Thursday 27 December 2018

Everybody’s Talking About American Monarch Butterflies

American Monarchs are in the news

Male Monarch Butterfly, Female Monarch (Photos: Steve Andrews)

Every time the Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) makes the news it is the latest on the iconic insect’s struggles in America, where it has migrated in billions from Canada and the northern states down to California and Mexico each autumn. Over the past decade there have been reports of the butterfly’s alarming decline, due to habitat loss, pesticides, herbicides, disease and climate change. Modern farming using the herbicide Roundup (Glyphosate) on maize and soya-bean crops, is eliminating the once common milkweed species that grew in farmlands throughout the United States.  Legal and illegal felling of trees in Mexico in areas where the monarch overwintered is another big problem.

A disease known as “OE,” which is the abbreviation for Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, a protozoan parasite, takes its toll on the butterflies causing severe weakness, and cripples with deformed wings that do not live long. Some butterflies are so weak they fail to be able to emerge from their chrysalises, others that do die shortly after. It appears that OE is widely distributed among all Monarch populations. The microscopic spores are spread from infected adult butterflies onto the leaves of milkweed plants. Caterpillars that eat them become infected. OE is not a threat to other types of butterfly apart from other species in the Danaus genus.

It is very distressing to see how badly Monarch butterflies have been doing in recent years, and there is even talk of the butterfly being threatened with extinction.

Saving the Monarch

Conservationists and concerned citizens of America have been doing all they can to halt the decline in Monarchs and to help the butterfly survive in great numbers again. One of the main methods being used is the cultivation of milkweed (Asclepias) species. Many people have taken to growing these plants and rearing the butterflies in captivity by keeping, eggs, caterpillars and chrysalises indoors or in protective enclosures. The idea is to keep them safe from predators, such as wasps.

Tropical Milkweed (Photo: Steve Andrews)

The problem with these methods is that one of the most commonly grown milkweeds known as Tropical Milkweed (A. curassavica) is a non-native species that is suited to tropical and subtropical areas. With warmer weather due to climate change it is being grown in many places where once it would not have survived. It can cause a very real problem because it can build up large numbers of OE spores and become a source of infection. This happens in places like Florida where it is warm enough for the plant to grow all year around. This also means that Monarchs can continue to breed in such areas and will not have any need to fly elsewhere. Many scientists and Monarch conservation and research groups, such as the Xerces Society, are recommending that only native milkweeds should be grown. This is good advice. There are many species of Asclepias that grow in all zones of North America and right up into Canada. These plants die down for the winter and resume growth again the following year. These native species do not allow the build-up of OE on them. These endemic milkweeds encourage the Monarchs to migrate because it means that late in the year there are no food-plants available for the females to lay their eggs on. It was all working really well until humans interfered by destroying milkweeds with herbicide and then, in an effort to help, by growing a plant not native to the north American states. The Tropical Milkweed is getting a bad name but the reason is due to the very real problems it can cause in America. However, in some places there is no other choice!

Elsewhere in the World

Female Monarch on Balloonplant (Photo: Steve Andrews)

Monarchs live in non-migratory populations in many other parts of the world, including the Canary Islands, Portugal, Spain, New Zealand and Australia. In these countries there are no native milkweeds, and indeed, the butterflies have only been able to colonise large areas due to the prevalence of the introduced Tropical Milkweed and two other plants that were formerly in the Asclepias genus. The Balloonplant (Gomphocarpus physocarpus) and the Swan Milkweed (G. fruticosus) are naturalised in all the places named above and are both used as Monarch caterpillar food-plants.

Female Monarch returns to my garden to lay eggs on Tropical Milkweed

I lived in Tenerife in the Canary islands for nine years, and it was there that I started successfully rearing Monarchs. I fed the caterpillars on Tropical Milkweed, which is the only milkweed found on the island, apart from very occasional specimens of the Gomphocarpus species. It is because the Tropical Milkweed was brought to the island as an ornamental garden flower that Monarchs were able to colonise Tenerife, where it is said they were first seen back in 1887. How they reached the islands is uncertain. Now that Monarchs are on Tenerife, they have no need for migration because, although it gets plenty of snow and ice up on Mt Teide, around the coasts and in the south, the temperatures remain warm enough for Tropical Milkweed to keep growing and the butterflies to keep breeding. The situation is similar in parts of mainland Spain and Portugal where this non-native milkweed has been grown in gardens and where the Gomphocarpus species have become naturalised.

Monarch Butterflies in Portugal
Recently eclosed Monarchs (Photo: Steve Andrews)

I have lived in Portugal for the past four years, and this year I was successful in rearing four generations of Monarchs with the caterpillars feeding on plants of Tropical Milkweed and Balloonplant I managed to grow enough of in the garden here. I had at least 30 butterflies each time. The last lot of adult butterflies emerged in late November but where they went I have no way of knowing. I have cut what was left of the milkweeds down to short stalks so if any females came back they would have found nowhere to lay their eggs. I originally obtained eggs from someone I know who has a butterfly farm up in Aveiro further north. He tells me there are no Monarchs there in winter and he gets his eggs sent up each year from the Algarve. According to As Borboletas De Portugal, a Portuguese butterfly book I have, along with the Algarve, the northern coastal city of Aveiro, is one of the only places that Monarchs can be found in the country. Is this because of the butterfly farmer I know there, or are there naturally occurring wild ones, and how did they get there? I have been told that the butterflies can sometimes be seen in the Lisbon area too. Where did they come from? Did they migrate from the south? I often wonder what happens in winter. Do any Monarchs go south here to the Algarve where there are non-migratory populations or do all the butterflies in central and northern parts, such as the ones I released, simply live short lives and fail to breed due to the cold weather and lack of food-plants. There is very little information available online or in books about the behaviour of Monarchs in Portugal and Spain, and indeed in Europe. Is anyone else studying these butterflies here apart from me? Google for information on Monarchs and most of the results are about those in America.

I have had the idea that the non-migratory resident Monarch populations, wherever they are worldwide, are forming a genetic reservoir of the species. If its migratory populations ever do become extinct, the species could be reintroduced by moving some from the resident colonies elsewhere.

The Wanderer

I have wondered whether as climate change causes milder winters would the butterflies colonise other more northerly countries if the non-native food-plants grew in sufficient numbers there? Would any Monarchs eventually evolve into a migratory form like their American cousins? A very small number of Monarchs reach the UK some years but are unable to breed due to lack of any type of milkweed growing there and are unable to survive the cold winters. But the fact that they got there at all reveals their wandering nature, which is why an alternative name for the Monarch Butterfly is the Wanderer.

Monday 16 July 2018

Salisbury Wildlife and the Avon Valley Nature Reserve

Visiting Salisbury

I recently had the pleasure of visiting the city of Salisbury in Wiltshire for a few days and fell in love with the place. I was happy to see that wildlife is thriving here, despite increasing declines in species throughout much of the UK.

Cinnabar Moth caterpillars (Photo: Steve Andrews)

Even in the heart of the city I spotted Cinnabar Moth (Tyria jacobaeae) caterpillars on Ragwort. There were plenty of these brightly-coloured caterpillars on plants growing on the riverbank right by the Waitrose supermarket. These larvae have orange bodies, banded with black rings. The adult moth is also a very pretty creature with red and black wings. It flies by day and could easily be thought to be a butterfly. This moths caterpillars eat various species of Ragwort and Groundsel (Senecio species). Although these plants are classed as weeds they are very important sources of life for many additional species, in addition to the caterpillars of the Cinnabar Moth. The Buglife charity, which is concerned with the conservation of invertebrates, has reported that over 30 other species of insect depend on Ragwort alone.

Avon Valley Local Nature Reserve

King Arthur Pendragon, Kazz and Chris Stone (Photo: Steve Andrews)

I was in Britain for Summer Solstice at Stonehenge and also visiting my friends, author Chris Stone, and Druid and eco-warrior King Arthur Pendragon and his partner Kazz. Arthur and Kazz live locally and they suggested we could go on a walk in the nature reserve that is on the banks of the River Avon. I love nature, so was happy to agree to their suggestion, and was very highly impressed with what I saw.

River Avon (Photo: Steve Andrews)

The River Avon looked really clean and there were very many fish that could easily be seen swimming in the current. I spotted Brown Trout (Salmo trutta), Minnows (Phoxinus phoxinus), and what looked like Dace (Leuciscus leuciscus).

A Shoal of Fish (Photo: Steve Andrews)

Meadowsweet (Photo: Steve Andrews)

There are extensive water meadows bordering the river too, and in the marshy ground was plenty of Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) in bloom. It has a most amazing perfume that reminds of summer meadows and freshly mown grass, and is a most beautiful herb that is actually in the rose family (Rosaceae).

As well as Meadowsweet, there  were plenty of Creeping Thistles (Cirsium arvense) in flower, and also the very poisonous, but attractive to insect pollinators, Hemlock Water Dropwort (Oenanthe crocata). Kazz spotted a colourful moth feeding on the nectar from this dangerous plant, and she asked me what it was. It was a Scarlet Tiger Moth (Callimorpha dominula), a pretty moth that flies by day, and is of interest because it is unusual for being able to feed. Most other species of tiger moths have no mouth-parts and do all their feeding as larvae.

Scarlet Tiger Moth (Photo: Steve Andrews)

On the thistles I saw several Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae) butterflies. This was a good sign because this once common species has been declining fast in the UK over the past few years. There were plenty of clumps of Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) growing nearby, and this is its main food-plant for its caterpillars.

Small Tortoiseshell on Thistle (Photo: Steve Andrews)

Water Voles 

Avon Valley Info Board (Photo: Steve Andrews)

Near a bridge over the Avon there was an information board showing species of wildlife that can be found on the reserve. I was happy to see the Water Vole (Arvicola amphibious) included. This is a British mammal that has become increasingly rare, so it was very good news to see that it is holding its own here. Kingfishers (Alcedo atthis) too frequent the area I learned, and I was not surprised, because it is an ideal habitat with plenty of small fish they can hunt.

Elsewhere in Salisbury

Steve Andrews in Salisbury

 I also went for an evening stroll with Chris around Salisbury and around the area outside Salisbury Cathedral. The atmosphere was calm and peaceful and it was a glorious summer evening. I was really impressed with how there was no litter to be seen, no graffiti, and no damage to trees of the city, unlike elsewhere in the UK, where trees are being felled with the support of local councils. How is it that Salisbury doesn’t appear to have the problems other towns and cities have I wondered? “I would love to live in Salisbury,” I told Chris. “I think you will find properties here are very expensive,” he told me. He also pointed out that Salisbury is a Tory stronghold, and suggested that might have something to do with how it is there. He was right that houses and flats in the city are very expensive to buy and rent, and also that the Conservative party is in power there.

In no way do I support the Tories, but it got me thinking about how it seems that it is mostly Labour councils that are behind the destruction of so many city trees in Britain. For example, this is the case in Sheffield, a city that has made world news with regard to the thousands of trees that have been felled there by Amey Plc with the support of Labour politicians. I haven’t done the research yet but I wonder how many cities have lost their street trees due to corrupt Labour councillors?

Monday 2 July 2018

Walking in the Wentloog Levels Where Wetlands Meet the Sea

Wentloog Levels aka the Gwent Levels are a Wildlife Haven

Marshfield (Photo: Steve Andrews)

I recently went on an epic 7-hour walk in the Wentloog Levels, starting off in the aptly named Marshfield I went to St. Brides where I followed a road to a Welsh Coastal path along the sea wall. I was revisiting an area of important wetlands that lie to the east of Cardiff and extend to the outskirts of Newport. Also known as the Gwent Levels the area bears a resemblance to the Netherlands because it is flat land reclaimed from the sea and traversed by drainage dykes, which are locally called “reens.”

A Reen (Photo: Steve Andrews)

Rare Species

The Wentloog Levels are of great importance because of the amazing variety of species of flora and fauna that live here, some of which including the Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus), the Musk Beetle (Aromia moschata), the Water Vole (Arvicola terrestris) and the Flowering Rush (Butomus umbellatus) are nowadays regarded as rare and declining species. They depend on wetlands such as these for their continued survival. The Great Silver Water Beetle (Hydrophilus piceus) is a very rare but magnificent aquatic insect that is known to occur in reens, ditches, ponds and lakes in this area.

Where Elvers would congregate (Photo: Steve Andrews)

I used to come to Marshfield and the Wentloog Levels as a boy. My father used to bring the family here in his car, and I well remember seeing millions of elvers, the young form of the now Critically Endangered European Eel (Anguilla anguilla) making their way up the reens and climbing and slithering in masses over obstructions caused by sluice gates regulating the water flow and depth. I also remember catching the Ten-Spined Stickleback (Pungitius pungitius) in the reens. They are still there today, I am pleased to report, as are the aquatic plants Frogbit (Hydrocharis morsus-ranae) and Arrowhead (Sagittaria sagittifolia), the first of which resembles a mini-water lily with rounded floating foliage, and the second plant gets its name from its arrow-shaped leaves. Both of these wildflowers have attractive white flowers, and it was good to see them again in the weedy drainage dykes.

Frogbit (Photo: Steve Andrews)

Arrowhead (Photo: Steve Andrews)

The Seawall and Coastal Path

Seawall and mudflats (Photo: Steve Andrews)

The coastal path has a strong seawall that divides the reclaimed wetlands from the mudflats and tidal waters of the Severn Estuary. Here you will find large patches of saltmarsh, and I stopped to have a look in some of the shallow brackish creeks and muddy pools.

Brackish water where many crustaceans live (Photo: Steve Andrews)

Here I saw plenty of small prawns, shrimps and the occasional crab. These crustaceans survive here waiting for the waters to be replenished by a high tide or rainfall. Interesting plants of the saltmarsh included Sea Lavender (Limonium vulgare) and Sea Arrowgrass (Triglochin maritimum).

Sea Lavender (Photo: Steve Andrews)


On the grassy bank with the seawall at the top and a very long reen at the bottom there were very many Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina) butterflies, and I was pleased to see this species seems to be still holding its own, while many other British butterflies are known to be declining fast.

Small Tortoiseshell caterpillar web (Photo: Steve Andrews)

Earlier on, I was glad to see evidence of Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae) caterpillars that had spun a web over some nettles. The adults of this pretty butterfly were once very common all over the UK, but this is no longer the case. Another once common but now declining species is the Small Heath (Coenonympha pamphilus), and I was happy to see one of these whilst walking the coastal path.

Birds of the Gwent Levels

The Wentloog Levels and the saltmarsh of the estuary are ideal habitats for many birds. Reed warblers (Acrocephalus scirpaceus) and Common Reed Buntings (Emberiza schoeniclus) can often be heard singing and the abundant reed-beds of the wetlands are just what these little birds need. I heard and saw a pair of Skylarks (Alauda arvensis). This is yet another species that has been becoming a lot less in numbers throughout Britain, mainly due to habitat destruction and changes in farming.

Notice Board (Photo: Steve Andrews)

A notice board by the seawall called attention to some of the now rare bird species that make the saltmarsh their homes. The Curlew (Numenius arquata) and the Lapwing are two waders that can be found here.

Saltmarsh (Photo: Steve Andrews)

Both were once common but both now have the Near Threatened conservation status. The notice board calls for "Respect for the locals" and asks people to keep dogs under control, and to stay off the saltmarsh where these birds feed and breed.

Private Shooting sign (Photo: Steve Andrews)

I saw another sign that showed that wildfowl shooting was once practiced here, and it was a grim reminder of another way we have lost so many birds.

Coot (Photo: Steve Andrews)

Still common water-birds I encountered on my walk were Moorhens (Gallinula chloropus) and Coots (Fulica atra), swimming on the weedy waterways and ponds.

After many hours of enjoyable but tiring walking in the hot June sunshine, eventually, I found a pathway that led to a main road near the Lamby Way landfill tip on the outskirts of Cardiff. I thought it was interesting to see how nature was doing so well right next to this rubbish dump.

Save The Gwent Levels

Elsewhere, to the south of Newport, the Gwent Levels are threatened by a proposed motorway being built at fantastic cost, not just financially at an estimated £1.5 billion of taxpayers money, but to the very fragile ecosystem of the area it is intended to cut through. The road, if built, will go through five sites of special scientific interest or SSSIs. Welsh naturalist and TV personality Iolo Williams is one of many people trying to stop this madness. He describes the sites as “Jewels in the Welsh crown.” Find out more about the campaign to Save The Levels and help halt this before it is too late! Take action by supporting and spreading the word about CALM (Campaign Against the Levels Motorway).

