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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Monarch Tagged With Dr. Lincoln Brower in 2011 Texas Drought Recovered at El Rosario

The same week I saw my FOS (First of Season) Monarch butterfly, more happy news came my way in the wake of the recent dreary Monarch butterfly population report.

From the Texas Hill Country to Michoacan!  MJR894 was recovered on the florest floor and reported last week.  The butterfly was tagged on October 11, 2011 with Dr. Lincoln Brower.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

From the Texas Hill Country to Michoacan! Monarch MJT894 was recovered on the forest floor here and reported last week. The butterfly was tagged on October 11, 2011, at the height of the Texas drought with Dr. Lincoln Brower.      Photo by Monika Maeckle

One of 34 butterflies we tagged during the historic Texas drought of 2011 while on a field trip with Dr. Lincoln Brower was recently recovered at El Rosario sanctuary in Michoacan.  The particular butterfly, MJT 894, was tagged at a private springs among the late season Frostweed at the Whispering Waters Ranch.

Tienes "steekers?"  Native folks are paid $5 each for recovered Monarch tags, often called "stickers."   Photo by Monika Maeckle

Tienes “steekers?” Native people are paid $5 each for recovered Monarch tags, often called “stickers.” Photo by Monika Maeckle

The news arrived via an email on the DPLEX list, a listserv that reaches hundreds of butterfly enthusiasts, scientists and academics.  Diane Pruden, who recently returned from a visit to the Monarch sanctuaries in Michoacan, Mexico, shared the news topped with the subject line:  “More tags from Mexico.”  While unpacking from her trip, “Low and behold, I found more tags that were not included in earlier Emails,” she wrote.  “So, attached is another list of tags from El Rosario.”

For those unaware, the people of Michoacan are paid about $5 per butterfly tag found on the recovered bodies of dead butterflies of the floor of the Michoacan forest.   Visitors are often approached by native people and offered “steekers,” a Spanish pronunciation of “stickers” which are how the tags are often identified there.   Visitors then share the tag numbers with Monarch Watch to assist in gathering data for their Monarch tag recovery database.

Here's what the drought map looked like the day our MJT 894 was tagged.  Courtesy graphic

Here’s what the drought map looked like the day our MJT 894 was tagged. Courtesy graphic

About a week after Prudden’s email, Singleton responded that after checking her logs, she realized that nine of the tags on the new list had been Monarchs tagged during an October 7 – 13 stay in the Hill Country, at the tail end of the historic 2011 Texas drought.

All nine were from Menard County in Texas, and MJT 894 was tagged 10/10/11 at Whispering Waters Ranch “along a natural spring that did not dry up in the Texas drought,” said Singleton.   “Lincoln Brower and Kip (Kiphart) were collecting specimens at this spot with us that day.”

Dr. Brower had made a field trip to Texas that brutal Texas fall.  Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project volunteer extraordinaire Kip Kiphart had contacted me to see if we might be able to take Brower out into the campo to see  butterflies in their natural setting in the Texas funnel flyway.  I was glad to oblige.

My first call was to Jenny Singleton, a dear friend who wrangled me into this whole butterfly seduction way back in 2005 by inviting me to “come tag Monarchs” at her place on the San Saba River.  Singleton is involved in Monarch outreach in Grapevine, Texas, and helps organize the annual Grapevine Flutterby Festival.  She also spends alot of time at her ranch where she pursues Monarchs and myriad naturalist interests.

Austin entomologist Mike Quinn also joined us on that fall outing, and took many photos, some of which you’ll see below.   We first went to our special stretch of the Llano River, and later visited the Whispering Waters Ranch Resort…..well, I’ll just let you read the story below.   What a great day it was.

On the Llano River: Assessing Texas Drought and Chasing Monarch Butterflies with the Legendary Dr. Lincoln Brower

It felt like a Monarch butterfly dream team visited the Texas Butterfly Ranch yesterday: four Monarch butterfly devotees–two scientists and two veteran Monarch taggers–accompanied Monarch butterfly scientist Dr. Lincoln Brower for a tour of the Texas Hill Country to collect specimens that would help assess the impact of the Texas drought on Monarch butterflies and their migration.  What a great excuse to take off work!

