Monday, February 8, 2016

February Newsletter

Please note that because what follows is a jpg of the newsletter, the links within will not function.  Please contact for an e-copy of the newsletter with functional links. 

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Great Migration—Kingdom of the Monarchs

Guest Blog by Joyce Oberle

That the Monarch Butterfly’s journey to Mexico is the greatest of all insect migrations is an accepted and obvious truism.   Every year millions of Monarchs from Canada and the United States begin the long and arduous journey to the mountains of Central Mexico where they will hibernate, roosting on one specific tree, the oyamel fir tree. 

It is a sad commentary that the Monarch population has declined by ninety per cent in the last two decades.  Loss of habitat in the United States and logging of the oyamel tree in Mexico have been the harbingers of the Monarch’s plight.   Knowing this, I began studying in earnest about six years ago wanting to learn as much as I could about this beautiful insect.   In time, I began sharing what I had learned with others who also shared my interests. 
It was this past summer, however, as I again was raising the little caterpillars that visited my milkweed plants, that I decided it was time for me to journey to Mexico and experience firsthand the Monarch’s dauntless travels.

I was delighted when my friend Lil Collins agreed to accompany me.  Travel arrangements solidified, we were on our way to Mexico on the ninth of January.  Mexico City was our first stop, meeting our traveling companions and our guides.  Early the next morning, fourteen eager travelers and three guides boarded a bus and began the four hour trip to the quaint, little town of Angangueo.   After checking into our hotel and enjoying a delicious lunch of the local cuisine, we were ushered onto the bed of two trucks.   Ten miles up the mountain, we switched from the trucks to horses.  It was one mile traveling on horseback and then one final mile on foot.  At long last, we finally arrived at the butterfly sanctuary, El Rosario Sanctuary, to be more explicit.  
All photos used in this Blog are courtesy of the photographer, Wendy Caldwell of Monarch Joint Venture
One does not immediately grasp the essence of what is before them.   Looking out at the vast expanse of the oyamel trees and then finally realizing that what has inundated branches and trunk alike is the immense array of millions of butterflies.  Although I have seen pictures of the various sanctuaries, to view them in reality is almost akin to a spiritual experience.  It was midafternoon, and the heat of the sun began caressing the trees, providing needed warmth so that many of the butterflies began to take flight around the sanctuary giving us the opportunity for many great pictures.  
Because the local inhabitants are so protective of the butterflies the area is cordoned off, and one can get no closer to the trees then perhaps forty to fifty feet.  Guards are also positioned at the sanctuaries. Both men and women take turns standing guard.  As the afternoon sun began to leave the sanctuary, we finished pictures and videos and began our long trip back to our hotel. 

Early the next morning, we headed to the second sanctuary.  The weather was against us, and it was quite cold.  Arriving at the sanctuary, again by horseback and by foot, it was obvious that the butterflies were too cold to take flight.  For them to be able to fly, the temperature must be at least sixty degrees, and it was not even close to that.  After a few hours of waiting for sunshine and warmth that didn’t arrive, we began our trip back to the base camp. Although we were still able to see many Monarchs roosting in the trees, it would have been less disappointing if we could have watched them flying about the sanctuary.  Oh well, it was still an awesome sight.

I would be remiss if I didn’t comment on the kindness and gracious demeanor of the local people.  Certainly the many food dishes that we got to sample and eat were first rate.  Although the hotel in Angangueo had no heat, we did have a small space heater that the hotel provided.  The week passed all too quickly, and soon we were in the airport in Mexico City ready to begin our trip back to the United States.

Yet I couldn’t help but make the comparison between the Monarchs and us.  In a few hours, we would be back at Lambert’s in St. Louis, an easy trip at best.    Nevertheless, these fragile creatures fly thousands of miles over at least two months’ time, often in unpredictable weather.  It is still a mystery as to how they are able to find the oyamel trees never having been there before.   Perhaps we may never know.

As I finish my story, I am reminded of a quote by the great Andy Warhol.  He states, “They always say that time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.”  And so it is with the Monarchs.  Time has changed things significantly for them and not in a good way.  But now at long last, many caring and concerned people from federal to local levels have become aware of the butterflies challenges and are wanting to assist them.  Already, we are seeing positive results.  Vast numbers of individuals in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and many other countries are willing to  do  their part so that future generations, our children and grandchildren, will see the Monarchs, not from books, but outside on  a warm summer day flying around looking for milkweed.

Joyce Oberle is a Missouri Master Naturalist with the Miramiguoa Chapter and a member of the Franklin County Master Gardeners.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Consider Native Bees When Gardening for Monarchs

Guest blog and photos by Tom Schroeder 

We all want to improve our garden habitats to increase the number of Monarch Butterflies.  We can increase the number of Native Bees while we are at it by just adding a few gardening practices.

Native Bees are small harmless creatures ranging in size from a quarter inch Miner Bee to an inch and a half Bumblebee.  They will ignore your presence in the garden and go about their business of gathering pollen and nectar for their nests.  They add beauty, interest, and pollinating services to the garden.

carpenter bees
The population of many Native Bees species have declined because of loss and degradation of habitat and pesticide overuse.  These are some of the same reasons for the decline of the Monarch Butterfly.  We can start to turn that around by improving their habitat in our yards.

