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

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

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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

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

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

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

Monarchs on  Atlantic coast via Journey North

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bee on Frostweed

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

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

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

Butterfly cloud in St. Louis

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

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

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

Related posts:

Like what you’re reading?  Follow butterfly and native plant news at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam

Caterpillar Quiz: How to Tell the Difference between Monarchs and Eastern Swallowtails

“Hello, I planted dill and it is dying.  The bad news is that tons of Monarch caterpillars are on it.  I’m not sure what to do, or how to keep the dill alive.  Any suggestions?”
–Jennifer L.
Eastern Swallowtail caterpillar on fennel, one of its host plants.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Eastern Swallowtail caterpillar on fennel, one of its host plants. Photo by Monika Maeckle

First of all, Jennifer, a Monarch caterpillar would not be found eating dill, since it only hosts on milkweed species.  Host plants–the plant a caterpillar eats and lays eggs on–are often the best clue to what kind of caterpillar is visiting your garden.

In their caterpillar stages, Eastern Swallowtails and Monarchs are often confused with each other.  That’s no surprise, since later in their development, both sport stylish green, yellow, cream and black-striped suits. 

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed

Monarch butterfly caterpillar on milkweed, its host plant. Photo by Monika Maeckle

These two very different butterflies–Monarchs and Swallowtails–grace our Central and South Texas skies regularly.  The migrating Monarch appears in spring and fall during its annual migration.   The Eastern Swallowtail seems to be present just about year-round, except in extreme cold.  

As butterflies, you can’t mistake these beauties for each other.  The Monarch, Denaus plexippus, exhibits orange-and-black markings that resemble a stained glass window.  

Monarch butterfly at the San Antonio River Milkweed Patch

Monarch butterfly, with wings closed, on milkweed, its host plant. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch butterfly nectaring on milkweed.  PHoto by Monika Maeckle

Monarch butterfly, with wings open, nectaring on milkweed. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The dark blue-and-black Swallowtail,  Papilio polyxenes, boasts elegant cream, gold and orange dots.   Both are large, lovely and can be drawn to your gardens with the right plants.

Eastern Swallowtail

Eastern Swallowtail, wings closed, nectaring on milkweed. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Swallowtail nectaring on milkweed.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Eastern Swallowtail, wings open,  nectaring on milkweed. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Yet as caterpillars, the Monarch and Swallowtail are often confused with each other, as the email that opens this post suggests.  Here’s a few tips that should help you pass the “caterpillar quiz” in distinguishing the Monarch and Swallowtail caterpillars from each other.

1.  Note the plant the caterpillars are eating.

Checking out the plant a caterpillar is eating generally is the easiest way to tell what kind of caterpillar you’re watching.

Monarchs only lay their eggs on and eat milkweed, members of the Asclepias family.  Swallowtails will host on members of the Apiaceae family, which includes parsley, Queen Anne’s Lace, carrot, celery, fennel and dill.

Swallowtails will also host on plants in the citrus (Rutaceae) family, including rue bushes and lemon, lime and orange trees. If you find a green-striped caterpillar noshing on fennel, it’s a Swallowtail; a stripe-suited chomper chowing down on your Antelope Horns is a Monarch.

Swallowtail showing tubercles

Who goes there?!? Note the yellow “tentacles” which the Swallowtail shows off when bothered. Monarchs don’t do that. Photo by Monika Maeckle

2.  Check the tentacles/antennae.

Monarch caterpillars have tentacles on either end of their bodies.  The ones in front are technically antennae and have special sensory cells, while the ones on the back are “just for show”–to throw off predators.

Swallowtails, on the other hand, don’t always show their antennae.  When bothered or poked, yellow tentacles pop out of their head and emit a distinctive, sickly sweet odor.  Kids are always impressed when you provoke the Swallowtail’s tentacles.

3.  Note the body shape.

Monarch caterpillars’ body type is consistent in its breadth, while Swallowtail caterpillars are thicker in general, and mass into a “hooded” shape at the head.

In answer to Jennifer’s question about what to do about a lack of dill, I suggest planting plenty of it–some for yourself, and some for the caterpillars.   Dill tends to die as summer heats up, so you can also try some of the other Swallowtail host plants.  Rue and fennel have worked well for me, thriving even in our Texas heat.

