Monarch Butterflies – Glass Cages and Biotech Corn

by Al Hanners

Since January 2014, Whatcom Watch has been rerunning articles from issues printed 20 years ago. The below article appeared in the July 2000 issue of Whatcom Watch.

Monarchs, America’s beautiful, magnificent migratory butterflies, are in trouble. Their winter habitat in northern Mexico is disappearing as the result of logging, and in California because of urban sprawl. Now some leading scientists contend that monarchs’ very important breeding ground in America’s heartland corn belt may be threatened by the introduction of biotech corn grown because it is resistant to the corn borer pest.

There is no monarch butterfly population here in Whatcom County because there are no milkweeds that monarch caterpillars need to feed on to survive and mature. Milkweeds grow naturally only in drier climates east of the Cascades and farther south. Migratory monarchs do not pass through here because there are no milkweeds to the north. So, you may wonder, how could Whatcom County threaten monarchs? Because while there are no indigenous monarchs here, some monarchs are released here.

Contrasting Motives and Expertise
On one side is Whatcom County’s butterfly woman. She buys monarch pupae in the chrysalis stage that are collected in California. Then she sells them together with glass cages for people to keep them in until adults emerge. She encourages releasing them where there is no indigenous monarch population and little or no chance for an adult to find a mate. Should, by chance, a fertile egg be laid and hatch, there would be no milkweeds for monarch caterpillars to feed on and live. The net result is a direct total loss to monarchs: subtraction from a threatened but still viable California population but no additions.

On the other side is Dr. Robert Michael Pyle, the author of some 12 books including “North American Butterflies,” (National Audubon Society), Dr. Pyle, like all other butterfly experts I contacted, opposes any release of artificially raised butterflies because it interferes with their studies of survival or diminution and demise of butterfly species, studies that might help the butterflies survive.

Dr. Pyle believes we need to clearly understand the migratory paths of monarch butterflies. They winter mostly in northern Mexico, but also in California. In the spring, wintering adults fly north, mate, reproduce and die. The new brood does the same thing and there may be up to three or four reproductive cycles on their northern journey. In late summer and fall, only the last brood migrates south, making a single trip up to 2000 miles long.

Dr. Pyle’s Outburst
Dr. Pyle made a 9,500-mile journey following migrating monarch butterflies through mountains and along rivers from British Columbia to Mexico. He charmed and entertained his audience while reviewing his new book, “Chasing Monarchs, Migrating with Butterflies of Passage,” at Village Books in the fall of 1999.

The man before us was completely composed and cut a dapper but ample figure. His flowing white hair and beard looked for all the world as if he had just stepped out of a beauty shop. The flowing sleeves of his rose colored shirt and his stylish, sporty vest completed the image of a lovable elder scientist. However his flawless, wrinkleless skin betrayed his baby boomer age. Only when the lecture was over and we were in the question period did he lose composure.

“You sure do know how to make my blood boil,” he exploded. And then to the audience, he added, “I didn’t plant this man here.” Dr. Pyle had just been asked what he thought of maturing monarchs in glass cages and then releasing them where there are no milkweeds and no indigenous monarch butterflies. He went on to substantiate his case, but we already had his dramatic answer. It is bad for monarchs.

The Biotech Corn Threat
Some scientists believe that biotech corn may threaten monarch butterflies. Who in Whatcom County not only admires monarchs, but who also has not heard that biotech possibly could threaten them? Who in Whatcom County considers them a common butterfly in the United States?

But who in Whatcom County has ever heard of black swallowtail butterflies? That is the reason that this headline in the June 6, 2000, Bellingham Herald is misleading: “Study: Biotech Corn Safe for Common Butterfly.” The devil is in the details. Biotech corn contains a gene from the bacteria species that is widely sold commercially as BT to kill caterpillars. Butterfly larvae are caterpillars. The research was on black swallowtails, not monarchs. The gene inserted into biotech corn is intended to kill caterpillars, not adult butterflies. Monarch caterpillars must eat milkweeds. Black swallowtail caterpillars do not eat milkweeds.

Hence, the study reported in The Bellingham Herald is not sound science. I wonder who paid for the research. Glass cages or biotech corn, the price of understanding is an eternal effort to acquire knowledge and vigilance.

Al Hanners had 99 articles published in Whatcom Watch from May 1992 through October/Novemebr 2010.

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