Both Monarchs and Native Bees required continuous blooming flowers from April to November.  They both prefer to feed on three foot by three foot patches of the same flowers rather than scattered individual flowers. Where Bees and Monarchs differ is in the type of flowers they utilize.  Many Native Bees have short tongues and need open flower forms.  Native Bees also seek pollen for nesting and not just nectar for fuel.

Excellent Native Bee Plants on the Backyard Habitat for Monarchs plant list are: Culver’s Root for late spring; Purple Coneflower, Rattlesnake Master, Wild Bergamot, and Rosinweed for the summer; Smooth and Sky Blue Aster and Rigid Goldenrod for the fall.  For Native Bees you might also try native species of early spring blooming Serviceberry and Spiderwort and summer blooming Helenium, Penstemon, Agastache, and Verbena.  Unfortunately, Milkweed does not make its pollen available to a bee and requires a long tongue to reach its nectar so it is not a very useful flower to a small bee.

It is well known that Monarch’s need milkweed plants to raise their young.  Native Bees need bare dirt.  Seventy percent of Native Bee species nest in the ground.  The other 30 percent use plant stems or beetle tunnels in wood.  In your plantings for the Monarchs, leave some bare dirt patches for the little bees to use for nesting.  Also leave a few one foot sections of some of the previous year’s plant stems upright in the garden for bee nesting.  Milkweed stems could make an excellent nesting spot for a little bee.
green sweat bees

Limit pesticide and herbicide use including not purchasing seedlings treated with neonicotinoids.  Testing has shown pollen collected by honey bees can contain up to 6 different pesticides.  Even in low concentrations, pesticides affect bee behavior in negative ways.

Monarchs and Native Bees have coexisted in habitats for thousands of years.  By improving your garden habitat for both, you will be continuing that long association. 

Tom Schroeder retired in 2015 and finally got to complete his Master Naturalist certification.  He is a long time volunteer with Kansas City Wildlands specializing in prairie plant seed collection.  He is an avid photographer and gardener with a passion for native bees.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Monarch Census--The Winter Survey

Guest Blog by Mary Nemecek, Missouri Master Naturalist Osage Trails Chapter.

On November 3rd, around mid-day, monarchs began arriving in Angangueo, Mexico.  Angangueo sits just below the two largest wintering grounds formonarch butterflies.  This signals the end of their fall migration and the beginning of their winter spent on the Oyamel trees in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve.   

Here the monarchs will overwinter, hanging in heavy clusters, earning  them the honor of being the 2nd most dense concentration of animals in the world (krill being #1).  In March, they will become active, begin to breed and move back north.

During the winter scientists will survey the amount of land covered by monarchs on the biosphere and estimate population numbers.  The number of hectares (ha) covered by monarchs is usually reported in late January and an estimate of the monarch population is released.  Monarchs are counted at 50 million monarchs per hectare.  One hectare equals 2.47 acres.
These monarchs are roosting in Kansas
on their way to Mexico. Photo by Mary Nemecek

The history of the number of monarchs estimated per hectare is interesting and heartbreaking.  Originally, after years of study through different methodology, monarchs were estimated at 10 million/ha.  That was until a winter storm hit the overwintering grounds in 2002 and millions of butterflies were killed.  It's estimated 75% of the population was lost during the storm.  However this gave scientists the opportunity to count butterflies. One square meter held  2,241 dead monarchs.  This alone would have brought the number per hectare to 22.4 million.  But not all the monarchs perished and there were still many more in the trees.  In other areas the numbers were even higher.  Eventually scientists came to the conclusion that each hectare held a population of 50 million monarchs.
These are monarchs roosting at their Mexican
overwintering site in Mexico.  Photo from

An all time low of .67 ha was reached during the winter of 2013/2014.  Last winter the number bumped up to 1.13 ha but nowhere near what scientists would like to see for a sustainable population.  Dr. Chip Taylor with Monarch Watch would like to see the number at 4 ha and US Fish and Wildlife Services have set a goal for 6 ha.

Earlier this month, when Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewel visited the reserves with Mexican Environment Secretary Rafael Pacchiano , news sources around the world reported predictions of a large increase in overwintering populations to 3 or 4 times over  last winter.  If true, this could get the monarchs to Dr. Taylor's minimum threshold of 4 ha.  However, Dr. Taylor is more conservative in his predictions.  "I've been predicting at least a doubling of the population and that seems justified based on the success of the tagging program," wrote Dr. Taylor in a recent post. 
The number of data sheets returned for tagged monarchs shows almost double the number of monarchs tagged this year compared to last year.  Dr. Taylor said roughly 80,000 plus monarchs were tagged in 2015.  Additionally, Dr. Taylor points out, the conditions this year were similar to 2011 when the overwintering population came in at 2.89 ha.

