Friday, December 30, 2011

Phoenix Area Monarch Butterflies

Late Wednesday afternoon Bob and I went out to cover our plants for one more night of possible freezing temperatures. As I walked by the Sweet Almond tree, Aloysia virgata, I saw a flutter of orange on the ground - a freshly eclosed male monarch attempting its first flight. The temperatures were already dropping and its wings were not fully hardened. As I looked up at the tree, I spotted this dark monarch chrysalis. The previous night the temperatures dipped to 31 degrees and I wasn't sure if the chrysalis was viable so I brought it inside. (The monarch eclosed two hours later successfully.) As I lifted the frost cover in another part of the yard to cover more plants another freshly eclosed monarch flapped its wings in greeting! All this activity is so rare for the end of December in the Phoenix area.

Last week I shared that a female monarch #60061 tagged on 11/19 (eclosed 11/18) in my backyard was seen in Kino Bay, Sonora on 12/14 by Gail Rochlin. Scientists have learned that temperatures and sun angle are important triggers of the monarch migration among other factors.  The celestial influence weakens in late November and most directional flight ceases by the beginning of December. Here you can see monarch #60421 tagged in my yard on 11/25 (eclosed 11/24) sunning and later nectaring on tithonia still in my yard yesterday. That is a difference of only six days of when they eclosed. The sun angle for #60061 was 37.31. The sun angle for #60421 was 35.99. One migrated. One stayed. There likely isn't an exact migration cut-off date or maybe one of these bugs just didn't read the "how to migrate rules" to follow. Just interesting stuff.

With warming temperatures climbing to the mid-70's for the next week we will hopefully see more butterfly activity. Check out the activity we saw at Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Area in Phoenix yesterday: 

If you decide to visit Rio Salado, please stay on the trails and enjoy this natural wonder. Touching, capturing or removal of monarch butterflies, or future eggs, larvae or pupae is prohibited by law and hidden cameras are recording the area for the preservation of the habitat.

We've had a cool December in the Phoenix area and many people are still reporting monarch larvae, pupae and adults around town in Paradise Valley, Phoenix, Scottsdale, Chandler, Mesa and Ahwatukee. Monarchs are tropical by nature and are affected by freezing temperatures. Unless we have a hard freeze there is a chance some of these monarchs may survive our winter this year. (The National Weather Service Winter Outlook  gives a glimpse of the next few months in Arizona.) It's a good idea to keep some of the favorite nectar plants of monarchs around to encourage them to visit your yard on warm, sunny days. Besides lantana and verbena which can look a bit cold stressed this time of year, look for some of these nectar favorites still available in local nurseries:

 Fern-leaf Lavender, Lavandula minutolli
(Monarchs are picky about lavenders - this is the only lavender we see them use for nectar.)

Marigolds, Tagetes spp.

Baja Fairy Duster, Calliandra californica

Calendulas, Calendula spp.


Thursday, December 22, 2011

Monarch Butterfly From Chandler, AZ Flies to Kino Bay, Sonora, MX

Female monarch nectaring on Asclepias subulata
Fall in the Phoenix area is an exciting time to watch a new monarch butterfly emerge from its chrysalis. It takes several hours for its wings to harden to be able to fly. As the season progresses, sometimes I wait until the following day before tagging them with the blue tag of the SW Monarch Study and sending them on their way. So on November 19 that is just what I did. The day before a beautiful female monarch was born and on the 19th I affixed tag #60061 to her wing and wished her well on her journey. She stayed around feeding on the nectar of flowers in my garden for a few days and then left my yard like over 100 other monarchs before her. I always wonder, where will this one go? The SW Monarch Study has learned that monarch butterflies migrating through Arizona fly to both the overwintering sites in Mexico and also to the coast of California. But despite tagging thousands of monarchs, very few have ever been recovered.

On Wednesday, December 14, Gail Rochlin of Tucson was enjoying her condo in Kino Bay, Sonora, Mexico. She saw a monarch nectaring on a plentiful bank of flowering bouganvillea. Gail spotted a blue tag and was able to read the number #60061 and contacted me. Little did I know at the time this monarch came from my own backyard. You can see where #60061 flew on the map of the SW Monarch Study recoveries.

