Planning a pollinator garden? Here’s tips on how to do it

How do you plan a successful butterfly and pollinator garden?

With the increased awareness of pollinator decline, gardeners are asking that question alot lately.

Late season goldenrod in downtown San Antonio. Ready for migrating monarchs and other pollinators. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Pollinators–bees, in particular–make two out of every three bites of food we eat possible, delivering billions of dollars of free ecosystem services to humanity each year.  Without them, the foods we know and love would become less available and more expensive. As climate change, pesticide abuse, genetically modified crops and urban sprawl conspire to limit pollinator habitat world-wide, governments are worried about food security in the face of their demise.

Insect pollinators make all these edibles–and many others–possible. Photo by Monika Maeckle

That thinking drove the announcement of President Barack Obama’s National Pollinator Strategy, issued in 2015.  The 58-page document sets goals to reduce honey bee losses, increase the migrating Monarch butterfly population, and restore seven million acres of pollinator habitat over the next five years.

Large prairie restorations have since been underway as funding and attention have focused on the IH-35 corridor, which serves as a major migration route for birds, insects and Monarchs.  Every yard also makes a difference.

In fact, an October 2015 study, An Evaluation of Butterfly Gardens for Restoring Habitat for the Monarch Butterfly, by Brian T. Cutting and Douglas W. Tallamy published in Environmental Entomology, a publication of the Entomological Society of America,

Everyone loves Swamp milkweed. Here, aphids and a glamourous blue bumblebee pour over the blooms. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Everyone loves Swamp milkweed. Here, aphids and a glamorous blue bumblebee pour over the blooms. Photo by Monika Maeckle

demonstrated that Monarch butterflies are much more likely to lay their eggs in gardens than in natural sites–2.0  –  6.2 times more eggs per plant per observation.   That suggests planting butterfly and pollinator gardens can make a significant contribution to restoring habitat for these special creatures that keep our food web intact.

How to do it?   Here’s a few tips:

Ask:  How will I use my garden?

Do you want a deck or patio as part of your pollinator garden? A fire pit? Rain garden? Do you prefer a path for observing pollinators in the their various stages as well as the fruits, flowers and herbs you might be growing? Or maybe you just want a pretty yarden with bees buzzing, hummingbirds lighting and butterflies lilting on your flowers?

pollinator garden

I like a path in my pollinator garden so I can check for caterpillars and eggs, pick some okra, or snip some herbs for dinner. Photo by Monika Maeckle

How you will use your garden will determine how to plan the space. Personally, I like to come home from work and walk through my garden in the late afternoon and early evening, inspecting my milkweeds and other host plants for eggs and caterpillars, checking on the okra or tomatoes and perhaps snipping some herbs for dinner.  That’s why I’ve incorporated gravel and mulch paths that weave throughout the garden to allow access and close inspection, as well as close-up photography that you will often see in these webpages.

Pipevine Swallowtails

Pipevine swallowtail caterpillars on Dutchman’s Pipe. PHoto by Monika Maeckle

I understand that not everyone fancies that. Some folks want the focal point of their garden to be a barbecue zone or vegetable patch, or perhaps a hammock/reading area, a deck, a pond or rain garden. You decide. It’s your garden.  Plants can be identified to serve any situation—wet, dry, sunny, shady. So choose.

And while you’re at it: choose native and well adapted plants. 

I’m not a purist about native plants, but I do try to use them whenever possible.  Why?

Because natives are four times more likely to attract pollinators than exotics.  Makes sense, since the natives were born and raised here, thus the insects that interact with them are naturally predisposed to perform the valuable ecosystem services needed to be self-sustaining.  According to Pollinators of Native Plants, a fantastic book by Heather N. Holm, studies find that when eight or more species of native plants occupy a

lady bug aphids

Lady bug on the job tackling aphids on Swamp milkweed. Photo by Monika Maeckle

landscape, the population and variety of native bees increase.  Diverse native landscapes also support beneficial insects like lady bugs, who seemingly appear out of nowhere to combat the yellow aphids that gravitate to the milkweeds we all plant for Monarchs and other butterflies.

Choose nectar and host plants to draw your favorite butterflies.

Butterflies and moths feed mostly on nectar plants, their flowers providing a sugary fluid that fuels their flight and reproduction.  As caterpillars, they consume the leaves of particular plants known as host plants.   Bees, meanwhile, feed on a flower’s pollen (protein) and nectar (carbs).  If you plant a variety of nectar and host plants, you should attract butterflies and bees to your yard.  Most people focus on the flowers, failing to research and include host plants, but honestly host plants are the key to a successful  butterfly garden.

For example, we all know that Monarch butterflies eat milkweed, anything in the Asclepias family.   But did you know that Eastern Swallowtails, one of the most common and beautiful butterflies in our part of the world, eat plants in the carrot family, Apiaceae?  That means if you plant parsley, fennel, dill or rue, you will soon have Eastern Swallowtails in your yard.  They are magnificent caterpillars and dramatic, large flyers in the adult stage.

Swallowtail on Fennel

Eastern Swallowtails eat plants in the carrot family–parsley, fennel, dill and rue.  Here, a Swallowtail noshing on fennel.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Eastern Swallowtail

Eastern Swallowtails, like many butterflies, are less particular about their nectar sources.  Here, Swallowtail nectaring on Tropical milkweed. Photo by Monika Maeckle

If you need help identifying appropriate native host and nectar plants that will attract the butterflies and other pollinators in your area, consult your local native plant society or Master Gardeners Chapter.  Typically they offer lists of “butterfly garden” plants appropriate for your locale.

Right plant in the right place.

Ideally, you want a sunny location.  Butterflies, bees and hummingbirds like flowers and flowers need sun–preferably six – eight hours per day. Determining the sun’s arc—that is, how the sun and shade play on your pollinator garden will determine where you place  particular plants. Sunflowers, mistflowers, sages and asters must have sun to bloom;  planting them under a tree or eave will only disappoint you–and the bees and butterflies, too.

Shade options include Columbine, Turk’s Cap, and certain Goldenrods as excellent pollinator plants. These and others thrive on the edge of a tree’s shade or in roofline’s shadow.  Again, consult your local native plant society and Master Gardener chapters to see what’s right for your situation.

Hummingbird on Turk's cap

Hummingbirds love Turk’s Cap, which grows in shade. Photo via

Meanwhile, ask yourself: what kind of soil do I have? Blackland prairie or rock-filled caliche? Loam, sand, silty?  The soil is the foundation of the garden and some plants will only grow in particular circumstances with the requisite moisture and nutrients.  You can do a simple soil test or simply observe a similar natural landscape and copy Mother Nature.

Avoid pesticides.

Butterflies, caterpillars, beetles, ants, wasps, hummingbirds and moths are sensitive creatures that readily absorb pesticides, which are poisons.  When caterpillars, or butterflies-to-be as I like to call them, eat the leaves of plants sprayed with systemic pesticides, they perish.    Systemic pesticides can linger in a plant for months.

In the photo below, a trusted nursery assured our friend Sharon Sander that they had not sprayed the milkweeds she sought with any pesticides. Sander bought several one-gallon milkweeds to feed her hungry Monarch caterpillars.   The nursery employee was correct–they had NOT sprayed the plant.  But the grower did.  The systemic pesticide used remained in the milkweed leaves for months, killing all the caterpillars.

Boo-hoo! Dead Monarch caterpillars fall victim to pesticide laced milkweed

Boo-hoo! Dead Monarch caterpillars fall victim to pesticide laced milkweed.  Photo by Sharon Sander

Seek out growers and nurseries that do not use systemic pesticides.   And if you must use pesticides yourself, read and follow the directions carefully.  Choose a still day, not when it’s windy, and avoid spraying if rain is in the forecast, since the poisons might wash off and run into streams or drains.   Also, spray or apply surgically, ONLY to the plant that has issues, not some mass broadswipe.

