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

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

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

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

Jaime Maussan and Crew

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

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

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

Urban butterfly garden

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

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

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

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

 

Monarch butterfly freshly minted

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

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

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

We look forward to seeing the final product.

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Historic Rendezvous of Those Who Located Monarch Butterfly Roosting Sites Draws Crowd of 200

Almost 200 butterfly aficionados gathered at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center auditorium in South Austin Monday night to hear from four speakers responsible for discovering and sharing the location of the Monarch butterfly roosting sites in Mexico almost 40 years ago.

Catalina Trail in Michoacán, 1975

Even in the 70s, logging took a toll on the Monarchs’ roosting sites as witnessed by this stump, enveloped in butterflies.  Catalina Trail on right.  Photo Copyright Catalina Trail

Dr. Lincoln Brower, one of the foremost Monarch butterfly entomologists in the country, was flown in from Virginia by the Austin Butterfly Forum to join three Austinites instrumental in Monarch butterfly history:  Catalina Trail, Dr. William “Bill” Calvert and John Christian.   The historic occasion was orchestrated by Mike Quinn, guardian of Texas Monarch Watch and the president of the Austin Butterfly Forum.

Trail is the only living founder of three people present at the “discovery” of the site where millions of Monarch butterflies roost each winter.  Calvert and Christian, in collaboration with Dr. Brower, revealed that location to the world two years after the site was first explored by Westerners. NOTE:  Native peoples had known about the roosts for centuries, but had no idea the butterflies had migrated from the United States and Canada.

Monday night’s presentation, staged by the Austin Butterfly Forum and billed as “a discussion of The Monarch’s Mexican Overwintering Refugia” did not disappoint.

Austin Butterfly Forum

Left to right: John Christian, Dr. Bill Calvert, Catalina Trail, and Dr. Lincoln Brower at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center. Photo Copyright by Mike Quinn

Wearing a lovely Pineda Covalin silk shawl festooned with lifelike Monarch butterflies,  Trail opened the discussion by sharing rarely seen photos of the ancestral roosting grounds as they appeared in the 70s.  Such was the state of the Oyamel forests when she and her then-husband, North American Ken Brugger, came upon the roosts after searching the rugged Sierra Madre mountains by motor home in the mid-70s.

thickmonarchsontreetrunks

“Butterflies on the ground, covering the trees, all the way to the top like a cathedral,” Catalina Trail said of the Monarch roosting sites’ appearance in 1975.   Photo Copyright Catalina Trail

“I was speechless,” said Trail in her soft Spanish accent.  “They were one-foot high, on the ground and covering the trees all the way to the top, like a cathedral.”

She described how she and Brugger had answered an ad placed in the Mexico City News by Canadian entomologist Dr. Fred Urquhart and his wife Nora for “interested persons” that would help track down the Monarch butterfly roosting sites.   The Urquharts had been working on the puzzle for decades.   Born on a ranch in Michoacán, Trail worked with Brugger to search the mountains for several years before discovering the ancestral roosts in January of 1975.

catalinatalkingtolocals

On the Monarch butterfly trail with Catalina Trail. She toured the Sierra Madre asking the locals if they had seen Monarch butterflies in the mid 1970s. Photo Copyright Catalina Trail

“I kept wishing the whole world had my eyes so they could see what I was seeing and feel what I was feeling,” she said, upon witnessing the millions and millions of butterflies covering every surface in the forest.   To hear the sound of the Monarchs taking flight was akin to “a symphony of the wings.”

ridgewheremonarchswerediscovered

According to Trail, this is the ridge where she and her husband Ken Brugger first found the roosts. Photo Copyright Catalina Trail

The day they found the Monarchs, she and her husband rushed back to town to call Dr. Urquhart and then came the hardest part:  “We had to keep it a secret.”

That’s because Dr. Urquhart wanted to keep the news quiet until he and his wife could visit and he could prepare a scientific paper.  Because of poor health, they didn’t make the trip until almost a year later.   Eventually Urquhart broke the news with a cover story in National Geographic in August of 1976.  That story rocked the world of entomology but left out the specifics of the location and caused devoted scientists like Dr. Brower, who had also been working on Monarch butterflies for years, and Dr. Bill Calvert, to set out on a quest to reveal the butterflies’ location.

The saga has been well documented in the book, Four Wings in a Prayer by Sue Halpern.

While Trail was the star of the show on Monday, the crowd also heard from the soft-spoken John Christian, a quiet, Spanish-speaking photographer and documentarian, who grew up in Mexico and was approached by Dr. Calvert at the University of Texas to accompany him on an adventure in search of the butterflies.   Calvert had teamed up with Brower, Dr. Victoria Foe, and her boyfriend (no one can remember his name)  to figure out the location of the roosting sites.  His role was to set out for Mexico via pick-up truck in search of the location.

“Bill Calvert asked me one day if I wanted to go help him find the butterflies as a translator,” said Christian from the stage, wearing a Huichol bag across his left shoulder.  “I said yes, and it was quite an honor.”

Like Trail, and many of us who have visited the roosting sites, Christian was permanently effected by the experience.  “It was extraordinary.  Not religious, but spiritual. Like a Church of Nature.  It’s a sacred place.”

Calvert also spoke, putting all the memories in context by pointing out that with the passage of time, testimony frequently comes riddled with “embellishments and omissions and aggrandizements…resulting in no idea of the truth.”

Calvert recalled how he met Dr. Brower at a seminar and when he realized the entomologist was making the study of Monarch butterflies his life’s work, soon drove all the way to Bustamante, Mexico, to retrieve 200 for him.

“He immediately ground them up into paste and did a cardenolide study on them,” said Calvert.

In those days, Dr. Brower was on the cutting edge of research using chemical fingerprinting to determine lipid content and what type of milkweed the Monarchs were eating.   Surely this had to be threatening to Dr. Urquhart, who had mastered the quaint-but-effective (and still utilized) practice of physically putting tags on Monarchs to determine their migratory pattern.

Brower gets credit for figuring out that the toxins in milkweed, the cardiac glycosides, are what make Monarch butterflies distasteful to predators, and in fact, may be the key to their roosting survival.

As Dr. Brower pointed out in his own fascinating presentation, cold butterflies don’t move fast and are quite vulnerable for several months at 10,000 feet in the cool Mexican forest.   Why are predators not feasting on them in this most vulnerable state?

Because they don’t taste good.  Brower’s famous barfing bluejay photo proved that point, below.

Barfing Bluejay

Dr. Brower’s famous “Barfing Bluejay” photo of a bird wretching after eating Monarchs, proved Monarchs don’t taste good. Photo courtesy Dr. Lincoln Brower

Calvert said that when he and Brower contacted Urquhart to ask him the location of the butterflies so they could deepen their understanding and study of the Monarchs, Urquhart “suggested we goto Appalachicola Bay along the Florida coast and retrieve some.”  That led to their travels and Monarch findings in Mexico.

The duo realized two important clues dropped by Urquhart in the National Geographic article and in a paper published in the the Journal of the Lepidopterists’ Society:  the roosting sites were somewhere at 3,000 meters elevation and on a slope of volcanic mountains in the northern part of Michoacán.

Based on those two simple clues, Calvert determined a small area west of Mexico City that met the criteria and he and Christian set out to find the site.   When they arrived in Angangueo, a small town near the roosting sanctuaries, they recruited the Mayor’s son to help them.   “He seemed incredulous that anyone would be interested in these insects,” said Calvert.

On New Year’s Eve, 1976, almost exactly two years after Catalina Trail first trod on the spot, they located the roosting sanctuaries.

“That’s what science is,” said Brower, summing up the feat of connecting the dots and following the clues.

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Only Three Million Monarch Butterflies Make it to Mexico this Year

The dismal state of the Monarch butterfly migration came into closer focus this week, as reports from Mexico suggest that only three million butterflies had arrived at the ancestral roosts in Michoacán, the New York Times reported.  The 2012 season, acknowledged as the worst year for the insects population wise, counted 60 million Monarchs.  In prime years, they numbered 450 million.

Video may be as good as it gets from now on, when it comes to observing the Monarch butterfly migration.  Enjoy this one, taken in 2007, by Jesse Waugh.  

 

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, relayed a similar prognosis two weeks ago, addressing the International Butterfly Breeders conference.   Dr. Taylor stated that the butterflies would likely occupy only 1.25 acres of forest in the mountainous roosting grounds west of Mexico City.  At their height, the creatures roosted in 50+ acres of forest. How depressing that the entire population of Monarch butterflies east of the Rocky Mountains could fit into a space smaller than a strip shopping center.

Monarch graph Journey North

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

Each December, scientists measure the hectares occupied by the migrating butterflies at their ancestral overwintering sites in the mountains of Michoacán to determine the size of their population. (NOTE: one hectare equals 2.47 acres.)

Our friend and Monarch butterfly expert Dr. Lincoln Brower, quoted in the New York Times, forwarded an email from Mexico to the D-PLEX list (an email list for butterfly enthusiasts) last week.

“What I find worrisome is the late arrival of the butterflies,” wrote Dr. Brower, adding that the butterflies usually arrive in force at the very beginning of November.  Concern resulted when for the first time in recorded history, the Monarchs did not arrive in time for Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico.  Here’s an excerpt from the email:

The monarch population is very low, the trees are not fully covered by monarch like in past years. In Chincua, there are approximately 14 trees, in Rosario, a similar number of trees was found, however in the past few days there was a cold front that entered the country, there were trees that fell down as a result of the strong winds, especially in Rosario, right in the middle of the monarch colony. The colony at Pelon is still wandering about and also with very low numbers.

 

Biologist Gloria Tavera Alonso told the Spanish language news agency EFE that “More or less we’re estimating that we’ll have 50 percent fewer than this time last year.”   Last year, only 60 million butterflies made it to the roosting sites, the worst year in history–until now.

Monarch butterfly on milkweed, November, 11, 2011

You can help by planting milkweed, the Monarch butterfly’s host plant. Here, a Monarch butterfly on Tropical milkweed.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

What can you do?   We’ve suggested in the past that you plant milkweed.  That’s a start.

But we also need to encourage our lawmakers to approve the Save America’s Pollinators Act, H.R. 2692.   The bill would ban neonicotinoid pesticides, introduced three decades ago without appropriate field study to its side effects.    The newcomer pesticide, often referred to as the “new DDT,” is the first new class of pesticides introduced in the last 50 years and while apparently

Save America's Pollinators

Don’t delay, sign the petition today. Photo via Friends of the Earth

milder on human beings, has a devastating effect on bees, butterflies, and other pollinators.  Here’s a few facts from the Xerces Society, a pollinator advocacy organization.

  • Neonicotinoid residues are found in pollen and nectar consumed by pollinators such as bees and butterflies. The residues can reach lethal concentrations in some situations.
  • Neonicotinoids can persist in soil for months or years after a single application. Measurable amounts of residues were found in woody plants up to six years after application.
  • Untreated plants may absorb chemical residues left over in the soil from the previous year.
  • Products approved for homeowners to use in gardens, lawns, and on ornamental trees have manufacturer-recommended application rates up to 120 times higher than rates approved for agricultural crops.

Recent research suggests that neonicotinoids can cause increased levels of proteins in bees that inhibit key molecules involved in their immune response, making the insects more susceptible to attack by harmful viruses.   The much publicized Colony Collapse Disorder, which has decimated the bee population, has been linked to neonicotinoids as well.

Insects like bees and butterflies are responsible for pollinating 75 percent of our food crops–one of every three bites of food you take. Shortages of bees have increased the cost of growing food because farmers must rent them for pollination services, resulting in food cost production increases by as much as 20%.

Please help protect bees, butterflies and other important pollinators by supporting H.R. 2692, the Save America’s Pollinators Act. They are the glue that binds our ecosystem.   Sign the petition now.   And in the meantime, plant some milkweed.

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Dr. Chip Taylor to Butterfly Breeders: Monarch Roosts May Occupy Only 1.25 Acres This Year

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, told more than 100 butterfly breeders, enthusiasts and citizen scientists Saturday night that the entirety of this year’s migrating Monarch butterfly population may occupy only a half of a hectare–or about 1.25 acres–in Mexico.   That would make this year’s Monarch population the smallest in its recorded history.

Blue Sky Monarchs

The Monarch butterfly migration faces serious risks, says Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Scientists measure the hectares occupied by the migrating butterflies each spring at the ancestral overwintering sites in the mountains of Michoacán to determine the size of the population.

“We had some really robust Monarch butterfly populations in the 90s,” Taylor said.  “But we’re never going to see those again.”

The decline of the Monarch butterfly population.  In the 90s, their roosting grounds averaged 22 acres.  Graphic via Monarch Watch

The decline of the Monarch butterfly population. In the 90s, their roosting grounds averaged 22 acres. In 2013, they’re predicted to be 1.25 acres. Graphic via Monarch Watch

A perfect storm of dire circumstances is to blame.  The increased use of genetically modified crops, climate change disrupting the insects’ life cycle, pervasive pesticide use, general habitat destruction in the U.S. breeding grounds and in the roosting sites in Mexico–all have created a set of obstacles that threaten the continuation of the unique phenomenon of the Monarch migration.

“We all have to work together to create Monarch habitat,” Taylor told the combined audience of International Butterfly Breeders Association and the Association for Butterflies in San Antonio.  The conference convened to celebrate the 15th birthday of the butterfly breeding business, widely acknowledged to be founded by Rick Mikula, “the butterfly guy.”

Taylor’s presence at the convention was a hopeful sign that the academic/scientist community might be able to find common ground with professional breeders who supply hundreds of thousands of butterflies, caterpillars and eggs each year to schools, festivals, exhibits and other events.   The relationship has been taxed in the past by differences of opinion on the appropriateness of butterfly releases.

One point of agreement:  Monarchs are not only the “money crop” for breeders, they also are the poster species for climate change and habitat destruction.

Rick Mikula

Rick Mikula, widely considered the “father of the commercial butterfly breeding business” poses with the convention birthday cake. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“Monarchs are the iconic species to which we can attach passion and do good for pollinators,” Dr. Taylor told the crowd.   “It’s not just about the Monarchs.  It’s everything else.”

Borrowing from lectures that he delivers regularly to students at the University of Kansas at Lawrence with titles like “The World of 2040″ and “Humans & Climate:  Past, Present and Future,” Taylor summarized the scenarios shared by the recently released United Nations Climate Change report.  The report includes research that suggests global warming will

Happy birthday, Butterfly biz!

The combine conference of the IBBA and AFB celebrated 15 years of the commercial butterfly breeding business. Photo by Monika Maeckle

reduce agricultural production by as much as two percent each decade for the rest of this century while demand for food climbs 14%.  Dr. Taylor underscored the point by adding that 75% of food crops are pollinated by birds, bees and butterflies.   The presentation put a sobering spin on the otherwise celebratory evening, which concluded with an oversized chocolate birthday cake decorated with edible soy and rice paper butterflies.

IBBA president Kathy Marshburn suggested that IBBA breeders, who live in at least 30 states and 13 different countries, could easily participate in the Monarch Watch’s Monarch Waystation program.  The program, launched in 2005, encourages the public, schools and others to create pollinator habitat by planting milkweed gardens for Monarch butterflies, something that every breeder does in the course of their business.

“That would be a simple thing to accomplish,” said Marshburn, who committed to discussing a resolution by the IBBA Board of Directors to implement such a program.  “It makes perfect sense,” she said, “and will push us more toward conservation efforts.”

Chip Taylor and Kathy Marshburn

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

Dr. Taylor posed for photos with conference attendees, answered questions and generally wowed the crowd with his accessibility, Father Christmas demeanor and passion for the topic.   To climate change deniers, Taylor said:  “It’s physics.  It’s chemistry.  It’s undeniable.  Are we on a sustainable path?  No.”

Taylor has a decades long passion for pollinators.   He began his career studying sulphurs,  the ubiquitous yellow butterflies that feed on legumes such as clovers and alfalfa.   He was forced to leave that field of study after developing an allergy to them–an apparently not uncommon occurrence in science when one spends lots of time with a particular species.

sulphur butterfly

Dr. Chip Taylor began his scientific career studying Sulphurs. Photo courtesy University of Florida

He then moved on to moved on to studies of the biology of neotropical African (killer) bees in South and Central America, a course he pursued for 22 years.   In 1994 he started Monarch Watch, the citizen science tagging program that started in 1992 and tracks the Monarch migration by having common folks net, tag and record the sex of migrating butterflies, then report the information to a central database managed by the Monarch Watch staff at the University of Kansas at Lawrence.  The program has contributed much to the understanding of the mysterious Monarch butterfly migration.

Perhaps most important, though, is how Monarch Watch has engaged average citizens in  hands-on understanding of conservation and the environment.

Taylor, 76, said he feels a sense of urgency to engage the public in pollinator protection.  He has no qualms about tapping the popularity of Monarch butterflies to do so.  “There’s an innate interest in this mysterious insect,” he said.

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Lots of Butterflies, but No Monarchs on the Llano River this Weekend

It was a disappointing weekend of Monarch tagging.   Again.

This weekend was a repeat of last–with only one Monarch butterfly spotted, none tagged.   I’m betting Monarchs migrated further west.  Or more likely, this year’s crop was extremely thin.  I don’t foresee more tagging weekends this fall.  It’s over.

And honestly, we did not see the masses enjoyed in recent years.   Sightings of 10 – 20 have replaced masses of 100-200.

According to the Journey North website, Monarchs crossed the border into Mexico this week.  That suggests they have passed the Texas funnel.  We may still see singles and strays, but the “massive” migration–a shadow of its former self–has passed.

From Nuevo Leon:  “Today, Monarchs were spotted for miles over three hours in some parts of Monterrey this morning,” wrote Rocio Treviño of Mexico’s Monarch tracking project, Correo Real, on October 23.  Similar bulletins were cited for Coahuila and Tamaulipas.

Tagged Monarch

Tagged Monarch, raised at home. Many of the Monarchs we tagged this year we raised ourselves. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The butterflies have not arrived at their ancestral roosts in the mountains of Michoacán.  On Thursday, Estela Romero, the Journey North correspondent on the ground in Michoacán, reported:

Our graph recording Monarchs’ arrival this week, filled in inside our VW due to the intense rain:   Z E R O on October 24.”

It’s difficult to be optimistic about the future of the Monarch migration.   Every obstacle has been thrown in its path.  Habitat destruction in the flyway, the breeding grounds and the roosting sites.   Drought and climate change messing with the butterflies’ inherent cycles.   Aerial spraying of pesticides and the use of herbicide tolerant crops.   Continued illegal logging in Mexico.

The one good note is that people are paying attention.  We are planting milkweed.   Monarch butterfly festivals are hatching across the hemisphere.  More people are raising butterflies at home.

Last fall, a 3-D IMAX movie, “Flight of the Butterflies” was released, sharing the story of the Monarch migration to rave reviews and multiple awards.  And scientist-turned-eloquent-author Barbara Kingsolver‘s latest novel, “Flight Behavior,” used Monarch butterflies to tackle the complex subject of climate change.

Monarch chrysalises

Happy Monarch butterfly chrysalises.  We fostered many Monarchs from wild eggs and caterpillars this year. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Are Monarch butterflies the panda bears of climate change?   The beloved creatures hold universal appeal.   They don’t sting or bite.  They are beautiful and accessible.  They migrate across three countries, serving as a living metaphor for our innate interconnectedness.

Pandas are endangered, Monarchs are not.  But many would argue that the Monarch migration is rushing toward a dangerous path of extinction.

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San Antonio Butterfly Fans, Join us Monday for How to Tag a Monarch Butterfly

Many of us believe the Monarch butterfly should be declared the Official Insect of San Antonio. Given our geographic location in the heart of the Texas flyway and the dramatic butterflies’ intimate connection to Mexico, it makes perfect sense.  Monarch butterflies have already been declared the official bug of Texas.