Gail Rochlin learned about the Southwest Monarch Study at a talk I gave at the Tucson Botanical Garden in Tucson last year. So when she saw the blue tag, she immediately emailed me. I was excited to hear of a recovery in Mexico - then thrilled when I learned this monarch came from my own backyard!

It is unusual to see a monarch migrate so late in the season. Migration is influenced by temperature and celestial orientation (sun angle) as well as other cues. Most monarchs stop their migrational movement by the first week of December so it is likely this female had been in the Kino Bay area for the past week. The celestial influence decreases by the end of November, although exactly when is unclear. We looked at the temperatures, wind speed and direction from the time #60061 was tagged in Chandler through the beginning of December and could find nothing that would push her to Kino Bay nor draw her there. The cool temperatures during the time period would likely keep this butterfly in reproductive diapause, common for migrating monarch butterflies during the winter months. Gail Rochlin said this monarch was in good condition when she spotted her. A breeding monarch would likely have faded wings by this time from laying eggs under the leaves of milkweed plants in the area. A special thank you to Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch for his keen educator questions to help us understand a little more about this unique recovery. He also pointed out that the route this monarch flew was very rugged and likely offered little nectar along the way.

Male monarch nectaring on tithonia
If you would like to create a Monarch Waystation in your yard, pick up a copy of the January issue of Phoenix Home and Garden magazine. Our monarch haven is the backyard garden feature for the month. You can also see a shorter version of the article in this link: Phoenix Home & Garden Monarch Garden If you create a milkweed banquet, the monarchs will come!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Rio Salado Monarch Habitat Restoration

We arrived early, just as the sun evaporated the last of the night from the sky. Gathering from near and far, carrying picks and shovels, we walked in the early dawn light down the hill. We came to restore what had once been a thriving winter habitat for a small number of monarch butterflies each year. Last July a fire reduced the area to ashes, destroying the canopy of trees that protected the visiting monarchs from the extreme temperatures here in the desert.

 Riparian trees are not easy to buy in Arizona. So Lynn Krabbe and Bruce Kilbride volunteered to haul trees and other plants from Desert Survivor's Nursery.  The four of us (including Bob) spent most of a day driving to and from Tucson with a trailer and 40 pots. Desert Survivor's also donated twenty fabric recyclable bags to the volunteers helping that day.

Twenty-eight volunteers arrived to start healing the habitat that chilly Friday morning. Budget cuts limited the availability of Rio Salado staff, so we reached out to the Master Gardeners, Sierra Club and other members of the community interested in monarch conservation. Their excitement and enthusiasm warmed our hearts and we completed the planting in record time, twice as fast as we had planned.

 The digging wasn't always easy but the rocky river terrain and steep slopes didn't stand in their way.

When we finished we worked with city workers to make sure irrigation lines were in place. Then we gave all the new trees and shrubs a deep drink.

 The day before, eight fresh and new monarch butterflies eclosed from their chrysalis in my yard in Chandler. To celebrate our planting day,  I brought them to Rio Salado and one by one everyone present helped us tag each butterfly with their own unique number of the Southwest Monarch Study. We also tested each one for Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, O.e., a disease unique to monarch and queen butterflies. This will be sent to Monarch Health to be part of a national study.

We hope many of the monarchs will spend the winter at Rio Salado. Earlier taggings by the Southwest Monarch Study show Arizona monarchs fly to Mexico and California during their migration. But a few in November always stay at Rio Salado. Further taggings and study may help us learn why.