For more on how to safely use pesticides in a pollinator garden, check out this helpful flyer from the Pollinator Partnership.

Create a puddling zone and wind break.

Butterflies need damp, wet areas to rehydrate and soak up minerals from the soil. A small swale or even a rain garden can satisfy this need and create a microhabitat within your garden that brings a new pollinator audience to your yard.

We installed a rain garden last year, planting its perimeter with various sedges, native grasses and Texas Frogfruit, Phyla nodiflora, a lovely semi-evergreen groundcover that thrives in extreme wet and dry conditions.  A member of the verbena family,


Phaeon crescentspot on frogfruit. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Frogfruit’s tiny white flowers serve as an excellent nectar source for various butterflies and as host plant to the Common Buckeye, Phaeon Crescentspot, and White Peacock butterflies.

Bushes, trees, and tall shrubbery also are necessary to provide pollinators a place to rest, roost and overnight.  You can make these flowering plants if you like, but it’s not necessary.  Monarchs roost every fall in pecan trees that offer no nectar or hosting, only protection from the wind and the elements.

Monarch Butterflies Stalled in Pecan Trees on the Llano River

Monarch butterflies take a break from the wind by roosting and resting in pecan tress along the Llano River.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Don’t expect year-round tidiness.

This is one of the toughest lessons for city folk.  Pollinator and native gardens go through messy stages.  And for good reason.

Annuals like Cowpen Daisy, Verbesina encelioides, “go to seed” and when they do, some people consider them impossibly unattractive. I had a neighbor in Austin who loathed my butterfly garden adjacent to his well-manicured lawn. When I vacated my apartment in the autumn he took

San Antonio butterfly garden, October 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

San Antonio butterfly garden, October 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

it upon himself to mow down my Daisy patch and reinstall St. Augustine.  The same attitude removed a well established pollinator patch from our former family home in Alamo Heights.  When we turned over the keys, the new owners ripped out all the shrubs and natives and returned the lawn to water guzzling grass.

Lavaca garden, November 2012

San Antonio butterfly garden, November 2012.  Some Cowpen Daisies are spent–good time to gather seeds for next year. Photo by Monika Maeckle

It’s a fact: nature is messy.  Sometimes pollinator gardens are not that pretty.  Seedpods form and dry, become brittle, and hang on the plant, reminding us of better days. Dead vines and stalks may look raggedy and unsightly, yet they provide shelter and protection for all kinds of creatures.  Just remember that the pay-off for such temporary imperfection is a new round of beauty in seasons to come.

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Climate change blamed for 15% drop in migrating Monarch butterfly population

Monarch butterflies have left their roosts in Mexico and will be arriving in the “Texas Funnel,” which includes San Antonio and the Hill Country in the next few weeks. Those tracking their great migration through Texas to Canada in 2018 will see nearly 15% fewer butterflies start the long, multigeneration journey.

The winter roosting populations declined 14.7% over the previous year, World Wildlife Fund officials announced. The iconic orange-and-black insects’ occupied only 6.12 acres at this year’s winter roosts in the Mexican mountains. The population is far below the 14.82 acres goal set by the 2017 Monarch Conservation Implementation Plan.

What impacts would a copper mine have on Monarch roosting sites in Angangueo, Michoacán? Photo copyright Veronica Prida

During peak migration years in the late 1990s, the monarch butterfly population occupied about 44 acres of forest. NOTE: Scientists calculate the population numbers by measuring the amount of forest occupied by overwintering monarchs.

In explaining the decline in monarch numbers, WWF officials blamed climate change–specifically, warming weather and a freak sleet storm that occurred in early 2017.

In 2016, a spring storm clobbered the forest, removing at least 100 acres of Oyamel firs whose evergreen foliage provides an insulation blanket for the butterflies during the cold winter months. The storm also decimated at least 50 million butterflies just as overwintering monarchs began their 2017 migration north. This contributed to the shortfall, officials said.

“These climate phenomena without a doubt have an impact on the migration,” said Jorge Rickards, director of the World Wildlife Fund in Mexico, at a press conference earlier this week. The organization participates in the annual study that takes the butterfly census.

Warming temperatures raise concerns at the roosting sites and throughout the butterflies’ migratory range. Hotter temperatures cause the butterflies to burn through their stored winter fats, since they are more inclined to leave the warmth of the trees in which they roost and seek nectar and water. This can result in an energy shortage when spring migration time arrives.

A changing climate can also effect the availability of the butterflies’ host plant, milkweed. If the weather warms too early and too quickly, the milkweeds don’t have time to sprout the leaves that will attract monarchs’ egg laying. The butterflies will keep moving north–and possibly perish before reproducing.

Warmer weather will likely continue. The National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center said in its mid February 90-day outlook bulletin that Texas, typically the first stop for migrating monarchs, has a 60-70 percent probability of “higher than average”

Antelope horns milkweed, a monarch butterfly host plant, awaits monarchs in April 2016. Photo by Monika Maeckle

temperatures this spring. In San Antonio, SAWS, the local water utility lauded for its conservation efforts, speculated at a recent community conservation meeting that Texas will enter another drought this summer and suggested Stage One lawn watering restrictions will be implemented by late March.

Wildflowers, important nectar fuel stops for monarchs and bees, are likely to put on an “average” show this year, according to the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center. Andrea Delong-Amaya, director of horticulture, said bluebonnets and other wildflowers may be smaller in size because of a lack of rain, and that it’s too early to determine regional milkweed availability.

In Mexico, monarch butterfly conservationists reported early departures from the spring roosting sites. “The news was early, but it was sudden and certain,” read the Journey North weekly monarch migration update this week. “On March 3rd, two substantial sightings were reported north of the sanctuaries.”

“Millions of monarchs are now en route to northern Mexico and Texas,” wrote Ellen Sharp, co-owner of J&M Butterfly BnB in Macheros, situated near the entrance of Cerro Pelón, a sanctuary to 30% of this year’s monarch butterflies. Sharp wrote the  butterflies “seemed confused” by warm temperatures.

Apart from climate change, pesticide use, illegal logging and habitat loss, the Americas’ favorite insect may soon face yet another threat. Reports suggest Grupo Mexico, a $500 billion mining concern traded on the Mexican Stock Exchange under the ticker symbol GMEXICOB, will reopen a long shuttered copper mine at El Rosario, the most freqently visited of the monarch sanctuaries. Grupo Mexico, WWF, and CONABIO, Mexico’s Commission on National Biodiversity, all declined repeated requests for clarification on the status of the copper mine.

Grupo Mexico has stated for years that since the mine operated until 1992 in Angangueo, Michoacán, and technically never closed, it should be allowed to reopen–despite protections put in place for the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. The reserve was inscribed as a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 2008.

On hot days, monarch butterflies puddle on mountain seeps. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Details of the mine’s reopening have not been disclosed publicly, but locals and visitors report the copper mine is due to restart. “I haven’t heard anything new about the mine—just that it’s happening,” said Ellen Sharp.

Eleonor Briggs, a wildlife photographer who lives in New Hampshire, returned from the area recently and said that a WWF official told her the mine is on track to reopen. “He said not to worry since this was only a ‘small’ reopening for two years and then they would shut for good,” said Briggs. She also was told an ore reprocessing plant will be built in the town to extract the copper.

Grupo Mexico website

Grupo Mexico lists Angangueo as a future mining project on its website. The company website also touts a reputation for “lowest extraction costs in the industry” and status as member of the Mexican Stock Exchange’s Sustainable IPC index, a financial indicator that acknowledges the companies with the highest commitment to social responsibility, environmental performance, and corporate governance.