Since Monarch butterflies are on the move this week, the Texas Butterfly Ranch is joining its sister site, the Rivard Report, to perform a Monarch butterfly tagging demonstration for “Something Monday,” tomorrow, October 21.  Something Monday is a weekly learning outing sponsored by the site, co-founded by me and my husband Robert Rivard.

Meet us at 6:30 p.m. at the Milkweed Patch on the Museum Reach of the San Antonio River, tomorrow, October 21.   We’ll gather downstream from the Pearl (map below) and demonstrate How to Tag a Monarch Butterfly.   Park at the Pearl, cross the river, and walk south five minutes and you’ll be there.

Tagged Monarch butterfly

Join us at the Milkweed Patch for ‘Something Monday’ to see how Monarch butterflies are tagged en route to Mexico. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Tag a Monarch butterfly?  How does one do that?

You’ll  have to join us to find out. But show some respect – the dramatic orange and black butterflies have had a tough year.  Many of us believe that 2013 is shaping up to be their worst in history, population wise.

Professional and citizen scientists have been “tagging” the storied creatures since the ’50s.  That’s how they figured out that the Monarchs that are passing through town right now are the great-great grandchildren of the ones that left Mexico last spring.

Museum Reach Milkweed Patch

The Milkweed Patch before the drought. Don’t worry, the butterflies still show up. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Yep, that’s right.  The butterflies that are migrating to Mexico this month through the “Texas Funnel” have never been to the roosting spot that is their final destination.   That would be like finding your way to the home of your great-great grandmother without ever having known her address.

The methodology for unraveling this mystery entailed professional and citizen scientists “tagging” the butterflies throughout the Eastern U.S.

Monarch Watch, a citizen scientist program based at the University of Kansas at Lawrence, continues the program today.

The butterflies migrate to a remote mountainous area of southern Mexico in the winter, rouse in the spring, mate, then die.  Their bodies are found on the forest floor.  These days, scientists pay the local people of Michoacán $5 per recovered tag.  In 1976, thanks to an intrepid Austin woman named Catalina Trail, scientists finally pieced together the puzzle and determined that Monarch butterflies are the only creatures on the planet to undertake a multi-generational migration.

Milkweed Patch on the San Antonio River Museum Reach

“A” Marks the spot for the Milkweed Patch

And why the Milkweed Patch, you say?

Monarch butterflies will only lay their eggs on a particular plant–milkweed. The beautiful orange bloomer serves as the insects’ host plant and also provides nectar for fueling up for its long journey. The San Antonio River Authority planted a stand of milkweed on the Museum Reach four years ago when the River Walk was extended north.

National Geographic cover of Monarch migration

Scientists didn’t piece together the puzzle of the Monarch butterfly migration until 1976.

The butterfly garden has since become known as The Milkweed Patch and is a regular hangout for Monarchs in the Spring and Fall, and other butterflies year-round. The Patch also is monitored by citizen scientists on behalf of the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project.

Join us at the Milkweed Patch at 6:30 PM.  Bring the kids.  They’ll love it.

I’ll have a couple of butterfly nets  and tags on hand to show you how its done.  We’ll tag the butterflies, record their tag numbers, and make note if they are male and female. All that info will be to Monarch Watch and entered into a database that is accessible from the web.

We’ll release tagged butterflies to the wind with the hope they find their way to Mexico. Perhaps our ‘Something Monday’ Monarchs will be fortunate enough to complete the trip.

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Don’t Miss a (Butterfly) Beat: How to Track the Monarch Butterfly Migration from your Desk

With recent rains and cooling temperatures, we’re hearing some upbeat news about the Monarch migration.  Numbers will doubtless be low this year–probably the lowest in history.  That said, the migration is on.  And in this historically low year, we’ll all be watching carefully.

Tagged Monarch butterfly

“I took this photo today in Enid Oklahoma. 6 PM 9-28-2013.” — Carolene Metscher, Monarch Watch
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So as not to miss a (butterfly) beat, consider tapping into some of the cool digital tools available via the web. Sure, we’d all rather be outside with our butterfly nets half-cocked, a stash of Monarch Watch tags stuffed in our pockets with a notebook for logging the data of our most recent catch of the migrating creatures.   But that’s not always possible. 

At the intersection of technology and nature lies a host of tools to track the Monarch butterfly migration without ever leaving your desk.  These myriad resources contribute much to citizen science.

A recent find for me is the wind map.  I just love this website, which shows us in real-time how the winds are blowing.

Wind Map

For those of us who live in the Texas funnel, the wind plays an especially significant role in planning for Monarch tagging outings.   I work full-time, so during Monarch season, I plot each weekend for maximum Monarch activity.

I check the Monarch Watch “peak migration” calendar, monitor the wind and weather, and poll my butterfly loving friends to see who might be available for a weekend of tagging on the Llano River.  Lucky for me my birthday is October 13, which makes for a great Monika’s Monarch birthday weekend.  This year will be no different.  I will, however, consult the wind map to see what might be in store.

If winds are coming from the South, Monarchs won’t be moving much;  that could mean they’re stranded in place, which could make for good tagging.

