Saturday, September 15, 2018

To Be or Not to Be? A Monarch Raiser, That Is.

Nothing like a good controversy to get your butt in gear and finally start blogging again. I never intended to stop, but life just kept getting in the way, and Facebook has made it easy to microblog. But now something has caused such an uproar in the monarch community and beyond, that... well... here we are.

A recent blog post written by someone from The Xerces Society has been making the rounds in the last few days. It's one that has a lot of people really upset and threatens to divide those of us who love the monarch and are doing our darnedest to help them have the population explosion they need.

Lots of people raise monarch butterflies in their homes, and teachers do it in their classrooms. This practice has gone on for decades, but never more than the present, in an effort to bolster the monarch population. But now, in light of this article published just four days ago, lots of people have vowed that they will quit raising monarchs.

Take a deep breath, friends.

Whenever an alarmist article like this appears, I'm skeptical until I can find other information supporting it. I don't care who writes it - scientist or not. If there's one thing I've discovered in the 12 years I've been studying the monarch, even the major players in the scientific community can't agree on some things. The fact is, there are a LOT of things we all have yet to learn about this iconic butterfly we love.

I could probably add another chapter to my book, THE MONARCH: Saving Our Most-Loved Butterfly, on this subject, and certainly more than you want to read in a blog post. But here are some thoughts of mine to consider. It would be best if you read the Xerces Society blog post first, so that you understand what all the hubbub is about and why I say what I do here.

  • First of all, we can't "save" the monarch by raising them inside our homes. There are good reasons to do so, but that alone should not be the rationale behind doing it. It's not sustainable over the long run, not at the levels we're collectively doing it now, and it's not natural. We haven't really saved anything if this is how we have to do it.
  • Secondly, one of the biologists who co-authored the paper cited in the Xerces Society blog post, has come forth with a rebuttal and clarification of the talking points that have monarch lovers so upset. PLEASE read what Christopher Kline has to say about this. I can't stress this enough. Just read it.

This monarch caterpillar fell victim to
a spined soldier bug - a type of stink bug.
We raise monarchs in our homes mainly to protect them from predators. If you've observed monarchs for any length of time, you know firsthand how dismal their mortality rate is. That's not uncommon in the "eat or be eaten" world of insects. But monarch numbers are drastically down compared to just 20 years ago, for many reasons, mainly irresponsible behaviors by us humans.

So there may be something positive in humans taking it upon themselves to attempt to right a wrong that they committed in the first place. Is it natural or ideal to raise monarchs inside? No, but neither are pesticides, herbicides, urbanization, logging, mowing, and other practices that humans have done that have contributed to the monarch's decline.

An important thing to note when reading articles like the one from The Xerces Society

The Xerces Society raises some important points and things to think about. But their blog post is, for the most part, an opinion piece. So is mine.

Remember too, that The Xerces Society is one of the original writers of the petition to have the monarch added to the Threatened Species List under the Endangered Species Act. That decision is due to be announced in 2019, and the raising of monarchs will be greatly changed and curtailed if they are listed. The society certainly has a vested interest in the topic and this article may be speaking with that bias. 

Also, keep in mind that raising monarchs and breeding monarchs are two very distinctively different things. I have never bred monarchs and I don't advocate doing so. There are businesses that do this - some responsibly and some not - and I'm not talking about them here.

I also don't advocate raising huge numbers of them. Doing that requires an extraordinary amount of time, energy, space, and dedication. Not many of us are willing to do this in a way that avoids inherent problems.

Bottom line . . .

Please don't let yourself have a knee-jerk reaction to what the writer of The Xerces Society blog post has said. It might make sense to you right from the get-go, or it might cast doubts on what you've been doing in an effort to help the monarchs. In an ideal world, we wouldn't be in this predicament in the first place. But people smarter than a lot of us (me included) have made some grave mistakes in the past and our wildlife has suffered and is suffering for it.

Personally, I'm of the same mind as Chris Kline, who is qualified to speak on the situation, and I'm perfectly comfortable in continuing to raise small numbers of monarchs in my home. You may not be, and I respect that.

If you save just one female who has the potential to lay
400+ eggs, you may or may not be making a positive difference.
Think about that exponentially for just a little bit

Lastly, thank you to those of you who are doing your part to help the monarchs and other pollinators, whether it be by growing a little milkweed (or a lot), growing more nectar plants, using fewer pesticides and herbicides, contributing financially to those who are working on the monarch's behalf, or even by just keeping the conversation going.

The monarchs have had a banner year here in the Midwest (yay!), which may or may not have had anything to do with our efforts, but keep up the good work. Maybe 20 years from now, we can look back and see that we're making a difference. I believe that we are.

Kylee Baumle is the author of two books, the latest of which is THE MONARCH: Saving Our Most-Loved Butterfly. She is a speaker and writer, who won a 2018 Gold Award for her writings on the monarch.

She will be leading her third tour to the monarch sanctuaries in Mexico in February 2019. For more information on joining the tour, click here


***Photo of female monarch laying egg is courtesy of Holli Webb Hearn, creator of The Beautiful Monarch Facebook group, which at last count, has 23,396 members.


Diana said...

A very thoughtful blog post, Kylee. I read both articles and what you've written makes sense. Keep doing what you're doing! I'm just glad that I had the opportunity to see the monarchs at every stage of development at your house and to help take care of them.

Beth at PlantPostings said...

Very insightful and well-written, Kylee. I didn't disagree with the original column or the rebuttals or your column here. If we raise a few, responsibly, we're not only saving those few individual butterflies--we're also raising awareness of the monarch butterfly, and its lifecycle and development. They are amazing creatures, and it would be oh, so sad to not see them anymore.

Lisa at Greenbow said...

I haven't read all the hubbub but my thought is the scientific community can raise all sorts of birds, rhinos, giraffes, lions, tigers, turtles etc and reintroduce them into areas to successfully increase populations and perhaps save a species, why not butterflies, specifically monarch butterflies????
Eagles, Peregrine Falcons and now on going Whooping Cranes come to mind.

Unknown said...

As all of us connected with this cause know, it is the migration of the Monarch that is threatened. While rearing is an interesting way to connect with nature, as with all at-risk wildlife, it is the creation/protection/repair of habitat that offers the real lasting hope for the future. IMO raising 1000 Monarchs is not the answer if their is no place for them to lay eggs...or no miles of late season nectar plants to fuel their journey South. Moreover, many other insects are at far greater risk for extinction. The Nine-Spotted Ladybug, the Karner Blue, the Rusty Patched Bumblebee are all listed. Habitat has the broad hope of saving more than just one species. It cannot just be a mantra to "rescue" every Monarch egg. Instead, my hope for my grandchildren is rebuilding far-reaching insecticide free habitat that assists all forms of wildlife.

Kylee Baumle said...

Diana ~ I'm glad you were able to see it all up close and personal, too. I do think it makes a difference in how you view the issue when you can see it like that, and understand what all is involved in their life cycle.

Beth ~ I know you work with some very important people in the monarch world and have a unique and balanced perspective on it all. There's so much that we don't know about all of this, so I think it's premature to pronounce a verdict on raising vs. not raising, regardless of the reasons we do it.

Lisa ~ You raise a very good point!

Unknown ~ I wish I knew who I was responding to, but no matter. I agree with you and my comments in my blog post would indicate that, I think.

To one of your points, about saving more than one species, I'm often asked, "Why is the monarch getting so much attention when there are a lot of species in dire straits?" It's a fair question, but to that I want to respond with a quote that is in my book:

No one is an environmentalist by birth. It is only your path, your life, your travels that awaken you. - Yann Arthus-Bertrand

If the monarch's plight is what gets people examining their ways and trying to figure out how to right the wrongs caused by human actions (in this case, mainly the destruction of habitat), then more power to it. Is the monarch a poster child? Sure. But it was the monarch that brought it home to me and I have a feeling the monarch has done that for a lot of other people, too.

I would submit too, that raising monarchs probably has some benefits in ways we cannot measure. If so many people were not raising monarchs, I doubt the awareness would have reached the levels it has. You simply can't put a value on word of mouth about a hands-on activity such as this.

As I said in my post, raising monarchs inside is not what is going to save the monarch. It isn't sustainable or natural, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have significant worth as an activity and until we have scientific proof that it's causing more harm than good, I'm not going to discourage anyone from raising a few monarchs in their homes. We may be surprised to learn one day that the practice, coupled with increasing and improving habitat, has done far more good than we give it credit for presently.

And yes, it's the Eastern North American monarch migration that we're really talking about here. As I state in my book, the monarch as a species is not in danger of extinction.

Lisa Wagner said...

I like your approach (and Chris Kline's), too.

There's a big difference between captive breeding and captive rearing! And the Xerces Society approach is definitely on the purist side. (It reminds me of some discussions around native plant gardening and being extremely focused on the provenance of the native plants we plant...)

Thanks for all you're doing to raise awareness about monarchs and their situation.

Jason said...

Thanks for all the information in this and the following post (I linked to that post in my blog.) I especially appreciate the link to the comments by one of the three scientists who wrote the paper cited by the Xerces Society.

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