Monarch Fallout and A Predator Story

Monarch Fallout

It happened again in 2020. The convergence of the peak of the September monarch southerly migration over Southcentral Kansas was met by a strong south wind, causing a “fallout” of monarchs at the Dyck Arboretum. Rather than waste energy fighting the headwind, monarchs find a place of refuge to rest and sip nectar. I would estimate that I’ve seen this phenomenon happen five times in the Arb since 2005 and this year’s was the most memorable for a few different reasons including big numbers, fallout location, and a predator story.

Monarchs in the Hedge Row at Dyck Arboretum, 9/20/2020 – Photo by Gerry Epp

Big Numbers

The monarch numbers I observed on Monday, 9/21/2020 seemed to me to be more stunning than I can ever remember. I estimated conservatively in a report to Journey North, there were at least 500 monarchs resting in the Arboretum that day. But after giving it more consideration and talking to a local monarch tagger, Karen Fulk, I wonder if that number was more accurately in the thousands.

Karen’s many years of efforts to tag monarchs in Hesston has her keenly in touch with monarch phenology and migration patterns. She reports that the peak of migration through south central Kansas is usually between 9/22 and 9/27. This year, however, she started seeing an uptick in numbers when a cold front and north wind jump-started the southerly monarch migration a bit earlier.

Karen usually tags 300 annually during the fall migration. This year, Chip Taylor at Monarch Watch, knowing that migration numbers were higher this year, suggested that taggers order extra tags. Karen increased her number to 500 tags and was able to apply most of those when the fallout began Friday 9/18/2020 through Sunday 9/20/2020. Arboretum member, Gerry Epp, further documented this event by posting photos of the fallout on his Facebook page, 9/20/2020.

Monarchs on Seven Son Flower at Dyck Arboretum, 9/20/2020 – Photo by Gerry Epp

Fallout Location

With some repetition now in seeing these fallouts occur in the same place, I want to give some thought to why they congregate where they do at Dyck Arboretum. Karen usually tags at three places in Hesston based on the ability to catch and tag the maximum number in one place, and Dyck Arboretum is where she does the majority of her work. She estimated that 95% of her tagging this year happened at the Arboretum, based on seeing the greatest number of butterflies here.

I would hypothesize that they repeatedly congregate in the small 1/8th-acre area at the Arboretum amphitheater/pinetum for three reasons. One, they are seeking protection from the elements of wind and heat. This is about energy conservation. By escaping the wind and congregating in large groups on the north side of the dense hedge row of Osage orange trees, they are finding a microclimate that is cooler, more humid, and less turbulent than they would find on the south side.

Monarchs on Seven Son Flower at Dyck Arboretum, 9/20/2020 – Photo by Gerry Epp

Two, this location is next to a number of nectar sources. Why not rest where you can eat/drink too? Nearby native plant beds and a reconstructed prairie had a timely profusion of flowering from many species of the genera Helianthus (sunflower), Solidago (goldenrod), Symphotrichium (aster), Liatris (gayfeather), Eryngium (eryngo), and Heptacodium (seven son flower).

Three, a number of white pines in this location may resemble the trees of the Oyamel fir forests in Mexico. I don’t have any proof of this theory, but it seems plausible to me.

Predator Story

The newest wrinkle of this monarch fallout experience was the side story of five immature Mississippi kites. They were probably migrating with the monarchs and decided also to not fight the strong south wind. For a day and a half that I observed, this hungry bunch of pentomic predators took advantage of an abundant food supply. They hung out in the top of one of the white pines and took turns swooping through the monarch clouds to easily catch a snack.

Mississippi Kite Eating A Monarch at Dyck Arboretum, 9/22/2020 – Photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

Sometimes they missed catching their target, but usually, these agile insect catchers snagged their prey. Typically they would return to their perch to eat their catch, but sometimes they would eat in flight or “on the wing” as I hear experienced birders say. At one point, I counted approximately 120 monarch wings that had fluttered down to form what I’ll call a monarch confetti debris field. At four wings per monarch, that represented the carnage of about 30 monarchs. However, a number of wings had already been collected by onlookers, so it is not unreasonable to think that the number of monarchs preyed upon were double or triple what I saw.

