By Becky Nelson
I love butterflies. I love the miraculous transformation from caterpillar to full winged creature and I love to see them on the wildflowers around the farm. Monarchs are my favorite, and I’ve seen very few this year. I have seen very few butterflies and moths in general, and am wondering if the drought has affected them and their food sources as badly as it has affected us farmers who try to make a living despite drought, flood, hurricane, tornado, cold, heat and all sorts of extremes.
I have read that insects are on the decline worldwide. Climate change, which seems like it be changing our weather patterns here in the Northeast and I assume the world over, is creating all sorts of havoc. The governor of Oregon, in an interview about the devastating wildfires that are ravaging the western part of the nation, said that we need to call it what it is: a product of the changing climate that is making the conditions perfect to feed the fires.
Monarch caterpillars can usually be found in August, munching away on milkweed plants. There were always big patches of milkweed on the sides of the road or in the corners of hayfields when I was young, but as we transformed hayfields into orchards and berry patches and crop fields, fewer milkweed were at the farm. I try to preserve a patch or two of the big weeds for the monarchs, but I think the milkweed plant is becoming a rarity. And because of that rarity, Monarch butterflies are rare in the area.
The climate sure is different here lately, too. The winters seem to last longer into the traditional transitions of spring with cold winter-type rains lasting right through April in a “new” rainy season for us, and we have had shortened springtimes with cold weather turning abruptly to very warm weather. The summers of late have been much hotter and drier than I remember, with this summer taking the cake with the drought. We have had to adapt and plant differently, install some irrigation in fields and abandon some to pasture and fallow fields because they are so dry.
Perhaps insects are having as much trouble adapting to their new normal as we are. If you look into the predictions of some scientists, the picture isn’t very rosy if we lose a lot of insects. We don’t want them in our dwellings, cars or personal spaces, but insects do so much work to keep the earth going that we would be failures as a species without them. Don’t get me wrong, they can be pests, as well, which is part of the problem. Destroying crops meant for food for human consumption or the animals we rely on to keep us fed is a constant thorn in the side of farmers. We cannot make a living if we can’t harvest the crops. We can’t harvest if insects have destroyed the appeal or safety of the food. We can’t make soil without the insects that break down green matter and transform it into dirt. It is a vicious cycle, and pesticide developers have been the saviors for our industry and the curse of the industry.
In the process of killing the pests eating our food, perhaps we have done as much damage to the big picture as we have to the little picture of our crop safety. Organic growers have been struggling to find ways to protect crops without the toxicity of big-scale pesticides, developing plant-based toxins and other ways to kill insects. Some of these “organic” pesticides are even more toxic to insects and perhaps to us than their commercial chemical counterparts, however, so it is a catch 22 on all fronts. Kill one pest, probably kill a beneficial insect at the same time.
Out of this conundrum, several strategies have come into play, some of which we use at our farm. The most progressive for those of us struggling to make food has been Integrated Pest Management (IPM). Using IPM, we scout for bugs that are working against us. We trap, we check leaves, we wander through the plantings and when an infestation of insects that harm our produce becomes aggressive enough to really harm the end product, we work to get rid of the pests. Sometimes we wait too long, however, and the results will be seen as scars on vegetables or the need to destroy a crop to get rid of the pests as happened to our pepper planting this year that was overtaken by aphids. I don’t have any answers. Just lots of worries and questions. I think we are far enough into this climate change that we have no choices but to come up with novel solutions to old problems and adapt. I just hope the young folks coming into the scene have much better solutions and are better at problem solving than we have been.
All sorts of hazards plague the Monarchs migrations and the butterflies are down in numbers in the millions according to experts because of things like trucks and cars ready that kill them as they flap across the highways, pesticides on fields to grow food so all is not lost to other insect and disease damage, lands developed into shopping malls and homes and office buildings where wildflowers once grew so they could stop and eat and gain the strength to continue north. I am sure the same holds true for the bugs that break down our soil and eat other bugs that plague our crops.
The cars aren’t going away, the buildings are not going to be torn down, farmers have to keep using interventions to dissuade the things that want to destroy all of their crops that feed millions and millions of people. The Monarch and other insects may be out of luck, and we with them as we continue to see the unforeseen consequences of our actions. Like the phrase “closing the barn door after the horse has run off,” we may be urging folks to plant milkweed and flowers for butterflies after we have already doomed them to extinction. I hope I am wrong. It just makes me think that in the scientific law, there is no action without a reaction. We blithely head into new technologies and discover new horizons, eradicate diseases and tinker with biological processes. Some actions we take are good for the many, but there will always be the reaction, which may disrupt some natural order that we didn’t even consider. We don’t know all the answers, we can’t fathom the problems we may cause as we discover new technologies nor could we when we discovered and consumed electricity, eradicated diseases and created medicine resistant strains of others, discovered that coal burns and fueled our homes with it, discovered how to refine oil and fired up vehicles with it, manufactured large equipment and transformed farmland into cities with it.
I am not a naysayer. I just wish to offer some caution, and relay that all our grand ideas and new discoveries might create more harm than good and that for every action, there is a reaction. Just take a look around and look for a Monarch butterfly, for they are suffering a reaction to our “developments” and “improvements”. Be wary of 5G. Be wary of artificial intelligence. Be wary of turbines that kill birds and bats, solar arrays that use batteries that are absolutely toxic in the making, dams that destroy wilderness but make cheap power. Be wary of the newest, shiniest toys and gadgets that may not be all they are cracked up to be in the long run.
Becky Nelson is co-owner of Beaver Pond Farm in Newport, New Hampshire. You can contact her through the farm page on Facebook and Instagram, visit the retail store or email her at email@example.com.