Winds from the North mean they’ll be riding the wave.   And they have to roost at night, so that could also be good.

Twitter Search

Using Twitter as a search engine is another great Monarch butterfly tracking tool.  It provides real-time updates of Monarch butterfly sightings.   Granted, not everyone uses Twitter, “only” an estimated 200+ million people.  For those who do and are interested in clocking the migration in real-time, it can be indispensable.

Twitter is a free, real-time search engine, as well as a broadcast outlet for individuals and organizations.  That means you can visit  http://search.twitter.com and punch in “monarch butterflies” or “monarch migration” or “monarch butterfly” and dozens of hours-old “tweets”–brief 140-character updates—will be returned, telling you where Monarchs are flying RIGHT NOW.

Twitter search for tracking Monarchs

Check out Twitter search at http://search.twitter.com to see what’s happening with the Monarch migration RIGHT NOW.

Twitter was conceived as a mass text messaging tool, thus the brevity of the updates.  It refreshes constantly.  And to use Twitter as a search engine, you don’t even need to open an account.

Twitter search ONLY indexes recent updates.  Google and other search engines are more akin to archives for the entire web.   You can try searching Google News, but this won’t return the real-time reports Twitter delivers.

The results from these searches paint an immediate picture of what’s happening with the Monarch migration NOW.  Yes, there’s junk in there, but also insights, relevant news stories, photos and facts.  By clicking on the Twitterer’s profile, you learn their location.

Don’t scoff.  Give it a try and check out this Twitter search for the Monarch butterfly migration.

Monarch Watch Facebook Page

If you’re reading this and you’re on Facebook, then you likely have already “LIKED” the Monarch Watch Facebook page.  If not, go ahead, do it now, and join the party.  (And while you’re at it, why not LIKE the Texas Butterfly Ranch Facebook page?)

With more than 12,400 fans, Monarch Watch’s page serves as a delightful online plaza where the Monarch Watch team from the University of Kansas engages with the rest of us to share information, photos, and wax passionate about Monarch butterflies and their migration.   Citizen scientists, recreational observers, and professional and amateur biologists and entomologists join the conversation.  Like this:

Monarch Watch Facebook page

Monarch Watch Facebook page

I almost always learn something from the Monarch Watch Facebook page.  Here, veteran caterpillar wranglers offer wisdom born from hatched chrysalises, newbie enthusiasts pose curious questions and the sharp folks at Monarch Watch and the crowd set inaccuracies straight.  The photos are often amazing, like the one taken by Carolene Metscher of Enid, Oklahoma at the top of this post.  Nice shot, Carolene!

Billed as the nation’s premiere citizen scientist project for children, Journey North tracks wildlife migrations and seasonal change.   This time of year, they post a weekly migration update on Thursdays based on observations from Monarch butterfly enthusiasts of all ages, from Canada to Mexico.   Here’s an excerpt from Thursday’s report:

North Wind Continues
Migration picked up noticeably during the past week, as north winds carried monarchs southward. One busy stopover site was Dr. Lincoln Brower’s garden in Virginia, where a wave of monarchs arrived on September 18th:

 

“Today was the first migratory pulse here. The monarchs are coming in to nectar on our Zinnias and especially the Verbena. I saw and/or collected 25 monarchs in 50 minutes in the garden. I scanned the sky with binoculars but never saw them flying in. They just suddenly appear on the flowers!”

The Journey North website offers loads of useful tools and resources for teachers and others on the Monarch butterfly migration, including an app at the iTunes store.

Journey North's Migration App

Journey North recently launched an app for tracking the Monarch migration.

Monarch Watch Website

Journey North devotes itself to wildlife migrations besides Monarch butterflies (they also monitor hummingbirds, whales and birds), but the Monarch Watch website brags Monarch butterflies, all the time.

Monarch Watch website offers Monarch info 24/7/365

Based at the University of Kansas at Lawrence, Monarch Watch founded the citizen scientist tagging program embraced by thousands of us who tag Monarchs each fall.  Its comprehensive website offers information on how to tag a Monarch, raising milkweed, rearing Monarch caterpillars, and a database of all the Monarch tags recovered in Mexico, so those of us who tag can find out if any of our butterflies made it home.

The site also posts predictions for when the peak migration will occur at your latitude based on Monarch Watch scientists’ well-researched opinions.  The Monarch Watch blog is also worth a look.

D-Plex List

If the above won’t sate your migration curiosity, then consider signing up for the D-PLEX list,  an email exchange that includes about 650 scientists, conservationists, enthusiasts, and others, including some very interesting characters.

Named after the Monarch butterfly’s Latin designation, Danaus plexipus, the D-PLEX is an old fashioned email listserv started by Monarch Watch founder Dr. Chip Taylor and invites the public.  Sign up to receive D-PLEX emails on the Monarch Watch webpage.

Careful, though.  The D-PLEX can overtake your email inbox.   Conversations can escalate, generating dozens of emails a day, many of which you may not find useful.   I’ve set up all D-PLEX emails to forward to a special email box that I check once a day, so as not to be overwhelmed.

