Mayors for Monarchs

While most people throughout the Brazos Valley were busy in early December making preparations for the rapidly-approaching holiday season, Texas A&M Center for Mathematics and Science Education (CSME) researcher Dr. Craig Wilson was having visions of greater numbers of Monarch butterflies in his head, thanks to timely assists across Aggieland, from mayors to general citizenry.

Read more in Wilson’s own words regarding his holiday wish that’s now coming true, courtesy of College Station Mayor Nancy Berry and Bryan Mayor Jason Bienski and their respective pledges to work with Wilson and within their blended community to help save a global Monarch population in decline.

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monarch

“I pledge. …” I most often hear these words when I am standing inside a classroom in a school somewhere and The Pledge of Allegiance of the United States of America is being recited first thing in the morning by a teacher and students, each facing a flag in their classroom, a hand over the heart. This is an expression of allegiance to a flag (Colonel George Balch, 1887).

But now, I am hoping to hear an additional pledge (National Wildlife Federation, 2015) spoken. It is a pledge that requires action on the part of mayors and citizens throughout these United States, united in an effort to save the annual migration of the Monarch butterfly (Danaus Plexippus) from the state of Michoacán in Mexico to the Midwest states, northernmost states and on to Canada. This is achieved in three-to-four generations as the migrating Monarchs arrive in the spring from Mexico, funneling through the critical milkweed habitat that is Texas, lay their eggs on milkweed plants and die. The offspring mature and fly north to Oklahoma and Kansas, lay eggs and die. The next generation will repeat this effort, reproduce and die.

It is the fourth generation on which the species pins its hopes, for they must multiply magnificently. The adults must feed voraciously on nectar to build up fat reserves. The adults must enter sexual diapause before a mass migration is triggered in late fall, at which point they head south to Mexico. Each butterfly has the ability to fly the 2,000 miles to reach the state of Michoacán, an area they have never been. It is an area that their great grandparents left in the spring as part of the largest insect migration in the world — a migration that is under threat. It is a miracle of a migration.

It will take a miracle to sustain it. The Monarch population used to number 1 billion in the early 1990s. There has been a precipitous decline to 33 million in 2013, recovering slightly to 57 million in 2014 and, optimistically, to 100 million in 2015. The main cause is lack of milkweed, which is the only food source for the nascent Monarch caterpillars. It is critical that habitat is restored or created where milkweeds and other wildflowers that serve as nectar sources for all butterfly species, bees and other pollinators will thrive. That is where the Mayors’ Monarch Pledge comes into play. The mayors who sign do so, agreeing to take specific actions. Actions speak louder than words. You can learn more about those here.

Texas A&M researcher and longtime butterfly enthusiast Dr. Craig Wilson, pictured with a tagged Monarch butterfly within his U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)-sponsored People's Garden, located across the street from College Station's Wolf Pen Creek Park. (Credit: Craig Wilson.)

Texas A&M researcher and longtime butterfly enthusiast Dr. Craig Wilson, pictured with a tagged Monarch butterfly within his U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)-sponsored People’s Garden, located across the street from College Station’s Wolf Pen Creek Park. (Credit: Craig Wilson.)

It was to that end that I led a group of delegates to bring the Monarch Pledge to the attention of Mayor Nancy Berry of College Station, Texas. Mayor Berry and David Schmitz, director of the Parks and Recreation Department, made a receptive audience. They were willing to be educated in the biology of both the Monarch butterfly and of native Texas milkweed species of which there are about 30, the more common in the wild being Antelope Horn (Asclepias asperula) and Green Milkweed (Asclepias viridis). The two species most often found in private gardens are Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) and Tropical Milkweed (Asclepias Curassavica), the latter needing to be cut back in the fall before the Monarchs migrate through the Brazos Valley.

Mayor Berry listened, then questioned both the delegation and Mr. Schmitz to decide upon the feasibility of acting on the actions recommended. Then she took action. She will sign the Mayors’ Monarch Pledge. She will issue “a proclamation to raise awareness about the decline of the Monarch butterfly and the species’ need for habitat” on January 28, 2016, at the scheduled City Council meeting. Because of Mayor Berry’s enthusiastic support, College Station will be joining 48 other mayors to date nationwide who have stepped up and said, “I pledge. …”

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Mayors’ Monarch Pledge Delegation Members

  • Dr. Craig Wilson, Monarch enthusiast, USDA Future Scientists Program Director and Senior Research Associate, Center for Mathematics and Science Education (CMSE), College of Science, Texas A&M University
  • Ms. Ann Boehm, a concerned citizen (I prefer the term proactive citizen) passionate about environmental preservation
  • Dr. Christine Merlin, Assistant Professor of Biology and Monarch researcher, Texas A&M University
  • Dwight Bohlmeyer, Master Naturalist and Program Manager, Salter Farm Educational Research (SaFER) Program, Institute for Quantum Science and Engineering, Texas A&M University
  • Charla Anthony, Brazos County Horticulturalist and Master Gardener Coordinator, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension
A newly-emerged Monarch, testing its wings in Dr. Craig Wilson's College Station-based USDA office, which features many treasures, including a stuffed sloth from Brazil visible at top left of frame. "It was gifted to me by a friend who received it 50 years ago from an old sea captain (pirate!)," Wilson said. "I keep it close by me to remind me what happens when one is slothful." (Credit: Craig Wilson.)

