Friday, November 2, 2012

Monarch Butterfly Migration and Day of the Dead

Monarch butterflies are now beginning to reach their migration destination - the overwintering sites near Mexico City and also along the coast of California. Their arrival in Mexico coincides with the celebration of the Day of the Dead, or  Día de los Muertos, a time of festivity honoring loved ones who have already left us. Our celebration of Halloween this week brought this hallmark to life in a very different way for my family.

Queens clustering at night 10-7-12
Earlier we were enjoying the many butterflies in our yard this Fall. Our summer rains brought a large number of queens, gulf fritillaries, sulphurs, swallowtails and other butterflies to enjoy.

Male monarch visiting tithonia today
Then, of course, the monarchs came and made their presence known. And we protected a few of their eggs from predators, watched the caterpillars grow, then tagged them when they emerged from their chrysalis to send them on their way to join other monarchs on their migration.

Last week I was contacted by the Chandler edition of the Arizona Republic about the monarch butterflies visiting my yard. It was featured in last Saturday's paper and on-line this week. Then Halloween arrived.

The trick-or-treaters were late. I was wondering if they would come. After handing out treats at the door, one mother came and asked me about the "Monarch Waystation" sign in my front yard. She had seen an article in the paper about monarchs in Chandler and her family had a long love affair with monarchs that spanned generations. And so I met Sarah, a neighbor also in love with monarchs, who lives just a few blocks away. I can't imagine how many times Bob and I walked right passed her house with our dog. Her story touched my heart (you can read it yourself, here.) I'm looking forward to her family visiting soon. I'm also starting some milkweed to share so Sarah can draw monarchs to her yard, too.
A frayed but hardy monarch that has hung out in the yard for several weeks.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Chasing Monarch Butterflies Around Arizona

Tagged monarch at Tonto Natural Bridge
Bob and I left early  Friday chasing the monarch butterfly migration through Arizona. A few leaders of the pack already arrived in Phoenix in the past week while most of the higher elevations of the state had pockets of breeding monarchs through the late summer. But now the newly eclosed generation of monarchs are feeling the tug to move to their winter homes and migrate in increasing numbers.

Tonto Natural Brid
First stop was Natural Bridge State Park in Pine. Last year Laura found monarch butterflies and we watched for their arrival this summer. Recently we received a limited permit to tag at this site and today we found a few monarchs that we had tagged ten days earlier and were able to net and tag a few more. This family spotted us catching one nectaring on Asclepias subverticillata then helped us tag and release after.We will be working with this State Park for some fun events in the future.

We drove up to Flagstaff and found a sea of yellow! Three weeks earlier monarchs ruled the meadows but now with the cooler temperatures butterflies were scarce even in the warmest time of day.

Asclepias subverticillata seed pods - Flagstaff
 The milkweed that was blooming earlier was now scenescing with seed pods beginning to explode filling the air with tufts.

Male monarch on thistle - Flagstaf
We found one lone freshly eclosed male monarch nectaring on a fresh thistle in the meadow. On our way home we stopped at this same location since it was warmer but we didn't see any monarchs.

Monarch on Rabbitbush - Grand Canyon
We arrived at the Grand Canyon early Saturday. Three weeks earlier monarch butterflies flooded the South Rim, but today numbers were more limited. Rabbitbush was everywhere and the monarchs that were there were all over it.

 In August we were approved for a permit to tag monarchs and monitor milkweed at the Grand Canyon and we were able to tag a few freshly eclosed monarchs.

Monarch caterpillar

We also still found a few 5th instar monarch larvae. A few days earlier Laura was at the Canyon and also saw several.

On Sunday Bob and I trained several National Park Rangers to tag monarchs during the peak of their migration coming soon. We will be working closely with the Grand Canyon National Park in the future to train Rangers as new eyes to monitor monarch butterflies at this location.

Asclepias subverticillata seeds
As we noticed in Flagstaff, milkweed was going to seed rapidly with few still in bloom. Yet there were pockets of fresh stems here and there. Primary nectar for migrating monarchs included huge amounts of rabbitbush, asters and sunflowers everywhere. Sunday brought new monarchs into the Canyon beginning their southward journey.