Don’t forget to check in with us here at the Texas Butterfly Ranch, too.  We’ll do our best to keep you posted.

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Caterpillar Cannibalism: Monarch butterfly caterpillar eats Monarch egg for lunch

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

Monarch catepillars and eggs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whew.

Frostweed on the Llano

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

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

Parched Goldenrod on the Llano River

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

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

Peak Migration dates

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

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

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

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Welcome to the World, Lil Joe! Monarch Eggs Retrieved on the Llano River this Weekend

Sometimes a blackhead is a good thing….when it signals the imminent hatching of a Queen or Monarch butterfly caterpillar, for example.

About to hatch caterpillar egg

Black head on Monarch or Queen egg suggests imminent hatching. Soon, Lil Joe was born.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Labor Day usually marks the kick-off of Monarch tagging season for me and my mariposista friends.  Often we gather at the ranch for the three-day weekend, tags in one pocket, notebook in the other, a butterfly net in hand and a rack of babyback ribs slow cooking on the smoker.  We move up and down the banks of the Llano River on foot and in kayaks looking for the Monarch butterfly vanguard, the early arrivals of the magnificent Monarch butterfly migration. Central Texas stream systems are a favorite passage on the long journey from Canada to Mexico each fall, and the first pulse of migrants typically shows up around the end of August.

Baby Back ribs--Yeah!

Monarchs are a Labor Day tradition–as are baby back ribs on the smoker. Photo by Monika Maeckle

These early arrivals often break their reproductive diapause, the state of suspending their sexual activity in order to conserve energy for their long flight.  When that happens, they often deposit eggs on milkweed host plants in our gardens and along the Llano River.

And who can blame them for breaking celibacy vows to take advantage of available sexual, host plant and nectar resources?  The definition of success to an insect is to reproduce.

Pat Epstein paddles for Monarchs

Pat Epstein in search of Monarch butterflies and their eggs on the Llano River. Photo by Monika Maeckle

That’s why our Labor Day Monarch tagging team makes a point to look not just for butterflies, but for eggs and caterpillars on the undersides of the leaves of Asclepias incarnata, Swamp milkweed.  The native milkweed, a Monarch host plant, blooms pink in late August and early September and awaits butterfly travelers as they journey south.  Science suggests that when the butterflies break diapause they do not migrate. It’s either migrate or reproduce.  Understandably, no Monarch butterfly has the energy to do both.

The good news is that the offspring of those vanguard Monarchs will grow up in about four weeks to migrate.  Their journey will be a much shorter one than that undertaken by those Monarchs who began the trip in Ontario or northern Michigan–about 870 miles compared to 2,500+.  San Antonio or the Texas Hill Country to the roosting spot in Michoacán makes for a much more manageable trip, especially when you are young, energetic, and well-fed on fall blooming nectar plants.

Lil Joe caterpillar

Welcome to the world, Lil Joe! Monarch or Queen caterpillar hatched before my eyes. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Out of approximately 2,000 Monarch butterflies tagged by our team since 2005,  25 of  “my guys” from Central and South Texas have made it to the ancestral roosts in Michoacán, according to the Monarch Watch butterfly recovery database.  That’s what motivated my friend Pat Epstein of Austin to join me, my husband Bob, and my able assistant Cocoa for daily inspections of the Llano River milkweeds this weekend.

We saw very few butterflies in general—only three Queens, several Gulf Fritillaries, an occasional Eastern Swallowtail and periodic Sulphurs  and Skippers, as well as a hatch of the elegant Amymone, a small peaches-and-cream colored brushfoot.

Swamp milkweed loaded with aphids this weekend on the Llano River.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Swamp milkweed loaded with aphids this weekend on the Llano River. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Plenty of bees, aphids, wasps, fire ants, mosquitoes and grasshoppers joined a loud chorus of cicadas as we perused the milkweed stands and observed nectaring on Goldenrod and Snow-on-the-Praire.  Perhaps that 2.5 inches in the rain gauge, apparently from a passing thunderstorm earlier in the week, provoked recent hatches.

We did find several caterpillar eggs, however, including the one pictured at the top of this post. Within hours of retrieving it, the egg turned grey, then black.  About 4 PM the same day, just as I was mopping the ribs on the smoker, Lil Joe, as we named him, was born.

Olloclip camera lens

Olloclip. LOVE this cool 3-in-1 lens that snaps right onto your iPhone. Thanks to Wayne Alexander for the great gift!  Photo by Monika Maeckle

The tiny critter measured but a fraction of a centimeter in length.   Honestly, you wouldn’t see him were it not for my handy Olloclip close-up lens, which snaps onto the corner of my iPhone and offers 10x magnification.

Welcome to the world, Lil Joe!

We named him/her for being sweet but wearing a “black hat” like the youngest brother in the epic 60s TV series Bonanza.  

It’s too soon to tell if Lil Joe is a Monarch or QueenAs he/she develops, we’ll be able to tell by how many sets of tentacles display on his striped body.   Monarchs have two;  Queens three.