Thank you to the 28 volunteers, the city staff at Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Area and the many people behind the scenes that are keeping a bit of wilderness alive in the greater Phoenix area.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Monarchs are Plentiful Around Town

Gracin & Noah 10-30-11
North winds usually open the gate for monarch butterflies and last week was no exception. Monarchs were the talk of the town as sightings of these delightful creatures surged. Nature lovers in Mesa, Phoenix, Tempe, Scottsdale and Wickenburg were reporting sightings and a few were still seeing females laying eggs. Our warm Fall temperatures likely triggered some monarchs to break their non-reproductive state typical of the migration into creating another generation. Chrissy netted a monarch to tag in Wickenburg then took this photo of her son, Noah, and neighbor, Gracin, cherishing their close encounter with their monarch before it flew on its way.

Photo by Debbie Blunt 10-28-11

Earlier Debbie Blunt spotted a monarch at the Wickenburg Community Hospital. A few days later she spotted another.


Last Thursday I found two monarch caterpillars devouring Desert Milkweed, Asclepias erosa, outside the Butterfly Pavilion at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. Earlier in the morning a large queen caterpillar larvae joined them.

Again in my backyard I found a female laying eggs on Halloween. She was almost on the pool deck trying to find the perfect leaf she targeted on this milkweed.

If you have milkweed in your yard but you aren't sure if you have any monarch caterpillars, look for their "signs."  While you can't look for footprints like you can for animals, you can look for leaves that are chewed or slight skeletonizing of leaves. Usually small caterpillars are munching on the under side. Or look at the ground near your plants. In this photo you can see caterpillar droppings (poop) we eloquently call "frass." 

If you follow the frass up you can often find the "culprit" to enjoy.

I also received questions wondering about the survival of the monarchs in our fierce wind storm last Friday with gusts over 50 mph. I found two monarchs visiting the flowers in my yard on Saturday and Sunday and they looked pretty good. Others are saying the same. The cooler weather should put a lid on breeding around town and the developmental stages will also slow in response, too. Enjoy these last days of the monarch season.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Monarch Butterflies in the Phoenix Area

Laura's monarch 10-25-11
Laura called me yesterday excited to see a female monarch butterfly laying eggs in her yard in Scottsdale. She was sitting on the ground looking at her milkweed searching for caterpillars, when a female appeared and eagerly looked for the perfect spot to lay her eggs. Monarch butterflies usually lay their eggs on the under side of a milkweed leaf, often on the newest and freshest growth. Funny thing, I was watching the same thing in my yard.
On Sunday morning this ragged-winged lady visited my yard laying eggs on every available milkweed. It seems like the same monarch was laying more eggs yesterday on Arizona Milkweed, Asclepias angustifolia, near my house. She flew in early and nectared on lantana and zinnias, then began choosing her milkweeds for a  future generation. The only problem is this is really late in the season for this kind of behavior. The usual life cycle of egg-larva-pupa-adult is about 30 days and it is all temperature controlled. With our cooler weather finally arriving today it can take longer. By now most monarchs are arriving or near their overwintering homes near Mexico City or the coast of California.

Reports of monarchs in the Phoenix area are the highest we have heard in recent years. But they are later than usual. Everyone seems to have hungry monarch caterpillars in their yards. If you have milkweed, check your plants for small areas of skeletonizing on your leaves or small holes - often there is a tiny caterpillar chewing there.

Laura's third instar monarch caterpillar
 Earlier in the day Laura found this third instar monarch larva in her yard. By the different sizes we know more than one female likely visited her yard. I know I have seen at least six female monarchs laying eggs in my yard since the beginning of September. While usually I have around 20 monarch caterpillars in a good year, this year I am now over 125 caterpillars! Just amazing. And Tatsuyo on South Mountain is over 100 already. These numbers are extraordinary in the Sonoran Desert.

Asclepias angustifolia
Monarch larvae are vulnerable to many predators. While a female monarch may lay up to 400 eggs in her lifetime, only about 10% will complete the full life-cycle to an adult butterfly. Ants can eat eggs, parasitic wasps can lay their eggs in the caterpillar itself, wasps can harvest the larvae to feed their young. I always try to protect a few caterpillars on one-gallon potted plants in a simple mesh laundry basket on my back patio to increase their chances of survival.

To transfer tiny caterpillars easily, either cut the leaf and move it to the new plant or use a soft, firm brush to easily move them.

Keep your eyes out for monarch pupa in odd places around the yard. Sometimes you can find them where you least expect them. Often caterpillars will wander up to 30 feet away to pupate.

Monarch sightings are higher than usual in Scottsdale, along the Salt River channel, and South Mountain. Monarchs are already reported in Yuma and Tucson, too. Of course you can also see monarch butterflies at the exhibit at the Desert Botanical Garden until mid-November.
Keep your eyes open for blue-tagged monarchs. Many have been tagged by the Southwest Monarch Study around town to monitor their migration movements throughout the state.  We are all citizen-scientists and by our keen eyes we can help better understand the monarch migration through Arizona.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Milkweed Fall Plant Sale Check List

Fall in the Sonoran Desert is like Spring in the rest of the country - the perfect time to run to the nearest plant nursery and help your garden shine. Our soil is still warm, encouraging rapid root growth. It's a great time to create a wonderful wildlife refuge in your yard, no matter the size. Over the past few weeks at workshops around the state everyone has been asking where to find milkweed to help the monarch butterfly migration. Here is a list of plant sales and anticipated milkweed availability.

Desert Milkweed, Asclepias subulata
Best for the lower deserts including the greater Phoenix area, Yuma and Tucson. Thrives in full sun. Water twice weekly the first two years, then weekly deeply. Native plant, evergreen.
Desert Botanical Plant Sale (10/15 & 16)
Boyce Thompson Arboretum (Now through 10/23)
Baker's Nursery, Phoenix
Shady Way Nursery, Apache Junction
Master Gardener Plant Sale - Extension Office, Phoenix. 10/22

Arizona or Narrowleaf Milkweed, Asclepias angustifolia
In the Phoenix area grows best in the shade or with morning sun only. Native plant, evergreen. Water twice a week the first year, then weekly deeply.

In previous years this monarch favorite was offered at the Desert Botanical Garden plant sale (10/15 & 16). However my request for information regarding availability is unanswered as of this time. It's worth a trip to see if it is, though. The only other plant nursery that I know of that carries this shade blooming plant is Desert Survivors in Tucson (right off of  I-10 Exit 259 in Tucson.)

 Tropical Milkweed, Asclepias curassavica
In the Phoenix area grows best with morning sun, afternoon shade. A non-native (native to Mexico) but a monarch magnet.  Available in orange and yellow flowers and also an all yellow cultivar that is hardy in colder temperatures. Frost tender but often will regrow from roots.
Desert Botanical Plant Sale (10/15 & 16)
Boyce Thompson Arboretum (Now through 10/23)
Easily grown from seed. (Butterfly Encounters)

 Pine-leaf Needle Milkweed, Asclepias linaria
This milkweed does best with some afternoon shade in the warmest parts of the desert. In Southeast Arizona monarchs use this milkweed extensively as a host plant. In the Phoenix area we do not see as much larval activity, but it is a strong monarch nectar plant. We need more data on this milkweed. Let us know if you see monarch activity on this native milkweed.
Usually found at the Desert Botanical Garden (10/15 & 16), Shady Way Nursery in Apache Junction, Boyce Thompson Arboretum (Now through 10/23).

Giant Milkweed or Sodom Apple, Calotropis procera
A non-native milkweed originating in Africa and found in Mexico. One of the few milkweeds that will die back in winter then vigorously regrow in Spring. This milkweed has spectacular fragrant flowers that bloom all summer and seed pods the size of grapefruits. Takes full sun well with deep watering.

Available only at Baker Plant Nursery in Phoenix.

 Many milkweeds grow easily from seed. Some of the milkweeds listed above are available at  Butterfly Encounters. In addition there are two non-native milkweed species from Africa that grow well here in the Phoenix area: Swan Plant, Asclepias fruticosa and Goose Plant, Asclepias Physocarpa. If you make the decision to grow non-native milkweeds, be sure to always grow natives also. Seasoned butterfly gardeners find natives withstand our desert climate extremes most successfully.

Monarchs need milkweed, and if you provide it for them, they will find it. It's a little work on your part, but when they reward you with their presence, you'll find it was well worth the effort.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Monarch Migration in Phoenix

I didn't know that she came but found the fruits of her labor. It was exciting to see the first male monarch butterfly visit my garden in early September (9/14) and surprising to see a female monarch laying eggs on Arizona Milkweed, Asclepias angustifolia, two days later. Hours later before dinner, my son Brian and I went out to see how many eggs we could find. I didn't see her lay many that morning.

Instead of just eggs, we started finding small second instar monarch caterpillars in the milkweed flowers! Not just a few - they were everywhere. While a female monarch can lay 500 eggs in her life time, predators will affect many and less than 10% will become a new butterfly. Earlier we already planned to bring some of the eggs and caterpillars to a protected environment to give them a better chance for survival. We knew we likely would not find them all. Luckily I already had many kinds of milkweed in one gallon containers as well as others planted in the garden so I could easily move the eggs, caterpillars and milkweed to a mesh hamper to protect them.

I never, ever expected to find so many monarch larvae around my yard! Usually ten to twenty monarch caterpillars are good numbers in our desert gardens. Instead I kept finding more and more larvae wherever I looked in different milkweed patches. Yesterday I tried to get a better grasp on the numbers. There are 50 pupae on this "tree", seven new pupae in the hamper, seven larvae were now making silk pads and there were at least 21 5th instar larvae still on outside milkweed plants.

Yesterday the first six eclosed. Five were females and one male. So a couple of  female monarchs left over 80 eggs in my yard! By using degree days, we figured the first female likely came through the yard on Sunday, September 11, while I was out of town. The second female arrived September 16th. In previous years we didn't see egg-laying until the beginning of October during the time of the peak monarch migration through the Phoenix area.  
So keep your eyes open during this premier time of the monarch migration through the greater Phoenix area! For a time we will likely see breeding and migrating monarchs around town. With the cooler weather heading our way and the winds shifting to a more favorable direction, look for monarchs in the air. Don't forget to look in unusual places, too, for any eggs, larvae or pupae they may leave behind during their short time with us.

You can read more about the status of the monarch migration and population this year on the Monarch Watch Blog by Dr. Chip Taylor. How can you help? Grow milkweed! Start your planting list for the Fall plant sales today.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Monarch Watch Open House

When you think of monarch butterflies the first thing that likely comes to mind is Monarch Watch! This year is Monarch Watch's 20th anniversary and Bob and I flew out to Lawrence, Kansas, to join their celebration last Saturday.

Habitat is everything to monarch butterflies. Create a lush banquet of milkweed and rich nectar and monarchs will be there. Butterflies of every kind were visiting the garden created and tended by Douglas County Master Gardeners at Monarch Watch at University of Kansas. Monarchs were in abundance feeding and laying eggs on multiple milkweed species. No monocultures here!

The Open House draws over 500 children and with parents and other adults, a crowd of 1,000 was possible. Preparations were in the air on Friday morning when we first stopped by. Master Gardeners were tending the garden and helping with flower arrangements.

We jumped in to help. Bob mixed the mixture for seed balls for families to shape and take home then made a few samples.
Dr. Chip Taylor, Director of Monarch Watch, wanted every child who visited to take home a monarch chrysalis.

So Ann Ryan showed us how to tie dental floss on the cremaster so the chrysalis would easily hang for children to watch eclose. We prepared about 200 to get a head start on the day. These small treasures were the hit of the Open House - everyone wanted one to take home!


Volunteers and students arrived to move large pots of  milkweeds and plants available for purchase.

 The weather was just perfect on Saturday for the Open House with sunny skies with highs in the mid-70's. The children loved the many activities set up in the area. In particular the face-painting was a big hit as were the Jayhawks tattoos.

Monarch-related games were busy, too.

 The Biohouse was filled with people exploring the many butterflies and moths in the air.

 Dr. Chip Taylor delighted everyone with tagging demos......

....Then challenged everyone to think about what a monarch would do under water....

Golden moments to touch, feel, and experience nature at her finest!