Monarch Wings at Dyck Arboretum, 9/20/2020 – Photo by Brad Guhr

Monarch Toxicity

This predator behavior was a surprising observation. Monarch larvae eat milkweed and sequester in the mature butterfly wings and exoskeleton the milkweed toxins called cardiac glycosides. These heart poisons can seriously affect vertebrate predators, including birds, and often cause them to vomit and subsequently avoid eating them further. However, these young kites not only ate monarchs all day Monday, but they continued their feeding frenzy the next morning. Either their stomachs weren’t too adversely soured, or the calories needed to continue this migratory journey were simply too important.

A Google literature review turned up no articles mentioning this habit of Mississippi kites eating monarchs. However, a follow-up conversation with University of Kansas biology instructor, Brad Williamson, helped me understand that this observation is not so irrational. He explained that the monarch population is not 100% toxic.

“The individual toxicity depends a lot on the particular milkweed species that hosted the larval stage. Asclepias syriaca (common milkweed) and Cynanchum laeve (honeyvine milkweed) are not nearly as toxic as A. verticillata (whorled milkweed). There is an entire range of toxicity and it makes for some great mathematical modeling questions–just how much toxicity (percent toxic) in the population is necessary for protection for the entire population? How much metabolic costs are there for monarchs trying to process highly toxic host plants? Turns out that only 25-40% of the population being toxic confers protection for the remaining population.” (I will include below a bibliography on monarch toxicity that Brad Williamson provided if any of you are interested as I am in learning more about this topic.)

There were a lot of interesting biological and ecological issues at play here with these monarchs and kites. It was just one more interesting natural history story with subplots to be observed by those of us living in the Monarch Flyway. Until I’m able to one day witness the hundreds of millions of monarchs wintering in the the Oyamel forests of central Mexico, I am completely content having a front row seat to this fascinating migration phenomena right here in Kansas.

Monarch butterflies observed at the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Michoacán, Mexico. Video by Beatrix Amstutz, February 7, 2020.

Plant Milkweed

To assist the monarchs and their annual migration, plant milkweed host plants and other native nectar plants for adults. Check out our annual spring and fall Flora Kansas native plant sales.

Articles on Monarch Toxicity

  • Brower, L. P., and C. M. Moffitt. “Palatability Dynamics of Cardenolides in the Monarch Butterfly.” Nature 249, no. 5454 (1974): 280–283.
  • Brower, Lincoln P. “Avian Predation on the Monarch Butterfly and Its Implications for Mimicry Theory.” The American Naturalist 131 (1988): S4–S6.
  • Brower, Lincoln P., and Susan C. Glazier. “Localization of Heart Poisons in the Monarch Butterfly.” Science 188, no. 4183 (1975): 19–25.
  • Brower, Lincoln P., Peter B. McEvoy, Kenneth L. Williamson, and Maureen A. Flannery. “Variation in Cardiac Glycoside Content of Monarch Butterflies from Natural Populations in Eastern North America.” Science 177, no. 4047 (1972): 426–429.
  • Fink, Linda S., and Lincoln P. Brower. “Birds Can Overcome the Cardenolide Defence of Monarch Butterflies in Mexico.” Nature 291, no. 5810 (1981): 67–70.Malcolm, S. B., and L. P. Brower. “Evolutionary and Ecological Implications of Cardenolide Sequestration in the Monarch Butterfly.” Experientia 45, no. 3 (1989): 284–295.
  • Malcolm, Stephen B. “Milkweeds, Monarch Butterflies and the Ecological Significance of Cardenolides.” Chemoecology 5, no. 3–4 (1994): 101–117.
  • Malcolm, Stephen B., Barbara J. Cockrell, and Lincoln P. Brower. “Cardenolide Fingerprint of Monarch Butterflies Reared on Common Milkweed, Asclepias Syriaca L.” Journal of Chemical Ecology 15, no. 3 (1989): 819–853.
  • Nelson, C. J., J. N. Seiber, and L. P. Brower. “Seasonal and Intraplant Variation of Cardenolide Content in the California Milkweed, Asclepias Eriocarpa, and Implications for Plant Defense.” Journal of Chemical Ecology 7, no. 6 (1981): 981–1010.
  • Roeske, C. N., J. N. Seiber, L. P. Brower, and C. M. Moffitt. “Milkweed Cardenolides and Their Comparative Processing by Monarch Butterflies (Danaus Plexippus L.).” In Biochemical Interaction between Plants and Insects, 93–167. Springer, 1976.
  • Zalucki, Myron P., Lincoln P. Brower, and Alfonso Alonso-M. “Detrimental Effects of Latex and Cardiac Glycosides on Survival and Growth of First-Instar Monarch Butterfly Larvae Danaus Plexippus Feeding on the Sandhill Milkweed Asclepias Humistrata.” Ecological Entomology 26, no. 2 (2001): 212–224.

