Tired from a long journey, faded monarchs seek homes for the next generation

My friends Bob and Bev photographed this very faded, tattered female monarch flying around the milkweed plants in their backyard near the Museum last week. The butterfly is a migrant from Mexico, looking for places to lay her eggs as a last hurrah before she dies.

Detail of a healthy monarch’s wing

The monarch we found with faded, damaged wings

The monarch we found with faded, damaged wings

She must be very tired!

Last fall, she flew from somewhere in eastern North America all the way to central Mexico, where she spent the winter mostly in hibernation. A few weeks ago, she and the other overwintering butterflies, sensing the lengthening days and warming temperatures, left the shelter of the sanctuary’s trees and headed back north to complete the journey. They are just now getting to Texas.

This old girl’s eggs will hatch and — if they have enough milkweed — the caterpillars will mature and pupate. Then, when they emerge as adult butterflies, at least some of them will continue the journey north. By July, monarchs will have reached the northern limit of their range. These summer generations don’t live as long, and don’t travel nearly as far.

P1070759If you see worn and faded monarchs at this time of year, they are almost certainly migrants returning from their winter in Mexico. You can help them to fulfill their “purpose” by providing nectar for their last few meals, and more importantly, milkweed for the new generation. These returning migrants will only last a few days now that they’ve gotten here — they are on their last “wings” after nearly nine months of life, and at least 2,000 miles of travel.

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A healthy Monarch Butterfly

Monarchs want YOU to plant milkweed: Butterfly-friendly plants for sale at HMNS

The butterflies need your help! With urbanization, and a host of other factors, monarch butterflies are at risk of not finding places to lay their eggs. So why not help while improving the butterfly traffic through your garden with a butterfly-seducing plant from our biannual plant sale?

Milkweed plants in the genus Asclepias are extremely important for butterflies, especially monarchs. While the blooms provide copious amounts of nectar for many different butterflies, the foliage is an essential part of the monarch butterfly’s life cycle. Milkweeds are the only plant monarch caterpillars will eat. In other words, they can’t live without it!

Native milkweed plants grow along roadsides and in open fields. The butterflies find them by honing in on their volatile chemicals and finally locate the exact plant by “tasting” nearby plants with special receptors called chemoreceptors on their feet. Once a gravid female (one who has mated and is ready to lay eggs) finds a good milkweed plant, she will lay eggs on it — and the miraculous process of metamorphosis has begun!

There are about 100 species of Asclepias in the United States, and over 30 in Texas — but monarchs seem to prefer some of them over others. According to a study by Linda S. Rayor, described in The Monarch Butterfly: Biology and Conservation, when given a choice, monarchs prefer to lay eggs on other species of milkweed over the native species Asclepias tuberosa.

Butterfly - Tropical Milkweed

Besides being a host plant for Monarch larvae, Tropical Milkweed (A. curassavica) is a great nectar source for many butterfly species!

Why? Different Asclepias species contain different cardenolide concentrations (cardenolides are the chemicals in the milkweed leaves that taste bitter). As they eat, the caterpillars store these toxic chemicals in their bodies and thus become distasteful to their predators. A. tuberosa has been found to contain low amounts of cardenolides compared to most other species of milkweed. Although it is unclear how monarchs “know” this, they do not usually use A. tuberosa as a host plant.

Several other native milkweed species, however, are great host plants for the monarch. Asclepias asperula (Antelope Horns), A. viridis (Green Milkweed), A. incarnata (Swamp Milkweed) and A. oenotheroides (Zizotes Milkweed) are some of the more commonly found milkweed plants in our area that monarchs use as host plants.

Unfortunately, most of the native milkweeds are hard to find in plant nurseries. One reason is that their seeds require moist stratification to germinate, and even with this pretreatment, germination can be splotchy. Furthermore, young plants of A. asperula, viridis and oenotheroides take several seasons to establish their thick taproots, and can be hard to transplant.

On the bright side, most of the native milkweeds, except for A. incarnata, are drought tolerant and can handle being mowed. Swamp milkweed obviously likes moist soil. All milkweeds grow best in full sun.

Butterfly - Green Milkweed

Asclepias viridis, Green Milkweed

Most gardeners are familiar with tropical milkweed, or Asclepias curassavica. This plant is commonly available in local plant nurseries and attracts butterflies like a magnet! Its bright orange and gold flowers are irresistible to many butterflies, and the high levels of cardenolides in its foliage make it especially sought out by female monarchs looking for a place to lay their eggs. Although it originates in more tropical climes, it is relatively cold hardy and will usually come back from the base of the plant after a freeze. It is also easy to propagate from seed, and in fact will sometimes seed out (make more of itself) in a garden.

So tropical milkweed seems like the ideal plant. However, one issue with this species is that it is not native to our area and does not exhibit the same characteristics of our native milkweeds, all of which die back to the ground in winter. This perennial habit seems advantageous, but it can be a problem for a couple of reasons. Because it has leaves year-round, it may encourage monarchs to overwinter locally instead of migrating to Mexico. It can serve as a host for a disease that affects monarchs, called Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, or simply O.e. This disease is caused by a protozoan parasite and is spread in the dormant stage of its lifecycle as a tiny spore.

These spores are typically on the abdomen of an infected monarch butterfly and can be spread to her eggs or onto the milkweed plants themselves when a female lays eggs. Then, when the caterpillars hatch out of the eggs, they consume the spores that lie on their empty egg shells or on the leaves around the egg and become infected.

Over a few generations, the parasite load can build up to high enough levels that it impacts the butterfly’s survival. Depending on the severity of the infection, the disease can make the caterpillars look a bit grayish and their stripes not as distinct. When the caterpillars pupate, their chrysalis may look brownish or spotted. The butterfly inside may emerge but have problems, such as an enlarged, gray abdomen and weak, faded wings.

Sometimes they emerge and look healthy, but secretly harbor O.e. spores on their abdomens. Other times they don’t emerge from the chrysalis at all, or get stuck while trying to come out.

So what is my point? I thought we were talking about milkweed plants! ;-) The reason this is important is because O.e. spores persist on the leaves of the tropical milkweed plants, waiting for an unsuspecting caterpillar to munch them up. To break this cycle, we recommend cutting your tropical milkweed plants back after a monarch generation has stripped their leaves, especially in the spring and fall. A simple pruning of the plant’s stems about six inches from the ground will get rid of any remaining spores and will sprout new growth in no time.

Some other closely related plants that monarchs will use as a host are Gomphocarpus physocarpus or “family jewels” milkweed, and a species of Funastrum or twinevine. Gomphocarpus is a lot like A. curassavica in that it doesn’t lose its leaves in the winter so it also needs to be cut back periodically to keep it from spreading O.e.

Butterfly - Funastrum cynanchoidies flower

Funastrum cynanchoidies flower

Funastrum or twinevine is an interesting climbing plant native to south Texas and Mexico. The plant is not very impressive looking until the summer, when it puts on beautiful balls of milkweed-like flowers that are great nectar sources for many kinds of butterfly. Another good thing about it is that when monarch caterpillars have stripped all your milkweed plants of their leaves and are still hungry, they will eat the leaves of Funastrum.

With their habitat dwindling due to urbanization, the use of Round Up ready crops, shrinking right-of-ways due to intensive agricultural practices and other factors, monarch butterflies need all the help they can get. The take-home message today is PLANT MORE MILKWEED! (please)

For milkweed and other awesome butterfly host and nectar plants, come visit us at our biannual Spring Plant Sale on Saturday, April 5th from 9 a.m. until we sell out! We are located on the 7th level of the Museum parking garage. Parking is free if you spend $30 or more!

Come early, the plants go fast!

The Blue Morpho Blend, Part II: The coffee grind of hulling, roasting & cupping

In Part I, we talked about the Cockrell Butterfly Center’s Little Coffee Tree That Could, and how we grow, harvest, and dry coffee beans. But even after all this work, the beans are still not ready to consume. So let’s talk about how we get the dried (parchment) coffee to a state that can be enjoyed by the masses!

