How wonderful to see Shirley Mayhew’s monarch butterfly movie and to think that not so long ago the Vineyard sheltered so many monarchs on their migrations.
As some folks know, over the past year I’ve been asking people whether they have seen any monarchs this year and the answer has been a dismal none, or perhaps only a few. What most people don’t know (and I wish that this factual information had been more detailed and emphasized) is that in the Midwest (in particular) the eradication of milkweed has eliminated the primary food source for the butterflies. In order to increase production of corn and soy crops, vast swathes of crop land have been treated with RoundUp (Rodeo/glyphosate) and genetically modified crops have been planted. It is a very straight line process: when we eliminate the food source we eliminate the butterflies. Whether or not their habitat in Mexico has been threatened, enough habitat to sustain them during the winter remains. It is the areas further north in the United States that we need to safeguard.
When my kids were young we used to routinely gather small handfuls of milkweed leaves, and the eggs which had been laid on them. We would put the leaves in a vase of water and watch the process from egg to chrysalis to butterfly unfold. We released those butterflies to fly away, which was a wonderful and joyful process. When we moved home to the Vineyard in 1985 we continued to do so. About five years ago I noticed that I was seeing fewer monarchs. The past few years I have seen at best a few monarchs, and then this past year none. We have lots of native milkweed but I fear that we’ve wiped out the butterflies.
The secret herbicide that NStar plans to backpack spray around the power lines from the mainland which come ashore down-Island is glyphosate in some form. It is also being used elsewhere on the Island to eliminate invasive species. There is an argument that hand applying the herbicide (NStar is not hand applying — they have stated that they will use backpack sprayers) is very safe. Herbicides, fungicides, pesticides — all the “cides” in fact — accumulate, and some, such as glyphosate (which is what RoundUp and/or Rodeo are), are implicated in toxic impacts to marine invertebrates as well as other creatures. We apply these chemicals — in various concentrations and via various methods — at our peril and without appropriate consideration of the long-term consequences and impacts. Whether or not glyphosate is killing off the monarchs directly, applications which eliminate what they eat is eliminating them just as surely.
Even if we plant native milkweed, will the monarchs come back? Consider a world without the beauty of monarchs — it is a tragedy.
Virginia C. Jones