Monarch butterflies, who usually pass through town like so many other fleeting visitors, have taken up permanent residence at a 1200 square-foot milkweed garden known by local butterfly aficionados as “the Milkweed Patch” on the San Antonio River Museum Reach. The year-round colony is a first for San Antonio.
We’ve written about the Milkweed Patch here many times, but just this month the Patch gained national attention from Monarch researchers when it became one of hundreds of sites in the nation to be observed weekly by volunteer citizen scientists associated with the University of Minnesota-based Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project (MLMP).
Monarch butterflies traditionally pass through San Antonio and the “Texas Funnel” each spring and fall to and from their ancestral roosting grounds in the the mountains of Michoacan, Mexico. Year-round local Monarch butterfly communities are relatively common along the Gulf Coast, in Houston and in Florida, yet they’ve been unheard of in San Antonio–until now.
“Its historic,” says Mary Kennedy of Boerne, who monitors Monarch caterpillars, at Boerne’s Cibolo Nature Center and at Mitchell Lake. “We’ve never had anything
like this before,” says the retired science teacher. Kennedy used Monarch butterflies in her classroom for years at Texas Military Institute. “This is not a place they would normally be this time of year.”
Kennedy suggests warmer winters and advantageous conditions at the protected, well-kept milkweed garden get credit for attracting the creatures that have captivated observers for millennia.
Dr. Karen Oberhauser, founder of the MLMP, calls the San Antonio Museum Reach Milkweed Patch “unique” and explains why scientists are especially interested in what goes on here.
“All Monarchs pass through Texas in the fall and again in the spring, and their use of resources in this state in many ways determines the success of the migration. Additionally, many Monarchs stay to breed in Texas in the fall, and understanding what drives this behavior will help us understand how monarchs might respond to climate change and how they are reacting to the presence of non-native milkweed. The site is particularly interesting because it is basically an island of habitat, and understanding what happens there will help us understand how monarchs use habitat patches of different sizes and with different amounts of isolation from other sites.”
Dr. Oberhauser also points out that the visibility of the Milkweed Patch in our highly trafficked River Walk will engage many more people in “the wonders of monarch biology.”
The first weeks of monitoring have yielded more than 30 chrysalises–17 alive and 15 dead–and some surprising results, says Kennedy. All butterflies were tested for Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, or OE, a nasty protozoan disease that infects Monarchs and other milkweed feeders. Some Monarch scientists have speculated that cultivating Monarch butterflies on Tropical milkweed year round can result in undesirable colonies of OE, which seems to flourish on the plant 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.
Kennedy was pleasantly surprised that not a single one of the Milkweed Patch Monarchs collected this month showed signs of the crippling, often fatal disease.
And San Antonians will be pleasantly surprised by a saunter to the Milkweed Patch. As the Spring Equinox approaches March 20, Monarchs will start to stream through San Antonio from Mexico, making their journey north and laying the first generation of eggs that will hatch, morph into their various stages, eclose and continue the multi-generation migration. Go take a look.
Directions: Park at the Pearl Brewery and cross to the west side of the River. Follow the trail about five minutes and watch for butterflies. You can also park on the deadened street at Elmira and Myrtle Streets, and descend the stairs to the River. Walk south about one minute and you’ll be there.
I was down there last month and tested 6 Monarchs for the OE parasite on behalf of the University of Georgia. It was really nice to see Monarchs here in January, but it does make one wonder, why didn’t these particular ones go to Mexico like the rest?
Why leave if there’s nectar, host plant and great weather? Thanks for writing, Lisa. What were the results of your OE tests?
I live in San Antonio – how can I help out? My schedule is flexible. I heard you speak at the AHTH GC. Love your blog
Thank you Gretchen! See today’s post with Mary’s email address. She is the hook-up for MLMP volunteers. THanks for stopping by.
LOL true! I don’t have results on the OE tests yet – they extended the testing time until the end of March. I saw 6 Monarchs while driving various places on Thursday, so I’ll be out catching/sampling more in the next few days (after it stops raining).
Is the Butterfly Garden still there in 2021?
I don’t think so. There are quite a few in other parts of the river, though. —MM