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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monarch butterfly population numbers. Graphic via Journey North

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

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

See you there.

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

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Here they come! Texas Hill Country ready for robust Monarch butterfly migration

Stands of flowering milkweed and late summer flowers await migrating Monarch butterflies in the Texas Hill Country this season. The iconic black and orange butterflies are projected to arrive here in about six weeks.

Got eggs? On the Llano River’s swamp milkweed, they’re everywhere. –Photo by Monika Maeckle

Every year around Labor Day, we get a small parade of Monarchs, what’s known as the “premigration migration.” This early pulse of butterflies, unlike later arrivals that suspend sexual activties to save their energy for the long trip to Mexico, are still reproductive and lay eggs on local milkweeds that hatch to become the final generation of migrating adults.

This weekend on the Llano River suggests an exceptional year. For the first time in 2017, I saw more Monarch butterflies than any other species, including Queens, which are regular visitors in September.

Swamp milkweed in full bloom greeted premigration Monarchs this weekend on the Llano. Photo by Monika Maeckle

About a dozen adult Monarch butterflies dipped between the Chigger Island sycamore trees, taking turns nectaring on the pink blooming stands of Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, before depositing eggs. Just before sunset on Sunday, two separate pairs of Monarchs passed our favorite pecan tree near the picnic spot locked in impressive courtship flights. In these stunning displays of stamina, the male firmly clasps the female with his pincers and lifts her into flight. The pair flies from bush to tree, locked in a butterfly embrace in a coupling that can last for hours.

Monarchs tagged on a Sunday in 2010, found mating on Monday. Photo by Monika Maeckle

In the file photo above, the butterflies pictured were tagged in my butterfly garden on Sunday, October 31, 2010.  Shortly thereafter, they were observed mating.  On November 1, they were spotted still locked in a reproductive dance–24 hours later.

All that coupling made eggs abundant this weekend. I noticed dozens while inspecting milkweed stands from my kayak, as did scientist David Berman of the Oklahoma State University. Berman stopped by to check in on the state of our milkweed habitat and count eggs, caterpillars and adults. He’s been monitoring two transects including dozens of milkweed plants along our stretch of river for about a year as a contractor on a study being conducted by Texas A & M University. In and around his 50-yard transect, Berman found 48 eggs and eight caterpillars in various stages, as well as several adult flyers. He arrived at our place from monitoring Monarchs in Abilene, where he said “Monarchs were everywhere.”

Egg at 11 o’clock about to hatch. See how the top is dark? Photo by Monika Maeckle

By my reckoning, if not taken by predators or disease, these eggs will hatch the first week in October, just in time to join the big pulse of Monarchs that typically move through the Texas Funnel during peak Monarch migration for our latitude. In San Antonio, 29 degrees, that happens October 10 – 22. Check your peak migration dates here.

Just a bit further south from us and close to the Llano’s headwaters, our sons Nicolas and Alexander Rivard kayaked the South Fork of the Llano River this weekend. They also reported dozens of Monarch sitings and a healthy river ecosystem poised for butterfly arrivals. Snow-on-the-mountain, goldenrod, water hemlock and late flowering boneset are putting on great shows right now.

Snow on the mountain occupies the Llano’s riverbanks. PHoto by Monika Maeckle

Our friends at Journey North, whose founder Elizabeth Howard will join us as a panelist on October 20 for our Butterflies without Borders Scientific Symposium in San Antonio, touted overnight roosts in Ontario as the migration takes flight from northern climes.

On the DPLEX list, the email list serve that includes about 800 Monarch butterfly scientists, citizen scientists and enthusiasts, reports are increasing in frequency and generally optimistic in tone.

On September 2, Matt Baumann of Iowa posted this report: “Adult numbers looking good here (Cedar Falls). Currently have over a dozen Monarchs at any given time in my yard feeding on meadow blazing star, zinnias, and Mexican sunflowers. More adult Monarchs than last year at this point in early Fall. Adults here now look very healthy and have their big ‘migration wings.”

Save the dates!

The Facebook Group, Monarchs Migrating Through Ontario posted myriad reports of butterfly sitings and tagging. Rosetta McClain Gardens in east Toronto, Canada shared this: “… Aug 29th we tagged 66 monarchs. Slow but steady! Today the Monarchs came early and just kept coming all day until about 3PM. 102 tagged today! A great day of tagging. More females are starting to show up! YTD 612 monarchs tagged!”

Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch, who will also join our Butterflies without Borders Symposium as a panelist, predicted a healthy turn in his most recent Monarch Butterfly Population status report. “In sum, this looks to be a good year for monarchs – with a stronger migration in most regions and a good prospect that the overwintering population will increase from the 2.91 hectares of last year to 4 hectares or better this coming winter,” Taylor wrote in July.

