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.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Fall Clean-Up? It's Not What You Think

It's that time of year again. The garden is winding down, things are turning brown, and it's really tempting to just get rid of things that are looking less than pretty. I feel it, too. But in the last several years, I've gotten a different perspective on this fall clean-up thing, from hearing other people share their views on it, but also from being observant in my own garden.

First, I heard, "Leave your grasses and perennials for winter interest." No problem with the grasses, because yeah, they do look beautiful when they catch the snow and it's more fun to look out there and see something taller than my knees.

I heard them mention how seed heads, like those on coneflowers, feed birds and other wildlife, so I started to leave those kinds of things, because winters can be cruel. Heavy snows and frigid temperatures make it difficult for birds and animals to find food, which can be in short supply in the first place.

And then there are the leaves. We've got 100+ trees on Our Little Acre, with several of them being over 200 years old. That means we have a lot of leaves on the ground every fall and even into winter, since the largest trees are oaks. As anyone who has oaks knows, they lose leaves all winter long.

Even though we can't leave all those leaves all winter long, we started leaving a layer of them for both plant insulation and for the insects and other critters that use the leaf litter for winter protection.

These are all good reasons to not do a "scorched earth" method of fall clean-up. I do understand that it means more work in the spring, but from a human standpoint, it's a do it now or do it later kind of thing, not really adding any work to the grand scheme of things. We choose to do it later in an effort to help wildlife.

But the purpose of my post today is to focus on insects, specifically those that we love to see in our gardens in the summer. Did you know that a large number of them spend their winters right here and need the very things that gardeners may remove in the fall?


Planting to attract butterflies and pollinators to our gardens is a thing. It's a really hot trend that I hope becomes commonplace, not just for environmentalists.

But it isn't enough to plant what they need during their breeding season. That's commendable, but what about the off season?  

Is it fair to attract them to our gardens and then sabotage our efforts - and their lives - by destroying what they need to complete their life cycle?

Not every insect or arthropod migrates. Many have the ability to lower the freezing point of their bodies and go into a state of diapause. Some can't survive, but they lay eggs that can. Some spend the winter in a pupal stage.

Let's look at these:

  • Lady beetles (ladybugs) - We have elevated ladybugs to their rightful place in the world of environmental sustainability. These small beetles overwinter as adults clustered together under leaf litter. I personally have encountered large numbers of them in spring. In fact, I try not to clear leaves away until I see them moving around and emerging on their own.

  • Swallowtails - These butterflies overwinter in their chrysalides and just because you've never seen them doesn't mean they aren't there. Camouflage is an important factor in their survival. Do you think the Eastern black swallowtails you've attracted to your garden in summer all leave your garden in winter?

    They lay their eggs on your dill, fennel, parsley, rue, and carrot tops. They eat those until they form their chrysalides nearby - in your garden, likely on stiff stems of plants.

  • Leafcutter bees - I personally love these guys. They're the ones that make the round circles in the leaves of some of your garden plants. I smile when I see that, because I know that my garden is helping a native pollinator. They take those leaf rounds back to line their nests, which are often in the hollow stems of plants. They often return to those nests to spend the winter.

Remember too, that even some of the insects that might be undesirable to you are food for those you do want. The food chain is real. The more you clean your gardens of healthy dead material, the more you're disrupting the natural life cycle of the ecosystem.

I'm not discouraging the removal of diseased plants and excessive leaf cover. I just want you to be aware of how many insects and other living things that are loved and important to us in summer, need your garden in winter, too.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Monarch Watch Speaks Out About Raising Monarchs at Home

The discussion regarding raising monarchs in the home continues, with Monarch Watch weighing in today about their position on the practice. Dr. Orley "Chip" Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, and one of the most knowledgeable people on the planet in regard to monarchs, felt compelled to release this statement, which should be of comfort to those who choose to raise monarchs:

Date: Tue, 18 Sep 2018 16:51:02
From: "Taylor Jr, Orley R"
Subject: Rethinking captive rearing

Greetings: I wasn't going to comment publicly on the captive rearing issue. However, since some of you rear monarchs, and Emma Pelton has chosen to post the Xerces [Society] position on our Monarch Watch discussion list, I feel compelled to articulate our position at Monarch Watch along with the reasoning we use to justify our position. For those of you that don't know, the position adopted by Xerces and MJV [Monarch Joint Venture] has created quite a stir on various Facebook sites and more than one Blog.

Our position at Monarch Watch is that we neither encourage or discourage rearing. As I will try to make clear, this is a low priority issue. Further, the concerns are exaggerated and unsupported by data. 

Facts, Observations, Questions, Tagging and Priorities

Monarch numbers have been declining since the mid 2000s coincident with the adoption of herbicide tolerant crop lines that facilitated the use of glyphosate that all but eliminated milkweed from these row crops.

Habitat loss has been invoked, and supported by data, as the most likely cause of the decline. The alternative hypothesis that the decline is due to an increase in mortality during the migration is unsupported by data.

Habitat loss continues. Estimates are that we are losing 1 million acres of grassland each year and are likely losing at least another million acres due to development and other forms of land conversion.

There is no credible data suggesting that we are restoring habitat for monarchs and pollinators at a rate that matches these losses. In other words, monarchs are losing habitat as we argue about the merits of one detail or another.

Cerro Pelón monarch sanctuary in the state of Mexico, in Central Mexico
February 20, 2018
If my predictions come true, the overwintering population in Mexico will be approximately 5 hectares - maybe more. That translates to at least 60 million monarchs. This will be the largest population since 2008 and may be the last big population for another decade and maybe ever due to changing spring conditions in Texas and higher temperature in May and early June. If you remember the conditions during 2012, those are in our future and it's those conditions that were the precursor to the low monarch return in the spring of 2013 and the alarmingly low population (.67 hectares) that winter.

Monarch larval monitoring and other studies show that 98% of all eggs and larvae succumb to predators or other conditions. 


Most of those advocating the reduction and even the cessation of all rearing are not engaged in monarch rearing. Those doing the rearing are being told that what they are doing will have negative consequences for the population. These admonitions are supported by strongly worded opinions and references to conditions that do not apply to the average person rearing monarchs, e.g. the argument about inbreeding and genetic declines. 

While there are lots of data that show that LONG TERM cultures of various species often lose fitness, this argument DOES NOT apply to those who simply collect eggs and caterpillars in their gardens or along roadsides or even those who breed monarchs for 1-2 generations. In fact, it's not even clear that it applies to monarchs. 

How many breeders maintain long term inbreed cultures? We don't know. 
How often do breeders refresh their stocks? We don't know but have been told that "refreshing" stocks is common, mostly from northern states. 
How many breeders rear more than two of three generations per year? We don't know. 

 What does any of that have to do with those who harvest monarch eggs and larvae in their gardens and natural areas for rearing and release? Zero. While many are dismayed by commercial releases of monarchs, it's not prohibited. These "do not rear" directives will not impact commercial releases but they have raised concerns by many lay persons who enjoy rearing monarchs.

Under magnification, Oe spores can be seen as tiny football-
shaped particles among the larger monarch scales that
cover a monarch's body.

The fact that 98% of the monarch immatures are consumed by predators and parasites inspires people to engage in "monarch rescue," that is, harvesting monarch eggs and larvae and rearing them both indoors and outdoors to "save" them from their usual fate. So, is it really a bad thing to do this? What are the risks? 

Yes, the spread of O.e. (Ophryocystis elektroscirrha) could be a risk but that is easy to avoid if the foliage is sanitized before being fed to the larvae. Monarchs to be released could also be checked for O.e. spores and some people do that. Interestingly, we have found that, if you collect all the 5th instar larvae and rear them through indoors, you can suppress the tachinid fly population.

As to whether monarchs should be reared with the goal of increasing the population, the reality is that such efforts are likely to have little or no impact on the overall population. To have a real impact on population growth, monarchs would have to be released in the RIGHT places at the RIGHT times early in the season rather than during the migration.


How many monarchs are reared and released by amateurs relative to the total monarchs in the migration - 40,000 or maybe 60,000? 

We don't know.

Where and when are these monarchs released? Does it make a difference?

I don't have time to elaborate, but the tagging data, as well as the seasonal dynamics, show that the impact associated with the when and where of releases varies greatly across the continent. In short, the outcomes of a thousand monarchs released at three widely (MN, ME, FL) different locations on the same day during the migration are likely to be very different. There are seasonal differences in outcomes as well. 

What happens if O.e. infested adult monarchs are released into the population?

The dangers of O.e. are reasonably clear and infested monarchs should NOT be released at any time. Most of the heavily infested monarchs have a reduced fitness and a low probability of getting to Mexico, let alone returning in the spring. Given that scenario, it's likely that most of the O.e. spores that persist in the population through the winter have been acquired by healthy monarchs through horizontal transfer - that is, the proximity of healthy monarchs to those infested with spores while clustered during the winter or even through contact at roosts through the fall migration. The clear message in these directives is that rearing needs to be conducted in a way that eliminates the release of O.e. infested butterflies.         

Do tagged monarchs have a reduced chance of making it to Mexico?

Tagging may or may not have an impact on whether monarchs get to Mexico. There has never been a fair test. If tagged and wild monarchs of the same age, sex and size distributions were released at the same date and same place, we could determine whether tagging impacted the ability to get to Mexico. (Assuming also that the monarchs were tagged according to our instructions).

Tropical milkweed
Asclepias curassavica
What we do know is that lots of reared and tagged monarchs make it to Mexico some having fed on non-native milkweeds such as Calotropis procera and C. gigantea (both species of giant milkweed) and the much maligned Asclepias curassavica (tropical milkweed).

Irrespective of the potential impact of tagging, the data from reared monarchs is quite valuable. Like the data from wild tagged monarchs, it tells us a great deal about the migration - the timing, the pace and the probability of reaching Mexico based on sex, geographic origins and date of tagging.

Further, the recovery of reared monarchs can be used as a control for isotope studies.

Given the habitat losses due to agricultural practices and the continuing loss of habitat, what should our priorities be if our goal is to sustain the monarch migration?

Habitat restoration has to be the number 1 priority. The "All hands on Deck" analysis indicated that we need to re-establish at least 1 BILLION milkweed stems mostly in the Upper Midwest to return the monarch numbers to an average of close to 6 hectares at the overwintering sites. That figure is based on an extinction analysis - that is, the probability of losing the migration due to a series of catastrophic events such as the winter storm of 2002 and 2004. That analysis was conservative in that the projections could only be made using past data and inferences based on those conditions. 

Unfortunately, conditions are changing and if the projections based on climate models come true, and that seems likely, the need to restore habitat is even greater than estimated. 

We have work to do and we need all hands on deck and that means that we need everyone who can to pitch in in any way they can. 

We need people to pass on their enthusiasm for monarchs and their concern for maintaining the migration.         

Should rearing be conducted with the goal of increasing the wild population?

Again, to be clear, at Monarch Watch we neither encourage nor discourage monarch rearing. Looking a the monarch population holistically - and from the standpoint of the year-to-year dynamics of a population that is governed largely by both temperatures, and other weather-related phenomena, as well as habitat limitations, rearing is a minor issue. 


Orley R. "Chip" Taylor [chip@ku.edu]
Founder and Director of Monarch Watch; Professor Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS.
Trained as an insect ecologist, Chip Taylor has published papers on species assemblages, hybridization, reproductive biology, population dynamics and plant demographics and pollination. Starting in 1974, Chip Taylor established research sites and directed students studying Neotropical African honey bees (killer bees) in French Guiana, Venezuela, and Mexico.

In 1992, Taylor founded Monarch Watch, an outreach program focused on education, research and conservation relative to monarch butterflies. Since then, Monarch Watch has enlisted the help of volunteers to tag monarchs during the fall migration. This program has produced many new insights into the dynamics of the monarch migration. 

In 2005 Monarch Watch created the Monarch Waystation program, in recognition that habitats for monarchs are declining at a rate of 6,000 acres a day in the United States. The goal of this program is to inspire the public, schools and others to create habitats for monarch butterflies and to assist Monarch Watch in educating the public about the decline in resources for monarchs, pollinators and all wildlife that share the same habitats.

***I have formatted the information provided by Monarch Watch to make it easier to read and have provided some emphasis to some words and phrases. The text provided here is accurate, and is what Monarch Watch issued, with no other changes.

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