Q & A: Dr. Anurag Agrawal challenges Monarch butterfly conservation conventional wisdom

Dr. Anurag Agrawal has a bit of a contrarian streak. Named the recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Ecology Award earlier this year, he was lauded for “opening up new research themes” and continuing “to push the envelope using novel approaches” to science, teaching and building community.

Anurag Agrawal by Frank DiMeo

Dr. Anurag Agrawal –PHoto by Frank DiMeo

Take a paper Agrawal and a team of researchers published in April, for example. Titled “Linking the continental migratory cycle of the monarch butterfly to understand its population decline,” Agrawal dared to suggest that the intense focus on milkweed in Monarch butterfly restoration efforts might be misplaced. Solutions that address habitat fragmentation and increasing the availability of late season nectar plants should receive more attention, he proposed.

Born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, Agrawal currently serves as Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Sciences and Faculty Fellow at the Atkinson School of a Sustainable Future at Cornell University. He’s married to fellow Cornell professor Dr. Jennifer Thaler, an insect ecologist, and the couple have two children, Anna and Jasper. Agrawal attributes his initial interest in science and plants to his mother’s intense love of vegetable gardening.

“Planting milkweed is probably not a bad thing to do but it’s not going to increase populations or save them from demise,” said Dr. Agrawal in a nine-minute video released in conjunction with the paper.

The paper rocked the “Monarchy” as he calls the scientific and citizen science communities devoted to the migrating insects in a soon-to-be published book, Milkweed and Monarchs: A Migrating Butterfly, a Poisonous Plant, and their Remarkable Story of Coevolution. The book will be available in April 2017. If all 296 pages are as readable and interesting as the first chapter, which you can read for free at the Princeton University Press website, Agrawal will have a butterfly bestseller on his hands.

Milkweed and Monarchs:

Milkweed and Monarchs, available in April 2017.  Dr. Anurag Agrawal’s soon-to-be-published book, details how the Monarch and milkweed plants have coevolved. –Courtesy photo

Agrawal has called the decline of the Monarch butterfly migration a “very gnarly problem,”  and consistently gives kudos to citizen scientists for contributing to our understanding of them. He often cites a need to “get the science right.”

That sounds like an honorable goal. Let’s hear more from Agrawal, below.

Q: Did you get a lot of flack for your contrarian view on the priority placed on milkweed in Monarch restoration efforts?

Agrawal: I did get a lot of flack.  And I would say that it was pretty interesting, too, because a substantial amount of the flack was off-the-record.

We had sent the manuscript to several Monarch researchers and many of their comments substantially improved the study. But there was a lot of pushback from very prominent research before we got it published. They were asking, ‘Do you want to be the person that derails Monarch conservation? You will appear to be in bed with Monsanto.’

It’s nice to think about science as a fact-based enterprise, but I was really surprised at the extent to which there was a strong agenda and some folks were not open to alternate interpretations of the data and the conventional wisdom.

I was anxious to see what would happen once the paper was published. And I was glad to see that when some of the senior Monarch researchers were asked, they said they didn’t agree–but they were far less bold in their public disagreement or criticism of the work.

My hope is that the study contributes a little to a change in perspective. Any good scientist would agree there are many factors and many causes that contribute to Monarch decline and getting the science right is critical to having a positive impact.

Q: Is it not the nature of the evolutionary cycle for creatures to STOP migrating if they can secure the food and reproductive resources they need locally?


Predators like the Tachinid fly serve the evolutionary purpose of keeping the Monarch population in check. Here, Tachinid larvae next to dead Monarch caterpillar. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Agrawal: For Monarchs, it’s known that the ancestral populations are migratory but that there are nonmigratory populations in Florida, Spain, Hawaii and elsewhere. Some new populations will evolve to be non-migratory, including some non-migratory populations in Mexico.

Scientists believe that migration evolves to take advantage of a large un-utilized resource in some seasons. For example, movement north from Mexico and the southern U.S. in spring evolved to take advantage of abundant milkweeds in the Midwest and Northeastern USA.

Migration is certainly an evolvable trait. In many of the articles I’ve read, almost everyone agrees Monarchs are not under any threat to go extinct; but the migratory phenomenon, one of the most spectacular in the world, may be at risk of going extinct.

Q: Is it arrogant of us to work to perpetuate the Monarch migration for the sake of our joy and fascination of witnessing the natural spectacle? What would the butterflies think if they had the option to reproduce and feed locally rather than migrate thousands of miles?

You’ve asked a really good question: is it arrogant for us to expect the migration to continue forever? The reason people worry about its loss is that we have to ask, to what extent is that loss driven by human consumption of the planet?

The world is changing on its own, organisms are evolved creatures and go extinct all the time; the pace of that extinction is much more rapid in recent years than in the pre-industrial past. It has been likened to the pace of mass extinctions caused by events like asteroids hitting the planet. If that’s the case, and we have some control over it, then my answer is quite different than if the decline is due to “natural causes.”

