points out that “the ice formation far exceeds the amount of moisture from sap locally available in the stem, and must be augmented by water drawn up from the roots.” Frostweed’s rhizomes help it slurp up moisture in the soil to produce the ice formations. The robust root system also makes it easy to propagate the plant from its roots as well as from seed.

Frostweed Seed

Frostweed produces generous seed and nectar. And it’s easy to grow.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

According to an article in the September-October 2013 issue of Scientific American, written by Carter,  formal study of the process is limited.

For a fascinating blow-by-blow of what actually occurs botanically in the forming of these sculptures, see Bob Harms’ of the University of Texas at Austin Plant Resources Center Biophysica of Crystallofolia website.

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Q & A: Dr. Anurag Agrawal challenges Monarch butterfly conservation conventional wisdom

Dr. Anurag Agrawal has a bit of a contrarian streak. Named the recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Ecology Award earlier this year, he was lauded for “opening up new research themes” and continuing “to push the envelope using novel approaches” to science, teaching and building community.

Anurag Agrawal by Frank DiMeo

Dr. Anurag Agrawal –PHoto by Frank DiMeo

Take a paper Agrawal and a team of researchers published in April, for example. Titled “Linking the continental migratory cycle of the monarch butterfly to understand its population decline,” Agrawal dared to suggest that the intense focus on milkweed in Monarch butterfly restoration efforts might be misplaced. Solutions that address habitat fragmentation and increasing the availability of late season nectar plants should receive more attention, he proposed.

Born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, Agrawal currently serves as Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Sciences and Faculty Fellow at the Atkinson School of a Sustainable Future at Cornell University. He’s married to fellow Cornell professor Dr. Jennifer Thaler, an insect ecologist, and the couple have two children, Anna and Jasper. Agrawal attributes his initial interest in science and plants to his mother’s intense love of vegetable gardening.

“Planting milkweed is probably not a bad thing to do but it’s not going to increase populations or save them from demise,” said Dr. Agrawal in a nine-minute video released in conjunction with the paper.

The paper rocked the “Monarchy” as he calls the scientific and citizen science communities devoted to the migrating insects in a soon-to-be published book, Milkweed and Monarchs: A Migrating Butterfly, a Poisonous Plant, and their Remarkable Story of Coevolution. The book will be available in April 2017. If all 296 pages are as readable and interesting as the first chapter, which you can read for free at the Princeton University Press website, Agrawal will have a butterfly bestseller on his hands.

Milkweed and Monarchs:

Milkweed and Monarchs, available in April 2017.  Dr. Anurag Agrawal’s soon-to-be-published book, details how the Monarch and milkweed plants have coevolved. –Courtesy photo

Agrawal has called the decline of the Monarch butterfly migration a “very gnarly problem,”  and consistently gives kudos to citizen scientists for contributing to our understanding of them. He often cites a need to “get the science right.”

That sounds like an honorable goal. Let’s hear more from Agrawal, below.

Q: Did you get a lot of flack for your contrarian view on the priority placed on milkweed in Monarch restoration efforts?

Agrawal: I did get a lot of flack.  And I would say that it was pretty interesting, too, because a substantial amount of the flack was off-the-record.

We had sent the manuscript to several Monarch researchers and many of their comments substantially improved the study. But there was a lot of pushback from very prominent research before we got it published. They were asking, ‘Do you want to be the person that derails Monarch conservation? You will appear to be in bed with Monsanto.’

It’s nice to think about science as a fact-based enterprise, but I was really surprised at the extent to which there was a strong agenda and some folks were not open to alternate interpretations of the data and the conventional wisdom.

I was anxious to see what would happen once the paper was published. And I was glad to see that when some of the senior Monarch researchers were asked, they said they didn’t agree–but they were far less bold in their public disagreement or criticism of the work.

My hope is that the study contributes a little to a change in perspective. Any good scientist would agree there are many factors and many causes that contribute to Monarch decline and getting the science right is critical to having a positive impact.

Q: Is it not the nature of the evolutionary cycle for creatures to STOP migrating if they can secure the food and reproductive resources they need locally?

img_2433

Predators like the Tachinid fly serve the evolutionary purpose of keeping the Monarch population in check. Here, Tachinid larvae next to dead Monarch caterpillar. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Agrawal: For Monarchs, it’s known that the ancestral populations are migratory but that there are nonmigratory populations in Florida, Spain, Hawaii and elsewhere. Some new populations will evolve to be non-migratory, including some non-migratory populations in Mexico.

Scientists believe that migration evolves to take advantage of a large un-utilized resource in some seasons. For example, movement north from Mexico and the southern U.S. in spring evolved to take advantage of abundant milkweeds in the Midwest and Northeastern USA.

Migration is certainly an evolvable trait. In many of the articles I’ve read, almost everyone agrees Monarchs are not under any threat to go extinct; but the migratory phenomenon, one of the most spectacular in the world, may be at risk of going extinct.

Q: Is it arrogant of us to work to perpetuate the Monarch migration for the sake of our joy and fascination of witnessing the natural spectacle? What would the butterflies think if they had the option to reproduce and feed locally rather than migrate thousands of miles?

You’ve asked a really good question: is it arrogant for us to expect the migration to continue forever? The reason people worry about its loss is that we have to ask, to what extent is that loss driven by human consumption of the planet?

The world is changing on its own, organisms are evolved creatures and go extinct all the time; the pace of that extinction is much more rapid in recent years than in the pre-industrial past. It has been likened to the pace of mass extinctions caused by events like asteroids hitting the planet. If that’s the case, and we have some control over it, then my answer is quite different than if the decline is due to “natural causes.”

Q. What is your view on Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, and advice from many scientists to chop it down in the late summer and early fall? What about other milkweeds that continue growing through the season in warm climates?

Agrawal:  We just don’t really know. That hits on a key issue: what causes the break in reproductive cycle–is it the presence of milkweed flowers in general, or is it something specific to Tropical milkweed?

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

Asclepias curassavica, Tropical milkweed, NOT native, but a great Monarch host and nectar plant for all butterflies. To plant it or not is not a simple question. Photo by Monika Maeckle

We don’t know all the reproductive cues that affect Monarchs. Scientists discouraging “non-native” milkweeds are sticking with the precautionary principle–i.e., natives are expected to keep monarchs on track to continue their cycle.

What is a gardener to do?  Plant native milkweeds.

Habitat protection is a good thing. But there are a lot of unknowns. During the southern migration we’re just starting to get some sense of what happens in Texas–but we have very little information about what happens for the last 800 miles. That last third in Northern Mexico is when they’re struggling with wing wear, with lack of fuel (nectar), and we have very little data on that leg of the journey.

Q. Do you think that the rearing and release of Monarchs by citizen scientists and enthusiasts is harmful or helpful to the cause?

Agrawal:  It’s not something I have a scientific opinion on. It’s a double-edged sword in some ways… I’m very pro public engagement with the natural world, but I’m personally not that fond of the rear-and-release for the purpose of “helping” a species. It hints of a little bit of arrogance. We’ve created some problems and now we’re going to solve it by just raising them to make up the difference?! That’s not how nature works.

What makes people think that rearing them in cages is going to increase the abundance of the species? Look at the Bald Eagle. It wasn’t rearing them in captivity that saved them; it was improving habitat, understanding where they want to nest that made the difference.

We all desperately want to help, but I’m not sure that getting in the drivers’ seat is the most sensible approach. I would argue from the perspective of environmental education it makes a lot of sense–to be in Nature, to experience it, it’s something we can do.

Q. Are you aware of the recent Monarch zones efforts by folks in Iowa whereby volunteers raise and release Monarchs using an outdoor biotent natural rearing protocol? Is that any different, better or worse than enthusiasts or commercial breeders raising and releasing butterflies?

Agrawal:  Natural is often better. There’s pretty strong evidence that suggests exposure to ultraviolet light kills off some of the parasites and that the natural cues of sunlight will increase the probability of the Monarchs migrating. But in Nature, more than 90% don’t survive!

It’s worrisome to take natural filters out of the life cycle that natural predation provides.
When a seedling in a forest makes it to be an adult tree it’s a one-in-a-million event. It’s the one individual in the snowstorm of acorns that wasn’t eaten by squirrels at the right place at the right time that makes it.

The life of a Monarch is the same, in a way. Of those 400 million butterflies in Mexico, only a fraction made it. For the population to be stable, there’s a biological filtration process that creates resistance to predators. Mass rearing removes that filter.

Q. What is the one most important thing gardeners, citizen scientists and regular folks can do to help pollinators and Monarchs?

Agrawal:  Something they can do is what they don’t do: don’t spray pesticides around their homes. Having a few more weeds around allows some diversity there, which is likely to protect the animals that visit those plants.

The home gardening movement has all kinds of benefits–reduce lawn and reduce consumption.

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