One of the hottest winters on record poses good and bad news for migrating Monarch butterflies this season. The good: warm weather and well-timed rains translate into a grand wildflower season with plenty of milkweed in South Texas. The bad: that same warm weather in Mexico where the Monarchs overwinter means the butterflies have burned through much of their stored winter fats, likely making them stressed.
The migrating creatures that arrived in the Mexican mountains last fall will soon head north to lay the first generation of eggs that will launch the 2017 edition of their epic multigenerational migration. The success of that generation, often laid in Texas, sets the stage for the coming season. Subsequent offspring make their way north to Canada over the summer, reproducing along the way. In the fall, they fly home to Mexico to roost until one day in March, they leave for good, head north, reproduce, and die before the life cycle begins anew.
Because of Texas' singular position along the geographic path of the Monarch butterfly migration – the first stop in the spring and the "funnel" to Mexico in the fall – the Lone Star State plays a strategic role in the migration.
A recent trip to the roosting sites in Mexico found the butterflies fluttering from their roosts on the sacred firs in search of water and nectar – common for this time of year. The butterflies puddled in the damp mud of shallow mountain streams to rehydrate and sip nutrients. They also nectared on stands of asters, sages, and various verbenas. Many butterflies lay dead on the ground – again, not unusual.
According to Cuauhtémoc Sáenz Romero, PhD., a forest geneticist at the University of Michoacán, an unusual winter storm last March punched holes in the forest canopy, which serves as a winter blanket for the butterflies. An intact canopy prevents the temperature from dropping below freezing, while allowing the butterflies to wait out the winter in a semi-hibernative state.
Throughout the winter, they roost, rest, and on warm days, leave their clusters on the oyamel trees to rehydrate and nectar. Roosting helps conserve lipids (accumulated fats), which they need for the spring journey north. Gaps in the forest canopy and high temperatures – the warmest winter in history – make the butterflies prematurely burn through their fats.
The forest gaps, coupled with climate change, could have devastating consequences when the weather turns chilly and humid, a deadly combination because ice forms on the Monarch wings, Sáenz Romero said.
Climate change-induced stress aside, resilient Monarchs that make it to Texas will find a welcoming landscape. The Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center advised Texans to "hold onto their hats" for a banner wildflower season this year. Local sources confirm the good news.
Drake White of the Nectar Bar reported four species of milkweed sprouting at Phil Hardberger Park's butterfly garden on San Antonio's Northwestside: Texana, asperula, tuberosa, and incarnata. Bluebonnets, Indian paintbrush, and other colorful bloomers in town and the Hill Country also are on display.
Politically, the migrants have enjoyed center stage in pollinator advocacy ever since President Barack Obama announced the National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and other Pollinators in May of 2015. The 58-page document set specific goals to help honeybees and Monarchs through habitat restoration and public education. Since, hundreds of programs and millions of dollars promoting pollinator initiatives have sprouted throughout the continent.
This week in San Antonio, three dozen conservationists from Canada, Mexico, and the U.S. staged a four-day workshop organized by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, a tri-national organization focused on the protection, conservation, and enhancement of North America’s environment. The topic of discussion: how to expand the National Wildlife Federation (NWF)'s Mayor's Monarch Pledge program, which aims to increase Monarch butterfly and pollinator habit to Canada and Mexico.
The group met in San Antonio in response to an invitation from the office of Mayor Ivy Taylor, who signed the pledge and made San Antonio the first Monarch Butterfly Champion City in December of 2015.
Representatives from Montreal, Chicago, Saltillo, and elsewhere joined local Monarch butterfly and pollinator advocates at the University of Texas at San Antonio's Downtown Campus to share lessons on engaging their communities in Monarch butterfly activism.
Peter Neufeld, city manager for Leamington, Canada, told the group he is working to convince his town to rethink its identity as the "Tomato Capital of Canada" to become a Monarch butterfly and ecotourism destination. For more than 100 years, Leamington hosted a Heinz ketchup factory that employed hundreds of people. The plant closed in 2014.
"We're not about Monarchs, we're about tomatoes," Neufeld told the group, channeling the mindset of his community.
Neufeld partnered with Parks Canada to create the Monarch Trail, which will connect the small township on the shore of Lake Erie to Point Pelee National Park. Point Pelee serves as a famous Monarch butterfly gateway, "the Great Lakes Funnel," said Neufeld, where Monarchs gather in early autumn. There, they await south winds to blow them across the great lake. Neufeld noted that loads of ecotourists head to Point Pelee each fall to catch glimpses of the Monarchs.
"Every one of them has to pass through Leavington," he said.
Jose Luis Gallardo, mayor of Jaumave in Tamaulipas, Mexico, described how 17 local farmers in his community have committed to growing late season sunflowers for migrating Monarchs. Gallardo and his wife even kicked off Jaumave's participation in the Monarch Watch tagging program last fall, a citizen science initiative that tracks the butterflies as they migrate south. The efforts have helped create a new ecotourism economy for the small community, which now hosts a Monarch butterfly festival that runs from late October through Day of the Dead in early November.
San Antonio was well represented at the workshop by UTSA, the San Antonio River Authority, the San Antonio Zoo, the Mayor's Office, Texas Butterfly Ranch and others. Grace Barnett, local Monarch outreach coordinator for the NWF, shared how San Antonio pollinator advocates have worked together to create a soon-to-be-announced citywide Monarch butterfly conservation plan.
Few at the gathering felt comfortable commenting on potential changes in pollinator politics under a Trump administration. One international visitor said she preferred not to be quoted as it might jeopardize her pending visa status. Manon Lynne Crôteau, communications director of the David Suzuki Foundation in Montreal, Canada, did not hesitate.
"We're used to this," said Crôteau, citing a previously conservative Canadian administration that attempted to muzzle scientists and deny climate change. "Regardless of who's in office, there's a growing movement of citizens, communities, and organizations working toward environmental justice.
"The people have a voice. I'm optimistic."