Tuesday, June 25, 2019

That Article About Raising Monarchs

Here we go again. Another sensationalist headline of sorts has the monarch world in an uproar.  There's a study - a very limited study - that says that raising monarchs in captivity is detrimental to their navigational abilities. Because of this news release, I've been bombarded with questions as to what I think about it.

First of all, let me state my personal disclaimer. Though I try to keep up on the latest research and am constantly learning, I am not a biologist, entomologist, etc. I have a Science degree, but it's in Dental Hygiene. Do I use some of what I learned in my microbiology, anatomy, chemistry, and other related classes when it comes to my experience with monarchs? Certainly. Do I use principles from studies I was a part of when I worked for a dental research company? Of course. But I come at this issue from a limited perspective with respect to my focused formal secondary education.

Now, to the issue. Here is one version of the article that's causing so much buzz:


Here's a link to the study:  https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2019/06/18/1904690116

And here are some of my thoughts on the information in the articles being circulated in mainstream media:

A spined soldier bug takes a monarch
caterpillar as its lunch in my garden.

We know that in the wild, less than 5% of monarchs will survive from egg to adult. (This is fairly typical in the insect world.) Logic tells me that saving just one female saves not just her, but the 400+ eggs she will lay. Play that out exponentially and it's definitely worth considering that the population will increase, given the number of people who now raise them.

I have never advocated the mass raising of monarchs, for a number of reasons, but what do botanists do when they're trying to bring back a plant that's in danger of extinction? They enlist the help of others in growing it in various hospitable locations. Case in point: Solidago shortii. I personally took part in this effort through the Cincinnati Zoo's CREW program. (http://cincinnatizoo.org/conservation/crew/what-is-crew)

Solidago shortii
'Solar Cascade' was once endangered, but thanks to the CREW
program at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens, it is now available commercially.

I'm not saying that because it worked in the plant world, it will work in the insect world, but there is food for thought there.

I have several issues with the study as well as the article itself (including the headlines that the media puts out there with it), not all of which I'm willing to state publicly. If we were having this discussion in person, I would be more inclined to say them. But one of my reservations with it is already proving to be true. People are reading the widely spread articles, coming to their own conclusions, and spreading those conclusions, even if they aren't necessarily true.  

Another thought I had - and at this point, it's just a thought - how does this study affect all the studies of monarchs being raised in captivity in universities for research? Does this mean that the results there are not entirely valid because the monarchs aren't being raised in their natural environment? (Some are, but some are not, even though they try to mimic it.)

People are reading the widely spread articles, coming to their own conclusions from them, and spreading those conclusions, even if they aren't necessarily true. 

The article has some good information and raises some questions, mostly about commercial breeding, but it's premature to be putting it out there in the media as if it were absolutely proven. The article states that the limited study isn't conclusive, but that fact will get lost in the noise and won't always be included in the message that will be the takeaway. *sigh*

I think two important points need to be made:

  • If raising monarchs is how we have to "save" them, we aren't really saving them. This model isn't sustainable. However, it may help get them over the hump until such a time that their population has increased enough that their numbers are plentiful and self-sustaining.
  • Just as their lower numbers are a result of numerous factors that have caused it, a number of things can be done to reverse it. This is a good thing, since not everyone can do everything, but everyone can do something. The results are cumulative.

Personally, I think the most important things we can do is to increase habitat and reduce the use of chemicals. And just as important is increasing awareness by speaking up about the problems that pollinators face and how we can help them. 

"Each one teach one" can be our mantra. We all have a mouth, so let's put it to good use by spreading the word about strategies we know that help and not harm. 


Later today, after I published this blog post, Angie Babbit, of Monarch Watch, so beautifully said what many of us feel in regard to rearing monarchs at home:

We need to focus on keeping people connected to the monarchs in a positive way that lends itself toward conservation. I got a letter from a woman today that said she has been rearing fewer than 100 monarchs a year for a while, and her entire neighborhood has started turning green spaces into habitat because she announces how many she's successfully released each year. Now she's read this news and wants to know if she's doing more harm than good.

Are we really going to tell her that her efforts to rally her neighborhood are misguided? Are we really going to tell people to stop bringing in caterpillars to show their grandchildren the miracle of metamorphosis? This is a sociological phenomenon that's tied to a biological phenomenon that's tied to conservation. A hands-off approach to conservation is going to kill conservation and send thousands of school kids into programs of virtual dissection kits and online atrophy-based education.

