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!

STEM & GEMS: Insects and plants fascinate “bug nerd” Lauren Williamson

lauren photo in CBCEditor’s Note: As part of our annual GEMS (Girls Exploring Math and Science) program we conduct interviews with women who have pursued careers in science, technology, engineering, or math. This week, we’re featuring Lauren Williamson, Entomologist in the Cockrell Butterfly Center

HMNS: How old were you when you first became interested in science?
Williamson: Ever since I can remember! I was always catching bugs, playing with animals, and looking at flowers, plants, etc.

HMNS: Was there a specific person or event that inspired you when you were younger?
Williamson: I had a biology teacher in junior high that told me about entomology and told me that I should look into that field for a career since I had such an interest in insects.

HMNS: What was your favorite science project when you were in school?
Williamson: An insect collection, of course!

HMNS: What is your current job? How does this relate to science, technology, engineering, or math?
Williamson: My title is “entomologist”, aka “bug nerd.” My job revolves around importing exotic butterflies to display in our Butterfly Center. Not only do I need to know a lot about insects, but I also need to know about government regulations, computer applications, and accounting. We also do a lot of outreach programs, so it’s a necessity to be comfortable presenting to large groups.

To get a degree in entomology you have to take extensive coursework in biology, chemistry, physiology, and math.

HMNS: What’s the best part of your job?
Williamson: I play with butterflies all day — need I say more? Not to say that my job doesn’t involve a lot of hard work, because it does, but the fun parts of my job make it all worth it!

HMNS: What do you like to do in your spare time?
Williamson: I love to play with my animals (three dogs: Merle, Hank, and Molly; and a bird: Carlos), go on insect collecting trips, camping, crafts, going to museums and seeing movies with my husband.

HMNS: What advice would you give to girls interested in pursuing a STEM career?
Williamson:
Make sure you study, study, study! Ask a lot of questions and learn all of the material as much as possible. Every year adds more information to the knowledge base you already have, so it only gets harder.

HMNS: Why do you think it’s important for girls to have access to an event like GEMS?
Williamson: This is a great way to experience some of the wonderful career paths you can take with a firm knowledge of science, engineering, technology, and math. These subjects are the foundation of our everyday lives, whether you realize it or not! There will always be a demand for employees in these ever-growing and changing fields so it is important to get in an interest in them as soon as possible.

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Look, ma, no roots! Learn to grow your own orchids, bromeliads & other “air plants”

It’s that time of year again: the long cold of winter is lifting, and we can see spring around the corner. Here at HMNS we ring in spring with a BLOOM — with our horticulture adult education classes. Kicking off the season on Mar. 8, we’re offering a class on growing orchids and other epiphytes!

“Other epiphytes?” you may ask, wondering, “I just thought orchids were flowers.” While they are flowering plants, there’s so much more that makes them really incredible. You see orchids, and epiphytes in general, distinguish themselves from other plants in that they do not need to grow in soil. They actually prefer not to. They have amazingly adapted so that their roots can suck moisture directly out of the air. By attaching to a tree, high off the ground, they can also avoid getting gobbled up by most herbivores.

Epiphytes are non-parasitic, meaning that they do not steal any nutrients from the plant they grow on, creating their energy through photosynthesis (although some species like the strangler fig can eventually overtake their host). Notable examples include ferns, orchids and bromeliads, but the most familiar epiphyte to people here in the South is a wispy bromeliad by the name of Spanish moss.

If you have ever strolled through the Cockrell Butterfly Center you have surely seen our stunning epiphytes clinging on nearly every nook and cranny of the larger trees and struts in the center.

To learn more tips and tricks for epiphyte growing, join me for the HMNS adult education class “How to Grow Orchids, Bromeliads and Other ‘Air Plants'” from 9 to 11 a.m. on Sat., Mar. 8 in the Cockrell Butterfly Center. The class includes a behind-the-scenes tour of the Butterfly Center, followed by a hands-on class in which attendees will learn how to propagate, divide, mount and fertilize their own epiphytes. And finally, everyone goes home with their very own orchid or bromeliad to start (or add to) their collection.

The Butterfly Center beat: Everything you ever wanted to know about raising Atlas moths

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The Atlas moth (Attacus atlas) is a large moth belonging to the Saturniidae family. Saturniids, familiarly called giant silk moths, include some of the largest species of Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies). Two local species that may be familiar to readers are the polyphemus and luna moths.

Atlas moths are considered the largest moths in the world in terms of total wing surface area. Their wingspans are also among the largest, often reaching over 10 inches. They are strikingly beautiful, with tawny wings punctuated with translucent “windows” bordered by black. Their most distinguishing feature (other than their size) is an extension of their forewings that resembles a snake’s head, thought to be a means of scaring off potential predators.