Add Your Piece to the Patchwork of Prairie Gardens

We are experiencing a paradigm shift that is sweeping across the country.  People are becoming increasingly aware of the natural world and their ability to impact it.  If we begin establishing landscapes that appeal to us aesthetically, but benefit wildlife ecologically, we can have the best of both worlds.

Each of us has the opportunity to develop a native wildlife habitat, to design your garden in such a way that attracts pollinators and wildlife, and to create a safe space for depleted and endangered native bees and Monarchs to find the food they need to survive.  This is a small way you can show you care.  It is one way you, along with others in your neighborhood, can develop prairie gardens that are refuges for these beneficial insects.  Even a small garden can have an impact.

(If you are interested in or are searching for native plants, peruse our 2017 Native Plant Guide and Plant List and plan to attend our 2017 Spring FloraKansas Plant Sale.)

Monarchs

Statistics show that the monarch butterfly population in North America has declined by over 90% in just the last 20 years.  This is disheartening.  One of the biggest factors in monarch decline is the increasing scarcity of its only caterpillar host plant: milkweeds. Monarchs can’t successfully reproduce, or migrate without milkweeds, resulting in the species decline. If you plant even a few milkweeds in your own garden, you can help reverse the fortune of these beautiful insects.  You can be part of the ultimate solution, which is to provide the plants monarchs need for their life cycle.

Pollinators

The plight of the honey bee and the loss of entire hives has garnered nationwide attention.  However, many of our native bee populations are in danger too.  Scientists continue to track dwindling populations of native bees, including the possible extinction of some species.  The native pollinators are key components of a healthy ecosystem.  The use of pesticides and insecticides, habitat loss, along with the introduced diseases threaten their lives.  These bees often lack season-long food sources, which is obviously important to their vitality.

Bumblebee on Echinacea purpurea – photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

Many different pollinators face these realities.  Native plants can help us alleviate some of the problems they face.  Native plants have the ability to grow in our soils, are adapted to the climate, look attractive, control erosion, create beneficial habitat and are the preferred food source for many of these pollinators.  By establishing prairie gardens that use native prairie plants, we can improve their plight in this world.  Recognizing that we can make a difference should be motivation to at least begin to help them.

Stewardship and conservation can start with our gardens.  Despite size limitations, these prairie gardens are an important part of conserving the prairie and the wildlife that depend on them.  You might be surprised how much your garden can do to reverse some of these trends.  Imagine your garden combined with hundreds of other small prairie landscapes.  True, it is not the expansive prairies of the past, but it does make a difference.  Your garden can be a piece of the patchwork of prairies.






How to Plan for Pollinators

It is hard to believe, but it is mid-January already.  Spring is right around the corner.  Yes, it will be here before I am fully prepared.  Are you ready for spring?  Do you know what your garden needs?  Do you know what pollinators need?  How can we sync our gardens better with nature?  These questions and many more have been rolling around in my head over the past few weeks.

I have been reading articles and reviewing plant catalogs.  My brain is in overload.   Here is one of the directions I will be taking my garden this year.  I am planning for pollinators and not just hoping they will magically appear.  So, what does that look like?  Here are a few points to consider as you plan for pollinators in your own garden this year:

Establish plants with nectar.

Pollinators depend on nectar throughout their adult life stage.  A variety of native wildflowers that grow in a sunny location and bloom at different times throughout the year provide pollinators with a constant nectar source.  Not every plant is beneficial to pollinators.  If possible, utilize native plants because they offer nectar that many native pollinators seek.  Here are some sample landscape designs to get you started.

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Bumblebee on Echinacea purpurea - photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

Bumblebee on Echinacea purpurea – photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

Think of color and form.

Butterflies can see yellow, orange, pink, blue and purple blossoms. Bees are unable to see the color red, but are very attracted to yellow and blue flowers.  Darker colors such as black are a warning sign for them to stay away.  Bees for the most part are attracted to bright colors.  So don’t wear a bright colored shirt in the garden.  Flat-topped or clustered flowers provide a place to settle for feeding.  We carry many options of native plants at our FloraKansas Plant Sale.

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Texan Crescent

Provide puddles.

Butterflies like wet sand and mud left behind by puddles or on the edge of a water feature.  They drink the water and extract minerals from damp soil.

9-18-2015 butterflies 1ForFacebook

Pearl crescent butterflies – Photo by Dave Osborne

Establish host plants.

