Thursday, December 30, 2010

Protecting Milkweed in a Hard Freeze

It's chilly out! After above normal temperatures in November and December, the Phoenix area is bracing for a possible hard freeze tonight. (Hard to believe when we reached 76 degrees on Christmas Day!) But it's not too late to protect the monarch butterfly's favorite host plant, milkweed, from freeze damage with a few simple precautions. In November it dipped to 28 degrees one night, but monarchs and milkweed can withstand short intervals of freezing weather as you can see by this male monarch that visited a surviving lantana flower in my yard a few days later.

Different milkweeds have different degrees of freeze sensitivity. Below are listed some of the more common plants and their critical temperatures. Information is available at Monarch Watch's Bring Back the Monarchs milkweed profiles

Desert or Rush Milkweed
Asclepias subulata
10 to 20 degrees

Note: Some areas of the Valley may dip into the teens the next few nights - cover with frost cloth or cloth sheets or bring potted plants under a patio near your house.



Tropical or Bloodflower Milkweed
Asclepias curassavica
Frost tender at 32 degrees

Note: This non-native but monarch favorite is extremely frost sensitive and will freeze at expected low temperatures tonight across the Valley. Depending on where you live it will likely experience extensive frost damage or will not survive a hard freeze.

(See special directions to save A. curassavica cuttings below.)

Pine-needle Milkweed
Asclepias linaria
Freeze damage information not available, but a distribution map indicates this milkweed should be safe from the expected low temperatures.
USDA Pine-needle milkweed distribution in AZ




Narrowleaf or Arizona Milkweed
Asclepias angustifolia
10 to 20 degrees
Note: Some areas of the Valley may dip into the teens the next few nights - cover with frost cloth or cloth sheets or bring potted plants under a patio near your house.


Important! Check your milkweed plants for caterpillars that may not survive the freeze! Look especially for tiny larvae on fresh new growth of Desert or Rush Milkweed and Tropical or Bloodflower Milkweed. I started this pot of A. subulata in late summer but when I looked closely...




...I found three very small queen caterpillars on the new growth. Laura also found a queen caterpillar and Tatsuyo found several monarch larvae. Our warm weather prompted unusual egg-laying by breeding queen and monarch butterflies in the area. Your choices? Leave them and see what happens, or you can move them to a potted plant near your house or indoors.

 If you decide to bring your potted plants with larvae indoors, you can remove any aphids with disposable garden gloves - but watch for hidden small caterpillars. I found another caterpillar that I missed earlier. Placing your plant in a mesh laundry basket available at most grocery stores (I found mine at Fry's Marketplace) helps to limit your caterpillars from wandering away and also keeps any other insects on board contained.

Another option, besides covering frost sensitive plants or providing an alternate heating source such as stringing the old-fashioned, warm Christmas lights around your plants, it to make cuttings. Tropical or Bloodflower Milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, easily regrows from cuttings. Cut a 5 to 6 inch branch of A. curassavica at one of the "bumps" on the long stem and remove any leaves on the lower part of a 2 to 3 inch section. Place this portion in potted soil and water deeply. Some growers recommend keeping a plastic bag loosely over the cuttings for 2 to 3 weeks until they send out new roots. I always use a lot of cuttings since not all will survive. But some is better than none this time of year. Keeping them indoors during this temperature critical time will help with this process.

Will the monarch butterflies in the Phoenix area survive where they are overwintering at Rio Salado, Desert Botanical Garden or near Tempe Marketplace? Only time will tell. Monarchs can survive some freezing temperatures, but no one is sure how deep of a freeze we will have. In most of the small overwintering areas small streams or creeks are helping to moderate the temperatures and every degree of warmth can help their survival. Lets hope the monarchs among us dry off from yesterday's rain (we received 0.55" at my house) before the temperature plunge tonight.