Monarch Butterfly Texas Team

Monarch Butterfly Dream Team: Kip Kiphart, Jenny Singleton, Dr. Lincoln Brower, Monika Maeckle, Mike Quinn

A student of Monarch butterflies for more than 65 years, Dr. Brower knows as much about the migrating creatures as anyone on the planet. Equally impressive is the 80 year-old’s physical stamina and untainted enthusiasm for the insect that has captivated him since he was a graduate student at Yale and snapped the famous “barfing blue-jay” photos that proved Monarch butterflies don’t taste good.

Dr. Lincoln' Brower's Barfing Blue Jay

Dr. Brower’s “barfing Blue Jay” proved Monarchs don’t taste good

Joining our butterfly chasing dream team were Mike Quinn, Texas  Monarch Watch coordinator and former statewide entomologist for Texas Parks and Wildlife, Kip Kiphart, award-winning volunteer manager/trainer for the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project at Cibolo Creek Nature Center in Boerne, and Jenny Singleton, a dear friend, teacher and fellow tagger who looped me into Monarch mania back in 2005.   While Jenny and I hold no PhDs, we DID hold our own, making all citizen scientists proud by delivering dozens of live Monarch butterflies to Brower for his drought experiment.

Dr. Brower flew into San Antonio this week with the goal of observing the drought firsthand and collecting specimens to take back to his lab in Virginia. There, he will freeze and dry them, extract and weigh their fat,  and assess their health and chances of surviving at their winter roosts in the mountains of Michoacan.

We started our day on the Llano River,  between Mason and Junction.  With a cloudy sky, not much was flying, but we netted six.

Brower quickly appraised each butterfly–“skinny,” “fat,” “she looks pretty good,” “porker”–taking copious notes in a charming old-school notebook while deftly folding them into waxed paper envelopes for storage in an icechest.  He also shared new ways to determine male from female butterflies without unfolding their wings (males have obvious pincers on their rearends) and how to tell if a female is carrying eggs (she has a “bead” in her abdomen which you can feel when gripping her gently).

Next: a stop in Menard at the beautiful Whispering Water Ranch Resort, where the generous Carolyn Dippel led us to a spring-fed pond rimmed with dinosaur tracks and tall, white Frostweed.  There we tagged another 34 butterflies, all nectaring on the late season bloomer.  Quinn, Singleton and I left the tour here, as Brower and Kiphardt continued on to Junction for a visit to the liatris fields at Native American Seed company where 40 more butterflies were gathered.

“When someone gets the Monarch bug, they’re bit hard,” remarked Dr. Brower. No argument here.  I look forward to reading the results of his study.

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Faded FOS Monarch Butterfly Lays Eggs in San Antonio Despite Dreary Population Reports

My first day of earnest butterfly gardening of 2013 met with a sweet surprise:  my FOS (First of Season) Monarch butterfly, Sunday, March 17.

And, it was a faded female, fluttering in my mulched front yard garden, lighting from one Tropical milkweed plant to another.  In her wake, about a dozen creamy, white Monarch eggs were deposited on the undersides of select leaves.  I retrieved a handful for safekeeping inside.

FOS Monarch butterfly

WELCOME! FOS Monarch butterfly, a female, met me in the garden on Sunday.                                  Photo by Monika Maeckle

The sight was especially reassuring given that we just endured the worst news in history on Monarch butterfly numbers this week.   The official report from the World Wildlife Fund preserves in Michoacan, Mexico, confirmed what many of us had suspected for 2012.

Monarch egg on Tropical mlkweed

She left about a dozen creamy white eggs on the tenderest milkweed leaves she could find.      Photo by Monika Maeckle

The migrating butterflies occupied a mere 2.93 acres (1.19 hectares) of Oyamel forest in Mexico, the smallest recorded population in history. The number represents a 59% drop,  down from 7.14 acres (2.89 hectares) last year and the lowest population since record keeping began 20 years ago.  During the 1990s, the amount of forest typically occupied by Monarch butterflies averaged more than 20 acres.

Here's a close-up.  Never mind the dirty fingernails.  This egg is coming inside for safekeeping!  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Here’s a close-up. Never mind the dirty fingernails. This egg is coming inside for safekeeping! Photo by Monika Maeckle

Why is anyone surprised?  Climate change, drought, wildfires, illegal logging in Mexico, and pervasive pesticides have brewed a perfect storm that threatens the continuation of the magnificent Monarch  migration. Genetically modified crops leave our heartland void of milkweed, the Monarch host plant, starving the migrants of the only food that feeds their caterpillars.

