Monarch Watch Blog

The monarch decline: when did it begin?

Thursday, August 2nd, 2018 at 1:30 pm by Chip Taylor
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Monarch Watch began with a simple tagging program in 1992 followed, in the early years of our program, by attempts to educate the public about monarch biology and research. More recently, our emphasis has been on monarch conservation. The conservation outreach began to increase in importance during the scramble to understand the consequences of the introduction of corn genetically modified to express the endotoxins of Bt strains* in corn tissues, one of which was airborne pollen. Corn pollen containing Bt toxins, when concentrated on milkweed leaves, had been shown to have the potential to kill developing monarch larvae**. During studies (1999-2001) to establish the seriousness of this problem, surveys of monarch production revealed that corn and soybean fields containing milkweeds produced MORE monarchs per acre than other common habitats containing milkweeds. At the same time, soy and corn genetic lines were being introduced, and progressively adopted, that were resistant to the broad spectrum herbicide known as Roundup (glyphosate). These genetically modified crop lines allowed farmers to spray their crops with Roundup to control weeds without damaging the crops. I began to write about this development with some concern in 2001, but the full impact of this technology became apparent when I received an email from a farmer in Nebraska in 2004. My response to this email has been buried among our archived monthly updates. We’ve reprinted this text below for those interested in how this new technology shifted our focus and outreach at Monarch Watch. The realization that the adoption of these genetically modified crops was likely to have an impact on monarch numbers led to the development of the Monarch Waystation program in 2005 and later the Bring Back the Monarchs program in 2010.

Adoption rates of Roundup Ready corn and soybeans increased rapid and milkweeds all but disappeared from these row crops in the Upper Midwest by 2006 (Fig 1). Monarchs numbers, as measured at the overwintering sites in Mexico, began to decline noticeably around the same time. If the decline in milkweeds in the Upper Midwest was the cause of the decline, we might expect to see that reflected in the tagging data in two ways 1) a decline in the success of taggers in the affected areas and 2) a shift in the proportion of tags applied each year within non-affected areas to the east. Data establishing whether either or both of these expectations/signals are present in the 1.5 million tagging records for the last 20 years will be presented at a later date.

Figure 1. Adoption of herbicide tolerant crops vs decline in monarch overwintering population

*Bacillus thuringiensis –
**Due to the subsequent adoption of corn lines that did not express the Bt endotoxins strongly in pollen and the dynamics of the shedding and concentration of pollen on milkweed leaves within and adjacent to corn fields, none of the Bt corn/monarch studies demonstrated that significant numbers of monarch larvae were exposed to and died from lethal does of Bt containing pollen.

The links in the original June 2004 article are broken but the links included here cover the same issues raised in the original text.

Roundup resistant weeds:

Milkweed in corn and soybean fields.

Effects of Transgenic Crops on Milkweeds – by Chip Taylor, June 2004

How do transgenic crops affect the distribution and abundance of milkweeds?

In the 2001 Monarch Watch Season Summary (p59) I addressed the possibility that the widespread planting of Roundup Ready corn and soybeans could lead to the decline of the common milkweeds in much of the northern breeding area for monarchs:

“Almost unnoticed in this controversy has been the rapid adoption of herbicide resistant (transgenic) corn and soybeans by farmers throughout the Midwest. These crops are extolled for their value in weed control. Growers can plant these crops and then apply herbicides (principally Roundup) to control weeds without concern that the corn will be stunted or killed by the toxin. Cost of weed control is reduced but the potential downside for monarchs is the loss of milkweeds in these fields. One of the outcomes of the Bt corn study was the realization that 90% of the monarchs originate in the agricultural landscape (Taylor and Shields 2000). Further, the studies of habitat use by monarchs showed that although milkweed densities were low in row crops such as corn and soybeans, survival of monarchs in these habitats appeared to be higher than in non-crop areas. Thus, the milkweeds in corn and soybeans are important and their loss due to the adoption of herbicide resistant corn and soybeans could have an impact on the size of the monarch population. Studies of the distribution and abundance of milkweed in GMO and non-GMO crops lands are still needed.