In 2014, the company was responsible for the worst mining accident in Mexican history. At a mine in Buenavista in the northern state of Sonora, Mexico, the incident left dozens of miners to die underground after methane explosions. It also spilled 10 million gallons of copper sulfate acid into the Sonora and Bacanuchi rivers, 25 miles south of the U.S. border with Arizona, leaving 24,000 people without clean water.

Copper mining and processing use huge amounts of water, create problematic waste, and impact water quality, soil quality and ecosystem loss and vegetation. The implications are huge for a forest stressed by drought and a migration taxed by climate change.

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Bracken Cave bats moving north from Mexico two weeks earlier, more overwintering in Texas

A changing climate has prompted Mexican free-tailed bats at the largest bat cave on the planet to advance their migration north from Mexico by two weeks in the spring, a new study suggests.

Bats are arriving in Texas from Mexico two weeks ahead of schedule.

For hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, millions of bats have arrived at Bracken Cave on San Antonio’s north side in mid-late March. But now the bats are arriving two weeks or more earlier, a study of 23 years of weather radar data indicates. The research, conducted by atmospheric scientist Phillip Stepanian at the University of Oklahoma and Charlotte Wainwright of Rothamsted Research, was published in Global Change Ecology last month.

The study confirms what local naturalists and scientists have been noticing for years: spring is arriving earlier.

Weather forecasters often notice bats on radar. Courtesy graphic

“Over the last five or six years, we’ve seen the bats returning earlier, coming back around February 21st,” said Fran Hutchins, Director of Bracken Cave Preserve, which is overseen by Bat Conservation International (BCI). Hutchins said BCI is observing similar patterns at other preserves, including colonies at bridges, tunnels and other caves around Texas.

Stepanian, lead author of the study, reviewed 23 years of local weather radar data. “There’s lots of stuff in the sky that weathermen don’t care about,” he said. Bats, birds, even butterflies show up when they move en masse through the skies. “Their bodies are pretty much really really really big rain drops,” said Stepanian by phone, “and radar picks up masses of water.”

Stepanian explained that In 2013, the National Weather Service (NWS) upgraded the entire radar system nationwide. The improvements led to greater abilities for weather forecasters to distinguish between weather and biology. They learned quickly that if the same “cloud” appears each evening at dusk north of San Antonio, it’s not a thunderstorm, it’s bats.

Mexican free-tailed bats take flight from Bracken Cave in San Antonio. Photo by Phillip Stepanian

Last summer, a storm of Painted Lady butterflies migrating north through the central U.S. caused a national stir when their 70-mile-wide biomass tracked around Denver. The NWS issued a bulletin explaining the situation and detailed 17 other non weather phenomena that can be detected by radar–flying ants, birds, and beetles as well as chair lifts, wildfires, even severe wind.

Stepanian noted that the uploading of historical data to the web that resulted from  the 2013 radar upgrade made decades of information accessible. Improved computing power facilitated its analysis.

He expects the trend to continue. Warmer temperatures will cause moths and other insects to hatch earlier, and the bats will follow the food. Already, more bats are not even leaving the cave, making San Antonio their winter home. Stepanian’s research shows that two decades ago, one percent of the millions of bats at Bracken remained when migration season arrived in the fall. Now, 3.5 percent of the bats choose to stay here as winter Texans.

Dr. Phillip Stepanian

“We have an overwintering population, and that has definitely increased over the years,” said BCI’s Hutchins. “We have warm enough nights that they can come out and forage for food, and we have plenty of insects.” Hutchins noted that despite an earlier arrival, the bats don’t seem to be leaving any later–unless we get a good cold snap, which drives them south.

Could overwintering in the cave have a down side for the bats?

“We just don’t know,” said Stepanian. Some ecologists have expressed concerns that overwintering in their summer homes could cause health problems. The spaces might not have a chance to air out and could become a hotbed for disease or parasites. Also, the gene pool of a migratory population is more diverse, thus more healthy.

Bats from the Bracken Cave bat colony number 15 – 20 million bats in their late summer peak and constitute what is widely considered the largest collection of living mammals on earth. At their maximum population, they consume 140 tons of insects per night. The bats perform an estimated $22 billion per year in valuable ecosystem services, ridding their territories of destructive agricultural pests like corn earworm and fall army worm. They also eat massive amounts of pesky mosquitoes which can carry viruses.

The implications of the changes in their migratory patterns for agriculture and human health will be the subject of future studies.

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San Antonio Zoo to celebrate third annual Monarch Fest this weekend

The San Antonio Zoo will stage its third annual Monarch Fest this weekend, March 3 and 4. The event celebrates San Antonio’s status as the nation’s first Monarch Champion City so designated by the National Wildlife Federation’s Mayor’s Monarch Pledge program. It also heralds the upcoming arrival of migrating monarch butterflies, which will soon depart their winter roosts in Mexico and make their way north to San Antonio and the Texas Hill Country.

Close encounters of a butterfly kind can be had at the San Antonio’s Monarch Festival this weekend, this one with the Spotted Glassy Wing, Tithorea tarricina.  Courtesy photo.

On the Monarch Fest agenda this weekend: a native plant sale and seed giveaway, kid-friendly crafts and educational activities, and booths/displays by more than a dozen local pollinator advocacy organizations.

The event also marks the seasonal opening of the Zoo’s butterfly flight house, a controlled enclosure where mingling with butterflies is the main attraction. Laurie Brown, the Zoo’s education manager for volunteers and guest encounters, has the enviable task of spending $30,000 a year on butterfly livestock. She acquires various native and exotic flyers from all over the world, butterflies like the Malabar Tree nymph,  Idea malabaricaalso known as the Paper Kite.

Laurie Brown Paper Kite

Hello, beautiful! Laurie Brown welcomes a Giant Tree Nymph, Idea leuconoe, to the San Antonio Zoo flighthouse for the Monarch Fest this weekend. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The gorgeous creature flits on plants and shoulders, enchanting visitors with its white and black stained-glass-window style wings. It calls to mind an albino monarch. A flight house stocked with creatures bred specifically for engaging the public is often a unique opportunity to see butterflies from exotic locales in real life, encouraging engagement, understanding, and hopefully, conservation.

The San Antonio Zoo has a long history of conservation. The organization played an important role in saving the endangered Whooping Crane, starting in 1956 when it launched its Whooping Crane Recovery Program. The Zoo’s captive breeding program helped restore 600 birds to the migrating population, which winters on the Texas coast.

Kids of all ages can get their wings on at this weekend’s Monarch Fest at San Antonio Zoo. Courtesy photo

More recently, the Zoo started a “lizard factory” to assist in attempts to repopulate Central Texas with the Horned Lizard, commonly known in these parts as the horny toad. The once ubiquitous creature, the state reptile of Texas, has become scarce in recent years thanks to the disappearance of its primary food, the red harvester ant. In January, the Zoo opened the doors to its Will Smith Zoo School, a nature preschool at which kids engage in learning about the outdoors. They spend at least half the day outdoors and tackle projects like building binocularsto use for birdwatching.

Area native plant buffs take note that the plant sale will include native milkweeds, native sunflowers and other wildflowers for purchase. Plants and seeds will be available while supplies last.

Monarch Fest runs Saturday, March 3 and Sunday, March 4, 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. The event is free with zoo admission.

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Monarch butterfly Valentine: how do we love thee?

NOTE: This post ran last year, but we feel the same way about Monarchs 12 months later. Enjoy this recycled love letter to our favorite butterfly.