An emergency run to a local nursery might also be in the cards to pick up some caterpillar food.  Just make sure it hasn’t been sprayed with any systemic pesticides.

More posts like this:

Part Two: More Tips for Raising Monarch Caterpillars and Butterflies at Home

Last week’s post on raising Monarch butterflies at home sparked a a slew of questions, comments and emails.   I figured I’d better get back here and clarify a few things.

Newborn male Monarch

This newborn male Monarch hatched this week from my first “crop” of eggs. Off he went! Photo by Monika Maeckle

First, I left out the part about what to do with the egg, once you bring it inside.

I usually tear off the leaf that the egg is on and put it in a jar or plastic container with the lid on.  This keeps it moist and at a stable temperature.  Sometimes the leaves will start getting moldy or condensation will form on the sides of the jar or lid.  If that happens, just open the container and let the fresh air in.  You might even wipe off the condensation.  Too much humidity may cause mold to grow and is not a good thing.

Monarch butterfly egg

Put fresh Monarch butterfly egg inside a plastic container or jar with lid on. Photo by Monika Maeckle

But often as the torn leaves decay, they  smell “ripe”–that is, you can tell they are starting to degrade.   The eggs usually hatch within three – four days, so hopefully they will show themselves as tiny caterpillars before that happens.  That said, it seems that caterpillars don’t mind that earthy aroma as much as we humans do.

Once the egg hatches, you can start the process discussed in last week’s post.  There, I shared photos and info mostly about raising caterpillars in a vase-like setting with cut milkweed set in water and caterpillars munching happily on the leaves.   But when you have LOTS of caterpillars, that’s hard to do.

Seven baby Monarch caterpillars

Seven baby Monarch caterpillars occupy this former cheese container. You can see one pretty clearly at 10 o’clock. Photo by Monika Maeckle

When I have more than two-three caterpillars at once, I use the contained “caterpillar condo” approach I alluded to but didn’t describe in detail last week.  I will do that now.

I like to have a large stalk of milkweed that I place inside the container.  Taking a small piece of dampened paper towel and wrapping it around the end of the milkweed helps keep it fresh and assists in extending its appeal to the caterpillars.  Like us, caterpillars prefer fresh greens.

Caterpillar condo

Paper towel on the bottom of the container helps in cleaning frass and changing milkweed. Note wet paper towel wrapped around stem on right side.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

As the caterpillars get bigger and indulge in their 10-14-day feeding frenzy, massive amounts of caterpillar poop, or frass, result.   The problem compounds with more caterpillars.  When I have several caterpillars, a paper towel in the bottom of the plastic container helps to absorb dampness and makes for easy clean-up.

Move caterpillars from container to assist in easy clean-up

Just lift the stem and move the caterpillars out of the way while you clean the container. PHoto by Monika Maeckle

When the caterpillars reach their third instar, or stage, you’ll find you may need to supply fresh milkweed daily, sometimes more than once a day. Of course it depends on how many caterpillars you are raising.  NOTE:   When there’s nothing to eat, caterpillars can become cannibalistic.  We don’t want that.

Caterpillar just shed its skin

This Monarch caterpillar just shed its skin. Leave him alone to do his thing. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Some people may struggle with moving the caterpillars around.   Often you can simply lift what remains of the stem and put the caterpillars aside while you wipe down the container.  If a caterpillar is stuck in an inconvenient position, take a leaf and slide it under her.  Usually she will climb right on, getting out of your way.  I’ve used a spoon or paintbrush to move the caterpillars.  Handling with your fingers should be discouraged.  Usually they will ball up and drop to the ground and it can be difficult to get a grip on them.

Cleaned caterpillar condo

After cleaning out the container, return the caterpillars to their “condo.” Photo by Monika Maeckle

Sometimes,  the caterpillar is in the middle of shedding its skin and won’t want to move.   In that case you should try to wait til the process is complete.   Caterpillars seem to gravitate to the roof of the containers, too.  I just let them hang out there while I clean up, then put the roof back on.

Fresh milkweed for Monarch caterpilalrs

Fresh milkweed for Monarch caterpillars. Note damp paper towel on stem tip. Photo by Monika Maeckle

When it’s time to go chrysalis, I will move all these caterpillars to a chemical free milkweed plant.   They will wander off and find a good place to transform themselves.   As stated previously, I’m not squeamish about caterpillars in my house.

