The Canary is Gasping for Air …

I fear that we will soon have new job offerings in the United States – that of hand pollinator. The news is dire for the Monarch butterfly and our honeybees. Are these species the proverbial canary in the coal mine? China is already using hand pollination for it’s apple orchards due to a decline in honeybees as evidenced in this article from February 2012 in China Dialogue, “Decline of bees forces China’s apple farmers to pollinate by hand.”

Farming and human health depend upon the ecosystem services provided by wild organisms; worms, woodlice, millipedes and a host of other creatures which help with soil formation, forests to produce oxygen, prevent soil erosion and regulate water flow, birds to eat insect pests, flies and beetles to break down animal dung, bees and other pollinators to pollinate crops.

Modern farming threatens to eradicate these organism, and so undermine itself.

Pollination provides one of the clearest examples of how our disregard for the health of the environment threatens our own survival. About 75% of all crop species require pollination by animals of some sort, often by bees, but sometimes by flies, butterflies, birds or even bats.

Crop pollination by insects has been estimated to be worth $14.6 billion to the economy of the USA and £440 million a year to the UK. Some pollination is done by domesticated honeybees, but the bulk of pollination of most crops is done by wild insects, including many species of wild bee such as bumblebees.

In the UK, for example, recent studies suggest that about one-third of pollination is delivered by honeybees, the rest being carried out by a range of wild insects. These animals need undisturbed places to nest, and flowers to feed on when the crops are not flowering.

However, bee diversity has declined markedly in Europe, with many species disappearing from much of their former range, and some species going extinct. The UK alone has lost three species of native bumblebee, and six more are listed as endangered. Four bumblebee species have gone extinct from the whole of Europe, and there is good evidence for similar declines in North America and China.

 

You may be wondering how this is related to my promoting a healthy and fit lifestyle on my blog. As I have grown older (I’m now 46yrs old) and now that my body is being attacked by it’s own immune system (Sjogren’s Syndrome), nutrition has become even more important to my health, longevity and quality of life. On any given day, you can read an article about how our adulterated food supply system is negatively impacting our health directly and thought to be at the root of many autoimmune diseases along with environmental contamination by heavy metals. Well folks, it’s also indirectly impacting out health. Increased destruction of habitats for housing developments, increased production of monocrops, increased used of pesticides and herbicides, have upset the ecological balance. We are losing pollinators at an alarming rate. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.small-wholefoods-bees-releasephoto

 

“The before-and-after photo (above) is shocking – as are the statistics. Whole Foods Market’s produce team pulled from shelves 237 of 453 products – 52 percent of the normal product mix in the department. Among the removed products were some of the most popular produce items:

Apples
Onions
Avocados
Carrots
Mangos
Lemons
Limes
Honeydew
Cantaloupe
Zucchini
Summer squash
Eggplant
Cucumbers
Celery
Green onions
Cauliflower
Leeks
Bok choy
Kale
Broccoli
Broccoli rabe
Mustard greens

– See more at: http://media.wholefoodsmarket.com/news/bees#sthash.iCjhnglR.dpuf”

 

 

This may be our future.

The most dramatic example comes from the apple and pear orchards of south west China, where wild bees have been eradicated by excessive pesticide use and a lack of natural habitat.

In recent years, farmers have been forced to hand-pollinate their trees, carrying pots of pollen and paintbrushes with which to individually pollinate every flower, and using their children to climb up to the highest blossoms. This is clearly just possible for this high-value crop, but there are not enough humans in the world to pollinate all of our crops by hand.

And what about my beloved Monarch butterfly? It’s not just beautiful to look at, but it’s long, annual migration to Mexico has intrigued people for ages. It too is a pollinator. The news about this years winter migration to Mexico is bleak, as reported in the New York Times today. Official numbers will be published in March 2014.

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. Some experts fear that the spectacular migration could be near collapse.

Another insect in serious trouble is the wild bee, which has thousands of species. Nicotine-based pesticides called neonicotinoids are implicated in their decline, but even if they were no longer used, experts say, bees, monarchs and many other species of insect would still be in serious trouble.

That’s because of another major factor that has not been widely recognized: the precipitous loss of native vegetation across the United States.

“There’s no question that the loss of habitat is huge,” said Douglas Tallamy, a professor of entomology at the University of Delaware, who has long warned of the perils of disappearing insects. “We notice the monarch and bees because they are iconic insects,” he said. “But what do you think is happening to everything else?”

There you go, the canary is gasping for air.

