Bienvenue et au revoir: Wildlife Wednesday, November 2019

It’s November and my garden is still in active flowering and life giving mode.  In recent weeks I’ve said a happy howdy y’all to a resurgence of Gulf Fritillary butterfly larvae and a slightly regretful, but ultimately joyful so long ’til next spring to migrating Monarch butterflies.  That’s the wildlife gardening way: seasonal change is more than an onslaught of blooms or a conversion of foliage color.  It’s also about the cyclic lives of those dependent upon plants for their survival, as well as the fostering of a healthy environment in which wildlife will thrive.

I’m pleased to report that there are scads of Gulf FritillaryAgraulis vanillae butterfly larvae currently chowing down on my passion vine foliage.

Welcome to the passion vine buffet!

I’m fine with the dining on the leaves, but I wish the cats would leave the budding blooms alone.

Many Gulf fritillary larvae are busily munching, when earlier in the season there was a dearth of larvae activity, which you can read about in my September Wildlife Wednesday post.

I was perplexed at that time, because adult butterflies were clearly laying eggs and some caterpillars were hatching and working the vine.  But there were few caterpillars surviving to chrysalis stage and at least some were clearly parasitized during their later instars.  That the foliage wasn’t eaten as vigorously as is typical piqued my curiosity, but after some observation and reading, I concluded wasps were the culprits, preying on the caterpillars and reducing their numbers.  As with all natural cycles, the tide has apparently turned: there are significantly fewer wasps around and the Gulf Fritillaries are in ascendance.

Monarchs On The March!

It’s more like they’re on the wing–winging their way north, that is.  A quick bit of news about the North American Monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus, from Texas Butterfly Ranch:

http://texasbutterflyranch.com/2015/03/29/let-the-migration-begin-milkweeds-sprout-as-monarch-butterflies-arrive-in-texas/

Scientists and citizen scientists report that the Monarchs left their wintering roosts in the mountains of Michoacán, Mexico on March 24th.   Whoop!!   My garden is  ready for the incredible migratory insects with Tropical Milkweed, Asclepias curassavica that overwintered in my gardens and is sprouting new growth,IMGP6681.new

…and a couple of new, one-gallon plants of the same, with more foliage, ready for eggs and larvae.IMGP6685.new

Additionally, Austin’s fabulous local nursery, Barton Springs Nursery, now has a regular supplier of native milkweed and my gardening/blogging buddy, TexasDeb at austin agrodolce, kindly picked up a couple of A. tuberosa for me recently, which I popped into the ground this past weekend.

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The Asclepias species of plants are the host plant for the Monarch, which cannot survive without it.  I’ve ordered a flat of native milkweed to plant in my spot of the world and to share, from monarchwatch.org, but I don’t know when it will arrive.  That organization is now selling four-inch pots of native milkweed throughout North America, with delivery dates in spring.  I hope I receive the milkweed soon, preferably before the Monarchs arrive in Central Texas, but if not, the plants will be here in  fall and hopefully, beyond.

The Monarchs headed to Central Texas are those who left Canada in September, migrated southward across North America and into Mexico for winter. They are the longest surviving Monarch generation, living 7 to 9 months. That generation will migrate to and mate in Texas, lay eggs and die. Monarchs lay their eggs on the milkweed plants, the larvae eat, grow,  morph to adulthood and the adults of the next generation move northward, ending in the last Monarch generation of the year hatching in late summer.  That generation  leaves Canada in August/September and migrates several thousand miles south  to Mexico for winter.

It’s a cool and wet spring in Texas this year with lots of blooms, native and otherwise, which is good for the “first” generation that will hatch in the coming 6-8 weeks. Whether there is enough milkweed for the parents to lay eggs is the question and only time and population increase, will tell.  I wrote about the precarious situation of this remarkable insect here, if you’d like to know more about their plight.

You can follow the northward migration by reading Monarch Butterfly Journey North.

Here they come!

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Milkweed Flats

Milkweed flats.

No, it’s not a charming name for some geographical feature out here in the Wild West. Instead, it’s a possible remedy, though by no means a complete solution, for the imperiled  migrating North American Monarch butterfly.  Monarchwatch.org is an education, conservation and research organization benefitting the Monarch butterfly.  One of their newer projects is a “milkweed market” where they’re supplying flats of native milkweed plugs, specific to region, for sale to interested gardeners and citizen scientists.

