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.
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
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 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 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, 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.
More posts like this:
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.