Migration Update: Monarch Butterfly EGGstravaganza on the Llano River

We’re hearing positive reports from further north about the Monarch butterfly migration. Masses of Monarchs look to be in the Midwest right now, according to dispatches from the DPLEX list, the Monarch butterfly listserv that reaches hundreds of butterfly enthusiasts, citizen scientists, academics and others.

Monarch on Swamp milkweed

Monarch butterfly on Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, in downtown San Antonio September 15. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“It was obvious that the crest of the migration was passing through Omaha today,” Dr. Ted Burke, an entomologist and behavioral biologist at Creighton University wrote on Sunday. Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, clarified that the ”crest” is actually the “leading edge” of the migration which should be followed by the peak six – eight days later.

“The numbers observed were incredible….At one prairie I counted 79…At the other prairie, I counted 150!” Burke wrote, adding that last year the numbers at the same locations were eight and twelve, respectively.

Monarch butterfly eggs

Musta been a wild weekend on the Llano River in the Texas Hill Country: 77 eggs gathered from Swamp milkweed. Photo by Monika Maeckle

About 850 miles south of Omaha, a dramatic cold front that began in Canada pushed 20-mile winds out of the north and dropped temperatures from the 90s to the 50s. The front blew some early migrants into the “Texas Funnel” along the Llano River this weekend. Judging from the dozens of eggs observed and collected on Sunday, it must have been a wild Saturday night in the Texas Hill Country.

Early migrants broke their reproductive diapause to drop their small yellow pearls on the undersides of Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, leaves.   In my eight years of tagging and monitoring, I have never seen so many eggs.   I stopped gathering after 77, wondering where I would find enough milkweed to feed the resulting hungry caterpillars.  Note to my San Antonio area friends:  you’ll be hearing from me regarding milkweed loans.

Monarch chrysalis on milkweed

Another first: perfect chrysalis found on Swamp milkweed on the Llano. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Another first: I found a fully formed Monarch chrysalis dangling from milkweed leaves over the river.

Two caterpillars and about half a dozen adult Monarchs also made an appearance, presenting the entire life cycle in a two-hour kayaking tour. With tags in the boat, I only took one swing with my net all afternoon.  I missed.  She was probably an egg-laying female anyway, so unlikely to migrate. See our recent story on the premigration migration.

Our friend Veronica Prida reported a FOS (First of Season) migrant Monarch in her front yard in Alamo Heights on Saturday.   The faded female nectared on dramatic Pride of Barbados while Veronica snapped photos.  Upon returning Monday, we also had a female laying eggs in our downtown garden on Swamp milked transplanted from the Llano.

Monarch on Pride of Barbados

This faded female showed up in San Antonio on Saturday, September 13 to nectar on Pride of Barbados. Photo by Veronica Prida

All this bodes well for the migration. The 77 harvested eggs will take about one month to become butterflies, hatching just in time for peak migration in our latitude, October 10 – 22. They’ll be tagged, released and join the migration.  We promise to fatten them up with ample nectar from our gardens, sending them on to Michoacán with massive healthy fat deposits to see them through the winter.

Ideal conditions prevail here with Goldenrod, Frostweed, Swamp Milkweed and other fall flowers still in bloom, and almost tropical weather in place.  Meteorologists predict a “mild El Nińo” pattern this fall, translating to more rain.  How sweetly ironic and preferable to last year’s dreary reports of drought and decline.

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Llano River Ready for “Premigration Migration” of Monarch Butterflies

Email lists have been filled with optimistic reports on the Monarch migration in recent weeks. We’re feeling hopeful of a rebound.

Folks from Canada to Pennsylvania sang a buoyant chorus:  more butterflies than last year.  Of course, it’s all relative:  with 2013 holding the distinction as the worst migration in history, even a slight uptick in Monarch butterfly numbers would call for celebration.

Monarch on swamp milkweed

Pretty, early girl. Faded female Monarch on Swamp Milkweed in downtown San Antonio, August 14, 2014. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Here’s a sampling of updates:

It has been the best year finding them, in 11 years of doing this. Most were from our yard.

–J Agazzi, SE Wisconsin on the Illinois border

I also live in SE WI and have about 30 just-born instars taken from swamp milkweed more than common milkweed. I agree also that this has been a good year and I’m still finding them.