Host plants provide food for butterfly larvae (caterpillars).  Butterflies look for specific plants when they are ready to lay eggs.  The host plants for the Monarch butterfly are milkweeds.  If you want to help save the Monarch butterfly, include some milkweeds in your garden plan.  Here is some additional information on Monarchs.

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Great Spangled Fritillary on Sullivant’s Milkweed

Make your garden a pesticide-free zone.

Insecticides kill insects.  Herbicides kill plants, but they can be toxic to insects as well.  Pesticide-free lawns and gardens allow pollinators to survive and flourish.

Provide habitat.

Small wood piles, old logs and leaves in your garden at strategic areas provide important habitats for many different pollinators.  Bees will uses these areas to overwinter because they keep them safe from the elements and predators.  Don’t be too quick to get rid of that old rotting log.  It is just what pollinators need.

Bee Hotel Photo by John Regier

Bee Hotel – Photo by John Regier

Bee Hotel 3

Bee Hotel Explanation – Photo by John Regier

Many butterflies, pollinators and native wildflowers have co-evolved over time so that each depends on the other for survival.  Wildflowers provide food for all life stages of pollinators.  In return, wildflowers and much of the food we eat are pollinated by bees, butterflies, and a host of other pollinators.  With a little planning now, pollinators will flock to your garden this year and in years to come.






Six Ways You Can Help the Pollinators

Did you know that this week is National Pollinator Week (June 15 – June 21)? Whether it is with bees, butterflies, birds or beetles, pollinators are extremely important and provide valuable services.

Three-fourths of the world’s flowering plants depend on pollinators to reproduce.  Think of all the food crop production that would not be possible without the help of pollinators.  We rely on these small, seemingly insignificant pollinators for the food we eat.  If they are so valuable, then they are certainly worth recognizing and saving.

Here are six ways you can help increase declining populations of pollinators, including bees and monarchs:

1. Plant Pollinator-Friendly Plants

Certainly, milkweeds are the best wildflowers for attracting monarchs to your yard.  We saw it this morning as we walked the arboretum – we found three caterpillars munching on the milkweed leaves.  Not only that, but every blooming wildflower was covered with a host of insects.  The wildflowers are the buffet. (Peruse our native plant list and sample landscape designs for some inspiration.)

Photo by Brad Guhr

Monarch butterfly on Asclepias incarnata, or swamp milkweed – photo by Brad Guhr

 

2. Plant for a Succession of Bloom

I recommend planting wildflowers that bloom at different times of the year.  A mixture of wildflowers coming into bloom and going out of bloom throughout the year provides a ready food source.  This approach mimics the natural prairie and the changing seasons.

Sulphur on Cardinal Flower

Cloudless sulphur on Lobelia cardinalis, or cardinal flower – photo by Brad Guhr

 

3. Provide Habitat

Layer trees and shrubs along with wildflowers and grasses.  These plants provide shelter from the wind along with nesting sites and food for birds, butterflies and bees. Even a small garden can have a tremendous impact.

Bumblebee on Echinacea purpurea - photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

Bumblebee on Echinacea purpurea, or purple coneflower – photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

 

4. Provide Water

We all need water for survival.  Pollinators need it too.  A clean source of water such as a birdbath, basin, or hollow stone is enough water for pollinators.  These features also provide landing spots so that pollinators have a perch. Here are some great plants to complement your water feature.

 

5. Reduce Chemicals

There is growing research on the detrimental effects chemicals have on pollinators.  Any time we can reduce or eliminate the use of chemicals in the landscape, we are impacting wildlife in a positive way.  Allow insects to control unwanted pests.  Be willing to accept a few damaged plants, knowing that by not spraying you are saving much more in the long run.

HummingbirdMoth on liatris

Hummingbird moth on Liatris pycnostachya, or Kansas gayfeather – photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

 

6. Learn About the Plight of Endangered Pollinators

There is so much to learn about each type of pollinator.  What do they need?  When are they out in the garden?  What do they need to complete their lifecycle?  Where do they migrate or how do they overwinter?  We have so much to learn about these important insects. (One good resource for this is this book, by Heather Holm, which we often carry in our gift shop. And, of course, MonarchWatch.org is a great resource.)

 

When it comes to supporting the life cycle of pollinators, you can be part of the solution.  Native wildflowers are the best option to help them prosper.  You will be amazed when you introduce just a handful of wildflowers to your landscape.  If you plant them, pollinators will come.