3 easy ways to help monarchs this fall

How far could you travel without your GPS before getting lost?  For most of us, a long road trip is impossible without satellite assist. Monarchs have managed for millennia to navigate their way across the continent, drawn by an unseen force to migrate en masse. Each fall, nearly 500,000 monarch butterflies fly south to their wintering grounds in Mexico, completing the longest repeat migration in the insect world. Monarchs from the eastern United States make this long and dangerous journey, traveling  from as far away as southern Canada, down through Texas, settling in mountains northwest of Mexico City – all without a map!

Unfortunately, eastern monarchs are in trouble; their population has plummeted nearly 90% over the last few decades and they need your help. Here are three easy ways you can make a difference: 

1 – Cut back tropical milkweed

Tropical milkweed is a popular choice for many gardeners. This Mexican native adapts well to our region as it is easy to grow with a long bloom season. However, despite its role as an effective host plant for monarchs, this variety comes with concerns. 

Given its ability to grow year-round, tropical milkweed interferes with monarch migration by inviting butterflies to linger instead of continuing on to their southern wintering grounds. If butterflies delay travel plans for too long they run into temperatures too cold to survive.  

Biologists also believe tropical milkweed proliferates the spread of the ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE) pathogen. OE is a protozoan parasite that monarchs carry and spread to their host plants. It’s then ingested when caterpillars feed on the leaves. According to the Xerces Society, high OE levels in adult monarchs have been linked to lower migration success in the eastern monarch population, as well as reductions in body mass, lifespan, mating success, and flight ability. When native milkweeds die back after blooming, the parasite dies along with them so that each summer’s monarch population feeds on fresh, parasite-free foliage. In contrast, tropical milkweed that remains evergreen through winter allows for OE levels to build up on the plant over time, meaning successive generations of monarch caterpillars feeding on the plant can be exposed to dangerous levels of OE. 

If you grow tropical milkweed be sure to cut it back in the fall, preferably by early October. Leave the stalk 4-6 inches tall and keep cutting it back through February as leaves re-sprout.  

Cut back tropical milkweed plants to within four to six inches off the ground each October

2 – Plant natives for spring

If you don’t have milkweed in your garden, tropical or native, plant now for spring. Planting in the fall allows natives to establish a strong root system over winter, creating a more drought tolerant and healthier plant for monarchs and other pollinators to visit the following year.   

Interested in planting milkweed? Try one of these native varieties. Milkweed is notoriously challenging to propagate so follow planting guidelines closely. Many local gardeners report good success with the aquatic (Asclepias perennis) and swamp (Asclepias incarnata) varieties. 

Milkweed is the only plant that monarchs will lay eggs on and the only food source for their caterpillars. Monarch caterpillars are voracious eaters, capable of consuming an entire plant as they grow. To ensure an adequate food supply throughout their larval stage, bunch at least 4-5 plants close together. 

In addition to milkweed, native nectar-rich plants are a much-needed food source for adult monarchs. Monarchs will travel back through Texas in March and April, looking for nutrients along the way. Give them a hand by adding some of these native plants to your garden this fall.  

3 – Avoid pesticides

Be aware that insecticides and herbicides are harmful to not only the target pest but pollinators and other beneficial insects, as well. You don’t have to spray a butterfly directly to harm it: plants absorb these chemicals, toxifying their leaves and nectar and poisoning visitors.  Help protect monarchs and other pollinators by avoiding chemicals in your landscape. Look here for organic alternatives.  

Begin with one easy change to help countless monarchs this fall. If you were traveling 3,000 miles, wouldn’t you appreciate a little help?

Questions or comments? Email enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov

Join Us For Walk in the Woods This Thursday

Grab your popcorn and kick back as we explore The Spring Creek Nature Trail together. The Woodlands Township Environmental Services Department is offering one of our most popular programs, the Walk in the Woods Nature Lecture Series, online. Gather the family and join us this Thursday for an experience virtually as good as being on the trail.  

Be a part of the fun on Thursday, October 8 at 6:30 p.m. when Bill Bass presents on The Spring Creek Nature Trail and the Importance of Conservation.  

Over the course of an hour, Bill will share the importance of preserving our natural spaces and provide an overview of the Spring Creek Nature Trail located in the heart of The Woodlands. This 14-mile multi-use path offers stunning views and a chance to see nature up close. From migratory birds to native wildflowers, the trail provides an escape back to nature in one of the fastest growing urban areas in the United States.  

Keeping wild places free of pollution and development is challenging. As a conservation photographer, Bill has dedicated himself to a multi-year effort to capture the flora and fauna of this system. His stunning images communicate the importance of preserving Spring Creek and our other natural jewels.   

Registration is required for this free presentation. 

Questions or comments? Email enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov

Woodlands Landscaping Solutions Online Learning – Day 4

Pollinator and Wildlife Gardens

Imagine bushes abuzz with bees, resplendent butterflies flashing about, and birdsong permeating the air – all right in your very own yard. By adding a few key elements to your garden or landscape, you can  turn your landscape into a flourishing habitat and start witnessing sights fit for National Geographic! 

Birds, Bees and Butterflies: Gardening for Wildlife 

Let Water University help you build your backyard habitat. This comprehensive presentation is packed with tips for inviting wildlife. Discover which native plants entice specific pollinating insects and birds  and how to round out your habitat with food and shelter sources. 