A newly-emerged Monarch, testing its wings in Dr. Craig Wilson’s College Station-based USDA office, which features many treasures, including a stuffed sloth from Brazil visible at top left of frame. “It was gifted to me by a friend who received it 50 years ago from an old sea captain (pirate!),” Wilson said. “I keep it close by me to remind me what happens when one is slothful.” (Credit: Craig Wilson.)

Expanding Y[our] Horizons

Texas A&M Center for Mathematics and Science Education (CSME) researcher Dr. Craig Wilson has made a career out of science education, outreach and inquiry, inspiring countless school children across this state and nation to learn more about math and science and the many related possibilities through hands-on projects and presentations.

This past Saturday, he made his third consecutive appearance at Expanding Your Horizons, an all-day, workshop-structured conference for 6th grade girls intended to open new doors of interest and opportunity while also encouraging them to stay actively involved in math and science. Beyond making them aware of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) career opportunities, the annual event also provides the girls with a chance to meet female role models in related fields.

For his part, Craig says he learns as much as he teaches — typical, given the astute observer and encourager that he is. As the ultimate lifelong learner, he has agreed to share his educational observations via the Texas A&M Science blog in hopes of inspiring a broader audience if not horizon.

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Texas A&M Center for Mathematics and Science Education (CMSE) research scientist Craig Wilson makes science simple for his "Expanding Your Horizons" audience by outlining his proven two-step method: observe and ask questions. (Credit: Chris Jarvis.)

Texas A&M Center for Mathematics and Science Education (CMSE) research scientist Craig Wilson makes science simple for his Expanding Your Horizons audience by outlining his proven two-step method: observe and ask questions. (Credit: Chris Jarvis.)

Expanding Your Horizons . . . better known by its acronym “EYH.” You might imagine an expansive horizon, the sun sinking in the west with a myriad of colors filling the sky before darkness descends. A lone rider is riding away into that sunset in silhouette. Who is the rider? From our infatuation with Westerns, one assumes it is a cowboy. But why not a cowgirl? Perhaps it is she who has just saved The West? Why not?

EYH is designed to change that mindset from both without and within. The “Your” refers to 6th grade girls. The “Horizons” is not girls seeing a sunset but seeing science as a possible career. The “Expanding” is encouraging and helping them to look up, to look out and to look above and beyond. Just as the Orion spacecraft is looking to one day take humans to Mars, to break the shackles of low-Earth orbit where we have been trapped since 1972, so it is that EYH wants to help girls to go in science where too few girls have gone before.

In addition to being a man of many travels, Wilson boasts as rich a collection of stories as he does related props, including this preserved sample of elephant dung -- a souvenir from time spent in Africa. (Credit: Chris Jarvis.)

In addition to being a man of many travels, Wilson boasts as rich a collection of stories as he does related props, including this preserved sample of elephant dung — a souvenir from time spent in Africa. (Credit: Chris Jarvis.)

According to the Census Bureau’s 2009 American Community Survey, women comprise 48 percent of the U.S. workforce but just 24 percent of workers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. Why is that? These girls know nothing of this, although their parents might. There are various theories, but that is unimportant on this particular Saturday. The question to be asked is, “Why have these young girls come today?” I did not ask, but I suspect that it may be because of parental interest, for each has to come with a chaperone. They have to be brought to the College of Science on the Texas A&M University campus, and 153 have made it today. This is good, because this means that their parents see this as important. They are giving their girls options. They are helping to expand their daughters’ horizons.

Today, what do the girls look like? They look interested. They look interesting. They look like potential scientists. I start my first session. They do not sit back and spectate. They participate. This is good, because this is half the battle. The other half is for them to ask questions. This is difficult, because this is not easy for girls or boys. It used to be second nature. It came naturally when they were younger. It is in the nature of scientists to inquire, to observe and to then ask questions about what they have seen. That is the way science is done, and I try to model that and have the girls see that science is much more than book learning. It is about active engagement. It can be fun. But they have to see that it is important and that they can do it as well as if not better than anyone else.

Wilson explained that peanuts are a standard astronaut snack in space because they are compact and provide lots of energy. EYH participants learned how to calculate a peanut's calorific value by setting fire to it, heating a paper cup of water in the process. (Credit: Chris Jarvis.)

Wilson explained that peanuts are a standard astronaut snack in space because they are compact and provide lots of energy. EYH participants learned how to calculate a peanut’s calorific value by setting fire to it, heating a paper cup of water in the process. (Credit: Chris Jarvis.)

I run three sessions. At the end of each, I am encouraged. These girls have what it takes. They have the right stuff to become scientists. Sadly, not enough girls or boys see it that way. We are not getting enough students to pursue science in college. The STEM fields need them. The world needs them.

