Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4) understands reports of COVID-19 disproportionately impacting Black and Latino communities better than most. So far, she has lost seven family members in San Antonio and Mexico to the coronavirus-borne disease.

Garcia is grateful that the annual Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival will give her a chance to honor their memory. The 2020 festival adds a new initiative in tagging monarch butterflies with the names of loved ones lost to COVID-19 and social injustice during this year of tragedies.

“The monarch butterfly release comes at a significant time of year for our Hispanic culture,” Garcia wrote in a text message to the San Antonio Report. “As a little girl, I learned that when we saw the monarchs, they represented the souls of our loved ones traveling to their final destination. It’s especially meaningful to me this year because COVID-19 has taken so many of my loved ones.”

The October peak migration period for monarchs and the Day of the Dead come together in the festival’s signature Day of Remembrance event Oct. 17-18, when 600 butterflies tagged with the names of family members, friends, and loved ones will be released to fly home.

Anyone interested in having a butterfly tagged with the name of a lost loved one may apply through the festival website by filling out a Google form. The first 50 applicants will receive a free altar kit designed by local artists, to construct an ofrenda on honor of their loved ones.

Like many 2020 events, the fifth annual pollinator festival has migrated online, with the benefit of extending from its usual week of events to a monthlong celebration. It begins Oct. 1 in 25 Title 1 SAISD classrooms throughout San Antonio, where students receive “caterpillar condos” to experience the metamorphosis of caterpillars into butterflies.

The festival runs through Oct. 29 with at least 18 scheduled online events and programs, all free and open to the public.

The Bat Man and you

One event aims to correct misapprehensions about one pollinator species’ involvement in the origins of the pandemic.

“Bat Man of Mexico” Rodrigo Medellín returns to the festival to reveal “The Truth About Bats and Covid-19.” His virtual presentation, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 22, will appropriately end with a mezcal toast, as the agave plant-derived mezcal is made possible by the crucial pollination activity of bats.

As word of the coronavirus reached American shores, its supposed origin in bats gave a bad name to the nocturnal winged creatures. In fear, some anxious people even began burning bat caves in hopes of warding off the virus, said Monika Maeckle, festival founder and director.

But as bat-conscious San Antonians know, the freetail bat population plays an important role in helping to pollinate plant life throughout the region, which in turn plays a crucial role in growing our food.

“One of the ways to make people care about insects, and bats, and things that aren’t necessarily cuddly creatures, is to let them know how important these creatures are in making our food happen,” Maeckle said.

Ecologist and environmental conservation advocate Doug Tallamy will speak Oct. 8 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. about his new book, Nature’s Best Hope.

One focus of the book is placing responsibility on everyday people to take conservation into their own hands. Tallamy advocates for individual homeowners to reduce the square footage of their lawns, to be replaced by gardens populated with plants native to their regions.

In doing so, they would help balance their local ecosystems, in turn helping balance the larger ecosystem. “They are the future of conservation,” he said, and thus are nature’s best hope to survive.

In conjunction with the San Antonio River Authority (SARA), Tallamy will also lead a teacher training workshop on native plant gardens on Oct. 17 from 9:30 to 11 a.m. The workshop is free to all San Antonio public school teachers.

Native plants, interconnected systems

The focus on native plants runs throughout the festival, with multiple events offering tips on identifying, acquiring, and planting flowers, grasses, shrubs, and trees that attract pollinators of all types.

Lee Marlowe, a longstanding member of the San Antonio chapter of the Native Plant Society of Texas, is preparing a list of 10 key native plant species for the Oct. 24 tutorial “Look Who’s Coming to Dinner! Create a Backyard Buffet for Butterflies, Birds & Other Guests.”

The plant society will also offer its annual Bexar Roots Native Plants Sale Oct. 5-6, this time through an online store with curbside pickup of purchased plants, seeds, and shade trees.

Among the native plants Marlowe will recommend for attracting pollinators is mealy blue sage, which she said monarchs feast on. “It’s one [native plant] that can be blooming in the spring and the fall, so it could support both of the spring and fall migrations for the monarchs,” Marlowe said.

The seeds of the sage variety are also good for birds, she said, particularly goldfinches. Though birds might not come immediately to mind when thinking of pollinator species, they play a crucial role in supporting the pollination cycle by spreading seeds and removing unwanted garden pests.

Wildlife biologist Danielle Belleny said the pandemic shutdown and period of isolation has allowed us all to become more attentive to the sounds of songbirds, pigeons, and other chirping and squawking species all around us. In listening, we might be inspired to learn more about how important these creatures are.

Belleny will present “Pajaros as Pollinators,” a tutorial on the role of birds in the pollination cycle, on Oct. 15 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.

As Tallamy noted the loss of 3 billion birds, or nearly one-third of the bird population in North America, presumably due to pollution, loss of habitat, and ecosystem imbalance, Belleny emphasized the need to keep the avian population alive and healthy to provide clean air, clean water, and an ample food supply.

“If we remove different parts of this interconnected web, … you’ll notice it becomes more and more fragile as you cut pieces that represent extinctions or losses of species in a certain habitat,” she said.

“If we lose birds, we’re going to lose the function of our world,” she said.

In addition to her science work, she is also an avid birder and social justice advocate. Belleny tied together her various interests with Black Birders Week, a collective of Black scientists that formed in response to the May incident in Central Park where a white woman called the police on Black birder Christian Cooper.

The conjunction of these various interests, represented in the festival and her own work, shows “that there’s intersections in all the things that we do, even if it’s not obvious,” Belleny said. “There’s intersections in ecosystem resources, and management and conservation, as well as social political stuff.”

Homeward bound, global vision

The 600 monarchs released during the festival will have the potential to be found and recorded by “citizen scientists,” as people involved in tagging, recovery, and tracking efforts throughout the world are called, who annually collect data used by nature scientists.

Anyone can become a citizen scientist and help track pollinator species, said Minna Paul, education and volunteer engagement coordinator for SARA. Paul and SARA are involved in multiple aspects of the festival, including the opening day workshop “Texas Pollinator Bio-Blitz Virtual Class,” held Oct. 1 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

The “Bio-Blitz” workshop will introduce the iNaturalist app, a free tool for citizen scientists to share data with experts who can help identify species and share information worldwide.

The app is an excellent tool for the pandemic, Paul said, encouraging people to observe and learn more about the flora and fauna in their own backyards.

“Citizen science apps are contributing to a lot of the studies that scientists are now doing all over the world,” she said. “It’s an amazing community that actually is now contributing to very essential work.”

Most Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival programs require advance registration, available for each event listed on the festival schedule.

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Nicholas Frank

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...