Monarchs on the move

The amazing monarch!

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Outweighed by a penny and powered by wings no wider than a toddler’s hand, the iconic monarch (Danaus plexippus) is right now embarking on the first stage of a migration that will cover upwards of 3000 miles, with some individuals traveling over 200 miles in a single day! They will wind their way across mountains, deserts, and cities, through multiple seasons and weather extremes, in a round-trip effort that will span five generations.

Monarchs in the United States are split into two populations, one east of the Rockies and the other west, along the Pacific Coast. The western monarchs spend their winter in California. Those to the east winter in the mountainous oyamel fir forests of southern Mexico.

It’s now in early spring when the eastern monarchs descend from the oyamel firs and move northward through Texas, allowing us to re-appreciate their beauty and marvel at their incredible stamina, navigational abilities, and the unique spectacle that is the monarch migration.

An epic journey

As temperatures warm and days lengthen, monarchs finish their development which was suspended over the winter, become reproductive and begin mating with fervor. Once mating completes, around February and March, the females leave the males behind in Mexico and head for the milkweed that is now sprouting across Texas.

And so the migration back to the United States and Canada begins.

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Used with the permission of the Xerces Society  https://xerces.org/monarchs/

The energy expended to complete this first leg of the journey is tremendous. After six weeks or so, now March and April, the female monarchs must find a milkweed leaf on which to deposit their eggs before they die. Once laid, four days will pass before the eggs hatch into voracious eating machines – baby monarch caterpillars.

Monarch caterpillars feast night and day on the leaves of their host plant and, incredibly, will gain 200 times their body weight in just two weeks. When the feasting ends they form their chrysalis and spend the next 10 days metamorphosing into an adult butterfly, vibrating with color and ready to renew the march north. This is generation 1, the offspring of the butterflies that overwintered in Mexico.

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Monarch chrysalis

Several more generations will live and die over the summer, travelling further afield, but just one generation will make the entire journey back to the oyamel firs beginning in October.

The fall migration is even more dramatic than the spring, after reproduction has bolstered the population, dozens and even hundreds can be spotted hourly.

Creating safe havens for pollinators in our yards and communities provides vital waystations during spring and fall migrations.

The migration in crisis

Once 700 million strong, monarch populations have now crashed. It’s estimated the eastern population has plummeted by more than 85% while the western population is suffering even more – only 28,000 were counted this winter. Multiple issues are to blame:

Habitat loss and fragmentation. Over 160 million acres of monarch habitat has been lost to development since 1996.  Illegal logging of the overwintering sites in Mexico is also taking a toll.

Climate change. The increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events can devastate migrating populations. Because of the incredible density of monarchs in the overwintering grounds, severe freezes there are catastrophic.

Pesticides and herbicides. Milkweed used to grow throughout corn and soybean crops across the south and midwest. But herbicides have driven milkweed to near extinction in these agricultural landscapes and depleted monarch populations along the way.  Monarchs are also being impacted by neonicotinoids, a new class of insecticides that spread their toxins through the plant’s tissues. Caterpillars that dine on these plants quickly perish.

OE. Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE) is a parasite that infects monarchs, causing them to die in the pupal stage or emerge deformed. Milder infections result in shorter life spans and an inability to fly properly. OE pervades in our area as non-native tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) continues to grow through the cooler months, after native milkweeds have died back. Follow these important steps if you choose to grow tropical milkweed.

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Monarchs overwintering in the oyamel fir forest of Mexico

What You Can Do

Join The Woodlands Township Plant for Pollinators Program. Through this program you can…

Learn

  • Get notified of upcoming lectures, classes and workshops by signing up for the Township’s Environmental Services blog and calendar updates. These free events focus on pollinators, native plants, invasives removal, organic gardening, no-chemical pest control and more.
  • Ask for a presentation on the Plant for Pollinators program and how to create habitat from the Township’s team of Environmental Education Specialists.
  • Follow the monarch migration with Journey North, check out the Pollinator Partnership’s Million Garden Challenge and more with these partner links.

Grow

Choose a sunny spot

Volunteer

  • Volunteers are needed for larger community planting projects. Help to weed, seed and spread habitat for all types of pollinators. Contact enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov if you or your group can lend a hand.

Observe

  • Download the easy-to-use iNaturalist app on your phone and monitor your habitat for monarchs and other pollinators. Your findings will support the Plant for Pollinators Project. It’s also a great way to learn more about nature!

Plant for Pollinators and Water Savings at Free Workshop this Sat!

 

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Plant with a Purpose!

Join us for this free workshop and learn how to create habitat in your landscape while saving water at the same time.

We’ll delve into:

  • Importance of keeping invasive species at bay – 8:15 a.m.
  • Wonders of pollinators and how to attract them – 9:45 a.m.
  • Many benefits of native plants including water conservation – 10:45 a.m.
  • Best methods for seed collecting and propagation of the plants you love – 12:45 a.m.

Attend one or more FREE sessions – click here to save your spot.

Experts from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and Texas Master Naturalists will lead each session.

HARC Building (1)

DETAILS:

  • Saturday, June 23 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.
    • Join us for all or part of the program
    • Lunch provided
  • HARC Building, 8801 Gosling Rd, The Woodlands
  • Free but registration is required – click here to save your spot 

 

Thank you to our sponsors:

Houston Advanced Research Center, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Texas Master Naturalists, Woodlands Joint Powers Agency

 

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Attract Hummingbirds All Summer with Texas Red Yucca

Native Plant Focus:  Texas Red Yucca

Hesperaloe parviflora

More effective at attracting hummingbirds than a feeder, the Texas Red Yucca is also a nectar source for butterflies and native bees.  Actually a member of the Century Plant family, the Texas Red Yucca thrives in our hot Texas summer although it is cold tolerant enough to survive freezing temperatures.

With low watering requirements after establishment, this striking perennial evergreen shrub produces dramatic 3-4 foot spikes of pink to coral to red tubular flowers.   These beautiful flower spikes provide focal interest in landscape beds, large containers, rock gardens or as a single specimen plant.  Each bloom produces a seed capsule which dries to offer winter interest in the landscape.  The evergreen leaves turn a deep shade of purple in cold weather, further enhancing the garden.

Thriving in full sun to part shade and needing only natural rainfall, this plant is adaptable to any soil. Maintenance is minimal – removing the dried flower spike before spring begins is optional.  Planting this succulent in your landscape or a large container will provide beautiful blooms from May through October.  Texas Red Yucca is readily available in most local retail outlets offering bedding plants as well as those specializing in Texas natives.  Enjoy this easy to grow plant along with the hummingbirds and insect pollinators it will draw into your garden.

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