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.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

To Be or Not to Be? A Monarch Raiser, That Is.

Nothing like a good controversy to get your butt in gear and finally start blogging again. I never intended to stop, but life just kept getting in the way, and Facebook has made it easy to microblog. But now something has caused such an uproar in the monarch community and beyond, that... well... here we are.

A recent blog post written by someone from The Xerces Society has been making the rounds in the last few days. It's one that has a lot of people really upset and threatens to divide those of us who love the monarch and are doing our darnedest to help them have the population explosion they need.

Lots of people raise monarch butterflies in their homes, and teachers do it in their classrooms. This practice has gone on for decades, but never more than the present, in an effort to bolster the monarch population. But now, in light of this article published just four days ago, lots of people have vowed that they will quit raising monarchs.

Take a deep breath, friends.

Whenever an alarmist article like this appears, I'm skeptical until I can find other information supporting it. I don't care who writes it - scientist or not. If there's one thing I've discovered in the 12 years I've been studying the monarch, even the major players in the scientific community can't agree on some things. The fact is, there are a LOT of things we all have yet to learn about this iconic butterfly we love.

I could probably add another chapter to my book, THE MONARCH: Saving Our Most-Loved Butterfly, on this subject, and certainly more than you want to read in a blog post. But here are some thoughts of mine to consider. It would be best if you read the Xerces Society blog post first, so that you understand what all the hubbub is about and why I say what I do here.

  • First of all, we can't "save" the monarch by raising them inside our homes. There are good reasons to do so, but that alone should not be the rationale behind doing it. It's not sustainable over the long run, not at the levels we're collectively doing it now, and it's not natural. We haven't really saved anything if this is how we have to do it.
  • Secondly, one of the biologists who co-authored the paper cited in the Xerces Society blog post, has come forth with a rebuttal and clarification of the talking points that have monarch lovers so upset. PLEASE read what Christopher Kline has to say about this. I can't stress this enough. Just read it.

This monarch caterpillar fell victim to
a spined soldier bug - a type of stink bug.
We raise monarchs in our homes mainly to protect them from predators. If you've observed monarchs for any length of time, you know firsthand how dismal their mortality rate is. That's not uncommon in the "eat or be eaten" world of insects. But monarch numbers are drastically down compared to just 20 years ago, for many reasons, mainly irresponsible behaviors by us humans.

So there may be something positive in humans taking it upon themselves to attempt to right a wrong that they committed in the first place. Is it natural or ideal to raise monarchs inside? No, but neither are pesticides, herbicides, urbanization, logging, mowing, and other practices that humans have done that have contributed to the monarch's decline.

An important thing to note when reading articles like the one from The Xerces Society

The Xerces Society raises some important points and things to think about. But their blog post is, for the most part, an opinion piece. So is mine.

Remember too, that The Xerces Society is one of the original writers of the petition to have the monarch added to the Threatened Species List under the Endangered Species Act. That decision is due to be announced in 2019, and the raising of monarchs will be greatly changed and curtailed if they are listed. The society certainly has a vested interest in the topic and this article may be speaking with that bias. 

Also, keep in mind that raising monarchs and breeding monarchs are two very distinctively different things. I have never bred monarchs and I don't advocate doing so. There are businesses that do this - some responsibly and some not - and I'm not talking about them here.

I also don't advocate raising huge numbers of them. Doing that requires an extraordinary amount of time, energy, space, and dedication. Not many of us are willing to do this in a way that avoids inherent problems.

Bottom line . . .

Please don't let yourself have a knee-jerk reaction to what the writer of The Xerces Society blog post has said. It might make sense to you right from the get-go, or it might cast doubts on what you've been doing in an effort to help the monarchs. In an ideal world, we wouldn't be in this predicament in the first place. But people smarter than a lot of us (me included) have made some grave mistakes in the past and our wildlife has suffered and is suffering for it.

Personally, I'm of the same mind as Chris Kline, who is qualified to speak on the situation, and I'm perfectly comfortable in continuing to raise small numbers of monarchs in my home. You may not be, and I respect that.

If you save just one female who has the potential to lay
400+ eggs, you may or may not be making a positive difference.
Think about that exponentially for just a little bit

Lastly, thank you to those of you who are doing your part to help the monarchs and other pollinators, whether it be by growing a little milkweed (or a lot), growing more nectar plants, using fewer pesticides and herbicides, contributing financially to those who are working on the monarch's behalf, or even by just keeping the conversation going.

The monarchs have had a banner year here in the Midwest (yay!), which may or may not have had anything to do with our efforts, but keep up the good work. Maybe 20 years from now, we can look back and see that we're making a difference. I believe that we are.


Kylee Baumle is the author of two books, the latest of which is THE MONARCH: Saving Our Most-Loved Butterfly. She is a speaker and writer, who won a 2018 Gold Award for her writings on the monarch.

She will be leading her third tour to the monarch sanctuaries in Mexico in February 2019. For more information on joining the tour, click here


***Photo of female monarch laying egg is courtesy of Holli Webb Hearn, creator of The Beautiful Monarch Facebook group, which at last count, has 23,396 members.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Maple Syrup Season 2018 and a Taste Test

We didn't do maple syrup last year because Romie and I both went to Mexico to see the monarch butterflies as they overwintered there. That trip hit right smack in the middle of sap collecting, so we decided to just not do it. Oh, how we missed that wonderful homemade maple syrup!

I went to Mexico again this year, once again in the middle of sap collecting, but Romie was home, so he gathered it while I climbed a few mountains. I have to thank our daughter, Kara, for her help after I got home, because after one day to recover and repack, Romie and I both went to Florida for a week to visit my aunt and uncle. It truly takes a family to make this stuff.

This year, though we didn't keep track of how many gallons of sap we collected from our silver maple trees, we ended up with about three quarts of syrup. We would have had a little bit more (maybe a cup or so), had I not burned one small batch to a crisp. I blame Romie for this a teeny tiny bit, because we only had a small amount of sap, and he talked me into boiling it against my better judgement.

When you boil sap, it's always better to do a large batch at one time, because when it gets right down to the last few minutes of boiling, the sap can either turn to sugar or burn. Just. Like. That. With a larger batch, you have more play with it. I'm not sure why that is, but it just is. I didn't forget it, I just needed to check it in a few minutes rather than ten. Lesson learned!

This year, I used a hydrometer part of the time, for testing when the sap was of the right consistency for syrup. You pour the sap into a cylinder and then float the hydrometer in it. It's marked with red lines, and you want your sap to be thick enough for the surface of the sap to fall between the red lines. After a few seasons of doing this, I think it's just as easy to eyeball it.

Every year I make this, there are always a few who say to me, "Please keep some back for me." I cringe when I hear that, because there's no way we could do that for everyone who asks.  We can't even do it for a few, since it takes about 40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup. With that ratio, you can see how much sap it takes to make a small amount and just how time consuming making syrup is. There's a reason it costs so much when you buy it in the store.

I'm kind of like fellow blogger Karen Bertelsen (The Art of Doing Stuff) when it comes to this. When someone asks her for some of her maple syrup when she's done making it, she answers, "Sure!" and then promptly forgets. She does put a couple of small bottles back just in case she needs to reward someone for doing her an extraordinary favor. And I'm not entirely selfish. A few of our bottles make their way to new homes, too.

This year I splurged and purchased special bottles for our maple syrup.
You can buy them here.

Back to this year's syrup making. The season always takes me by surprise. It starts just about the time I've had it with winter and am dreaming of crocus and daffodils and spring peepers. But I don't think I've ever gotten the spiles put into the maples early enough to get absolutely all the sap we could get.

When the maple buds look like this, maple syrup is drawing to a close.

The sap starts running towards the end of winter, when the temperatures are below freezing at night and above freezing during the day.  There are a lot of days like that between the end of January and when the maple trees start budding out. That's when the sap stops flowing, or at least stops being clear (instead of cloudy or dark). This year, we began collecting sap on February 9th and collected the last of it on March 21st.

A taste test

I haven't purchased real maple syrup since we started making our own, but this year, I heard about a brand that has gotten rave reviews and came to light as a result of being on Shark Tank. Parker's Maple Syrup didn't get the deal on the show, but it still helped the company just by being on the show. I bought some because I wanted to see how ours tasted in comparison.

The tin of Parker's arrived last week and when I tasted it, I sort of cringed. It wasn't cheap and I didn't like it. I bought the Grade A Robust, which is essentially the same grade as ours. But ours had a pure and strong maple syrup taste, without the smoky, somewhat burnt taste to it. Parker's had somewhat the same taste as Kirkland brand maple syrup I purchased from Costco a few years ago. I just don't like that scorched taste.

Our maple syrup is on the left.

I may have mentioned before that I'm a supertaster. This means, among other things, that I detect bitterness more than the average person. My tastebuds have receptors that many people's don't. My husband didn't think it tasted burnt at all. Okay, good, honey. You can have the Parker's then, and I'll just stick with ours, if you don't mind.

We also did a taste test with maple syrup made by the brother of our son-in-law. The semi-blind taste test involved five different syrups: Mrs. Butterworth's Syrup (not real maple syrup), ours, the brother's, a local commercial producer's,  and Parker's. Seven people tasted the five syrups and the results were incredibly varied. Three of the seven preferred our syrup over the others, and more than half rated Parker's the worst, even worse than Mrs. Butterworth's.

Do you have a favorite maple syrup brand? I've not found any that I like as much as ours. ❤

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