Monarch butterflies head our way as big wildflower bloom awaits

Monarch butterflies have begun their multi-generation migration north from Mexico, following a season that counted their largest overwintering population in a decade. Favorable conditions in South Texas suggest we may be in for another great year.

Early reports had the butterflies moving out of the high mountain preserves in Michoacán and the state of Mexico as early as mid February. Journey North, a citizen science program that tracks various wildlife migrations, cited a “gradual departure” in their weekly bulletin February 24. A week later, the organization announced a stop-and-start pattern of the migrating butterflies, attributed to schizophrenic weather.

Warm weather encourages the butterflies to take flight, while flash cold spells like those experienced in South Texas in recent weeks can stop them in their tracks. Members of the Mexican citizen science platform Correo Real have been reporting serial sightings throughout northern Mexico for weeks.

Sandra Acosta reported this dead monarch on March 6 in Ciudad Victoria, Tamaulipas. Photo via Correo Real, WhatsApp

“The spring migration has begun!” Correo Real’s Facebook page announced on February 21.

Correspondents that communicate through the organization’s What’sapp group reported sightings of monarchs mating, flying and as road kill all along the northward migratory route, from locations in Guanajuato, Tamaulipas and Coahuila.

In San Antonio, Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project volunteer Mary Kennedy saw her FOS, or “first-of-season” monarch on February 26.

“They are here! First large, faded monarch of the spring season flew SW to NE across my garden today!” Kennedy reported in a Facebook post, adding, “Hope they find milkweed in South Texas Brush Country!”

Early arrivals can cause concerns, since the butterflies need milkweed on which to lay their eggs and launch 2019’s new generation. Depending on conditions, milkweed may or may not be out of the ground to provide host plant for successful egg laying. If there’s no milkweed, the butterflies keep flying in search of it and can die before egg laying takes place.

Others in San Antonio saw their first-of-season monarchs this week. “Monarchs are here! One yesterday, two today,” said Veronica Prida in Alamo Heights. The photo at the top of this post of a tattered female on Tropical milkweed was taken by her husband, Omar Rodriguez, on March 12. Drake White, of the Nectar Bar, spotted two females on mountain laurel on March 8; another graced my downtown pollinator garden on March 10.

Warm South Texas weather in late February likely coaxed the migrating butterflies north, but then a cold snap put the skids on northward movement. Cold weather usually halts the butterflies’ travels, causing them to stay in place and wait out the weather.

Migrant monarch on mountain laurel. Photo by Drake White, Nectar Bar

Monarch scientist Chip Taylor, founder of the citizen science tagging program Monarch Watch based at the University of Kansas at Lawrence, laid out a generally positive forecast for the 2019 season.

“The first bit of good news is the sighting of 27 monarchs in Texas in the first 10 days of March,” Taylor wrote on March 12 in an update on the DPLEX, an online community of email subscribers that includes scientists, citizen scientists, monarch butterfly hobbyists and others. He said that was a record since Journey North started keeping records in 2000. Numerous sightings have been reported, some as far north as Austin, he said, and it’s likely that “most of the monarchs are still en route and we know that substantial numbers still remain at some of the colonies.”

Taylor pointed out that good weather and favorable conditions exist for feeding, mating, egg laying, larval growth rate and movement to the NE. He added that it appears that most of the returning monarchs will lay their eggs in Texas and the southern half of Oklahoma. “Restricting egg production to Texas and Oklahoma is a good thing since it will minimize the average age to first reproduction of the progeny of the returning monarchs,” he said.

Antelope horns and Indian blanket
Monarchs will be looking for milkweed like these about-to-bloom white Antelope horns, the butterflies’ host plant on which they lay eggs. Indian blanket will provide nectar. Photo by Monika Maeckle

While no specific sightings of massive native milkweed stands have been reported, other wildflowers await the migrating insects and appear to be on an early schedule as well. Several sources reported a massive, early bloom of bluebonnets in Big Bend.

Photographer Lee McMullen told Texas-centric travel website that he hadn’t seen a bloom like this in thirty years. In late February, Colette Pearce of Austin relayed that the bluebonnets at Big Bend National Park were “amazing” this year.

“I believe they were at least two weeks earlier than when I witnessed the incredible bloom of 2015,” she wrote on Facebook in response to a post by the Texas Wildflower Report.

Pollinators welcome! Register to have your garden mapped for our 300for300 inititiative.

“I think we’re probably going to have a pretty solid year,” Andrea DeLong-Amaya, Horticulture Director at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, told the Texas Standard this week. “We’ve had good rain and that’s always the key in terms of how good the show actually is,” she said, adding that wildflowers are well adapted to cold temperatures.

Taylor said much the same speculating about this year’s monarch butterfly crop: “The bottom line — I’m cautiously optimistic that the population will get off to a good start this breeding season.”

