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The Monarch Butterfly

Featured Article

monarch-butterflies-on-a-flowerThe monarch butterfly, an amazing species known for its annual migration across North America, has seen its numbers Fluctuate over the past few years.  Scientists who’ve studied this think a number of factors are contributing to the flux, including the destruction of habitats in Mexico (where the butterflies spend the winter), weather events such as strong storms, extreme climatic changes, and a reduction in the number of “milkweed” plants in farmland across the Midwest.

While scientists are trying to determine how each of these factors is contributing to the instability and how to fix it, recent news coverage has focused heavily on farmers’ usage of herbicides like glyphosate to reduce weeds (including milkweed populations) in their fields.  Minimizing the presence of weeds in a crop is very important in having productive farmland.  However, the presence of milkweed is important for monarch caterpillars which feed exclusively on the leaves of milkweed plants.

As research continues, the pressing question for all of us is: what can we do to help? We’re talking with scientists about what might be done to help the monarchs  rebound.  And we’re eager to join efforts to help rebuild monarch habitat along the migration path by joining with conservationists, agronomists, weed scientists, crop associations and farmers to look at ways to increase milkweed populations on the agricultural landscape.

There’s no reason agriculture can’t coexist with natural wonders like monarch butterflies and their annual migration. We want to work with other stakeholders to help the migration of monarchs from the Midwest rebound to historic levels.

Photograph by David Wagner via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission. 

35 Responses to "The Monarch Butterfly"

  1. Monarchs were actually abundant on the GMO farmlands of the upper Midwest up to the summer of 2011 even though milkweed had been virtually eliminated from within farmers fields back around 2006-2007. So that shows there is still enough milkweed in GMO farm landscapes of the upper Midwest (primarily along the farm road ditches bordering the GMO crop fields) to support relatively large monarch populations. Then during the record hot and dry spring and summer of 2012 the monarch population crashed on both on GMO farmlands and adjacent CRP and prairie remnant lands due to a very high abundance invertebrate predators of monarch eggs and caterpillars. Then in 2013 pesistently cold weather hindered monarch caterpillar development and so the monarch population remained low. But the bottom line is natural factors, not man made ones, caused the low monarch populations in 2012 and 2013 hence we can reasonably expect monarch populations to rebound in 2014 or 2015 to the relatively high levels we saw between 2007-2011. Here is an example of how abundant monarchs were in late August 2011 in Gaylord, Minnesota, a farm town that is completely surrounded by vast monocultures of GMO corn and soybeans: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iatYTlT1qYQ And even though monarch populations were at low levels in the summer of 2013 due to persistent cold weather conditions, they could still be filmed in substantial numbers nectaring on patches of wild flowers such as these along a farm road that was surrounded by GMO corn and soybean fields near Albert Lea, Minnesota at the end of August 2013: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pvFVvsNvW7U

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    • Still pushing this nonsense, Mr. Cherubini? Your links – as you well know – are of migrating butterflies. Migrating. Not born and raised in the neighborhood. Migrating. Just passing through.

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      • I agree. I saw this video when someone said “Taken at a golf course in California”. They were saying its where they migrated and that the population will adapt to new migration patterns. BS!!

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      • James, the monarch clustering videos I shot at the end of August in southern Minnesota represent monarchs that were born and raised on milkweed plants that grow in the farm road ditches that border the GMO corn and soybean fields. Here are still photos and videos I shot of breeding monarchs during the first week of August 2011 in south-central Minnesota 2-3 weeks before the fall migration began:

        adult females monarchs laying eggs:
        http://www.learner.org/cgi-bin/jnorth/jn-query-byday?1312947297
        http://www.learner.org/cgi-bin/jnorth/jn-query-byday?1312749859

        adult male monarchs patrolling the milkweed patches looking for females:
        http://www.learner.org/cgi-bin/jnorth/jn-query-byday?1312920555

        monarch caterpillars developing on the milkweeds:
        http://www.learner.org/cgi-bin/jnorth/jn-query-byday?1312825564