My love affair with Monarch butterflies began in earnest in 2005. My friend Jenny Singleton had introduced us the year before. But the following October, on a warm Saturday afternoon, I stepped from my kayak in the Llano River and approached a stand of pecan trees bowed to the ground in submission from serial floods. My red rubber boots stuck for a moment in the mud, but when I looked up, I was struck. A silent eruption of Monarch butterflies wafted from the earth. Hundreds of them drifted skyward–floating, flitting, and fleeting before settling on bare tree limbs.

That was the day—the day I call my Magical Monarch Saturday–I fell profoundly, entirely in love with these insects. I’ve been reading and writing about them ever since, as well as raising them at home.

I’m not alone. Tens of thousands of people are smitten with Denaus plexipus. The species even has its own listserv, the DPLEX, with more than 800 subscribers.

Hundreds of websites and social media pages are devoted to Monarchs and their conservation, some of which flaunt tens of thousands of fans–Monarch Watch on Facebook with 38K+ followers, for example. Festivals celebrate Monarch butterflies in spring, summer and fall in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico.  The Monarch serves as the official insect of seven states in the U.S.  A 2013 survey published in Conservation Letters indicated U.S. households are willing to spend $4.78–$6.64 billion–yes, BILLION– for Monarch conservation through direct contributions and the purchase of milkweed and appropriate nectar plants. Monarchs are among the most studied insects in the world, with  multi-millions of dollars devoted to researching their life cycle, habitat and diseases/threats. Tens of thousands of Monarchs are also bred commercially and by hobbyists each year for use in classrooms and educational events to teach metamorphosis. Some folks even tap the Monarch to commemorate special occasions like weddings, funerals and life changes.

Portrait of Lincoln Brower with overwintering monarch butterflies. Rosario overwintering colony, 4-6 Febuary 1991. (Photo by Perry Conway.)

“I think of them as magical bottles of wine. You can pour it all out and when you go back, it’s full again. There is no end to the questions you can ask.”  That’s how Dr. Lincoln Brower, who has studied Monarchs for more than five decades, summed up the Monarch’s charms in the 2004 book Four Wings and A Prayer.

So why do we love Monarch butterflies so much? Lots of reasons.

First, they don’t sting or bite. Their bold, orange-and-black, stained-glass wings make them stand out and ward off predators. A dreamy flight pattern suggests confidence. Their elusive flits and turns connote flirtatiousness. Turning legs into wings—now that’s magical. And navigating thousands of miles “home” to a sacred forest never seen demonstrates tenacity and strength. It commands our admiration. Monarchs’ back story is also loaded with intrigue—scientific rivalries, mysterious chemical powers, a strong codependence on members of the milkweed family. All this makes for an incessantly interesting long-term relationship.

For Valentine’s Day in this year of such dramatic political change and on the heels of news that their numbers are down by almost a third, we thought it appropriate to ask Monarch butterfly lovers to articulate their feelings for the Americas’ most beloved insect. Their loving quotes follow, but perhaps more telling are the looks of pure joy on their faces in the photos they shared.

Nola Garcia of San Antonio, age 9, recalled receiving a gift of caterpillars on milkweed. She’s been raising and tagging Monarchs ever since.

“I remember the excitement of finding them all over my room when it was time for them to become chrysalises,” said Nola. “I saw one split its skin and pulsing as it changed. I love seeing them right after they come out when their wings unfold. My favorite part is letting them go and watching them fly off. I love how they look.”

Nola Hamilton Garcia with Monarch butterfly

Nola Garcia enjoys a freshly hatched male Monarch butterfly in her kitchen before releasing him to the wind. Photo by Tracy Idell Hamilton

Dara Satterfield of Georgia studies Monarch butterflies as a James Smithson Fellow at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. She sees a transformation myth in Monarch butterfly biology. “Monarchs grow up, reinvent themselves (in the chrysalis), and undertake a long journey that is all-at-once beautiful and treacherous and difficult,” said Satterfield, who has studied with Dr. Sonia Altizer, the foremost expert on the Monarch centric spore-driven disease, OE. “This story seems familiar, even personal, to us. It’s much like the human experience, in miniature. So we root for Monarchs. We want to see them thrive.”

“As a child, I loved Monarchs because they were at times amusing, cartoonish and full of wonder and discovery,” explained Cathy Downs, Monarch Watch Conservation Outreach Specialist in Central and South Texas. “During career years, the sight of a Monarch took me back with a sigh, if only for a moment in a busy life, to my childhood. In retirement, Monarchs have opened thousands of doors for me to new people, new places and new passions.”

Drake White, founder of the Nectar Bar, a Facebook page devoted to educating people how to raise butterflies at home has a special greeting when she welcomes someone or signs off from her page: “Peace, love and butterflies.”  White manages the butterfly house at Phil Hardberger Park in San Antonio and does pollinator landscape consulting on the side. She loves all butterflies, but admits Monarchs are her favorite. Their metamorphosis “always makes me understand just how amazing nature truly is,” she said.  “I never want to lose that. It keeps me bonding with nature.”

Drake White

Drake White of the NEctar Bar’s signature butterfly greeting is Peace, Love and Butterflies. Photo by Drake White

Hope, beauty and perseverance are consistent themes among Monarch butterfly lovers. Jeanette LaVesque, who follows Monarchs from Minneapolis, said the butterflies “give me hope for a beautiful transformation for myself someday–either here or beyond. They prove to me that miracles happen in this world….Butterlies make my garden feel like a little paradise when they are present.”

Dr. Karen Oberhauser of the University of Minnesota and founder of the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project, has been studying Monarch butterflies and working to bring them to children and classrooms since 1984. And yet, ”I’ll never tire of bringing the eggs and larvae into my house and watching them undergo their amazing metamorphosis, or walking into my lab full of students helping to unravel monarch mysteries,” she said, adding that Monarchs are beautiful, familiar, interesting, and impressive. “They evoke deep connections between people and nature,” said Oberhauser.

Mayor Taylor wears Monarch butterfly wing bling earrings and releases another type of butterfly at the San Antonio Zoo Monarch Festival in 2016. Photo by Monika Maeckle

San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor became the first in the country to sign the National Wildlife Federation’s Mayor’s Monarch pledge in 2015. Taylor, who grew up in Queens, New York, was completely unfamilar with the Monarch migration until shortly before signing the pledge. But once she and Monarchs got acquainted, it was a pretty quick romance. “The story of the Monarch’s migration is what really caught my attention,” she said. “It’s amazing that such a fragile creature has the perseverance to travel thousands of miles every year.”

Anurag AGrawal, author, scientist, Monarch butterfly lover. Courtesy photo

Finally, Dr. Anurag Agrawal, conservation biologist at Cornell University and author of the soon-to-be-released Milkweed and Monarchs: A Migrating Butterfly, A Poinsonous Plant, and their Remarkable Story of Coevolution told us that while he is first and foremost a scientist, he sees beauty in biology.

He recalled seeing Monarchs in the fields of Pennsylvania as a child and attributes their magic to their transformative metamorphosis. “Who does that? Going from leaf-eating worm to flying machine. Going from Canada to Mexico. And going from a billion butterflies to too few,” said Agrawal. “Don’t leave us magnificent Monarchs. We need you for inspiration, for study, and to remind us of our place.”

Why do YOU love Monarch butterflies? Leave a comment below to let us know.

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Eavesdropping on Monarch butterflies via live stream at Cerro Pelón, Mexico

Sound artist Rob Mackay and a group of academics, artists, scientists and technicians recently installed a streaming device at Cerro Pelón in the mountains of Mexico, one of four monarch butterfly sanctuaries open to the public.

