A Milkweed Railroad for Monarch Butterflies

I will never forget that sun-washed September day back in the 1970s, when a Monarch butterfly landed on my finger and hung on there trustingly, resting its gaudy black-and-white polka-dotted abdomen on my warm skin.

close-up-of-monarch-butterfly-on-fingerA girl of about ten, dreamy and prone to tree-climbing and rock-sitting, I froze and observed the butterfly’s gorgeous gleaming wings, which beat back and forth slowly as it perched; and then, to my great delight, it unfurled its long, slim black tongue and began gently probing my skin, daintily sipping the beads of sweat it found there.

After a few minutes, it gave a carefree beat of its wings and caught an updraft over to a nearby stand of purple asters.  I watched it with delight, wishing it luck and Godspeed on its long migration south to Mexico, which I knew about thanks to my avid reading of Ranger Rick and National Wildlife.

Many years later, my son, also a keen observer of the natural world, brought a Monarch butterfly caterpillar that he’d found on a stand of milkweed home to munch milkweed on our kitchen counter.

UnknownWe watched, fascinated, as the caterpillar hung itself upside down in a J-form from a branch of milkweed.  Overnight, the soft striped body of the caterpillar hardened into a glossy green cocoon, and its the rear feet solidified into a strong stem, firmly cemented to the branch.

The cocoon hung quietly, quivering now and then as the mysterious transformation took place inside.

One morning we began to see the familiar black and orange outlines of the Monarch wings coming into view just beneath the green wall of the cocoon, now turning translucent.

65207-004-57F046F4

“You’d better put it outside,” I told my son.  “We don’t want it to hatch in the house!”

He put the vase with the milkweed and the trembling cocoon out on the porch, and we left for work and school.  By the time we came back, the miracle had occurred—the cocoon had been abandoned, and the beautiful Monarch had sailed away regally, following its destiny.

images

This year not a single Monarch butterfly visited our garden, although I planted two butterfly bushes for them, and a stand of Asclepias, a whole bed full of bee balm, phlox and asters, and even left a few stubborn stalks of milkweed growing up through my roses.

“Did you see any Monarchs?” my son and I kept asking each other, knowing the answer but still hopeful.

No.

This is how extinction happens.  One year, a beloved species just doesn’t show up.  Life goes on.  But a hole opens  in the tightly stitched fabric of the ecosystem.  When there are enough holes like this, the whole fabric begins to unravel.

Jim Robbins wrote last Sunday in The New York Times:

Monarch butterflies on tree trunks

Monarch butterflies turn the forest orange. They return to a specific mountain forest in Michoacan, Mexico, year after year.

“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.”

Why are the butterflies disappearing?  It’s not just the Monarchs, although these large, showy insects are among the most beloved.  I saw very few butterflies of any stripe in my garden last summer.

As with the precipitous decline in the wild bee population, the culprit is industrial agriculture.

Butterflies rely on wildflowers for their bread and butter during the summer breeding months.  For Monarchs, milkweed is especially crucial.

tam_map_webThe long route from the Mexican forest where they winter to their North American breeding grounds used to be lushly planted with native wildflowers like milkweed.  No single butterfly makes the round-trip from Mexico up to my garden in New England.  Rather, each generation lives long enough to lay its eggs on a convenient stand of milkweed, and those caterpillars hatch, eat their milkweed, cocoon and turn into butterflies to carry the migration on.

It’s a mysterious, miraculous process, the knowledge of the route handed down across scores, perhaps hundreds of generations each season, year after year for untold millennia.

And then human beings invented Round-up.

agriculture-impact-climate-change-monoculture-farm-photoThe tragic decline, not just in the Monarch population but in all our native insects, can be traced directly to the use of chemicals in agriculture.  The herbicide Round-up, sprayed indiscriminately on the ever-spreading farmlands of the American Midwest, kills everything except those seeds genetically engineered to withstand it.

That is, it kills everything a butterfly would need to survive.

Thanks to Round-up and all the other pesticides, herbicides and fungicides used in American agriculture—combined with suburban sprawl, golf courses, lawns, malls and parking lots—much of the U.S. has become an ecological desert, from a butterfly’s point of view.

And without the butterflies and other insects, the bird populations crash too.

The bats die off.  The run-off from these poisoned fields kills the frogs and toads.  And before we know it, that one small hole left by the disappearance of the Monarchs has turned into a gaping, hemorrhaging wound from which there is no recovery.

What can we do?

Hawthorne Valley Farm, Ghent NY--biodynamic & organic

Hawthorne Valley Farm, Ghent NY–biodynamic & organic

One thing we can do as consumers is to support organic agriculture as much as we possibly can.  Yes, it’s more expensive, but think of those extra pennies as a donation to the Save the Bees, Birds and Butterflies effort.

You can also think of buying organic as an investment in your own health.  Pesticides and herbicides build up in our bodies too—we’re at the top of the food chain after all, just like the eagles and hawks who were dying from DDT back when that poison was still being sprayed on the fields.

It’s no accident that we have a cancer epidemic in America today.  What goes around comes around.

We can also be more thoughtful in how we compose our landscapes.  Those of us who are fortunate enough to have green space around our homes can get rid of grass lawns, which are green deserts to butterflies, and plant vegetable and flower beds instead.

05517F2I often find Swallowtail butterfly caterpillars munching away on my dill in the early summer, and I’m happy to share my crop with them.

Even the big tomato hornworm, which can chomp through a whole tomato branch in a single day, is cause for celebration in my backyard, especially now that I know they turn into the spectacular sphinx moth, a daytime moth so big and fast I’ve sometimes mistaken it for a hummingbird.

Imagine a Milkweed Railroad for the Monarchs, running from their winter home in Mexico all the way up to the far reaches of their breeding grounds in Canada.

Stands of milkweed would be planted in every park in every town along the way, so that wherever the butterflies spiraled down from the high updrafts that carry them along the ancient migratory route, there would be milkweed waiting to host their eggs, feed their caterpillars and provide sturdy stalks for their cocoons.

This is not a dream.  This is how it used to be, until the last few decades when human sprawl and wanton chemical use got out of hand.

What humans broke, we can fix.  We just need to set our hearts and minds to the task of repairing the holes in the fabric of our beautiful planet.  And in tending to the planet, we’ll be tending to ourselves.

flat,550x550,075,f

Round up the chemicals–for our children’s sake

When I was pregnant with my second son, born in 1998, I was living out in the country in a small house next to my parents’ bigger house.  My son was born in late August, and all through that third trimester I spent a lot of time outside.

In those years, my mother had the habit of having her pebble driveway sprayed with Round-up a few times during the summer to keep the grass and weeds at bay.  Since the pebbles came right up by the front door of our little house, the Round-up was there too.  I complained to her that it was toxic, bad for our pets, not to mention us, but it took many years for her to pay enough attention to this issue to rate health more highly than a neat appearance for the driveway.

I was thinking about this today as I read the news that finally, at long last, the medical research establishment is beginning to go public in announcing the link between the use of Round-up, skyrocketing rates of autism among children, and colony collapse disorder among bees.

My mother will remember that when my second son was born, we began to worry about him when, by his second and third month of life, he was still not making eye contact, and not returning a smile. He was a sweet, calm baby who slept and ate well, and loved to be cuddled…but unlike his older brother, who was laughing and smiling in his first month, he had a curious detachment about him that was unsettling.

Just like everyone knows someone with cancer, everyone knows someone who has had the hardship of bringing up an autistic child.  It’s a heartbreaker, and in those early months with my second son I was truly frightened that I might be in for that kind of ride with him.

And then, just like that, he started to smile, make eye contact, and all was well.

Could it be that his development was delayed because of the local spraying of Round-up during the last months of my pregnancy with him?

Recent research suggests that this is quite possible indeed.

It’s common knowledge that the Monsantos and Dows of the world use their immense fortune to suppress negative research when at all possible.

Source: U.S. Center for Disease Control

But at this point, with our bee population in serious crisis and the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) telling us that 1 in 88 children is now diagnosed with autism (a figure that does not include all the many, many children who are diagnosed “on the spectrum” with some form of mental impairment), it is impossible for the corporate honchos to keep the lid on this story any longer.

It is an international scandal, bigger even than the Big Tobacco scandals of a generation ago, because in this case there is no way that a defense team could argue that it is a child’s choice to expose herself to toxic chemicals.

France, Germany, Italy and other European countries have already taken steps to ban these harmful pesticides and herbicidesThe U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, finally acting under extreme pressure from concerned citizens, is in the process of “reconsidering” its approval for “Poncho,” one of the most dangerous pesticides, proven to have a negative impact on bees.

Dr. Brian Moench, President of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists this week had the courage to defy Big Ag and describe—I believe for the first time—the missing link between bee colony collapse disorder, human autism, and widespread toxic chemical use in agriculture.

In an article published Monday on Common Dreams, Dr. Moench wrote: “The brain of insects is the intended target of these insecticides.  They disrupt the bees homing behavior and their ability to return to the hive, kind of like “bee autism.”   But insects are different than humans, right?   Human and insect nerve cells share the same basic biologic infrastructure.  Chemicals that interrupt electrical impulses in insect nerves will do the same to humans.  But humans are much bigger than insects and the doses to humans are  miniscule, right?

“During critical first trimester development a human is no bigger than an insect so there is every reason to believe that pesticides could wreak havoc with the developing brain of a human embryo.   But human embryos aren’t out in corn fields being sprayed with insecticides, are they?  A recent study showed that every human tested had the world’s best selling pesticide, Roundup, detectable in their urine at concentrations between five and twenty times the level considered safe for drinking water.”

Just down the road from the house where I lived while pregnant with my second son are fields of corn that are maintained by a local farmer.  It’s nowhere near the scale of agriculture in the Midwest or California, but still, if the wind was blowing while they were spraying the herbicides and pesticides in the spring, or while they were harvesting the corn in the fall, we would certainly be inhaling a toxic brew, that undoubtedly found its way into our well water.

And that’s beside the voluntary Round-up spraying of the driveway, and the fact that in those days I was not aware enough to be making a strong effort to buy organic fruits and vegetables, and avoid commercial meat.

So all in all I must consider myself and my family very lucky to have so far avoided autism or cancer.

This should not be left to luck.  Allowing Monsanto, Dow and the other agricultural chemical companies to continue to profit from poisoning our land and our food supply is absolutely unconscionable.

It’s even worse than allowing the cigarette industry to advertise to young people, which we no longer permit.

The bees are the canaries in the gold mine, and they’re dropping fast.

Are we going to delay until the statistics tell us that 1 in 50 children in the U.S. are born autistic?

This is a national and international outrage that must be addressed now.

%d bloggers like this: