Thursday, April 24, 2014

The plight of the butterfly

Where have all the monarchs gone?

When I was a child, summer was a time when, if you stood still enough, you could balance a monarch butterfly on your fingertip. They were that plentiful. Synonymous with summer, the butterflies were everywhere. Catching the summer sun on their wings, they were liquid orange visitors every year, and although it took a little patience to get one to land on your fingertip or your shirt, it wasn’t impossible if you were a determined child.

Last year I saw none. And it appears I wasn’t alone.

On November 24, 2013 there was an article in the New York Times talking about how on the first of November in Mexico they celebrate a holiday called the Day of the Dead. Normally the Mexicans also celebrate the arrival of the monarch butterflies, as they are believed by some to be the souls of the dead, visiting their homes once again. But this year, no butterflies appeared.
It wasn’t until weeks later that a few started appearing and the warnings that the monarch butterfly was in dire need of our help became the thunderous roar that we are now hearing from all over.

By the time the article was in print, only 3 million had shown up, which sounds like a lot until you compare it to the 60 million of the previous year, which monarch experts like Lincoln P. Brower, from Sweet Briar College had called dangerously low. Eventually the total number of monarch butterflies found in by the end of 2013 in all seven sites in Mexico where they overwinter was approximately 33 million. In 1996 that number was 1.1 billion.

This is bad news.

This February, on the 24th, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) called upon the EPA to relook at the widespread use of glyphosate, the herbicide known more commonly as Roundup. As a basic herbicide it was developed in 1993 and was approved for used by the EPA, but that was before the creation and embracing of genetically modified crops that can tolerate it’s use. Herbicide tolerate soybeans now make up 93% of soybean acreage in the US. With corn that number is 85%.
We’ve always had acres and acres of corn and soybeans, but now those acres are capable of being drenched with Roundup, with no ill effect on the crops, but with terrible consequences for the planet.

Where there used to be a few weeds in and among the crops, now the soil is poisoned to pure sterility. There is almost no more milkweed in the Midwest farming belt.  And milkweed is the only plant on which monarch butterflies lay their eggs and the only food their larvae (caterpillars) eats.

The NRDC petition proposed that the EPA prevent the use of glyphosate and other weed killers along highways and other power line right of ways and suggested that the EPA require farmers establish herbicide free zones in or around their fields, or create milkweed friendly habitat.

I think this is nuts. I would say ban all Roundup Ready crops and toss those genetically modified freak plants off our planet. Then again, I’m not going up against big agriculture.

And of course, there are other big problems that the monarchs have to deal with. Outside the Corn Belt, there are less farm fields for milkweed to grow in to begin with, and less places for weeds. When I was a kid there were only 15 house on my road in Sagaponack. There are now close to 100.  The natural world is disappearing under roads and pools and manicured lawns. Plus there’s climatic change, and drought, and there’s always bad weather.

In addition, there’s the fact that farmers now get so much money for corn (based on government subsidies for biodiesel) that they are planting it in soil that they used to think wasn’t worthwhile (the perfect place for milkweed to grow BTW.) They also used to get a modest sum for letting ground go fallow for wildlife, but soaring corn prices are too tempting to leave land untouched and rough estimates figure we’ve lost over 17,500 square miles of land that used to be wildlife rich. Add in the illegal logging in Mexico, which is destroying the monarchs overwintering and nesting grounds, and the butterflies have it pretty bad.

So what can we do?

Well, for a start, we can plant milkweed.

There are 21 species of milkweed (asclepias) all of which both feed the monarchs and provide egg-laying sites but the ones most commonly found in our area are A. syriaca, A. tuberosa, A. incarnata, A. curassavica, A. sullivantii, A. viridis and A. purpurascens. Some are tall, some are short, some are natives and some are tropical (and will have to be replanted every year) but whichever ones you want to plant, they all help the butterflies.

The one that I grew up with in the fields of Sagaponack was the Common Milkweed, Asclepias syriaca. This summer blooming, dirty pink flowered perennial has a toxic white milky sap (as do many of the asclepias) so when the larvae (caterpillars) feed on the leaves; they become toxic to monarch butterfly predators. It isn’t however toxic enough to harm people or pets (unless a bushel or two were to be eaten) so it’s a fantastic addition to every garden. Plus when I was growing up, the moment when the seedpods opened and the seed with their silky parachutes danced across the yard was always a time of celebration and joy.