Native trees are not only grocery stores, but insect pharmacies as well. Trees and other plants have beneficial chemicals essential to the health of bugs. Some monarchs, when afflicted with parasites, seek out more toxic types of milkweed because they kill the parasites. Bees use medicinal resins from aspen and willow trees that are antifungal, antimicrobial and antiviral, to line their nests and to fight infection and diseases. “Bees scrape off the resins from the leaves, which is kind of awesome, stick them on their back legs and take them home,” said Dr. Spivak.

Besides pesticides and lack of habitat, the other big problem bees face is disease. But these problems are not separate. “Say you have a bee with viruses,” and they are run-down, Dr. Spivak said. “And they are in a food desert and have to fly a long distance, and when you find food it has complicated neurotoxins and the immune system just goes ‘uh-uh.’ Or they become disoriented and can’t find their way home. It’s too many stressors all at once.”

We are living in our own food desert and it will only get worse if we do not act now. It is not too late!

There are numerous organizations and individuals dedicated to rebuilding native plant communities one sterile lawn and farm field at a time. Dr. Tallamy, a longtime evangelizer for native plants, and the author of one of the movement’s manuals, “Bringing Nature Home,” says it’s a cause everyone with a garden or yard can serve. And he says support for it needs to develop quickly to slow down the worsening crisis in biodiversity.

I have ordered Bringing Nature Home and plan to add more native plants to support our pollinators. I have a garden full of Milkweed Plants (be careful if you have pets that might eat this). We had numerous Monarch butterflies and raised 30+ caterpillars to butterfly-hood. I even increased my number and variety of milkweed this year and sadly, did not get a single Monarch. I saw very few honeybees this year as well. It was mostly bumblebees. So order the book and let’s have a discussion about what we can do to save them and ourselves. For more info about honeybees, check out the Whole Foods’ Share the Buzz.

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References
https://www.chinadialogue.net/article/show/single/en/5193
http://media.wholefoodsmarket.com/news/bees

It’s Monarch Butterfly Time!!!

It’s June and time for the Monarch butterfly to be reaching the Northeast. If you would like to read more about the northerly migration, check out this website. If you spot a Monarch, please leave a comment below and post your state if you don’t mind. Be sure you know the difference between a Monarch butterfly and the look-a-like Viceroymonarch. This website has a good explanation of the differences. You need to get a good look at the hind wing. You can also officially report your Monarch sighting at the following link.

 

The New York times posted another distressing report about the plight of the Monarch butterfly.

 

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gardenThe milkweed, pictured in the center, which I planted last year came up very quickly! They are now about 2-3feet tall. The Joe pye weed, pictured on the right, also came up and in addition, I have 3 new plants! I guess the Joe pye weed has earned it’s name! The pretty green plant between the Milkweed and Joe pye weed, I suspect, is an actual weed!!! Hard to tell the difference but I removed a huge weed from this very spot last year!

 

 

I have purchased a new milkweed this year called Hairy Balls milkweed. From Rose Franklin’s Perennials “Native to southeast Africa, Hairy Balls Milkweed grows 48″-60” high and hairyballmilkweedproduces clusters of tiny white star-shaped flowers August thru September. Balloon-like seed pods appear in September and October. Utilized by Monarch butterflies for egg-laying and used as a nectar source by many other butterfly species (and also by hummingbirds). Plant in full sun and treat as an annual. Save the seeds this fall and start them yourself next year (this milkweed is easy to grow from seed). Shipped in 3″ pots. Deer resistant.
New and sure to be a top seller! It’s also a hit with Monarchs. We found more Monarch caterpillars on our Hairy Balls Milkweed in 2012 than we did on our Tropical Milkweed (which, in previous years, was their #1 choice for egg-laying).” So if you’re worried about milkweed spreading (I didn’t have any issues w/ this, Joe pye weed is another story), then this is a good milkweed to try!

To read all my other Monarch butterfly posts, check out this link.

 

What is affecting the Monarch Butterfly in the US?

As stated in my previous posts (links are below), there are many factors causing a rapid decline in the Monarch Butterfly population. Logging of their caterpillar2wintering sites in Mexico continues to be a major factor as well as diversion of water sources. What are the factors that are contributing to the decline in the United States? The Monarch caterpillar only feeds on one plant, the Milkweed. As with any animal that solely relies on one food source, this puts it at great risk. Of course the more homes we build in wild areas, the more milkweed is destroyed. However, there seems to be another culprit in the Monarch Butterfly demise – GMO-corn. I certainly would like to follow up on this research and if I find anything contrary or further supporting, I will amend this post, but in a study published in the journal Nature May 20, 1999, (a top tier scientific journal and the feather in any researcher’s cap), and reported in the Cornell News, the pollen from BT-corn (corn carrying a gene from the bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis which makes it resistant to the European corn borer) kills Monarch caterpillars in a research study.