The forewing of an Atlas moth resembles a snake’s head. ©Erikki Makkonen

The forewing of an Atlas moth resembles a snake’s head. ©Erikki Makkonen

These spectacular moths make superb additions to the Cockrell Butterfly Center. During the day, they spend most of their time motionless, clinging to the side of a tree or other surface. Visitors can thus get up close to intimately study these creatures, and can clearly observe their fat, furry bodies, fuzzy antennae, and teddy bear like expressions.

Close-up of the fuzzy face and feathery antennae of a female Atlas moth (males have larger antennae). © John Horstman

Close-up of the fuzzy face and feathery antennae of a female Atlas moth (males have larger antennae). © John Horstman

Once night falls, the male Atlas moths take flight in search of a female. The search has a sense of urgency, as adult Atlas moths typically live only about one week. This is because the adults do not have fully formed mouth parts and therefore cannot eat; they are sustained only by the fat reserves they built up as a caterpillar. The moths will quickly mate, lay eggs, and die soon after.

One day at the Cockrell Butterfly Center, a male and female emerged from their cocoons around the same time. We took the opportunity to breed and raise this species of moth. The newly emerged male and female were placed in a flight cage in the greenhouses on the top level of the museum parking garage. They paired the very first night they were together. During mating, the moths remained coupled for several hours. Then, over the next three days, the female laid approximately 150 crimson eggs, placing them indiscriminately along the walls and edges of the flight cage.

A mating pair of Atlas moths clinging to the sides of a flight cage. The larger of the two is the female.

A mating pair of Atlas moths clinging to the side of a flight cage. The larger of the two is the female.

Atlas moth larvae are generalists, meaning they will feed on a wide variety of host plants (but not all plants). Hoping to determine which of several possibilities would be the best food for our caterpillars, we searched the literature for recorded host plants.

We chose four that we had available, including Camphor Tree (Cinnamomum camphora), Vitex (Vitex trifolia purpurea), Mahogany Tree (Swietenia mahoganii) and Sweet Potato Vine (Ipomoea batatas). Gathering the eggs, we divided them among four plastic containers lined with moist paper towels and ventilated with tiny holes poked in the lid, each containing a different kind of leaves.

The eggs took 10 days to hatch. The hatchling larvae were covered in pale protuberances and had black heads. After eating their eggshell, the tiny caterpillars began eating the provided foliage. Once the caterpillars were feeding reliably, they were moved to netted cages containing potted plants, so the leaves would be constantly fresh.

The caterpillars hatched on a Friday in September. To track their weekly growth and development, we took a photograph of them each Friday thereafter. It quickly became obvious that the caterpillars on Camphor were thriving: they grew bigger and faster than their siblings on the other plants (the pictures shown below are of larvae fed on Camphor). In each photograph, larvae were placed next to a standard sized Popsicle stick, fondly known as “Size Reference Ralph,” to track their relative growth.

The caterpillars took six weeks from hatching to pupation. They ate voraciously, becoming soft and fleshy to the touch, and were a pale blue-green color. Their backs were covered in a Mohawk of tubercles with a thick, waxy, flaky coating. After six weeks, the caterpillars were almost as long as Size Reference Ralph and were quite pudgy.

The sequential pictures show the dramatic changes in the larvae, followed by the start of silk spinning, and finally a complete cocoon. Once they finished their cocoons, the larvae pupated inside. We then gently moved the dried cocoons to the emergence chamber inside the entomology hall of the Butterfly Center.

Egg to cocoon in Atlas Moths. Pictures were taken one week apart next to Size Reference Ralph. ( Pictures courtesy of Lauren Williamson)

Egg to cocoon in Atlas Moths. Pictures were taken one week apart next to Size Reference Ralph. (Pictures courtesy of Lauren Williamson)

Then we waited. Atlas moths may eclose from their cocoon in as little as three weeks, but can sometimes take several months. To escape from their silken enclosures, they must excrete a substance that dissolves a hole in the silk, allowing them to crawl out. They then cling to their cocoons while their wings expand and dry.

The first Atlas moth of our batch of cocoons emerged on Dec. 17, almost 3 months after hatching from the egg. It was a large female, with a wingspan of just over 10 inches. As you can see, Size Reference Ralph was dwarfed by her!

Our first Atlas Moth to emerge on Dec. 17th 2013. (picture courtesy of Lauren Williamson)

Our first Atlas moth to emerge on Dec. 17, 2013 (picture courtesy of Lauren Williamson).

Know a girl who’s interested in math and science? Come to GEMS (Girls Exploring Math & Science) on Sat., Feb. 8 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. The Museum will be filled with hands-on science and math for everyone to experience. Local professionals will be at the Museum to answer questions about their careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

The event is free with paid admission to the Museum. Click here for $7 admission to all permanent exhibit halls on Sat., Feb. 8.