The world needs answers. She is beset by problems. We need problem solvers to step up and help her. Why not these girls? They have stepped up today. They have given up a Saturday for science. Today, they have expanded their minds. They have seen that they are not alone. Each has taken a small step for a girl but a giant leap towards a scientific horizon that they may have thought was beyond their reach.

This Texas A&M College of Science program is a small step in the right direction. It tells each girl, “You can EYH.” Yours and ours.

Learning

The Graceful Monarch

What a difference a year makes. Consider the following essay, sent to me one year ago to the day by Texas A&M Center for Mathematics and Science Education (CMSE) researcher and Monarch butterfly enthusiast Dr. Craig Wilson:

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“We are under attack!”

This is not Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on the morning of December 7, 1941, but rather College Station, Texas, on the morning of October 15, 2014. The incoming waves are not Japanese warplanes but Monarch butterflies. The colors are not those of the Rising Sun — red and white — but the unmistakable orange, black and white markings that set the Monarch apart as our most recognizable and beloved butterfly and the Texas state insect.

(Credit: Dwight Bohlmeyer, Texas A&M Institute for Quantum Science and Engineering.)

(Credit: Dwight Bohlmeyer, Texas A&M Institute for Quantum Science and Engineering.)

Looking east, they appear as if by magic out of the risen sun. ‘Poof’ — one appears. ‘Poof’ — another — and ‘poof’ — another! As you scan the horizon one moment, the sky is empty until, seemingly out of nowhere in the next magical moment, ‘poof’ — the next wave announces its arrival. It is more of a ripple than a wave, as they appear in ones or twos. But the tide is building, and one has hopes for a butterfly tsunami.

Am I being too optimistic? The sad stories of the precipitous decline in the number of Monarchs has seen pessimism take hold, and it is hard to shake. Yet here, borne upon morning’s first rays, is a glimmer of hope. The sun shimmers off the diaphanous wings, their colors enhanced by the combination of sunlight passing through them and the reflective, refractive capacity of wing scales that serve to protect them like the roof shingles they resemble.

(Credit: Dwight Bohlmeyer, Texas A&M Institute for Quantum Science and Engineering.)

(Credit: Dwight Bohlmeyer, Texas A&M Institute for Quantum Science and Engineering.)

They float up and over the USDA People’s Garden as if drawn by some Svengali. However, one should not associate the Monarchs with evil. The indigenous peoples of the Monarchs’ homeland in the state of Michoacan, Mexico, have, since time immemorial, considered the returning butterflies to be the souls of their deceased relatives returning to Earth. The butterflies’ arrival coincides with the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). They are honored with feasts, celebrations and elaborate ofrendas (offerings). It is a time of celebration, and it feels like that today at the USDA office, where even many of those working diligently inside are drawn outside to be a part of this spectacle.

Scientists know that the Monarchs are following a time-honored path. But what are the triggers for one of the world’s greatest and longest insect migrations? To help contribute to that research, I net six Monarchs and donate them to a research lab on the Texas A&M campus, where they will be used to improve the genetic diversity of the live lab colony of Monarchs. I have fellow observers tag and release several more as part of a citizen scientist project to learn more of the migration routes and timetable.

A nest of Monarchs.

A nest of Monarchs.

I lose count of the number flying by. I am up to 150, but there were many more that I missed. I only saw a total of 12 last spring when the grandparents of these butterflies had passed through Texas en route to their breeding grounds in the Midwest and Canada, where conditions this year appear to have favored good reproduction rates despite loss of habitat and reduced acreage of milkweed plants that nourish their caterpillar progeny.

Anecdotal reports of these increases had reached me and then, in a rare coincidence, a giant swarm of migrating Monarchs resembling a giant butterfly showed up on radar for a short time on the afternoon of Friday, September 19, 2014. The suspicion was that these were hundreds of Monarchs flying at between 5,000 and 6,000 feet, heading south over Southern Illinois and Central Missouri, the radar signals suggesting that the ‘targets’ were flapping, flat and biological. It is entirely plausible that the Monarchs we see today were part of that swarm.

(Credit: U.S. National Weather Service.)

(Credit: U.S. National Weather Service.)

I watch as some of my transient friends settle on a false willow to rest, feed and recharge with nectar alongside a myriad of honey bees. All seems right with the world. The Monarchs have uplifted our souls.

I feel liberated and not under attack in the least.

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When I emailed Craig yesterday in present time in the hope that another inundation was underway across Aggieland, he informed me that sadly wasn’t the case. “The Monarchs have been pushed west by easterlies, so more are in Colorado than usual,” he said. “The southerly winds have prevented them moving south. But this Northern cold front should help push them south now. I saw three yesterday at my Holleman Drive garden.”

All is not locally lost, however. Craig reports that students from Texas A&M biologist Dr. Christine Merlin’s research group helped plant milkweed at three Bryan elementary schools — Johnson (3rd grade), Henderson (5th grade) and Mary Branch (5th grade) — in their school gardens as part of a National Science Foundation grant she has for which he contributes the outreach component. In addition, Craig says he has 80 Mary Branch 5th graders coming to study in his USDA People’s Garden on October 27 — a day on which he has high hopes for catching and tagging at least one Monarch.