Want to help monarch butterflies, bees and other pollinators? Plant a pollinator garden and register it to be mapped on our 300for300 pollinator gardening initiative.

TOP: Feature photo of worn female on milkweed by Omar Rodriguez.

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2 Responses

  1. Craig Oveson
    | Reply

    As is quoted above; “Photographer Lee McMullen told Texas-centric travel website that he hadn’t seen a bloom like this in thirty years”. How’s this possible ? If the climate is changing, this year is a “regression”. Do we Back up our “computer models” 30 years and start over now. I hope so. I’ll be dead before climate change kills everyone on the planet. 🤠😎 How can this 30 year regression in climate change apply to our beloved monarch ?

    Our friend and monarch expert Chip Taylor wrote when the monarchs overwintered this year with twice as many vacationers than did the population In 2017-18; he said; “a population of this size may not occur again for another decade, and perhaps never.”

    We love Chip although I disagree completely. At this point, everything is pointing to an “increase” in the monarch migration this year. With just “average” normal percipitation and average normal temperatures averaged throughout the eastern range, Monarchs will increase significantly hopefully to over 10 hectares

    Thirty years ago we were headed towards a population of 1 billion monarchs overwintering. That billion population was still ten years into the future. We had a catastrophic drought in 1988-89. We hadn’t had the next catastrophic drought until between 2010-13, 20 years later which everyone agrees drove monarch numbers to the lowest level since being recorded for 25 years.

    Obviously the population growth of the “predator” animals that eat a particular species lags behind the population growth of the species they eat. Monarchs doubled last year so their predators are going “WOW” There’s twice as many monarch eggs to eat this year and I’m already full and need to go to sleep.

    As a percentage, many more eggs will survive to flight stage this year then last year being laid by that 1st generation arriving in Texas right now because the numbers of eggs by that increased amount of monarchs, over last year, coming from Mexico laid is “twice” as many as last year at least. Remember, predator numbers lag behind when the numbers of “their food species” increases rapidly resulting in even more of their food species, monarchs, surviving to breed and lay exponentially more eggs in the Midwest than the year before that will produce even more monarchs and so on and so on.

    Now, the one factor that can change all that is if we take all the “micro climates” Throughout the monarchs eastern range and the average is less conducive to monarch population increase than last year, Monarchs may not increase, may decrease, or may increase only a little.

    However, the first dinner table after they enter their home country is the “record” wildflower covered state of Texas which has the most food on the table in thirty years. More moarchs will survive and be more healthy once they get here and the antelope horn milkweed will be more plentiful for them to lay eggs on and the predators won’t be able to eat as high a percentage of those “more eggs” than last year so more will survive to flight stage to migrate to the summer breeding grounds in the Midwest and Northeast.

    If the “weather” is conducive to the common milkweed growth and wildflowers flourishing on the plains and Northeast that “larger population” that gets there from Texas”. will continue to multiply during the generations in 1) June 2) July and 3) August and that is the generation that
    much larger than last year population, flies south to overwinter in Mexico starting in November of this year.

    Remember, the monarchs haven’t even left their winter vacation in .Mexico yet. There was a catastrophic weather event towards the end of March a couple seasons ago that killed up to 50% of the overwintering population before they could even get to Texas to Lay the eggs for that next generation delaying the big increase and doubling we had this season.

    So here’s the synopsis, There’s a lot of food on the table in Texas but most of the kids are still hanging around in Mexico and haven’t made it home for supper. Once they eat and lay eggs “their” kids are going to go north to spend the summer where it’s hopefully not so hot.

    If there’s lots to eat at Aunt Mables Farm in Iowa, they will get a full belly and go out looking for a girlfriend or boyfriend, have kids, and the population will do that for a couple more generations and if there’s plenty to eat and drink and it don’t get too hot many more monarchs will head for Mexico, when it starts to get cold, to vacation than did last year. How come “all” of us humans aren’t smart enough do that. I guess because monarchs are, as Monika would say, “without borders”.

    Hopefully we can get rid of that dam border some day so we don’t have to fight over some stupid wall and it will be more convenient for all of us to visit the monarchs as they’re vacationing in the sun. I’m working on it. 🤠🤠🤠

    We could be on the same trajectory we were on in the early nineties after the last catastrophic drought in 1988-89 when we reached that “super sized” population of 1 billion. We’ll just keep hoping there’s no catastrophic weather events over the next 7 months which is a “big” hope. I think if percipitation and temperatures just stay in the normal range monarchs will increase to over 10 hectares this coming winter.

    I’m tired; Monika, you have the rights to this story if you want to put covers on it. 🤠🤠🤠🤠

  2. Annie McIlhenny
    | Reply

    Oh, I do hope this “bomb cyclone” will not kill ones that are early arrivals!

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