The GMO technologies are here to stay and so are the controversies. The negative consequences associated with these crop varieties are potentially significant and it is unclear whether such effects can be anticipated or controlled.”

To my knowledge, no one has taken up the challenge of assessing the impact of transgenic corn and soybeans on the abundance of milkweeds.

My motivation for revisiting this topic was the following email from a grain farmer in Nebraska.


I am a grain farmer in Northeast Nebraska. I recently, purely by accident, came across your website. I was struck by the information that the common milkweed is the ONLY food of the Monarch larva.

I am concerned that the recent large use of Roundup ready crops (which I use), and the subsequent widespread use of Roundup herbicide (which I also use), had led to the virtual elimination of milkweed in fields and crops. As someone who has raised crops, I can personally attest to scarcity of the milkweed plant today compared to, for example, 20 years ago. Milkweed used to be a common weed in this part of Nebraska. Roundup is particularly effective in eliminating milkweed, since it works on the rootstock of milkweed.

Although I have always considered milkweed a rather troublesome “weed”, and have appreciated how modern herbicides have controlled it, I am concerned about the effect this might have on the monarch butterfly population. I consider the monarch a very beautiful insect, and have noticed that they appear to be scarcer than in years past.

Is there some advice I can get, as a grain farmer with economic considerations, to balance both my needs and that of the monarch? Has anyone ever done any research on this? I appreciate any advice you may have to give me.

Thank you.

David A. Wurdeman
Leigh, Nebraska

I have two reactions to this inquiry. First, growers should carefully examine the short term and long-term pluses and minuses associated with the use of Roundup and second we need to establish what can be done to restore milkweeds under a variety of conditions.

Living in Kansas (and knowing a number of farmers) I know that making a living at farming is difficult and often impossible. Were I a farmer, I would probably be using Roundup Ready corn and soybeans but then again, I might follow the lead of several local farmers who are not using GMO seed lines. As an outsider to this enterprise I can sit back and wonder if the long-term costs of the utilization of this GMO technology and herbicide combination is going to offset the shot term gains that have induced the majority of growers to adopt this system. What are these long-term costs? The most prominent issue is the evolution of herbicide resistant weeds. If you do a web search for herbicide/Roundup resistant weeds you will find a substantial number of references on this topic. In Argentina, an area with a temperate climate, at least 15 weed species have shown resistance to Roundup, including the common bindweed (Convulvulus arvensis) and dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), both abundant in North America (link broken)

An argument offered by Monsanto is that such resistance is local and can be dealt with on a local basis because most weeds don’t spread that fast. While this might be true for some species, it probably doesn’t apply to these two and this interpretation underestimates how weeds are distributed on farm equipment. These are weeds we are talking about and they do get around the world. The similarity of the species composition of the crop field weeds in both the north and south temperate regions of the world is astounding. A further perusal of web sites on this topic reveals that experts suggest not using Roundup more than once a year on a field, a practice that is frequently violated, and that it should not be used in the same field for more than two years in a row. Again, this is a practice that is often ignored. Roundup resistant weeds seem to be in our future and no other “benign” herbicides seem to be on the horizon.

Soil quality is another issue. The long-term impact of the use of Roundup on soil quality is not yet clear. In the short run, the use of Roundup appears to be beneficial by reducing tillage, erosion, and carbon loss through carbon dioxide. However, there are concerns that the long-term effect of Roundup will be to reduce the number of soil microbes needed to either breakdown organic matter or to promote plant growth (mycorrhizal fungi). One also has to ask the question whether, at some level, weeds are beneficial. Although we all learn that weeds reduce crop production, and there are certainly plenty of studies to show this, low level contamination with weeds, if tilled under at some point, provide green manure and maintain texture and contribute to the organic matter in the soils. In the long run, a few weeds may be better for soil conservation than Roundup. Whatever the case, the practices adopted by most growers will be driven by short-term economics or perceived benefits rather than long-term considerations.