Eavesdropping on monarch butterflies at Cerro Pelón. Photo by Rob Mackay

The result of that collaboration is that anyone, anywhere, can eavesdrop on the remote stretch of mountain plain where millions of monarch butterflies gather each fall to wait out the winter. You don’t even have to make the hike to 11,000 feet. Try it at this link on just about any browser but Safari, which seems to block the stream’s ability to load.

You’re likely to hear birds chittering, flies humming, the occasional whir of an airplane or engine, and the sometime sound of monarch butterflies moving through thin mountain air. The live stream makes for soothing, natural white noise and a welcome soundtrack for work, play or relaxation. It also helps scientists monitor changes over time which allows for useful assessment of the ecosystem’s health.

Monarch butterflies are the stars of the show at UNESCO’s Biosphere Soundscape project at Cerro Pelón, but the sounds of other creatures also contribute to the soundtrack . Photo by Rob Mackay

The project is an extension of Biosphere’s Soundscapes, an acoustic ecology initiative run in collaboration with UNESCO’s 669 biosphere reserves in 120 countries. The program aims to inspire communities to listen to the environment and explore the value of sound as a measure for environmental health, an idea posed in 1962 by Rachel Carson. Her landmark book, Silent Spring, put forth the notion that natural sounds can serve as indicators of environmental health. At the time of its publication, the book detailed the use of pesticides that were massively killing songbirds, a phenomenon that would some day lead to a “silent spring.”

Rob Mackay

Mackay, a composer, sound artist and senior lecturer at the University of Hull in East Yorkshire, England, spearheaded the project at Cerro Pelón.Mackay tripped upon monarch butterflies in March of 2015 when he was invited to present at the Mexican National Centre for Music and Sonic Arts in Morelia.

“One of my ecology colleagues mentioned to me that the monarch butterfly overwintering grounds were very close to Morelia,” Mackay said by email. “He told me about their amazing migration and life cycle. I was immediately intrigued and went online to do a little more research. A few links mentioned the sound made by their rushing wings, so I was inspired to try and capture the sound.” On that trip, Mackay visited El Rosario, the most frequently visited sanctuary in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve.

Later in 2015 at a conference, Mackay met Grant Smith from SoundCamp, the people who supply the streamboxes for streaming soundscapes in real-time over the internet. He also met Leah Barclay, a sound artist who oversees the Biosphere Soundscapes project.

The Biosphere Reserve Soundscape at Cerro Pelón is one of two streams in Central America featured on the Locus Sonus Soundmap. There are another eight streams in North America.

Mackay proposed installing a streambox in the Cerro Pelón colony to help scientists monitor the ecosystem there and engage people around the world with monarch butterflies through sound. He ran the idea by monarch butterfly expert Lincoln Brower in Virginia. Brower blessed it.

Mackay said the project accelerated once Pablo Jaramillo, a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Morelia, got involved. Jaramillo, as the local scientific advisor and contact, was able to rally forces and put the team in touch with arborists at Cerro Pelón as well as Franco Ramirez. Ramirez managed the practically impossible task of arranging an internet connection to the remote mountain village of Macheros, population 350. Solar panels also had to be installed to provide electricity.

How the magic happens: stream box and solar panel. Photo by Rob Mackay

A five-day trip to Cerro Pelón in January got the job done. It also produced enough material for the collaborators to assemble an album/DVD of the process and several spontaneous musical performances and poetry readings spawned by the adventure.

Once the live stream was activated, Jaramillo shared the news with Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas, the organization that orchestrates the wildly popular monarch butterfly tagging program for citizen scientists across the Americas. Taylor shared the development on the DPLEX list, an email listserv that reaches about 800 monarch butterfly followers including scientists, citizen scientists, hobbyists and commercial butterfly breeders.

Streaming the sounds of butterfly wings poses many technical challenges–special pre-amplification to the streamboxes, arranging reliable, affordable solar power and keeping the internet connection up and running. As the DPLEX community swarmed the sound map site, the connection failed, perhaps overwhelming it. But by week’s end, thanks to Team Monarca, it was back up.

Thanks to the hard work of Team Monarca, we can all eavesdrop on Cerro Pelón. L-to-R, Alice O’Rourke, Jeff Schults, David Blink, Rob Mackay, Jessica Rodriguez, Benny Talbot, Pablo Jaramillo, Liliana Arroyo  –Photo by Rob Mackay

How does acoustic artist Mackay describe the unique, subtle sound of millions of butterflies wings moving and what musical instrument would he use to replicate it?

“A little like a crackling fire, or crape paper being rustled,” said Mackay. Replicating the sound with instruments would be a challenge, but “working with a local choir and getting people to replicate the sound using their voices and bodies” might come close. “Perhaps several rain sticks and other percussion.”

UPDATE: Mackay and Jaramillo advise patience with the stream, as it is still in the pilot stage. If you click on the link and hear nothing, try again later. 

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At war with Agave Americana: tenacious plant resists chainsaw, digging, fire

“When the pups pop, get them out while they’re little.”

That’s good advice from Mr. Smarty Plants, a collective of volunteers who’ve answered thousands of questions posed to the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center over the years. The guidance would have come in handy before I planted several Agave americana more than a decade ago around our ranch house along the Llano River. Their blue-green fleshy leaves, exotic profile and reputation for low maintenance in brutal Texas summers seemed a perfect match for the rocky caliche soil and lack of water at the ranch.

Dr. Kelly Lyons, a grass expert and biology professor at Trinity University, stands victorious over an Agave americana. Brisket Rivard (left) assists. Photo by Monika Maeckle

But since we only visit the property every other weekend, some times less, my agaves became a nuisance. Too often I was absent. I failed at plant management. As Mr. Smarty Plants advises, thinning the pups early, while they’re manageable and have shallow roots, is imperative to avoiding an ornery agave cluster. I ignored the agaves entirely for more than a decade. The result? Several mean agave forests that pricked and poked anyone who dared approach.

Let there be no mistake: Agave Americana deserves our respect. The plant is a case study in self-reliance, asking for NOTHING in exchange for its reliable growth and eventual stunning presence. It demands no supplemental water, no fertilizer, no pruning, no prissing. It lives a dramatic semelparous life–that is, it enjoys a singular episode of reproduction. Then it dies.

Agave americana blooms only once in its lifetime. Photo via Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center

With a lifespan between 10 and 30 years, the agave shoots one dramatic stalk yards into the sky. The resulting candelabra-like branchlets sport clusters of yellow flowers. Hummingbirds and bats love this pollen trove. Agave americana, technically native to Mexico, also is found in South Texas. Climate change inevitably will extend its range north.

Dr. Kelly Lyons, a grass expert at Trinity University, suggests the plant be put on the “watch list” as potentially invasive. It’s already been labeled unwelcome and invasive in sand dunes, where it overwhelms all competitors.  Left to its own devices, the plant dominates, its rhizomes and pups forming dense communities around the mother plant. Each one has its own set of needle-tipped leaves and serrated blade-like fronds.

I stupidly imported Agave americana to our ranch a dozen years ago. I planted one each on either side of our front gate, thinking they would “welcome” visitors with their dramatic poise. Others I plugged in around the house, some along a much-used trail and a couple along our switchbacked main dirt road.

Good luck getting your shovel through this. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Quiet and understated in their youth, the mature agaves seemed daunting. Their passel of pups defended each mother plant like a thorny army. Nothing could be less welcoming at our front gate than getting stabbed by these mean-spirited cacti. Needle-nosed agave fronds prickled and poked whoever was assigned to lock or unlock the gate; their barbed leaves snagged on your shirt and skin, often leaving a sticker behind.