You can also put them inside the pop-up cages that I mentioned last week, and they will form a chrysalis on the side of the netting or the roof of the cage.

Caterpillar condo

Put the lid on your caterpillar condo and wait til it’s time to go chrysalis. PHoto by Monika Maeckle

Good luck, and let us know how it goes!

For more information, check out the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project page on raising Monarchs or Monarch Watch.

More on this topic:

Like what you’re reading? Follow butterfly and native plant news at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery in the righthand navigation bar of this page, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam. You can also read our stuff on the Rivard Report.

Part One: How to Raise Monarch Butterflies at Home

Remember those Monarch eggs I wrote about two weeks ago that I found on my front yard milkweed?  The photos below illustrate how easy it is to raise Monarch butterflies at home.  It’s fun and gratifying to bring the eggs inside for fostering.

Caterpillar condo

It’s not pretty, but it works. Iced latte cup serves as “caterpillar condo.” Photo by Monika Maeckle

Now’s the time of year you’ll find Monarch butterfly eggs on your milkweed.  Just turn over the leaves, look on the underside and you’ll see them.  Your helping hand could give those eggs a higher chance–from 10% to 90%–of completing their life cycle and becoming a butterfly.   Mother Nature can be brutal.  The tiny eggs represent a protein pop for beetles, ants, and wasps and serve as the equivalent of a highly nutritious smoothie.  

Once the eggs hatch and start munching on milkweed leaves, the holes and “chew marks” they leave in their wake signal to predators that a tasty morsel is near.   While birds generally don’t find Monarchs tasty, they don’t know that until they have their first bite.

Monarch egg on Tropical mlkweed

Bring eggs in to give them a better chance of completing the life cycle. You’ll find them on the underside of milkweed leaves. Photo by Monika Maeckle

It’s not difficult to nurture an egg all the way through the life cycle–from teeny creamy yellow dot to chubby waddling caterpillar to jewel-like chrysalis to beautiful butterfly.  Chrysalises also make fantastic, unique gifts for life’s transitional occasions–weddings, funerals, graduations, a job or other life change.

If you’re up for fostering Monarch caterpillars, you must have ample, chemical-free milkweed.   Any type of Asclepias species will do.  As much as I like native plants, I’m a big fan of Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, for at-home butterfly gardens:  it’s easy-to-grow, widely available, a reliable bloomer, and its leaves serve as Monarchs’, Queens’ and other milkweed feeders’ sole food source.   Other butterflies adore nectaring on its orange and yellow flowers.

Once the eggs hatch, you’ll need to provide fresh milkweed regularly–and in later stages, daily–to these voracious eating machines, so make sure you’re well stocked.

Former salad greens box converts to a caterpillar container.  You'll have to provide fresh milkweed each day.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Former salad greens box converts to a caterpillar container. You’ll have to provide fresh milkweed each day. Photo by Monika Maeckle

You’ll also need a pot, container or “cage” in which to store the milkweed and sequester the caterpillars.  They make quite a mess.  Some people use tupperware boxes, others will put milkweed leaves in a vase and let the caterpillars crawl around, munching as they please.   I like to use a beverage bottle or a plastic iced coffee cup with a lid, which makes a simple “caterpillar condo.”   Be sure to put some newspaper underneath to catch the enormous amount of caterpillar poop, also known as frass, that will result from the constant eating.  Clipping the paper with a clothespin to create a catch for the frass will keep it from rolling onto your floor.

Caterpillar poop or frass

Whole lotta caterpillar poop! Known as frass, caterpillar excrement can be monumental. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Another option, if you have chemical-free potted milkweed available, is to bring the plant inside the house or on a porch and let the caterpillars consume the plant.   That’s one of the easiest methods.

Professional butterfly breeders often take this approach, devoting entire greenhouses to seeded milkweed pots.    Others will use cut milkweed supplied fresh daily after cleaning the containers.

Caterpillar-palooza

Professional breeders and Monarch enthusiasts plant Tropical milkweed seeds in January so they’ll be sprouting in time for the caterpillar-palooza that arrives in the spring. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Cages must be kept clean and free of frass. You can empty out the frass and wipe down the inside of the cup or container with a paper towel.  Trapped frass can cause a germ problem, as the caterpillars waddle through the mess, track it onto leaves, then consume the nastiness, possibly getting sick.

