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Gardens of the Cross Timbers: Saving the Monarch one tree at a time

Becky Emerson Carlberg
Contributing writer
January sunset

January, March, April, May, July, September and October of 2020 each averaged 5.28 inches of rain. February, June, August, November and December scraped by with an average of 1.62 inches. January and February received 4 inches snow. Ten months later, December had 4.5 inches. Total rainfall: 46.00 inches (normal 41 inches); snowfall 8.5 inches (normal 6.4 inches).

Statistically speaking, we had a good year for moisture, except for the timing. Weeks would elapse before the next significant rain event. The see-saw weather of Oklahoma. My father said “I remember when it rained and the two days it fell.” The strange cycles jeopardized my spreading junipers that haven’t adapted well to extended droughts interspersed by heavy rains. The herbivores (bagworms) were also responding to the weird weather. Usually, bagworm numbers moderate between bust and boom. At least eight families of parasitic wasps, mice and sparrows enjoy the protein filled eggs and larvae. When things go out of balance, there are repercussions. The bagworms may be like canaries in a mine. Indicators of trouble with the environment or climate.

A Peck of Bagworms

Thyridopteryx ephemeraeformis. What a mouthful. The scientific name for the evergreen bagworm. The insect is a member of the large butterfly, moth and skipper order with 180,000 species. The bagworm family Psychidae itself is actually small with 1.350 species worldwide.

As the larvae/caterpillars drag their bags along, they devour leaves on the deciduous maples, sycamores, willows, oaks and even roses, but their favorite munchies are the evergreen pines, arborvitaes and junipers. Bagworms tend not to move too far from their mother’s home bag. This explains why some plants are inundated with bagworms while others are barely touched.

When mature, the caterpillars in bags attach an incredibly tough silk cord to a branch to hang from. August to September the larvae will molt and pupate into moths. The guys developed black hairy bodies with transparent membranous wings. They get to abandon their designer nature bags to fly off in search of females. The females are stuck inside their customized leaf homes ashamed. They look like maggots with no wings, eyes or actual legs.

Hidden within bags, how do the females attract the males? Bagworm perfume. The females emit pheromones that wildly excite the males. The males come, perform and die in a day or two. After experiencing the last act of pleasure she’ll ever have, the female bagworm knows her own fate is also sealed. With only a few weeks to live, she may choose to leave her bag after laying eggs and drop to her death. Or she may remain in the bag with the eggs developing inside her. After death she becomes a bagworm mummy, or would that be mommy.

The number of eggs can be between 300 to 1,000 in each bag. And here is where I am: Phase two of my bagworm removal project in the middle of January, picking off bagworms full of viable eggs. The nice thing about January is the tick population is sleeping and the weather is not blistering hot. Sure, several bags will be overlooked. My goal is not to destroy all the bagworms, but reduce their numbers and hope for an abundant parasitic wasp crop next spring and summer. Two junipers have already died. My goal is to save the others. The redcedars can make the sacrifice for nature.

ArborDay Newsletter

The main article in the January/February 2021 issue of ‘Arbor Day’ was “Saving the Monarch Butterflies.” The Arbor Day Foundation is the sponsor of Rain Forest Rescue. Their goal is to restore the habitats of the Monarch’s winter home. Wildfires and illegal logging have already claimed 25% of the small area where the Monarchs reside from November until March.

Across 40 acres, partners to save the Monarch — including Arbor Day Foundation, L’Oreal, International Paper, Land Life Company reforestation experts, Mexican Ministry of Forestry, Ministry of Protected Natural Areas and the World Wildlife Fund — have teamed together to plant 21,666 trees. A single oyamel fir may house 20,000 butterflies from rain and cold. Stephane Rinderknech, president and CEO of L’Oreal said, “The great monarch migration is one of our planet’s most precious natural wonders, and the butterfly is a critical pollinator and the living embodiment of beauty.”

The western US Monarchs overwinter in Monterey pines on the California coast. Smallest population ever counted was this past year. In autumn, our central flyway butterflies flew 50 to 100 miles a day southward, taking advantage of warm air currents. Their trip may have taken eight weeks before reaching the oyamel fir forest living over 8,000 feet high in the Mexican sky.

The Mexican government has set up several small protected sanctuaries at Michoacan Mexico within the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site. As the morning sun heats the forest, the butterflies flutter about, returning to the trees and trunks when the evening cool descends. Dec. 15, 2020, the US Fish and Wildlife Service reported the Monarch has become a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act and is now on their Watch List. Monarch status is to be reviewed each year. Chip Taylor, Monarch Watch, says Monarchs are extremely vulnerable to falling below the extinction threshold (number of butterflies too low for the population to recover) due to loss of habitats and nectar sources, mowing, Mexican winter storms and climbing temperatures in the US.

Did you know there are Monarchs in Hawaii? In the mid 1800s, the Giant Milkweed/Crown Flower (Calotropis gigantea) was introduced from either southern Asia or China. This oriental member of the milkweed family forms an 8 to15 foot tall shrub, produces the usual irritating milky bitter alkaloid sap and cool pale purple or white milkweed blooms. Along the lines of ‘build it they will come’ somehow Danaus plexippus, our American Monarch, found the milkweed in Hawaii. Today orange as well as the white morph Monarchs (Danaus plexippus nivosus) live in the Hawaiian Islands. White Monarchs do occur even in our continental Monarch populations.

Now is the time to plan and prepare your pollinator garden. Buy several milkweeds as well as asters, coneflowers, Joe Pye Weed and other nectar plants. Learn all you can about the Monarch and share your knowledge. Monarchs flutter into Oklahoma the end of March. Observation Period 1 for Monarch Watch begins March 15 in southern latitudes less than 35N. Period 2 starts April 1 for northern latitudes greater than 35N. Shawnee latitude is 35.33. Take your pick and become a Monarch counter. Register at monarchwatch.org/register.

Depending on the position of the sun, the magnetic pull of Earth and the weather, the Monarchs will hopefully return. You might just see a white Monarch!

Becky Emerson Carlberg, graduate of Oklahoma State (Plant Pathology) is a teacher, artist, writer as well as certified Oklahoma Master Gardener and Master Naturalist. Contact her at Becscience@att.net.