All signs suggest he’s right.

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

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

Mikey the Monarch at Zoo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Can’t get outside? Here’s how to track the Monarch butterfly migration from your desk

Monarch butterflies are on the move in what is likely to be a late migration.

Here in San Antonio, we’re entering peak migration time, as deemed by the calendar put together by Monarch Watch, the citizen science initiative that tracks the migrating insects. The calendar uses tagging data collected over decades to predict when the masses of Monarch butterflies are likely to move across specific latitudes on their way to Mexico.

The best way to enjoy the fun is to get outside as much as possible to see what’s going on with the famous flyers. But that’s not always possible. Work, school and/or other obligations always seem to get in the way.

Tagged Monarch butterfly

Won’t be long and Monarch butterflies will be passing throughout the Texas Funnel.  Check out the online tools that will help you track the migration.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Not to worry. By tapping the resources below, you’ll be able to stay on top of the Monarch butterfly migration right from your desk or mobile device.  Check out the cool tools available at the intersection of technology and (citizen) science listed below.

Journey North

First stop should be the Journey North website.  A free internet-based program that explores the interrelated aspects of seasonal change, Journey North tracks wildlife migrations including hummingbirds, whales and bald eagles.   This time of year, the Monarch migration gets top billing.  Journey North founder Elizabeth Howard told us that hundreds of thousands of people per month visit the site during Monarch migration season.

And with good reason.  Journey North offers constantly updated maps showing where adult Monarchs, eggs, caterpillars, and roosts have been spotted.  Photos and reports from citizen scientists, butterfly enthusiasts, professional photographers and academics populate the site, along with training and resources for teachers and others.

In last week’s map, below, overnight roosts were recently observed in North Texas.

Journey North 2016 map

Journey North tracks the migration weekly using data submitted by volunteer citizen scientists. Click on the map above to see latest migration status. –Map via Journey North

Journey North also publishes a weekly migration update on Thursdays, often written by founder Elizabeth Howard, like this one from October 6:  “A sudden and dramatic sweep into northern Texas occurred this week as the migration map shows. A river of wind carried monarchs by the thousands across Missouri and Oklahoma where a roost of 4,000 butterflies was reported — the largest of the season. On Friday, September 30, a dozen Texans reported in as a wave of butterflies arrived.

 Twitter

butterflyfest_300x600Using Twitter as a search engine is another great Monarch butterfly tracking tool. It provides real-time updates of Monarch butterfly sightings and offers a timely feed on

Monarch butterfly news, from many of my favorite sources–including Journey North and Monarch Watch.

Granted, not everyone uses Twitter, but an estimated 313+ million people and myriad organizations tap the free, real-time application as a search engine and personal or professional broadcast outlet.

That means you can visit http://search.twitter.com and punch in “monarch butterflies” or “monarch migration” or “tagged monarch butterfly” and dozens of hours-old “tweets”–brief 140-character updates—will be returned, telling you where Monarchs are flying RIGHT NOW.

For example, this search of “monarch butterflies” on Twitter today, retrieved a feed that included these beautiful photos.

screen-shot-2016-10-10-at-11-17-59-am

Twitter indexes the last 3200 tweets of any individual, so if you’re looking for historical archives, better check Google and other search engines. You can try searching Google News, but this won’t return the real-time reports Twitter delivers.  Check it out.

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. During Monarch season, I plot each weekend for maximum Monarch activity.

Before leaving town, I check the Wind Map, a fantastic tool that shows which way the winds are blowing.  If winds are coming out of the North, that means Monarchs will be riding the wave and we could have a big mass when they drop from the sky at sunset and roost for the night.

If winds are coming from the South, Monarchs won’t be moving much. That could mean they’re stranded in place, which could also make for good tagging since they will likely hang out and nectar on late blooming flowers.

screen-shot-2016-10-10-at-11-22-28-am

Check the wind map and see which way the winds are blowing. This tells us alot about how Monarchs can move south toward Mexico–or not. Screen grab via Wind Map

Either way, the map lets us know what’s coming.  Plus, it’s simply a dreamy tool, with it’s  visual articulation of nature’s breath expressed in real-time.

As the site descriptor says: “An invisible, ancient source of energy surrounds us—energy that powered the first explorations of the world, and that may be a key to the future. This map shows you the delicate tracery of wind flowing over the US.”

Wind map creators

Wind map creators Martin Wattenberg and Fernanda Viégas. Courtesy photo

The wind map is an art project of Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg who lead Google’s “Big Picture” visualization research group in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The talented team are committed to a “rigorous understanding of visualization” informed by their Ph.Ds–Viégas’ graduate degree from the MIT Media Lab; Wattenberg’s in mathematics, from U.C. Berkeley.

LOVE this project.

Monarch Watch and Journey North Facebook Pages

If you’re reading this and you’re on Facebook, then you likely have already “LIKED” the Monarch Watch and Journey North Facebook pages.  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 38,000 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 like Rachel Shoemaker form Bixby Oklahoma, recreational observers, and professional and amateur biologists and entomologists join the conversation.

screen-shot-2016-10-10-at-11-27-56-am

Screengrab via Facebook.

The Journey North Facebook page, with more than 24,000 fans is equally engaging.  Journey North posts regular updates and visitors like Peggyanne Wink in Pennsylvania share sightings and observations (see below).

screen-shot-2016-10-10-at-12-23-40-pm

Screengrab via Facebook.

Numerous other Monarch butterfly pages have cropped up on Facebook in recent months, including this one that tracks Migrant Monarch Tag Reports. The page is a closed group, meaning you have to request access. It describes itself as a page “created for those people who find tagged monarch migrants. Take a picture if you can of the tag number or post the tag number so people can track their tagged monarchs. Please only post about tagged monarchs you’ve witnessed or found.”

Monarch Watch Website

Journey North devotes itself to wildlife migrations besides Monarch butterflies, 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.

tagged recovered Monarch

Thanks to Monarch Watch and the miracles of social media, I was able to determine that this ragged fellow, netted at the Texas Butterfly Ranch on October 1, 2016 on the Llano River near London, Texas, was tagged in southern Oklahoma. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Thanks to Monarch Watch, I was able to determine that the butterfly I netted on October 1 this year had been tagged in Tishomingo, Oklahoma nine days earlier.  Pretty cool story–read it here.

The site 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 and you can join thousands of others to get on the mailing list.

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 800 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. Sometimes exchanges devolve into rude online arguments. I’ve set up all D-PLEX emails to forward to a special email box that I check periodically, 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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Climate change expert Dr. Katherine Hayhoe at TribuneFest: “Hopelessness is hopeless”

Dr. Katherine Hayhoe, one of the foremost experts in the world on climate change, appeared at the Texas Tribune Festival this weekend in a one-on-one interview with Neena Satija,  the news organization’s environmental and investigative reporter.

27-credit-artielimmer-texastechuniversity

Climate change expert Dr. Katherine Hayhoe will join us at our Climate Change and the Monarch Butterfly Migration Symposium in San Antonio October 21 -Photo by Artie LImmer, Texas Tech University

Since Dr. Hayhoe will be joining us at our Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival October 20 -22 as a speaker at our climate change symposium, I thought I’d sit in on the session to get a preview of what we might hear from her next month. Tickets available here.

Hayhoe did not disappoint. But first, a bit of background.

Born in Ontario, Canada, she “grew up with Monarch butterflies,” she told me after her appearance. She was raised as an evangelical Christian and climate skeptic.

butterflyfest_300x600Now, as an atmospheric scientist, Hayhoe serves as an associate professor and director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University with a B.Sc. in Physics from the University of Toronto and an M.S. and Ph.D. in Atmospheric Science from the University of Illinois. She devotes herself to developing and applying climate projections to understand what climate change means for people and the natural environment. As a lead author for the Second and Third U.S. National Climate Assessments, she has conducted climate impact studies for a broad cross-section of organizations, cities and regions, from Boston to Texas to California.

“I am also the founder and CEO of ATMOS Research, where we bridge the gap between scientists and stakeholders to provide relevant, state-of-the-art information on how climate change will affect our lives,” Hayhoe states on her website.

This bridge building becomes most interesting when Hayhoe taps into her identity as an evangelical Christian married to a pastor–not the typical profile of a climate change activist. She and her husband Andrew Farley, a professor of applied linguistics and best-selling author, wrote A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions, a book that untangles the complex science of climate change while tackling long-held misconceptions.

This defying of the stereotype gives Hayhoe a unique ability to talk about climate change in a way people can hear and understand.

Satija Hayhoe

Neena Satija interviews Dr. Katherine Hayhoe at the Texas Tribune Festival. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Referring to the “earth’s fever,” on Saturday at Calhoun Hall on the University of Texas at Austin campus, she pointed out how the values that drive people to do things big and small to combat client change are the same values upon which every major religion in the world are founded–taking responsibility, caring about the future our children will face, and caring for the poor, for example.

“Hopelessness as a policy is hopeless,” Hayhoe said. “Hope is what keeps us going as humans.”

She added that the poor and the vulnerable are the human populations most effected by climate change. Native Americans in Alaska and Louisiana have been displaced and are the first climate change refugees “because their land is sinking,” into the rising oceans, she said.

climate change hayhoe book

Hayhoe’s book, coauhored with her husband Dr. Andrew Farley, unravels misconceptions about climate change. Courtesy photo

But Hayhoe’s primary message was one of hope. She cited the progress and actions cities are taking across the country to fight climate change–planting more trees, reducing pavement, concrete and other impervious cover, creating green roofs to help reduce temperatures in urban heat islands.

She praised British Colombia’s carbon fee dividend program–whereby companies and individuals charge a fee for greenhouse gas emissions, which are then refunded to taxpayers as a dividend. “China’s 2015 coal emissions dropped for the first time. They have more wind and solar than anyone,” she said.

She encouraged those advocating to combat climate change to “leave the science behind” and talk about something that touches people’s hearts.

“To talk to people about climate change, don’t start with the science, talk about something that is personal to them,” said Hayhoe. “We must be able to connect where our heart is, not just where our head is.”

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Llano River: Late season nectar plants await Monarch butterfly migration

Conditions were ideal along the Llano River last weekend with sprays of late season nectar plants poised for the arrival of Monarch butterflies in what is predicted to be a down year for their migration.

male monarch swamp

Late season nectar plants like Swamp milkweed and Goldenrod await migrating Monarchs. The early male visited us on the Llano River last weekend. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Sprays of Goldenrod, Frostweed, Swamp milkweed and other late bloomers graced the river banks and surrounding watershed while migration forecasters called for a setback.

On March 8, a freak spring ice storm brought ice, snow and dramatic winds to the Oyamel forest where the Monarchs roost each winter. Just as they were heading north to lay the first generation of eggs in Texas, the storm destroyed 135 acres of forest and killed an estimated 6.2 million butterflies – about 7.4% of the 84 million roosting at that particular preserve, Mexico’s Attorney General for Environmental Protection Alejandro Del Mazo recently told the Associated Press.

Monarch cat on swamp

Hangin’ out on the Llano. Monarch butterfly caterpillars and eggs were abundant last weekend on the Llano River. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The squall set the 2016 season off to a bad start and will likely result in a setback to the threefold population increase the Monarchs enjoyed last year, scientists suggest.

Mother Nature’s deadly blow has hit especially hard here in San Antonio, the nation’s first Monarch Butterfly Champion City, so named by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF).

In the past year, here and elsewhere, the migrating orange-and-black insects have never enjoyed more fame and fortune, as government and educational institutions have increased pollinator habitat, earmarked millions for research on milkweed – the insects’ host plant – and raised public awareness of Monarchs and other pollinators to unprecedented heights.

Mayor Ivy Taylor shows off her Monarch butterfly earrings in City Council chambers. Photo by Monika Maeckle.

Mayor Ivy Taylor shows off her Monarch butterfly earrings in City Council chambers. Photo by Monika Maeckle.

“I know how much we all look forward to seeing the majestic Monarchs every year, and it saddens me to think that their population has been impacted so dramatically by the ice storm in Mexico,” said Mayor Ivy Taylor, who signed the NWF’s Mayor’s Monarch Pledge on Dec. 9 last year. “However, we will keep working to provide them with a safe haven here in San Antonio.”

Chip Taylor, Ph.D., founder of Monarch Watch, predicted in his annual summer Monarch Population Status blog post that 2016 would likely be comparable to 2014. The last three years have been closely monitored by Monarch aficionados: In 2013, the population dropped to 33.5 million butterflies, the lowest since records have been kept; in 2014, it increased to 56.5 million; and last year 200.5 million butterflies were recorded.

In 2015, President Obama released a National Pollinator Strategy that set out to increase the Monarch population to 225 million – the historic 20-year average.

The iconic insects make one of the most remarkable annual migrations on the planet, traveling up to 2,800 miles from Mexico through the United States to Canada and back over multiple generations.

Monarch migration champion map

Monarch butterflies move through San Antonio coming and going in the spring and fall on the annual multigeneration migration. Graphic by Nicolas Rivard.

Their journey starts in March, where they spend the winter in the Oyamel fir forests. After a cue from the sun, they head to Texas where they lay their first generation of eggs on milkweed plants – the only plant they use to breed. Those eggs hatch into caterpillars who then grow into butterflies that continue the cycle over the summer, with fourth or fifth generation butterflies returning to Mexico in the fall to overwinter, despite never having been to the specific roosting site where their ancestors launched the journey. The following spring, those butterflies begin the cycle anew.

Glum predictions aside, conditions could not be more perfect in Texas to welcome the migrating butterflies this fall.

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Each year around Labor Day we see the first trickle of Monarchs, or what’s called the ‘pre-migration migration’ – a vanguard of reproductive Monarch butterflies that lay eggs which will hatch and become the final generation of migrating adults.