Beyond fresh milkweed and a container, cage, or potted plant, you’ll need little else but time.  The life cycle from egg to butterfly usually takes about a month.   The egg stage lasts about four days.   Then the caterpillar hatches and remains in its first instar, or stage, for several days.   As it eats and outgrows its skin, it morphs to become a second instar caterpillar.

Caterpillar spinning silk

This guy is forming his silk button and will soon make a j-shape to morph into his chrysalis. See the silk? Photo by Monika Maeckle

The process continues, to third, fourth and fifth instar “cats,” until finally, the caterpillar is almost as big as your ring finger and appears as if it will bust its stripes.   Usually the process from egg to fifth instar takes about 10 -14 days, depending on conditions.   And, if there’s less milkweed available, the caterpillars will hurry up and form their chrysalises, eating less and forming more petite chrysalises.

When that time nears, the caterpillar typically wanders away from its host plant or attaches itself to the top of the cage if confined.   It seeks a nice, quiet place, out of direct sunlight to form its chrysalis.    We have found chrysalises in the most unusual places.

About to go chrysalis, he's forming his j-shape.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

About to go chrysalis, he’s forming his j-shape. Photo by Monika Maeckle

For that reason, many people prefer pop-up cages rather than cups or potted plants since you can put a potted plant inside, sit back and wait.   Personally, I love watching the cats’ acrobatics as they go through the process and I don’t mind finding caterpillars on or under my furniture or curtains.  My husband is also quite tolerant.   But…I understand not everyone feels that way.

When the caterpillar is ready to go chrysalis, it sits quietly for a while, seeming to ponder the possibilities.  But actually, it’s spinning a tough, sturdy silk button that will support its weight for the period in which it hangs upside down as a chrysalis for about a week.

When it’s ready, it hangs vertically and forms a j-shape.   At some moment, when you see its tentacles hanging

Monarch chrysalises

These three caterpillars formed their chrysalises on the underside of the newspaper protecting my floor. Photo by Monika Maeckle

limply, it will begin its transformation from caterpillar to chrysalis with an exotic twisting dance that allows it to shed its skin for the fifth and final time.  It  forms the most fantastic jade colored jewel, flecked with gold specks and rimmed with black.   The chrysalis remains for 10 – 14 days, depending on the weather and humidity.

Finally, when it’s ready to become a butterfly, the green chrysalis will turn opaque, then dark, then black, then clear.   You can see the gorgeous orange-and-black coloration of the Monarch butterfly

clear chrysalis

When the chrysalis turns clear, a butterfly is about to be born. Photo by Monika Maeckle

waiting to be born through the shell.   To watch the butterfly eclose, or emerge, from this form warrants a toast of champagne or a sip of Bordeaux. It happens quickly, so don’t leave the scene if you’re hoping to catch the moment.

When the butterfly first hatches, its wings are soft and malleable.   The butterfly needs to hang vertically so its wings can take shape and firm up.  After about two hours, the butterfly’s wings have dropped completely and are fully formed, ready for first flight.  When you see the butterfly start to beat its wings slowly, as if it’s revving up its engines, its time to take her outside and send her on her way.

Newborn Monarch butterfly

Newborn Monarch butterfly: almost ready for flight.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

For more information, check out the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project page on raising Monarchs or Monarch Watch.

More on this topic:

Like what you’re reading? Follow butterfly and native plant news at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery in the righthand navigation bar of this page, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam. You can also read our stuff on the Rivard Report.

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

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

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

Antelope horns milkweed seed pods

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

for the distinct purpose of harvesting native seed.

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

Antelope Horns milkweed

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

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

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

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

George Cates

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

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

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

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

xerceslogo

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

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

Irrigating at Native American Seed

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

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

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

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

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

bring-back-the-monarchs

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

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

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

Antelope Horns milkweed root stok at American Native Seed

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

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

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

Monarch on Tropical Milkweed

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

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

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

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

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

Like what you’re reading? Follow butterfly and native plant news at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery in the righthand navigation bar of this page, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam. You can also read our stuff on the Rivard Report.

Tales of a Butterfly Evangelist: TEDx San Antonio Talk on Monarch Butterfly Migration Finally Published

The “Tales of a Butterfly Evangelist” presentation I did last fall for TEDx San Antonio, the local version of the lauded TED Talks, has finally been published.  Take a look, below.

The event took place October, 13, 2012, at the Arthur and Jane Stieren Auditorium of Trinity University.  More than  400 people spent that Saturday (my birthday!) watching presentations made by me and 22 other presenters.  We shared stories and slideshows of inspiration, passion and creativity on topics ranging from the power of silence and the community of drumming to worm composting and the need to build San Antonio’s broadband network. What an amazing experience.

The process began in May when, after being invited to apply, we sent in applications describing our potential talk.  After being selected, we worked for weeks with our assigned TEDx coaches and mentors, crafting our final shows to fit the constructs of our given timeframes.  My coach was the always reassuring Ana Grace, who offered warm support and useful guidance in addition to frequent hugs and pats on the back.  Thank you, Ana!

The day of event, of course I was nervous–and slightly hepped up on decongestants, which help explain my cracking voice.    Allergies arrive every October right alongside migrating Monarch butterflies.

Monarch tagging demo at Trinity

Happy birthday to me! Monarch butterfly tagging demo followed the TEDx San Antonio event at Trinity University on Oct. 13, 2012. –photo by Nicolas Rivard

Technical difficulties plagued the day at Trinity University and caused special stress for those of us shy of microphones and video cameras.  My fellow presenters and I wrung our hands in angst as some took the stage to face the unpleasant surprise that a power outage and incongruent technologies prevented our slideshows from loading.

Dr. Karl Klose, a professor of microbiology at the University of Texas and director of the South Texas Center for Emerging and Infectious diseases,  deserves a medal for heroically winging his presentation on antibiotic resistant bacteria with absolutely no slides at all.  He was so compelling and didn’t even flinch.  Well done, Dr. Klose.

After the fits and starts, postponements and power glitches, my presentation ran relatively smoothly.  Despite many obstacles, the show went on and will hopefully inspire others.  Just like the Monarch butterfly migration.

To see the full roster of TEDx San Antonio talks and learn more, check out the TEDx San Antonio website.

Like what you’re reading? Follow butterfly and native plant news at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery in the righthand navigation bar of this page, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam. You can also read our stuff on the Rivard Report.

Oh, those Crazy Chrysalises: Bringing Caterpillars Inside Can Result in Chrysalises in Surprising Places

Judy Nevin of San Antonio was concerned about Monarch chrysalises she’d been monitoring in her garden this week.   One had crawled under some plant cloth and frozen when the temperatures dipped below 32.   Another had relocated to a former basil plant and formed its green, gold-flecked container on a dead limb, perhaps to emerge on a day like those we experienced this weekend when the sun warmed parts of Bexar County to springlike temperatures in the 70s.

Swallowtail chrysalis on electrical chord of a flat-iron

This Swallowtail wandered 25 feet from its host plant across a dining room to form its chrysalis on an electrical chord in a nearby bedroom. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“I had two chrysalises until two nights before last,” said Nevin by phone.  One froze and she brought the other inside.

Our schizophrenic weather, freezing one day and balmy the next, has provoked frequent questions from readers about what to do with chryalises found in the winter.  Should you bring them inside?   And why do they form away from their host plant?

chrysalis in hat

Monarch chrysalis formed inside my hat! Photo by Mike Quinn

Bringing a chrysalis inside for protection from the elements is a judgement call.  We already covered the quandary of moving late season caterpillars indoors in this December post.    The same logic applies to chrysalises.   Will you be around to release the butterfly or do you plan to keep it inside if the weather is ornery?  Do you have nectar for it–either artificial or natural?  Depending on where you live and the time of year, the newborn butterfly may have few prospects for food or mating.

Monarch chrysalis on an indoor plant cart

Wheels up! Monarch chrysalis formed on the wheel of this indoor garden cart. The caterpillar’s host plant was directly above the wheel.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Again, there’s no “right” answer here.

As for caterpillars forming their chrysalises AWAY from their hostplants, this is common practice.  We’ve brought hundreds of caterpillars and chrysalises inside, and yet it still provokes smiles when we find a chrysalis in an unlikely place.

MOnarch chrysalis on napkin

Monarch chrysalis formed on a napkin at my kitchen table. Photo by Monika Maeckle

We’ve found them under chairs, on curtains, napkins, blank walls, glass windows, and other unexpected locations.

Monarch chrysalis on wall.

Monarch chrysalis on wall. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Once a Swallowtail chrysalis wandered 20 feet from the host plant in my Austin apartment to form its chrysalis on the electrical chord of a flat iron.   Another time a Monarch caterpillar I was transporting to a speaking event in my car wandered away during the drive.  Later I found the chrysalis inside my summer straw hat. I moved the perfectly formed chrysalis to a stick, tying its silk button with dental floss to a horizontal branch so it could hang vertically until it was ready to emerge.  A week later, it did, nonplussed.

Monarch Chrysalises

You can tie Monarch chrysalises onto a horizontal stick with dental floss to keep a close eye on them. Photo by Monika Maeckle

We’ve also made the dreary discovery of a perfectly formed dead butterfly that eclosed and was belatedly found–under a couch, near a window, or on the floor by a glass door when we were away for the weekend.  A sad event, and something to consider should you bring in a chrysalis from the cold.

Why do these intriguing creatures wander so far from what they know so well and what has sustained them?

Chrysalis on agave

Safe place to form a chrysalis? We think so. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Scientists suggest this is a survival mechanism.   If a caterpillar forms its chrysalis on the host plant and other caterpillars defoliate it, that leaves the chrysalis more visible and vulnerable to predators.   My personal unscientifc theory is that caterpillars need a quiet spot to transform themselves into a completely different lifeform. Growing wings and planning your first flight must require deep concentration.

More on this topic:

Like what you’re reading? Follow butterfly and native plant news at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery in the righthand navigation bar of this page, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam. You can also read our stuff on the Rivard Report.

Catalina Trail, Dr. Chip Taylor, Black Witch Moths, Tomato Hornworms and IMAX Movie make Top Posts of 2012

What were the most-read stories at the Texas Butterfly Ranch this year?  Beyond the homepage and the “about us” tab, these were the most widely read posts over the past 12 months.  Take a look and happy holidays to you.

#1  Catalina Trail, founder of the Monarch Butterfly Roosting Sites, Lives a Quiet Life in Austin

Our most-read blogpost written in 2012 is the story of Catalina Trail, a lovely, quiet woman who ‘s role in Monarch butterfly natural history was relatively uncelebrated until

Catalina Trail, always a bit of a free spirit, traveled the hemisphere in the 70s.

Free spirit and itinerant traveler Catalina Trail traveled the hemisphere in the 70s. Photo copyright Catalina Trail

recently.    We consider it a privilege to have made her acquaintance and found a friend in Catalina this year.    She lives just 75 miles up the road in Austin, Texas.

#2   The Intriguing Black Witch Moth, Large, Batlike and Harmless

This enormous dark, batlike moth loves to rest under eaves and around doorways, a habit that results in quite a “startle factor” when flushed, as explained by our friend and

Black Witch Moth Female

Black Witch Moth Female, photo via www.whatsthatbug.com

entomologist Mike Quinn.  The drought seems to have helped the moth’s population grow and extended its migration, making it more common than usual this year.

#4 Desperately Seeking Milkweed:  Monarch Butterflies Appetites Create Milkweed Emergency

This post created a bit of a stir, as it called out a local nursery for selling chemical laced milkweed to a friend who was feeding hundreds of Monarch caterpillars.   Read on

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

Boo-hoo! Dead Monarch caterpillars fall victim to pesticide laced milkweed.  Photo via Sharon Sander

for tips on determining if milkweed bought from local nurseries is riddled with systemic pesticides that spell death for Monarch caterpillars.

#4  Tomato Hornworms, Loathed by Gardeners, Morph into the Magnificent Sphinx Moth

Gardeners often can’t tolerate the tomato hornworm, which appears in early summer and decimates those heirloom and cherry hybrids so painstakingly tended.   But the chubby

Tobacco Hornworm on Jimsonweed

Look at that face! Tomato Hornworm on Jimsonweed.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

green “worm” is actually a caterpillar that morphs into a gorgeous pink-and-black moth that hovers and dances much like a hummingbird.

