Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Monarch Dethroned

I confess I have come to dislike the Monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus, but it has nothing to do with the lovely insect itself. My objection is to the public obsession with the species to the exclusion of so many other butterfly species, let alone moths and other insects. It is also a manufactured obsession created by the many conservation groups that have capitalized on the Monarch’s existing popularity and used it to generate revenue for their organizations.

Let us explore some of the myths that have been purported as a result of the propaganda produced by the likes of Monarch Watch and the Xerces Society, whether accidental or intentional.

  • Monarch butterflies are important pollinators. The overwhelming majority of butterflies are poor pollinators. They belong in the category of “flower visitors” since their primary goal in alighting on blossoms is to obtain nectar, not pollen. Nectar is rich in carbohydrates that fuel the flight of many insects. Pollen, on the other hand, is rich in protein suitable for the growth of immature insects like bee larvae that have the chewing mouthparts to crack the pollen grains. Butterflies, with their siphoning mouthparts, cannot chew the grains, but the adult insects have little need for protein anyway. Bees, many moths, flies, certain wasps and beetles are far more important pollinators.


  • Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), especially crops, harm Monarchs. Monarch caterpillars feed only on milkweeds, so they are not coming into contact with genetically modified crops. There may be a grain of truth in suggesting that Roundup Ready crops immune to herbicides have led to a decline in milkweed plants in agricultural settings. Credit should go to Monarch Watch for promoting the cultivation of milkweeds in urban, suburban, and rural settings not subjected to herbicide use. There may be other reasons to dislike GMOs, but killing butterfly caterpillars is not one of them, at least in this case.
  • Monarch populations are crashing. Populations of many species of insects have boom and bust cycles, and I strongly suspect the Monarch is one of them. There is reason for concern regarding their wintering grounds in the mountains of Mexico, where illegal logging and irresponsible ecotourism definitely contribute to mortality of these insects. The adult butterflies are probably not very plastic in their ability to adapt to other potential wintering groves, if there are even any left standing. Once the butterflies nestle in for the winter, they are vulnerable to disturbances that startle them into flight and burn their fat reserves prematurely. Ecotour operators need to be evaluated to insure they are responsible in their visits to butterfly roosts.

    Still, conservation organizations may be guilty of creating a perpetual crisis that does not exist in reality. Were Monarch numbers declared stable, there would be no perceived endangered status, and monetary donations would dry up. This “sky is falling” phenomenon is probably true of many environmental organizations, and one should be wary when deciding where to spend one’s disposable income.

    All of this is not to say that the Xerces Society, Monarch Watch, and other non-profits are not doing valuable work, or are merely exploiting human sentiments for “poor butterflies.” Indeed, Xerces has branched out over recent years to address insect conservation beyond butterflies, such as protecting aquatic insects and native pollinators. Also, exaggerating an organism’s endangered status can be a way to draw attention to an otherwise overlooked or understated issue.

    The biggest problem I personally face in promoting insect conservation is in getting the public to think “outside the chrysalis” if you will, and recognize that arthropods other than butterflies are valuable. It is incredibly important to change public attitudes toward wasps, spiders, and flies, for example.

    We are making collective headway in creating popular movements that embrace dragonflies, damselflies, moths, and (to a lesser degree) tiger beetles, that do not involve collecting specimens. So, I remain cautiously optimistic that the trend will continue. Just don’t ask me about Monarchs.

  • 15 comments:

    1. Yes, who needs Pandas, Orcas and Monarchs (and, oh, I forgot Honey Bees)? The media do! Like every other media hype, this one is overflowing with misinformation and misplaced emotions. I've heard people discuss how they could get rid of insects that feed on the milkweed that they had planted 'just for Monarchs'. I never know whether I should grump with you or just be happy that those folks care about any insect at all. Grumping seems much more tempting. Barabara Kingslover in her book 'Flightpatterns' chose the second option, building on what the public already cares for, and I must say I prefer all her other books to this one. So keep grumping, Eric!

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      1. Ha! I don't know that I'm grumping at anything but the "hype" as you put it (nicely done). At least I know I'll never run out of people to educate and convert to my own perspective :-) Thank you for the wonderful comment.

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    2. When they become extinct, or at least when their annual migration to the Transvolcanic Zones in Mexico becomes a thing of the past, you will miss them.

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      1. Of course I would, but I would probably miss the American Burying Beetle or Salt Creek Tiger Beetle at least as much if not more so. What I am lamenting is the lack of attention to *other* insects.

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    3. I applaud your strong stand on this matter. Keep on grumping at the hype; we need that. This is the trouble with iconic species. I said something similar recently http://pollinators.blogspot.com/2013/08/monarch-butterfly-case-of-mistaken.html
      Let us hope that more people start putting things into perspective.

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      1. Thank you. I greatly appreciate what you are doing, also, Beatriz.

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    4. Great article Eric. I think conservation organizations and gardeners see the monarch as a way of introducing people to insects. But there is so much more fascinating things going on in the garden, I can't keep up with all the parasitizing and predation! I did read a study recently that butterflies are somewhat effective at pollinating milkweed - they snag their legs on pollinia sacs quite often.

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      1. Thank you, Heather. Yes, Monarchs are among the stronger insects that frequent milkweed. Even honeybees can become so entangled in the sticky pollenia that they die on the plant. Wasps like tarantula hawks are perhaps the best pollinators of milkweed.

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    5. Not a Monarch fan either. I dislike how people look past other butterflies to spot a Monarch, rather than wondering what the other species might be as well.

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    6. I, for one, am not happy with this article at all. Monarchs are what we call a charismatic species. Most people are frightened to death of all insects, and yet are drawn to the story of the incredible migration of the monarch. It is a great introduction to the world of diversity of insects and the ecosystem of the milkweed. If we can convince people to care about one insect, they will learn to care about more insects. And contrary to your statement...GMO's do harm monarchs. The advent of GMO's have wiped out the main breeding ground where monarchs monarchs normally replenish their population in the midwest in the spring every year. Very little milkweed can grow there now due to the heavy pesticide spraying that goes on now because of the GMO crops. This is also decimating all of the other invertebrates that you are claiming to care so much about. It is also not a myth that the monarch population is crashing. Yes the population does fluctuation on a yearly basis, but last year was the lowest the population has ever been and due to the combination of drought, habitat loss and weather, scientists are extremely concerned that the migration could be on it's way out.

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      1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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      2. Thank you, Trecia, dissenting arguments are always welcome here.

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      3. The trouble with charismatic species is that they blind people to other things. I know some who try to kill the "pests" that feed on milkweed to protect the monarchs. Milkweed should be viewed as a complex community, not just as food for the iconic species.
        As for crashing populations, we don't know what the numbers of monarchs and milkweeds were, say, a hundred years ago. Perhaps the whole thing is a relatively new phenomenon, consequence of the conversion of prairies into plowed land. We just don't know enough. http://pollinators.blogspot.com/2013/10/when-did-common-milkweed-become-common.html

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    7. I have one of these moths outside my door and it hasn't moved in 3 days. Does it mean it's dying or should I do anything?

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      1. The Monarch is a butterfly, not a moth, so not sure if you commented on the wrong post, or what. I always recommend letting "nature take its course" when it comes to insects and spiders. Intervention is rarely necessary. Thank you, though, for your concern.

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