Icicle in our backyard fountain
January 1st UPDATE: We dodge a bullet with the low temperatures the last two nights. Thursday night a cloud cover crawled in around 4:30 a.m. protecting us from temperatures below 27 degrees at my house in Chandler that was matched again last night. But the good news is that both Rio Salado and the Desert Botanical Garden were near 30 degrees, so the monarch butterflies there have a favorable window to make it through this cold spell. The low temperatures hovered for an extended period of time - as we can see by all the freeze burn all around us and today's high will once again remain in the upper 40's. One more night of freezing temperatures, then we'll be warming to daytime highs in the middle 60's and lows in the upper 30's in the next few days.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Monarch Butterflies Find a Winter Oasis in the Desert

Monarch butterflies are streaming into their winter havens in California and Mexico as the sun's angle signals them home. Once again monarchs are also arriving in increasing numbers at the Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Area and the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. Where these monarchs come from is a mystery. Likely they left late on their migration journey or recently eclosed in the area and realized it was time to find a safe place to spend the winter.

Last year volunteers planted 20 Desert Milkweed, Asclepias subulata, near the waterfall at Rio Salado where wintering monarchs frequent. This year both monarchs and queens are reveling in the milkweed and enjoying the habitat. Monarch butterflies are in for a real treat - Rio Salado is the recipient of Audubon's Pennies for the Planet campaign this year! Donations will increase the monarch habitat by planting more varieties of native milkweed with an effective watering system, creating signs about the monarch life cycle and the importance of the local habitat as a safe winter haven for monarchs and forming a docent program to offer continuing information about Rio Salado on weekends. You can find more information to participate in the campaign at the above link or on the Pennies for the Planet FACEBOOK page.  You can also contact me for information about the history of monarchs at Rio Salado or how you can join in the planting festivities in the months ahead. Contact Gail


 Helping the monarchs at Rio Salado is tough work! Tom and others take turns watering the Desert Milkweed by hand throughout the summer months when temperatures neared 115. We hoped when we planted the milkweed that a drip watering system could be added, but with budget restraints and the poor economy slicing city budgets, it was impossible to meet this goal. So five volunteers rotated the responsibility to water, often taking buckets of water from the nearby creek.

It wasn't easy, but we all felt it was worth it! And, that worked until a break in the pump that feeds the water occurred stopping the water. Then we had to haul in gallons of water from home in our cars and trek the water in - exhausting in the heat of summer. But we were determined. We kept our eyes focused on Fall and wings of orange fluttering in the air!  Our dream is to increase the number of milkweed and to create an effective watering system with funding from the Pennies for the Planet campaign to help the monarch butterflies that visit Rio Salado. We hope you will join us in this fun and exciting project!


Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Monarchs in the Phoenix area in late October

They're everywhere! Two weeks ago I wondered where the monarch butterflies were - then the floodgates opened. Finally in October day-time temperatures cooled and monarch sightings surged around the Phoenix area. Monarchs are continuing to visit milkweed thickets and nectar sights around town even as we approach the final week of October.

Even more interesting is the late surge of monarch egg-laying. I know of over 20 nearby larvae or pupae (so there are likely far more), most on Desert Milkweed, Asclepias subulata. Usually we see this activity in September. While a few females were laying eggs then, I haven't heard of any successful offspring. Our record high of 111 likely squashed a successful generation. But now in October we still see monarchs laying eggs with caterpillars and chrysalids around town. A fresh and new looking female laid eggs just two days ago in my yard.

While the monarch breeding activity is continuing in the Phoenix area, migrating monarchs are beginning to reach their overwintering grounds in Mexico and California. Journey North posted a news flash announcing the first arrivals in Mexico. Citizen-scientists and casual observers are reporting monarchs along the California coast. Robert Pacelli gave his permission to share this photo of monarchs gathering yesterday at Pacific Grove. Robert spearheaded an effort to create a restoration habitat after massive pruning crashed the number of overwintering monarchs last year. Early indications are very hopeful with monarchs once again returning in higher numbers. Efforts to save the monarchs make a difference.

Locally, monarch butterflies are beginning to return to a small sanctuary at the Rio Salado Restoration Habitat. Last Saturday and again yesterday we spotted monarchs nectaring on Desert Milkweed, Asclepias subulata, and resting in nearby trees. Monarchs that leave too late to reach the coast of California or Mexico have found a protective haven in this small oasis in the desert the last several years.