On the road home we saw roadsides filled with ripe rabbitbush in bloom everywhere, a butterfly's delight.

....and it wasn't limited to the roadsides. Rolling hills of rabbitbush were cascading everywhere you could see, a perfect nectar for the migration.

Mating queen butterflies in mesquite
Our last stop was a wash leading to the Agua Fria. The summer rains fed lush pockets of seep willow, rabbitbush and sunflowers drawing large numbers of queen butterflies. This mating pair flew to a nearby tree as dusk fell. We even saw one large fresh and new looking monarch fly right in front of us, then off to the mesquite thicket.

Drought stricken Gooding Willow trees
Our long drought rattled this canyon wash. Trees were skeletons, but lush new growth began springing to life with our healthy monsoon rains this summer. 

Queen butterfly on camphorweed
The narrow canyon was filled with new shoots of seep willow in bloom and even the camphorweed was covered with queens.

Interested in monarch butterflies in Arizona? Join us at the Hassayampa Preserve in Wickenburg this Saturday for a special program for adults in the morning and for children in the afternoon. Or on Sunday join in our last public tagging field trip for the SW Monarch Study. Meet in Sonoita for a morning of tagging in Canelo. See the Southwest Monarch Study Facebook Page for more information.

Monday, May 14, 2012

A Monarch Spring

Male Monarch nectaring on Calotropis procera
Monarch butterflies ruled the skies in the Phoenix area this Spring and they continue to steal the show as temperatures soar. While monarchs are more common in the Fall and in mild Winters, Spring sightings are more unusual. But our extremely mild temps in January and February created perfect breeding conditions this year for monarch butterflies to flourish.

Monarch pupae 4/19/12
One generation eclosed in late February and early March, another in late April and early May.  A few of the monarchs lingered rather than heading north on their spring migration. I marked some and noted a few were still in my yard three weeks later. When I noticed wasps harvesting the monarch caterpillars to feed to their young, I collected 96 fourth and fifth instars into a large cage to help their odds of survival. This is one of the corners of the cage when they formed their chrysalids.

Monarch pupae
When our first 100 degree day in Phoenix arrived in April and forecasters predicted 104 the next day, I decided to bring the pupae inside. At a conference a few years ago, I talked to Dr. Karen Oberhauser of the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project about the effect of high temperatures on monarch larvae. In her studies she found that high temperatures of 104 and above were often fatal to caterpillars. While the temperatures were held constant in her study, unlike our cooler dry desert nights even when reach 100+ temps during the day, I didn't want to take any chances.
We found pupae around the yard in some pretty funny places wherever we looked, like this one on a piece of wood....

...or on an irrigation valve...

...or on the propane tank when we went to light the grill. We found them on the back of chairs, hanging from the patio cover, hanging even from a tablecloth!

We were very fortunate that of  96 pupae, 94 new monarchs eclosed well over several days in May.


This morning I stepped out to water the milkweed in pots under a tree. With temps climbing to over 100 degrees again, I thought I'd look once again for larvae. I found five fourth and fifth instars....

...then a female monarch flew in and laid more eggs, oblivious to my presence. So, the cycle begins again. Never before have I seen monarch egg-laying so late in the year here in the desert. Most may not survive with our sizzling temps the next few days. But since the beginning of this year just over 300 new monarchs did. It is definitely a monarch butterfly Spring!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Plant Sales in the Air - Help the Monarchs!

A few days ago I was working in the yard when this ragged male monarch butterfly arrived. His faded, ripped wings stood in sharp contrast to the many freshly eclosed monarchs around. He had quite an attitude zipping around, trying to drive out the other butterflies. How many monarchs would choose to rest on the top of a fence to have a good view over the territory? Then I remembered how close we are to the time of the Spring Migration. Monarchs should be arriving soon from both from Mexico and California passing through Arizona. They are already spotted in Southern Texas. What better way to get ready for their visit than to infuse your Monarch Waystation with new milkweeds and nectar with all the plant sales beginning this week?