While it’s sometimes difficult to find A. syrica in nurseries, there are two other species that are great substitutes. Asclepias purpurascens, Purple Milkweed is almost identical, but stays at a height of 3 feet while the Common Milkweed can get to be 5 feet if happy. And Smooth Milkweed, Asclepias sullivantii, which is also quite similar but has slightly larger flowers.

Swamp Milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, is native to rivers and streams and is thereby an excellent choice for heavier soils, or to add into gardens that have substantial irrigation (i.e. for hydrangeas.)  The native form blooms pink but there is a cultivar called Ice Ballet that is white, for those of us who don’t want to bring pink into their blue and white gardens. And one called Cinderella that is a much darker pink for those of us that do.

For your those of us who are more bold, the Tropical Milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, comes in electric shades of orange and red and yellow depending on which cultivar you choose and is the easiest to start from seed. It is however not hardy so each year you’ll have to add it back to the garden. 

Another choice that I grew up with growing wild along all the highways and tough, dry, dusty spots out here each summer is Butterfly Weed, Asclepias tuberosa. Since it doesn’t have the same toxic milky sap that most of the other asclepias has, and thus can’t help provide the predator protection, some people think it should be avoided.  I think since it’s shorter and has amazing orange blooms later then most of the other asclepias, when the monarch are still needing sources of nectar, that it should definitely be included in your plant palette.

And finally Green Milkweed, Asclepias viridis, is another excellent variety that has subtler green flowers and looks similar to the Common Milkweed, but is significantly more drought tolerant.
All asclepias need a great deal of sum, and work brilliantly in a wild, meadow type garden, but I’ve had great success working them into existing flower beds, especially since they are completely deer resistant thanks to cardenolides in their toxic sap. I’ve really only planted existing plants myself, but seeds are available. Also if you are associated with a school or a nonprofit group that’s interested in starting a monarch habitat, go to They have funds from the NRDC to provide your organization with a free flat of 32 free plugs to help you get started.
If your not non-profit, but are interested in starting a larger area with a smaller budget, you can also ask your favorite nursery if they are able to order you a flat of plugs. Plugs are just smaller, younger plants, which when it comes to asclepias, are just as simple to grow and the one gallon plants you’ll find at most nurseries. You’ll have to pay a little more attention and what a little longer for them to mature, but they will also we a little cheaper which is helpful if you want to create swathes. You just have to order in the quantities available in the plug trays.
I myself have 72 asclepias syrica and 72 Ice Ballet on special order for myself from Marders this spring, for about $2 each. And I encourage everyone to make this spring the year we all think a little more about some of the summer residents that need a little encouragement to come back out to the Hamptons.
Paige Patterson is planning to give milkweed plants as housewarming presents for people this year instead of wine.
P.S. How to raise Black Swallowtail butterflies at home.
These distinctive caterpillars are green with alternating stripes of black and black and gold, so they are easy to identify. They lay their eggs on the milkweed, but also love parsley, dill, carrot tops and fennel, so you can always find them in the herb garden. Many gardeners remove the caterpillars to prevent crop damages. We say instead of destroying them, bring them inside and raise them.
Buy a caterpillar cage, use a gallon jar or an aquarium with a lid made out of either cheesecloth or wire screening, or punch holes in the lip of a largish plastic container for air. (Do not punch holes into metal, as it will cut little butterfly feet!) Put a stick in the container large enough to support a chrysalis.
Feed your caterpillar daily. It doesn’t care if its parsley is from the garden or the store; just make sure it’s clean and fresh. Also, clean their container daily as caterpillars poop a lot! It takes about two weeks until a baby caterpillar is ready to transform.
Once a brown or green chrysalis is formed, DO NOT TOUCH. It will take more two weeks and then become transparent. A split appears and although the butterfly might take a day or so to free itself, do not help out. It needs to go through its struggle to build up its strength.
Your butterfly’s container must be large enough for it to stretch out its wings once freed, as the wings have to have room to dry. And then it’s ready to be release. Try to free the butterfly within the hour of it’s hatching, preferably on a flower or a cut slice of orange in the sun.

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