Honeybees and Monarch Butterflies


This 1274th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on August 23, 2015.


At our neighborhood block party last week a honeybee tried to share the picnic supper at our table. While everyone else was trying to wave it off, I welcomed this visitor as it was one of the few I have seen this summer.


With regard to wildlife I am a confirmed chauvinist: I support native fauna and flora and generally decry the introduction of alien species. Outsiders almost always cause problems: witness starlings and house sparrows, feral hogs and cats, emerald ash borers and hemlock woolly adelgids and, yes, us. Native Americans can certainly confirm this last.


But I accept the honeybee as a wonderful exception to this attitude. This species was brought to North America by early colonists, the first variety in 1622. Those northern European bees were almost as mean-spirited as the so-called African bees that have now spread to our southern states, but they were soon displaced by gentler bees brought from Italy.


Despite their reputation as ready stingers, I consider bees the least of our worries. Unless you are allergic, their sting represents a temporary shock, a bit like the shock I used to get from elementary school teachers when my acting up brought an immediate response. I even have a friend who visits an unconventional healer weekly for a bee sting that she is convinced controls her arthritis.


Without these bees, we would be in serious trouble. The list of fruit, vegetable and nut products that are dependent on pollination by bees and other insects is long. It includes everything from blueberries, squash and almonds to chocolate and coffee. The data suggests that two out of every three bites of the food we eat is dependent directly or indirectly on honeybee pollination. The colonists knew what they were doing when they brought them.


Unfortunately, bee numbers are way down. Always beset with mites, they now face what has been called colony collapse disorder: bees leave their hive to forage and for some unknown reason fail to find their way back. While the jury is still out on the source of this new problem, many apiarists blame this on the very agribusiness that the bees serve.


Ridding weeds from farm fields has in the past been a labor intensive task, but now food crops have been developed by genetic engineering that withstand weed killers like the systemic glyphosate of Monsanto's Roundup. The fields where these crops are grown are then drenched in the herbicide. At the same time seeds are treated with neonoctinoids that serve as insecticides.


Concerned scientists believe, but have not yet been able to establish, that the honeybees are seriously affected by this double-barreled attack. Whether or not honeybee problems relate to these new treatments, farm laborers have certainly been displaced. And another familiar and beloved insect is suffering.


Monarch butterfly populations have also crashed and that decline meshes time-wise with the introduction of these crop enhancements.


This beautiful bright orange butterfly species has a remarkably complex life history. Each spring they leave Mexican mountains where they have overwintered and begin a long migration north. They don't make it. Part way along they mate, lay eggs and die, but those eggs develop into a new generation. This life cycle is repeated two or three times before the final generation reaches our region. Here they go through still more generations before a final group heads south, that one making the full trip back to Mexico.


Those exhausting voyages are dependent on food along the way and monarchs feed on a specific family of plants: milkweeds. And those milkweeds are among the plants being eliminated over vast areas by the new herbicide program. This is surely a factor in the decline of this species, which has lost 80-90% of its population in the past decade. My own experience reflects this: I saw my first monarch of the year just last week.


Given this serious decline, I salute once again David and Alexis O'Donnell, who devote their summers to raising, distributing and releasing monarch butterflies, most of them from their weekend booth at the Clarence Hollow Farm Market on Main Street. Their next release will be this coming Saturday at 11:00 a.m. (Rain date the following Saturday.) I'll be joining them and I hope to see you there.-- Gerry Rising