Help HMNS track monarch migration! Look for these tags on monarch butterflies in Houston and report back.

Join the league of citizen scientists by helping HMNS track the migratory patterns of monarch butterflies. Taking a page from zoologist and monarch expert Dr. Fred Urquhart’s book, HMNS staff caught and tagged dozens of monarch butterflies as part of a national effort to track their migration from Canada to Mexico.

Track monarchs with HMNS!You can help our efforts by keeping an eye out for monarchs in the Houston area with tags on their wings. These small, circular tags were designed for this very purpose, with heat-activated adhesive that responds to the warm touch of gentle volunteers. Pretty cool, huh?

Track monarchs with HMNS!If you spot a live monarch flitting about with one of these tags, give yourself a pat on the back for your excellent eyesight and keep moving. Monarch wings are covered in tiny, delicate scales, so don’t try to snatch it. But if you spot a deceased monarch with a tag, stop and pick it up. You may be holding a world traveler.

Track monarchs with HMNS!Every fourth generation of monarch butterfly is a “super generation” that travels thousands of miles and lives 10 times as long as their predecessors. There is no physical distinction that separates these superhero insects from their peers, but HMNS Horticulturalist Zac Stayton recommends looking for extra wear-and-tear on the wings, suggesting these specimens may have traveled farther. He also notes that the super-generation seems less preoccupied with mating.

(And — a testament to our great state of Texas — there are entire populations of monarchs that, once arriving in the Lone Star State, opt never to leave.)

If you find a deceased monarch butterfly with its wing tagged, note the sex and report your keen-eyed sighting to tag@ku.edu or by calling 1-888-TAGGING.

You can tell the gender of a monarch by looking at its wings. The males have two black dots, like so:

Track monarchs with HMNS!To learn more about the advent of citizen scientists and how curious everyday citizens helped pin down the migratory patterns of monarchs, see our Giant Screen Theatre film, Flight of the Butterflies.

Butterfly Gardener Alert!

Today’s post was written by Soni, horticulturalist for our Butterfly Center. She and the other employees are hard at word preparing for our upcoming Plant Sale on April 10.

She Was Completely Transparent With Me
Creative Commons License photo credit: Randy Son Of Robert

Got butterflies? Probably not, if your garden suffered freeze damage over the past few months. After this unusually long and cold winter, many of us have lost plants, especially species that are more tropical and not adapted to freezing temperatures.

But now that winter is finally behind us, it’s time to replant! Butterfly gardeners won’t want to miss the Cockrell Butterfly Center’s Spring Plant Sale. It’s happening soon:  Saturday, April 10, 2010 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., on the 7th level of the parking garage at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Some of you may be seasoned butterfly gardeners, but others may be asking, “How DO you ‘garden’ for butterflies?” It’s quite simple.   For a successful butterfly garden you need two types of plant:  nectar and host plants.

Mix of flowers

Coneflowers and Rudbeckias
Creative Commons License photo credit: Per Ola Wiberg ~ Powi

Thanks to their specialized mouthparts – a long, thin, straw-like proboscis – adult butterflies can only consume liquid food.  The blooms of nectar plants produce a sugary liquid (nectar) that butterflies sip to give them the energy to fly, mate, and produce eggs.  Most nectar plants have colorful flowers borne in showy clusters.  Some examples of good nectar plants for our area are Porter Weed, Echinacea (Purple Cone Flower), Zinnias, Rudbeckia (Brown and Black-eyed Susans), Monarda (Bee Balm), Lantana, Salvias, Eupatorium (Mistflower), Cuphea, Buddleia (Butterfly Bush), and Tithonia (Mexican Sunflower), among many others.