        That photographic evidence demonstrates breeding monarchs are common on the GMO farmlands of the upper Midwest during the first week of August before the fall migration begins. In the late morning hours every day it’s even possible to shoot photos of newly emerged adult monarchs that still have soft wings and can fly only a short distance:
        http://imageshack.com/a/img13/93/yqaa.jpg
        http://imageshack.com/a/img854/3900/q4cj.jpg

        Then every year in late August and early September the monarch fall roost reports on Journey North are most concentrated in the eastern Dakotas, southern and western Minnesota, Iowa and eastern Nebraska – all areas where about 65-70% of the entire landmass is covered with monocultures of herbicide tolerant GMO crops and where glyphosate herbicide use is very high:http://imageshack.com/a/img13/6238/xbq5.jpg

        A great paradox is that if monarch conservationists cannot be convinced that the millions of acres worth of farm road ditches in the upper Midwest represent productive summer monarch breeding habitats then they will have little interest in conserving the milkweed and wildflowers that grow in those ditches. Or an interest in growing more in an attempt to maintain / increase the monarch population.

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    • Mr. Cherubini,

      Instead of providing links to youtube videos, I suggest you provide peer-reviewed primary literature to support your various claims. With the migratory Monarch population so dangerously close to being forever lost, the utmost care must be taken in deciding what information we use to guide our policy and actions on the issue. In the following response, I will address what I consider to be baseless generalizations in hopes that you will review your stance of “…natural factors, not man made ones, caused the low monarch populations…”.

      “Monarchs were actually abundant on the GMO farmlands of the upper Midwest up to the summer of 2011 even though milkweed had been virtually eliminated from within farmers fields back around 2006-2007.” Show me the data sets that support this and then I’ll consider it a valid statement.

      “Then during the record hot and dry spring and summer of 2012 the monarch population crashed on both on GMO farmlands and adjacent CRP and prairie remnant lands due to a very high abundance invertebrate predators of monarch eggs and caterpillars.” I am also not familiar with any studies that support this statement. You have claimed that hot/dry spring seasons cause an increase in invertebrate predators. Can you provide the science to prove this? You also claimed that the lack of Monarchs in much of their breeding range that season was not due to the extensive drought and heat, but due to the aforementioned increase in invertebrate predators. Once again, show me the science, because I don’t believe it exists.

      “…hence we can reasonably expect monarch populations to rebound in 2014 or 2015 to the relatively high levels we saw between 2007-2011.” What does it mean if that doesn’t happen? If this part of your baseless theory on the Monarch population is wrong, how will we know the whole thing wasn’t? The “blood” of the Monarch migration would likely then be considered to be on your hands in the eyes of many, I fear.

      I do not know, Mr. Cherubini, if your response to this article was made simply on a whim or if you consciously made your unsteady claims knowing there was no science (to my knowledge) to back them up. I think it is time that you reviewed your stance on this issue, acquainted yourself with scientifically viable fact, and then made an actual effort to combat the real problem at hand. I’m afraid that, as of now, I can not put my trust in Monsanto in helping combat the decline in the migratory Monarch population. If it can be proven to me that Monsanto is truly aware of what is going on and that they are willing to put in real effort to fix the problem, I will thankfully and happily accept Monsanto as an ally in the effort to save the Monarch migration. Until then, please consider the points I have made.

      Cheers,
      Brett Budach.

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      • Of course, I want Monsanto to know that I direct those comments mainly toward Mr. Cherubini. I think my mistrust of reliance on Monsanto originates with the perspective I’ve been given on past controversial issues. I need to take a step back and put myself on more neutral ground with Monsanto as a whole. I am not fully aware of Monsanto’s stances on the issues addressed, but am very eager to hear what they have to say.

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  2. Paul is not an objective observer of this phenomenon. To follow his argument to its logical conclusion would be to ignore the advice of the vast majority of scientists in this field, do nothing to enhance the availability of milkweed and nectar sources for Monarchs, and watch helplessly as this amazing migration dwindles to extinction. Is following his lead worth the risk?