With all the local monarch excitement we don't want to lose the wonderful experience Bob and I had in Eagle Pass, Texas. Leslie Gilson, Bob and I joined Carol Cullar, Mary Kennedy monitoring the Eastern monarchs as they moved through Southern Texas into Mexico. We'll post more photos later, but just had to show a small glimpse into a monarch roost of 5,000 in Del Rio, north of the area.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Phoenix Area Monarch Migration

A year ago monarch butterflies were everywhere. Here we are in the middle of the peak time of the annual Fall monarch migration in the Phoenix area - where are they? Queen butterflies (see photo on right) are abundant, but what about their annual family reunion with the monarchs as they pass through Arizona on their way to the coast of California or Mexico?

The first sighting of monarch butterflies was earlier than last year, but the number of monarchs has been lower. The scorching heat of September has likely put a lid on monarch activity around town as well as reproduction. September was the second hottest on record for the Phoenix area and monarchs don't like the heat. Instead of seeing monarchs flourish on milkweed patches, we are finding them hidden, nestled in willow or cottonwood trees near water where temperatures are cooler. We were hopeful that once the heat finally eased on Monday more monarchs would roll in. Perhaps they would have - if two days of severe thunderstorms hadn't dominated the weather! Lashing winds, pounding rain and marble to baseball size hail whipped monarchs wherever they are. Today is the last day of rain in the forecast and now cooler temperatures will dominate our weather. Last year monarchs were visiting milkweed patches around the Phoenix area by October 1st. Keep an eye out now that our weather finally is more favorable.

The monarch news isn't all bleak. Last Friday and again on Sunday a female monarch visited my yard early in the morning. Tatsuyo on South Mountain also saw one in her milkweed patch. Likely others are seeing similar activity. Ten days earlier Laura in South Scottsdale saw a female monarch laying eggs on Desert Milkweed, Asclepias subulata, in her yard. But the record breaking temperatures of 108 prevented any larva.


Bob and I were thrilled to see the monarch on Sunday morning laying eggs on the Desert Milkweed in our yard. (You can see her abdomen depositing eggs on the flower.) Last year we noticed that monarchs frequently lay eggs on the flowers or very fresh new growth of Desert Milkweed, Asclepias subulata. The tiny caterpillars easily eat the soft, fresh growth. As they get larger, the caterpillars can ingest the thicker branches. Both Tatsuyo and I are watching the eggs, hoping for caterpillars. I have three tiny ones from last Friday's egg laying activity that we hope will successfully grow. Stay tuned!

A question that often pops up is how can we tell the difference between a migrating monarch and a reproducing one? Right now in Arizona we likely have both. Migrating monarchs like each other! They are usually found in clusters and males and females are seen together without mating. Their reproductive urges are on hold - they are similar to a pre-adolescent. Sometimes it is easy to spot a female reproducing monarch by their egg-laying activity. Females usually lay eggs in the morning hours and you can spot them by their scooping-like activity around milkweed plants as they search for just the right place to lay their eggs. Reproducing males frequently set up patrols, gliding over milkweed patches over and over again, hoping a female flies into the area. Another difference between reproducing and migrating monarchs is the size of their abdomen. Migrating monarchs can weigh up to double the amount of reproducing monarchs. They nectar heavily to fuel their long migration. In the field you can often spot the thicker abdomen size. Their heavier weight often makes migrating monarchs slower, so they are easier to net and tag.

Want monarch butterflies to visit your yard? Local plant sales begin this weekend! Boyce Thompson Arboretum in Superior and the Desert Botanical Garden both offer various milkweeds, members of the Asclepias family.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Monarchs arrive in Chandler!


Monarch butterflies aren't fond of the heat. Or, so they say. Last weekend we sizzled with record breaking high temps in the Phoenix area of 109, 111 and 106. Tuesday "chilled" into the low 100's. Around 1:30 I was packing my computer for an overnight trip to Southeast Arizona for a presentation at the Southeast Butterfly Association and a monarch tagging trip with the docents at the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum. I glanced up to looked out the window  and thought I was seeing things. Butterflies were busily hopping from flower to flower and there were several queens visiting the milkweed. But what grabbed my eye, though, was the jewel of the butterfly world, my first monarch of the season!