The Monarch requires the milkweed, Asclepias, species for its survival.  The females lay their eggs on the milkweed plant, the larvae eat at that plant (and that plant ONLY).  The larvae form into the chrysalides, hatch into adults, and the cycle continues with the next breeding generation.  Adult Monarchs can feed from a variety of nectar sources, though they typically prefer native plants and wildflowers.  The larvae?  Those green/black/yellow cats only have jaws for milkweed.  All this eating, morphing, flying, and breeding occurs during the remarkable 2000-3000 mile yearly migration: winter in Mexico, flying through Texas in spring, then upwards through the mid-West to Canada in the summer, back again through Texas in autumn, finally to their mountain habitat in Mexico for winter.

The availability of native milkweed is in severe decline because of habitat destruction throughout the United States and Mexico, the use of Monsanto produced Roundup for the Roundup-resistant genetically modified seeds in the mid-West, (which has destroyed huge areas of not only native milkweed, but other flowering annuals and perennials), ongoing drought in Texas, as well as other changes in weather patterns. With declining milkweed, comes declining Monarch population.  Adding to those difficulties, “milkweed” is not a monolithic plant; its various species are endemic to particular areas and not easily propagated.

If I can beg further patience, I’ll get to the milkweed flats….

The most common milkweed species found in American plant nurseries is the Tropical Milkweed, Asclepias curassavica,  and is not native to the continental U.S.  I’ve never read why it’s the most commonly sold, I just assume it’s easiest to propagate and sell because it thrives in a wide range of situations.  Commercial nurseries are in the business to make money, so they’re most likely to sell a plant with a wide distribution, rather than plants that are regional, with more local appeal.  Native milkweed plants are just not readily available at most commercial nurseries. Though I should add that seeds are available for those who have the space and time to germinate and grow their own plants.

Tropical Milkweed, in certain areas of the southern U.S., pose an additional problem for migrating Monarchs (as if they don’t already have enough challenges!).  Most milkweed species die back during winter, re-emerging in spring to coincide with the Monarch migration northward.   Tropical Milkweed doesn’t die back in the South and can harbor disease which spreads to Monarchs when they lay their eggs for the larvae.  Tropical Milkweed is not the problem, per se, but milkweed that doesn’t die back in winter, is–or at least, the preliminary and ongoing research suggests that overwintering milkweed increases the manifestation and spread of OE, short for Ophryocystis elektroscirrha. OE is a protozoan parasite that cripples and kills Monarchs.  The current suggestion is that gardeners prune their Tropical Milkweed for winter, 2 inches above the ground, to limit the possibility of disease spread.  While OE is a problem, further study is required and scientists who study Monarchs concur that widespread herbicide use and habitat destruction play a more significant role in declining populations of these remarkable insects than any problems Tropical Milkweed might cause.

Monarch scientists and enthusiasts encourage planting milkweed specifically native to each eco-region of the U.S.

And that brings us to milkweed flats.

Monarchwatch.org is selling flats of 32 native-to-region milkweed plugs.  Each flat sells for $63-$69 (including shipping).  Click here for the milkweed market link for more information on their process of seed collection, ordering information and links to milkweed photos and descriptions.

Because the flats are a bit pricey and milkweed grows best in full sun and I don’t have lots of sun or gardening room for 32 milkweed plants (wish I did…), I’ve joined with two gardening friends in ordering one flat of native-to-where-we-live milkweed.  I still have six Tropical Milkweed specimens that I planted in 2014–it’s a valuable plant and I wouldn’t deny the migrating Monarchs nectar and larval food, but once my native milkweed plugs arrive and are planted, I’ll also have native milkweed in my garden available for their dining and brooding pleasures.

Wouldn’t it be cool if gardeners from the Rio Grande Valley all the way up to the Great Lakes purchased and shared flats of milkweed plugs?  Wouldn’t it be groovy to plant for the Monarchs, a solid path of nectar sources and nurseries, along their whole migration route?

Please support these efforts to help Monarchs.  Checkout the milkweed market of monarchwatch.org and consider planting native milkweed for Monarchs.  Encourage your local nurseries to supply native milkweed plants. Look at Native American Seed or Wildseed Farm, as additional seed sources.

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It’s all about the Monarch and its future.

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For more information, click on these links:

http://texasbutterflyranch.com/2014/12/03/q-a-grad-student-dara-satterfield-on-tropical-milkweed-and-monarch-butterflies/#comments

http://texasbutterflyranch.com/2014/11/24/nytimes-commercial-butterfly-breeders-raise-awareness-of-oe-to-help-monarch

http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/sfallon/keep_calm_and_plant_milkweed.html

http://texasbutterflyranch.com/

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