“In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught.” ― Baba Dioum


Angie Babbit
Communications Coordinator
Monarch Watch
The University of Kansas


In reponse to an organization writing to Dr. Karen Oberhauser, who was quoted in the news article:

I talked to the reporter about the inside rearing a fair amount, but he didn’t include that information in the article. It is important to note that the inside rearing in the experiment was done in incubators in which the experimenters could control temperature and light exactly. As a result, the monarchs were not exposed to any natural light or temperature fluctuations; the lights went on and off, and they were kept at a constant temperature. In your exhibit hall, there are windows and diurnal temperature fluctuations which provide exposure to more environmental cues. I’m actually not surprised that they didn’t migrate after being in an incubator. There are plenty of examples of monarchs collected at different stages of development, being reared inside, and successfully migrating.

While I think that the study was really interesting, I’m sorry that this feature of the rearing conditions was not included in the paper itself or in the media reviews.

In my opinion, what you are doing is great. We’re doing the same thing at the UW-Madison Arboretum.

All my best,


From Dr. Orley "Chip" Taylor of Monarch Watch:

A response to the PNAS paper regarding captive-reared monarchs, by Dr. Chip Taylor
Yes, induction of a non-reproductive condition and migration is fragile. That is known. No one to my knowledge has been able to completely replicate the conditions that result in reproductive diapause and migration in the laboratory.

The system is resilient, complicated and still full of unexplained attributes – as well as unexplainable outcomes – e.g. indoor raised monarchs in FL that were tagged and released in San Antonio with 9 (not 5 as stated in the paper) recovered at the overwintering sites in Mexico. Those rearing conditions (12h day/night, 80F constant temps, with dim light through a small window in the door of the rearing room) fit none of the parameters suggested by experimentation or observation that are thought to lead to either diapause induction or migration.

One might get the impression from the paper that few reared, tagged and released monarchs reach the overwintering sites in Mexico. That is not the case, 33.5% of the recoveries in Mexico from 2004-2015 were of reared, tagged and released monarchs. Wild caught and tagged monarchs have a higher recovery rate 0.9% - vs – 0.5%. There are probably many reasons for this difference.

1. Reared butterflies tend to average smaller – putting them at a glide ratio disadvantage, etc.

2. Taggers tend to tag all monarchs they rear including some that obviously have a low probability of reaching Mexico due to size or condition.

3. The reared monarchs experience a wide range of conditions prior to maturity that may determine whether they are able to become non-reproductive or migrate.

4. Reared monarchs are often released late in the season which reduces the chance of reaching MX [Mexico] and many are reared in the east at latitudes and longitudes with low recovery rates by virtue of distance alone.

5. On the other hand wild caught individuals are in effect a pre-selected group having been on the wing for days or weeks before they were caught and tagged.

The bottom line here is that wild caught and reared monarchs are populations with different morphological and physiological characteristics and therefore different outcomes.

Some who rear/tag and release have figured this out and have increased their recovery rates by rearing monarchs outdoors on living plants with the intention of tagging only the largest and earliest of the monarchs to emerge in late August and early September.

The article gives the impression that many of those who rear, tag and release get their stock from breeders. That’s not the case.

A lot of the rearing appears to be inspired by what could be called “monarch rescue”. It is known and widely reported that 98-99% of all monarch eggs and larvae fail to become adults due to predation, parasitism and other causes. This observation has led many to “save” monarchs by collecting eggs and larvae and rearing them indoors, etc. Aside from enjoying the experience of rearing these interesting butterflies, many justify the practice with the supposition that their efforts are contributing to the population. While there is evidence that some of their efforts result in monarchs reaching MX, the idea that rearing, tagging and releasing monarch will lead to a significant increase in monarch numbers is misguided.

This paper will likely be used to denigrate commercial breeders, However, only one breeder is represented in this study – one who evidently maintains a continuous stock that is quite unique due to origins or inbreeding. There are only a few breeders who maintain monarchs throughout the year. Most start new stocks as early as possible each spring.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Wednesday Vignette: Coleus ColorBlaze® Torchlight™

This is my first time participating in the Wednesday Vignette meme, hosted by Anna at Flutter & Hum. I've watched my friend, Loree Bohl (Danger Garden), participate for a long time, and I always enjoy it.

When I walked around the corner of the pool house last week and saw this trial plant from Proven Winners® cozying up to my small cat statue, I knew I had to jump in myself.

Coleus ColorBlaze® Torchlight™

When I received Coleus ColorBlaze® Torchlight™ (Solenostemon scutellarioides) as a small plant this spring, I placed it on the north side of our pool house. That little flower bed spends most of the summer as shades of green and often is neglected, both in terms of care and observation. I thought by placing this colorful coleus there, it might add a little spark to an otherwise ho-hum scenario.