Screen Shot 2013-03-18 at 2.13.43 PM

Passage: the Decline of Monarch butterflies via CBS news.

Our friend Dr. Lincoln Brower co-authored an op-ed piece with Homer Aridjis, a Mexican author and former ambassador, for the New York Times headlined:  “The Winter of the Monarch.”  “Today the winter monarch colonies, which are found west of Mexico City, in an area of about 60 miles by 60 miles, are a pitiful remnant of their former splendor,” wrote Brower, who has been studying Monarchs for decades.

Scientists see ominous decline in Mexico’s Monarch butterflies,” read the headline topping an AP story that ran on NBC news’ webpage and many other news sites.   The listservs and Facebook exploded with angst from butterfly fans.

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

“Bad omen: More than half of the monarch butterflies in Mexico have gone missing,”  tweeted Steve Silberman, as scores of others chimed in to express their dismay.  The Monarch Watch Facebook page posted the news and dozens of comments resulted.   “Terrible news” and “So sad” typified responses, along with myriad calls to plant more milkweed.
Just keep doing your thing, girl. She laid about 10 eggs on Sunday. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Just keep doing your thing, girl. She laid about 12 eggs on Sunday. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“All in all, it was not a good year for monarchs,” said Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, in his response to the report.

Yet…thinning my thick patch of Cowpen daisies to make more room for milkweed, I couldn’t help but marvel at the tenacity required for this small, slight creature to have traveled so far to complete her life cycle.   More than 850 miles. Faded, fluttering, she sought just a few good leaves for her babies.   She didn’t give up.

And we shouldn’t either.

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Tropical Milkweed: To Plant it or Not, it’s Not a Simple Question

Dara Satterfield SM

Dara Satterfield, PhD Candidate at the University of Georgia, is studying Monarch butterflies and OE. Courtesy photo

Graduate student Dara Satterfield came to town in late January for the second time in 12 months to take the pulse of the Monarch butterfly population at the San Antonio River Museum Reach Milkweed Patch.  There, dozens of Tropical milkweed plants play year round host to Monarch butterflies.   Satterfield works closely with local volunteers like Mary Kennedy and Mobi Warren of the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project (MLMP), a citizen scientist program, to monitor milkweed patches far and wide for egg, caterpillar, chrysalis and butterfly action that might shed light on the state of the Monarch butterfly migration.

Monarch on Tropical Milkweed

Monarch butterflies LOVE Tropical milkweed. But is it appropriate to plant it? Photo by Monika Maeckle

Satterfield, like other scientists, believes the increased availability of  Asclepias curassavica, commonly known as Tropical milkweed, coupled with our warmer winters, may have an unhealthy impact on Monarch butterflies and their migration.   The science is undetermined on that question.

A native of  Marietta, Georgia, Satterfield attends the University of Georgia where she is a PhD candidate whose dissertation focuses on the relationship between migration and infectious disease in wildlife.  Monarchs are her species focus.  Satterfield works closely with Monarch scientist Dr. Sonia Altizer, the foremost expert in the country on Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, or OE. The unpronouceable protozoan disease infects Monarchs and other milkweed feeders, often resulting in butterfly crippling or death.

Dara Satterfield

Dara Satterfield checks Monarch butterflies at the San Antonio River Museum Reach Milkweed Patch for OE.           Photo by Monika Maeckle

As winters get warmer, Asclepias curassavica, the only milkweed species commercially available, is less likely to die back in winter. Some scientists hypothesize that A. curassavica entices Monarchs to forego migration and winter in the U.S. This could create an unhealthy hotbed of lingering OE spores for caterpillars and butterflies that remain in the local area.   Since the spores transfer from creature to creature via physical contact with each other or the plants on which they rest or eat, scientists worry that local OE-infested Monarchs will infect and breed with populations that are passing through, possibly jeopardizing the migration.

The situation exacerbates an already serious decline in the Monarch migration.  Drought, genetically modified crops, late summer wildfires, and generally inhospitable conditions pose multiple threats to Monarchs and their migration.   It’s likely that 2012 will be the worst year, numbers wise, in Monarch butterfly migration history since records have been kept.

“Monarchs are famous for this migration so when we see what appears to be a break in their migratory pattern, we want to know why and what the implications are,” said Satterfield.

