Forwarded by Bernie Solymar/Peter Carson. Parallels earlier stories re corn/ethanol and the drive toward so-called ‘green energy’. KB

The Year the Monarch Didn’t Appear –
November 22, 2013

The Year the Monarch Didn’t Appear

ON the first of November, when Mexicans celebrate a holiday called the Day of
the Dead, some also celebrate the millions of monarch butterflies that, without
fail, fly to the mountainous fir forests of central Mexico on that day. They are
believed to be souls of the dead, returned.

This year, for or the first time in memory, the monarch butterflies didn’t come,
at least not on the Day of the Dead. They began to straggle in a week later than
usual, in record-low numbers. Last year’s low of 60 million now seems great
compared with the fewer than three million that have shown up so far this year.
Some experts fear that the spectacular migration could be near collapse.

“It does not look good,” said Lincoln P. Brower, a monarch expert at Sweet Briar

It is only the latest bad news about the dramatic decline of insect populations.

Another insect in serious trouble is the wild bee, which has thousands of
species. Nicotine-based pesticides called neonicotinoids are implicated in their
decline, but even if they were no longer used, experts say, bees, monarchs and
many other species of insect would still be in serious trouble.

That’s because of another major factor that has not been widely recognized: the
precipitous loss of native vegetation across the United States.

“There’s no question that the loss of habitat is huge,” said Douglas Tallamy, a
professor of entomology at the University of Delaware, who has long warned of
the perils of disappearing insects. “We notice the monarch and bees because they
are iconic insects,” he said. “But what do you think is happening to everything

A big part of it is the way the United States farms. As the price of corn has
soared in recent years, driven by federal subsidies for biofuels, farmers have
expanded their fields. That has meant plowing every scrap of earth that can grow
a corn plant, including millions of acres of land once reserved in a federal
program for conservation purposes.

Another major cause is farming with Roundup, a herbicide that kills virtually
all plants except crops that are genetically modified to survive it.

As a result, millions of acres of native plants, especially milkweed, an
important source of nectar for many species, and vital for monarch butterfly
larvae, have been wiped out. One study showed that Iowa has lost almost 60
percent of its milkweed, and another found 90 percent was gone. “The
agricultural landscape has been sterilized,” said Dr. Brower.

The loss of bugs is no small matter. Insects help stitch together the web of
life with essential services, breaking plants down into organic matter, for
example, and dispersing seeds. They are a prime source of food for birds.
Critically, some 80 percent of our food crops are pollinated by insects,
primarily the 4,000 or so species of the flying dust mops called bees. “All of
them are in trouble,” said Marla Spivak, a professor of apiculture at the
University of Minnesota.

Farm fields are not the only problem. Around the world people have replaced
diverse natural habitat with the biological deserts that are roads, parking lots
and bluegrass lawns. Meanwhile, the plants people choose for their yards are
appealing for showy colors or shapes, not for their ecological role. Studies
show that native oak trees in the mid-Atlantic states host as many as 537
species of caterpillars, which are important food for birds and other insects.
Willows come in second with 456 species. Ginkgo, on the other hand, which is not
native, supports three species, and zelkova, an exotic plant used to replace elm
trees that died from disease, supports none. So the shelves are nearly bare for
bugs and birds.

Native trees are not only grocery stores, but insect pharmacies as well. Trees
and other plants have beneficial chemicals essential to the health of bugs. Some
monarchs, when afflicted with parasites, seek out more toxic types of milkweed
because they kill the parasites. Bees use medicinal resins from aspen and willow
trees that are antifungal, antimicrobial and antiviral, to line their nests and
to fight infection and diseases. “Bees scrape off the resins from the leaves,
which is kind of awesome, stick them on their back legs and take them home,”
said Dr. Spivak.

Besides pesticides and lack of habitat, the other big problem bees face is
disease. But these problems are not separate. “Say you have a bee with viruses,”
and they are run-down, Dr. Spivak said. “And they are in a food desert and have
to fly a long distance, and when you find food it has complicated neurotoxins
and the immune system just goes ‘uh-uh.’ Or they become disoriented and can’t
find their way home. It’s too many stressors all at once.”

There are numerous organizations and individuals dedicated to rebuilding native
plant communities one sterile lawn and farm field at a time. Dr. Tallamy, a
longtime evangelizer for native plants, and the author of one of the movement’s
manuals, “Bringing Nature Home,” says it’s a cause everyone with a garden or
yard can serve. And he says support for it needs to develop quickly to slow down
the worsening crisis in biodiversity.

When the Florida Department of Transportation last year mowed down roadside
wildflowers where monarch butterflies fed on their epic migratory journey,
“there was a huge outcry,” said Eleanor Dietrich, a wildflower activist in
Florida. So much so, transportation officials created a new policy that left
critical insect habitat un-mowed.

That means reversing the hegemony of chemically green lawns. “If you’ve got just
lawn grass, you’ve got nothing,” said Mace Vaughan of the Xerces Society, a
leading organization in insect conservation. “But as soon as you create a front
yard wildflower meadow you go from an occasional honeybee to a lawn that might
be full of 20 or 30 species of bees and butterflies and monarchs.”

First and foremost, said Dr. Tallamy, a home for bugs is a matter of food
security. “If the bees were to truly disappear, we would lose 80 percent of the
plants,” he said. “That is not an option. That’s a huge problem for mankind.”

Jim Robbins is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and the author of
“The Man Who Planted Trees.”