Mission accomplished.

Coleus ColorBlaze® Torchlight™
Solenostemon scutellarioides

Zones: 10-11
Light: Sun or Shade
Mature Size: 24-36 inches
Water Needs: Average

This new coleus will be available in garden centers in Spring of 2019.

My end-of-season evaluation

I'm a lazy gardener. When trialing plants, I usually don't give them any special treatment and in most cases, I "set it and forget it." I try to make sure new plants get the water they need, but that's about it. This coleus was planted in spring and to be honest, I completely ignored it, not even watering it as much as I should have. It also wasn't planted in the best soil - unamended heavy clay. (Shame on me.)

It has never bloomed, which I consider to be an asset for a coleus, as I remove their flowers anyway.  It still looks good, this late in the season, but if I grow it again I'll pinch out the growth tips to encourage additional branching. I would also be sure to underplant it with a low grower like the Heuchera shown here, to hide its skinny ankles. Amended soil would be a good thing, too.

It'a beautiful coleus that adds color to monochromatic spaces with little to no effort required on the part of the gardener. And that' why it's a "proven winner" in my Zone 5b Northwest Ohio garden.

I was provided with this plant free of charge to trial in my garden. Though it's not a requirement to participate in the trialing program, I'm sharing my experience and honest thoughts on growing it.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Tithonia Baby Steps

As any die hard monarch mama knows, monarch butterflies love Tithonia, a.k.a. Mexican sunflower. And anyone who is serious about attracting them will have this growing tall and proud in their garden.

Photo by TJ Gehling/CC license 2.0

I was no exception. When offered some free seeds from a wonderful seed company* a couple of years ago, I immediately chose Tithonia rotundifolia 'Torch', and I had visions of a glorious photo shoot in the latter half of summer. The monarchs were going to flock to them by the numbers. Bees and hummingbirds, too!

I couldn't wait.

Year One

So, I planted those seeds that spring. "They're easy!" everyone told me. "You're going to love them!" they said.

Photo by F.D. Richards/CC license 2.0

It was true, the packet and the website (and every other website on the vast world of the internet), claimed they didn't have any special needs, would grow in poor soil, and tolerated drought and neglect. Since they are native to Mexico and I know what harsh growing conditions there can be in much of the landscape there, I just knew that success was a sure thing.

But summer came and went, and nary a Tithonia appeared.

This is not the first time that I've had bad luck with seeds. I've made many mistakes over the years, such as planting seeds too early. And being The Queen of Procrastination, I've planted them too late. I suppose that's not bad luck, that's just bad gardening. In any case, I was no stranger to failure.

The next time I spoke with the seed company's owner at a trade show, I related my experience to her. She was puzzled and repeated what I'd heard over and over, "But those are so easy. I wonder what happened. Here, take another packet and try again."

Year Two

The next year just happened to be one in which I exercised my queenly duties and I got the seeds in the ground late. Not too late, I didn't think, but perhaps I thought wrongly. I kept waiting to see little green seedlings popping up from that "poor" soil, but summer was half over before I even saw them. I got three. And they didn't grow very fast.

My tithonias gave the term "slow flowers"
a whole new meaning.

Before I knew it, frost reared its ugly head and I only had plants barely a foot tall, if that. No blooms, of course. But, HEY! This time I got PLANTS! And I'm pretty sure they weren't weeds. Things were looking up.

Year Three

They say the third time's a charm, and I'm a believer. This year, I got those seeds in the ground at the perfect time. I was determined to make my monarchs happy campers. Though it did take a little while before I saw little green sprouts start peeking out of the ground, things looked very promising.

While others were showing their four-feet tall Mexican sunflowers loaded with blooms (and monarch butterflies perched atop, of course) on Facebook, my half a dozen plants were doing the best they could, which was the best I'd ever seen here at Our Little Acre. By the first of September, they were over three feet tall, and I saw flower buds!!!

By September 13th, I had one glorious vibrant bloom that nearly made me weep. FINALLY, I had grown a Tithonia from seed and it actually bloomed. I can't tell you how happy this made me.


Then it got cold, like in the low 40s at night cold, and the other blooms stayed closed up tight.

It has gotten warm again in the last few days, so I'm waiting for some more blooms to open. But if I only get that one Tithonia bloom, I have done better than my past efforts. As every gardener knows, there's always next year, and I'm on a roll.

*I'm not naming the seed company to protect the innocent. It wasn't the seeds' fault. It was the gardener's. I can't grow Johnny jump-ups either.

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