OE Spores with Monarch Butterfly Scales

Eeeew! OE spores look like little footballs next to Monarch Butterfly Scales–photo courtesy of MLMP

But butterfly breeders and enthusiasts argue that OE is like staphylococcus–present in the general population and becoming a threat only under stressed circumstances. Organizations like the International Butterfly Breeders Association promote best practices for limiting OE in captive environments through education of its membership and seminars on managing and limiting its presence.  And yet others believe that OE is simply a part of the evolutionary cycle, killing those butterflies less fit than others.

For butterfly hobbyists and gardeners, the “curassavica question” presents a quandary:  should we be planting Tropical milkweed or not?

“This is a very sensitive subject in the Monarch world,”  said Satterfield.   “We just don’t have the data right now.” It will take three or four more years to complete Satterfield’s research.   She advises that natives are always better–which is true, IF you can find them and meet their persnickety growing needs.   Organizations like Monarch Watch and the Xerces Society‘s have launched milkweed restoration campaigns, but wide availability of native stock is still a dream.

If you DO plant curassavica, many scientists suggest cutting it to the ground in winter–unless yours is a research site like the Milkweed Patch on the San Antonio River Museum Reach.  Scientists encouraged the City of San Antonio and San Antonio River Authority to leave our milkweed patch alone as an experiment.   Interestingly, the San Antonio patch brags a lower incidence of OE (15%) than in other monitoring sites observed (47%) by the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project.   The 47% figure is SIX TIMES the rate of OE in Monarchs that migrate to Mexico.

Satterfield suggested that a deluge of milkweed beetles at the Patch this winter decimated not only the foliage, but OE spores.  The hungry orange-and-black bugs pruned much of the diseased growth, creating a better balance for the butterflies. Apparently Mother Nature has her own way of managing the OE problem.

Milkweed beetles have defoliated the Milkweed Patch. But aren't they cute?

Mother Nature on the case: Milkweed beetles defoliated the Milkweed Patch last spring, cleaning out OE spores in the process. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“This may have removed any OE spores on the milkweed plants, which probably helped to keep the prevalence of OE low this year,” said Satterfield. She added that since our Milkweed Patch is further inland and enjoys cooler temperatures than coastal situations in Houston and Florida, the Monarch population was lower and perhaps more hearty.

In the meantime, gardeners are left to make their own calls.   Is it better to have a questionable milkweed source in your yard to provide Monarchs with nectar and host plant, or not?  

Let’s see: Tropical milkweed is easy to grow, widely available, prolific bloomer, favorite host plant for Monarchs and a great nectar source for all butterflies.   I know where I come down on that.   You’ll see Tropical milkweed in my yard.   But I’ll be sure to keep it out of wildscapes and ranch situations, and slash it to the ground in the winter.  

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

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

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

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

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

Monarch tagging demo at Trinity

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

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

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

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

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

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As the Earth Heats Up, What Does it Mean for Monarch and other Migrating Butterflies?

Congratulations, 2012, you’re the hottest year on record!

The National Climate Data Center, released data this week showing that temperatures across the U.S. averaged 3.2 degrees above their 20th Century average.   Nineteen states–including Texas–had their highest annual average temperatures ever recorded.

2012 hottest year on record

Hot enough for ya? Climate data shows 2012 was 3.2 degrees hotter than any prior year. Chart via NOAA

Last year’s wet winter and mild spring fooled us into thinking that the drought and extreme heat were behind us. But the last three months of 2012 were some of the driest in history and predictions are rife that 2013 will bring continued, possibly intensified drought.

Drought Outlook 2013

Drought Outlook 2013: more and maybe worse.

In our front yard, “winter” visited for a few days following Christmas, but the “freeze” didn’t even die back our Frostweed plants.   Our milkweed, pruned in early December, sports new chutes, suggesting our downtown environment is even warmer than thermometers reflect.   Over at the Milkweed Patch on the San Antonio River Museum Reach, we observed Monarchs and Queens in abundance in late December.

The continued drought and warm temperatures beg the question:  Will Monarchs and other butterflies continue to migrate if  they and the plants that sustain them can survive warm winters?

The Museum Reach Milkweed Patch on the San Antonio Riverwalk

Monarchs and other butterflies are occupying the Milkweed Patch at the San Antonio River Museum Reach year round. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“Climate change – in the near term – is not going to change the monarch migration,” Dr. Chip Taylor relayed via email.   Over the long haul, though, it’s inevitable that climate  change, coupled with the decimation of the Mexican roosting sites, pervasive insecticides, and an increase in genetically modified crops will decrease the numbers of Monarchs and impact their migration habits.

