September 5, 2013

Maine Voices: Where have all the butterflies gone? Portlanders can bring them back

The insects will return if residents restore habitat, plant wildflower lawns and stop using insecticides.

By Robert King

PORTLAND - Over several years, I have noticed a decline in butterfly numbers in Portland. So starting this spring, I began stopping and visually scanning residents' flower gardens and the wild meadows remaining in town.

I searched the entire summer and did not see a single butterfly. I did see many of the exotic white cabbage moths, and I do see butterflies outside Portland, in the countryside.

A decade ago, there was a diversity here: Eastern tailed-blues, pearly crescentspots, an occasional red admiral, tiger swallowtails, viceroys, several skippers (including the least skipper), mourning cloaks, etc.

Why have butterflies vanished from Portland? Several reasons come to mind:

Use of neonicotinoids: "Neonics" are a group of water-based, nicotine-based insecticides. One neonic, imidacloprid, is the most commonly used poison in home and commercial insecticides worldwide. If you use insecticides to protect plants around your home, odds are you're using imidacloprid.

Neonics are applied as seed dressing, soil saturation, plant injection or foliage spray. Because of their high water solubility, neonics are systemic, absorbed and circulated through the plant, becoming intrinsic with plant tissues.

Unlike contact insecticides, systemics supposedly can target only insects that eat the treated plant's tissue, and so are marketed as environmentally friendly. But if the toxins are systemic, then how is it that pollen and nectar escape the toxin? They don't.

Neonics are highly toxic to adult bees and adult butterflies, as well as, of course, the butterfly larvae (caterpillars) that eat the plants. Also, bees and butterflies inadvertently spread toxins when visiting flowers.

Please Google "Chensheng Lu in situ CCD" to read only the short abstract from this conclusive research on the effects of imidacloprid on our honeybees. Chensheng Lu, Ph.D., is an associate professor of environmental exposure biology at Harvard University's Center for the Environment.

To read three articles relating to neonicotinoids, please Google "George Monbiot neonicotinoids" and "Neonicotinoid Wiki."

Loss of butterfly habitat and fragmentation: To support butterflies, habitat must have wildflowers for the nectar-feeding adults and the plant-eating larvae (caterpillars). So if we remove patches of wildflowers, it's possible to eliminate enough food sources to ensure the local extinction of butterflies.

If enough wildflower meadows have been removed regionally, butterflies may not be capable of repopulating wildflower meadows when they're restored.

But considering the effects of winds, I doubt that this has happened here. Coincidentally, our native butterflies don't damage the plants we consider desirable, and so our native butterflies aren't considered detrimental to our interests.

Lawn obsession: Many are obsessed with their lawns, and nature pays a price for that. First, why would you allow routine applications of insecticide to your lawn when you do not have a problem in the first place? Unless you have a specific problem that you have positively identified, you're wasting money and damaging nature at its base.

Insects are living animals with nervous systems, and death by nerve poisoning is a horrible death. How can you consider yourself a responsible steward of the nature you have dominion over if you're killing with nerve poisons?

I have refused to use insecticides on my land, yet I've never had a problem with any insect. I do spot-apply the herbicide (not an insecticide) glyphosate, and then only to the persistent Oriental bittersweet.

We should be revering nature, not destroying it for our vanity.

The answer is planting wildflower lawns. In spring 2014, I'll be following the lead of some nature-thinking Portland residents with an esplanade full of native wildflowers. And folks are beginning to establish native perennials on their lawns, too. If planned properly, you can reduce mowing time and still have it look maintained, because it is!

Over the years, the word "wildflower" has been replaced with "weed." But after years of mowing anything we could in Portland, within the last few years we've allowed nature to reclaim some of what's hers, reverting to the native species in early successional stages.

Most of us, including me, thought that would have been enough. Though perennial wildflowers have returned, however, butterflies have not. Maybe if we change a few things, they will return.

There's hope. The other day I spotted a mourning cloak butterfly flitting through my yard. Wouldn't you know it! And since mid-August, I have started to see a very few butterflies within Portland. Of course, all this does not take into account the impending monarch migration through Portland.

 

Robert King is a resident of Portland. He can be contacted at robertleeking@gmail.com, or visit his website at www.itsaboutnature.net.

 

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