Last weekend, half a dozen adult Monarch butterflies showed up right on cue along the Llano River in the Texas Hill Country. Even more interesting, dozens of caterpillars and eggs were spotted on the Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, a Monarch butterfly host plant, and suggested that Monarchs had been passing through in the preceding weeks. Three late stage caterpillars literally hung out on the Llano, preparing to bust their stripes and go chrysalis.

Goldenrod, Purple mistflower, White boneset, Snow-on-the-prairie, Frostweed–all late season nectar plants that the butterflies use as fuel stops, exhibited their showy sprays along the Llano River and elsewhere in the Texas Hill Country over Labor Day weekend. Bees, wasps, moths, beetles, and aphids were seen in large numbers, following a series of rain events that followed a scorching South Texas summer.

A male Monarch butterfly nectars on Swamp milkweed along the Llano River in the Texas Hill Country as part of the "pre-migration migration." Photo by Monika Maeckle

A male Monarch butterfly nectars on Swamp milkweed along the Llano River in the Texas Hill Country as part of the “pre-migration migration.” Photo by Monika Maeckle.

A quick survey of local Monarch Watchers had few sightings to report.

“Nothing to report in Comfort yet,” said Monarch Watch Education Outreach Specialist Cathy Downs. Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project volunteer Mary Kennedy said the same thing. Master Naturalist Drake White, who manages the Phil Hardberger Park butterfly garden and runs the Nectar Bar, a Facebook page devoted to helping people raise butterflies, reported two Monarch sightings. Local botanist and landscaper Charles Bartlett of Greenhaven Industries reported seeing one Monarch locally.

Sightings throughout the spring and summer have been slim, with the freak sleet storm taking most of the blame for the Monarchs’ absence.  Read more here.

To determine peak migration time for your area, consult the Monarch Watch website or Journey North.  In San Antonio, at 29 degrees latitude, we’re looking at seeing the butterflies sometime in late October.

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US Fish and Wildlife Service gets three more years to evaluate Monarch butterfly ESA status

A Washington DC Court yesterday awarded the US Fish and Wildlife Service three more years to evaluate whether or not the Monarch butterfly should be listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act in a settlement between the government agency and the Center for Food Safety (CFS) and the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD).

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Three more years: That’s how long USFWS will get to determine if this guy should be listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The settlement also called for reimbursement of reasonable attorneys’ fees for the two environmental groups who initiated the lawsuit.

In August of 2014, CFS, CBD, the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, and Dr. Lincoln Brower petitioned the Service to list the Monarch butterfly as a “threatened.” On Dec. 31, 2014, USFWS published a 90-day finding that listing the Monarch might be warranted, and initiated a status review of the species. The Service then failed to rule on the petition by the statutory 12-month deadline.

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The complex, convoluted ESA listing process: we are still caught in the second blue bubble from the top. Courtesy graphic

As a result, in March 2016, CBD and CSF filed a complaint against the Service. Yesterday’s settlement is the Court’s answer to that complaint.

The CBD saw the three-year extension as a positive development.

“In the big picture of slow-cogged bureaucracy, a wait of three years is, relatively speaking, a good outcome,” said Tierra Curry, senior scientist for CBD, adding that many species have had to wait decades for a protection decision.

The scene at Chincua two weeks after the storm. Photo by Dr. Isabel Ramíro

A freak ice and wind storm blew through the Preserve in March, just as Monarchs were taking flight on their journey north.  Photo by Dr. Isabel Ramíro

Curry cited threats to the Monarch: milkweed loss, logging in Mexico, the proposed mine in the Monarch Biosphere Reserve, and high mortality and habitat damage caused by a freak winter storm in March that swept through the reserve just as many Monarchs were taking flight on their journey north.

“I would like to see them gain protection sooner rather than later,” she said.

Read the CBD’s press release.

USFWS viewed the settlement as a pragmatic move.

“The settlement provides the least costly alternative to a court case the Service would have had no grounds to contest,” read a statement issued by USFWS spokesperson. “It commits the Service to submit to the Federal Register a 12-month finding for the Monarch butterfly by June 30, 2019, thereby providing a realistic timeframe for the Service to evaluate carefully whether this species warrants protection under the ESA.”

The USFWS statement also noted that the settlement “does not predetermine the Service’s decision, which must be based solely on what the best available science prescribes.”

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New study: nectar plants more important than milkweed for Monarch butterfly migration

A research paper published April 27 in the journal Oikos is causing a stir in the Monarch butterfly world.  The paper challenges the conventional wisdom that the major cause of the decline of the Monarch butterfly migration is a lack of milkweed tied to the increased adoption of herbicide tolerant crops in the butterflies’ midwestern breeding grounds.