Certified Wildlife Habitats 

For a quick guide to the key building blocks of a successful Wildlife Habitat, check out National Wildlife Federation’s short 7 part video series.  Start with the video below. Allow auto play to queue up each  subsequent video and enjoy the entire series. Great to watch with the whole family.  Have you installed all the components of a successful wildlife habitat? Register your Certified Wildlife Habitat here


How to Plant a Pollinator Garden 

Are you limited on space or not up for a whole backyard project? Here is a simple how-to video for creating a pollinator garden in a small sunny spot by Roger Cook of This Old House. Learn how to determine the proper location, prep soil, choose plants and add biodiversity through the addition of a water feature. Please note some plants suggested are localized and not native varieties.


Butterfly Puddle 

Pollinating is important and thirsty work! Create a small oasis for butterflies and bees to sip from using tips in this video by Walter Reeves. 


Get to know your new neighbors with these wildlife guides: 


Register your pollinator garden with The Woodlands Township.  Want to know how your garden can earn cash with the newest village challenge? Read more here.

Join us tomorrow for the final day of online programming as we explore How To Create a Healthy and Beautiful Lawn. 

Questions or Comments?  Contact enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov 

Creature Feature: Squirrels

Widespread and widely liked, squirrels are not only adorable and intelligent, but also one of the most visible wildlife in our community. Home more than ever these days, many of us have had delighted in their backyard entertainment and mischievous antics.  Though familiar, there’s still plenty to uncover about these wildly acrobatic and entertaining creatures.

Fast Facts 

  1. Squirrels will occasionally engage in “deceptive caching” – digging and re-filling a hole without actually depositing a nut. This throws off would-be thieves. 
  2. Eyes positioned on the side of the skull allow squirrels to see behind them. 
  3. With a large area/mass ratio and a tail for a parachute, squirrels can survive a fall from ANY HEIGHT.  
Squirrels are one of the few animals that can run head first down a tree. Their back ankles can rotate 180 degrees, allowing them to grip the tree trunk on the way down.

Why do we need them?  

It’s no secret that squirrels bury seeds and nuts. But they only recover a portion of what they bury. Sometimes their cache is raided before they return, but in many cases they’ve simply forgotten where they buried their food. When this happens, the squirrel has unwittingly helped to re-forest our community.   

Even though they dine mostly on nuts, seeds and fruit, squirrels are omnivores. Occasionally eating insects, small birds, mammals and carrion, squirrels play a role in a balanced food chain.  

They’re also an important source of food for many predators, including snakes, coyotes, hawks, and owls.  

Removal 

If you’re a gardener or have a bird feeder, chances are you’ve had a run-in with squirrels. These clever creatures love to take advantage of an easy meal. But before you attempt to trap or remove them consider the following:  

  • Be sure it’s a squirrel. Squirrels are diurnal creatures, so you should be able to catch them in the act in broad daylight. If your plants are dug up during the night, chances are another critter was to blame.  
  • Remove a squirrel and another will likely take its place. Even if you remove several squirrels at once, the lag in activity will be short-lived.   
  • Humanely trapping and relocating results in low survival rates. A relocated squirrel lands in unfamiliar territory where it must quickly find food and shelter and fight off predators. It has none of the security it depends on. 

The easier option is to live in harmony with squirrels.   

  • Reduce or eliminate food sources. Bird feeders are a common attractant. And while it may take a few tries, keeping squirrels at bay can be done. Try some of these suggestions from Birds and Blooms
  • Make your garden uninviting. Consider adding plants that don’t appeal to squirrels such as mint, marigolds or nasturtiums. 
  • If you’re still having trouble in the garden, consider enclosing with chicken wire or mesh cloth. 
  • Keep squirrels out of the attic by trimming tree branches at least 10’ away from the roof. Seal any holes or gaps to prevent access. Just be certain no squirrels are inside before you do.
Their very small and very sharp claws allow them to hang upside down, making many bird feeders an easy meal.

Disease 

The best way to appreciate wild animals, squirrels included, is to watch them from a distance and not feed them. Feeding squirrels discourages natural foraging and can result in a serious bite. Like other rodents, squirrels may be a carrier of rabies, lyme disease, hantavirus and several other diseases according to the Center for Disease Control. Keep your distance and you won’t have any problems.  

So, when you step outside and see a squirrel raiding your bird seed, remember their more likeable attributes. These acrobatic, charismatic creatures are an everyday reminder of the wildlife that share our forested home.  Maybe we should be thanking them for helping plant the trees we enjoy everyday. 

Pictured above is the gray squirrel. The most common of the three species found in The Woodlands.

Questions or comments? Contact enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov

Walk in the Woods presents Damselflies and Dragonflies

Kick off the Fall Walk in the Woods Nature Lecture Series from the comfort of your couch. The Woodlands Township Environmental Services Department now presents one of our most popular programs online. The entire family is invited the second Thursday of the month, September through November, as local experts explore the wonders of the natural world.   

Be a part of  the fun on Thursday, September 10 at 6:30 p.m. when Bob Honig presents on Damselflies and Dragonflies. Over the course of an hour, Bob provides an up-close look at their predatory behavior, explains the “killer lip,” takes a deep dive into their unique mating rituals, and more.  

Registration is required for this free presentation. 

Questions or comments? Contact enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov