The Lessons of the Monarch
in 2002/3 i worked on an innovative reference book entitled Plant, led by Janet Marinelli, then of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, in collaboration with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and botanic gardens throughout the world. Its basic premise was that gardeners might help conserve plants that were threatened with extinction in the wild by conserving them in cultivation, thereby reserving the possibility of future recovery projects. Although positive in tone, among the book’s clear themes were the sadly recurrent ones of changes in land use, habitat loss and fragmentation as universal threats to biodiversity and frequent causes of species’ extinction.
Plant and its lessons were foremost in my mind when we began to develop Three Hagges Wood. The possibility being that we might create wood meadows – recognised for their botanical riches – as part of a countrywide mosaic to mitigate habitat loss and fragmentation was high on our agenda. In the first instance, our concerns had been for our vanishing woodland and meadow flora – plants that once were commonplace have been depleted almost without fanfare over the past 60 years. It seems paradoxical that during those decades, when global concerns for rainforests, for example, rose inexorably, that we were blind to the loss of riches beneath our own feet.
When it came to considering suitable species mixes other interconnections crystallized. For each of our own native wood and meadow plants has a raft of insects associated with it, and not just as a source of nectar and pollen, but also for simple shelter and – critically – as food for their larvae. Whilst it is vital to provide plentiful pollen and nectar during the months when bees and butterflies are on the wing, it’s equally important to think about the entirety of their life cycles, and the entirety of insect orders, whether in gardens or in the wider landscape, if we are really going to help.
Why is it important to plant for insects? Because our lives would be bleak without the beauty and wonder they offer? Yes, but sentimentality aside: some 75% of the food we eat has been pollinated by insects of one sort or another. Most of the songbirds feed their young on insects. The swifts, the swallows, the bats are all insectivorous, and so on up the food chain.
If plants are the very foundation of the food web, the insects that rely on them are the keystone without which the whole edifice crashes.
Nowhere is this clearer than in those vast tracts of the USA that once were pristine wilderness and prairie, where the iconic monarch butterfly has been hit by the perfect storm of ecological disasters. It’s the epitome of the lessons of Plant.
In the UK, many of us have watched the wonder of the monarchs’ 2000-mile migration with David Attenborough; they fly through the States to overwinter on the oyamel or sacred firs (Abies religiosa) in Mexico. There, the dense forests of this cool-upland fir are threatened by deforestation and, further, by warming due to climate change.
In spring and summer, in areas where populations of monarchs feed and breed, the host plant populations of milkweeds, (Asclepias sp.) have been ravaged by herbicide. Vast prairie tracts along the migration route have been given over to the growing of RoundUp resistant GMO soy and corn; the milkweeds that lived there are not resistant. In consequence, milkweeds declined by 58% in the Midwest, and monarch populations fell by 81% percent between 1999 and 2010.
just about the only positive thing to come out of this story is the citizens’ response to the wake-up call. This spring, conservation organizations will set out millions of milkweed seedlings by road and railsides, on transmission-line right-of-ways and in school gardens, farms and yards across the U.S. But as Chip Taylor, the executive director of Monarch Watch based at the University of Kansas, has said …”Saving monarchs is about more than monarchs … it’s saving all the species with whom they share the same habitats, especially the pollinators whose service provides the food for other species. We will need more than just a few pollinator-friendly farms. Milkweed habitat must be restored across entire corridors, from the Midwest to central Mexico, and from the inter-mountain West to coastal California.”
Here in the UK, there are several threads that echo the plight of the Monarch. The first thread was a review of The State of Britain’s Larger Moths 2013, a new report by Butterfly Conservation and Rothamsted Research. It highlighted parlous declines in species of once-common moths, citing reasons depressingly similar to those for the monarch. Read about it here: http://butterfly-conservation.org/48-3355/moths-suffer-40-year-crash.html
The second was a sharply argued and beautifully written piece by Matt Shardlow for Buglife this week on the restoration and creation of corridors to mitigate habitat loss and fragmentation. You can read it here:
The third was that on Twitter this past fortnight I have been much cheered by citizen scientists’ reports of bumblebees, butterflies and, most of all, the moths as they emerge blinking into the light and warmth of spring. Moths are pollinators too. The tweeters respect and affection is tangible, and is a force to just waiting to be harnessed. For each new moth observation I was prompted to take a look at their preferred host plants, with a view to making sure we include it at Three Hagges Wood. My findings are pictured below: I’m calling it fifty shades of grey and buff, cast in order of appearance on Twitter (@haggewoods).
my last word: if successful solutions to the plight of the monarch can be achieved by citizen action across States and jurisdictions the length of the USA, we can surely share the lessons and do it here in our own relatively tiny ‘green and pleasant land’. We have the knowledge and skills to do it, and the data to understand why it is necessary. And whilst I would never underestimate the motivating force of a good symbol, when we do take action, perhaps we can make sure that our focus is not just upon the icons of our own particular passions.
Plant. Editor in Chief, Janet Marinelli, Dorling Kindersley. London 2004.
A highly recommended and passionate blog by Prof. Ben Vogt.
Canary in the Cornfield. An exceptionally well-referenced blog by Lisa Feldkamp, Senior Coordinator, New Science Audiences, The Nature Conservancy. 26 Feb 2014
An article informed by wise historical perspectives from the LA Times, by Gary Paul Nabhan, orchard keeper, pollination ecologist, and a Franciscan brother. February 23, 2014