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  3. If Monsanto is big enough to admit their products are harming monarchs, I think we should listen to them and the scientific community rather than the rumblings of instability.

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  4. There is, of course, a “market” solution to the regeneration of the monarch and its migration. The overall strategy is to bring monarchs back to the city where everyone can enjoy them. Making “native” milkweed available in garden centers throughout the country and then promoting the “cause” could get a milkweed in everyone’s yard.
    A “save the monarch” campaign and a simple way for the average person to get involved would get the amount of milkweed planted in a safe place where it could come back every year. The foundation for a campaign like this is already in place at the most visible monarch organization in the country “Monarch Watch” called “Milkweed Market” Expanding the capabilities of this market and interesting other growers in the program would be a great way for the Monsanto people and other corporate stakeholders to show their sincerity in bringing back the monarch. I know you have great PR people and if you’d like to be a hero in the eyes of millions of children across the country who raise monarch butterflies in classrooms and at home every year consider please consider this vehicle. You can “brand” Monsanto as the biggest monarch promoter in the country and turn it into a profit center to recoup your investment WIN ! WIN !

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  5. It is said that the first step towards resolving a problem is admitting there is a problem. So the blog above seems like a good first step.

    Now, let’s hope Monsanto is sincere and will act quickly, contacting the top experts in the field, Brower, Oberhauser, Taylor et al, and determining the fastest way to get the best results.

    There is much work to be done, and NO time to drag one’s feet.

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  6. To Monsanto,
    How can we follow what you find out and do to help turn this around. Can you keep a we page or facebook page where the public can follow to see your progress? If you truly want to turn this around you have the financial ability and market presence to do this. I want to believe you but need and constant communication and the ability to record actions you are taking will be beneficial.

    Melanie from the Texas flyway

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  7. Has anyone considered that the Monarch has become the “indicator species” for all butterflies and insects? It concerns me that we are ONLY discussing milkweed. Each butterfly species (and other insects) rely on native plants (weeds) for laying eggs and completing their life cycle as well.
    Are any of your researchers considering what native plants are being lost to the GMOs and Roundup?
    Is anyone considering what the large scale trickle down effect will be if some major native plant(s) replacement balance isn’t implemented along side the GMOs, etc.
    Without the populations of butterflies and insects overall, the entire food change becomes threatened. The birds, frogs, lizards, dragonflies, and numerous other species will/are declining as well.

    I am from a farming family and understand the needs and struggles of the farmer. I visited my favorite butterflying backroad this (2013) summer and immediately noticed and admired the most beautiful cornfield and tobacco crop I had ever seen.
    It only took a minute, however, to turn that admiration into disbelief. Nothing was moving! Even along the roadside ditches where I have watch butterflies, dragonflies, and a multitude of insects flitter around, little was to be seen.
    I had heard of the decline of butterflies in the mid-west, but was shocked to realize it was happening in my Middle Tennessee home.
    Please, please, please, either decrease the distributon of your products to farmers asap OR rapidly implement balancing eco-friendly best practices.
    In orherwords, to continue to feed the growing human populations of the words, you must also learn and be responsible for feeding the world’s wildlife as well… beginning with the butterflies and insects!

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  8. To Monsanto Leaders — I appreciate this line, “We want to work with other stakeholders to help the migration of monarchs from the Midwest rebound to historic levels.”

    So let’s talk! Tell us what your plans are and what you’re willing to do, set performance metrics that we can track,, start a facebook page so we can see you WALK THE TALK!

    I’m personally skeptical that this is anything more that a PR stunt, a red herring to deflect the current outrage – so please prove me wrong!

    Lay it on the table – Let’s see what you’ve got!

    Nicole

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  9. All the people I know and I are STILL waiting to hear what Monsanto is going to DO to help the monarchs and pollinators in general!!!! Less talk, more Do, thank you!

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  10. If you are basing your justification for the monarch population on something you saw in a small space in 2011 that is just not a good justification. In order to tell the public that your product glpsopahte is not harmful to butterflies and bees, you really must show us more proof than that you saw monarchs passing through one small area during migration.
    The statistics of the monarch population and that of the bee populaltion do not support your theory.

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  11. I find it encouraging that Monsanto has acknowledged this issue, but I am disappointed by the vagueness of “we want to help” statements without making any kind of commitment. Let’s work together to bring back the Monarchs!
    I recently asked Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch whether any meetings or discussions have taken place between Monarch Watch and Monsanto regarding Monsanto’s potential actions to help Monarchs. I was disappointed to learn that no such communications have occurred. If Monsanto is serious about helping to save the Monarchs, this would be an excellent place to start. WE HAVE NO TIME TO LOSE — if we are going to save the Monarch Migrations, this is the year we MUST ACT! The North American Monarch populations are crashing. We *already have ample scientific evidence* proving that milkweed eradication via glyphosate use in GM corn and soy fields is a critical factor in Monarch decline. ALL of the top Monarch experts agree on this. Mexico is working hard to protect and restore the Eastern Monarch overwintering grounds, and we must work equally as hard to protect and restore essential breeding grounds here in the U.S. We do not have the luxury of time. The science is already here. It is time to take decisive action on this issue!
    Monsanto’s extraordinary power and influence in the Ag industry means that it is uniquely poised to respond to this issue. Monsanto, should it choose to do so, could bring immediate and lasting progress in mitigating the decline of North American Monarch populations, and contribute significantly to restoring them. In return, the company would not only be doing a great service to Monarchs and other pollinators, but also be lauded by countless millions of people all over the world — after all, the Eastern Monarch Butterfly Migrations are a World Heritage phenomenon!

    Please, please, Monsanto, help save the Monarchs!

    For the Monarchs,
    ~Ana

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    • I agree with your comment. Monsanto must be commended for being open to considering the plight of the monarch migration as an unintended consequence of a its technology (GMO seeds). But there is no time to lose. Either Monsanto picks up the phone to Monarch Watch, or to University of Minnesota, or Xerxes, or those organizations pick up the phone and call Monsanto. One acre of corn yields about $1200 bucks, so with a few million bucks (maybe 10), Monsanto could pay well located farmers to establish monarch way stations. Other ideas might work better. But everyone should be calling everyone who can make a difference.

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  12. Like Deborah I grew up on a farm and until recently lived on one where I had planted common and swamp milkweed. Since establishing the plantings I always had an abundance of Monarch butterflies and caterpillars, but this past summer I saw not one nor did my daughter who had plantings 50 miles away. The milkweed flourished though. The effect of herbicides is frightening and I too see the Monarch as an indicator of a decline in other populations. Monsanto can come up with a solution if they choose and care about the future of generations to come. As a mother, grandmother, retired teacher, and very concerned citizen I would like for children of the future to grow up in a better world, including one with a healthy environment and an abundance of wildlife. The ball is in your court Monsanto.

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  13. Every species is an integral part of the food chain. Endangering even the tiny monarch butterfly is an extremely bad idea. There has to be a safe way to coexist with these creatures.

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    • Yep! And Monarch Watch, and U. Minn, and Xerxes, and the rest! You do your job, too, and call Monsanto. Let’s see if they really mean business. I think they do.

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  14. “And we’re eager to join efforts to help rebuild monarch habitat along the migration path by joining with conservationists, agronomists, weed scientists, crop associations and farmers to look at ways to increase milkweed populations on the agricultural landscape.”

    Glad you’re on board, Mansanto. The statement above is a good first step, but as others have expressed, we’re eagerly looking for deeds … quick. With the Monarch population down from almost 21 acres in 1996 to less than 1 acre in 2013, you (Mansanto) are a key player in the survival of their annual migration.

    This could be a win-win scenario because if you use your “muscle” to re-establish clear-cut Monarch habitat, you will also be re-establishing the habitat of many other pollinators ~ especially honeybees. This can only be good for your corn, soybean and other crops.

    The Monarchs coming into Texas right now haven’t eaten for 4-5 months. They need food now. And then there’s the corridor northward for the next 3-4 generations. They also need food. Please give them back their food source ~ milkweed.

    Where can we follow the progress you’re making in preparing for the return of the Monarchs this spring. Facebook? It is in everyone’s best interest for you to act now.

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    • We fully understand the urgency people feel with this. Reaching out and talking with a wide array of people potentially involved takes time. That process is underway, and we hope to have an update shortly.

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      • The monarchs are not in trouble so there is no legitimate scientific justification for “urgent” action. Many monarch enthusiasts seem to have forgotten that just 22 months ago monarchs were this abundant in the late Spring in the upper Midwest and Great Lakes region including on the hericide tolerant farmlands http://www.learner.org/jnorth/monarch/spring2012/c062012_3.html http://www.learner.org/jnorth/monarch/spring2012/update062012.html Excerpt: “What a Year! Spring migration 2012 has been a record-breaking season and it’s going out with a bang. During the past few weeks, monarchs have appeared in unprecedented numbers, early, and in places where they’re rarely seen.” Then in July-Sept 2012 the monarch population was depressed by natural factors (a high abundance of predators that eat monarch eggs and caterpillars in the drought stricken upper Midwest), not man made ones. So the monarch population can be expected to rebound in 2014 back to the relatively high numbers we saw from 2007 – early 2012 (the severely cold winter of 2013-14 in the upper Midwest should have reduced the abundance of predators that eat monarch eggs and caterpillars).

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        • OK Paul. . .but we are down to 35 million monarchs. In the winter of 2002 a huge winter storm hit their wintering grounds in Mexico and wiped out a few hundred million, 14 times the size of the current population. Their numbers at this point have no margin for error, and it will take a lot of work to get those numbers back up over the half a million mark, which is at least what they need to ensure survival of the species.

          By the way, I agree with your idea to plant milkweed, along with other invertebrate supporting native plants, along the rural ditches, as long as pesticides aren’t drifting over those wild areas from the crop areas.

          I’ve thought about creating habitat along federal highways and county roads, but wonder if they would be subject to collisions with cars in those areas.

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      • What is the process you are following and with whom have you talked? We need transparency or we cannot believe you and will have to resort to government action. Time is something the pollenators do not have–this season is what counts.

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      • That’s good news. But if Monarch Watch isn’t among them, who is? I’ve been researching the organizations who are most knowledgeable, and Monarch Watch seems best positioned to help you develop a program. Make if full blown. Don’t just dither.

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    • Yes, they need milkweed. They also need native nectar plants for fuel to keep them going on their migrations. Early blooming, mid-season blooming, and especially late blooming plants, like goldenrod. By fall migration most milkweeds are no longer flowering. If you are a butterfly flying through the U.S. in the fall, you are basically flying through large swathes of food deserts.

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  15. It isn’t Monsanto’s fault. Farmers are purchasing and applying the herbicide. Maybe they should contribute to helping the butterflies. YIYI!

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  16. “We fully understand the urgency people feel with this. Reaching out and talking with a wide array of people potentially involved takes time. That process is underway, and we hope to have an update shortly.”

    I am writing to inquire if any progress has been made here. I would be very interested to know how the ‘reaching out’ is going — and I know I’m far from alone. May we, citizens concerned about the impact of HT crops and the potential help Monsanto could give to the Monarchs, please have an update? With all due respect, I am not sure what the definition of ‘shortly’ is in this context, but it’s been over 5 months. I’m sure we are all eagerly awaiting a response!

    For the Monarchs,

    ~Ana

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  17. Best Comment – Deborah Paschall, March, 2014—
    Monsanto and all others in the food business —- (Figure out how )”to continue to feed the growing human populations of the words, you must also learn and be responsible for feeding the world’s wildlife as well… beginning with the butterflies and insects!”

    Reply

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