November 22, 2013 Sweet Briar, Virginia - Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) living east of the Rocky Mountains in North America have flown south each fall, gathering in central Mexico's Oyamel fir forest to get through winter. This extraordinary Monarch migration is unique in the insect world. None but the Monarchs in different generations fly twice every year in fall and spring for as much as 2400 miles each way. Their destination are twelve mountaintops west of Mexico City covered with Oyamel firs. Historically when the Monarchs were healthy and not threatened by radical changes in their milkweed food and a warming climate, a billion of the beautiful orange and black creatures would fly south and literally cover some 60 acres of the fir trees.
Two of the annual historic monarch butterfly overwintering sites in Central Mexico
Oyamel fir forests are El Rosario and Sierra Chincua underlined above.
The above map shows the Oyamel firs (Abies religiosa) west of Mexico City that grow only at high altitudes, between 7,874 to 11,811 feet (2,400 and 3,600 meters) in a very limited geography. The Monarch overwintering sites are found on only 12 isolated mountaintops of Mexico's most endangered forest in which only 2% of the original Oyamel firs remain.
In past normal and healthy years, an estimated billion monarch butterflies have made the
United States to Mexico migration and settled in dense orange layers over 21 Hectares
of trees in the Oyamel forests. In 2012, the migration had declined to only 1.19 Hectares,
the lowest in the twenty years of records. 1 Hectare = 2.47 acres.
Monarch butterflies prefer to lay their eggs on milkweed where the hatched larva
will eat the milkweed leaves to grow and transform into the intricate orange
and black beautiful flying insects that also help pollinate as bees do.
University of Minnesota scientists estimate that between
1999 and 2010, Monarch egg production on milkweed (above photo)
in the Midwest dropped by 81% as milkweeds
over the past decade have been rapidly killed off by Monsanto's
Roundup Ready (RR) herbicides engineered into the DNA
of RR corn and soybeans. Photo by Siah St. Clair.
Monarch caterpillar becoming a chrysalis. Monarch butterfly emerging
from a chrysalis. Images from Monarch-Butterfly.com.
But this year, nature centers, scientists and Monarch enthusiasts all reported that Monarchs were missing in the summer of 2013 from all the places they've been in the past. The Boston Nature Center has a butterfly garden that is usually teeming with Monarchs and other butterflies. But it was almost empty. Chip Taylor, the insect ecologist at the University of Kansas and founder of Monarch Watch reported, “All in all, the last two breeding seasons have been just a disaster for Monarchs and this is going to be the lowest overwintering population ever.”
He was right. Monarch watchers of the fir forests in Mexico were expecting to see Monarchs arriving on the trees by November 1st. But none showed up until November 6th — and then in only twelve trees instead of hundreds. And nothing has changed in the last week of November.
To find out more about the missing monarchs, I talked with an American monarch expert, Prof. Lincoln Brower, who received his Ph.D. at Yale University in Zoology and went on to study how specific butterflies interact with each other and impact the environment. Prof. Brower teaches and researches biology at Sweet Briar College in Virginia and considers the Monarch migration to be one of Earth's great miracles. He spoke frankly about his deep concern that political and economic forces that now support GMO pesticide/herbicide agriculture and profit at all costs are destroying too much Earth life, threatening the sustainable balance of Nature on this planet.
Play MP3 interview.
Lincoln P. Brower, Ph.D., Research Prof. of Biology, Sweet Briar College, Sweet Briar, Virginia: “One of the most incredible aspects of the monarch migration is that the butterflies that are born in the following year are the great grandchildren of the ones that spent the winter in Mexico. Yet, these butterflies fly back to the same trees to spend the winter in Mexico that their great grandparents from the previous year. We don't have a clue how they do this!
What it means is that the migration is an inherited pattern of behavior and some how the genes are directing the butterflies to find their way to an area that's only about 30 miles wide in the very central highlands of Mexico. It really is an incredible migration!
