Tag Archives: Danaus plexippus

Setting the Table for a Regal Butterfly Comeback, With Milkweed

Monarch Caterpillar Milkweed ©Kim Smith 2013Monarch Caterpillar Eating Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) Foliage

Thank you GMG readers and Monarch Butterfly friends for forwarding the following article from the NY Times!

By Michael Wines

Published December 20th, 2013

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — Bounding out of a silver Ford pickup into the single-digit wind-flogged flatness that is Iowa in December, Laura Jackson strode to a thicket of desiccated sticks and plucked a paisley-shaped prize.

It was a pod that, after a gentle squeeze, burst with chocolate brown buttons: seeds of milkweed, the favored — indeed, the only — food of the monarch butterfly caterpillar.

Once wild and common, milkweed has diminished as cropland expansion has drastically cut grasslands and conservation lands. Diminished too is the iconic monarch.

Dr. Jackson, a University of Northern Iowa biologist and director of its Tallgrass Prairie Center, is part of a growing effort to rescue the monarch. Her prairie center not only grows milkweed seeds for the state’s natural resources department, which spreads them in parks and other government lands, but has helped seed thousands of acres statewide with milkweed and other native plants in a broader effort to revive the flora and fauna that once blanketed more than four-fifths of the state.

Monarch Caterpillar milkweed -2 © Kim Smith 2012Monarch caterpillar hanging from a Marsh Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) leaf rib, in the characteristic J-shape, readying to pupate.

Nationwide, organizations are working to increase the monarchs’ flagging numbers. At the University of Minnesota, a coalition of nonprofits and government agencies called Monarch Joint Venture is funding research and conservation efforts. At the University of Kansas, Monarch Watch has enlisted supporters to create nearly 7,450 so-called way stations, milkweed-rich backyards and other feeding and breeding spots along migration routes on the East and West Coasts and the Midwest.

But it remains an uphill struggle. The number of monarchs that completed the largest and most arduous migration this fall, from the northern United States and Canada to a mountainside forest in Mexico, dropped precipitously, apparently to the lowest level yet recorded. In 2010 at the University of Northern Iowa, a summertime count in some 100 acres of prairie grasses and flowers turned up 176 monarchs; this year, there were 11.

Read the story here

Where Are All the Monarchs?

Monarchs usually arrive in our region by the first week in July and go through several brood cycles. This year, barely any arrived. The Monarch’s sensitivity to temperature and dependence on milkweed make it vulnerable to environmental changes. Since 1994, U.S. and Mexican researchers have recorded a steady decline in the Monarch population in their overwintering grounds, with 2012-2013 being the lowest recorded to date.

Monarch butterflies daybreak willow tree ©Kim Smith 2012

Temperature change and habitat loss affect breeding success and longevity. Dr. Chip Taylor, a leading Monarch researcher at the University of Kansas reports that the widespread adoption of GMO corn and soybean crops resistant to herbicides, along with with intensive herbicide use, coupled with the federal government’s incentivized expansion of corn and soy acreage for the production of biofuels have caused a significant drop in milkweed throughout the heart of the Monarch’s range. Lack of milkweed equals no Monarchs. “Monarch/milkweed habitat has declined significantly in parallel with the rapid adoption of glyphosate-tolerant corn and soybeans and, since 2006, the rapid expansion of corn and soy acreage to accommodate the production of biofuels,” Taylor wrote on May 29.

Monarch Butterfly Nectaring at Seaside Goldenrod ©Kim Smith 2011

Monarchs Nectaring at Seaside Goldenrod

What can we do? Encourage conservation organizations that conserve Monarch habitat, plant milkweed, plant nectar plants, and raise caterpillars. Hopefully the weather next spring and early summer will be more conducive to the Monarch’s northward migration and breeding success, and if and when the Monarchs arrive, they will find our milkweed plants.

Monarch Butterflies New england Aster ©Kim Smith 2012

Monarch Butterflies Nectaring at New England Asters

If anyone sees a Monarch, please email me at kimsmithdesigns@hotmail.com or leave a comment in the comment section.

Update #2: Reader Jude Writes the following ~

Hi Kim,

I have maybe 30milkweed plants in the front yard. I would be happy to harvest the seeds, are there places you know of that would be willing or have a large enough property to seed them? Can you harvest them as soon as the pods pop? I remember as a kid finding the most beautiful cocoon I have ever seen. I haven’t seen many butterflies at all and of the ones I have seen are not Monarchs.

My reponse:

Hi Jude, I am putting it out there in GMG Land that if anyone would like your milkweed seed pods to please contact me.

