Wildflower Stories: Milkweed, Monarchs and Monsanto

ATwildflowers_milkweedlMonarch butterfly populations have declined an estimated 90% over the past 20 years. [1] What’s going on?! The answer involves genetic engineering, protozoans and herbicide.

Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), a member of the Dogbane family of plants, is closely associated with Monarch butterflies. Monarch caterpillars feed on milkweed and assimilate the plant’s chemical defenses, providing the Monarchs protection over the rest of their lives.

Milkweed grows in disturbed soils, like those used in agriculture. The plant is often found between rows of corn or soybeans. However, genetic modification of corn and soybean allows herbicides (such as Monsanto’s RoundUp) to be more efficient at killing other plants, like milkweed. Fewer milkweeds, fewer Monarchs.

milkweed_flowers
So good-hearted people came to the rescue, planting Milkweed in their yards in an effort to help the butterflies. Unfortunately, many people planted the wrong species of Milkweed. Here in the U.S., native Milkweed dies back each year. This dieback limits the population of a Monarch parasite called OE (Ophryocystis electroscirrha). [2] However, the species of Milkweed people planted is evergreen, so the parasites keep proliferating and Monarchs get so sick they don’t survive their migration to Mexico and back.

If you’d like to find the right Milkweed for your neck of the woods, here’s a handy tool from Xerces.

  1. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/10/141010-monarch-butterfly-migration-threatened-plan/
  2. http://monarchparasites.uga.edu/whatisOE/