Q. What is your view on Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, and advice from many scientists to chop it down in the late summer and early fall? What about other milkweeds that continue growing through the season in warm climates?

Agrawal:  We just don’t really know. That hits on a key issue: what causes the break in reproductive cycle–is it the presence of milkweed flowers in general, or is it something specific to Tropical milkweed?

Asclepias curassavica, Tropical milkweed, NOT native, but a great Monarch host and nectar plant for all butterflies. Photo by Moniak Maeckle

Asclepias curassavica, Tropical milkweed, NOT native, but a great Monarch host and nectar plant for all butterflies. To plant it or not is not a simple question. Photo by Monika Maeckle

We don’t know all the reproductive cues that affect Monarchs. Scientists discouraging “non-native” milkweeds are sticking with the precautionary principle–i.e., natives are expected to keep monarchs on track to continue their cycle.

What is a gardener to do?  Plant native milkweeds.

Habitat protection is a good thing. But there are a lot of unknowns. During the southern migration we’re just starting to get some sense of what happens in Texas–but we have very little information about what happens for the last 800 miles. That last third in Northern Mexico is when they’re struggling with wing wear, with lack of fuel (nectar), and we have very little data on that leg of the journey.

Q. Do you think that the rearing and release of Monarchs by citizen scientists and enthusiasts is harmful or helpful to the cause?

Agrawal:  It’s not something I have a scientific opinion on. It’s a double-edged sword in some ways… I’m very pro public engagement with the natural world, but I’m personally not that fond of the rear-and-release for the purpose of “helping” a species. It hints of a little bit of arrogance. We’ve created some problems and now we’re going to solve it by just raising them to make up the difference?! That’s not how nature works.

What makes people think that rearing them in cages is going to increase the abundance of the species? Look at the Bald Eagle. It wasn’t rearing them in captivity that saved them; it was improving habitat, understanding where they want to nest that made the difference.

We all desperately want to help, but I’m not sure that getting in the drivers’ seat is the most sensible approach. I would argue from the perspective of environmental education it makes a lot of sense–to be in Nature, to experience it, it’s something we can do.

Q. Are you aware of the recent Monarch zones efforts by folks in Iowa whereby volunteers raise and release Monarchs using an outdoor biotent natural rearing protocol? Is that any different, better or worse than enthusiasts or commercial breeders raising and releasing butterflies?

Agrawal:  Natural is often better. There’s pretty strong evidence that suggests exposure to ultraviolet light kills off some of the parasites and that the natural cues of sunlight will increase the probability of the Monarchs migrating. But in Nature, more than 90% don’t survive!

It’s worrisome to take natural filters out of the life cycle that natural predation provides.
When a seedling in a forest makes it to be an adult tree it’s a one-in-a-million event. It’s the one individual in the snowstorm of acorns that wasn’t eaten by squirrels at the right place at the right time that makes it.

The life of a Monarch is the same, in a way. Of those 400 million butterflies in Mexico, only a fraction made it. For the population to be stable, there’s a biological filtration process that creates resistance to predators. Mass rearing removes that filter.

Q. What is the one most important thing gardeners, citizen scientists and regular folks can do to help pollinators and Monarchs?

Agrawal:  Something they can do is what they don’t do: don’t spray pesticides around their homes. Having a few more weeds around allows some diversity there, which is likely to protect the animals that visit those plants.

The home gardening movement has all kinds of benefits–reduce lawn and reduce consumption.

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Q & A: Edith Smith, Shady Oak Butterfly Farm, talks Endangered Species Act and More

When it comes to sharing the wisdom gathered over 15 years of breeding butterflies, few people rival Edith Smith as one of the most generous souls in the butterfly world.  Her family run Shady Oak Butterfly Farm ranks as one of the most successful commercial butterfly operations in the U.S., producing up to 6,000 butterfly pupae per week for exhibits, education and events across the country.   Through her Facebook page and myriad educational websites as well as active participation on butterfly email lists, Smith can be relied on to answer the many questions posed by novice butterfly breeders.


Edith Smith of Shady Oak Butterfly Farm

At 59, Smith recently announced her retirement from the day-to-day operations of butterfly farming  to allow her more time for educational endeavors, “experiments,” as she calls them, and writing books. Her daughter, Charlotte, is taking over the business and family members will continue to help.

Given her generous nature, it’s no surprise that Smith agreed to answer a few questions via email as part of our ongoing feature to post conversations with “butterfly peeps,” the folks that comprise the butterfly world.  She leaves the butterfly breeding business at a critical moment, just as the Monarch, the commercial breeding industry’s cash crop, is being considered for listing as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.  We talk to her about that and more in the Q & A below.

Q. You have been a butterfly enthusiast and breeder since 1999. What has been the biggest change in the butterfly world in general and the breeding business in particular?

Smith:  In general, more people say that they see fewer butterflies than ten years ago. Because of the lower numbers, many people are sharing on Facebook and through other avenues about butterflies and people are more interested in planting for butterflies than in the past.

In the breeding business, breeders are more unified. They work together to improve the business both individually and as an industry. There is, overall, more of an interest in educating people and improving and extending butterfly habitat than when we first began farming in 1999.

Got questions?   Edith has the answers.   In this case, this is one fertile female Monarch.  Photo courtesy Edith Smith

Got questions? Edith Smith has the answers. In this case, this is one fertile female Monarch laying LOTS of egg on milkweed. Photo courtesy Edith Smith

Q. The Monarch butterfly community has been “aflutter” about the possibility of the Monarch’s possible listing as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.  Where do you come down on this?

Smith: Although I am thankful for protection for truly endangered species of plants and animals, the Monarch butterfly population can be more effectively grown by promoting habitat creation rather than rendering them ‘hands-off.’  Federal protection isn’t needed.

Instead, the government can encourage farmers and companies to plant and maintain milkweed. According to scientists, the two basic problems that have caused a decline in numbers are the destruction of millions of acres of milkweed and severe drought in Texas at critical times of their migration. There are other causes, such as extensive pesticide use.

A massive public education campaign in the U.S. would result in people using fewer pesticides and planting more milkweed. Counties and states could plant milkweed along major highways and interstates.* Counties and states should schedule mowing for times that would avoid damaging milkweed when it is being used by Monarch butterflies and their caterpillars. Railroad companies can plant milkweed and nectar plants along railroad tracks. Power companies can plant milkweed under power-lines. Farmers can be financially encouraged to plant and maintain one acre of pesticide free milkweed for, say, every 100 acres they own.

Once there is a financial incentive for companies and farmers to plant milkweed, it will be planted. The government owns a great deal of land that is not used. That unused land as well as areas where the land is used (such as at courthouses and other government buildings) could be planted with milkweed patches. All this could be encouraged by the government through tax deductions and/or financial supplements. (We would not encourage government financial support for planting milkweed in areas where there had not been massive loss of milkweed. Community education and efforts can replace milkweed in those areas.)

*NOTE:  Studies have shown that planting along interstates does not result in a substantial increase death of butterflies.

Edith Smith makes her self widely available to answer questions about butterflies.  Courtesy photo

Edith Smith makes her self widely available to answer questions about butterflies. Photo via Edth Smith

Q.  You have been one of the most generous people in sharing your knowledge and understanding of the butterfly world and business with the community, including your competitors. What has brought you to this generous place and do you ever worry about spilling trade secrets?

Smith:  I can’t imagine having a passion and not sharing it with others who are interested in the same subject. Most people know very little about butterflies. As a result, their yards are planted with plants that are not butterfly friendly. Many are eager to learn and as they do, they plant more plants for butterflies and begin to use fewer pesticides. The more people learn, the more they will make their little corner of the world safe for butterflies. Sharing about butterflies is part of our way of making the world safer for butterflies.

We have given away many thousands of packets of host plant seed, from milkweed to ‘weeds’ that can’t be purchased from any source. That makes us proud, to know that these seed will help butterfly populations throughout the United States.

Shady Oak has mastered breeding the uncommon Blue Buckeye.  Photo via Edith Smith, Shady Oak Butterfly Farm

Proudest accomplishment:  Shady Oak has mastered breeding the uncommon Blue Buckeye. Photo via Edith Smith, Shady Oak Butterfly Farm

We believe sharing information with other butterfly farmer/breeders brings the industry together and improves every farm that shares. As new techniques and methods that save time and money without compromising the health of butterflies in the farming operation are shared, everyone sees improvements at their own farms. This also results in a higher production of healthy butterflies, more families raising caterpillars in their homes, and more people ‘falling in love’ with butterflies.

We don’t create competitors when we share information. We create teammates. If we don’t have butterflies or caterpillars for a customer, we can contact another farmer who can ship to our customers for us–as long as they have the proper permits. Most butterfly farmers work as a team, independent yet together. As the industry grows and improves as a whole, it helps each one of us.

Q. What is your proudest accomplishment as a butterfly breeder?

Smith: That’s a hard one! For me, it has to be the Blue Buckeye. It took special breeding to create it. It has blue, green, or purple wings instead of brown wings. We bred these for years to bring out the color and were astounded at how bright and beautiful the color became.

Variegated milkweed

“Charlotte’s Blush” a new patented variegated milkweed, was developed by Smith’s daughter Charlotte and will be available next year. Photo via Edith Smith

In addition, Charlotte is responsible for the discovery of a new variegated milkweed. The paperwork is being processed for patent at this time. The plant itself should be released in 2016. It is named “Charlotte’s Blush” because of the delightful pink in the leaves.

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