Planting the Seeds of Resistance to the Monarch’s Decline | WYPR

Planting the Seeds of Resistance to the Monarch’s Decline

Jul 19, 2017

Devra Kitterman examining a milkweed in her back yard in Baltimore.
Credit Tom Pelton

Devra Kitterman dug up the lawn of her home on Hawthorne Road in Baltimore and replaced the turf grass with a lush jungle of ferns, dogwoods and a pond floating with lilies and frogs. She also planted several milkweed plants to feed monarch butterflies.

“Butterflies need milkweed – especially Monarchs – to lay their eggs,” said Kitterman, a beekeeper and Pollinator Program Coordinator at the Maryland Agricultural Resources Council.  “And monarchs are very, very dependent on milkweed. All of the types are really important. And I encourage people to plant as many as you can." 

Like many other gardeners across the country, Kitterman been trying to fight back against a sharp decline in butterflies, bees and other insects. Scientists say this decline has been caused in part by widespread spraying of agricultural pesticides and herbicides, including Round Up (the trade name for glyphosate), which kills the milkweed that many farmers regard as a nuisance.


“They are disappearing -- all the pollinators – the monarchs, all kinds of beneficial insects are just disappearing,” said Kitterman, who is the retired owner of the He’ui Horticultural Services in Baltimore.  “You don’t see many lightning bugs anymore.  You don’t see many butterflies of any type anymore. ...I’m 62, and I’ve seen a huge change in what you see in nature from when I was a little girl.”

Surprisingly, two years ago, after a decade of more than 90 percent decline, populations of this iconic orange and black butterfly spiked upwards.  Biologists photographing the winter-time colony of migratory Monarchs in the forested mountains of central Mexico estimated their numbers multiplied from 25 million in 2014 to six times that number two years later, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the center, said milkweed plantings by pollinator crusaders like Kitterman may have helped a bit.

“We had a really, really good weather year,” said Curry.  “So much of what happens with the Monarch population now – because it is so decreased, and so fragile – is dependent on weather.  So milkweed went in the ground. We had a really good weather year.  The population rebounded in 2016 to about 150 million monarchs.”

Then, in March of 2016, a freakish ice storm in central Mexico killed off about a third of the Monarchs all at once, leading to a drop in the population to about 109 million this year.

Curry suggested that climate change could lead to more crazy weather events like this, which are more threatening to a monarch population diminished by herbicides.

“The situation with Monarchs and climate change is actually terrifying,” Curry said. “Because the Monarch population is too low to be resilient to terrible weather effects.”

Professor Lincoln Brower, a monarch expert at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, said the real answer to saving the monarchs is government restrictions on the mass spraying of glyphosate, or RoundUp.

The decline of monarchs and milkweed over the last 20 years coincides precisely with the near-universal use of this weed killer in corn and soybean fields and genetically modified RoundUp-ready crops engineered to be resistant to the herbicide.  RoundUp kills all plants in farm fields that are not engineered crop products, patented by Monsanto.

“I think it’s a catastrophic technology that this industry has developed," Brower said. "And I think it’s going to result in the loss of huge numbers of insects, if it hasn’t already."

Fewer insects means less pollination of fruit and vegetable crops that we all eat, less food for birds and other animals and a more monocultural world.  That’s why Devra Kitterman and others are planting the seeds of resistance in their own back yards.