In the laboratory tests, monarchs fed milkweed leaves dusted with so-called transformed pollen from a Bt-corn hybrid ate less, grew more slowly and suffered a higher mortality rate, the researchers report. Nearly half of these larvae died, while all of the monarch caterpillars fed leaves dusted with nontransformed corn pollen or fed leaves without corn pollen survived the study.

The toxin in the transformed pollen, the researchers say, goes into the gut of the caterpillar, where it binds to specific sites. When the toxin binds, the gut wall changes from a protective layer to an open sieve so that pathogens usually kept within the gut and excreted are released into the insect’s body. As a result, the caterpillar quickly sickens and dies.

The butterflies overwinter in Mexico and by the spring begin migrating north. The first generation of the year crosses into Texas, other Gulf Coast states and Florida, seeking milkweed on which to lay their eggs and feed. By late May or early June, the second generation of adults has emerged and heads north to areas including the Midwest Corn Belt. Monarch caterpillars are feeding on milkweed during the period when corn is shedding pollen, Losey says. Thus “they may be in the right place at the right time to be exposed to Bt-corn pollen.”

As in everything, it comes down to a battle between what is good (or perceived good) for humans and what is good for the environment. It is even more imperative that we give Monarch butterflies safe-alternative locations to lay their eggs away from corn fields! Please consider planting milkweed in your yard!! Plants start shipping in May! See my blog posts below to find out where to purchase milkweed.

You can find my other blog posts about Monarch butterflies here.
How to Raise Monarch Butterflies Part 1

How to  Raise Monarch Butterflies Part 2

First Hand Account of the Plight of the Monarch Butterfly

Read a first-hand account of the plight of the Monarch Butterfly

I was introduced to Dr. Lincoln Brower in a wonderful DVD series by BBC Earth titled Life. In it, there are two segments onBBEearthLife Monarch butterflies. Dr. Brower takes us to Mexico to aid in the filming of the wonderous Monarch butterfly migration. Today, while watching the DVD, I decided to google Dr. Brower’s name and see if it brought up something new from him. I found this rather depressing account of his travels to Mexico in February 2013 to assess the Monarch butterfly population. Here’s the link to the pdf. It’s an interesting. albeit, very sad read.

We found this operation an appalling continuation of the illegal logging in the supposedly completely protected core area if the Reserve. ….

Based on our cursory observations of the small sizes of the colonies and their dispersed states, together with the extreme drought conditions (also noted in Pruden and Morris, 2013), I predict that the remigration into the US this spring may be perilously low.

Given the heavy impact of tourism and horses on the butterfly colony areas and the trails leading to them, the ever increasing installation of pipes capturing the water from the natural seeps and spring sources near the colonies, the continued cumulative impact of horse logging, the ever-present small scale logging that is rampant in the area, the frequent presence of grazing cattle and sheep, the authorized removal of trees by salvage logging that causes extensive soil compaction, the misguided methods of replanting seedlings, and what appears to be increasing desiccation, the future of the monarch butterfly overwintering phenomenon in Mexico is seriously compromised. The slope of graph of the year-by-year total colony area is pointing to zero (Brower et al, 2012) and may soon be there. Potential good news is that the Reserve Director Gloria Travera is aware of the problems and has promised to address them (Brower, personal communication, 21 February 2013).

and this….

the genetically engineered herbicide-resistant corn and soybean crops are eliminating milkweed and nectaring habitats on an unprecedented scale where most of the monarchs breed in the Midwestern United States (Brower et al., 2011).

Be sure to check out my parts 1, 2, and soon to be published 3, series on what you can do to help the Monarch butterfly.

Monarch Butterflies Part 2 of 3

I had read that Monarch butterflies were making a comeback. Sadly, this report in the Washington Post and other newspapers, it seems it was just a blip on the steady decline of the Monarch.

The number of Monarch butterflies making it to their winter refuge in Mexico dropped 59 percent this year, falling to the lowest level since comparable record-keeping began 20 years ago, scientists reported Wednesday.

It was the third straight year of declines for the orange-and-black butterflies that migrate from the United States and Canada to spend the winter sheltering in mountaintop fir forests in central Mexico. Six of the last seven years have shown drops, and there are now only one-fifteenth as many butterflies as there were in 1997. The decline in the Monarch population now marks a statistical long-term trend and can no longer be seen as a combination of yearly or seasonal events, the experts said.