Dr. Karen Oberhauser, PhD in Ecology at the University of Minnesota, suggested that Monarchs “might not need to (or be able to) move,” given the changing climate. “But that could expose them to potentially lethal conditions, when, for example, the southern US experiences an unseasonal freeze,” she added.

Oberhauser, who has been studying Monarchs since 1984, also mentioned undesirable colonies of Ophryocystis elektroscirrhaor OE, a protozoan disease that infects Monarchs and other milkweed feeders. OE is present in the landscape but seems to especially flourish on Tropical milkweed in southern climates late in the year.  In colder climates and the wild, milkweeds die off in the winter, apparently purging OE to a large degree.  But in places where freezes don’t kill off milkweed, OE becomes a problem and can be lethal to Monarchs.

OE Spores with Monarch Butterfly Scales

Eeeew! OE spores look like little footballs next to Monarch Butterfly Scales–photo courtesy of MLMP

“Some species are increasing their range, but one problem with that is that other species that they need to survive might not move at the same rate,” said Dr.  Oberhauser.

“Just because it warms up, doesn’t necessarily mean Monarchs. . . won’t migrate, ” Dr. John Abbott, Curator of Entomology for the Texas Natural Science Center at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote to us in an email.  “It may be so genetically programmed, that they have no “choice.”

Brown Argus Butterfly

The Brown Argus Butterfly has adapted well to climate change by changing its diet and expanding its range by 50 miles.  Photo via cum bria.org

One butterfly species in England has fared extremely well in the face of climate change.   The Brown Argus butterfly has increased its range in England 50 miles north in the past 20 years thanks to warming temperatures.   According to a study made possible by English citizen scientists over many years, the Brown Argus has flourished because it adapted its diet and now eats wild geraniums, which formerly only thrived in especially warm summers.  Prior to the warmer weather, Brown Argus caterpillars ate primarily Rock Rose.

The Brown Argus’ adaptation to a new host plant and that plant’s wider availability caused by warmer temperatures thus allowed the butterfly to expand its range at twice the average rate of other species, the study found.    Change or perish.

“Sudden changes resulting in a species being in an area where it wasn’t or when it wasn’t previously will almost invariably have an affect on other species,”  cautioned Dr. Abbott. “So it’s a cascade.”

According to the IO9 blog, a website devoted to science, science fiction, and the future, insects are well poised to take advantage of climate change.   Why?   Because they are well suited to quick adaptation and in the case of those with wings, able to move to new environments.   And, as cold blooded creatures, they will have a longer eating/growing/reproductive season with longer, warmer seasons.

Embrace it.  Odds are more mosquitoes, ticks, fire ants–and hopefully butterflies–are coming our way, if this warmer weather pattern continues.  One sure thing:  change will continue to be the only constant.

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“Flight of the Butterflies” in 3D a Special Holiday Treat for Kids, Seniors and all of us in Between

The new 3D IMAX film, “Flight of the Butterflies,” made the perfect Thanksgiving Day preface to a nontraditional dinner for my parents, Hilde and John Maeckle, 80 and 91 years young, respectively, and affectionately known as “Oma” and “Opa.”

Flight of the Butterflies in 3D

Thanksgiving Day treat: Flight of the Butterflies in 3D.  L-R  Hilde, John, and Monika Maeckle –Photo by Robert Rivard

Apart from the fantastic story and stunning effects, the sound was loud enough for my hard-of-hearing dad to enjoy the soothing rhythm of millions of butterflies’ wings beating.    The three-dimensional cinematography so captured his imagination that he, like the rest of us, couldn’t resist reaching into the darkness in attempts to touch the butterflies as they seemingly flit before our eyes.

This familiar story, well-told, never gets old–even to a butterfly evangelist well-versed in Monarch butterfly natural history.  Only one scene gave me pause, making me wonder if the filmmakers had taken their cinematic license too far.

The film weaves the compelling narrative of Dr. Fred Urquhart and his wife Norah, who studied the Monarchs for 40 years and are credited with piecing together the mystery of their migration. Their tenacious efforts included the development of the first citizen scientist tagging programs.   The climax of the story occurs when the Urquharts finally visit the ancestral roosts in early 1976, after Mexican national Catalina Trail and her husband Ken Brugger lead them to the mountaintop in Michoacan province near Angangueo where the butterflies wait out the winter each year.

