The Green Room: The Local Buzz About Pollinator Decline

Aug 12, 2014

Michigan's bee population has been devastated. Monarch Butterflies are in swift decline. Our food, and landscaping habits, may be to blame.


I’m at a “March Against Monsanto” rally at Liberty Plaza in Ann Arbor. Monsanto sells seeds that are “Round-up Ready”: genetically modified to survive when crops are sprayed with weed-killer. Human health seems to be the top concern here, but a few people are dressed as bees, and Ann Arborite Nancy Witter says:

Witter: The pesticide Round-up that they put on those GM crops are killing the milkweed plants that the monarchs need for their larvae.  I don’t want to see species eliminated just for these GMO crops.

Bees love milkweed.  For the Monarchs, it’s crucial. That’s because it is the only thing their caterpillars can eat.  The Monarchs that fly northward each year from Mexico have gone from one billion strong to down to a mere 33 million. A clear sign one of earth’s greatest migrations is in dire jeopardy.

Dzeidzic:  Our great-grandchildren will not see the monarchs if we don’t do something about it so we can have the migration up here.

That’s Brenda Dzeidzic, founder of the Southeast Michigan Butterfly Association.  We’re in her Butterfly Habitat greenhouse at Barson’s Nursery in Westland, surrounded by fluttering native butterflies. 

Dzeidzic:  When they migrate north the biggest vast area that they migrate through are the corn and soybean fields.  And so when they are migrating up here, if they don't have a place to lay their eggs, then the next-generation will not exist to continue their northward journey.

Dzeidzic says a major cause of Monarch decline is the 60% loss of milkweed in the Midwest that has occurred at the same time as acreage devoted to Round-up Ready crops has boomed. The Food Safety Institute says 3/4 of the processed foods on our shelves now contain genetically-modified ingredients.  85% of our corn, and 93% of our soy is now genetically-modified.   If not used for biofuels, its fed to our meat or dairy livestock, it becomes oil or corn syrup.

Siler:  I would say probably 95% of the seeds that are planted in Washtenaw County are GMO. 

That’s Kenney Siler.  He’s been farming in Manchester for the past 38 years, and has noticed the decline in the prevalence of milkweed.

Siler:  I farmed using conventional methods up until I began using Round-up ready corn and I had a lot of milkweed.  I don’t have a milkweed problem any more.

But overall he sees his Round-up Ready seeds as environmentally beneficial: Glyphosate is more effective so he needs less herbicide spray.  And because the seeds are pre-treated with insecticide, he needs no insecticide spray at all.

Siler:  Now all that stuff comes on the seed.  That’s one of the big advantages.

He gives me an empty bag for the soybean seed he uses. 

Siler:  It’s says Round-up Ready….

Reading the fine print back home, I see that Under  “Pollinator precautions”, the label says the thiamethoxam it’s treated with is highly toxic to honeybees.  This is a type of neoniconitoid, neurotoxins which are under a two-year ban in Europe in response to colony collapse disorder.  Siler says his wife is concerned about how farm chemicals may be impacting our pollinators, and asks him... 

Siler:  Why do you do it?  I do it for convenience, and cost.  It’s convenience, more than anything else.  I used to spray, cultivate, and then cultivate again….

Siler says fewer trips through the field equals less fuel burned, and less chemicals applied. USDA figures back that up, initially.  The Agency reports pesticide use did go down with the introduction of GMO seeds.  But now, it’s increasing because weeds are evolving resistance to the chemicals.

Clip from Dow Chemical’s Enlist Weed Control System advertisement: “Our weed of the week is common milkweed.  …Sponsored by the Enlist weed control systems at Dow Agro Sciences, an herbicide and trade system that will build on glyphosate.”

To overcome the glyphosate resistance that GM corn and soybeans are developing, Dow Chemical’s new GM seed adds resistance to 2,4,-D, which was a component of Agent Orange during the Viet Nam War.  More toxic to milkweed than the glyphosate in Roundup, Siler says:

Siler:  I think it's not the glysophate, it's the 24D that's the problem.

Adding more pesticides to the environment to fight resistance has some concerned.

Badgely:  …thirty different kinds of plants that are now showing resistance to the herbicides which are included in these gm crops is simply maintaining what is called by some the pesticide treadmill.

That’s Dr. Catherine Badgley of the University of Michigan.  She’d like farmers to use less chemicals, but also recognizes the challenges to going organic.

Badgely: We are not yet as consumers paying enough for that to be a decent living for people and if we look at the price of food in United States compared to the price of food in virtually every other country in the world it is much more in other places.

She says if consumers want less chemicals, they must be willing to pay more.  Kenney Siler says farmers won’t plant what doesn’t pay.

Siler:  It costs more money and it is more labor-intensive and if the price isn't there they don't do it. 

Siler says to stop growing GMO crops, he would have convert to organic. 

Siler:  There’s a place in Saline that buys non-GMO soybeans for food products, but it has to be organic also.

He says converting to organic is a minimum three-year process, and at age 77...

Siler:  I don’t know if I want to put that much time in.  That’s the biggest issue for me.  I used to work night and day.  Now I don’t work nights.

The average age of farmers in the US is climbing steadily. The average size of farms is increasing, too.  And the bigger the farm, the fewer hedgerows and flowers for bees and butterflies.  At Siler’s, the original 1870 farm was smaller.

Siler:  I took out the fence, weeds used to grow along the fence.  I just took it out about four years ago.  Before that this was two separate fields.

To regain some of the lost pollinator habitat, some say we should look beyond the farm fields and focus on our roadways and our yards.  In the U.S. alone, there are more than 17 billion acres along public highways which could be prime habitat for the plants pollinators depend on. That is, if people didn’t view the roadside wildflowers as weeds to be mown.

Bees buzzing.  Those are bees in a small wildflower demonstration garden at Ann Arbor’s Leslie Science Center.  Chief Naturalist David Clipner says this is just the beginning.  

Clipner:  I want to see milkweed in every direction that you look, and that’s our goal.

In June, the Center gave out milkweed plants for people to plant in their yards, which Clipner says should have cascading benefits.  

Clipner: This habitat that you are looking at now is home to a ton of different insect populations, it’s not just the monarchs.  If you have a population of milkweed it’s very likely that you have a healthy habitat that can sustain other species. 

Including the human species…

Clipner: I think that by helping everything that needs help, we end up helping ourselves.   For whatever reason…  if it takes a butterfly to get people to change the way they live and the way they get their food, that's fine with me!

Barbara Lucas, 89-One, WEMU News.

Additional Resources:

USDA on the increase in Genetically Engineered Crops

Pioneer Seeds on resistance to glyphosate  

Food and Water Watch on Pesticide-resistant weeds

Beekeepers on How to Reduce Bee Poisoning from Pesticides

USDA on State-by-state bee colony losses 2013-2014

NYTimes on bees and farm chemicals

MSU Extension on value of honeybees to Michigan’s economy

Monsanto on the decline in Monarchs

Dow AgroSciences on Common Milkweed

Scientific study on the decline in monarchs with expansion of GM herbicide-resistant crops 

A second study re: herbicide-resistant crops and the decline in Monarchs
http://www.saynotogmos.org/ud2011/fp-content/docs/Brower_2011.pdf

Butterfly Resources from Brenda Dziedzic