Male Monarch
Start your plant list with the new Low Desert Monarch Waystation publication we just created on the SW Monarch Study web page. You'll find milkweeds that grow well here as well as recommended nectar sources. You can find photos of milkweed on the site as well. 

Red Admiral
 Many nurseries recommend Butterfly Bush but seasoned gardeners in the low deserts find it doesn't grow well here and it is not included on the list. Our summer heat is insurmountable for some species. But, I did find one Butterfly Bush that thrives here with afternoon shade - a definite keeper. It is a cultivar only available and created at Boyce Thompson Arboretum. The pale Spring lilac blooms are profuse and fragrant - and covered with butterflies. This morning I found eight butterflies feasting  including several monarchs, red admirals (three on the plant this morning!), queens, gulf fritillaries, and a West Coast Lady. Plus hummingbirds love it, too!

So take a few moments and visit some of the upcoming Spring Plant Sales for great selections for your garden:
  • Boyce Thompson Arboretum near Superior:  March 10 to 25 (Members only March 9)
  • Desert Survivors in Tucson:  March 10 to 18 (Members only), March 17 & 18 (Public)
  • Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix: March 16 (Members only), March 17 & 18 
  • Tohono Chul in Tucson:  March 31 & April 1
If you'd like to learn more about the exciting monarch migration through Arizona stop by the SW Monarch Study table this weekend at the Tres Rios Nature Festival at the Estrella Mountain Regional Park near Phoenix. We'll have great educational information as well as activities for children.

If you are a teacher, scout or 4-H leader, anyone interested in learning more about monarch butterflies in Arizona sign up for Monarch Educator Workshop at the Valley Verde Birding and Nature Festival in Cottonwood on Saturday, April 28. This is a great opportunity to learn more details about the monarch life cycle, the migration through Arizona and monarch citizen science opportunities.

You can also see up to the minute news about monarchs on the Southwest Monarch Study Facebook page. This is a public page - you don't need a Facebook account to access.

The SW Monarch Study also has a discussion group to share monarch related sightings and new studies in more detail. You can learn more about this group and join here.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Time To Plan Your Monarch Waystation

Female Monarch on Arizona Milkweed, Asclepias angustifolia
It's March 1 and our official last frost date for the Phoenix area - now we can dream about trimming overgrown bushes and Spring planting. Spruce up your Monarch Waystation with fresh, new milkweeds and add some perennial nectar sources as well as your annual favorites. Its easy to go overboard both in trimming and planting this time of year, so take a few moments to plan now before the Spring Plant Sales around town begin next week.

Queen larva in "J"
Be careful when trimming back existing plants. Our warm winter was perfect for both monarch and queen butterflies to stay around town and now they are breeding. While making room for some new annuals, I luckily spotted this queen larva in a "J" formation hidden under a leaf. Now it is a beautiful pupa. Both queen and monarch larvae can wander 30 feet or more from the milkweed they devoured. Look for them in dangerous places, too. I rescued two from my pool right on the water and another floating down the rocky stream in my pond towards the pump.

Scalped Desert Milkweed, Asclepias subulata
Restrain yourself when using new sheers or power trimmers. More is not necessarily best. Native milkweeds do not need sheering. I've seen more scalping of desert milkweed by well meaning people lately. The new growth that occurs is usually only a fraction of the old plant and often is too weak to even support hungry larvae. Plus pruning plants now mean you'll miss the unique opportunity for spring egg-laying by both monarch and queen butterflies this year.

Desert Milkweed, Asclepias subulata

Instead, water all milkweeds more frequently for the next month to encourage fresh growth after our dry winter. Female monarchs frequently lay eggs on fresh new "leaves" and this is the perfect food for the tiny caterpillars. They usually cannot chew the thicker milkweed stalks until they are 4th and 5th instar larvae. More water will encourage a quicker bloom and females will often lay their eggs on the flowers as well.

Monarch larvae
In case you are wondering if there are many monarchs around to visit your yard, rest assured there are plenty! After our warm spell in early January a female came through and laid over 100 eggs in my yard. With the gusty, high winds this week I brought a few inside.

