Archive for Monday, March 31, 2014

KU biologist suggests ethanol mandate, climate caused dramatic monarch decline

March 31, 2014


Monarch butterflies gather in Mexico during their winter migration in 2009. Monarch habitats are being threatened by development, logging and cold weather, and fewer monarchs are now in Mexico than ever before. Chip Taylor, director of KU's Monarch Watch, says that if current trends continue, the entire annual migration could be threatened.

Monarch butterflies gather in Mexico during their winter migration in 2009. Monarch habitats are being threatened by development, logging and cold weather, and fewer monarchs are now in Mexico than ever before. Chip Taylor, director of KU's Monarch Watch, says that if current trends continue, the entire annual migration could be threatened.

When filling up at the gas station with ethanol, drivers may think they’re helping the environment. Orley "Chip" Taylor, biologist and director of Kansas University's Monarch Watch, disagrees.

In 2007, the Energy Independence and Security Act set a national goal of producing 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels such as ethanol by 2022, causing corn and soybean production to soar and farmers to turn wild prairie into cropland. In the process, Taylor said, the majority of monarch habitats were destroyed.

“Last year alone we lost 400,000 acres of monarch habitat just due to the conversion of grassland and wetland to crops because of the biofuel initiative,” Taylor said. “We’ve got 30 million more acres of corn and soybean than we had in 1996, most of which occurred after the ethanol mandate.”

The habitat destruction ultimately led to the current all-time low monarch population, Taylor said. In just 17 years, the total area occupied by monarch colonies has dropped from 20.97 acres to just .67 of an acre.

Monarch populations rely on milkweed, a perennial plant historically common on Midwest prairies. Monarchs lay eggs exclusively on milkweed, so fewer milkweeds means less reproduction.

“It’s basically the pollinators that keep the ecosystem alive,” Taylor said. “It’s foolish to simply ruin this support base that supports us.”

While the destruction of habitats has contributed to the monarch’s dramatic decrease, it’s not all because of ethanol. A recent New York Times article in which Taylor was quoted attributed the butterfly’s decline to climate change. Taylor said monarch migration is dependent on temperature.

“2012 was an extraordinarily hot year, which made the monarchs develop really fast,” Taylor said. “They moved too far north too soon and dispersed all over Canadian provinces. There’s not a lot of milkweed there, so it wasn’t a good thing.”

Taylor said 2013 was not much better.

“It was just too cold to move north so butterflies arrived late to the breeding areas,” Taylor said. “Then it rained when they arrived and it’s hard for butterflies to get out there and be sexy and lay eggs in the rain.”

While we can’t control the weather, Taylor said, people can ease the monarch’s decline by restoring habitats and planting milkweed.

To help, Taylor’s Monarch Watch on KU’s West Campus partnered with Applied Ecological Services of Baldwin City to produce 25,000 milkweed pods to distribute last year. The group is already taking orders and plans to distribute 45,000 to 60,000 milkweed pods this year.

Additionally, a few individuals offered to provide money to sponsor milkweed pods for schools and non-profit organizations. Each school or nonprofit selected will receive a free flat holding 323 of the plants.

To purchase milkweeds or to apply for the school and nonprofit free milkweed program, visit


Paul Cherubini 3 years, 6 months ago

I find the article to be unjustifiably alarmist and worrying because it leads the reader to believe the croplands of the upper Midwest are no longer capable of producing alot of monarch butterflies, hence the monarch is endangered. I am confident I will be able to post Youtube videos of hundreds of monarchs at the end of August in the following farm towns of southern Minnesota that are surrounded on all sides by vast monocultures of GMO crops: Beaver Creek, Magnolia, Adrian, Fairmont, Truman, Winthrop, Gaylord, Stewart, Olivia, Danube, Fairfax, Gibbon. Any individuals or reporters who would like links to these videos may contact me at around Sept. 1

Ken Lassman 3 years, 6 months ago

In what way is it alarmist? One of your own researchers from the University of Minnesota ( ) Karen Oberhauser, does a pretty convincing job of showing how widespread use of GMO "roundup ready" soybeans and corn in the midwest/plains states have significantly reduced the milkweed populations in the largest migratory route of the monarch butterfly, with the result being a significant drop in larvae and adult monarchs. This correlation is made even stronger by the fact that areas of the country where GMO soybeans and corn are not grown have not had a decline in larval/adult numbers. One of the problems is that research has shown that female monarchs have become heavily dependent on the milkweeds located in the soybean and corn fields because the milkweed plants are more tightly clustered and easier to find in the monocultures than milkweeds found in other settings, which are more widely scattered and therefore harder to find by the female butterfly.

Considering how central the milkweed is to the lifecycle of the monarchs, this is a real issue that is not alarmist at all. I think it is great that you are celebrating the monarch by making videos; I heartily recommend that you also encourage everyone in your area to plant as many milkweeds as they can in order to keep the cycle going.

Paul Cherubini 3 years, 6 months ago

Ken, there are still billions of milkweed plants in the hundreds of thousands of miles of farm road ditches like these that collectively produce millions of monarch butterflies. This article does not explain that to the public.

Ken Lassman 3 years, 6 months ago

Your pictures are pretty but your numbers are unfortunately incorrect. Here's some research that shows the quantified trends that are characteristic of what is happening to milkweeds: (from journal article titled "Reduction in common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) occurrence in Iowa cropland from 1999 to 2009," by Robert G. Hartzler)

"The role of common milkweed in the lifecycle of the monarch butterfly has increased interest in the presence of this weed in the north central United States. An initial survey conducted in 1999 found that low densities of common milkweed occurred in approximately 50% of Iowa corn and soybean fields. In 2009, common milkweed was present in only 8% of surveyed fields, and the area within infested fields occupied by common milkweed was reduced by approximately 90% compared to 1999. The widespread adoption of glyphosate resistant corn and soybean cultivars and the reliance on post-emergence applications of glyphosate for weed control in crop fields likely has contributed to the decline in common milkweed in agricultural fields."

And as far as "millions of monarchs," alas the numbers haven't been that high since 1997, when Mexican overwintering populations were at 1.2 million. Last winter, the numbers were 211,000, which is up slightly from the previous winter population of 145,000. For more information:

Please provide some documentation about your "billions of milkweed plants" and "millions of monarchs" if you expect folks to take you seriously; I've provided some real evidence to the contrary. I'd love for you to prove me wrong, but I'm not holding my breath.

Ken Lassman 3 years, 6 months ago

By the way, Paul, I grew up and still live in a rural area, and our land has always had plenty of common, antelopehorn, wavyleafed, whorled, butterfly and vining milkweeds on it. I grew up cultivating crops, knowing how milkweeds would evade the cultivator shovels much better than other "weeds" because of its strong, deep taproots, so know that milkweeds (except for a few species) are far from endangered. But widespread use of Roundup Ready crops, combined with chemical herbicides have made a huge dent in the agricultural crop field populations, and the average Joe hay guy thinks any "weed" in his brome field is bad, meaning that the use of herbicides in hay meadows has spread and is considered the norm around here. I know of what I speak, and suggest to you that the problem requires education in agricultural circles of the part that they play. Leaving some milkweeds in fields isn't going to cause a big problem for crop or hay ag folks, and they need to be shown this before it's too late for the butterfly.

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