The film depicts the elderly couple huffing up a challenging trail, seemingly gasping for air in the thin mountain air.  Upon first sight of  the forest filled with  Monarch butterflies, Dr. Urquhart appears teary.

In his first person account in National Geographic Magazine in August of 1976, Urquhart mentions the possibility that he might perish before seeing the subject of his life’s work.   Here’s what he wrote:

“Norah and I are no longer young.   At 10,000 feet, as we walked along the mountain crest, our hearts pounded and our feet felt leaden.

The rather macabre thought occurred to me:  Suppose the strain proved too much?  It would be the ultimate irony to have come this far and then never witness what we’d waited so long to see!”

But Urquhart and Norah lived to see the Monarchs and tell the tale. In the movie, he sits down in a field to absorb the magnificence of millions and millions of butterflies–floating, flitting, fleeing the ancient Oyamel trees as the sun warms them for a midday flight.  He looks down to see a tagged butterfly near his feet–thus proving that these butterflies migrated from the United States.

Watching this scene, I couldn’t believe it happened like that.   Did it?

The Urquharts as they find a tagged butterfly in Michoacan

In the movie, Flight of the Butterflies, Norah and Fred Urquhart find a tagged butterfly in Michoacan. The real story was even more amazing. Photo courtesy SK Films

“They couldn’t film what really happened.”  said Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas at Lawrence and a longtime Monarch butterfly scholar.  “A lot of people questioned that scene.”  Taylor relayed the real story, an Isaac Newton moment.

“What really happened, he was sitting by a tree, and a branch fell down,” Taylor said by phone.   “And one of the butterflies on the branch had the tag on it.”   Taylor said the filmmakers couldn’t replicate the situation exactly without harming the butterflies.  Deliberately breaking a branch off the tree in the protected sanctuaries where the scene was shot would have been illegal.  The tag was applied in Chaska, Minnesota.

Monarch butterflies cluster on Oyamel Trees in Michoacan

Monarch butterflies cluster on Oyamel Trees in Michoacan–Photo courtesy SK Films

Catalina Trail, the only living member of the team that discovered the Monarch roosting spots in Michoacan and who was present at that moment, confirmed the story.  “That’s how it happened,” she said by phone from Austin.

As difficult as it is to grasp, branches often break from the weight of millions of butterflies.   “It happens all the time,”  said Taylor.  Each butterfly weighs half a gram. That means 907 butterflies weigh one pound.  And a million butterflies weigh 1,102 pounds.   The roosting spots can host half a billion butterflies.   Do the math.

“It just blows me away,” said Taylor, recalling a trip to the Monarch sanctuaries and an inch-and-a-half round sapling, 20 feet tall, with a sprig of foliage on the branch.  “It would literally fold over double from the weight of the butterflies.”  And when they flew off, the branch would spring back to an erect posture, he said.

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

Catalina Trail, January 2, 1975, the day she and Ken Brugger “discovered” the Monarch butterfly overwintering sites.     Photo copyright Catalina Trail

Urquhart described the moment on page 173 of the August 1976 edition of National Geographic:   “”While we stared in wonder, a pine branch three inches thick broke under its burden of languid butterflies and crashed to earth…..There, to my amazement, was one bearing a white tag!”

The IMAX movie, Flight of the Butterflies, was released last week, and chronicles the "discovery" of the Monarch butterfly roosting spot.

The IMAX movie, “Flight of the Butterflies,” chronicles the “discovery” of the Monarch butterfly roosting spot.  Photo courtesy SK Films.

Some have suggested that the movie misses a chance to make a strong case for conservation.  But one could also argue that that’s a different movie. The film does much more than any other single piece of media to raise awareness of the magic of the  Monarch butterfly migration.    Once people feel the magic, then doing something constructive to help often follows–like planting milkweed.

Flight of the Butterflies, a spectacular 44-minute show, simultaneously suits children, seniors and all of us in between.   The film continues in San Antonio at the Rivercenter IMAX theater and opens at Austin’s Bob Bullock IMAX Theater in January.

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Monarch Butterflies: the Panda Bears of Climate Change?