We’re solving the issue of logging in Mexico but the butterflies START in the North! We, North America and Canada, must do our part! To learn where to order milkweed plants, please see Part 1 of my Monarch butterfly blog series.

Omar Vidal, the World Wildlife Fund director in Mexico, said: “The conservation of the Monarch butterfly is a shared responsibility between Mexico, the United States and Canada. By protecting the reserves and having practically eliminated large-scale illegal logging, Mexico has done its part.”

“It is now necessary for the United States and Canada to do their part and protect the butterflies’ habitat in their territories,” Vidal said. Omar Vidal, the World Wildlife Fund director in Mexico, said: “The conservation of the Monarch butterfly is a shared responsibility between Mexico, the United States and Canada. By protecting the reserves and having practically eliminated large-scale illegal logging, Mexico has done its part.”

Now that I’ve hopefully convinced you to help save the Monarch butterfly by buying milkweed plants and placing them in your garden, what enjoyment might you get out of this activity? PLENTY!!!!!!! My entire family got into the process. As stated in part 1, once you find eggs, just wait for them to hatch. If you don’t won’t mother nature to take her course, remove aphids and beetles with long slender protruding mouth parts for they will eat the baby caterpillars. I know that’s vague but I can’t recall the name. I will find it, rest assured. Caterpillars seem to stay on/near the same plant unless your plants are very close together. Each day, have fun looking for and counting your caterpillars. It is fun to get a close look at their mouth parts while they are chewing the milkweed.

Once the caterpillars grow through several molts, they will be ready to enter the chrysalis stage. They are usually about two inches long and you may notice the caterpillar more often, sitting on a leaf but not eating. We have never observed Monarch caterpillars to attach in the chrysalis stage, to milkweed plants, not in the “wild” nor in our flower bed. Try to plant dense, green plants amongst your milkweed for the caterpillar to attach to. It will take some skill to find them as they are well camouflaged but your perseverance will be rewarded. chrysalis David found one attached to the siding of the house! I also located one attached underneath our deck. So they can travel several feet hunting for the perfect place for their metamorphosis.

Once you find a chrysalis, you have several options. You can leave it where it is and observe daily. You will observe the color change as the wings are formed and the pigments begin to develop. Once the wings are very dark, you know eclosure is eminent. We did observe several butterflies in this fashion but you have to be diligent. It takes minutes for the process to occur.

chyrsalis2

 

If you would like to watch this amazing event in a more controlled and comfortable environment, you can very carefully remove the chrysalis and take it indoors. Using very fine tweezers, tug at the junction of the chrysalis and the surface to which it attached. Do not tough or squeeze the chrysalis! I took some fine sewing thread, and tied it to the very tip of the chrysalis which is like a tiny twig. You can then tie this to a stick. Put your new baby in a secure location and observe often. If you like, you can set up lighting and a video camera so you can video the birth!

 

 

butteflyhouse

Butterfly pavillion from Insect Lore.

 

If you would like to have the caterpillar in a more secure place, particularly important if you have pets, consider investing in a butterfly pavillion. The one shown here from Insect Lore is similar to the one we have. This one is 12″ tall. Our is probably 3feet tall but you don’t really need one that large. I will talk more about using this butterfly pavilion in Part 3 of my Monarch Butterfly blog series.

 

 

 

If you’re lucky, you see the chrysalis puff up. This action of filling it’s body with air, splits the casing. The butterfly then literally falls out of the bottom of the chrysalis and quickly grabs on to, lest it falls to the ground. (I’ve never observed that to happen). eclosing

It will take a few hours for the wings to dry. I suggest just sitting quietly and observing. It really is a magnificent experience! It is crucial not to touch the wings while they are wet. Once the butterfly begins to move about a bit, you can let it walk on your finger but try to keep the wings in a natural down position. They are extremely fragile and very heavy. Think how heavy a load of wet towels are! I would not let very young kids attempt this. Before long, the butterfly will attempt to fly. WARNING: this could happen to you. You are not in danger, ha ha ha! This butterfly actually landed on my chin, and proceeded to walk up my mouth, over my nose, onto my glasses before settling on my forehead. It is now time to move outdoors with your new friend. As the butterfly catches a breeze, it will take flight. It may rest up in a tree for a time so you can still observe it or it may be dry enough to begin it’s journey. butterflyonhead

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As this post is already exceeding most people’s attention span, including mine, it is now Part 2 of 3. I will discuss an alternate way of caring for your caterpillars when you want to take a caterpillar indoors either to protect it from predators or to watch the chrysalis-formation.

