Milkweed and Monarchs


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Because I belong to the local chapter of the Native Plant Society, I notice native plants more, try to learn their names, and even find out if they possess medicinal uses.  We decided to adopt a theme for the year  2014, milkweeds.  Why milkweeds?  They are the primary food for monarch butterflies which are in extreme decline.  Why the decline?  Pesticide and herbicide use plus overwhelming habitat loss, especially along bar ditches and in the area of Mexico to which they migrate annually.  This past winter instead of hundreds of trees in Mexico covered with monarchs, there were only twelve.  Yes, only twelve.  Why do herbicides cause a problem??  When the butterfly larvae eat milkweed sprayed with herbicide, they ingest that herbicide toxin.

Monarchs are an ancient species.  They have been around for over 50 million years.  Monarchs are the only insect species to migrate 2500 miles annually.  Monarchs go through four generations per year.  The first three generations hatch and live up to six weeks.  The fourth continues to live for six or eight months.  They taste with their feet.  Monarchs have special meaning for Mexicans because they arrive in Mexico at the same time as the Day of the Dead.

In the Panhandle of Texas, four common milkweeds grow:  Asclepias tuberosa, Asclepias asperula, Asclepias latifolia, and Asclepias verticillata.  The name Asclepios is derived from the Greek word, Asklepios, the Greek god of medicine and healing.  I find only two of these here where I live, latifolia and asperula.

 

 

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The top photo and the one immediately above are of asperula, more commonly called antelope horns.  They are important hosts for butterflies.  When discussing butterflies of any species, it is important to note that butterflies require two types of plants, host and nectar.  This plant provides important food for larvae.

At least where I live, the more common–by that I mean it grows anywhere and everywhere, even in the driest caliche soil–is latifolia.  However, I have never seen a monarch on either the blossoms or the leaves.  When in full bloom, latifolia attracts giant (as in several inches long) black and orange wasps which seem incredibly non-agressive.

 

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This poor latifolia specimen barely hangs on next to the hydrant by the barn.

 

If you want to try growing milkweed yourself and you live in the Panhandle, seeds and plants can be purchased from Canyon Edge Plants and Panhandle Greenhouses.  Obtain free seeds from Livemonarch.com.  Wildseed Farms in Fredericksburg, Texas, also sells seeds.  If you want butterflies, do not use pesticides and herbicides.  Contact me if you want me to publish the “Butterfly Attracting Plant List”.

 

 

 

 

Apocalyptic Planet-Part Seven: Species Vanish


We all know extinction occurs.  Nearly everyone knows different species of dinosaurs at varied times roamed the earth for millennia.  Bones of all sorts of animals and various hominids are dug up off and on.  Scientists study them, determine their age, where and how they lived.  Scientists and sometimes even average persons develop theories about why they went extinct.  Regardless of which theory a person decides is accurate, these ancient extinctions generally took thousands of years. Recent extinctions are different, e.g. carrier pigeons.  Millions existed a couple of hundreds of years ago; now they are gone.  Why?  Humans.

Various causes exist for the extinctions of ancient species.  A major cause is the climate change caused my the changing tilt of the earth’s axis.  These changes occur over thousands and thousands of years.  What is different now?  Let’s take corn.  Native Americans cultivated rainbow colors of corn in small, frequently irrigated fields.  Where is most corn grown now?  Giant fields of GMO corn grow from horizon to horizon in the Midwest.  And if Monsanto had its way, no other corn would continue to exist for long.   Iowa is a good example.  Wherever this corn is grown, native grasses and other native plants totally disappear, in part due to cultivation.  A bigger issue is herbicides–to have clean fields, nothing and I mean nothing but corn must grow there.  A farmer’s expertise as a farmer is measured my just how super clean his fields are.  The only way to get these totally weedless fields is to use herbicides.  Biodiversity is a key to environmental health.  Little biodiversity exists in giant fields of crops like corn and soybeans.  Fertilizers to obtain huge yields wash downstream and in the Midwest eventually end in the Gulf of Mexico and cause giant marine algae blooms which pulls oxygen from the water to create a dead zone where no marine animals or fish can live.

Perhaps readers have heard of the plight of monarch butterflies.  Compared to just ten years ago, the population has dropped dramatically.  What happened to them?  Roundup.  Over 100,000 tons of Roundup and other brands of glyphosate herbicides are annually applied to crops in the US.  What do monarchs eat?  Milkweed.  Since 1999, 58 per cent of the milkweed has disappeared.  Recently, monarchs experienced a 30 per cent reduction in their numbers in one year.  Are we headed toward a mass extinction?  Some scientists think so.  These scientists are not talking about tigers, elephants, and rhinos being killed at an ever increasing rate for their body parts, but rather about the less noticeable extinctions of various plants and less obvious animals like frogs.  And then there is the problem with bees.  Bees are disappearing at an ever increasing rate due to not only diseases but due to herbicides and pesticides.  Without bees to pollinate the giant fields of almonds and various fruits in California, for example, those foods won’t exist.  See a previous post for more discussion on the importance of bees.  So why care about frogs?  Scientists consider frogs and amphibians in general an indicator of the health of an ecosystem.  Certain more tropical species of frogs are especially subject to the effects of climate change and they are disappearing.