Much like Monarchs, I hear hope floats. Sure is pretty in slow motion, as seen in this video produced by fellow land-grant institution University of Minnesota:

All In a Day’s Work

To know Texas A&M Center for Mathematics and Science Education (CMSE) researcher Dr. Craig Wilson is to love him — if not for his genuine passion and absolute gift for scientific knowledge, inquiry and outreach, then for his entertaining stories in pursuit of the aforementioned. Here’s one that he shared last week with several people in the Texas A&M Science Dean’s Office, most of whom know a thing or two about spending time in close quarters with both Craig and his cockroaches. Let’s just say it’s better to be hissing than missing!

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The university media specialist (by his own admission a non-scientist) was spending half a day with us to learn and write about the Future Scientists Program. He had been taking all manner of photos, including many of the teachers using the digital microscopes in the classroom that had been set aside for our use. He then accepted an invitation to join us outside studying in the wildflower meadow, where I had the teachers collect a variety of flowers with the goal to examine different types of pollen.

No sooner had he joined us than he left us, taking off running back to the road like a scalded cat screaming, “Snake!” At that point, bodies bolted in all directions, while I headed to the area where the snake might have tried to make its own escape. I was able to secure a four-foot rat snake (Elaphe obsolete lindheimeri) with one foot and grasped it behind the head. If possible, it seemed more agitated than the erstwhile cameraman.

This seemed like a teachable moment, so I carried my prize back to the classroom for further study and looked for a suitable container. In a side room, I found the old terrarium inhabited by 40 Giant Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches (Gramphadorhina portentosa). Still holding the snake firmly in one hand, I managed to remove the lid … but where to put the cockroaches? Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a waste bin with a liner, so I dumped the cockroaches in there for later use and placed the snake in the terrarium. At that point, the by-now-somewhat-calmer-and-mollified photographer steeled himself and took photos of his incarcerated nemesis.

Madagascar Giant Hissing Cockroaches, properly secured and suitable for transport to an educational environment near you! Wilson notes that the white one pictured here is not an albino; rather, she has just emerged from her exoskeleton and therefore is soft and white. From here, she will hide, swell up and darken in color. He says they do this whenever they have grown too large for their current exoskeleton.

Madagascar Giant Hissing Cockroaches, properly secured and suitable for transport to an educational environment near you! Craig notes that the white one pictured here is not an albino; rather, she has just emerged from her exoskeleton and therefore is soft and white. From here, she will hide, swell up and darken in color. He says they do this whenever they have grown too large for their current exoskeleton.

An hour later, I was ready for the teachers to study the cockroaches, so I went to retrieve them. I was startled to see an empty waste bin! A quick inquiry revealed that a janitor had been seen in the building. Quickly putting two and two together, three of us (not four!) rushed out and around to the back of the building and began dumpster diving. The fifth bag retrieved and opened indeed was holding the missing cockroaches. One should avoid anthropomorphism if at all possible, but the insects appeared none the worse for their experience, if not perhaps chagrinned that they had not made good on their escape to cockroach nirvana at the landfill. I cannot say the same for my co-dumpster divers or for our fearful media specialist.

Each year, I am invited by Texas Farm Bureau to present at this, the Agriculture in the Classroom (AITC) Summer Agricultural Institute, held at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas. Each year, something notable happens, usually on the good side of bad. For example, I always take the teachers to walk over and study the turf grass experiments nearby. While there, I also collect lily flowers (Lilium) for them to study, as there is a large bed set aside to grow them that rivals Joseph’s Coat of Many Colors, such is the proliferation of shapes and colors of the large blooms.

However, this year was different. This year, the research scientist unexpectedly showed up and showed concern at this uninvited presence. Naturally, I marched straight up to him and asked him to explain his research. He was somewhat taken aback, given that he is not a people person. When he kindly invited them to help themselves to lily flowers, I had to admit that I had already helped myself on their behalves. My transgressions are always in the name of science.

For many, this would be a very different day’s work, but for me, it was all in a day’s work.

Wilson routinely brings his cockroaches and other insects to K-12 classrooms and educational outreach events (in this case, Expanding Your Horizons) held at Texas A&M and other universities to allow kids of all ages to get up close and personal with their environment.

Craig routinely brings his cockroaches and other insects to K-12 classrooms and educational outreach events (in this case, Expanding Your Horizons) held at Texas A&M and other universities to allow kids of all ages to get up close and personal with their environment.

A Royal Reign in Peril

Texas A&M Center for Mathematics and Science Education (CSME) researcher Dr. Craig Wilson made international headlines once again last week with his dire predictions concerning this year’s Monarch butterfly numbers, which are at an all-time low across the Brazos Valley and nationwide.

Ever the idealist, Craig appeals below to the altruistic nature lover in all of us with a personal pitch that harkens back to another resilient Lone Star State crusader, Lady Bird Johnson, whom we have to thank for one of Texas’ proudest, most beautiful and time-honored rites of spring — Texas wildflowers.

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In the fall of 2013, the number of adult Monarchs migrating through College Station that were netted and tagged was one-fifth of the number in 2012, coinciding with the data gathered nationwide showing that numbers were way down. This has been confirmed at the overwintering sites in the state of Michoacan, Mexico, where numbers were at historic lows. The combined areas sheltering Monarchs totalled only 1.65 acres, compared to a high of 45 acres in 1996. We now await the arrival of the first adults of the spring migration north, suspecting that they will be fewer in number. Last year, the first recorded sighting in College Station was on March 19 in the USDA People’s Garden on Holleman Drive that is open to the public.

Monarch Butterflies have reigned supreme amongst insects with a long distance migration that is the marvel of scientists, an increasingly aware population of civilian scientists and the public in general. But their reign is under the severest of threats since records have been kept, with numbers plunging so low that they may have reached a point where recovery may be impossible, in spite of the reproductive resilience of insect species that lay enormous numbers of eggs.

Who or what is to blame? There are a number of culprits. As the adults migrate south, they have to consume large quantities of nectar from wildflowers that are fewer in number because of use of herbicide in large-scale crop farming, especially in the Midwest, the biggest threat. In addition, more land has been brought into cultivation that formerly would have supported wildflowers and other wildlife. Then there is the severe drought and wildfires. Each of these events — individually and in combination — depletes available flowers and their nectar, which the Monarchs drink and then convert into lipids to help the butterflies survive overwintering.

What can be done nationwide? Large-scale farming is not going away, so a practice of leaving some crop acreage free of pesticides (note that this term is inclusive of herbicides and insecticides) needs to be increased. Perhaps interstate wildflower corridors could be established that would extend Lady Bird Johnson’s vision for the verges of Texas nationwide. Likewise, mowing of these same verges should be left until after the wildflowers have bloomed and seeded. This would also help the establishment of milkweed plants that are the sole source of food for Monarch larvae (caterpillars) during the migration north.

What can be done locally? Citizens can plant milkweed and other butterfly attractant plants in their gardens — simple actions viewed by some as futile, but every little bit helps, and it raises awareness. Since last spring, the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Garden (the Texas A&M campus’ first rooftop garden located at the George P. Mitchell ’40 Physics Building and open to the public) has been planted with more than 400 milkweeds, and four Bryan elementary schools also have established Monarch butterfly gardens. Sadly, the harsh winter means that the milkweeds have yet to start growing, so there may not be enough foliage to feed any Monarch caterpillars that do emerge from eggs.

The situation is dire.

THIS JUST IN: There’s an excellent front-page feature story on the subject by John Rangel in today’s Battalion.

Monarch_DamagedWing

What Moves a Monarch Man

A recent Slate.com article reporting the lowest level on record of Monarch butterflies reaching Mexico this year reminded me of a related story Texas A&M Center for Mathematics and Science researcher Dr. Craig Wilson had shared in October prior to agreeing to be a contributing author to this blog. (Incidentally, roughly a month before the Jan. 29 Slate article ran, Craig also had been featured in a PBS piece for his expertise on this very scenario he had forecasted last spring.)

(Credit: Shutterstock.)

(Credit: Shutterstock.)

You see, among oh, so many other things, Craig is a valiant champion of all things nature and educational — subjects he views in constant and quite purposeful tandem. When it comes to butterflies, he is the host and caretaker of his own official Monarch Waystation here in Aggieland, known as the USDA/ARS People’s Garden and created as a outdoor classroom designed to get students interested in science and possible related careers. And last spring, he singlehandedly planted milkweed and other butterfly-friendly varieties in the Department of Physics and Astronomy’s Cynthia Woods Mitchell Garden. Because it’s the right thing to do, for the children and the butterflies.

After watching that PBS clip as 2013 metamorphosized into 2014, I had emailed Craig to tell him I enjoyed seeing that he has a kindred spirit way down south and that I could totally see him (Craig) breathing life into a Monarch here in Texas. His response?

“Funny you should say that, but I revived a frozen Monarch on a playground in El Reno, Oklahoma several years ago and had it flying around a middle school classroom. The kids made a box for it and provided sugar water, and I transported it with me to Corpus Christi, where I had a conference the next week, and released it in a garden there, sending photos back to the students en route. Helping the migration, one Monarch at a time…”

Texas A&M researcher and longtime butterfly enthusiast Craig Wilson recommends taking the long view -- as well as personal steps like planting milkweed -- toward reversing the alarming decades-long decline in overall Monarch numbers.

Texas A&M researcher and longtime butterfly enthusiast Craig Wilson recommends taking the long view — as well as personal steps like planting milkweed — toward reversing the alarming decades-long decline in overall Monarch numbers.

But I digress. I had mentioned having a past story — why don’t I just let Craig tell it in his own inspiring, firsthand words!

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On Boss’s Day [October 16], we pay homage to our brave and fearless leader. Below is a short essay I wrote in tribute to another Monarch…

From Queen Elizabeth II to other Monarchs including Tim [Scott, Craig’s boss as one of four CMSE co-directors]:

It must be my destiny, to leave one continent behind where I pledged allegiance to a Queen, only to arrive on another where I am again ruled by a Monarch, only this time it is a butterfly.

Last Sunday, I was lucky enough to be invited to a showing of “Flight of the Butterflies” in the IMAX theatre in Austin, Texas where I was enthralled by both the Monarch’s flight and plight, tracing its history through the eyes of a young boy (Urquhart) lying in the pastures above Toronto, Canada, wondering just where they flew, to the discovery near the end of his life that it was to a few acres’ nestling at 10,000 feet in the Sierras that transverse the state of Michoacan in Mexico. The wearing of 3-D spectacles was new to me, but it enhanced the experience beyond my wildest dreams as I felt myself flying with the adult butterflies, munching alongside their caterpillars and dicing with death in the form of crop sprayers, predators and loss of my habitat. But the most wondrous magic for me was to be able to watch the four-year-old girl in front of me, sitting on her father’s lap and reaching out continuously in the total belief that a Monarch would land on her tiny, precious hand. Oh, that everyone could believe.

monarchs-nestingI have been enthralled by Monarchs for several years now and take part in the Citizen Science Project out of Kansas University, through which you can receive individual tags to stick on the hind wing of a migrating Monarch as it flies the 2,000 miles south from Canada in the fall to help track their movements. This is one of the world’s great migrations and, hazardous at the best of times, it has become more so of late due to a multitude of factors ranging from climate change where the extreme heat can dessicate their eggs on the journey north in the spring; wildfires that destroy wildflowers that provide nectar; loss of habitat both in U.S. and Mexico; and, perhaps most drastically, the loss of milkweed plants that are the only food source for their caterpillars.

Milkweed search and recovery has become a particular obsession of mine. I can spot a milkweed blooming on a highway verge despite going at 70 mph as I traverse the country. That necessitates a sudden but safe stop and, armed with my trusty sharpshooter, I dig below the deeply seated tuber and carry my prize back to the car to be transplanted into the USDA/People’s Garden in College Station outside my office, where I watched a female Monarch carefully depositing individual eggs on the underside of milkweed leaves yesterday. Two weeks ago, I was able to tag a male and a female — the first to arrive in our garden from Canada on their fall migration — the faded coloration of their wings and less-than-pristine condition suggesting that they did indeed have hundreds of miles on their odometers.

Naively, I do believe that, “If you plant it, they will come” — it being milkweeds that are native throughout the land over which this Monarch, I believe, should rule. It would be sad to see her go the way of George III. Perhaps, taking a literal leaf out of Lady Bird Johnson’s playbook, the north-south interstates could be planted with milkweeds and become corridors to aid the migration, but that requires a degree of cooperation and collaboration we are sorely missing currently. Would it not be ironic if a Monarch could unite this nation?

E pluribus unum…

Life As We Know It

Another guest entry from Texas A&M Center for Mathematics and Science Education (CMSE) researcher Dr. Craig Wilson about the importance of seizing not only our days but as many fleeting moments as possible — rather appropriate as we close in on closing out another trip around our Sun:

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Life is ephemeral…

Just what does that mean? I still retain a dictionary, but nowadays most people turn or click to Wikipedia, which defines ephemeral things (from the Greek word εφήμερος or ephemeros, literally “lasting only one day”) as transitory and existing only briefly. Typically the term is used to describe objects found in nature, although it can describe a wide range of things.

So, it was refreshing and thought-provoking to hear this definition offered by a Native American tribal elder when I recently attended the “closing circle” at the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) National Conference in Denver, Colorado. Dried sage leaves were burning and smoking (smudging) and cleansing the gathering that, rather incongruously, had attendees seated in a circle of chairs arranged inside a hotel conference room rather than outdoors under an expansive blue sky with the snowcapped Rockies as a backdrop. Nevertheless, once “smudged,” the speaker was allowed to hold the sacred eagle feathers and thus the floor, whereupon the elder said that, “The Plains Indians consider life to be like the fresh breath of a buffalo on a cold morning.” No book nor the Internet could have put it better, and so I immediately became a fan of oral history and the power of a good story — in my case spoken by preference.

A totem pole carved by an itinerant woodcarver Craig Wilson befriended from Washington State nearly 20 years ago graces his USDA/ARS office.  Wilson says he treasures the man's generous gift, given that members of his clan of 7th- and 8th-generation First Nations carvers have work in the collections of the Smithsonian and the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, British Columbia.

A totem pole carved by an itinerant woodcarver Craig Wilson befriended from Washington State nearly 20 years ago graces his USDA/ARS office. Wilson says he treasures the man’s generous gift, given that members of this particular artisan’s clan of 7th- and 8th-generation First Nations carvers have work in the collections of the Smithsonian and the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, British Columbia.