As  the world holds their breath for good weather on the wintering grounds and a big count, there is still more work to do to ensure a continued, sustainable, migratory monarch population.  USFWS estimates it takes 29 stems of milkweed to produce one overwintering monarch.   That leaves an additional 1.5 billion milkweed stems needed in the mid-west to achieve a 6 ha overwintering population.  Lots of planning and planting left to do.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Collecting, Processing, Storing and Sowing Milkweed Seed

Guest Blog 
By Wedge Watkins and Becky Erickson

The decline of Monarch butterflies is at a critical level. The Mexican overwintering population has declined from using an area of 22 acres to about one acre.  There are many reasons for the decline, including loss of habitat, both in Mexico and in their Midwest migration route throughout North America. What can we do to help Monarchs now and in the near future?

Photo: Becky Erickson
As monarchs fly south looking for milkweeds on which to lay eggs, they are also looking for patches of quality wildflowers. There is no point in finding a nursery for the larva if there is nothing for the new adults to eat. The next generation needs plenty of quality nectar for fuel to start the next leg of the Journey. The best plan is to donate about 1/10 to 1/4 acre of a field corner or fence row to plant 15 species or more of quality wildflower seed with the same technique explained below. Treating heavy fescue with herbicide for a year before seeding is imperative to the persistence of the wildflowers.

1.  Scout out areas for milkweed plants. Learn to identify at least common milkweed and swamp milkweed. Others you might find are Sullivan’s, purple, tall green, butterfly, whorled, or spider [in un-glaciated areas]. Common milkweed grows on field edges and roadsides where soil has been disturbed. It is a tall robust plant with wide opposite leaves. Pale pink flowers grow in large clusters from leaf nodes. Pods are about 4 inches long, 1.5 in. in diameter, and are usually covered with scattered extended knobs. Swamp milkweed grows in ditches and other muddy areas. It is tall, smooth with long pointed opposite leaves. Bright pink flowers usually cluster on the top of the plant. Pods are about 3 inches long, ½ in. in diameter, smooth, and point upward in a cluster.

2.  Don’t mow areas where you find milkweed growing.

3.  Delay fall prescribed burns until milkweed seed has been collected from burn units.

4.  Collect seed pods from milkweed when they are ready. Pods are ready when they are dry, gray or brown. If center seam pops with a gentile pressure, they can be picked. If they are starting to fluff out, of course they can be collected. It is best to collect pods into paper bags such as lunch sacks or grocery bags. Label the bag as to location and habitat and the species. Store in an air-conditioned space until processed.

5.  Process the seed (remove the seed from pods and silk). All manner of mechanical devices have been tried, to do this in bulk. Most methods are unsuccessful. It is time consuming to clean seed by hand, but it is the most efficient way.  Hold pod in both hands by the ends. Pop it open enough to hold thumb over silk. Open pod a bit more so you can tease seed into a container. Drop silk into another container; when it becomes unruly, spray it with a little water. There could be seed still in with the silk and pods [ “trash” ], so place it somewhere it might grow.

6.  Store seed properly. Seed needs to be completely dry. Seed is a living plant. When air temperature and humidity added together are < 100, there is a very good chance seed will retain viability for a few years. If the combined number reaches 150, the seed has lost viability. SO: do not leave seed in a locked vehicle in the sun with the windows closed, nor in a closed container in an outdoor shed. DO NOT FREEZE seed; they have moisture in them and will explode and die if frozen. After processing, store in a clean plastic container in refrigerator. Label: “species, year, for planting location”

7.  Identify appropriate areas to sow the seed. While you were collecting you noted habitat. Find another area where habitat is similar and there are few/no milkweeds growing. Do not sow in areas likely to be sprayed with Glyphosate or other herbicides.

8.  Prepare the planting site if needed (this can be done with common garden tools). If the planting site such as a strip next to
    a field or road, is thick with fescue or brome, or some other alien vegetation it would be beneficial to spray glyphosate over the area to be planted several weeks before planting. Then mow short and scruff up the surface with a rake. Do not till.

9.  Sow the seed on bare soil, prior to the first snow; sometime between Halloween and Christmas is best. If soil is workable, germination success would be higher if seed is raked a bit into the surface. But this is not necessary. Simply walk on the seed for good contact. A very light cover of dead vegetation [mulch] can be helpful to keep seedlings from drying out in early summer.

10.  GPS the seed collection site and planting location or mark it correctly on a map or aerial photo. A photo of the location would also help future monitoring efforts.

Service Pollinator webpage and HQ/Regional  Pollinator Coordinators contact information:
Monarch Joint Venture:
The Xerces Society:

Habitat Assessment Tool:
Monarch Breeding Habitat Assessment Tool. University of Minnesota Monarch Lab and Monarch Joint Venture. Online at:

Milkweeds Information and Seed Sources: 
 Border, B. and E. Lee-Mader. 2014. Milkweeds: A Conservation Practitioner’s Guide. 143 pp. Portland, OR: The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. Online at:
Pollinator Plants of the Central United States: Native Milkweeds (Asclepias spp.) (2013). The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, Portland OR, in collaboration with USDA-NRCS. Online at:
Great Basin Pollinator Plants: Native Milkweeds (Asclepias spp.)(2012). The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, Portland OR, in collaboration with USDA-NRCS Great Basin Plant Material

Center, Fallon NV. NVPMC Technical Note No. 56.  Online at: