Minnesota’s endangered state butterfly: Millions of Monarchs gone

Minnesota’s state butterfly, the dazzling orange-and-black Monarch, is a treasure that we share with the world during its multi-generation migration between Minnesota and Mexico. Now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service warns that, “Unless we act now to help the Monarch, this amazing animal could disappear in our lifetime.” According to the Washington Post, “what’s happening to monarch butterflies is nothing short of a massacre.” The Center for Biological Diversity is petitioning for endangered species protection for the monarch, citing a 90 percent decline in the population over the past 20 years.

Loss of habitat is a huge factor in the precipitous decline of the monarch population. Another big threat comes from pesticides, both traditional Roundup and the newer neonicotinoids.

The Center for Biological Diversity points out Roundup’s contribution to the loss of monarch habitat:

“The vast majority of genetically engineered crops are made to be resistant to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, a uniquely potent killer of milkweed, the monarch caterpillar’s only food. The dramatic surge in Roundup use with Roundup Ready crops has virtually wiped out milkweed plants in midwestern corn and soybean fields.”

Then there are the neo-nicotinoids (neonics). As much as the agro-chemical giants want to deny it, the preponderance of research shows that neonic pesticides also are a factor (though not the only factor) in killing monarch butterflies, as well as honeybees and other pollinators.

The bee research came first, both at Harvard and in other studies. Now further research from the University of Minnesota shows that neonics affect monarch butterflies. That happens when neonics present in nearby plants also show up in milkweeds, the main food of monarch butterfly larvae.

While adult monarchs can resist neonic poisoning, that’s not so true for the brightly striped caterpillars. MPR interviewed U of M entomologist Vera Krischik about her research:

“‘For the monarch, nobody was left that were feeding on the treated plants,’ said Krischik, whose research has been accepted for publication by a scientific journal. ‘For the painted lady (butterflies), there were a few scattered larvae that made it to the end of their feeding period.'”

As Sally Jo Sorensen pithily observes, “research strongly suggests that use of long-lasting chemicals intended to kill insects will indeed kill insects.”

Neonics dominate the seed industry. MPR calls them “the most commonly used insecticide in the world.” They’re used on field crops and on vegetables and flowers.

Tom Philpott, writing in Mother Jones, notes that almost all corn and about one-third of all soybeans planted in the United States grows from neonic-treated seeds. Seed companies, in concert with the agro-chemical giants, don’t want to sell untreated seeds. Yet neonics may not even provide a return on the farmers’ investment. Last year the Environmental Protection Agency reported that:

“… these seed treatments provide negligible overall benefits to soybean production in most situations. Published data indicate that in most cases there is no difference in soybean yield when soybean seed was treated with neonicotinoids versus not receiving any insect control treatment.”

Neonics go beyond corn and soybeans, as they are also used to treat vegetable and flower seeds and seedlings. With increasing attention to the damage done by neonics, Bachman’s nursery announced last year that they would grow only neonic-free plants. Last year, the MN legislature passed a law saying that neonic-treated seeds and seedlings may not be labeled as pollinator-safe. In December 2013, the European Union ordered a two-year ban on the use of neonics. Some seed companies, such as Burpee, refuse to use neonics on seeds or plants.

Planting butterfly-safe seeds and seedlings in back yards and gardens is a beginning. Beyond that, it’s time to reconsider the widespread use of pesticides across our agricultural system. That means not only personal efforts to plant milkweed and bee-friendly plants, but also getting informed about the pervasive use of pesticides and political action to rein in the influence of agro-chemical companies on our food and farming system.

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