Summer 2017: Danaus plexippus
My wife Susan has become a farmer this summer. And under her careful husbandry, she’s produced at least 50 progeny and is on the way to over one hundred.
One hundred Monarch butterflies.
Unlike other species of butterflies, Monarchs are more like birds than insects. They migrate great distances (50-100 miles each day) to get to over-wintering grounds in Mexico and southern Texas/California. The journey itself, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, can take up to two months. The farthest ranging Monarch ever recorded traveled over 250 miles in one day. That’s generally against the wind which pushes back from the south and west. Total distances traveled can reach well over 3000 miles.
Consider the butterfly, flying against the wind for two months over 3000 miles. That’s not a math problem; it is a metaphysical miracle.
“The eastern population of North America’s monarchs overwinters in the same 11 to 12 mountain areas in the States of Mexico and Michoacán from October to late March.
“Monarchs roost for the winter in oyamel fir forests at an elevation of 2,400 to 3,600 meters (nearly 2 miles above sea level). The mountain hillsides of oyamel forest provide an ideal microclimate for the butterflies. Here temperatures range from 0 to 15 degrees Celsius. If the temperature is lower, the monarchs will be forced to use their fat reserves. The humidity in the oyamel forest assures the monarchs won’t dry out allowing them to conserve their energy.”
The Monarchs you and I see up here are the result of three or four generations of travelers making the pilgrimage north. After mating, a single female deposits about 700 eggs on the underside of common milkweed leaves, and she expires. Waiting for those 700 eggs are a rogues’ gallery of aphids, beetles, flies etc., looking for a choice meal.
This is where my wife steps in. She collects the eggs she finds – small elliptical off-white cylinders about the size of a period at the end of this sentence, and she brings them home to be hatched. Placing them on a wetted paper towel, which she keeps moist, she’ll await their almost microscopic hatching. Often their “birth” is announced by the small pinholes on the leaf, which gives away something nibbling at the blade. They are infinitesimally small at first.
In the great outdoors, Monarchs are still the prize “quarter-pounder” for scavenging insects.
So, yes, nature can be cruel, but as hard as those odds are, Scott Pruitt and the EPA have made sure that even greater odds will be stacked against their chances of surviving, much less making the epic journey back to Michoacán. Enter stage far right: Posion. Monsanto. Dow.
As early as the 1990’s, the theory that encroachment and the increased farming of open fields used by Monarchs as the central issues to their devastating decline was replaced by the realization that the overwhelming use of glyphosate (the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup) was responsible. In short, Roundup was specifically lethal on common milkweed.
“Recently… a dramatic change in farming practices — the widespread cultivation of genetically engineered, glyphosate-resistant Roundup Ready corn and soybeans—has triggered a precipitous decline of common milkweed, and thus of monarchs.
Glyphosate, sold by Monsanto under the name of Roundup, is one of the very few herbicides that is effective on milkweed. Unlike many other weedkillers, once absorbed it is translocated (moved internally) to root tissue, where it kills milkweed at the root and so prevents regeneration.
Glyphosate is particularly lethal to milkweed when used in conjunction with Roundup Ready crops. It is applied more frequently, at higher rates, and later in the season — during milkweed’s most vulnerable flowering stage of growth — than when used with traditional crops.
The increasingly common practice of growing Roundup Ready crops continuously on the same fields means that milkweed is exposed to glyphosate every year, with no opportunity to recover.”
|Stopping monetarily on a hemlock|
Our first release occurred last month, when my wife Susan held a trembling young male on her outstretched hand on an early July afternoon. He made a fluttering pass around us and landed momentarily on the hemlock in the back of our yard. You can tell a male because he has two markers on the lower part of his top wings – like an enlarged dot on the already black vein. Once he’d gathered himself together, he launched into a sometime fluttering and gliding flight over the neighbor’s trees to the west. Vamos con dios, amigo.
This is a great year for us and other “farmers.” Last year, overwintering colonies in Mexico and elsewhere were hit with an ice storm that depleted huge numbers of Monarchs, just when population numbers were already down. Some overwintering grounds lost nearly 50% of their populations. In fact, last summer, my wife was unable to propagate a single butterfly.
“In the best-case scenario of a 7.4 percent mortality, the monarch population that actually migrated north was just 139 million, not 150 million, and so only decreased by 22 percent rather than the 27 percent based on pre-storm population numbers. In the worst-case hypothetical scenario of 50 percent mortality from the storms, only 75 million monarchs would have survived to migrate north in 2016 but were able to build up their population to the current number of 109 million, showing a possible 45 percent increase in population.”http://blog.nwf.org/2017/02/new-numbers-show-monarch-butterfly-populations-still-in-trouble/
So, my wife and I are taking advantage of an increased population this year, but we do not fool ourselves. The recent March 2017 push-back by Pruitt’s EPA team on the previous administration’s concern on possible dangerous effects of pesticides like glyphosate on humans – especially developing young brains – should give us all pause. See the press release from his office where no one is allowed to bring cell phones, recording devices, or take notes.
“Sheryl Kunickis, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Pest Management Policy, was among those who applauded Pruitt’s decision, which she said was “grounded in evidence and science.”
“It means that this important pest management tool will remain available to growers, helping to ensure an abundant and affordable food supply for this nation and the world,” Kunickis said in a statement.”http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/scott-pruitt-pesticide-chlorpyrifos_us_58dd331de4b0e6ac7092fbd8
And, my wife’s task becomes more difficult as it also rewards her sense of doing something. Many of the local growers and producers of seeds, plants, flowers, etc., are selling neonicotinoid-treated plants. That is, a “new and improved” pesticide that is applied to seeds and taken up through the plant’s vascular system as it grows, where it is expressed in the pollen and nectar that pollinators like bees and butterflies consume.
We carry on in our micro-environment. In the macro, we hope and wait for the people to rise up against this assault on our air, earth, and water.
In Illinois, Garden Clubs of Illinois provides common milkweed seed and information on helping restore the populations of Monarch’s, which were so common in our youth. Palos Heights has become the first village to embrace an action plan to help grow and sustain the development of populations in Illinois. What used to be an elementary classroom project is now a call to all of us for the preservation of a species.
Wish you all well.