Yes, you can harvest immediately after the pods pop, as a matter of fact, I recommend doing just that and sowing your seeds in the fall. The easiest method is to lightly scratch the surface of the soil where you wish the milkweed to grow. Scatter the seeds and water. That’s it.

Thank you so much for writing. Hopefully, we’ll find a home for your milkweed seeds.

Update: For more information, see previous GMG posts on Monarchs and Milkweed:

How Exactly is Monsanto’s Roundup Ravaging the Monarch Butterfly Population?

News Release: MONARCH WATCH ANNOUNCES ‘BRING BACK THE MONARCHS’ CAMPAIGN

Cape Ann Milkweed Project

GloucesterCast Podcast 4/25/13 With Guest Kim Smith

Monarch Butterfly Migration Through Gloucester Reader Question

GMG Reader Becky Edleman writes:

“Hello! I was emailing you to inquire about the monarch butterfly migration that comes through Gloucester. I recently moved to MA and was told that the butterflies migrate through that area, but have found little evidence as to when this usually occurs. After doing some googling I came across your website discussing the migrating monarchs many times. If you have any information for me as to when I should plan to come up and where to go I would really appreciate it! I love reading your articles and am eager to find out more about the migration pattern! Thank you!”

Monarch Awakening ç Kim Smith 2012

Hi Becky ~ Thanks for writing and wonderful to know you found us through a Google search! The Monarch Butterfly migration through our region is not an exact science. The “when” of the migration depends on may variables including the success of their breeding during July and August, air temperature, and wind flow. When I look back through my records, I would say, generally speaking, we have the greatest number of Monarchs migrating though Gloucester beginning around the second week of September through October 1st. The butterflies are are found in  gardens and wildflower fields and meadows throughout our region. You can often see clusters near the Eastern Point Lighthouse.

Do you have space for a garden? If so, and you would like to attract the migating Monarchs to your garden, plant nectar-rich flowers that are in bloom during their migration. Seaside Goldenrod, New England Aster, and Smooth  Aster are just three gorgeous Massachusetts native wildflowers that will attract the Monarchs to your garden.

I hope you’ll stop by the dock and get a GMG sticker when you are visiting!

From Germany to Logan to Gloucester, for Butterflies!

I sent the following to the Boss this morning: Thought you would like to know–Last night at sunset I was filming B roll at the EP Lighthouse. A German couple was there, with binoculars, and they had just arrived from Germany. I asked what they were looking for and they said, “Monarchs,” because they had seen all the butterfly postings on GMG, not only mine, Donna’s, too, and all the comments. Sometimes I think I am posting TMI about butterflies, but I thought you would think this pretty funny, and amazing; straight away from Germany to Logan to Gloucester, for butterflies!

To the lovely couple from Germany that was at the Lighthouse yesterday: Come on down to the dock to get your GMG sticker and meet Joey C, the creator of Good Morning Gloucester. He’d love to meet you!  Captain Joe and Sons is located at 95 East Main Street.

Dogbar Breakwater Eastern Point, Gloucester

Farewell Monarchs

Inquiring minds want to know, “Where do the Monarchs go?” I am often asked this question, not by children, but by adults. Most children have studied, or are studying, the butterfly life cycle and the have some degree of knowledge about the Monarch migration. The reason the majority of adults never learned about the Monarch butterfly migration is because the great mystery of their winter destination was only discovered as recently as 1975! The Monarchs that are journeying through Gloucester at this time of year travel approximately 2,000 miles to the transvolcanic mountaintops of  south central Mexico, near the town of Angangueo. I have the National Geographic issue from 1975 that tells the tale of one man’s determination, including all the scientific intrigue that goes with great discoveries, and I will try to post more about this fascinating story in the coming weeks.

As everyone who reads GMG probably knows by now, I am in the midst of shooting my Monarch film. What you may not know is that I have written and illustrated a book that tells the story of this most exquisite of creatures and its extraordinary journey. I am hoping to find a publisher. If anyone knows a friend of a friend of a friend, or has a suggestion for a very high quality publisher or top-notch agent, please let me know. Thank you.

Monarch Flakes

Click the photo to view larger and you will see the little Monarch flakes heading into the cherry tree. The clustering Monarchs were well-camoflouged by the autumn foliage nonetheless, their silhouettes are clearly visible in the setting sun.

Another passel of Monarchs poured onto the Point last Thursday at dusk, carried in by the warm southerly breeze. Overnight the wind shifted, coming in from the northeast, and by day break Friday morning, the Monarchs had flown from the trees, carried to shores further south by the blustery tailwind.

Giving Credit Where Credit is Due

Dear Friends,

Recently I attended a lecture given by an expert in a field to which I am passionately involved. I was really looking forward to this lecture and I have on many occasions actively promoted this lecturer. To get to the point, I was stunned to recognize that the third photo into the slideshow was one of my own photos, and it was presented without acknowledgement. I sat stupefied listening to the rest of the lecture. I hoped that no other photos of mine were part of the presentation. Unfortunately that was not the case. One of the last photos presented was one of my best selling photographs and the audience was audibly moved by the photo. It would have been so simple at that point to say something like, “Thanks to Kim Smith, the photographer, who is here with us this evening.”

The following morning I wrote the lecturer a very polite email stating that I don’t mind sharing my work. I simply requested that he use any one of several photos that I attached for him, with my name discreetly added in the lower right corner. In reply I received a curt and condescending note from the lecturer stating he would delete my photos from his presentation and from his files.

I spent three freezing hours before a long workday in a windy wet field hoping to get that shot that the lecturer was using as part of his presentation. Taking credit, either by claiming it as your own, or by lack of acknowledgement is unethical, at the very least. I really empathize with people who experience more extreme cases of appropriation. Some may find this case to be relatively minor; I found it totally unnerving.

I love to share information and photos about wildflowers and butterflies—as my new friend Hannah says, “You are working for the butterflies.” I blame myself for not watermarking the photos, although I believe very sincerely that most people are honest, have integrity, and give credit when credit is due. For example, when Maggie Harper, the producer from the television show Chronicle, borrowed my Greasy Pole footage, they not only ran my name across the top of the footage, they also provided a link to my blog on the Chronicle website. Maggie had seen the footage on Good Morning Gloucester and contacted Joey, who graciously provided her with my contact information. From the Chronicle link, I received many thousands of hits on my own blog. As another example, when a non-profit national wildflower organization wanted to use several photos for their publication, I gladly said yes, and only requested that I receive a photo credit, which they did provide. I am honored and touched beyond measure that people enjoy my photos and films. My policy is the same as many artists in that I request that if someone wishes to use my work for presentation, that they would please let me know, prior to use.

Enough with all that. Many have written requesting information about this year’s Monarch Butterfly migration. I have been shooting daily hours and hours of video and still photos and will be sharing all. I have figured out how to add a watermark in photo shop, but am hoping to find a more efficient and faster method of adding a signature.

Monarch Butterfly Migration Gloucester Massachusetts 2012

Happy Last Days of Summer!

Many more photos from this year’s migration to come.

Newly Molted Caterpillar

Butterfly caterpillars molt four or five times as they grow. Each different caterpillar stage is called an instar.

In the photo below you can see the caterpillar’s crumpled discarded exoskeleton.

Molting Monarch Caterpillar

The caterpillar first grows a new skin under its old skin. Then the caterpillar draws its head out of its head capsule. Occasionally it will need to use its front legs to help remove the head capsule. Next the caterpillar crawls out of its old skin. This is called molting. After the molt and while the new skin is soft and pliable the caterpillar swallows a lot of air, which expands the body. As the new exoskeleton hardens it lets out the air to allow room to grow.

Molting takes a great deal of energy and after each molt, the caterpillar rests quietly for a brief period before then eating its discarded exoskeleton.

Madeline and the Monarch

The Ciaramitaro Family stopped by Willowdale today for a tour of the butterfly gardens. We were lucky to see several Monarchs and dozens of Painted Ladies.

Click the photo to view larger and you will see the Monarch climbed onto Madeline’s finger–it takes great patience to hold still long enough to allow a butterfly to climb aboard!

Madeline was determined that a butterfly would climb onto her finger–first trying the Painted Ladies and then very, very patiently, and holding very, very still, encouraging the Monarchs. She was thrilled when one did–and did so several times–very sweet to see her joy. Madeline and Eloise were expertly identifying the male and female Monarchs and explaining to all in how to tell the difference.

How to Tell the Difference Between a Male and Female Monarch Butterfly

For Devera, who wrote in yesterday asking how to tell the difference between a male and female Monarch Butterfly ~

Click photos to view large.

The first photos shows all male Monarch Butterflies necatring at Seaside Goldenrod. Notice the pair of little black pockets, or dots, on the inner vein of the hind wings. These are pockets of pheromones, or what scientists actually refer to as “love dust,” which the male sprinkles on the female during courtship.

The female Monarch Butterfly lacks the the black pockets on her hind wings. Notice too that her wing veination is thicker and smokier.

During courtship, male and female join, and he carries her to higher ground. This photo shows the male and female mating, with the male above.