The Lessons of the Monarch

by Lin Hawthorne in Birds, Fauna (Animals), Flora (Plants), Insects, Mammals, Trees 2

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.

Monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus on swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata Photo by and (c)2009 Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man) Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2

Monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus on swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata. Photo by and (c)2009 Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man) Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2

 

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:
http://www.buglife.org.uk/blog/matt-shardlow-ceo/corridors-flower

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.

The Garden Tiger Moth, Arctia caja. Host plants include: Allium, Betula, Alnus, Salix, Populus, Rheum, Sedum, Ribes, Fragaria, Rubus, Filipendula, Spiraea, Malus, Sorbus, Crataegus, Prunus, Geum rivale, Trifolium, Vaccinium, Calystegia, Stachys, Lamium, Plantago, Achillea, Taraxacum. Photo: Temple of Mara. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

The Garden Tiger Moth, Arctia caja. Host plants include: Allium, Betula, Alnus, Salix, Populus, Rheum, Sedum, Ribes, Fragaria, Rubus, Filipendula, Spiraea, Malus, Sorbus, Crataegus, Prunus, Geum rivale, Trifolium, Vaccinium, Calystegia, Stachys, Lamium, Plantago, Achillea, Taraxacum. Photo: Temple of Mara. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

 

Woolly bear caterpillar of Arctia caja, Garden Tiger Moth. Garden Tiger numbers have fallen by 92% over the past 40 years. Photo: Landkreis Ebersberg, Germany Harald Süpfle. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Woolly bear caterpillar of Arctia caja, Garden Tiger Moth. Garden Tiger numbers have fallen by 92% over the past 40 years. Photo: Landkreis Ebersberg, Germany Harald Süpfle. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

 

Engrailed moth, Ectropis crepuscularia. Host plants include: Betula, Salix, Larix and other trees and shrubs.  Photo:  Vita Manak, Uppsala (SLU). Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Engrailed moth, Ectropis crepuscularia. Host plants include: Betula, Salix, Larix and other trees and shrubs.
Photo: Vita Manak, Uppsala (SLU). Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

 

Engrailed moth, Ectropis crepuscularia caterpillar. Photo: James Lindsey at Ecology of Commanster. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license

Engrailed moth, Ectropis crepuscularia caterpillar. Photo: James Lindsey at Ecology of Commanster. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license

 

Grey Shoulder, Lithophane ornitopus. One of the moths whose population has exploded in the past 40 years, by 1269%. Host plants include: Quercus, Prunus padus. Photo: Stu Phillips. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Grey Shoulder, Lithophane ornitopus. One of the moths whose population has exploded in the past 40 years, by 1269%. Host plants include: Quercus, Prunus padus. Photo: Stu Phillips. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

 

Larvae of the Grey Shoulder moth, Lithphane ornitopus. Photo: Abrahami. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.

Caterpillar of the Grey Shoulder moth, Lithophane ornitopus. Photo: Abrahami. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.

 

Red Chestnut, Cerastis rubricosa. Food plants include: Alnus, Chamaenerion, Lysimachia, Vaccinium, Rumex, Galium, Stellaria. Photo: Philipp Weigell. Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

Red Chestnut, Cerastis rubricosa. Food plants include: Alnus, Chamaenerion, Lysimachia, Vaccinium, Rumex, Galium, Stellaria. Photo: Philipp Weigell. Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

 

Hebrew Character, Orthosia gothic. Food plants include: Large variety of low plants and shrubs, sallow. Photo: Donald Hobern (from Canberra, Australia).  Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Hebrew Character, Orthosia gothica. Food plants include: Large variety of low plants and shrubs, sallow. Photo: Donald Hobern (from Canberra, Australia). Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

 

Pale Brindled Beauty (PBB), Phigalia pilosaria. Food plants include: Alnus, Quercus, Fagus, Prunus, Hippophae rhamnoides, Rhamnus. Photo: Olavi Blomster

Pale Brindled Beauty (PBB), Phigalia pilosaria. Food plants include: Alnus, Quercus, Fagus, Prunus, Hippophae rhamnoides, Rhamnus. Photo: Olavi Blomster

 

Old Lady moth, Mormo maura. Food plants include: Prunus, Crataegus, Ulmus, Salix, Betula, Euonymus. Photo: Hamon jp Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Old Lady moth, Mormo maura. Food plants include: Prunus, Crataegus, Ulmus, Salix, Betula, Euonymus. Photo: Hamon jp Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Herald moth, Scoliopteryx libatrix. Food plants include: Salix, Populus. Photo: André Karwath aka Aka. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.

Herald moth, Scoliopteryx libatrix. Food plants include: Salix, Populus. Photo: André Karwath aka Aka. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.

 

Common quaker moth, Orthosia cerasi. Food Plants include: Quercus, Salix, Ulmus and other trees. Photo: Donald Hobern. CCA 2.0 generic  license

Common quaker moth, Orthosia cerasi. Food Plants include: Quercus, Salix, Ulmus and other trees. Photo: Donald Hobern. CCA 2.0 generic license

 

Double Dart moth, Graphiphora augur. Populations numbers down buy 98% in past 40 years. Food plants include: many trees and shrubs, including Betula, Salix, Populus, Ribes, Rosa, Crataegus, Syringa, Lonicera. Photo:  Kurt Kulac. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Double Dart moth, Graphiphora augur. Populations numbers down buy 98% in past 40 years. Food plants include: many trees and shrubs, including Betula, Salix, Populus, Ribes, Rosa, Crataegus, Syringa, Lonicera. Photo: Kurt Kulac. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

 

Early Gray moth, Xylocampa areola, sole food plant listed, Lonicera. Photo: Donald Hobern Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Early Grey moth, Xylocampa areola, sole food plant listed, Lonicera. Photo: Donald Hobern Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

 

Oak Beauty, Biston strataria. Food plant, oak, Quercus. Photo:  František ŠARŽÍK. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

Oak Beauty, Biston strataria. Food plant, oak, Quercus. Photo: František ŠARŽÍK. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

 

March moth, Alsophila aescularia. Food plants include:  Quercus, Betula, Prunus, Fagus, Ulmus, Salix. Photo:  Donald Hobern. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

March moth, Alsophila aescularia. Food plants include: Quercus, Betula, Prunus, Fagus, Ulmus, Salix. Photo: Donald Hobern. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

 

Mottled Gray moth, Colostygia multistrigaria relies on Galium as a food plant. Photo: Ernest van Asseldonk at waarneming.nl, a source of nature observations in the Netherlands. Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

Mottled Grey moth, Colostygia multistrigaria relies on Galium spp. as food plant. Photo: Ernest van Asseldonk at waarneming.nl, a source of nature observations in the Netherlands. Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

 

Satellite moth, Eupsilia transversa. Population umbers up by 116% over the past 40 years.  Food plants include: Quercus, Betula, Salix, Ulmus, Populus, Acer and other trees.  Attribution: ©entomart

Satellite moth, Eupsilia transversa. Population umbers up by 116% over the past 40 years. Food plants include: Quercus, Betula, Salix, Ulmus, Populus, Acer and other trees. Attribution: ©entomart

 

Credits: the leader photo of Monarch Butterflies was taken by Mike Baird, of baird photos.com, and is used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

References:

Plant. Editor in Chief, Janet Marinelli, Dorling Kindersley. London 2004.

Further reading:

http://deepmiddle.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/the-prairie-is-our-amazon-no-one-cares.html?spref=tw
A highly recommended and passionate blog by Prof. Ben Vogt.

http://blog.nature.org/science/2014/02/26/cornfield-monarch-butterfly-decline-pollinators-agriculture/#sthash.tOjym930.dpuf
Canary in the Cornfield. An exceptionally well-referenced blog by Lisa Feldkamp, Senior Coordinator, New Science Audiences, The Nature Conservancy. 26 Feb 2014

http://www.latimes.com/opinion/commentary/la-oe-nabhan-monarch-butterfly-extinction-20140223,0,7973387.story#ixzz2ud5LgKLs
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