–Chris Mason,  Lake Geneva, WI

A BIG comeback for Monarchs this year…. Having gathered and raised hundreds of Monarchs for past ten years; having been very sad over numbers next to nothing in 2012 & 2013, this year ‘s population is back up to 75 releases and more to come. I am amazed, overjoyed.   (Interestingly, I and others observed only a single Monarch here and there during this entire season. But how joyfully ‘active’ these ‘singles’ have been!)
                                –Cindy Ziebell, Eua Claire, Wisconsin

I have to agree with you all….although it is not scientific, I have recorded seeing at least one monarch every day for the last 4.5 weeks!! Sometimes I have seen as many as five in a day. This has not happened in at least 20 years! I really hope that our fall migration numbers follow these trends. It is also the only year I can remember collecting more than one or two eggs. This week, I have collected eight. Good to hear all this news from this central region.

–Jim and Linette Langhus, Monona Iowa

IMG_1637We learn in Monarch Migration 101 that the migratory generation of Monarchs do not reproduce.  Rather, they go into a reproductive diapause, a biological state of arrested development that interrupts their usual instinct to procreate.  Presumably, they do this to save their energy for the long flight and months-long overwintering in Mexico, conserving biological resources to awake in the spring and reproduce then.

Yet in late summer, we generally see a pulse of Monarchs over Labor Day weekend and many leave eggs as evidence of the reproductivity and their travels.

So what’s going on with these “joyfully active” single butterflies described above?

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

For years, scientists like  Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch and Dr. Karen Oberhauser of Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project (MLMP) have described a “premigration migration” that begins in mid-July and carries a final reproductive generation of Monarchs south.

Candy Sarikonda explains the phenomenon in this issue of the MLMP newsletter. 

Taylor has speculated that late season reproduction is selectively advantageous for some Monarchs who are born too far north too late in the year to complete the lifecycle.   Dr. Karen Oberhauser, founder of the MLMP, and an evolutionary scientist at the University of Minnesota, told Sarikonda that “It makes evolutionary sense that some monarchs would fly south as they laid their eggs, since an egg laid in August in Missouri or Virginia is probably more likely to develop and migrate to Mexico than one laid in Minnesota, where a hard freeze in early September is not that uncommon.”

What'syour latitude.  Monarch Watch predicts peak Monarch activity by latitude each fall.

What’s your latitude? Monarch Watch predicts peak Monarch activity by latitude each fall.

We don’t fully understand the reasons for this premigration migration, but we do know that here in Texas, the Llano River is well-stocked with milkweed for those premigratory migrants.   Last Sunday we saw ample Swamp Milkweed and Goldenrod lining the banks, and heavy rains this weekend will keep the host and nectar plants fresh for Monarchs arriving later this summer.

For our area, latitude 28, the peak migration will occur somewhere between October 10 and 27.  Check the chart above to see when peak migration is expected in your neighborhood–or goto the Monarch Watch website.

How convenient: eggs laid over Labor Day weekend will be hatching just as the peak migration passes through the Texas Hill Country in mid October.  That means our freshly hatched, well-fed Monarchs will have an excellent chance of making it to Michoacán.

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! two Monarch butterflies tagged at the ranch 10/12/13 were recovered on the florest floor and recovered 2/22/14. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Perhaps that was the case with two Monarch butterflies tagged at the ranch last year on October 12.  Monarch Watch just posted a preliminary report on the 2013 season’s recoveries. 

SLM131, a male, was tagged along the Llano River by friends Omar Rodriguez and Veronica Prida and was found at EL Rosario in February.   A female I tagged the same day, SLM181, was also found at the sanctuary on 2/22/14.

All the elements are in place for a recovery of the Monarch population this year.  Stay tuned for updates.

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

It was a disappointing weekend of Monarch tagging.   Again.

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

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

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

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

Tagged Monarch

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monarch chrysalises

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

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

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

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Migration Update: Llano River Thunderstorms Stall Early Pulse of Monarch Butterflies

What a perfect weekend:  friends and family gathered to assist in my annual Monarch Birthday Tagging weekend.  Lucky me, my October 13 birthday falls smack dab in the middle of peak migration, predicted October 10 – 22 this year by Monarch Watch.

Monarch on the Llano

Monarch butterfly resting on Frostweed on the Llano River. Photo by Monika Maeckle

En route to the Llano, where Monarchs typically roost in the pecan trees that line our stretch of river, our San Antonio tagging team of Alex Rivard, Veronica Prida and Omar Rodriguez stopped at the Hilltop Cafe 12 miles outside Fredericksburg.   “Monarchs are all over the ranch,” said Johnny Nicholas, the piano playing proprietor.  We were stoked.