I have taken to using the phrase “we only pass this way once” (with apologies to any Buddhists and Hindus in my audience) to try to impress on imressionable young minds that they should not be spectators in life but active participants who should try to squeeze out every last drop of juice or aqua viva that is held therein. They should participate. That is, of course, easy for me to say, as I have the luxury in my job of time for thought, while most folks have their noses to the grindstone or, nowadays, to an Ipad/device screen, their thumbs flashing across a miniature keyboard as if their life depended upon reacting or being proactive by text rather than active. There is no thought of taking time out to smell the roses. Why look at or smell an actual rose when you can click on a link and learn that there are Banksianae — white and yellow roses from China — in fact roses from most every continent, of every color, and that they all trace their roots back to slightly more than 100 species? Smell one? What would be the purpose of that?

With that thought in present day, I took myself out of the Howard Johnson — formerly a parochial house for priests and monks — and walked a few hundred yards to the town square in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico where I am currently working. I was there the day before and was immediately struck by the fact that something was missing, different, perhaps untoward. I immediately realized that the fountains had been silenced, the gloriously sparkling pool surrounding the imposing bronze statue in the center of the square emptied and stilled. A magical exercise had been lost to me, given that I have a habit when seated by moving water to focus my eyes on one drop and then to follow its every movement upward and down until it is lost to me, at which point I pick up another water molecule’s path and so on. It is mesmeric. You should try it.

Christopher Columbus statue and fountain in the town plaza in Mayaguez, Puerta Rico.

Christopher Columbus statue and fountain in the town plaza in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico.

So instead, I took in my surroundings, where a diminutive, suntanned older lady was sweeping leaves off the marbled square with a passion and effort that was both impressive and disturbing in that she was like an automaton of Autumn only employed when the leaves fall and desperate to have the square leaf-free as if it were a leaf-free zone. That took my eyes skywards to see how much work remained, gauged by the remaining foliage, but then I spotted a humming bird flitting from leaf to leaf, breakfasting on insects to bring up its protein count while burning off the calories from nectar collected elsewhere. Native Americans explain that our Earth is covered by a dark blanket into which the humming bird had pierced holes that are the stars. That sounds good to me and to hell with The Big Bang Theory although it does make me laugh!

My thoughts have drifted as usual, this time like smudging smoke, but I leave you with this analogy from the same tribal elder who said, “The Woodland Indians consider life to be like the flash of a firefly in the darkened forest.”

Beautiful but ephemeral

The Magic Behind Scientists-in-the-Making

Texas A&M Center for Mathematics and Science Education (CMSE) researcher Dr. Craig Wilson offers another guest entry, this one about caterpillars, the magic they weave beyond the silk of their cocoons, and their impact on both science and lifelong learning.

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Fairy godmothers are not just the sole preserve of Hollywood and Disneyland, for I discovered one in 2003 in Bryan — or more precisely at the USDA/Agricultural Research Service/Southern Plains Area Research Center (ARS/SPARC) in College Station. Theresa Robinson was one of several teachers from surrounding school districts who gave of their free time to attend a USDA/ARS Future Scientists workshop, the inaugural and pilot version of a science teacher professional development activity that has since been expanded nationwide as the USDA/HSINP Future Scientists Program — partly, I am sure, because of the initial success of these first participants with their students and perhaps a healthy dose of magic wiffle dust and the wave of Theresa’s magic wand.

Being a Protestant bigot, I do not use this adjective lightly, but “saintly” Theresa has worked her magic with children and adults alike at Johnson Elementary School in Bryan for more years than she cares to remember. This is ironic because she does care and care she does for the students entrusted to her care, always with a gentle but firm voice and an uncanny understanding of what each child needs. By contrast, I look out and see a sea of faces differentiated by color and aspect, treating all the same as I did on December 5, when I was invited to make a presentation to all 78 fifth graders.

Craig Wilson, director of the USDA-sponsored Future Scientists Program, works with students at Johnson Elementary School in Bryan, Texas. Through the initiative, Wilson introduces students to a vast array of scientific research projects and principles, not to mention potential careers in science.

Craig Wilson, director of the USDA-sponsored Future Scientists Program, works with students at Johnson Elementary School in Bryan, Texas. Through the initiative, Wilson introduces students to a vast array of scientific research projects and principles, not to mention potential careers in science.

They were a captive audience, but I was the one held captive by their naïve enthusiasm and joyous excitement as experiments exploded around them, eliciting questions that are the life blood of science. Sadly, that blood flow is too often cut off or stifled in our schools as being demanding of too much time. But not in Theresa’s class. With a wave of her imaginary wand, a hush descends out of the educational chaos, at which point the inquisitive child is encouraged to articulate the question that may be that rare and magical question, the one for which we do not have an answer and for which all should strive to seek an answer. That is science.

It struck me that I have worked with Theresa for 10 years now and that she has had her students conduct research on the corn earworm caterpillar (Helicoverpa zea), provided free of charge by the scientists at SPARC each of those years. The current audience of students was not even born when we started, but Johnson Elementary seems to be ahead of the curve or already around it by maintaining contact with their alums and inviting them back to a “Breakfast for Seniors” event six years after they walk out the doors of their elementary school for what they thought was the last time. At the most recent breakfast, more than half of those attending are poised to pursue some type of science at college.

earwormTime is relentless, as is the battle to nurture future scientists and to stem the ever-widening gap between the general population and our environment in which a seemingly simple question like, “Where do seeds come from?” results in the answer, “From a seedling.” We have a problem but, one fairy godmother in Bryan is continuing to sow seeds not of doubt but of aspiration that are taking root to grow future scientists who both question and reason. Disney should cast her in a movie where she may cast her spell over a wider audience desperately in need of a magical elixir of observational and questioning skills to benefit the planet.

