Feed – The – World ….

caterpillar
Nom Nom Nom

The world now has 900 errr 1,360  (to be Thomson & Thompson precise) brand new square feet of butterfly and bee fueling stations.

This weekend my son and I (and about 15 neighbors of all ages and political affiliations) formed a work bee to plant some Monarch waystations at Willowbrook Reach. Willowbrook Reach is a little native greenbelt in Austin’s Cherrywood neighborhood. The huge bags of seeds we used contained over 6 species of native milkweeds and over a hundred varieties of host, cover and nectar plants.

I have been thrilled to see how people in Austin have responded to the declining Monarch population. The local Farmers’ Market gave away many packets of milkweed seeds and plants, the Travis County Master Gardeners gave talks on plants to grow to improve butterfly habitat and people like David Boston found funding and organized the construction of waystations during It’s My Park Day.

I am happy people are paying attention to the Monarch butterfly decline but I am even more excited about the possible spillover effects from these programs. By planting native milkweed seeds and plants people are returning some essential plants to our environment.

Why are the Monarchs in Trouble?

The widespread use of Monsanto’s Roundup is the root cause of all the Monarch troubles. The corporation claims Roundup is simply a weed killer but it is actually a weapon of mass destruction. It isn’t even effective in fulfilling its stated purpose: Roundup hasn’t actually killed any weeds; it has helped them mutate into monstrosities. It does do a great job of killing native plants, though.

Why Milkweed and Other Native Plants are Important

Native plants form the base of the food energy pyramid. Ever build a house of cards or play the game Jenga? Then you know how easily the removal of even one piece can cause the whole structure to collapse.

Luca's Energy Pyramid

Everyone by now is aware of the importance of milkweed to Monarch butterflies but milkweed does much more than feed one species of butterfly. In nature most things usually have multiple functions . . .

Plant some milkweed and you almost immediately will see the arrival of oleander aphids. A few years ago I popped an Asclepias tuberosa into a flower bed and I swear it looked like a case of spontaneous generation. At first I was horrified. I wondered: how could aphids appear so quickly and in such abundance ?!

Though they may appear to be pests the aphids don’t seem to harm the milkweed. Weirdly enough, if you are willing to tolerate their presence they actually help the whole garden by drawing voracious beneficial insects such as ladybugs, wasps, spiders and lacewings into the area. These beneficial insects then work hard to improve conditions for any and all surrounding plants.

Milkweeds also have important connections to birds, beetles and bees. Birds use the soft milkweed fluff to line and insulate their nests. Milkweed bugs allow individual plants enough space to grow big and strong. Native carpenter and bumble bees use the flowers for food and in return offer pollination services. Small bees like the introduced honey bee are too delicate to do the job. Introduced bees often find their thin legs trapped in the tight flower spaces that hold the pollen. Native bees on the other hand can buzz and use their thick legs to pull themselves loose.

I am amazed that the presence or absence of one plant can affect so many other life forms. I suppose the lowly milkweed could be considered a keystone species; however, I can’t help but wonder about all the other wild plants and their associates that are quietly disappearing. Not every wild plant has a flashy butterfly advertising its demise.

The decline of the Monarch butterfly population does dramatically illustrate the danger of monoculture agriculture systems though. When you allow only select plants (corn or soy) to dominate a field or a continent there are consequences.

In case someone out there hasn’t seen these yet ….

monarch graph

monarch graph 2

Activism

As much as I would like Monsanto to be held accountable for selling a weapon of mass destruction I doubt that is likely to happen anytime soon. In fact, it seems more likely that they will continue to reap their profits and accept government subsidies while the rest of us try to clean up and contain their mess. We will have to ‘be the change’ instead by:

1. Creating small habitat islands to offset the millions of acres of land ruined by Monsanto. Hopefully, we  can help some of our wildlife survive until people realize this agricultural system isn’t working. The Lady Bird Wildflower database lists 63 different species of milkweed plants that grow all across the continent in all kinds of habitat. Find the ones that are right for your area and please join us in planting even a few.

2. Using our purchasing power. We may not have any political power but consumers can refuse to buy GMO products. Purchase or grow organic produce instead.

3. Spreading the word and spilling the beans …

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