Q&A about research funding to study monarch butterflies

Continuing with Q&A from insightful readers:

Chris Padgett of Louisville, KY, recently wrote: “Hello, I recently read your book. I’m curious, is Monsanto or a think tank funded by their industry funding your work? I ask because I find it interesting you suggest GMOs and pesticides are not harming the Monarchs. Hearing you say this in various interviews on YouTube, my first reaction/question is: Who is funding this guy’s research? I do not see this disclosed anywhere on your website.  Thank you.”

Anurag: Very important question Chris!  Nice to hear from you, I am glad answer. I have never had research support from industry funding. The main research study I conducted to evaluate monarch declines was funded by the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future… and I would hope that we went into it without a lot of biases. The study is “open access” and published here. Most of my other research has been funded by the National Science Foundation. I don’t have a strong position on GMOs, other than environmental impacts should be monitored and regulated.  As for pesticides (I’ll lump these in with other environmental toxins and pollutants), I personally believe that have had a strong negative impact on biodiversity, including monarchs.  I am just one that believes causal conclusions should be supported by data whenever possible. You’ll find more on this little blog post on pesticides.

I was glad to get the following response from Chris: “Anurag, Thanks for writing back so quickly. Thanks for this background information on funding for the research. I’ve become hyper aware of “research” being conducted these days that is funded by corporations and industries, so I thought I’d just ask you directly. Over the years — and sadly even in the Monarch world — I’ve encountered these things. I enjoyed the book and the videos I found you discussing on YouTube. Good insights — particularly the link between cardiac glycocides, milkweed, and foxglove. My guess is as more research is done over time, more insights will be learned in these areas. I follow Monarch Watch and found very insightful your post they shared about the non-migratory Monarchs. On a whim, I set up a Monarch Waystation in my backyard garden eight years ago and have been doing talks and teaching people who want to do similar in their gardens. I’ve tried eight different types of milkweed plants. I’ve found the Asclepias incarnata and Asclepias tuberosa to be the two plants in Louisville that the Monarchs tend to gravitate towards most. I don’t plant the Common milkweed because those runners are hard to contain and I rarely see caterpillars on the plant and I’m avoiding the Tropical milkweed given conflicting reports I’ve read about the OE spore. I also plant lots of Torch or Tithonia which does really well in our local soil and about another hundred different nectar sources. I’m recommending your book as a reference for a class I’m teaching through the Waterfront Botanical Gardens in Louisville at the end of this month. I’m recommending it to participants as a way to deepen their learning. https://www.facebook.com/events/163608460894008/

Thanks again for writing back and safe travels in Mexico. Best, Chris

GMO plate
Two distinct ways that pesticides (herbicides versus insecticides) may harm monarch butterflies.

12 Replies to “Q&A about research funding to study monarch butterflies”

  1. Now that it’s common knowledge if there’s normal precipitation there’s plenty of native milkweed on the landscape to support any size monarch population. Citizens are turning to finding eggs and caterpillars in their gardens or in the wild and protecting and feeding them and releasing them. The Beautiful Monarch. Facebook group has 20000 members raising and releasing monarchs. The group is growing exponentially. The following group is also growing rapidly. https://www.facebook.com/monarchzones/?fref=ts

  2. This article about tropical milkweed by Glassberg explains the tropical milkweed controversy the best. Among those of us who have been studying monarchs and butterflies for a long time there isn’t a controversy. Tropical milkweed is the monarchs favorite and most monarchs throughout the world come from it. The first milkweed they come in contact with when they leave the mountains of Mexico and the last when they approach the overwintering sites. http://nababutterfly.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Tropical-Milkweed.pdf

  3. If anyone is genuinely interested in research regarding OE, I encourage them to check out the Monarch Joint Venture. Their website is monarchjointventure.org. As a hobby gardener, they are the source I turn to for credible research and insights about OE.

    • Hi Chris. Fortunately I m not a hobby gardener although all of us who have been involved in monarch butterfly conservation know we need hobby gardeners to help in monarch conservation. I know all the people at MJV intimately. While most of us were raising milkweed and butterflies to conserve monarchs for 20 plus years they were concentrating on the study of the parasite that evolved with the monarch butterfly. OE. Now that their findings have been deemed suspect and some very respected scientist have completely rejected their admittedly incomplete studies they are trying to defend their life’s work without regard to monarch conservation in most people’s eyes. In the case of tropical milkweed in the spring and early summer you will be able to buy tropical milkweed in most garden centers everywhere. Growers and buyers alike completely ignore three flawed studies perpetuated by the University of Georgia. In 95% of the U S it is an annual. If you want to help monarchs buy a couple put them in your yard or on your porch and give monarchs a chance to multiply. If you are in the Northeast and would like to contribute to the monarch population you will be able to find many stands of common milkweed 4-6 foot high. If you see any monarchs laying eggs on it take the stems home you find eggs on, put them in water and witness the miracle of monarch development When the butterflies are in flight release them so they can find their way to Mexico to overwinter. All the talk and BS a lot of people spew does nothing to contribute to the monarch population. If you’re going to say something Chris, DO. Something

      • Garden centers are likely going to treat their milkweeds with things like BT, unless they specifically guarantee otherwise. Annie’s Annuals says the law requires it in California on their website. Neonics are also apparently popular with garden center plants. The nurseries that provide stock may use them. Even the seeds they use may have been treated. From what I’ve read, very tiny amounts of neonic have been implicated in health problems for insects. Since so many insects attack milkweeds it’s very likely that most nurseries will use some pesticides.

  4. Here’s a simple experiment and observation you can make. Go out in the middle of September anywhere in the country in the entire Midwest or Northeast and see if you can find any common milkweed green and growing. I ptomise you will find it everywhere. The monarchs are done breeding for the season and the last generation is in flight and heading south to Mexico to overwinter. What this demonstrates is there’s much more milkweed on the landscape than was needed for the present populations and plenty for a much larger population. Is this rocket science. Of course it’s not. If there’s caterpillar food left over there’s food for more caterpillars. The milkweed you see in the following video and all the milkweed you will see ifs multiplying, sending out runners for new plants, dispersing seeds with floss on them that will establish new plants miles away if they fall on suitable soil to germinate. and the mother plant will have more stems and leaves than this year when it comes up than it had last season If you read the propaganda Monarch Joint Venture and it’s partners put out they say the monarch population needs more milkweed. Why do you think they say that.? Why would you believe that ? https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=fBTT_kVSPJ8#

    • Where I live, there is common milkweed next to farm fields that is uneaten the entire season. Before I read about neonics I would transfer caterpillars to it because the butterflies were laying eggs on my milkweed seedlings constantly.

      None of the transferred caterpillars survived even for a short time on any of the plants that were next to the farm fence and the leaves I took from them to feed mine… well… the caterpillars did not successfully reach adulthood.

      I have read that neonic drift is a problem for wildflowers near farm fields. That seems to explain why the plants are so unharmed while plants around my house (at quite a distance from the field) are constantly inundated with various milkweed insects, including the large common milkweed plants — the same species along that fence.

  5. Let’s look at some more statistical facts kept by the USDA. United States Department of Agriculture ove the last 60 +. Years The monarch butterfly graph shows in the winter of 1995-96 there were 18+ hectares or almost 1 Billion butterflies overwintering in Mexico. The numbers year to year have varied drastically and reached an all time law in the 2013-14 winter at .67 hectares. Or 37 million butterflies. That’s only about 4% of the number overwintering in 1996-97. Down 96%. There are those that say it’s because their is less habitat land and nmore cropland that’s sprayed with herbicides killing the milkweed. If you will look at the following graph you will see that cropland has increased from from 337-339 million acres in the lower 48 states. Most of the area in the lower 48 states is monarch habitat. Thats less than a 1% increase in land that herbicide is used on. https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/DataFiles/52096/Cropland_used_for_crops_19452012_by_state.xls?v=42975 yet during that same period of time monarchs numbers varied 96%. Since there’s plenty of milkweed left in the Midwest after monarchs have gone south for the season and there’s very little difference in the amount of acreage in crops over the last 25 years. where no milkweed grows, what causes monarch numbers to vary so much ? There’s lots of factors that we can’t do anything about including predators, parasites, and extreme whether conditions but there’s a couple things we know it’s not because they need more habitat (milkweed) and it’s not because farmers are killing them with herbicide because it is only sprayed on cropland and the amount of that hasn’t changed. I wonder why Monarch Joint Venture tells us it’s habitat and chemicals ? It surely isn’t true. Here’s the complete contents on major U S land uses. https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/major-land-uses.aspx

  6. Trust me, I do more than my part as a gardener that has a waystation and has helped many others in my community create one. Tomorrow, I’m teaching a class to 100 people who have made a commitment to creating a Monarch waystation in their garden. I don’t sell anything related to gardening and butterflies and I don’t accept junk science. Personally, I don’t believe in the sale of Monarchs (not even for educational purposes and certainly not for weddings and funerals) and the information I offer about milkweeds is from viable, research based organizations — not nurseries that have a commercial interest. I have no commercial interest. And tomorrow, I’ll be telling everyone to not purchase tropical milkweed because the OE spore issue can kill adult Monarchs. I’ve seen a Monarch unable to exit its chrysalis because of the OE spore and it’s awful. Tropical milkweed IS NOT native to many areas in the United States and should be avoided by anyone who truly cares about the well being of these beautiful creatures.

  7. Chris, all of the migratory overwintering monarchs in southwestern Australia in the photos below fed on introduced evergreen tropical milkweeds when they were caterpillars. This means the migratory phenomenon is sustained by these evergreen tropical milkweeds and the population building benefits of tropical milkweed far outweigh the population deminishing risks of the OE parasite: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ausee/sets/72157631269381288/

    • Here’s a link to the study that people say claims tropical milkweed on the coast of Texas and inland
      In the winter. cuts into the migration. If you study this study you’ll realize they can only count the monarchs that are overwintering on the coast and not the offspring of those who broke diapause ,laid eggs, and they obviously can’t count the number of their offspring that migrated as opposed to spending the winter on the coast. No validity or anything derived from this study of substance concerning the migration or OE for that matter. The ones still on the coast may have high OE although their brothers and sisters who went to Mexico nay have low OE. If they had high OE they probably didn’t have the energy to get there anyway. There’s a lot of “mays”. And. “Could” in the study https://drive.google.com/open?id=0BxZCsmWVYSidbzlaLTF3aWRscFBkcXJwVV9USmFZSnpfYTk0

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