Salagadoola mechicka boola bibbidi-bobbidi-boo. Put ’em together and what have you got? Bippity-boppity-boo … A Scientist!

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P.S. As an aside, another teacher from that Class of ’03 was from a tiny rural school in Gauze. One of her fifth-grade boys who studied the corn earworm has been employed at SPARC as a biological technician (insects) for two years and is at Blinn College studying entomology with plans to transfer to Texas A&M.

Click here to read a past feature story on the Future Scientists Program.

Senses of Wonder

From time to time, Texas A&M Center for Mathematics and Science Education (CMSE) researcher Dr. Craig Wilson emails us about his adventures, experiences and related insights gleaned as both a scientist and a keen observer of life. Anyone who has had the pleasure of meeting (much less working) with Craig will attest to the fact that to know him is to learn from him — a delightful process definitely worth sharing. Given such, we’re pleased and honored that he has agreed to be added to the blog, Here’s hoping you enjoy his musings as much as we do!

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Most people look but do not actually see. I stress powers of observation when working with teachers and students, explaining that observation in science means using all of their five senses and then asking questions. We need to take full advantage of the gifts we are given at birth that enable us to emerge from the womb as scientists but with an inherent ability to be artistic if we choose to develop those talents. Neither is mutually exclusive, although our education system tends to encourage a divide between left and right brain, science and art, academic and non-academic, success and failure.

A downed 100-foot yellow pine tree on Craig Wilson's East Texas property, complete with a new pine seedling emerging from a woodpecker hole in the foreground.

A downed 100-foot yellow pine tree on Craig Wilson’s East Texas property, complete with a new pine seedling emerging from a woodpecker hole in the foreground.

For example, if you make the effort to observe it, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, would prick your finger when you touch it, would look glorious because of its vibrant colors, would taste as delicate as its petals you may eat and would sound as quiet as a whisper as it sways in a gentle breeze, if you had the auditory powers of the greater wax moth. This moth is capable of sensing sound frequencies of up to 300 kHz – the highest recorded frequency sensitivity of any animal in the natural world.

Humans are only capable of hearing sounds of 20 kHz maximum, dropping to around 12-to-15 kHz as we age. But, do we actually listen? I have lain down in the prairie grasses of The Badlands in South Dakota to hear the wind passing through and over them. I have been fortunate to sit on beaches of the Indian, Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and a few days ago, the Caribbean, to hear waves crash or roll gently on shore, each with a distinctive sound.

We can all touch people by our actions, but when we touch or feel, we cannot match catfish that are probably the most finely tuned creatures on Earth, as their smooth skin gives them a heightened sense of touch, and they are rumored to be able to detect earthquakes days in advance. When I have actually felt the most is when I was privileged to hold each of our children as soon as they were born in Serowe, Botswana, for each touched my heart in return.

Craig Wilson, during his descent through the cloud forest at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro that inspired the following Haiku: Why Climb Trees? Why? To touch the sky! Why? For all the world to see... One must climb a tree!

Craig Wilson, during his descent through the cloud forest at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro that inspired the following Haiku:
Why Climb Trees?
Why? To touch the sky!
Why? For all the world to see…
One must climb a tree! 

Bloodhounds have the keenest sense of smell of any dogs, as their noses are 10-to-100 million times more sensitive than a human’s. That said, it always intrigues me that when humans encounter certain smells, these odors can trigger a memory perhaps from our youth — for example, the inside of a damp tent that transports me back in time to a hillside in Wales where sheep had invaded our tents while we were away climbing Idwal Slabs. Can a dog do that?

For eyesight, I pick the dragonfly, possibly the most formidable aerial hunter among insects whose eyes are so big that they cover almost the entire head and provide a full 360-degree field of vision. These eyes are made up of 30,000 visual units called ommatidia, each one containing a lens and a series of light sensitive cells. Their eyesight is superb, whereas humans look but rarely see what may be obvious just a few feet in front of them. For example, I can walk down a street in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico and see glorious concrete buildings from the early 1900s with ornate friezes three stories up with ferns growing from cracks but never, ever glance in a shop window to see merchandise.

The average person has about 10,000 taste buds. That number may seem like a lot, but it pales in comparison to, yet again, the catfish that has taste buds not only in its mouth but all over its body, numbering more than 100,000, with some large catfish having as many as 175,000. While in Mayaguez, I tasted pasteles (pork dumplings) for the first time, but I prefer the taste of freedom that my job allows, enabling me to interact with incredible people from friends to research scientists to students with special needs.

DreamFinally, a question for you! Does the seldom-used common sense (7th Sense) negate the existence of extra sensory perception (ESP) or the 6th Sense? I wonder?

If you have a few spare moments, this video appealed to me.