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The University of Texas at San Antonio Online Magazine

Of Monarchs & Milkweed

Without the birds and bees and butterflies, many of our food sources would disappear. UTSA experts are now heading up research behind preserving some of our crucial pollinators

By Michelle Mondo

With the cacophony of Interstate 35 traffic as a backdrop, Tyler Seiboldt stands on the side of the freeway with three other UTSA researchers, all scanning the ground. “Three ragweed,” Seiboldt says to the group. “Litter one,” adds Julian Chavez ’15, a research assistant in the environmental science department.

Their seemingly indecipherable utterances are the start of two days’ study of plants along the interstate from San Antonio to Laredo and back again. The goal is to note herbaceous vegetation, dead or alive, but specifically, milkweed. Individual teams document anything significant, including the amount of litter, ragweed, or unknown specimens that are inside a square perimeter. “Yellow bundle one,” Chavez calls out, giving a generic description that the researchers will try to identify later.

The survey is one part of a multifaceted, two-year study examining the Texas milkweed population and how that affects America’s most well-known butterfly—the monarch. But ultimately, the analysis of the two species will highlight whether they need to be protected to save the population as well as important segments of the human food chain.

“We know that milkweed is the baby food for the monarchs; it’s what the eggs and larvae develop on, so it’s critical,” explains Janis Bush, director of UTSA’s environmental science academic programs. “If we want to know something about the monarchs, we definitely have to consider the food source.”

And with a recent petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to get the monarch listed as a federally protected species, the number of people interested in the minutiae of the official state insect of Texas has skyrocketed.

As a pollinator, the monarch is part of the backbone of the human food supply and has joined the bee as a symbol in a global debate about conservation, genetically modified crops, pollution, population, and the climate. “Pollination is not just fascinating natural history,” the U.S. Forest Service says on its website. “It is an essential ecological survival function. Without pollinators, the human race and all of Earth’s terrestrial ecosystems would not survive.”

Evidence shows monarch populations have declined overall, but the reason and whether the decline can be stopped is part of a debate in which UTSA’s research is critical. The results will be sent to the Fish and Wildlife Service to help decide if the monarch should be classified as a threatened species, which would mean protecting habitat and food supply. Given that the monarch’s migration route stretches from Canada to Mexico, hitting America’s Corn Belt and cutting a swath through Texas, where more than 94 percent of land is privately owned, the butterfly’s impact is considerable.

Enter the Texas comptroller’s office, which awarded UTSA a $300,000 grant for milkweed research. In its press release announcing the grant, the comptroller said, “There are economic concerns if the butterfly is listed because many industries important to our state’s economy could be affected, from agriculture to land development to energy production. This crucial research will help us develop voluntary best-management practices to conserve the monarch butterfly while minimizing the impact on economic activity.”

Mix in passionate citizen-scientists with state politics, economics, and agriculture, and the UTSA researchers could find themselves in a pressure cooker. Bush recognizes the politics and the stakes. And she remains clear on her team’s goals—stick to the science, educate through outreach, and maybe even have fun while doing it. “A lot of people don’t understand the importance these pollinators are to our food supply,” she says. “I’m really excited the subject is getting a lot of attention up to a national level. That UTSA can have a hand in this research is very, very exciting.”

Plight of the Pollinators

First, it was the honeybee. A sharp decline in their North American population had scientists raising an alarm. Scholars continue to publish articles about what the loss of bees means, conservationists mobilize, and across continents governments are trying to figure out how much of an impact there has been or could be on the global food supply.

Now, the monarch joins the conversation. As pollinators—an insect or animal that can transfer pollen from plant to plant—monarchs and bees help plants reproduce. Almost 80 percent of the 1,400 crop plants grown around the world require pollination by animals, according to the Forest Service. In the United States, crops that depend on pollinators are worth more than $10 billion a year, according to the agency.

Milkweed growing in a greenhouse on UTSA’s Main Campus illustrates what a dearth of pollinators would mean for farmers. “For those flowers that aren’t self-pollinating, we have to do that artificially; we take a brush, get pollen on the brush, take it to another flower, and put the pollen on that flower,” Bush says. “On a large scale, that’s what pollinators are doing. So we can imagine what impact that would have if we didn’t have them. You can’t have people out there in a huge field of a particular crop taking little camel-hair brushes and pollinating plants one to another.”

Recent studies have shown that over the past 20 years the population of eastern North American migrating monarchs has dropped 90 percent, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. Illegal logging in Mexico, changes in the climate, and destruction of milkweed are all considered contributors. Leaders at the highest levels of government in Canada, the United States, and Mexico have all agreed the problem needs to be addressed. The three countries have created a high-level, interagency working group.