IN 2013 NOVEMBER, THE FIRST ONES (MONARCHS) DIDN'T APPEAR UNTIL NOVEMBER 6TH AND THEN THEY DIDN'T STICK AROUND IN THE TREES. CAN YOU UPDATE US ON WHAT IS HAPPENING?
Well, I had a message from a colleague in Mexico saying that he visited two of the classical over-wintering sites: one is called El Rosario in Michoacan; and the other one is called the Sierra Chincua. He went up and looked. Normally by now, there would be hundreds of trees covered with monarchs and he said there were about ten trees in one of the areas and only two in the other.
All predictions are on the lowest migration we've ever had in the history of studying the monarch butterfly.
THERE WERE ARTICLES IN 2013 SUCH AS THE 'MONARCHS ARE MISSING THIS SUMMER.'
It was incredible because normally I would see them here breeding in Virginia and I went from October of last year (2012) until August of this year before I saw a single monarch in my garden. And this was a pattern that was pretty much throughout the whole eastern range of the butterfly. Amazingly small numbers!
About fifteen years ago, there were twenty-one hectares of butterflies. Now, a hectare is about 2.25 acres. So 21 hectares of butterflies in Mexico where they over-winter in these incredibly dense clusters is probably about a billion monarch butterflies.
Now, this past year, the over-wintering colony size was way, way down. It was down to 1.19 hectares - the lowest it's been in the twenty years for which we have records. Then the migration, as we've already discussed, was pathetic and the fall migration going back again seems to be even more pathetic. So, we're very concerned about what's happening to the monarch.
Monarch Butterfly Extinction?
IF THIS TREND HAS ACCELERATED THIS MUCH IN JUST THE LAST TWO OR THREE YEARS OF PERSISTENT DECLINE IN MONARCHS IN THE UNITED STATES AND IN MEXICO, ARE WE HEADED TOWARDS AN EXTINCTION OF THE MONARCH BUTTERFLY?
Well, I don't think we'll lose the monarch butterfly because there are non-migratory populations that live in the Caribbean. But we could lose its fabulous fall migration that everybody has known since going back to about 1850. It's a tragic loss of one of the most beautiful and interesting and complex migrations that's ever evolved.
IT SEEMS A METAPHOR FOR THE TIME WE'RE LIVING IN IN WHICH EXTINCTIONS OF EARTH LIFE KEEP INCREASING EVERY YEAR. WHAT DO YOU PERSONALLY SPECULATE IS THE MAIN REASON NOW THAT THE MONARCHS ARE MISSING IN GREAT NUMBERS?
Well, I think there are two reasons. All these beautiful forests that the butterflies spend the winter in are above 10,000 feet in elevation in Mexico. The butterflies are going into a forest that's actually like a Canadian forest because it's such a high elevation where it's cool and moist during the winter. Over the years, there's been a lot of illegal de-forestation going on in Mexico. We've been fighting that.
And since these forests are the sole over-wintering site where the monarchs spend the winter, the loss of the trees is a disaster for the butterflies because it exposes them to rain and snow. They actually get snow even though it's south of the Tropic of Cancer because it's such a high altitude.
Now Mexico has made a major effort to stop large scale illegal logging, but what they have not stopped is small scale logging by horse loggers and a few people who relentlessly go up into these forests and take the trees out illegally. So that's caused a deterioration of the habitat and if you thin the forests, it's like cutting a hole in your umbrella. You get a winter storm where rain and snow wet butterflies. Then at night when it clears after these storms, the temperature plunges down to five or six degrees below freezing and that kills the monarchs.
GMOs Could Be Monarchs' Worst Enemy
In 2002, we figured that 3/4s of a billion monarch butterflies were killed during one of those storms, but I think what has become an even greater problem is industrialized agriculture in the United States - especially the development of genetically engineered corn and soybean crops, which have been manipulated to be completely resistant to high-powered herbicides.
We know from studies that have been done by the University of Minnesota that the principal breeding area of the monarch has always been on milkweeds that grow in the corn fields and the soybean fields in the Midwest in what once was the prairie grassland ecosystem.
Seeds are planted of soybeans and corn. They are totally resistant to Roundup. The seedlings germinate and the fields are sprayed with the high-powered herbicide Roundup and it kills everything, except the corn and soybean seeds. Over two or three years, Roundup totally eliminates milkweed.
The University of Iowa did a study where they showed about 70% of the milkweeds in the whole state of Iowa had been destroyed by this agriculture. You're taking a system that was biotically extremely diverse with wild flowers, milkweed, shrubs and trees with all the animals associated with that. And now it's being reduced at the expense of wildlife over hundreds of thousands of acres of land. And it's too much! It's overdoing it. It's destroying the natural environment to the degree that's really unprecedented in the history of civilization.
ISN'T THE CORN BEING GROWN IN THE UNITED STATES OVER THESE THOUSANDS OF ACRES FOR FUEL, FOR GASOLINE ADDITIVE?
Yes. And if you factor in the damage to the natural environment, it's nothing short of a natural catastrophe what has happened. I've gotten letters from farmers asking, ‘What can I do to help the monarch?’ Well, if they didn't use these herbicides along say 100-foot-border of their field or a farmer had a part of their field not sprayed (with Roundup), that would be helpful.
IS IT FAIR TO SAY THAT MONSANTO AND OTHER CORPORATIONS THAT ARE THE CREATORS OF THINGS LIKE GLYPHOSATE AND OTHER PESTICIDES AND HERBICIDES, WHO HAVE AS THEIR TOP PRIORITY PROFIT- THAT THEY ARE IN FACT UNDERMINING EARTH LIFE EVERY DAY?
I think that's a very fair statement. Money counts and nothing else seems to count - and pushing these (GMO) crops, not only in the United States, but throughout the world! It's going to cause the same problems wherever they are used, so we'll be losing more and more biodiversity across the planet Earth. I think it's a great tragedy!
IF THE CURRENT STATE OF EVERYTHING WE KNOW OCCURS, WILL THE MONARCH BUTTERFLY MIGRATION END ENTIRELY?
I think the migration may end even under current conditions with this agriculture. You know, if you think about it, the breeding area of the monarchs in the United States and southern Canada is almost a million square miles! The main focus of the breeding of the monarchs is in the grassland ecosystems where the great prairies used to be. And now those areas are almost completely wiped out - something like 99% of the natural prairie environment has been altered by agriculture. And prior to the development of herbicide agriculture, there were always marginal areas of the field and within the fields, there were a lot of weeds growing and natural vegetation growing. Now that's all being wiped off the Earth by Round up and GMO crops. I can't emphasize enough how destructive I think this agriculture is.
YOU'RE DESCRIBING A WORLD THAT SEEMS UNSUSTAINABLE.
Well, I'm frankly worried about the future of the Earth. My wife and I talk about this more often than we probably should! (laughs) The over population that is happening and the failure of our Congress to support family planning and trying to stabilize world population size.
ONE OF THE BIG IRONIES IS THAT A CORPORATION LIKE MONSANTO THAT HAS A MISSION STATEMENT OF WANTING TO PROVIDE FOOD FOR THE ENTIRE WORLD IS GOING AT IT THROUGH GENETICALLY MODIFIED CROPS THAT CONTINUE TO REDUCE THE BIODIVERSITY OF CROPS AND THAT EVERY SCIENTIST I'VE EVER INTERVIEWED SAYS IT IS ONLY THROUGH BIODIVERSITY THAT WE HAVE THE STRENGTH OF CROPS THAT COULD CONTINUE TO GROW IN A VARIETY OF ENVIRONMENTS ON THE PLANET TO SUSTAIN POPULATIONS AND THAT NOW WE ARE VULNERABLE BECAUSE THERE HAS BEEN SUCH A REDUCTION IN BIODIVERSITY.
As we become more and more dependent upon fewer and fewer seeds that are produced by commercial companies, the natural variation that was out there is going to diminish and that can only in the end spell disaster.
OVER THE NEXT 90 YEARS, WHAT DO YOU THINK IS THE LIKELY CONDITION OF PLANET EARTH?
(laughs) That's a good question. If we don't grasp these issues and address them, I think the world will be grossly over-populated and that there will be a few Haves and a lot of Have Nots. And there will be pestilence, war and famine across this planet the likes of which we have never seen before. So the politics are against the environment - that's the way it seems to be and we need to turn that around.
Extinction of Monarchs Like
the Disappearance of the Mona Lisa
I gave a lecture to my 60th reunion class at Princeton University. At the end of my talk, I'd spilled my guts out over the whole monarch situation and my history of studying it for now 55 years. One man in the audience asked me, 'Well, what difference would it make if we lost the monarch butterfly anyway?' I took a deep breath and I looked straight into his eyes and said, 'What difference would it make if we lost the Mona Lisa?' The audience went very silent.
That's what we're up against is this superficial How Do We Make Money approach to the world and people have got to realize that we are dependent upon the biota for our own survival.”
For further information about the decline of butterflies, honey bees and other pollinators, please see reports below in the Earthfiles Archive.
• 04/27/2012 — Purdue Univ. Reports Clothianidin At “Unprecedented Levels” in U. S. Is “Highly Toxic to Honey Bees”
• 04/26/2012 — Legal Petition Asks EPA to Ban Nicotine-Based Pesticide Clothianidin
• 03/17/2012 — Airborne Nicotine-Based Insecticide Residues from Pneumatic Drilling/Seeding Machines Kill Honey Bees
• 01/27/2012 — GMOs Have Created Stronger Weeds - Now “Agent Orange” Toxin Under Consideration As Next Stronger Weed Poison
• 06/09/2011 — Winter 2010 Honey Bee Colony Losses Averaged 30% in U. S. But beekeepers are suffering 50% to 60% losses over a year.
• 01/27/2011 — Updated: Leaked EPA Document Says Bayer's Clothianidin Kills Honey Bees
• 10/28/2010 — Honey Bee Disappearances Not “Solved” by Virus and Fungi
• 07/28/2010 — Bee Expert Says Cell Phones Are Not Cause of Honey Bee Collapse
• 05/05/2010 — Updated: U. S. Honey Bee Industry Struggles with 34% Colonies Loss
• 03/25/2010 — GMO Seed Prices Skyrocket and Justice Department Investigates Monsanto for Antitrust Violation
• 02/18/2010 — U. S. Honey Bee Deaths Increase Again
• 11/20/2009 — Red List of Earth Life Facing Extinction Keeps Growing
• 03/30/2009 — European Honey Bee Decline Continues While Aggressive Africanized Honey Bees Attack in Southern U. S.
• 09/26/2008 — NRDC Sues EPA for Honey Bee Lab Data and EPA Approves Another Bee-Killing Pesticide
• 08/31/2008 — Honey Bees Not Healthy in U. S. or U. K.
• 04/10/2008 — Honey Bee Collapse Now Worse on West Coast
• 10/13/2007 — Now Bumblebees Are Disappearing, Too.
• 09/26/2007 — North American Honey Bees Still Weak
• 09/07/2007 — Honey Bee DNA Study Finds Australian Virus in Colony Collapse Disorder
• 06/28/2007 — Hackenberg Apiary, Pennsylvania - 75-80% Honey Bee Loss in 2007. What Happens If Colony Collapse Disorder Returns?
• 05/04/2007 — Environmental Emergency Updates: Part 1 - Spreading Honey Bee Disappearances - Nosema ceranae Not the Answer?
• 04/06/2007 — Collapse of Honey Bees in U. S., Canada and 9 European Countries
• 03/17/2007 — Honey Bee Disappearances Continue: Could Pesticides Play A Role?
• 02/23/2007 — Part 1: Earth Life Threats - Alarming Disappearance of Honey Bees