Monika Maeckle

Monarch butterflies have left their Mexican roosts and are coming our way. Reports from Twitter, Facebook and butterfly listserves detail FOS (first of season) sightings of the migrating butterflies flitting through Texas, laying eggs on native and tropical milkweed plants, delighting gardeners and butterfly fans.

Monarch butterflies are leaving Michoacan and heading to Texas
Monarch butterflies are leaving Michoacan and heading to Texas–photo by Monika Maeckle

Kip Kiphart, a volunteer for the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project at Cibolo Nature Center in Boerne reported via email that he found 27 eggs on his native milkweed plants in Bergheim, Texas this week.  Others chimed in:   “Saw two in my  yard in southwest Austin,” said Helen Boudny Fremin. “We’ve had a couple in Marathon this past week,” reported Mathew York.  “Pretty sure I saw a Monarch butterfly yesterday,” tweeted Mike Leggett, an outdoor writer in Austin. Those migrating Monarchs presumably will visit San Antonio’s local colony over at the Museum Reach Milkweed Patch to sip nectar with the locals.  Check out a map of March Monarch sightings in Texas.

Monarchs nectar on many flowers but will only lay eggs on milkweed.  This male sips on pentad. --photo by Monika Maeckle
Monarchs nectar on many flowers but will only lay eggs on milkweed. This male sips on pentad. –photo by Monika Maeckle Credit: Monika Maeckle

Texas has been called the “most important state” to the Monarch butterfly migration because of its strategic location between the roosting grounds and the milkweed beds and nectar prairies that serve as host and fuel sources for the famous insects.   Millions of Monarchs pass through Texas each spring and fall as they make their multi-generation migratory flight from the Mexican mountains to Canada and back.  Spring in Texas is a critical time for the Monarchs, as they seek out milkweed plants–their host  and the only plant on which they will lay eggs and reproduce.

Monarch butterfly eggs on milkweed leaves
Monarch butterflies lay eggs on milkweed leaves–photo by Monika Maeckle

The Monarch butterfly population status report was made public this week, a much anticipated document issued by the World Wildlife Fund each year. The WWF assesses the overall health of the insects by calculating the physical space they occupy in the oyamel forest in Michoacan. Given last year’s perfect storm of bad conditions–late freeze, historic drought, raging wildfires–butterfly followers were expecting bad news.  And it was.  Overall Monarch butterfly numbers were down 28%.

Monarch Watch, a Monarch butterfly monitoring program based at the University of Kansas at Lawrence, put a positive spin on the findings, tagging them “relatively good news,”  given dismal expectations.  “Nevertheless, this represents a another low population – one well below the long-term average near seven hectares,” the citizen scientist and academic collaborative reported.

With our exceptional and well-timed South Texas rains this winter, the Monarchs will have plenty of wildflowers for nectar and milkweed  for reproducing. Please plant more in your gardens and let’s make them feel welcome.

While Monarchs often get all the press, another amazing butterfly is showing up around town right now, the super friendly Red Admiral.

Red Admiral butterfly in Alamo Heights
Red Admiral butterfly in Alamo Heights–photo by Veronica Prida

My friend, designer and artist Veronica Prida, called to let me know that the beautiful Red Admiral butterflies we’ve often admired in her Alamo Heights front yard were clustering on the trunk of her yet-to-bud Burr Oak tree.    The lovely black-and-white creatures, distinguished by a red epaulet, gathered on the tree bark, slurping up tree sap as if it were some high octane smoothie.

How did they get to it?   A Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker, a small woodpecker that passes through town each spring, made it easy by drilling the holes, allowing the sap to ooze out.  Nature’s teamwork is a marvel.

Yellow-bellied sapsucker drills holes so butterflies can nectar on sap
Yellow-bellied sapsucker in Alamo Heights drills holes so butterflies can nectar on sap–photo by Veronica Prida

Mary Kennedy of Boerne shared a similar story.  Kennedy, like Kip Kiphart, frequently finds herself at Cibolo Nature Center as a devoted volunteer for the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project.  She let us know that plum and oak trees there were covered in Red Admirals, Mourning Cloaks and Painted Lady butterflies nectaring on sap.  The Sapsucker (yes, it’s a real name of a real bird) made the butterflies’ meal possible. Jane Crone reported that at Enchanted Rock last week “the wildflowers were outstanding and there were 100s of Red Admirals!”

Those of us who pay attention to butterflies have noticed Red Admirals before, but not like this.  Not in these numbers.   Prediction:   this year will be BIG for butterflies.   Unlike 2011, conditions this year couldn’t be better for a huge butterfly showing.

Red Admirals, Vanessa atalanta, and other “nymph” butterflies, are among the most common on the planet.  Closely related to Painted Ladies, which are often used in science classes to teach metamorphosis, Red Admirals prefer oozing sap, rotten fruit and even dung to flower nectar.

Red Admirals also have a reputation as one of the “friendliest” butterfly species.   Stories of the small butterflies landing on shoulders, hats and fingers, “riding” with humans are not uncommon.

Commercial butterfly breeder Connie Hodson, of Flutterby Gardens of Manatee in Florida, says none of the many species in her massive butterfly garden are as friendly as Red Admirals.

“Last year I saw the first Red Admiral of the season, was talking with a friend and pointed to the butterfly.  It landed on my finger,” says Hodson, who has been breeding butterflies for research, education and celebrations for more than a decade.  “When I reached for it with my other hand, it flew off.  Thinking that what had just happened was a fluke, I put my finger out again and the butterfly came back and landed.  This time, I just walked it back to the flight house and it rode on my finger all the way. ”  Hodson adds that you can watch Red Admirals “cleaning their feet,” as the sap makes them sticky.

“That Sapsucker thing goes way back, evolutionarily speaking,” says Austin entomologist Mike Quinn.  Quinn explains that these types of butterflies reside in wooded, shady areas with fewer flowers resulting in less nectar for butterfly food.  ‘These butterflies have adapted to forested understories and to eating sap.”   Presumably, Burr Oak sap has a high sugar content, much like maple syrup.

We might have to try that on our pancakes sometime.

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San Antonio Report co-founder Monika Maeckle writes about pollinators, native plants, and the ecosystems that sustain them at the Texas Butterfly Ranch website. She is also the founder and director of...