I had been stabbed one too many times. I decided to tackle the out-of-control succulents, which by this time, stood taller than my five-foot-six-inch frame. Leather

Fleshy Agave leaves

Some of the agave leaves are almost a half-foot thick at their base. Photo by Monika Maeckle

gloves, long sleeves, thick jeans, a sturdy hat and glasses became my agave fighting uniform.

I started with a shovel on one four-foot specimen behind the house. Approaching the plant was practically impossible. The gnarly agave colony fended me off, aggressively protecting its mama with their intertwined roots and serrated leaves. As Mr. Smarty Plants says, agaves self propagate via rhizomes, sending shallow-rooted baby plants all around the base rosette. This helps absorb water in the dry climate in which it thrives. The roots become intertwined, knitted together like an impenetrable quilt. As dead agave blades die and dry out atop them, a sinewy mulch results. A shovel cannot penetrate the fibrous mass.

If you take on an agave, be sure to cut off the black needle-like tip from the Agave leaves before you start working.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Intrigued by this seeming fortress surrounding the agaves, I researched and learned that the thick agave leaves, plump with water, also contain stringy sisal fiber that native peoples and later Westerners used to weave baskets, rugs, ropes and blankets. Cutting these sinewy leaves to gain access to the soil to dig up the root becomes a separate challenge requiring sharp shears, a knife, nippers or a coba, a special tool from Mexico that a cactus grower friend supplied to us. Some of the fleshy leaves approach a half-foot girth at their base.

Frustrated, one day I convinced my older son Nicolas to get out the chainsaw. Even though we both wore long sleeves, hats and sun glasses, the agave juice spattered on exposed skin and caused painful welts and blisters that lingered for weeks. Nicolas had an allergic reaction that also caused a rash.

The leaves of Agave Americana are barbed and ornery. #watchout Photo by Monika Maeckle

Then I tried setting the agave on fire using kindling and later charcoal fire starter. Keeping the fire alive was a challenge given the agave’s high moisture content–like burning a watermelon. Eventually, the flame caught. The plant literally shed tears as water drooled down the sides of its sword like leaves. A sad sight, but I still had to dig the root rosette up with a shovel.

I even considered herbicides, but the mass of the plants would require such enormous doses, that just seemed wrong.

Finally, an experienced landscaper suggested I wrap a chain or towing strap around the plant’s base, attach it to a trailer hitch or truck axle and pull it out by its tap-root. This seemed like a brilliant idea. After clearing as many baby agaves as we could to gain access to the base, my friend Kelly and I wrapped a chain around the rosette and attached it to my Toyota 4Runner. With four-wheel drive engaged, I stepped on the

AGave graveyard

Agave graveyard: Discarded Agaves lay on the rocky watershed where they can’t make contact with soil and resprout. Photo by Monika Maeckle

gas and the agave released its grip on the rocks and earth holding it in place. We dragged the plant to the “agave graveyard’ on the karst watershed where it could not make contact with soil. Like its thorny sibling prickly pear, agave is famous for resprouting if any of its greenery touches the earth. Experts caution not to add it to the compost pile, either. It will quickly take root.

My husband Robert Rivard with his Coba, a tool provided from a horticulturist friend in Mexico to keep the agaves under control. Photo by Monika Maeckle

As a gesture of my respect for this plant, we’ve allowed two specimens to remain on site. We await their century plant spurt, the year when these mighty agaves will shoot their reproductive stalks skyward and grace us with pollen powdered yellow flowers that will attract bats and hummingbirds. In the meantime, we manage the plant aggressively, snipping its hefty mature leaves with the coba, and clearing the pups regularly.

Once these agaves springs their seeds, we’ll shut down agave production on the ranch.

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Q & A: founder says “throw and grow” gardening often doesn’t work

Blake Ketchum is JUST the kind of polymath we need in this epoch of science denial. The eco-entrepreneur has a PhD in soil science, a master’s degree in forestry, and a bachelor’s in visual arts. She lists JavaScript, web development, and e-commerce alongside forensic reconstruction and native plant ecology as skill sets on her resume. Oh, and she’s an accomplished artist–a sculptor who specializes in portraiture with commissions from Yale, Cornell, and the International Special Olympics. With her understanding of diverse disciplines, she can make the complex premises and processes of science understandable to the rest of us.

Seed balls: It’s more complicated than ” throw and grow,” says Ketchum. Photo courtesy

One of her most effective platforms is, a conservation start-up she launched in 2013 with her teenaged son. Its mission: biodiversity through green business.  “Educate people. Disperse seed. Be green.”

I caught up with Ketchum recently in the course of updating my annual post on seed balls. My research led me to the website where she and her small band of “mudslingers” evangelize and educate on the wonders of seed balls, tidy germination bombs which have the potential to transform vacant lots, degraded fields and blank areas in your vegetable garden.

I sought Ketchum’s expertise out of frustration. For a decade I’ve been making and dispersing seed balls, but have had very little success. Every autumn I collect local, native seeds from our property, throw them in a paper bag and save them for a seed ball  party.  Friends who don’t mind muddy hands help fashion hundreds of seed balls. We’ve thrown thousands of them on our family’s Llano River ranch over the years in an attempt to restore overgrazed pastures to former glory as prairies. We’ve also spent a substantial sum on native seeds broadcast directly onto the  soil.

Polymath Blake Ketchum works her magic making seed balls. Courtesy photo

My experience: seed balls do not live up to their hype. Our singular success has been in the Chigger Islands which dot our stretch of the Llano River.  There, we’ve thrown many Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata seed balls. A handful have grown into robust milkweed stands.

Yet the hands-on activity of molding soil, clay, seeds and water into seed balls has been touted as an effective way to plant wildflowers in hard-to-reach places. The act of tossing seed balls is often referred to as guerrilla gardening since you can plant flowers or edibles on property not rightfully yours. Seed ball making has also become increasingly popular as an activity at conservation and environmental events in recent years. Kids of all ages love getting their hands dirty while learning the importance of native plants and pollinators.

So, what am I doing wrong?

Apparently, not managing my own expectations. Tweaks to the seed ball recipe can help, says Ketchum. Adding mycorrhizal fungi or worm casings also boosts success rates. But Ketchum soberly explains that seed balls actually are better as an engagement tool than as tactical conservation. Throwing wildflower seed balls into an established landscape will likely not result in success. “Wildflowers are typically NOT fierce competitors and are easily outcompeted by weeds and turf grass,” says Ketchum.

The mudslingers at will make custom orders from specific seeds. Color coordinated, too. Courtesy photo

That shouldn’t stop us from making and throwing seed balls, however.  “Conservation is a multifaceted endeavor,” she says. “One part is transforming landscapes, another part is educating people about what that takes and getting people excited and enabled. Seed balls are really good at that.”

Read more of Ketchum’s insights on seed balls, below.

Q. What is the primary reason seed balls don’t germinate?

Ketchum: They are planted at the wrong time of the year. We see this a lot with milkweed. Well-meaning gardeners plant it in the spring assuming it will sprout. However, milkweed needs several months of cold, wet weather before it will germinate.

They are planted too deep. Seed balls should be pressed halfway into the soil so that they can get plenty of sun and moisture.

They are planted in the wrong location. Sometimes they are planted in the wrong climate or in the wrong landscape position. It’s important to know what plants are native to your region and where they like to grow.

Swamp milkweed pods, Asclepias incarnata, ready for harvest on the Llano River. We’ve made plenty of seed balls from these. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The seed balls are over-compressed and do not break down. Seed balls should disintegrate, allowing the seed to make contact with surrounding soil. If not, the seedlings can’t break free from the seed ball and will die.

The seeds were placed inside of the seed ball. Many seeds require sunlight to germinate and if they are placed on the inside of the seed ball, they will not grow.

The compost may not be sufficiently aged or the pH may not suit the seeds.

Q, Any tips for amateur seed ball makers/throwers? 

Ketchum: Do your research. Select the right seeds for your region and landscape position.

Manage your expectations. Seed balls planted where they can be cared for will do better than seed balls left to survive on their own. Many seeds need to stay moist throughout their germination. If left without rain or regular watering, they will die.

Avoid the ‘Throw & Grow’ Myth. Seed balls thrown into neglected landscapes will not likely survive. In these locations, seedlings are forced to compete with established and nonnative plants. For the best results, clear the area of competing plants, and press your seed balls halfway into the soil.

Swamp milkweed in full bloom, late summer. Thanks, seed balls! Photo by Monika Maeckle

Q. It seems seed balls have really taken off in the last few years. It used to be such a fringe thing. To what do you attribute that?

Ketchum: Seed balls are a fun, accessible introduction to gardening. They are easy to market and companies like ours and our competitors have done great work educating the public about Guerrilla Gardening and the need for native wildflowers.

We do a lot of work with wholesale companies whose businesses are driven by Millennial customers. As the fastest growing population in the US, this generation is shaping trends. What we have learned from these companies is that millennials care about saving native pollinators and they want to be good stewards of the planet. Seed balls give millennials a way to do both.

Q. The Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center says they’re really not effective for large-scale restorations. Would you agree?

While seed balls are a great introduction to native wildflower gardening, they are not an effective strategy for large-scale restoration projects. They require a sizeable investment of both time and money. Buying seed is a more effective and affordable option. We recommend conservation seed companies like Native American Seed or Ernst Conservation Seeds. They can help you select regionally appropriate species, as well as provide restoration advice to help achieve your restoration goals. Because restoring disturbed landscapes is nearly impossible, it’s important to be smart about your project.

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Winter Solstice signals time to make wildflower seed balls–here’s how

Feeling like there’s not enough hours in the day? That’s no surprise, since we’re quickly approaching the Winter Solstice. December 21 marks the shortest day of 2017–only 10 hours and 15 minutes in San Antonio, Texas, to be exact.

The celestial occasion celebrates the moment when, in the northern hemisphere, the earth leans furthest from the sun, resulting in short days and long nights. This makes for a great time to hole up by the fire, gather all those wildflower seeds you’ve collected all year and make seed balls.

Swamp milkweed pods, Asclepias incarnata, ready for harvest on the Llano River. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Introduced in the 70s, seed balls are a form of “guerilla gardening” whereby seeds, soil and clay are mixed with water into tidy bombs that are said to have an 80% higher germination rate than simply broadcasting seeds onto soil. Adding red potters’ clay to the mix protects the seeds from being blown away by wind or consumed by bugs or birds. A dash of chile pepper gives them an added dose of protection.

I’ve been making seed balls for a decade and had mixed success.This mirrors my years of  broadcasting hundreds of pounds of wildflower seed on the overgrazed acreage of our family ranch. Wildflowers are persnickety like that. They need an ideal combo of light, moisture, and temperature peculiar to their species in order to germinate. Both methods have left me baffled as to what combination of efforts results in success. I keep trying, and am especially motivated this year by a severe feral hog invasion along our river. The prolific wild pigs, which ranchers joke are “born pregnant,” disheveled a quarter-mile of our river road, undoing years of our  riparian restoration in progress. Unwelcome Johnson grass will move in quickly to fill the gaps. I’m tossing seedballs to compete with the invasives.

Feral hogs tore up our river front. Seed balls to the rescue. Photo by Monika Maeckle

My most successful seedballs germinated in the Chigger Islands that dot our stretch of Llano River. Laced with Asclepias incarnata, Swamp milkweed gathered from the same karst-riddled watershed, they grew into robust milkweed stands. They push out thin leaves that host arriving Monarch butterflies in the spring and pink flowers filled with nectar in the fall. By November, their plump seed pods invite another harvest. The late season caterpillar pictured below is noshing on a milkweed that started the year prior year as a seed ball.

This late season caterpillar noshes on swamp milkweed made possible by seed balls. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Seed balls have become popular in recent years and are often tapped as an engaging educational activity for children of all ages at conservation events and pollinator festivals like the one we stage in October. This hands-on exercise takes participants back to childhood escapades of making mud pies. Rolling mounds of wet clay, seeds and soil into tidy round spheres–well, it’s just fun.

My friend Diego Harrison Smith helped make seed balls. Photo by Lisa Marie Barocas

Let there be seedballs

Let there be seed balls! Mark the march toward spring and help make next year’s wildflowers happen by making seed balls.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

Our friends at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center told us a while back that seed balls used for large-scale restoration projects often have a low success rate. Assuring the seeds make soil contact once the balls fall apart is a hit-or-miss proposition. Our friends at Native American Seed in Junction, Texas, suggest that when it comes to seed balls, size matters. Most people make them too large to break down and sprout. “No bigger than the size of an Almond M&M is good–and only a few seeds per seed ball,” said the seed purveyors’ Emily Neiman.

LEFT: Properly tossed seed ball. RIGHT: Improperly tossed seed ball. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Seed ball recipes vary as much as those for Christmas cookies.  Some seed ball aficionados recommend a 3:2:1 ratio of soil, clay and seed, adding nutrient rich ingredients like worm casings or other natural fortifiers. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and Native Plant Society encourage a concoction that includes sand. The Seed Ball Project suggests soaking the seeds for 12 – 24 hours prior to adding them to the seed ball mix. That sounds like a good idea, especially for hard cased seeds like bluebonnets and milkweeds.

Got seeds? Use ’em up by making seed balls for next year’s wildflower meadow. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Our recipe includes three parts local or potting soil, one-two parts red potter’s clay powder (purchased from a pottery supply) and one part seeds. The clay binds the ingredients and keeps the balls intact. Add water until you get a workable dough that allows you to roll a spoonful of seed ball mix into a ball that doesn’t stick. If you find that your seed ball dough is too watery, just wait. The soil soaks up the excess liquid with time.

Seeds for Seedballs

Or: collect your own seeds locally for seed balls.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Put them on newspaper to set up and then add my secret ingredient: red chile pepper. The pepper discourages insects, birds and other critters from denigrating or eating the seeds, giving them a better chance to germinate  and become wildflowers for pollinators.

Once the seed balls set up, usually after 24 hours, store them in paper bags for later use or toss them right away.

Generally, seed balls don’t require watering and you should NOT bury or plant them.

Simply toss them in a vacant lot, your front yard, or a wildscape like a ranch or roadside. Make sure they land where they can make contact with soil, as in the photo above.  If the seedballs have to compete directly with grass, leaves or forbs, chances for germination decrease. Then, just wait for rain to melt away the clay casing, and nature will do the rest.

Mix well until you get a consistency that easily formed into seedballs.

Soil, seeds, red clay, water–and chili pepper. Mix until you get a consistency that is easily formed into seedballs.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Remember to use only native seeds for wildscaping situations. Good luck and let us know how it goes.

Texas Butterfly Ranch Seedball Recipe

  • 3 parts local soil or potting soil
  • 1 – 2 parts red potter’s clay powder, also known as “terracotta powder” at pottery supply stores
  • 1 part native wildflower seeds
  • Water, as needed.
  • Newspaper and cookie sheets for drying seedballs
  • Stainless steal bowls or pots for mixing
1.  Assemble ingredients.
2.  Mix soil, clay and wildflower seeds together in bowl.  Mix well.
3.  Add water to attain dough-like consistency, much like tart or pie dough
4. Pinch off or use spoon to grab gumball-sized amounts of the mix.  Roll between your palms to get round form.  Drop onto newspaper covered cookie sheet to dry.
5.  Sprinkle generously with red chile pepper.  Let set for 24 hours.
6.  Toss and wait.  Nature will do the rest.

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Dreamy visit to Mexico’s Monarch butterfly roosts ends in rabies shots, credit card fraud

The Monarch butterfly roosting sanctuaries in Mexico opened to tourists this weekend. The 13 protected areas that host tens of millions of eastern migrating Monarch butterflies each winter open their gates to the public in the latter half of November. That gives the butterflies, which typically arrive by Day of the Dead on November 2, time to settle in to their Oyamel tree roosts before the tourists show up.

A sojourn to the roosting sites is a bucket list item for many. I’ve been lucky to make the trip four times, and encourage anyone so inclined to do so. If and when you go, however, watch out for street dogs and keep an eye on your credit cards. While we won’t let it tarnish our memories of an amazing adventure, a dog bite resulting in rabies shots combined with credit card fraud put unpleasant footnotes on our recent trip. You would think us unlikely victims, given that my husband Robert Rivard and I both speak Spanish, lived in Central America for years and have traveled in Mexico for decades.

We had been planning the trip for months and even secured a special permit to visit the sanctuaries before their official November 18 opening from CEPANAF, the state commission on natural parks and fauna. My goal was to “see the Monarchs come home” for a book I’m writing. All previous visits had occurred in the spring, when the iconic insects start their months-long, multi-generation migration north.

When there’s sun, the Monarchs fly. Mural at entrance of El Rosario sanctuary. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The return of the late, great 2017 population to the site of their ancestors’ departure in the Mexican mountains did not disappoint. We had an unforgettable visit to El Rosario, the most visited sanctuary. Our guide, Manual Cruz Posadas, led us on an hour-long climb up to 10,000 feet, where Monarchs gathered in tentative roosts. The folk art mural at the entrance of El Rosario accurately sums up the insects’ behaviour: “When the sun shines, the Monarchs fly; when it’s cloudy, the Monarchs rest.”

Legions of butterflies lilted from the trees each time the sun peaked from the clouds. Often they dipped to the ground for nectar or drops of dew. As soon as clouds shielded the sun, they instinctively gravitated to a designated tree. The Oyamels welcomed them with open limbs.

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On Saturday, we vacated our room at the Casa de los Recuerdos in Zitácuaro, our base the first two nights, and took a taxi to the small town of Macheros, population 350. There, Ellen Sharp, co-owner of JM’s Butterfly B&B, arranged for her brother-in-law, Vicente Moreno Rojas, to guide us on an ambitious climb up Cerro Pelón. The “bald hill” was the site of the initial “discovery” of the roosting sites back in 1975.

We started on horseback and it wasn’t easy. A steep grade, rocky, slippery trail, and thin mountain air conspired to make the trek a serious challenge–even as Vicente prodded our horses. After an hour, we arrived at the Llano de Tres Gobernadores, a flat plain between two stands of Oyamel and pine forest. There, we enjoyed a picnic lunch packed by Moreno’s sister–ham sandwich, chips, apple and pedacito de chocolate, a small bite of chocolate.

Francisco Moreno Hernandez, an arborist for Butterflies and their People, AC, a Mexican nonprofit started by Sharp and her husband to protect the forest and its inhabitants, sallied up on horseback. He advised that the butterflies were gathering another 45-minutes up the mountain, above 11,000 feet. CEPANAF Forest Ranger Javier Moreno was patrolling the area and agreed to lead us to the roosts after inspecting my permit.

Butterflies & Their People arborist Francisco Moreno Hernandez,  Monika Maeckle, CEPANAF Forest Ranger Javier Moreno and JM Butterfly B&B Guide Vicente Moreno Rojas. And yes, they’re all cousins. Photo by Robert Rivard

Never have I endured a more literally breathtaking hike. Relatively fit for my 61 years, I panted like a dog on the rigorous 45-minute climb, stopping every few minutes to absorb the magical sight of an increasing number of butterflies flitting above. As I paused every few footholds to catch my breath, I thought of my friend Catalina Trail, the first Westerner to the roosting sites. How did she ever find her way to this impossibly remote and majestic place? Ah yes, she had gone with a local the day of her momentous discovery.
The historic account by Canadian scientist Dr. Fred Urquhart, who spent decades piecing together the mystery of the Monarch butterfly migration with the help of Catalina and other volunteers, also crossed my thoughts. In a famous August 1976

A dreamy day I’ll never forget in Cerro Pelón–Photo by Robert Rivard

National Geographic cover story headlined “Discovered: the Monarch’s Mexican Haven,” Urquhart bemoaned his advanced years and leaden feet. “Our hearts pounded…” he wrote.  “The rather macabre though occurred to me: Suppose the strain proved too much?”

By late afternoon, we arrived at the trees the Monarchs had chosen. Seeing them saunter and flit against the cottony clouds and bright blue sky somehow reassured me. I sat on the ground, removed my hat, leaned back on an Oyamel stump and enjoyed the natural spectacle.

That evening, we savored a delicious trucha en papillote, trout cooked in paper. Sharp’s mother-in-law, Rosa Rojas Sanchez, 56, harvested the fish that afternoon from the Moreno family trout farm. She and her husband, five daughters and five sons, their spouses and offspring number 23, and comprise more than 6.5% of Machero’s population.

Enjoy the flowers in Macheros, but watch out for street dogs. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The next morning before returning to Zitácuaro to catch our bus to Mexico City, I ambled up the hill from the B&B while one of the Moreno sisters gave Bob a hot towel shave. A champagne-colored Chihuahua mix approached me nervously, yapping loudly. I shooed him away. The ruckus roused his sleeping friend, a 40-pound mutt with a short white coat and black spots. The dog rose from his street slumber, and with no provocation or warning, charged me, sinking his jaw into my left calf. YEOW!

I kicked the beast and he retreated. Then I remembered “the cave man trick” Bob taught me when we lived in El Salvador years ago, where encounters with canines de la calle were common. Lean down and grab a rock. If no rocks are available, PRETEND you have one. Stooping in such a manner seems to signal to dogs a potential stone coming their way. They almost always retreat. The cave man trick worked when the spotted dog approached me again.

Dog bites are no fun. Use the caveman trick. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Sharp helped me dress the wound, which later measured 12 mm in a San Antonio hospital emergency room. Researching and undergoing rabies shots consumed two days of my time upon my return. I agreed with the ER doctor who assessed the odds of me having rabies as “extremely low.” “But if you do,” he said, “it’s 100% fatal.”

I’m getting the shots. They’re not the horrid series of a dozen injections administered in the stomach with nine-inch needles of days past, however. That practice ended in the ’80s.

Now, the first round consists of four shots, including an intense injection of immunoglobulin into the actual dog bite. The thick liquid must be spread around the wound area—that is, the needle is inserted deeper than usual and moved in a circular motion under the skin—to deter the virus, if present, from migrating to the brain. All other shots are pretty routine.

Two days after arriving home, Bob received alarming text messages and phone calls requesting strange authorizations for luxury purchases.  “Mr. Rivard, we’re calling to authorize the recent Neiman Marcus online charge for $5,370.47.”  Someone had hijacked Bob’s Visa card for a luxury spending spree.

No permanent harm done, except for an interesting future scar on my leg. New Visa cards arrived yesterday and my sixth shot in the rabies series of seven is set for Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving. I am grateful to have access to good medical care and insurance. And to have had the magical experience of seeing the Monarchs come home.

Future Monarch roosting site visitors, I encourage you to go with a local. You’ll have an unforgettably authentic experience. Keep an eye on your credit cards and save all receipts. And don’t forget the cave man trick. Buen viaje.

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