February 9th 2016 Becky Emerson Carlberg It has been too windy both yesterday and today.   The low humidity is not helping matters.   I am sitting indoors watching the windsock twirl itself into a tight corkscrew as it battles the gale-force breeze while dry leaves swirl into piles in front of the glass storm door. Two [...]

February 9th 2016

Milkweed along Highway 177

Becky Emerson Carlberg

It has been too windy both yesterday and today.   The low humidity is not helping matters.   I am sitting indoors watching the windsock twirl itself into a tight corkscrew as it battles the gale-force breeze while dry leaves swirl into piles in front of the glass storm door.

Two big events happened this past Saturday, February 6th.     The 17th annual 'Gardening with the Experts' program was held in the morning at the Gordon Cooper Technology Center.   Three gardening professionals gave presentations about plants that bear fruits, herbs and asparagus, and landscape projects.   Their talks were designed to educate, inspire and motivate plant people.

A small group of Multi-County Master Gardeners including one service dog, a miniature American Shepherd named Diesel, opted to go to the Oklahoma Native Plant Society Indoor Outing.   It was held on the 3rd floor of the Student Center on the OSU-OKC campus.   'Monarchs, Pollinators and Natives' was the topic.   Patrick Bell, Central Chapter Chair, gave the introduction and told the story of the Coontie and Atala.   The what you ask?   The Coontie (Zamia pumila) is a four foot tall cycad that resembles a small palm tree.   Native to Florida and southeast Georgia, the slow-growing Coontie is the host plant for the brightly patterned tropical Atala butterfly (Eumaeus atala).  The Coontie cycad root had been used for years by the Seminoles.   Coontie contains a neurotoxin, so the thick starchy root was carefully chopped, soaked, and fermented before being ground into flour.  New settlers discovered the flour which later became a component of arrowroot biscuits.   Through overharvesting the cycad and its habitat of pinewood forests disappeared by the 1960's.  The Atala butterfly, which depended upon the cycad, also experienced severe decline/extinction (from 1937 to 1959 no butterflies were seen in Florida).   As luck would have it, new Coonties were planted as landscape plants in Florida suburban areas and with them came a surprisethe hidden Atala reappeared.   As with Monarchs, the Atala has an unpleasant flavor due to the toxic chemicals in its host plant's leaves.

This story paved the way for the keynote speaker Dr. Chip Taylor.   He has traveled the world and is the Founder/Director of MonarchWatch.org.   Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Kansas, Dr. Taylor's talk began with being in a cascade of butterflies coming off trees in central Mexico. Realize the majority of Monarchs are concentrated in 3 hectares of forest. Taylor couldn't see ten feet in front of his face for the number of Monarchs in the air.   He could only hear the rustling of gossamer wings.   No other migration like that had he experienced.

Pine and Oyamel fir trees growing at 11,000 feet are the temporary homes for millions of over-wintering Monarchs.   They are in non-reproductive mode until the end of February into early March.   The multitudes launch northward and arrive in early May to June in Oklahoma and Texas where they lay eggs on milkweeds.   In 2003, a decline in Monarch numbers was seen. In 2013 to 2014 colony measurements were very low, reflected by the numbers in occupied trees measured by the World Wildlife Fund organization.

Leaders of Mexico, the USA and Canada worked on the Monarch problem.   President Obama on the 20th of June, 2014, issued a memorandum that called for creation of a federal strategy to promote the health of honey bees and other pollinators.

The birth period of Monarchs is from March to October and their population increases.   After October the population drops as the butterflies travel to Mexico to spend the winter.   In two separate winters in Mexico, 77% died during winter storms.   Decline in the USA is due to agricultural changes the past 15 years.   Politics to economics are drivers in the system.  Reasons :

Round-Up ready corn and soybean.Economics of fuel containing ethanol.Conversion of rangeland to cropland.Development that consumes habitat from 1 to 2 million acres lost in USA/year.Intensive Agriculture of plowing and planting right up to the roads; margins are gone.Management of marginal lands; uniform grassland with golf course appearance.Insecticides including mosquito sprays and neonicotinamides; 150 million acres of crops have seeds treated with systemic insecticides.   This migrates into soil and water and your food.   Pollinators are negatively impacted.

In the 2015 Monarch survey, the natal origin of Monarchs is 90% in the Corn Belt.   Corn and soybean fields produce more Monarchs/acre.   As GMO crops increase, the Monarch population decreases.

2005-2012 over 24 million acres plus 5 million acres in landscape were converted.   This happened very fast, with 77% habitat conversion occurring in the grasslands.   This is more than the size of Texas and within the Monarch corridor of Texas and Oklahoma, the most important area.

Dr. Taylor emphasized the re-introduction of more habitats along roads, fields, around houses and other places.   There is yet no national plan, nor restoration target.   I-35 runs directly through the Monarch Corridor.   Dr. Taylor spoke of developing a Monarch Highway using milkweed.   The short Green milkweed (Asclepias viridis), the second most important plant for Monarchs, is especially common in Texas and Oklahoma, while the taller common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is the most important and grows in the Corn Belt.

Dr. Taylor's restoration goal is 40.5 million Monarchs per hectare (2.5 acres) when they are in Mexico.  ”We need to save the system that supports us.”

'Monarch Waystations' was a program started in 2005 and still going strong.   Certified Monarch waystations now total over 5,000.   Homeowners comprise 51%, schools 10%, parks 6% and farms 5%.   'Bring Back the Monarch' campaign focuses on making more milkweed plants available.   In 2013, 22,000 plugs were planted.   By 2016 over 200,000 plugs will have been put in.   It is anticipated that over 300,000 plugs will be planted in 2017.   With this in mind, the Monarch Highway  along I-35 would use one strip of plugs (10'x100')/ mile that could support 800 butterflies/16 species.   It is estimated one ounce of milkweed seed, approximately 4000 seeds, would cover one acre.

The Monarch Highway could offset the annual loss of milkweeds by adding 1 to 2 million acres of milkweed.   Dr. Taylor ended with the quote:

'Have respect for the integrity of the system that supports us'.