#5  Chasing Monarchs on the Llano River with Dr. Chip Taylor

It was a butterfly evangelist’s fantasy come true, to tag Monarch butterflies with one of the foremost experts on Monarchs on the planet, Dr. Chip “Orly” Taylor, founder of

Dr. Chip Taylor, Founder of Monarch Watch

Monarch Watch founder Dr. Chip Taylor on the Llano River in the Texas Hill Country.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch Watch, the citizen scientist program that has been a fixture of my autumn each year.   Read about my kidnapping Dr. Taylor from a conference in Kerrville for a quick trip to our Llano River ranch to take the pulse of the 2012 migration in  October.

#6   FAQ:  Is it OK to Move a Monarch Chrysalis?

This post gets a lot of action when folks find a lonely Monarch or other butterfly chrysalis in an inopportune spot.    We frequently are asked if it’s ok, and if so, how to relocate the

Queen and Monarch Chrysalises

Sure it’s ok to move chrysalises to a safer spot. Photo by Monika Maeckle

chrysalis to a safer, perhaps more welcoming place.  Here’s tips on how to do it.

#7 IMAX Film Might be as Good As it Gets for Monarch Butterflies 

The fabulous IMAX film, Flight of the Butterflies, opened in September, just as we were anticipating the Monarch migration.    All the hubbub surrounding the film’s debut made it seem that the 3D footage assembled by SK Films might be as good as it could possibly

A Butterfly Haven somewhere in Michoacan

A Butterfly Haven somewhere in Michoacan –Photo courtesy SK Films

get for Monarchs this year–and that is likely the case.   Monarchs may have had their worst year yet, numbers-wise.  Texas Butterfly Ranch later reviewed the film in this post.

Other favorite posts that were written in years past:

Butterflies Made a Darwin Doubter out of Valdimir Nabokov

I continue to be perplexed why this post consistently ranks as one of the most read in Texas Butterfly Ranch history.  Perhaps referencing the conservative Discovery Institute is what continues to provoke readers. Hmm.

Milkweed Guide:  Choose Best Plants for Monarch Butterflies

This plant guide for Texas milkweeds has been a perpetual most-viewed post since it was published in November of 2010.   Time for us to update it, which we hope to do soon.

Antelope Horns Milkweed

Antelope Horns Milkweed is a great choice for Texas gardens and wildlscapes.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Like what you’re reading? Follow butterfly and native plant news at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery in the righthand navigation bar of this page, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam. You can also read our stuff on the Rivard Report.

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

Found a Monarch caterpillar on my milkweed!

                               –my friend Hugh Daschbach, via text message

How to tell the difference between a Queen or Monarch caterpillar

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

Three Queen butterflies

Queens have been flying and reproducing this Fall.

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

Queens on Purple Mistflower

Queens on Purple Mistflower

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

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

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

Resident Monarch butterfly on the San Antonio River Museum Reach

Monarch butterfly on the San Antonio River Museum Reach

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

Queen butterfly, wings open

Queen butterfly.  It’s a male.

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

Monarch butterflies are on the move in Texas

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

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

Queen caterpillar with three filaments

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

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

Monarch butterfly caterpillar has two filaments

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

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

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

Queen and Monarch chrysalises

Queen and Monarch chrysalises. Monarch in the middle.

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

Like what you’re reading?  Follow butterfly and native plant news at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery in the righthand navigation bar of this page, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam.  You can also read our stuff on the Rivard Report.

Desperately Seeking Milkweed: Monarch Butterfly Caterpillars’ Voracious Appetites Create Milkweed Emergency

Anyone have any emergency milkweed? The 30 or so caterpillars have totally stripped mine and the nurseries don’t seem to have any. I really don’t want to lose them. –T. Kinsey, San Antonio

I, too, have run out of food (asclepias tuberosa) for my Monarch caterpillars. I have approximately 14 caterpillars ranging from the 1st through the 5th instar. The little ones can’t eat the hard stem, which is all that is left. I am scrambling around asking everyone I know if they have any butterfly milkweed and so far, no luck.  –C. Nugen, Stephenville

I have a great number of monarch caterpillars on the milkweed plants in my garden,  more than I have ever seen!! Only thing is,  I think there are more than there is food. Will they find nearby plants to eat or start eating the stems of the plant? Please help as I am bit worried that they will not all get to the next life stage.  –L. Jarvis, San Antonio

Monarch butterflies have been arriving in the “Texas funnel” for weeks, laying their first generation of eggs on milkweeds in yards, gardens, and throughout the state.  But judging from emails, text and Facebook messages I’ve been getting, we just don’t seem to have enough milkweed to keep up with their voracious appetites.  The creatures eat 200x their birthweight in milkweed leaves by the time they bust their stripes to form their gold-flecked jade chrysalises.