Where I live big bluestem, blue grama, buffalo grass, and other native species grew from horizon to horizon.  This is the high plains.  Root systems of some plants grow twelve feet deep.  It has not rained in over a month.  Where the native grass once grew, crops are now grown.  This time of year finds open fields. Without rain, with the recent endless high winds, dust fills the sky.  To safely return home from town Sunday, I had to turn on the car lights to see.  The dryness fuels wildfires.  Earlier this week, over one hundred homes burned down in a wildfire north of Amarillo.  Drought.

Many human inventions are wonderful and make many lives better, but for some of them, I cannot help but wonder at what cost.

 

 

Sacred Corn


SAM_0035   In the summer on hot, humid nights, you can hear the corn grow.  My great grandfather, my grandfather, and my father grew corn.  I grow corn in that same rich loess soil of Northwestern Missouri.  Soil laid down by Ice Age glaciers thousands of year ago.  Only on a few hill tops, here and there, will you find non glacial soil. Repeatedly, daily, I walk by the sacred corn plant of life painted on my hall corner.  This sacred corn corner houses three corn maiden kachinas and a drum decorated with corn maidens.  I give thanks to corn for my house and the life I lead.

Corn Song

I sing the song of ancients:

pueblo peoples,

Anazazi, Hopi, Zuni.

I sing the song of an America long gone.

Maya, Aztec, Tolmec.

I sing the song of life:  colors of the rainbow

golden, red, white, blue.

I sing the song of now:  thick, endless

identical rows.

Pioneer, Monsanto,

anhydrous ammonia,

atrazine.

I sing the song of hope and joy:

an ancient reclaiming,

a klaidescope of colors,

butterflies and fireflies.

I sing the eternal human song.

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This is a Navaho kachina.  Kachina are actually Hopi, but Navaho artists now make kachinas as well.  The first corn maiden kachina I bought.

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Spotted corn kachinas, on the left, are unusual.  It took me years to find one.  The kachina on the right was created by R Pino, who is both Hopi and Navaho.

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Every year Pendleton runs an art contest among Native American students.  The winner’s art work is transformed into saddle blankets.  This design, created by Mary Beth Jiron, is the latest in this Student Series. There are three corn  maidens  on each side of the blanket, representing the different varieties of corn grown by native peoples, yellow, red, blue, white, black, and spotted.

Do you like to eat? Bees and the Food Supply


SAM_1074Do you like to eat?  Do you eat almonds, apples, cherries, watermelon, blueberries, or cantaloupe?  In fact, the biggest factor limiting the world’s food supply is not war, drought, or any of the factors you commonly hear about.  The world’s food supply is limited by the amount of bees available for pollination.  In the last five years in the United States alone, approximately one million honey bee colonies died each year, about one third of our national bee herd.  Bees are in danger of extinction.  Native to Southeast Asia, honey bees were domesticated long before written history, before the building of the Egyptian pyramids.  Thousands of species of bees exist, but honey bees carry the main load of pollination for cultivated crops.

More than 740,000 acres of almonds, California’s leading agricultural export,  remain in cultivation in the Central Valley of California.  Pollination depends on bumble bees, honey bees, and wild bees.  Sadly, the wild bees are mostly extinct, killed by pesticides and habitat loss.  Now pollination depends on traveling bee keepers and their honey bees.  Today, commercial bee keepers number one fourth of what they did in 1980.  To get enough bees the almond (and cherry and apple, etc.) growers hire these bee keepers to install approximately 2 million bee hives to work the pollination.  Almonds alone require at least 1.5 million hives.  Each almond tree’s blossoms number 25,000 and at 135 or so trees per acre, that adds up to 3.5 million flowers to pollinate.  The difference between a poor harvest and a great one depends on bees.  After the bees finish their work in the Central Valley and other warmer climates, the commercial keepers take them to places like Idaho and North Dakota for the summer where they sip alfalfa, buckwheat, goldenrod, and sweet clover blossoms and produce the honey sold in groceries.

Where have all the bees gone?  What leads them toward extinction?  In 2006-2008, beehives across the world from Europe to here to Indian and Brazil nearly collapsed.  Causes vary:  foulbrood–a bacterial fungus, wasps, ants, mice, a host of viruses, nosema–bee diarrhea, and certain pesticides.  What can we do?  First, we can ban certain pesticides that are known to harm bees.  Second, we need to grow more flowers and blooming weeds (yes, I said weeds) to encourage a broader spectrum of healthy bees for pollination.  Honey bees cannot do it all alone.  The lack of sufficient flowers is the result of not only pesticides, but also the increase in lawns.  If you personally want to make a difference for bees and ultimately our food supply, let the wild flowers grow, plant more flowers and less lawn, limit pesticide use.

This morning I went out to my xeroscape garden–I have no lawn–and photographed bees.  At one catmint plant, so many busy bees made a clearly audible buzzing sound.  I witnessed at least four different kinds–species–of bees.  These SAM_1076

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SAM_1078photographs illustrate at least several different types of flowers bees love.