Sunday 10 June 2018

Home Grown Exotics

Grow exotic houseplants from fruit and vegetables bought from the greengrocer

There are many fruit and vegetables we can easily buy at the greengrocer’s or the fruit and veg section of the local supermarket, that can be grown as unusual and exotic houseplants.

Pineapple flower

Homegrown Pineapples

The pineapple (Ananas comosus) is one of the best tropical fruits to try growing at home and with a bit of care it will even produce fruit.

I speak from experience, because many years ago when I was still living in Cardiff, I made the HTV News at Christmas with my homegrown pineapple. I was filmed watering my pineapple plant and talking about how I had cultivated it. I said I used soil from the back garden and water from the tap, and that I repotted it when the plant got too big for the pot it was in, but that was all I did. An expert from the Welsh National Botanical Centre praised my achievement, and I was proclaimed as the first Welsh pineapple grower.

All you need to do to follow my example, is to twist the spiky rosette part off from the top of a pineapple, and then remove the leaves at the base to leave a stump. Leave this to dry for a few days before planting by pushing gently into a pot of damp compost. If you are in luck, there may already be tiny roots sprouting from this stump before you plant it.

Once well-rooted the pineapple will grow into a large rosette of spiky leaves and after a few years, all going well, it will produce a flowering stalk right in the centre. Mine took five years to flower but that was in a house with no central heating in Wales! The tiny flowers are a pretty lavender shade and surrounded by reddish spiky bracts.

After the pineapple has ripened and been removed side shoots will form on the main stem. These can be removed for further pineapple propagation or if left on the original plant long enough, they can flower and produce a second crop. I managed to grow another pineapple like this.

Taro or Inhame

The taro (Colocasia esculenta)  is a root vegetable that is sold as “inhame” in Portugal, and ├▒ame” in Spain and the Canary Islands. The corms are cooked by baking, roasting or boiling, but what many people do not realise is that if planted these corms will produce a most attractive houseplant if given the chance. In fact, the taro is often grown as an ornamental plant known as “elephant’s ears.” It gets this name because it has large heart-shaped leaves.

Elephant's Ears

The taro likes a very damp compost and will grow submerged. You can often see these plants growing in fountains and water gardens. I have grown taro in a pot of compost I stood in a bucket of water.


Steve Andrews in the South Wales Echo

You can grow kiwifruit (Actinidia deliciosa) vines from seeds from kiwis you have bought. It takes a long time for the plants to grow big enough to produce flowers and fruit but it can be done. I managed this when I was living in Wales still and followed up my pineapple story in the local media with my success at harvesting kiwifruit in my back garden. I admit it took five years before I had any fruit on my vines but I felt a real sense of achievement when I had my first crop of seven kiwifruit and my picture in the South Wales Echo. If I can grow kiwis in Cardiff, think how much better they would do here in Iberia!


Avocado Tree

The avocado (Persea americana) is another fruit that can be easily grown. Just plant the large pits in a pot of compost and wait for them to sprout. Many people think you need special techniques for getting them to germinate but I have never found this to be the case. Simply burying a pit in a pot of damp soil has worked for me.  Your homegrown avocado will make an interesting houseplant when it is young and can be moved outside in Iberia when it gets bigger. Eventually it will form a large tree.



Another easy plant to grow is ginger (Zingiber officinale). This root vegetable is commonly used as a spice for curries and other hot dishes, and in herbal teas. Fresh ginger roots or rhizomes are easy to find in supermarkets. They will often start sprouting green shoots when in storage, almost as if they are inviting you to plant them!

All you need to do is to break off sections and plant them in a pot of compost. The shoots will take a few weeks to really sprout but will then keep growing into a plant with long narrow leaves. You can harvest your first crop of ginger later the same year, and fresh ginger you have grown yourself is so much fresher than the ginger you can buy.

There are many more fruits and vegetables that will grow from seeds, pips or roots of shop-bought produce.  Why not see what you can get to sprout? It can be a lot of fun finding out what can be grown and what the plants actually look like!

NB: The text for this article was originally published in Mediterranean Gardening & Outdoor Living Magazine, Issue 22, February 2016.