Everyone agrees that Texas plays an important role in sustaining the monarch population because it is the first breeding ground stop in the spring migration after the butterfly leaves Mexico, where they stay for the winter. Yet what effect, if any, the Texas milkweed habitat might have on the declining population of monarchs in North America is difficult to say because there’s a lack of state-specific information. This is where UTSA comes in. Texas has mobilized stakeholders as part of the Texas Parks and Wildlife’s Texas Monarch and Native Pollinator Conservation Plan, which includes the university’s research. The plan states that “the scope of this project and the importance of the topic at hand outlines the necessity for the program at UTSA to partner with federal, state, and nongovernmental agencies to contribute toward the goal of monarch conservation in the U.S.”

A Growing Interest

Alfredo Carbajal opens his notebook and places an unidentified plant between the pages as both Seiboldt and Chavez continue to call out descriptions found in the weeds along the I-35 access road. December graduate Merce Doria rounds out the team—one of two—conducting the first I-35 survey. “I just thought it would be cool and something different,” Carbajal says as he catalogs the plants. “It definitely has its hard parts, but I wanted to have this kind of hands-on experience.” Chavez, Doria, and Carbajal all volunteered to spend their weekend stopping every 10 miles to doc-ument a stretch of highway.

Research associate and project manager Seiboldt says news of the research generated buzz among all levels of students. “We’ve had a lot of people volunteering, and it’s been really great. It’s not just good for the students but also really helpful because it’s a lot of work, especially the roadside surveys.” The first surveys were completed this past fall. In addition to the I-35 route, teams completed surveys on U.S. 281 from Wichita Falls to Alice. They also replicated an east-to-west study done in 1996.

“We are trying to help connect the dots to make sure that if there is an issue with the milkweed population, Texas will be part of the solution and not the problem,” Chavez says. “I personally want my nieces to be able to experience the beauty of the monarch butterfly in nature and to understand the monarch butterfly’s role as a pollinator. When we work together we can achieve so much more and make such a great impact.”

Along with the roadside surveys that are being conducted, the project encompasses the study of seed viability and germination, field experiments, and the greenhouse, which includes the butterfly house Seiboldt and others helped to build. Their first inhabitants came from the wild. In the fall about a dozen bright green chrysalises dotted the butterfly house, and the researchers have already had one generation go through their life cycle. Another has matured to adulthood.

With another year and a half to go, the milkweed project has captivated students, and Bush says there are currently a handful of graduate students focusing on milkweed, which would not have been possible without the grant, partnerships with stakeholders, and support from George Perry, the dean of the College of Science.

“This did really open up a new research agenda and interest for myself and my students,” Bush says.

Building Awareness

On October 31, as Seiboldt and the research teams landed in Alice, the southernmost point for the U.S. 281 roadside survey, just a couple of hours south in Mission, the 20th Annual Texas Butterfly Festival began. Hundreds of butterfly enthusiasts from around the world converged at the National Butterfly Center, a project of the North American Butterfly Association, a nonprofit dedicated to the conservation and study of wild butterflies in their native habitats. The organization also runs the annual butterfly count programs in Canada, the United States, and Mexico with the help of thousands of volunteers.

Violent storms had gone through the area, but the monarchs waited it out. Afterward, the last stragglers to head to Mexico for the winter traveled through. The center’s director, Marianna Treviño-Wright, says there weren’t as many monarchs overall this season as in years past. “There would be big plumes of butterflies, clouds of them,” she says. But this year “the volume has not been here.”

The center is one of those statewide partners that work with the federal government to help the monarch make it to and from Mexico. They have planted hundreds of native plants for all kinds of pollinators and have become a model for those who want to expand into educational efforts to raise awareness. They also have fall and spring nectar for all butterflies. And of course, there is community education, something Treviño-Wright believes grows more important every day as people become more sheltered from the natural environment.

For many devotees at the festival—and there was no shortage of opinions on saving pollinators—the interest in the monarch was deemed too narrow, with one participant even describing monarchs as the “least interesting” butterfly. Yet everyone could agree that the conservation and awareness efforts surrounding the monarch could only help a broader swath of butterflies and other pollinators. There was something to be said about rallying behind a mascot, and the monarch had certainly become one, they agreed.

“When you have a species that crosses borders, the conservation becomes an issue for a lot of different entities,” Bush says. “We have Mexico, the United States, and Canada. Conserving a species that crosses international borders brings us together. It’s exciting for me and UTSA that we are at the forefront.”

UTSA's Look at Monarchs and Milkweed

In their study of milkweed and monarch butterfly populations, university researchers are looking at these key areas:

Super Mon

Amazing feats and great mysteries of the monarch butterfly

Considered a biological phenomenon, the monarch’s year-long migration cycle is completed in five stages over four generations of offspring. One of the great mysteries is how a butterfly born in the United States—that is four generations removed from its ancestor that previously lived in Mexico—even knows it should fly south for the winter as well as how to get to the same location year after year. Here’s a glimpse into the monarch’s migration.

Source: UTSA and U.S. Forest Service

A UTSA team conducts a survey along I-35 to track the growth of milkweed, the main habitat for monarchs to lay eggs and for their offspring to feed.
A larval monarch strips the leaves of a milkweed plant, eating its way to adulthood, in the butterfly enclosure, located in a greenhouse on Main Campus.


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