Handful of Monarch butterflies on the Llano River this weekend.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Handful of Monarch butterflies on the Llano River this weekend. Photo by Monika Maeckle

We arrived after dark, thus couldn’t check the usual roosting and resting spots along the riverbanks until Saturday morning.   On Saturday, Chris Gannon, David Braun and Karen Ford joined us from Austin.  The tag team was complete.

I scouted the scene around 8 AM, paddling my kayak to the “Monarch spot.” Monarch butterflies floated over the pecan branches near the river, a scene that suggested to me that all might possibly be right with the world. “YES!” I said aloud to no one.  “They’re here!”

Omar and Veronica on the Llano

Omar Rodriguez and Veronica Prida brave the Chigger Islands on the Llano River to tag Monarch butterflies. Photo by Monika Maeckle

After the drumbeat of dreary predictions warning us that 2013 will be the worst year in history for Monarch butterflies, I had just about convinced myself that the days of a robust migration were over.   Seeing the creatures lilting in the breeze, floating above the persimmons and cedars, and lighting on pecan limbs gave me hope that perhaps they would be OK.

But the clusters were small compared to previous years.  The largest group we saw numbered only 20 – 25.  Most swoops of the net garnered only one Monarch at a time.   In the past we’d often capture several in one swing.

Sack full of Monarchs

In 2008: same week, same place. We tagged 500+ in several hours. This year? Only 124 all weekend. PHoto by Clint Howell

Typically we stage a Big Swoop Contest:  who could get the MOST Monarchs in their net in one swoop?  In 2008, my friend Clint Howell nabbed almost three dozen at once.  Here’s what I wrote five years ago–same week, same place, as last weekend.  That year, 2008, was a magnum opus year for Monarch butterflies in our part of the world:

“Our crew of Monarch maniacs competed to see who could snag the most in a single swing: Monika started with 15; David quickly surpassed that by netting 26; then Clint came along and outdid us both by nabbing 35 Monarchs in one swoop.”

So far this year, I take the prize with a mere six.

Chris Gannon and tucker

Chris Gannon and Tucker the Mellow Dog give it their best swoop, chasing Monarch butterflies on the Llano River. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The Monarchs seemed tentative on Saturday, as if waiting for the wind to carry them home.  Thunderstorms had been predicted for the entire weekend, but Saturday rose sunny and calm.

They moved around the trees and we tagged more than 100 by dinnertime Saturday–again, in ones and twos.  Most appeared healthy and we recorded an equal number of males and females.   The butterflies seemed uninterested in the abundant nectar lining the riverbanks–Frostweed, Goldenrod, Water hemlock, Cowpen Daisies, Purple Aster and even a Cardinal flower or two.  But Monarchs stayed in the trees, as if resting for their long journey.

Monarch butterfly resting on Cedar

A common sight this weekend: Monarchs resting on Ashe Juniper, a.k.a. Cedar. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Saturday night a magnificent light show graced the sky about the river.  For more than an hour this year’s Monarch Tagging Team sat on the porch and enjoyed heat lightning as it backlit a cloud banket to the North.  Occasional bolts peeked through the clouds, showing itself as some sort of mammoth display of power and light.  The light show continued into early morning until the sky unleashed a thunderstorm that started at 6 AM and continued for 90 minutes, ebbing into a steady drizzle for most of the day with slight interruptions.   Three inches of rain resulted and the Llano River rose half a foot.

Monarch butterfly caterpillars

Not so many caterpillars as last weekend, but plenty of Monarch butterflies. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarchs waited out the storm along the Llano River banks.  We returned around noon and tagged a few more, ending the day with a total of 124.

Was this it?  The big mass of Monarchs for 2013?

Jenny Singleton in Menard reported similar results with no huge roosts.  She and her gang tagged 310 over the weekend, chasing them at three different ranches including her place on the Sabinal River where she usually tags 1,000-plus.

“I think the butterflies this weekend are the early pulses,” she wrote as we exchanged text message reports.  “They’re running really late this year.”

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, agreed in a phone call.   “Monarchs are having their worst year.  And they’re running really late.   I think these are the early pulses.” I hope they are right.   We will see in the coming weeks.

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Caterpillar – palooza on the Llano River: No Monarch butterflies, but caterpillars galore

I was worried that the only Monarchs that I’ll be tagging this year will be ones I raise myself.  Until this guy showed up:

FOS Wild Monarch tagged

First of season wild Monarch tagged on the Llano River. October 2013. Photo by Monika Maeckle

What a beauty.

The perfect male, SLM027, appeared to be recently hatched.   That wouldn’t surprise me since the Llano River this weekend was ripe with Monarch caterpillars, while flying Monarchs were almost completely absent.

Monarch butterfly caterpillars on the LLano River

Caterpillar – palooza on the Llano River. Plenty of caterpillars, but few Monarch butterflies this weekend. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The freshly minted specimen above was one of only two Monarchs seen all weekend, and is only the third Monarch butterfly I’ve tagged this year.   That puts me way behind my usual activity, which by now should number in the dozens.  The other two were reared at home. You’ve all heard how this is likely to be the worst year in history for Monarchs.  So I won’t belabor it again.

My friend and fellow butterfly fan Jenny Singleton, who first introduced me to butterflies, shared the hope that a cold front hitting the Llano River this weekend would push down some major pulses from up North and we’d have the usual clusters roosting in our pecan trees.  But as is often the case, Jenny and I were ahead of our time.   Migrating Monarchs had not quite arrived.

Jenny was at her place in Hext, about 40 miles from me and said she didn’t see any, either.  We’re both betting on next weekend.  Monarch Watch predicts the peak migration for our latitude to hit between October 10 and the 22nd.  And judging from reports we’re getting early this week, Monarchs are on the move.

Spangled Fritillary

Spangled Fritillary nectaring on Frostweed. Llano River, Texas Hill Country

Plenty of other butterflies were flying whenever the North wind gales paused to catch their breath.   The dramatic temperature drop and wind gusts appeared to make many insects seek the comfort of the opposite sex, as these pictures of mating Queens and grasshoppers (we call them Jumbos) attest.

Queen butterflies doing it

Queen butterflies snuggle up as a cold front hits the Llano River this weekend. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Grasshoppers doing it

Get a room!  Grasshoppers find companionship on the Llano River, Texas Hill Country. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Eastern Swallowtail

Eastern Swallowtail, recently hatched, resting in the grass. Llano River, Texas Hill Country. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The good news is that the Llano River is up substantially from a dreary low flow.   A two-and-a-half inch rain about two weeks ago lifted the waters four feet and scrubbed much of the muck and dredge from its karst bottom.  Plenty of Swamp milkweed, Frostweed, Cowpen daisy, Goldenrod and Purple mistflower await hungry travelers when they finally arrive.   A fresh hatch of Gulf Fritillaries, Eastern Swallowtails and Queens lighted on the nectar feast Saturday afternoon.

Llano River, October 2013

Llano River recovered nicely from a long, hot summer. Three inches of rain raised the river at least a foot.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

Interestingly, I found more than 20 Monarch caterpillars in various stages on the milkweed this weekend.  I have never retrieved so many caterpillars at once, so late in the season.   Not sure what that is about, except that perhaps the migration will be a bit late this year.  Upon returning home, my Tropical milkweed was filled with Monarch butterfly eggs.

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Caterpillar Cannibalism: Monarch butterfly caterpillar eats Monarch egg for lunch

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

Monarch catepillars and eggs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whew.

Frostweed on the Llano

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

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

Parched Goldenrod on the Llano River

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

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

Peak Migration dates

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

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

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

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

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

About to hatch caterpillar egg

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

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

Baby Back ribs--Yeah!

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

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

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

Pat Epstein paddles for Monarchs

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

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

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

Lil Joe caterpillar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Olloclip camera lens

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

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

Welcome to the world, Lil Joe!

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

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

Female monarch lays eggs on Swamp milkweed on Llano

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

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

One of three Milkweed eggs

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

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

Check back here for updates.

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

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

Monarch butterfly

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

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

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

Could it get any worse?

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

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

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

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

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

                     –Debbie Jackson, Davisburg, MI, August 5

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

                             –Mona Miller, Herndon, VA, July 20

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

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

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

I’m predicting a new worst year in history.

Cocoa on the Llano river

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

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

Goldenrod on the Llano

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

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

Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata

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

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

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

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

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

Antelope horns milkweed seed pods

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

for the distinct purpose of harvesting native seed.

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

Antelope Horns milkweed

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

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

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

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

George Cates

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

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

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

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

xerceslogo

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

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

Irrigating at Native American Seed

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

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

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

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

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

bring-back-the-monarchs

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

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

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

Antelope Horns milkweed root stok at American Native Seed

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

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

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

Monarch on Tropical Milkweed

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

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

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

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

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

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