Well, so much for running out the door. I just had to savor this rare visitor. It was 100 degrees and he was resting in the shade on a milkweed plant or from a nearby hanging plant. Bob was home sick but was able to take a wonderful photo of him. We have worked hard over the last few years developing a monarch habitat and it was wonderful to enjoy his presence gliding around the yard, driving off the queens and even another male monarch that visited on Thursday afternoon for a short time. This new little one had a hole in his right wing and was ravishing Desert and Tropical Milkweed when they engaged in a tussle, scuffling high up over the house. Only the original large male returned and stayed another day.

While the monarch stayed in our yard we saw him nectaring on a variety of milkweed flowers, bluemist, lantanta and sweet almond bush.

Even with the high temperatures this week, monarchs are slowly moving in to the Phoenix area. Tomorrow, September 29, begins the peak time of migration for monarch butterflies in the Phoenix area. So keep on eye for large wings of orange in the air! The migration window lasts until October 11th, but remember there will be straglers around for likely another month moving through. For more information about how the peak migration time is determined, see this link: Peak Migration Dates

Yesterday Bob and I tagged a monarch at the Rio Salado Restoration Habitat near Central in downtown Phoenix. He was a weathered male and we found him in the riverbottom nectaring on a Chaste Tree. Much of the monarch over-wintering habitat is suffering from lack of water due to a major break in the watering system that feeds the waterfall. Instead we found this monarch in the river channel where it was significantly cooler. We did spot a queen caterpillar on the Desert Milkweed near the habitat.

Towards the late afternoon we visited the ASU Polytech Campus in Mesa and found the first monarchs entering the area. There were buckets of queen butterflies, but we spotted this monarch cruising through the milkweed patch, nectaring on Desert Milkweed and resting on a mesquite tree.



Bob & I love leading monarch tagging trips. Recently we were in Ajo for the International Day of Peace and had a wonderful time sharing the joy of monarch butterflies - who know no borders. Two weeks ago students from Scottsdale Community College joined us on a tagging expedition to Canelo in SE Arizona. Last week the docents at the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum opened my eyes to a new tagging experience at Canelo - tagging monarchs in the rain! Most people would have cancelled the trip with rain streaming in our faces. But this was a tough crew! They donned raincoats, sloshed in the marsh - and tagged eight monarchs! Yes, we did a bit of butterfly rescue, too. Monarchs wandered from the safety of the canopy of nearby trees to nectar when it drizzled. When a downpour stuck they were stranded, thrown to the tall grasses.We gently picked them up and placed them in the safety of nearby trees, away from a predator's harm. Wonder if tagging hurts monarchs? See this delightful explanation by Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch: How to tag a monarch

Its a busy time for watching and enjoying monarchs! Savor these special jewels of the butterfly world and let us know if you see one.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

As the Temperatures Dip, Monarchs Glide In!

Monarch at Boyce Thompson Arboretum by Laura Miller
Last week the high temps released their grip on us for a few days - and monarch butterflies coasted into the Phoenix area. Bob and I found two monarchs in Mesquite Wash Friday morning. One looked very faded and frail; the other fresh and new. Tatsuyo called early Saturday morning reporting her first monarch of the season on South Mountain. (Funny thing - last year the first monarch arrived on September 11th, too.) We drove to Seven Springs north of Cave Creek and met Christine Lowe there. We spotted one monarch in excellent condition near the campground. When we came home I received an email from Ranger Rebecca at Rio Salado Restoration Habitat reporting two monarch sightings - one near the 7th Street bridge and another near the waterfall. Today Laura Miller found this new-looking male monarch in the Demonstration Garden at Boyce Thompson Arboretum. Slowly, monarch butterflies are moving in to the greater Phoenix area.

The cool window of last week flared into the blazing heat wave of today. Monarch butterflies struggle with high temps. Anything 104 and above is stressful with increasing mortality. Hopefully, the monarchs that are here will find a cooler place in the trees or near water to refresh them a bit. I contacted Dr. Karen Oberhauser at the University of Minnesota, a monarch expert, about the effect of our high temperatures this week, often exceeding 104 degrees. In the laboratory monarchs were studied at high temperatures for a full day, 12 hours of sustained heat, and they mainly studied immatures. Here in Phoenix, adult monarchs are exposed to high temperatures of 104 and above only three to five hours before cooling again. "The adults' lifespans will be shortened, but otherwise they may live/reproduce normally." That's good news for monarchs in the desert. But let's hope it cools before the main migration surge arrives in upcoming weeks.