First monarch of spring!
Earlier just over 20 monarchs eclosed and today alone ten new butterflies did also. So, yes, there will be plenty of monarchs around town this spring based on what I am seeing!

Get your garden ready and enjoy the butterflies that visit. Join us (Southwest Monarch Study) on a Field Trip this Saturday to Desert Survivor's Plant Nursery in Tucson. The tour will be led by Nursery Director Jim Verrier and you'll learn how to grow the best Monarch Waystation and Butterfly Garden in the desert. Meet in the parking lot (1020 West Starr Pass Boulevard) at 9:30. We'll have Monarch Waystation brochures and planting information available to start your list. We will also have a carpool from the Phoenix area meeting at Papago Buttes Church of the Brethren, 2450 N. 64th Street in Scottsdale. (Northwest corner of 64th St & Oak.) Meet at 7:15 a.m. - we leave promptly at 7:30 a.m. Bring a sack lunch, water and snacks.

You can also plan ahead and download our SW Monarch Study publication: Low Desert Monarch Waystations. We'll be creating publications for other elevations in Arizona soon. Jim Verrier will share information at Desert Survivors about milkweeds he has for higher elevations as well.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Breeding Monarch Butterflies in Phoenix - in January?

Female monarch feeding on tithonia
Seeing monarch butterflies around town? Monarch butterflies are out and about all over the greater Phoenix area with the warmer weather this winter. This week monarchs were spotted flying in Anthem while others were found in Ahwatukee. People are delighted and excited to find these graceful creatures fluttering and feeding in their yards.While parts of the Valley experienced a light dusting of  frost a few weeks ago, there are still plenty of flowers available for nectar, too.

Laying eggs on Arizona Milkweed, Asclepias angustifolia
 More unusual is finding monarch caterpillars in January - or monarchs laying eggs. Monarch butterflies are tropical by nature and undergo their long migration in the fall to spend the winter in Mexico or the coast of California. Their migration is influenced by the angle of the sun and other factors. But  monarchs that eclose in late November or December lose this celestial affect, so they often spend the winter in mild climates like we have in Phoenix. Monarchs in winter are usually in state of reproductive diapause  - they are not mating or laying eggs as a survival mechanism this time of year until Spring. How diapause works is not completely understood in monarchs.  Some scientists feel it is controlled by temperatures, others by the presence of milkweed (monarch host plant) or length of day.  Since September I've enjoyed monarch butterflies in my yard but haven't noted any egg-laying since the early days of November. This week that changed - I spotted this female (eclosed December 30th, tagged #60400) laying eggs on every milkweed she could find in my yard.

Dr. Chip Taylor, Director of Monarch Watch, explains: "Migratory monarchs are in what is known as reproductive diapause. This simply means that the butterflies have suspended reproduction. This condition is very labile, that is to say, easily broken. The non-reproductive condition is probably maintained by a balance of hormones (specifically one called "juvenile hormone" that triggers reproduction) and enzymes that break down this hormone. The diapause system breaks down, i.e.reproduction starts, when the butterflies are exposed to winter temperatures in the high 70s and low 80s over a few days. Warm nights and days accelerate the process. Monarchs can go from being non-reproductive to being ready to lay eggs in 4-5 days. Some of my colleagues believe that the presence of milkweeds in the winter is sufficient to trigger reproduction. Perhaps, but it is difficult to design experiments that separate a response to plants from that of temperature alone. Our experiments suggest that low temperature is both the main initiator and maintainer of diapause in monarchs. Once in diapause, monarchs exhibit a number of behaviors that seem to be designed to keep their body temperature and metabolism from becoming elevated. Once butterflies in transit become reproductive, the behavior shifts from migratory to local, mating occurs and females begin looking for milkweed plants."
Monarch egg on Desert Milkweed, Asclepias subulata.
Remember our warm temps reaching the low 80's the first days of January? They could easily have triggered some monarchs to break diapause, mate and lay eggs around town. So, check your milkweed and look and enjoy the breeding monarchs that visit your yard. As long as we avoid a hard freeze we may delight in finding new monarch caterpillars soon!