How to Raise Monarch Butterflies Part 1 of 3

monarch

This is a male Monarch butterfly indicated by the two black scent glands on his wings.

What is not to love about butterflies? They are beautiful and graceful. Every year we enjoyed searching for Monarch butterfly eggs on the wild milkweed plants at a local pond. Then one year, the area was destroyed by the town to control flooding in an area where flooding did not even have a serious impact on homeowners or traffic. So, I decided to raise our own caterpillars!

I purchased swamp milkweed plants (white flowering) from Butterflybushes.com (Rose Franklin Perennials) and put them in the bed next to our house. These plants appear to be deer and rabbit resistant as I never sprayed them with deer away and they were not nibbled to nubs by passing deer or rabbits.  I bought about 6 swamp milkweed plants in May. If you’ve seen milkweed growing in the wild, you may think it’s not a very attractive plant to place in your flower beds … and you’d be correct. However, the swamp milkweed is a “feminine” version of wild milkweed. It has dainty leaves and blends in well in your flower beds. I put the plants on the side of the house where they get full sun most of the day. I planted them about 1foot apart. They grew to about 3feet so you may want to put them in the back of your bed if you have shorter plants you’d like to put in front. They also tend to get top heavy so plan on staking them upright once they are mature. They didn’t require any other special care. If it was very dry or they were wilting, I did water them. Once the caterpillars grow to several inches in length, they will look for a place to form a chrysalis. I have never seen them to do this on milkweed but seem to prefer neighboring plants. So do plant very, leafy bushy green plants amongst your milkweed to encourage the caterpillars to stay near by. We did have one attach to the siding of the house and another underneath the deck!

(((Caution))) I did learn from a reader that Milkweed, along with so many plants, are toxic to pets. If you have outdoor pets that love to eat plants, exercise caution. Here is a long list of plants that are toxic to pets and the signs to look for in your pet if you suspect they are have eaten milkweed.

aphids

This swamp milkweed is infested with aphids. They will stunt the growth of the plants if not eradicated.

Here is a photo of the flowers and the long slender leaves of the swamp milkweed. Unfortunately, you also see the aphid infestation. This is very, very bad for the plants, and for you. You may be tempted to bring in the ladybugs to take care of your aphids but stop that thought right now. Ladybugs will eat baby Monarch caterpillars. Ok, I might as well tell this humorous story. I had the bright idea to release hundreds of ladybugs purchased from our local nursery to eat the aphids. We did this at night as instructed. Right after releasing the ladybugs, I remembered that I saw a ladybug eating a baby Monarch caterpillar the year before. The entire family was out at 10pm with flashlights rescuing all of the caterpillars! I put them in our butterfly house with milkweed leaves. We only lost one caterpillar to the ladybugs. That was a close call. Why I didn’t remember that a few minutes BEFORE releasing the ladybugs is beyond me. So how do you get rid of the aphids? The hard way. Take a damp paper towel, and painstakingly, smash the little buggers. Do this every single day and after a few weeks, you will be aphid-free. The infestation happens quickly and it does stunt the growth of the plants. Once I removed all the aphids, the plants resumed growing.

 

monarchegg

Look for Monarch eggs on the underside of milkweed plants.

One morning, my daughter saw a Monarch butterfly flying near the house. We stood quietly on the porch to observe. I have never seen such behavior in a butterfly.I can best describe it as uncontrolled excitement. The butterfly couldn’t decide which plant she’d land on first. She had her tail in a curled position and I knew she would lay eggs.Later in the day, we very carefully, turned over leaves by grabbing gently on the very tips to look for eggs. The eggs are like tiny pearls. BINGO! We found several eggs on two bushes!

 

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This is a medium sized Monarch caterpillar on a milkweed leaf.

After about four or five days, the eggs will hatch! Take the same care you did when looking for eggs by gently turning over the leaves by the tips. In the evenings, the caterpillars tend to go down to the ground and move up the plant early morning. If you see holes missing from leaves, you know you have a Monarch caterpillar!

Two of my favorite butterfly books are Where Butterflies Grow, and  The Life Cycles of Butterflies . I just saw this one at Amazon, How to Raise Monarch Butterflies, and will have to get it!

UPDATE: I just received How to Raise Monarch Butterflies, and it is a keeper! It is an all in one resource on caring for Monarch butterflies!

Stay tuned for part 2 where I will explain how we cared for the caterpillars both outdoors and indoors so that we could watch the metamorphosis.