Freshly eclosed female Queen butterfly
Even though the afternoons are hot, the mornings are not. If you're like me, it's time to get outdoors and garden. Continue watering milkweed well to encourage flowering for the migration rush. Plant monarch nectar plants if you can find them.  Maxmillian sunflowers will bloom soon and other sunflowers are already flowering. Lantana is a butterfly magnet as are zinnias. Avoid trimming Red Bird of Paradise or Baja Fairy Duster - monarchs are frequent visitors. Be careful pruning any bushes near milkweed! This morning I was trimming a Texas Sage that was intruding on a nearby Desert Milkweed when suddenly orange wings fluttered near the ground. A female queen butterfly recently emerged from her chrysalis hidden in the branches! I was frightened that I damaged her wings. So I reached down - when she jumped on my hand. She was fine....whew! Together we walked over to the Maxmillian Sunflowers where she continued to flex her wings to dry before flying off to enjoy her new life several hours later.

Finally, resist the urge to prune or scalp Desert Milkweed! Many landscapers and home owners love a neatly contoured plant. This milkweed was severely pruned last April right before it bloomed. As you can see it still hasn't recovered enough to flower and will likely not be on the monarch butterfly's "visitation list" when they swarm through the Valley during their main migration window. So, look for orange wings gliding above! September 29 through October 11th is the peak time of the monarch migration - but the leaders of the migration pack are visiting now.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Monarchs Arrive at Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix

Male Monarch at Desert Botanical Garden 9-2-10
Monarch butterflies arrived early at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix this year. Despite highs of 111, 109 and 108 degrees over several days, three monarchs rested in the refreshing and cooler tree canopy of the Herb Garden during the hottest time of the day, but occasionally coasted down to a flower. It was surprising to see them so early. I thought the high temperatures would keep them further north. But nighttime temperatures in the low 80's must offer enough relief.

Female Monarch at DBG
When I walked through the garden at first I didn't see any butterflies at all - not too surprising at 3 in
the afternoon with temps near 110. I stopped to look around, then took a step forward. Twenty queen butterflies swooshed into the air! I took another step, again another surge of queens shot up. I've heard of people encountering butterflies like this, but never experienced it myself. My presence obviously startled them, but just for a moment. Then suddenly I saw the familiar orange glide. I was surprised to see one monarch, then another, coast down from nearby trees.

My natural response was to call everyone I knew and ask them to check the large milkweed patches around town, but no other monarchs were found as of today. Last year Tatsuyo, who lives on South Mountain, was the first to see a monarch visiting her vast number of milkweed plants. Over the past week she has seen over 38 queen chrysalids, but no monarchs.  The cooler highs in the 90's and lows in the upper 60's may open the gate of opportunity inviting more monarchs into the greater Phoenix area.

Queen chrysalis on Giant Milkweed
 While monarchs are just entering the Phoenix area, the queen butterfly population is exploding! Everyone is talking about the huge numbers of queens visiting gardens, and milkweeds are brimming with their caterpillars. Just this morning I stepped out into my yard to look at the butterfly activity and when I looked back I found this male queen just emerging from his chrysalis - right under my sliding glass door! He stayed there a few hours before flying to a nearby bush. Sometimes a caterpillar will climb to a mighty peculiar place.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Get ready for monarchs!

Female Monarch

In the desert summer lasts forever! What are signs of Fall? In Northern climates, leaves begin to change colors. Here in the desert, the large and elegant regal orange monarch butterflies appear on their Fall migration!

Male Monarch
Monarch butterflies are the only insect with a long range and impressive annual migration. Tropical in nature, they can only survive in temperatures above freezing. During the summer months monarchs are in their breeding grounds. East of the Rockies monarchs breed in the Northern tier of the United States and Southern Canada. West of the Rockies the breeding grounds are not as well known. We do know that we have several breeding hot spots in Arizona in Springerville, Arivaca Cienega, Canelo, St. David Cienega and likely more. Where these monarchs moved from is not currently known.

2009 Southwest Monarch Study "Recent Sightings"
So, it's time to get ready for the monarchs in Phoenix! Last year they were first spotted at South Mountain on September 10th and the Desert Botanical Garden the next day. What triggered their arrival? Likely two things. First, the peak migration time for the Phoenix area is predicted as the time interval from September 29 through October 11th. Perhaps the best way to look at the migration is a marathon race in the Olympics. When the start signal flares, a few runners surge ahead, then there is the main body of runners, and finally the stragglers. Monarchs seem to have similar movements. The early leaders of the pack can arrive up to thirty days before the time of the peak migration. In the Phoenix area we have a limiting factor - our temperatures. 104 in laboratory studies is a critical temperature when monarch mortality increases. By 108 there is widespread mortality. Last year temperatures cooled around the fifth of September. The monsoons receded and nightime temperatures eased to the low 70's, offering a relief to balance the higher daytime heating. The surge in monarch sightings last year occurred during the week ending September 15th when migrating monarchs began to appear in addition to presence of breeding monarchs around the state. You can also note the second increase of monarchs appeared during the anticipated time of peak migration.

Lantana is a butterfly favorite!
How to get your yard ready so monarch will visit? If you haven't already, lightly fertilize monarch favorite exotic (versus native) nectar plants like lantana, zinnia or Tropical Milkweed. A light dose of Bone Meal or a half strength solution of a liquid fertilizer watered in well will help revive heat ravaged plants. Keep sensitive to high daytime temperatures to avoid burning your plant. Gently trim any straggly growth to encourage new leaves. Again, less is more when the temperatures are high, but light trimming is beneficial to creating new blooms.Take care when you gently trim Tropical Milkweed - queen butterflies are busy laying eggs and you don't want to lose the offspring of these family members of the monarchs.

Female monarch butterfly on marigolds
Taking a few moments now to water deeply, lightly pruning and gently fertilizing can help the flowers monarch butterflies love surge with new growth and lush flowers to welcome these jewels of the butterfly world when they swoop in to our desert gardens.


Monday, August 23, 2010

Monarch Tagging in Springerville

Sunflowers were everywhere you looked!
Bob and I spent five days in the White Mountains last week. The monsoon rains are very abundant this year and some areas even had local flooding.  The entire region is lush and green with roadsides and meadows a blanket of yellow sunflowers, goldenrod and twinkling Asclepias subverticillata urging monarchs to visit. Soon the "leaders of the pack" of the Fall migration will find a feast to fuel their journey through the state.



We visited Wenima Wildlife Area north of Springerville twice, once to recon the area then finally for a monarch tagging event on Saturday. While we usually like to wait until the migratory generation ecloses, we also tag monarchs now to monitor their movements around the state.

We found two faded females laying eggs, one in the field just north of the parking area and another in the north meadow. In general monarchs were scarce, unlike the abundant numbers spotted just a year ago. Bob and I were hoping this was just a fluke on Thursday, but had the same experience on Saturday when Roger Baker drove up from Phoenix and joined Dee and Rich Tuminello from Eager for a monarch tagging event we led for the Southwest Monarch Study. Dee and Rich told us about the heavy rains, even hail, in the entire region, much more intense than previous years. The grasshopper population was incredible, almost like a plague. Ants, a known monarch egg predator, were everywhere.

Roger Baker searching the meadows.
The meadows were lush and tall from the recent rains but we searched and searched all morning.

While the number of monarchs were low, Roger, Dee and Rich had keen eyes and we netted a few monarchs to tag. Most were very tattered and faded, likely from the intense weather they experienced.
We noted the monarch's condition, gender,time of day, weather conditions, then placed a small blue Southwest Monarch Study and the discal cell of their wing.

We found this damaged monarch patrolling a small milkweed patch near the parking area. Most of his wing was missing, yet he was driving off any queen or male monarch that tried to approach "his" milkweed and eagerly looked for a mate despite his ragged condition.

Gail, Dee & Rich Tuminello, and Roger Baker
We may not have found as many monarch butterflies as we had hoped to tag, but we had a grand time anyway! The weather and the abundant flowers were just perfect and we all learned a lot about the monarch migration.