Plight in Flight (Austin Chronicle, February 2014)

Plight in Flight (Austin Chronicle, February 2014)

By Jessi Cape, Austin Chronicle

Talk of food deserts and kinks in the food chain rarely include mention of the state insect of Texas. Yet the rapidly declining population of migratory monarch butterflies, iconic symbols of transformation, demonstrates the fragility of the global agricultural and food systems. Second only to the similarly beleaguered bees (whose ongoing crisis is championed by the likes of Austin's own Walter Schumacher), butterflies are one of nature's great pollinators. These insects are credited with pollinating 75% of food crops, and for an efficient, sustainable system, biodiversity is essential. It's simple, really: If bugs go kaput, human food goes, too.

A multifaceted issue, the ethereal creature's tale is one full of science and strategy. Research largely places the blame for monarch (Danaus plexippus) disappearance on the twin shoulders of the agricultural system and problems wrought by climate change. Drought, loss of natural habitat and vegetation via urban development, and GMO-laden monoculture (specifically corn and soy) in commercial farming all contribute to the problem. Also fueling the fire are the devastating effects of neonicotinoid pesticides, a ban on which has been circulating in United States legislation for years to no avail. (The European Union banned neonicotinoids in 2013.) By starving the butterflies' primary food sources and breeding grounds – milkweeds (Asclepias), also known as butterfly weed – and drastically reducing the insects' immunities to disease, it's no wonder the insects are struggling.

The declining stability of monarchs is evidenced by a significant decrease in numbers: The population of migratory monarchs arriving in Mexico is estimated around 450 million in typical years past, but reports indicate only 60 million survived the 2012 trek, and a measly 3 million monarchs crossed the finish line in 2013. In fact, The New York Times reported in November that, for the first time in memory, monarch butterflies did not arrive in Mexico in time for the Day of the Dead celebration. If only the butterfly saga were folklore.

Austin is located directly on the monarch's annual flight path, and Lone Star Nursery, one of a handful of 100% certified organic nurseries in the area, sees the opportunity for Central Texans to aid the butterflies. The East Austin nursery, which specializes in useful and rare plants, is spearheading a "Bring Back the Monarch" campaign to encourage people to plant more milkweed. Owners Jay and Flint Beard are teaming up with Carla Jenkins of Texas Farmers Market to educate the public on the crucial need for butterfly assistance. Their pesticide-free native milkweed seedlings will be available at select farmers' markets (including Cedar Park, Mueller, Barton Creek Farmers Market, and SFC Downtown Farmers Market), as well as Lone Star's various retail outlets and "any and all interested community gardens around town," by early March when the chances of a freeze have passed. The proliferation of milkweed should help, says Jay: "Planting front yards, backyards, neighbors' yards, school yards, roadsides, and medians will definitely give [the butterflies] the snack they need to continue [their journey]."

By planting a variety of these perennial multipurpose plants this spring, the butterfly weeds will flourish during the coming fall and next spring, a near-guarantee for boosting the beautiful butterfly kaleidoscope, thereby strengthening the entire food system.

Featured in this article: 

MILKWEED 'Antelopehorn' --Asclepias asperula--

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