Black-chinned hummingbird nectaring on verbena.
Black-chinned hummingbird nectaring on verbena. Credit: Courtesy / National Audubon Society

A reduced population of monarch butterflies is heading our way from Mexico, and migratory hummingbirds are not far behind. Unfortunately, they will find less nectar on which to feed, thanks to the historic freeze known as Storm Uri.

The February cold spell killed massive amounts of plant and animal life, including nectar sources and host plants. Monarch butterflies and hummingbirds rely on spring flowers to fuel their journeys and reproduction.

On top of the lack of plants, monarch butterflies will be starting their 2021 season with a 26% deficit in their overwintering population compared to last year. Monarchs typically start arriving in Texas in early March.

World Wildlife Fund officials announced last week that the eastern population of monarchs that spend the winter in the Mexican mountains occupied only 2.1 hectares (about 5 acres) of forest. The decline came on the heels of 2020’s 53% decrease, when the insects occupied an estimated 6.05 hectares (about 15 acres).

Officials attributed the decline to forest degradation at the roosting sites, habitat loss, and climate change.

“This is a huge tragedy,” said Laurie Brown, program director at Cibolo Nature Center in Boerne and organizer for the Alamo Area Monarch Collaborative in San Antonio, the nation’s first Monarch Butterfly Champion City. “Restoring habitat is the main goal and it will be more important than ever, given the Texas freeze,” she said.

Hummingbirds, which also make an annual journey north each spring, should also be arriving shortly. Ruby-throated hummingbirds have already made appearances along the Gulf Coast, and black-chinned hummingbirds typically arrive in the area in mid-March.

To make up for the loss of nectar because of the freeze, these feathered pollinators will need help from humans.

“We’re asking people, even if they’ve never had a hummingbird feeder before, to get one,” said Patsy Inglet, president of the Bexar Audubon Society and one of the organizers for securing San Antonio’s recent recognition as a Bird City Texas.

“Keep in mind, these little guys don’t know what the weather’s been here, so they’re down in the tropics where there’s plenty of food, and they start working their way north.”

Harlan Aschen of Port Lavaca also expressed concerns about migrating pollinators.

“We are about to start our hummingbird season, and they will have no, zero, zip nectar sources for awhile,” Aschen wrote recently on an online forum for butterfly followers. ”Hope everyone remembers to get their feeders out. They may also be helpful for some butterflies and bees.”

Inglet advised that having feeders available filled with sugar water when the hummers first arrive is “critical,” and suggested those interested buy an inexpensive hummingbird feeder.

Here is a recipe for sugar water for hummingbirds:

  • Add 1/4 cup sugar to 1 cup hot water.
  • Dissolve, let cool, and put in feeder.
  • Leave out for a week, then wash and rinse feeder.
  • Repeat.

Small amounts of the sugar water are best and changing the feed regularly is important in preventing disease transmission.

Meanwhile, monarchs are likely to face a milkweed shortage. The plant, varieties of Asclepias, serves as the singular host plant for the migrating insects and the only plant on which females lay their eggs during their annual migration.

Pollinator garden and monarch butterfly waystation at the Nueva Street bridge on the San Antonio River.
Pollinator garden and monarch butterfly waystation at the Nueva Street bridge on the San Antonio River. Credit: Courtesy / Monika Maeckle

Few flowering nectar plants exist at the moment, and milkweeds – native and nonnative – appear to have stalled in the Texas Funnel, the area where monarchs typically lay the first generation of eggs.

“As for milkweed, I’ve seen a bud here and there, but nothing like we’ve had in past years,” said Brown.

But others in online forums shared photos of budding milkweeds in Austin and protected yards in San Antonio. Drake White of the Nectar Bar in San Antonio shared a Feb. 22 photo of Antelope horns milkweed, Asclepias asperula, sprouting in her San Antonio yard.

Storm Uri took out large stands of the non-native tropical milkweed, or Asclepias curassavica, in San Antonio. Butterfly gardens along the San Antonio River planted by the City were frozen to a crisp, the tropical milkweed and other species largely decimated.

“It’s going to be a 50/50 chance of regrowth on the tropical milkweed,” said Juan Guerra, senior horticulturist for the City of San Antonio. “Some of the stuff on the River Walk is starting to re-sprout, but only time will tell. We are planning to add some tropical milkweed as soon as they become available, as well as native milkweed,” he said.

Timing matters for the monarch butterfly migration. The butterflies typically leave Mexico when temperatures climb and days get longer. Warmer weather makes them burn through their stored fats and pushes them to reproduce before they die.

After breeding, female monarchs start moving north in search of milkweed on which they’ll lay their eggs. But if no milkweed exists, they’ll keep flying, or die without reproducing.

“Momma monarchs have to lay most of their eggs in Texas in March and the first week of April for the population to start well,” said Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, the citizen science tagging organization operated by the University of Kansas at Lawrence, in the online discussion. “We need Willie or Waylon to sing them a song to that effect as they evade the border patrol near Brownsville in the east and Del Rio in the west.”

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Monika Maeckle

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...