A late Monarch butterfly season comes to a close this month in what may be the worst year, numbers wise, in the history of the migration.  The storied insects arrived at El Rosario sanctuary in Michoacán, Mexico, last week, “thousands of them,” according to Journey North, a nonprofit organization that engages students and citizen scientists around the globe in tracking wildlife migration and seasonal change.

Monarch butterfly season comes to a close

Monarch butterfly season comes to a close in what may be the worst year, numbers wise in history.

The insects endured a rollercoaster ride in 2012.   The year began in the hangover of an historic Texas drought.  A wet, mild winter and a banner wildflower season followed in the spring.  The drought moved to the Midwest in the summer, crippling the Monarchs’ milkweed breeding grounds and stifling the growth of summer blooms for nectar.  By fall, storms hit the East Coast and aerial insecticides filled North Texas skies in an attempt to control West Nile virus-carrying mosquitoes–just as Monarchs were set to move through the “Texas funnel” en route to their ancestral roosts in Mexico later in the season.  Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, aptly categorized 2012 as “a year like no other.”

And yet as we gather our tagging data to send to Monarch Watch by the December 1 deadline in a year of seemingly record low numbers, Monarch butterfly awareness seems to be enjoying an all-time high.

A Butterfly Haven somewhere in Michoacan

A Butterfly Haven somewhere in Michoacán –Photo courtesy SK Films

In October, the IMAX 3-D film “Flight of the Butterflies” opened with a soiree at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.  The $12 million Monarch butterfly natural history epic drew the “flutterati”–my word for the Monarch scientist celebrity pack–from across the hemisphere.   Dr. Chip Taylor, Dr. Karen Oberhauser, Dr. Lincoln Brower  joined forest restoration patrons, citizen scientists and others along with Mexican President Felipe Calderon to attend the premiere.  Mainstream awareness of the history and plight of the migrating insects made international news.

On November 5, the savvy PR folks at Southwest Airlines agreed to fly a Monarch butterfly and  “the Butterfly lady” Maraleen Manos-Jones, author of the Spirit of the Butterflies, from Albany, New York, to San Antonio, Texas.  The Dallas-based airline sent a Southwest Airlines escort to meet Ms. Manos-Jones and her precious cargo from New

Monarch butterflies make front page news

Monarch butterflies made front page news when Southwest Airlines flew a late season Monarch from Albany to San Antonio

York to the Lone Star State. Upon arrival, a Southwest Airlines video crew met the butterfly and its entourage, documenting the event for future use and generating more international media buzz.  The AP picked up the story, NPR ran a segment, and the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and other media outlets labeled the story “a talker” as local TV stations covered the spectacle.

The butterfly was released at the San Antonio Botanical Garden on a warm Fall afternoon, as dozens of butterflies fluttered around milkweed and other late season blooms.   Presumeably, the well-traveled insect joined its butterfly brethren for the trip south to Michoacán.

Then, on November 18, scientist-turned-eloquent-author Barbara Kingsolver released her latest book, “Flight Behavior.” The novel uses the Monarch butterfly migration to tackle the complex subject of climate change.  When asked why she used Monarch butterflies to make the wonky topic understandable, Kingsolver responded:  “The more I studied it, the more I realized this was a perfect vehicle for what I wanted to say.”

Kingsolver is on to something.   Monarch butterflies 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.

In 1961, Chi-Chi, a giant panda with lots of fur and appealing, black-patched eyes arrived at the London Zoo.  The cuddly, distinctive bear captured the imaginations of Londoners and quickly became the “poster species” of the World Wildlife Fund, which was founded the same year.

According to the WWF website, the first sketches were done by the British environmentalist and artist, Gerald Watterson.   “We wanted an animal that is beautiful, is endangered, and one loved by many people in the world for its appealing qualities.”

Like the panda, Monarchs are a beloved species.   Pandas are endangered, Monarchs are not, but many would argue that the Monarch migration is rushing toward a dangerous path of extinction.

Monarch butterflies’ range is moving north as temperatures rise.   We see them later in the year, and further north, with each passing season.   They also endure the climate changing extremes of heavy, unpredictable rain and storms (Storm Sandy this year), unexpected freezes, and persistent drought.   They adapt, they adjust, and they tell us much about our changing climate and the abilities of other pollinators to adapt to these rapid changes–or not.

Recent media coverage and attention suggest Monarchs are on their way to becoming the “poster species” of climate change.   We applaud this new awareness.

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