Monarch butterflies left their forested roosts in Michoacán, Mexico, on March 24 in what appears to be their latest departure on record, citizen science organization Journey North reported last week. The migrating insects will be showing up in San Antonio soon, and the late launch of the 2015 season appears to suggest that the butterflies will have a good year.

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, said it’s too early to make predictions about the 2015 Monarch season. Austin entomologist and Austin Butterfly Forum president Mike Quinn pointed out that cool Texas weather should be good news for the migrating insects. Mild winter temps “slow down their larval predators and the exhaustion of their adult lipid reserves,” he said.

Typically, Monarch butterflies leave their roosts in the Oyamel forests of the Mexican mountains around the Spring Equinox and head north.  They make initial migratory stops in South Texas to lay the first generation of  eggs in the multi-generation migration exclusively on Asclepias species – that is, various milkweeds.

Monarch map
Monarchs pass through Texas coming and going, making it the most important state in their multi generation migration to Texas and Canada and back each year. Graphic via Texas Butterfly Ranch.

The success of that first round of Texan eggs sets the stage for a successful-or-not Monarch butterfly migration, as subsequent generations of the hatch make their way north to Canada over the summer before flying home to Mexico to overwinter in the Fall. Because of Texas’ unique position in the geographic path of the Monarch butterfly migration – the first stop in the Spring and the “funnel” to Mexico in the Fall – the Lone Star State has been called “the most important state” to the iconic butterfly migration.

Local sources report that milkweeds are sprouting in the area and in San Antonio gardens, so the butterflies will enjoy sustenance for their offspring when their eggs hatch into caterpillars in the coming weeks. They’ll also find continuing political tumult.

Monarch on Tropical Milkweed
Here they come! This Monarch was snapped this week in Portland, Texas near Corpus Christi and is heading our way. Photo by Josh Smith.

After their worst year in history followed by a 70% rebound in 2014, the butterflies have taken center stage in pollinator advocacy and habitat restoration circles in recent months. The three NAFTA leaders – U.S. President Barack Obama, President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada — met in early 2014 and committed to working together to save the Monarch butterfly migration. Weeks later, First Lady Michelle Obama planted the first-ever pollinator garden at the White House, including milkweed for Monarch butterflies. Then in June, Obama issued a presidential memorandum directing government agencies to craft a federal strategy to protect Monarchs, bees and other pollinators.

President Barack Obama
Thanks, Obama, for making pollinators a priority. Courtesy photo.

In August, a petition submitted to the Department of the Interior requested Monarchs be listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.  Strong reactions have resulted – from lawsuits by the National Resource Defense Council taking the EPA to task for dragging its feet on Monarch protection to admirable public-private partnerships like the $3.2 million in federal grants announced recently by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  Just this week, environmentalists’ favorite villain, Monsanto Corporation, whose Round-Up ready crops have been blamed for much Monarch decline, committed to $4 million in grants to help the Monarch butterfly migration and other pollinators.

Here in Texas, the State Comptroller’s office recently announced the appointment of San Antonio water hero and endangered species expert Dr. Robert Gulley to head a task force that will assess the financial consequences of endangered species listings on the state. The Monarch butterfly will be one of five species on which the task force will focus.

Monarch on lantana
Wildflowers besides milkweed like this native lantana are also important to Monarchs and other pollinators as nectar sources. Photo by Monika Maeckle.

The ensuing media attention has raised awareness in the general population: we can all help sustain the Monarch butterfly migration by planting clean, chemical-free, preferably native milkweeds.

The challenge is that it’s almost impossible to find native milkweeds in commercial nurseries. Only the technically nonnative Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, is widely available along with occasional Butterfly Weed, Asclepias tuberosa.  Another challenge is that commercial growers often spray milkweeds with systemic pesticides that poison Monarch caterpillars that eat the plants’ leaves. Clean, chemical-free, native milkweeds are in great demand and hard to find.

That’s why our friend Mitch Hagney of Local Sprout and yours truly via the Texas Butterfly Ranch have been experimenting with the Texas native Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, to see about offering local, chemical-free milkweeds later in the Spring.  Stay tuned.

Like many, as a safeguard, I’ve planted and overwintered the reliable Tropical milkweed. Detractors have their concerns, but I’m a huge fan and provide the host plant in my downtown San Antonio garden. Leaves are lush and ready for Monarchs on those I overwintered, after slashing them to the ground in December as recommended.

Tropical milkweed
Tropical milkweed looking good, ready for Monarch butterfly eggs. Photo by Monika Maeckle.

Often, local botanical and conservation organizations are the only sources for clean, native, chemical-free milkweeds.  Here’s several upcoming native plant sales where you might find them:

Friday – Saturday, April 4

25th Annual Cibolo Nature Center Mostly Native Plant Sale at Kendall County Fairgrounds on Highway 46 in Boerne; Friday evening “Sip and Shop” for members only (we get first pick!); Saturday and Sunday open to public.

Friday – Sunday, April 10-12

Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin will be holding its Spring Native Plant Sale;  Friday, April 10 is for members only;  Saturday and Sunday is open to the public.

Saturday, April 11

Native Plant Society of Texas Spring Plant Sale at Hardberger Park.

Saturday, April 18

Viva Botanica and Native Plant Sale at San Antonio Botanical Garden

Check out these sales and get native milkweeds while you can. Grab some excellent native nectar plants, too – Frostweed, native lantana, purple coneflower and others. Just like the Monarchs, we have to take what we can get.

*Featured/top image: Migrant Monarch butterfly.  Note faded color and tattered wings.  Photo by Carol Clark.

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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...