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

Migrating Monarch butterflies nectar on Frostweed in the Texas Hill Country, October, 2011. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Dr. Anurag Agrawal and his team of researchers at Cornell University tackle this widely held assumption in their recent paper, “Linking the continental migratory cycle of the monarch butterfly to understand its population decline.”  Agrawal suggests that the emphasis on milkweed may be misplaced and that solutions addressing habitat fragmentation, and most interesting and relevant to Texas, late season nectar plants should receive more attention.

“Planting milkweed is probably not a bad thing to do but it’s not going to increase their population or save them from some demise,” said Dr. Agrawal in a nine-minute video titled “Beyond milkweed:  Monarchs face habitat, nectar threats.” The video, below, was released in conjunction with the paper.

“Milkweed is probably not the limiting thing for the Monarch population,” he said.  “Perhaps planting milkweed will not improve or increase the populations as much as we thought in the past.”

Calling the decline of the Monarch butterfly migration a “very very gnarly problem,”  Agrawal gave kudos to citizen scientists for their involvement in the study and said more than once that  we must “get the science right.”

“We must identify the key weak points. It is absolutely critical.  If we don’t, we could be investing a lot of effort into conserving a portion of the migration but it may have ultimately no impact conserving the species overall,” he said.

Agrawal and his team matched Monarch butterfly counts made by citizen scientists and others to the different stages of the migration.   After doing so, they found that counts were not down until the end of the migratory cycle, when the butterflies started heading south.

“By the time they get to Mexico, their numbers are plummeting,” said Agrawal, “but at the end of the summer, when they start that migration, their numbers are not down.”

The research underscores the different needs of the species at the different stages of their life cycle.

In early spring, as Monarchs move north through the Texas funnel, they need milkweed on which to lay the first generation of eggs.  They continue to need milkweed through the summer as subsequent generations reproduce as they move north.

But in the fall when the Monarchs are heading south, they don’t need milkweed since they enter their reproductive diapause–that is, a temporary stage in which they postpone sexual activities and save their energy to migrate to Mexico.  At this point, they need water, ample nectar sources, trees or other protection at night for roosting, and connected habitats.

Monarch on Swamp milkweed

It’s not just about the milkweed.  Monarch butterfly on Swamp milkweed in downtown San Antonio, September 2014. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Agrawal’s point is well taken.  Immense focus has been devoted on increasing the Monarch butterfly host plant, milkweed.  Milkweed, anything in the Asclepias family, is necessary in the early stages of the migration when the Monarchs are reproductive.  But what about later in the game, when Monarchs are NOT reproductive?  They require nectar to fuel their flight.  Agrawal and his colleagues suggest that late season nectar plants and perhaps interconnected habitats–ie, pollinator corridors–would make their continuous route south more doable.

University of Georgia ecologist Dr. Andy Davis made a similar point last year when he spoke to the Washington Post. Davis challenged the idea of basing the Monarch butterfly population census on counting the number of hectares in Mexico occupied by the migrating creatures each winter.

Monarch caterpillars on Milkweed

Monarchs caterpillars eat only milkweed, but Monarch butterflies will nectar indiscriminately. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“If you were charged with figuring out how many people are participating in the Boston Marathon each year, you wouldn’t count the number of people who cross the finish line,” said Davis.  “For many years we’ve been counting the finishing Monarchs in Mexico….We’ve been doing it backwards.”

What Dr. Agrawal says about nectar plants makes sense, especially for Texas.

Think about it:  as Monarchs migrate south in the fall through the Texas funnel, they are  not reproductive. Their goal during this part of the migratory cycle is to fuel up on late season nectar plants and build up their body fat so they can make it to Mexico and survive the winter.  There, in early March of the following spring, they will leave their mountain roosts to mate, lay eggs on milkweed, and start the cycle all over again.

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Monarch nectaring on Duranta at Texas Butterfly Ranch urban butterfly garden, downtown San Antonio, November 2015. Photo by Monika Maeckle

That suggests that in the fall in Texas, there really is no need for milkweed for migratory Monarchs.  In fact, one could argue (and many scientists have) that having milkweed available late in the season will encourage Monarchs to break their diapause and reproduce, thus never arriving in Mexico.  This also suggests what Monarchs DO need in the fall: late season nectar sources.

The point is important and timely, given that millions of dollars in conservation funding and grants are being awarded as we speak. Should those grants and initiatives be focused on cultivating more milkweed or developing more sources and locations for late season nectar plants?

In much of Texas, called “the most important state” to the migration by Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch and others, the fall garden trumps the abbreviated spring garden season.  Temperatures climb into triple digits so early here that it’s challenging to grow many fruits, vegetables and flowers until the fall when things cool off.  In such a context, and given the timing of the Monarchs arrival here in the fall, late season perennial blooming plants should be encouraged.   We are well-suited to provide them.

Goldenrod Llano River

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

Need ideas?  Try Goldenrod, Frostweed, Autumn sage, Late flowering boneset, Asters, Cowpen daisy in your fall garden if you want to help Monarchs.  In my downtown San Antonio butterfly garden last year, Duranta, sometimes called Brazilian skyflower, was a big draw for Monarchs and other pollinators.  It’s not native, but a well adapted flowering bush–and highly appropriate, fantastic plant.

Monarch Watch offers this super useful list of appropriate nectar plants by season. The Xerces Society also has a guide for useful pollinator friendly plants.  And the Pollinator Partnership offers plant guides for every region in the country.

Scientists will continue this debate.  Dr. Chip Taylor recently took Dr. Agrawal’s paper to task in a rebuttal paper, “Conclusion of No Decline in Summer Monarch Population Not Supported” and Dr. Davis rebutted the rebuttal on his highly educational Monarch science blog.

Meanwhile, those of us in Texas should plan and plant late season bloomers.  Doing so will offer the bonus of providing fuel and sustenance not only for Monarchs but other pollinators.

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At least 1.5 million Monarch butterflies perish in deadly ice storm in Michoacán

At least 1.5 million Monarch butterflies were hit with a deadly freeze this weekend as an unusual ice and wind storm moved through the mountains of Michoacán where the butterflies roost for the winter.   The storm hit just as the spring migration was beginning.   Luckily, many butterflies exited the mountains before the freeze arrived.

Frozen monarch butterflies

Preliminary estimates suggest 1.5 million Monarch butterflies froze to death in the recent ice storm in Michoacán. Photo via Monarca via  Facebook

Exactly how many butterflies perished in the freeze remains uncertain. An Associated Press report sounded upbeat, with Mexican authorities stating that “Monarch butterflies that winter in the mountains west of Mexico City survived the severe cold snap that hit the area this week.”

But the Mexican news agency El Universal on Saturday quoted Homero Gómez González, president of the administrative council that oversees the El Rosario butterfly sanctuary, as saying that 1.5 Monarch butterflies froze to death–about 3% of the estimated 50 million roosting.

According to Gomez Gonazaléz, the recent freeze registered temperatures of -12 degrees Celsius (about 10 Fahrenheit). Other reports had winds raging up to 50 miles per hour, leaving 13 inches of snow on the ground in some areas and taking out dozens of trees.  Those living in the area were without electricity for days and hundreds of lamb and sheep were lost.

“Historic snowfall at the El Rosario sanctuary,” read the headline of the el Rosario Facebook page on Thursday, March 10. “The Monarch butterfly suffers wind, snow, rain and sleet.” The post was accompanied by photos showing several inches of snow on the ground.

The news whipsawed those who follow Monarch butterfly news.  Monarch fans had been celebrating the much-anticipated announcement in February that the population of the migrating orange-and-black insects had tripled since last year.  Reports of the devastating freeze underscored the brutal reminder that Mother Nature is in charge.

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of citizen science group Monarch Watch, which tags the butterflies during their fall migration, weighed in from Kansas.

“Information is still sketchy about the degree of butterfly mortality,” Dr. Taylor told the  DPLEX list, an email listserv of about 800 butterfly aficionados.

Dozens of trees were lost in the storm.

Dozens of trees were also lost in the storm. Photo by Homero Gómez Gonzalez via Facebook.

“Most claims, observations and images suggest that mortality is low to moderate,” said Dr. Taylor.  “There is no evidence to date to indicate levels of catastrophic mortality (70-80%) that followed the winter storms of 2002 and 2004.” he said, adding that it will take at least a week to get more accurate information on the number of butterflies lost.

Taylor also reminded readers that “a significant portion of the population had already left” the roosting sites prior to the storm.

Dr. Lincoln Brower, who has studied Monarchs his entire life and is one of a group who submitted a petition to have the butterflies listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, seemed less optimistic.

“The current statements that the Monarchs have survived the storm are premature,” wrote Dr. Brower via email in response to the Associated Press story.  “I fear that optimistic assumptions are driving the news reports.”

Like Dr. Taylor, Brower cautioned that time will tell the accurate mortality counts.

“Based on our study of the 2002 storm, the butterflies that are killed or irreversibly damaged keep falling out of their clusters for days after the freezing event. Mortality counts need to be made at least a week after the storm.”

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Late season Monarch butterflies create gardening quandary

It’s mid November and Monarch butterflies continue to visit my San Antonio pollinator garden.  Lighting on Cowpen daisy, Duranta, Gregg’s Purple mist flower and several kinds of milkweed, the butterflies have extended their visits long past their usual late October stay.

Monarch on duranta

Nov. 12,. 2015: Monarchs still visiting my San Antonio garden, this one on Duranta. Photo by Monika Maeckle

That’s not to say we don’t sometimes have Monarchs visiting this late in the season. We do.  In fact, we’ve had many questions from folks up north about what to do with late hatching Monarchs when the weather turns cold. A previous post addresses that. But I don’t ever recall having this many Monarch butterflies this late, and so consistently.

“Yesterday, I saw hundreds of Monarchs in Austin,” wrote John Barr of Native Cottage Gardens in Austin on November 1 in a post to the DPLEX list, the old school email listserv that reaches about 800 butterfly enthusiasts.  ” I saw more Monarchs in 30 minutes than I’ve seen all year. Bright, fresh, long-winged migrating Monarchs of both sexes.”

Monarchs were even spotted recently as far north as Lake Erie, according to Darlene Burgess of Point Pelee, Leamington, Ontario. “There are still Monarchs being seen in Ontario on Lake Erie’s north shore. This week’s warm temps up to 70° should get them south across the lake,” she wrote November 2 on the DPLEX list.

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Late season blooms continue to attract Monarchs and other pollinators to my urban San Antonio garden. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Our friends at the Natural Gardener in Austin, which stocks several kinds of native milkweeds, said they’ve had a steady stream of Monarchs visiting as well. “They LOVE the Duranta,” said Curt Alston, buyer for the organic nursery. Alston added that he has plenty of caterpillars and chyrsalises on the native milkweeds, and that adult Monarchs are still breezing through the aisles.

What gives?

Climate change.  September 2015 was the hottest month in recorded history.  October ranked the fourth hottest.  Overall, 2015 is likely to be the hottest year ever, says the New York Times.

Warmer temps mean extended growing seasons.  Plants that typically wouldn’t thrive when fall arrives will continue to grow and bloom, creating more nectar for migrating Monarchs, and in some cases, host plant.

Increased temperatures also mean that Monarch butterflies will likely break their diapause–that is, their asexual state of resisting reproductive activities so as to conserve energy for migrating to Mexico.   Once Monarchs reproduce, they don’t migrate.

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Breaking diapause increases the chances of more year-round Monarch butterfly colonies. Map via Monarch Joint Venture

“We’ve got to get used to the late Octobers and Novembers as part of our future,” said Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, the citizen scientist tagging program operated by the University of Kansas at Lawrence.

Taylor predicts that a larger proportion of these late Monarchs will be unable to maintain their diapause and become reproductive.  “Their hormones work on the basis of temperature.  It’s very delicate and complicated,” he said via phone.  “The warmer it is, the more likely it is the Monarch will not be able to maintain a diapause.”

Hmm.  So where does that leave butterfly gardeners?  Should we encourage egg laying with native or clean Tropical milkweed, or just let all those good eggs go to waste?

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Tropical milkweed: cut it to the ground in the fall to prevent build-up of OE spores. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Research from scientists like doctoral student Dara Satterfield and Dr. Sonia Altizer out of the University of Georgia indicates that the year-round availability of Tropical milkweed makes Monarchs more prone to contracting Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, a debilitating protozoan parasite commonly known as OE in Monarch butterfly circles.  Since OE spores transfer via physical contact between creatures or the plants on which they rest or eat, having year-round milkweed which is visited repeatedly by Monarchs and other butterflies creates a hotbed of these nasty spores and spreads the disease.

Satterfield, et al, suggest hard-to-find native milkweeds should be planted rather than the technically nonnative Tropical milkweed, which is widely available and easy to grow.  Best practice dictates close management of Tropical milkweed.   Cut it to the ground late in the season so OE spores don’t build up and infect migrating Monarchs.

Cowpen daisy

Cowpen daisy: Monarch and pollinator favorite and blooms into fall. Photo by Monika Maeckle

But what about all the other plants that Monarchs frequent?  In my yard, the native Swamp milkweed continues to thrive and various nectar sources have been repeatedly visited by Monarchs and other butterflies since April.  As the Natural Gardener’s Curt Alston said above, Monarchs are loving the lush, purple bloom of Duranta that laces my fence perimeter.  They also repeatedly visit my golden-yellow, late season Cowpen daisies.

Wouldn’t these plants also host the same debilitating OE spores so closely associated with late season Tropical milkweed after so many return visits from Monarchs?   Should we cut those plants down as well, to avoid infecting visiting flyers?

Scientists, what say you?

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