Green Papilio polyxenes caterpillar

Eastern Black
Swallowtail Caterpillar
Creative Commons License photo credit: cyanocorax

In contrast to the adults, baby butterflies, aka caterpillars, have chewing mouthparts and eat leaves.  Many butterflies are quite choosy in their caterpillar stage, and can only survive and grow on specific plants, which we call host plants.  For example, Monarch caterpillars will only eat Asclepias (Milkweed); they cannot and will not eat anything else.  Female butterflies seek out the appropriate host plants for their babies when they are laying eggs.  Some host plants that can be included in your butterfly garden are Asclepias (for Monarchs and Queen Butterflies); Passionvines (for Gulf Fritillaries and if you’re lucky, Zebra Longwings); Citrus and Rue (for Giant Swallowtails); Dill, Parsley, and Fennel (for Black Swallowtails); Aristolochia aka Pipevine (for Pipevine and Polydamas Swallowtails); and Cassia aka Senna (for Sulphur Butterflies).  If you see caterpillars eating these plants, rejoice!  You will soon have lots of beautiful butterflies coming to your nectar plants.

Some of you may think you don’t want caterpillars eating away in your garden.  If so, you can avoid host plants and include only nectar plants.  However, you’ll get more butterflies if you plant both.  We predict that soon you’ll be treasuring every caterpillar!

Many of the nectar and host plants listed above will be available at our sale.  We strive to provide butterfly-attracting plants that are either native or naturalized in Texas, and that perform well in the Houston area.  Our sale is also a good place to learn more about butterfly gardening.  Several experts will be on hand to answer questions and to help you choose plants.


Plant Sale! At the Cockrell Butterfly Center from HMNS on Vimeo.

So save the date:  Saturday, April 10, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.  Come early, the plants go fast!

Tis the Season to be worried about butterflies!

Grey Hairstreak, P7020072crop
Creative Commons License photo credit: Anita363

This year, I think we’ve gotten a record number of phone calls from people who are concerned about butterflies they’ve seen near their homes or have raised in their gardens. It’s no wonder that butterflies are very popular around here and no one wants to see them perish in the not-so-toasty temperatures outside! It may seem silly to some, but I can certainly sympathize. I spend a great deal of my time raising insects and I certainly get attached and would do things to care for them that might make some question my sanity! However, butterflies and other insects have been surviving through the winter for millions of years. Butterflies native to Houston have definitely got the climate figured out by now! So, before you go darting across your lawn after that poor butterfly, there are some things you should know!

As I pointed out in my post, “Where Have all the Bugs Gone?” bugs, including butterflies, are not quite as sensitive as many believe. These small but resourceful beings have quite a few tricks up their sleeves! Over-wintering, hibernation, migration, hunkering down; these are just a few examples. Butterflies in Houston pretty much have it made. Especially when you consider the fact that there are butterflies in the North, like the Morning Cloak, that can survive through a truly frigid winter and emerge in the spring better than ever! Our winter is very mild comparatively, with plenty of warm, sunny days. Here are some common Houston butterflies and how they survive the winter.

Papilio thoas nealces  [The Giant Swallowtail]
Creative Commons License photo credit: fesoj Giant Swallowtail

Swallowtails (giant swallowtail, black swallowtail, spicebush swallowtail, and more) -  These butterflies spend the winter in a suspended state called diapause and they spend it as a chrysalis. They are immobile, take in no food or water, and are extremely resilient. They can certainly hadle the very few freezes we experience here in Houston. I have had swallowtail chrysalids that have not emerged for nearly a year and a very healthy butterfly was the result!

Longwings – The gulf frittilary is our resident longwing. This is another butterfly that can be seen year-round in any of the four life stages. The mobile stages such as the larvae and adult will hunker down to avoid freezing temps. The immobile stages, the egg and pupa, are more resistant to temperature.

Orange-barred Sulphur
Creative Commons License photo credit: kaibara87 Cloudless Sulphur

Sulphurs - These sunny yellow butterflies can be found all over the world, including above the Arctic Circle – how’s that for cold! Favorites like the cloudless sulphur are found throughout the entire year as adults, even during the winter. When the temperatures drop too low, they hide in crevices in trees or man-made shelters and they fly when it is warm, gathering food to continue to carry them through the winter.

Monarchs - These are the most popular of all! Monarchs are known for their incredible migration from as far north as Canada, down to the mountains of Central Mexico. These butterflies, unlike some others, cannot withstand the freezing temperatures of the North. They do not only go to Mexico, some find their winter homes in California, Peninsular Florida and the Keys, and even here. We have a population that does not migrate from Houston because the temperatures are warm enough. If you see a Monarch outside during this time, don’t worry, they haven’t missed the boat, they are quite happy here!

She Was Completely Transparent With Me
Creative Commons License photo credit: Randy Son Of Robert

So you see, we do not need to intervene – butterflies know what to do when it gets cold. The temperatures outside right now are not deadly, just uncomfortable. Insects can go a long time without food or water and as soon as the sun re-appears, they will get their fill. If it does freeze, they will seek shelter.

Now, if you have been raising monarchs or other butterflies in your garden and you bring them inside to be warm, there is a chance they will emerge as adults when it is way to chilly for them to be released. They cannot be kept alive inside your home either. In this case, we will happily allow you to release them into our conservatory where they will be quite happy! Some butterflies will indeed perish during these few cold months, but it’s all part of the cycle that has been going since the creation of Earth and we should try not to intervene to much!

Until next time, Happy Butterfly Watching!

Texas’ most-viewed butterfly: Buttery Sulphurs

One of the most often-viewed butterflies in Texas is the Sulphur Butterfly.  Even if you haven’t seen any Monarchs, Swallowtails, Pipevines or Zebras you are sure to have seen the sulphurs. When first viewed by observers, this species of butterfly was referred to as having a buttery coloration.  In fact, it is believed that this is how these fluttering insects got the name of “butterfly.”

In the springtime, if you drive up to the hill country to view the bluebonnets, it is likely you will also encounter the sulphurs ”puddling” in water puddles next to the side of asphalt roads.  This is their way of drinking in necessary nutrients that are made available to them through salts and minerals derived from the soil.  Sulphur butterflies often have solid yellow wing colorations that may be mottled with orange, lime-green, rusty amber, soft brown or grey spots. 

Within the confines of the Cockrell Butterfly Center Demonstration Garden (located outside the conservatory), we have two host plants available for the sulphur butterflies to lay eggs upon – the Cassia alata and the Cassia bicapsularis. If you’re interested in the early stages of the butterfly’s life cycle, these two plants always have eggs and caterpillars on them.  Be aware that wasps, a predator of the larvae, can sometimes be seen carrying them off as food.

The Cassia alatas are grown in our greenhouses with seeds collected from specimens that formed pods after flowering the previous fall.  We scarify (by making a tiny cut in the seed coat) and then soak them in water for 24 hours before planting them into flats in the month of December. 

By April (when they are available at the Spring Plant Sale), the plants are in one gallon pots and are over 24” tall.  In maturity, the Cassia alata can reach 8 to 10 feet or more in height. 

The blooms atop the Cassia alata are on top of tall erect stems that are about 6-8” in length and look like yellow candles from a distance – which is why gardeners refer to them as the “candlestick cassia.” The plant does well in full sun, but may freeze back in the winter.  It does not always come back with shoots in the spring. 

The Cassia bicapsularis is a slower-growing shrub with tiny leaves sitting opposite one another on slender branches.  The blooms on the bicapsularis are softer, single, and drape downward as they cascade over the end tips of the stems.  They are a beautiful sight in full bloom.  In our garden at the Cockrell Butterfly Center, I have noticed that Orange Barred Sulphur Butterflies prefer the bicapsularis while the Cloudless Sulphurs prefer the alata. This flowering shrub is a little gem and certain to enhance your garden from one season to the next:

The eggs of sulphur butterflies are laid singly and look like small pieces of thread to the naked eye. They are generally laid on the tips of new leaf growth.  The larvae of the sulphurs come in all shades of green and yellow.  Some are solid in coloration and some carry spots or stripes.  They are well camouflaged among the green leaf structures and the yellow blooms.  The chrysalis attaches itself to a surface with two silk girdles and has a curvaceous shape.

If you want to view these butterflies and learn more about them, consider purchasing the book The Butterflies of Houston and Southeast Texas by John and Gloria Tveten.  This book is an exceptional reference guide with photographs of the butterflies, caterpillar and notes on the nectar and host plants of each specific species.  The book is listed on the back of our Butterfly Gardening Brochure.

Want to learn more about Horticulture and butterflies?
Learn what the Black Swallowtail likes to eat.
What attracts Monarchs to your garden?
Where do they grow all those plants? Discover the greenhouses here at the HMNS.