Female monarch lays eggs on Swamp milkweed on Llano

Female Monarch lays eggs on Swamp Milkweed on Llano River. Photo by Monika Maeckle

We observed no Monarchs—until I was packing up a few eggs collected from my kayak.   Right in front of me, I spotted a lone female, the singular sighting of the weekend.  She was  tattered, faded and fertile.   She laid three eggs on a milkweed plant right in front of my boat.  I whipped out my camera and took the shots above and below.

One of three Milkweed eggs

One of three Monarch eggs laid by the female above and retrieved from Milkweed on the Llano River. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The Monarch’s eggs will be added to our brood with Lil Joe.  When they hatch, we’ll provide fresh milkweed, clean their caterpillar condos and await their transformation from one stage to another until they form their j-shape and then a jade green chrysalis with gold flecks.   Once a Monarch butterfly emerges, we’ll tag her and send her on her way.

Check back here for updates.

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First of Season Monarchs Spotted on Llano River–Another “Worst Year” for Migration?

Two FOS (First of Season) Monarch butterflies made an appearance on the Llano River this weekend–pretty early for migrants.  They looked to be in good shape and were heading south.

Monarch butterfly

Veronica Prida holds a Monarch for tagging in 2007 on the Llano River. File photo by Monika Maeckle

We generally don’t start seeing Monarchs until Labor Day weekend, three weeks from now.  These early arrivals are called the “premigration migration” and typically show up about a month before the “real migration.”  If this is the case, we’ll be seeing pulses of Monarchs by mid September.

Recent years have been tough on Monarch butterflies.  Climate change and drought have messed with their host and nectar plants’ life cycles and genetically modified crops have sterilized their breeding grounds in the Midwest.  Wildfires and aerial pesticide spraying wreaked havoc with their journey through North Texas last Fall, and logging threatened their roosting sites in Mexico upon their arrival.

Could it get any worse?

Probably.  Last year, their population dropped to its lowest level in history.  They occupied less than three acres of the ancient Oyamel forest in Michoacán, Mexico, where they roost each winter.    That’s right: the entire migratory population of Monarch butterflies occupied a space smaller than most shopping malls.

The decline of the Monarch butterfly population.  In the 90s, their roosting grounds averaged 22 acres.  Graphic via Monarch Watch

The decline of the Monarch butterfly population. In the 90s, their roosting grounds averaged 22 acres. Graphic via Monarch Watch

Scientists, enthusiasts and butterfly watchers have been bemoaning the lack of Monarch butterflies on various listservs all year.  The Spring season was skimpy, and Fall doesn’t look any better.

“One of my monarch students, a 15-year-old budding biologist told me tonight that he’s seen NO sign of eggs nor larvae on hundreds of plants. He lives in a rural area; milkweed is abundant on roadsides, fields and his garden.”

                     –Debbie Jackson, Davisburg, MI, August 5

“There weren’t many Monarchs in Canada and the mid-west. I’ve been reading the butterfly counts that Don Davis has posted. Most listed zero Monarchs.”

                             –Mona Miller, Herndon, VA, July 20

 “Where are the Monarch butterflies?” asked the headline on a MSN News story August 7. “Michigan is missing its monarch butterflies. So are Delaware, Minnesota and Montreal,” it continued.  “We go out and are looking, looking, inspecting thoroughly,” Holli Ward, executive director of the Michigan Butterflies Project near Grand Rapids, told the Detroit Free Press….We have not seen a single egg or caterpillar.”

Monarch butterflies hit record lows nationwide,” read the headline of the Rockford Register Star in Illinois on July 26.

Our friend and founder of Monarch Watch Dr. Chip Taylor told the publication that the population crash can be attributed to weird weather in 2012, including one of the hottest, driest summers in decades. “The heat shortened the lifespan and lessened the egg-laying capacity of female monarchs,” Dr. Taylor explained.

I’m predicting a new worst year in history.

Cocoa on the Llano river

Cocoa could practically walk across the Llano River this weekend. Doesn’t bode well for nectar sources this fall. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Our drought marches on, dropping water tables, shrinking our rivers and the riparian systems that sustain them and no end seems in sight.  Cocoa, my loyal butterflying assistant pictured above, could just about walk across the Llano River this weekend without getting her feet wet.  This is a first and doesn’t bode well for sustaining the milkweed host and nectar sources Monarchs need to get to Mexico.

Goldenrod on the Llano

Goldenrod busted out in big blooms following a nice 3.5-inch rain. If it can stay robust another month, whatever Monarchs arrive will have plenty of nectar. Photo by Monika Maeckle

We did have some well-timed rains this month, however.   The rain gauge showed a stout 3.5 inches.  Blooming Goldenrod awaited ubiquitous Sulphurs and Swallowtails as occasional Queens mingled with the two solo Monarchs referenced earlier.  Scattered showers are predicted for next week, which may keep the blooms in shape until our first wave of migrants typically show up–around Labor Day.

Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata

Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, present but scrawnier and less abundant than usual. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, a Monarch host plant, also began its late summer bloom, in smaller stands and scrawnier than usual, but present nonetheless.  We found four eggs which could be either Queens or Monarchs.  We’ll keep you posted.

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