Hulling
Once the beans have been prepared and dried, the parchment — a thin, brittle skin that completely covers the bean — must be broken and the green bean removed. This is typically done by a special machine that shakes the beans, and the vibrations knock the parchment off.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have access to any of these machines, so we went through this process by hand — and the entire Butterfly Center staff and volunteers have the calluses on their fingers to prove it (of course, hindsight is 20/20 and we could have probably used a rock polisher and saved ourselves some labor, but I’m sure even Juan Valdez went through some trial and error before he perfected his process!).

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Roasting
Now being the traditionalist sort who orders a “large coffee” if I ever find myself in a Starbucks, seeing some of the advancements and new technology when it comes to roasting and brewing was a real eye opener.

Enter local roaster Matt Toomey of Boomtown Coffee in the Heights. Lucky for us, Boomtown had a roaster small enough to accommodate our single harvest, and Matt was happy to explain the process to us — the uninitiated roasters.

First, we weighed out the beans to be roasted and preheated the electric sample roaster. The temperature needs to be around 480 degrees Fahrenheit so that the beans can be heated to between 380 and 480 degrees, depending on the desired roast (as soon as you add in the beans, the temperature drops significantly). So, 380 degrees yields a light or cinnamon roast, while 480 degrees gives you a dark Spanish roast. The roaster we used can only hold about 1 pound at a time, however, the basic idea behind all roasters is the same: turn the beans continuously to ensure uniform roasting of the beans. The central drum spins the beans as they roast to achieve this uniformity.

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FUN FACT: Experienced roasters know when the beans are ready — not by smell, but by sound. The coffee bean, much like popcorn, will pop or crack up to two times as it roasts. For our Blue Morpho Blend, we did a full roast, or specifically a “full city roast” — which means you pull the beans out at the beginning of the “second crack.”

After all this work, we finally have a bean that is ready to grind and brew. But wait what if it’s not any good? If we made any mistakes during the growing, fermentation or drying process it can give the beans a foul odor and taste; this is where “cupping” comes into play.

Cupping  
Cupping is a method of taste testing coffee to determine the quality of the bean. You take a small cup, and observe the different aspects of the brew, like aroma, body, sweetness, acidity, flavor, and aftertaste. We did this using a Chemex brewing system, shown below, which is the opposite of a French Press. Where a French press leaves a lot of sediment in the coffee, the Chemex uses a very fine filter that creates a “cleaner” coffee.

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Success! The Blue Morpho Blend passed the cupping with flying (or should I say fluttering) colors! We found it has an earthy, almost nutty aroma, with a flavor that has a hint of amaretto, and an amazing aftertaste!

Now a lucky few will get the chance taste it and tell us what they think at our Butterflies and Beans event on Jan. 18th. We’ll let you know what they say!

Butterflies will blow your mind: A new Giant Screen Theatre film gives viewers new respect for migrating Monarchs

If you — like me — have long thought of butterflies as delicate, simple creatures, you have been sorely mistaken.

A new Giant Screen Theatre film, Flight of the Butterflies, opens tomorrow and frames familiar Monarch butterflies in a new light as masters of migration. The film follows the life’s work of Dr. Fred Urquhart and his wife in stunning 3D as they tag and track the migratory patterns of Monarch butterflies. After 40 years of tracking and thanks to the  help of thousands of citizen scientists, the Urquharts were finally able to unlock the mystery of Monarch migration and identify their winter gathering place in remote mountaintops of Mexico.

Flight of the ButterfliesAnd it’s not just the visual spectacle that’s stunning. Did you know that a super-butterfly is born every third generation that lives longer and flies farther than its predecessors? Or that this Super Generation that makes the extended trek from Canada all the way to Mexico can fly as much as mile up in the air, catching rides on the wind? It challenges your perception of butterflies as erratic, delicate things, that’s for sure. They’re marksmen; weathering one of the longest migrations on earth to target an isolated mountaintop they’ve never even seen with incredible accuracy. Even our great state of Texas is featured, in all its bluebonnet-blanketed glory.

Make it a butterfly-filled weekend with the Semi-Annual Plant Sale and you can even establish a garden to help these guys along! For a schedule of showings, click here.