Cost of production is another factor to consider. If I were a farmer, I would want to know at least three things about a new seed line, performance (yield), cost of production (field preparation, seed cost, per-harvest inputs such as herbicides, and harvest issues such as lodging) and convenience/time -inputs. The performance data for conventional and transgenic soybeans available on several web sites indicate that yields per acre are similar for both types. (link broken)

The differences, if there are any, are too small to justify adoption of the herbicide resistant lines. Cost of production may be an issue. These costs seem to vary sharply among locations and I haven’t been able to locate data from independent investigators on this point. Seed cost is higher for GMOs, but is coming down and may be offset by lower inputs. My guess is that much of the adoption of GMOs comes down to convenience and time. Spraying with Roundup requires less time, equipment, and equipment maintenance, and lower fuel costs than tillage, leaving more time for other tasks. This would probably make a difference to me. I’d tell myself I’d have more time for fishing but then I’d spend my Sundays writing these updates 😉

When I took ecology in graduate school 40 years ago, we learned that an average of 5,000 acres of “habitat” was lost to development each day. I was astounded by this figure but it made sense as I began to track the developments taking place in areas I knew well. The rate of loss is probably even greater today. Many species are declining due to a progressive loss of habitat and those species confined to special habitats, that are limited geographically, constitute a high proportion of the threatened and endangered species in this country. Monarchs are unique in that they are one of a relatively small group of insect species that breed in a large portion of the North American continent. Much of this breeding capacity is due to the ability of the common milkweed to invade disturbed areas, such as roadsides, railroad right of ways, power-line and gas-line cuts, pastures, and croplands. This plant is essential for the development of monarch larvae and the distribution and abundance of this single milkweed species, even though monarchs utilize 30 or more species of milkweeds over their entire range, accounts for about 90% of the butterflies that join the fall migration each year. An analysis of the distribution of milkweed containing habitats conducted at the time of the concerns about the impact of Bt corn on monarchs suggested that the majority of monarchs, perhaps 90%, originated from areas with intensive agriculture. This observation, together with formal and informal surveys of milkweeds in conventional corn and soybeans, lead to my concern that the rapid adoption of Roundup Ready corn and soybeans could eliminate much of the milkweed in the most productive breeding habitat for monarchs.

I’ve never been impressed by common milkweed as a competitor in crop situations. Although there are claims that the presence of milkweed depresses crop yields, and this may be true in the Red River Valley in Minnesota and Ontario and a few other situations, the densities of the common milkweed are usually too low (20-60 stems per acre) to be of much significance in this regard. Nevertheless, milkweed at these densities is of great value to monarchs. Larvae reared on milkweeds within fields appear to survive at a higher rate than in the field margins and roadsides perhaps due to the lower abundance of predators in these habitats.

Even if we are unable to persuade growers that it is in their interests to adopt non-Roundup Ready crops, to tolerate milkweed or to utilize management practices that are more milkweed friendly, we still need to find ways for growers to restore milkweeds in their field margins, roadsides, conservation set aside lands and wetlands. Here is a preliminary list of the some of the practices that could be adopted:

1) seed marginal lands, fallow lands, or set aside areas with common milkweed and butterfly weed (A. syriaca and A. tuberosa);

2) seed low areas and true wetlands with both common and swamp milkweeds (A. syriaca and A. incarnata);

3) grow milkweeds in gardens- if not common milkweeds because of a prejudice due to their reputation as weeds, then other milkweed species, such as the swamp milkweed, butterfly weed and tropical milkweed;

4) urge local (county) road crews to cut road margins once a year, either in late June or preferably toward the end of the season after the milkweed plants have seeded;

Milkweeds can be established by scattering seeds over areas that have been mowed and lightly disked or tilled as early in the spring as possible. To minimize competition with other species that will invade the seeded area, the sown area should be mowed close to the ground the next spring before growth starts. This practice will favor grasses and milkweeds and will minimize competition for light and nutrients.

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