Siouxland Observer

Master of Science

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Monarch Update

Laboratory tests confirm monarchs fed milkweed leaves dusted with transformed pollen from a Bt-corn hybrid ate less, grew more slowly and suffered a higher mortality rate. Monarchs are remarkable creatures. Not only do they migrate, but a reporter, who hit a monarch and drove for miles while the creature fluttered dead, wrapped around the car's antenna, marveled at its power and strength.  Not only was it not dead, but once freed, it flew away to safety.

Could it have reached Mexico?  Its odds were far better than being left for car kill. Yet the creature is in trouble.  A study at Cornell University, published in 1999, warned of the danger.  According to the Cornell University study, pollen, from genetically engineered corn, weakens the immune system of the monarch in its larval stage.

Laboratory tests confirm monarchs fed milkweed leaves dusted with transformed pollen from a Bt-corn hybrid ate less, grew more slowly and suffered a higher mortality rate. Nearly half of these larvae died, according to the researchers, while the caterpillars fed leaves dusted with regular corn pollen or fed leaves without corn pollen at all survived the study.

(Photo: Cornell Study Web Page.)

The toxin in the transformed pollen (from a genetically modified Bt-corn hybrid) goes into the gut of the caterpillar, where it binds to specific sites. Thus, the gut wall changes from a protective layer to an open sieve so that pathogens usually kept within the gut and excreted are released into the insect's body. As a result, the caterpillar quickly sickens and dies.

John E. Losey, Cornell assistant professor of entomology, and the primary investigator on the study, does offer equal time to potential benefits.

“We need to look at the big picture here,” he said. “Pollen from Bt-corn could represent a serious risk to populations of monarchs and other butterflies, but we can't predict how serious the risk is until we have a lot more data. And we can't forget that Bt-corn and other transgenic crops have a huge potential for reducing pesticide use and increasing yields. This study is just the first step, we need to do more research and then objectively weigh the risks versus the benefits of this new technology."

Stand down, okay?  Unfortunately, according to a documentary called “Genetically Modified Food: Panacea or Poison,” the problem is real.

“We have a condition," former U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich said in the documentary, “which is really adverse to the public interest where corporations, are in effect, allowed to police their own industries. They are not required to divulge all of their backup research and data to prove their product (is safe)…and the government doesn’t do it either."

Good news though.  The monarch is rebounding, and especially as more of us become aware of the potential risk of GMOs, and what they are doing to living creatures.  A reporter amazed by the strength of a captive monarch, now has an insect-friendly echinacea in his flowerbed.  And ideas for helping our fellow travelers are also explored in the rather long-winded Habitat for Arthropods.

According to an article recently published in the Omaha World-Herald, migrating monarchs have increased in numbers this year by 7.8 to 9.9 acres, up from 2.79 acres last year.

"The monarchs cluster so closely in trees that their numbers are measured by the area they cover.  They once blanketed as much as 44 acres."

The Associated Press story, seen at Voice of America also, said it is hoped that by 2020 there will be enough butterflies to cover 14.8 acres.  Two years ago, according to the report, the butterflies reached a low point, covering only 1.65 acres, the lowest since record-keeping began in 1993.  Many who follow this story grew worried.  Will we lose another natural wonder?