The milkweed shortage appears to be the result of the Monarchs’ early arrival and crazy weather this year.  When the Monarchs arrived in March, a lot of wild milkweed wasn’t even out of the ground yet.    The wet, mild winter provoked a bountiful wildflower showing, creating serious competition from more aggressive species.   Then we had a slew of 80- and 90-degree days that sped up growth of both the caterpillars and plants.   Result?  Lots of caterpillars and not enough food.

What to do if you find yourself with dozens of hungry caterpillars and no milkweed for them to feast on?  If  you don’t have access to milkweed in the wild nor from fellow gardeners, your best bet is to call local nurseries and ask if they have any Asclepias in stock.   Be sure to ask for Asclepias, the scientific name, since it’s not unusual for nurseries to sell “butterfly bush” or “butterfly weed” which are great nectar plants (often in the Buddleia family) for all types of butterflies, but useless for hosting Monarchs or other milkweed feeders.

Next, tell the nursery staff that you are raising caterpillars.   That means the plants you purchase for caterpillar food must be free of systematic pesticides.  Nursery staff will often swear they have not sprayed anything on the plants, but that doesn’t mean the grower didn’t.

Fat and happy Monarch cats devoured Sharon Sander's milkweed

Fat and happy Monarch cats devoured Sharon Sander's milkweed patch

Two friends experienced this difficult lesson in the past week.  Sharon Sander emailed with joyous photos of hundreds of Monarch caterpillars decimating the milkweed patch  at the River Road Community Garden.  Sander asked if I had any extra milkweed.  Since I did not, I encouraged her to seek out pesticide-free milkweed at one of our local nurseries.

Beautiful Asclepias Curassavica from Shades of Green turned out to be full of pesticides

Beautiful Asclepias Curassavica from Shades of Green turned out to be full of pesticides

Sander located milkweed at Shades of Green Nursery in San Antonio.  She explained to nursery staff that she was raising caterpillars and was told no systematic pesticides had been used.   She brought the plants home and moved 200 caterpillars to the robust plants.

The next day, “They all died,” Sander wrote via text message.  Sander contacted Shades of Green, an excellent nursery, and was given pesticide-free replacement plants.  Still, a sad lesson.

Wendy Meyer, co-manager of Shades of Green was very apologetic about the incident and said that unbeknownst to Shades of Green, the grower had used the pesticide Dursban (chlorpyrifos) on the milkweed plants.  Supposedly Dursban dissipates in 10-14 days, but in the meantime is readily absorbed into the plant tissue and anything that eats the plant.

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

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

Jenny Singleton of Grapevine relayed a similar story.  Upon leaving town for vacation, she stocked up on milkweed for the hungry Monarch caterpillars she was leaving behind.  “I went to my favorite nursery to buy more milkweed and left the new, full plants next to the eaten up ones,” Singleton wrote in an email. “Checked on them this AM and to my horror, I’ll bet 75% were dead! I was sick!”

Unfortunately, nurseries don’t always know their growers as well as they  should.  And most plant shoppers won’t buy plants with bugs on them.   Milkweed plants are an ecosystem unto themselves and attract aphids, milkweed beetles, milkweed bugs, various flies and wasps.  Pesticides will kill all these pests–as well as Monarch eggs and caterpillars. It’s a challenge for growers who are often inclined to spray plants immediately before shipping to make them attractive and insect free to shoppers.

Tropical milkweed is easy to grow

Tropical milkweed is easy to grow

If you don’t know the provenance of your host plants, the best solution is to GYO (grow your own) milkweed.  Milkweed flowers develop a plump seed pod.  Tropical milkweed, while not native, is easy to grow and a Monarch butterfly magnet.  Remove the seeds from the milkweed fluff and sow in pots or the garden.  We’ll detail that process in a future post.

Like what you’re reading?  Follow butterfly and native plant news at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery in the righthand navigation bar of this page, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam.