by Staci Goddard, December 24, 2015

The Washington Post several months back released an article that instructed the public to no longer distress themselves with thoughts of their favorite little insectoid pollinators (second to butterflies) being under threat of extinction at the hands of pesticides, particularly those of the neonicotinoid family, although other pesticide families and even certain fungicides also adversely impact bee populations.

What is the Reality of the Situation?

There are honeybees and bumblebees (pardon my gross over-simplification). The European honeybee has been domesticated, and these are reared commercially for use in orchards and agriculture.  The pesticides and fungicides used in agriculture have individually and/or in concert harmed bees of all types.  This harm has revealed itself in a variety of forms:

This idea of bees being “threatened” by pesticides has also been a subject of controversy despite empirical evidence and peer-reviewed scientific studies.  Part of the confusion involves the display of data in mainstream media.


The Washington Post article is orients on honeybees. Both honeybees and wild, bumblebees are important for agriculture and for ecosystems worldwide.  (If the bumblebee population declines, to what degree will there still be a global agricultural catastrophe?)  Nevertheless, the issue with bumblebees and pesticides was omitted.

Secondly, the article by Ingraham qualifies success by the total number of honeybees available.  If honeybees are still dying off at the same rate, but honeybee production doubles–then the total number remains the same.  Two can play at that game.

When CCD came along, it roughly doubled the usual annual rate of bee die-offs. But this doesn’t mean that bees are going extinct, just that beekeepers need to work a little harder to keep production up.  -Ingraham

So maybe commercially produced colonies of European honeybees won’t disappear soon, but this increased production of European honeybees is a “quick fix”–not the solution and certainly not the Happily Ever After…

From as much as we can gather:

  • The die-off rate has not decreased for European honeybees that are exposed to pesticides (and certain fungicides).
  • The die-off rate for bumblebees is still problematic



By Cyndi Hubach, May 25, 2015

Most creatures on this grand blue-green earth have the good sense to avoid us human beings. Some, though, find some benefit from being in our presence (who wouldn’t want to be an American dog or cat?), some we tolerate in our general environs (birds, squirrels, raccoons, skunks, etc.), and some, like rats, mice, cockroaches, ants, and the like, are really the uninvited dinner guest that just won’t take a hint.

These “pests” (a relative term–from a planetary perspective; there is no question that it is we who are the pests), have been vexing us for millennia, and as with any complex problem, most potential solutions seem to bring with them some other slew of vexing problems, and so it is, perhaps somewhat predictably, with rat poison.

As I said in last week’s post, the favored rodenticide du jour is a powerful anti-coagulant (known as a SGAR) that builds up in animals to such high levels, that the animals in turn become toxic to predators. Even the lower grade poisons can be a threat to pets and other unintended targets. And though the lethal action of the poison (it’s basically a strong dose of the blood-thinner Coumadin – um, hmm) is said to be relatively painless.  The offending rodent is still a sentient creature that didn’t ask to be born and is just doing its best to get by in this cold, cruel world. Does it really deserve to have its capillaries dissolve and slowly bleed to death? No. It does not.

But what to do? I’m all for coexistence and the beauty and sanctity of all life and all of that, but even I draw the line at rats around the house. But as with so much in our modern, I-want-it-now society, maybe this is another instance where we reach too readily for the easy fix. If we’re anxious, we want a pill to calm our nerves. If we’re thirsty, just reach for the single-use plastic water bottle. If we tire of something, we throw it away—wherever that is. And if we have a rat, we want it gone fast, and that usually means poison.

Sometimes, though, just a little bit of thought and effort can solve an issue in a way that doesn’t cause a host of cascading problems down the line. For example,the first line of defense should be to remove whatever is attracting the creature. If you’ve got a basement full of dog food, or your earthquake survival kit is a corner crammed with cereal boxes, get those rat treats into some pest-proof plastic containers and carefully seal any holes in your walls or vents. (Use ¼” metal mesh.  They can squeeze through anything larger).

In the garden, ivy, large bushes and other dense vegetation create perfect breeding grounds and hiding places for rats. Consider planting drought-tolerant natives instead, which in addition to being unattractive to rats, are actually appealing to critters you might like to see around, like birds, bees and butterflies.

If these tactics don’t work, there are capture cages that allow you to trap and relocate an unwelcome visitor (though you are most likely creating a problem for someone else). If you must resort to lethal methods, snap or electronic traps kill with more precision than poison, and are at least quick, if not painless. Glue traps, in which the animal is stuck and dies of exhaustion and dehydration are horrifically cruel and should also be banned.

Of course, there was a time when the domestic cat was considered an ideal agent of rodent control, but as I mentioned in another column, like rodenticides, they too are indiscriminate in their lethality (and are prone to fall victim to predators and other dangers as well). But there is a new movement afoot that advocates for a solution that seems downright medieval: the deployment of the barn owl.

It turns out that if you install an attractive owl-sized wooden box on a tall pole, barn owls will come, and “goodbye rodents!” Now, I myself would worry that the owl might be inclined to cart off my small dog or the neighbor’s cat, but owl advocates swear that rodents are the largest animals they target. Barn owls are already being used to control rodents in vineyards and farms in California, and if the idea catches on, they may help keep rats—and our often-destructive attempts to do them in—under control as well.

And like the sparrows, skunks and squirrels that frequent our backyards, they don’t seem to mind hanging out around us, and might even be a welcome addition to the urban ecosystem we call life in the city.


May 8, 2015 by Cynthia Hubach

Does anybody know who Tom Lehrer is anymore? For those who don’t (and everyone should), Lehrer was a Harvard-MIT professor-cum-piano-playing wag of the 50’s and 60’s, who skewered everything from the Vatican to the Bomb, in two-minute bursts of subversive doggerel. His rapier whimsy was a favorite of my dad’s, and even at eight, I knew it was funny although it often went over my head.

But there was one song that left me not only baffled, but disturbed. Whatever did he mean by the lilting waltz Poisoning Pigeons in the Parkin which a lovely spring day is spent tossing strychnine-laced crumbs (“it just takes a smidgeon”), at unsuspecting birds? I had long dismissed it as absurdist humor–or–heaven forbid, the hint of an actual mean streak. (Maybe nobody cares about animals, not even Tom Lehrer!) But he was, I see now, just way ahead of his time. “We’ll murder them among laughter and merriment, except for the few we take home to experiment.” We might kill them or we might torture them. Either way, we will casually inflict suffering and death on our foolishly trusting fellow beings.

Half a century on, Lehrer has given up the stage, but our propensity for poisoning has only increased (the extermination business is now a $7 billion industry). Of course, we generally don’t condone pigeon poisoning in the park, but we do seem to value the convenience that comes with annihilating pesky things without getting our hands dirty. Whether it’s a rat that’s found its way into the basement, or a line of ants that just won’t stay out of the sugar bowl, it’s tempting to just toss some poison pellets into the corner or take out the Raid and hope the bothersome creatures will retreat to their lairs to expire away from view. No muss, no fuss.

As we’ve learned from, well, everything in life, most solutions come with both muss and fuss. And so it is, surprise, surprise, with   p o i s o n i n g   things. It turns out that the poison doesn’t always stay where (or in whom) you want it. This issue of “poison creep” has actually had a bit of publicity recently, thanks to the predicament of everyone’s favorite urban apex predator, the Griffith Park mountain lion, P-22. This real-life Hollywood cougar recently came down with a nasty case of mange, most likely caused by ingesting prey that had been weakened by rodenticide, or rat poison.

P-22 is just the most famous victim of a problem that has become ubiquitous in its spread. Recent studies show that these types of poisonings have occurred in at least 25 wild species in California, including mountain lions, hawks, endangered San Joaquin kit foxes and northern spotted owls. The really nasty stuff, the poisons known as second-generation anticoagulant rodenticides (SGAR’s) have been found in more than 70-percent of wildlife tested. Pets, of course, can fall victim as well.

As the name implies, these anticoagulant poisons interfere with blood clotting, causing uncontrolled bleeding that leads to death. Second-generation anticoagulants are especially pernicious because while they are highly toxic, death often does not occur for 5-7 days. The rodents therefore may ingest several doses of the poison, causing the toxins to accumulate in their tissues at many times the lethal dose, and as an extra bonus, making them slow and weak, and especially easy targets for predators.

So what is the solution? First of all, we could do with a slight rebranding of these maligned creatures. Granted, having rats and cockroaches in the house is a health and safety issue and can be intractable (and horrifying) enough to call for lethal measures. On the other hand, they’re all just trying to get by too, and a few spiders in the corners and the occasional ant invasion might not be cause to call in the big guns. I myself seem to have a rodent of some sort in the backyard with a strong taste for homegrown oranges and tomatoes, and at the moment there is enough to go around. So, live and let live, I say.

As a society, we could also stand to relax many of our rigid rules against weeds, germs, dirt and the occasional mouse, the enforcement of which has created a sterile environment that is actually making us sick.We are a part of nature after all, and deciding to live with a few so-called pests on the periphery, if not necessarily in the pantry, might prove to be beneficial to all concerned.

But when it is time for the ultimate solution, there are methods with far fewer cascading negative effects than second-generation rodenticides, including one that is downright medieval. We’ll look at those in next week’s installment…


By Cyndi Hubach, April 24, 2015

Nobody loves cats more than I do. My soulmate in cat form, Jack, died almost exactly a year ago, and I still—well, I won’t even tell you what I still do, but suffice to say, I loved that cat.

Nevertheless, that sweet, soft, purring embodiment of unconditional jack2affection that many of us know to be the cat has a darker alter ego lurking just under the surface—a Mr. Hyde or Frank Underwood, if you will—capable of killing without a breath of hesitation or a moral qualm. This murderous inclination presents a quandary for those of us who feel strong bonds with both the pussycat—a beloved companion—and the myriad creatures they dispatch with such cavalier disregard—um, for life on the planet. How do you solve a problem like the killer housecat?

There is no secret about the feline proclivity for carnage. Just about every year, you can count on a new study detailing gruesome statistics of the cat’s lethality. It’s estimated that cats do in billions, yes billions, of birds, reptiles and rodents in the country every year. And that doesn’t count the additional billions of insects they undoubtedly torture for amusement because well, nobody really counts insects.

Technology has only added to the evidence. Go-pro type cameras affixed to the collars of a several dozen indoor-outdoor cats a few years ago showed persistent stalking, hunting and killing by nearly half of them. (Certain individual cats do show less inclination for bloodlust, and I’m certain that Jack was himself, a pacifist.)

Despite these undeniable facts, cat owners are notoriously reluctant to take responsibility for their bloodthirsty felines. “It’s nature. The circle of life,” they’ll intone, nodding sagely. Well, no. Circle of life implies, you know, a circle. Your cat, as the cameras showed and every cat person knows, doesn’t typically kill to eat; it kills simply to kill, hence the designation: “homicidal maniac.” The poor bird or rodent is, more often than not, dropped once it ceases to be amusing—that is, when it dies.

Another counter to this, “well, nature is cruel” argument is: your cat is not “natural.” Unless you live in the deserts of Israel or Saudi Arabia, your cat is an exotic invasive species; it has no more business prowling around your suburban neighborhood than a kangaroo, but here it is, exquisitely adaptable, stealthily killing whatever luckless creature happens to catch its murderous eye. (And it’s not just the potential prey that’s in danger. Outdoor cats have a significantly reduced lifespan. You don’t do your cat any favors by letting her outside.)

Then there is the, “my cat will go crazy indoors” argument. This is hogwash. If the cat is fixed, and given just a little bit of attention, entertainment and exercise (there’s almost no problem a feather toy can’t solve), she will happily lie around your house taking catnaps all day.

There is one slight argument in favor of those beleaguered cat defenders out there. It turns out that “owned” cats (inasmuch as a cat can be owned) commit a bit less mayhem than true feral or stray cats. But while your indoor-outdoor Felis catus may not be the principal cause of species destruction, she is, more than likely, a contributor. We all know that the wild critters of the world need all the help they can get. Please do the birds, butterflies, lizards, mice, and baby everythings out there a favor, and keep your sweet, loving, killer pussycats indoors, where everyone can stay a little safer.

By Cyndi Hubach,  April 3, 2015

I got stung by a bee the other day, a painful event both physically and emotionally. I was, after all, tending the flower garden I had planted for them to forage in, plus the bee had launched its assault from the very nice home which I helped provide for them. It seemed ungrateful, to say the least—although the swelling did give my face a fullness it has lacked in recent years, but that’s another story…

Our beekeeper told me the bee might have been testy because the hive was stressed from overcrowding, and within a couple days she stopped by to take out a few frames in order to give them more room. I’ll get to the walking bee in a minute, but generally speaking, backyard bees are thriving these days, and if you’ve got any rosemary or lavender in your yard, you’re probably wondering, “What’s all the fuss is about over so-called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD)?” Looks like there’s nothing but (occasionally angry) bees out there to me!

The answer is—which is true for so many questions—unchecked, soul-crushing, bee-killing capitalism (lol). The media has been beebreathless in recent years with news of the imminent extinction of bees, followed by the soon-to-follow extinction of the rest of us. But it turns out these stories really only applied to Apis Mellifera—the ubiquitous European honeybee—and only those honeybees that are trucked all over the country to pollinate the multi-billion dollar almond, apple, citrus, etc. industries.

Working bees continue to be in peril, though after years of frustratingly fruitless (how ironic) research into the cause of CCD, scientists appear to be finally closing in on the answer (Surprise! Pesticides!). What you seldom hear though, is that the honeybees that are kept in backyard hives, as well as most native species, are generally abundant and doing fine. A recent state census shows there are an estimated 4,000 bee species around the country, including about 1,600 in California alone. Research into these native bees has been intensifying recently, as industry looks for a possible replacement should the honeybee go the way of the dodo. Sigh.

In any case, aboriginal bees are incredibly rich in diversity and function, and they are almost nothing like their honey-making cousins. For one thing, most don’t live in colonies, which is what makes honeybees so easy to manage and exploit. Instead, they tend to be solitary creatures, making their nests in the ground or in wood, and I might add, rarely stinging. Most will still pollinate your various fruits and veggies of course; there’s even a species that specializes in squash.

Like all wild creatures, native bees are susceptible to habitat loss due to human development (bumblebees seem to be faring the worst), but you can help out by setting up easy, do-it-yourself bee nests in your yard, and by maintaining a pesticide-free garden with plenty of bee-friendly plants. In some cases, bees actually do better in urban environments because of the year-round food and water we make available to them.

They still die because the life of a bee is difficult and brief.  Most of them live just a few short weeks. We’ve all seen the worrisome sight of a bee walking or even lying dead on the ground, and if you’re like me you think, “Is this Colony Collapse Disorder writ small?” But no, this is just what happens with bees. “Mature bees literally work themselves to death,” says LA beekeeper Leonardo Chalupowicz. While disease or parasite attack is a possibility, “if they’re at the end of their life span, they just die.”

So, don’t worry about that poor bee heading to its doom.  Just do what you can to make things nice for the ones that will follow. The survival of all of us may just depend on it.

Bees are among a group of insects known as “pollinators” that help many plants reproduce and are a vital part of the food chain and human agriculture. Without pollinators, the world food supply will diminish catastrophically.

Once upon a time there was a pesticide called glyphosate, developed by Monsanto.  Glyphosate is one of the most controversial chemicals in the news, often discussed along with GMO crops. Scientific studies and research exploring the harmful effects of glyphosate on humans, plants and animals has an impressive chasm of missing data spanning more than 30 years.

Given that glyphosate has been in the news for decades and is used globally, the scientific community for the past 30+ years should have been actively investigating its effects on humans and the environment.  There should be hundreds if not thousands of scholarly articles published worldwide. Just look at the volume of scholarly articles on nicotine, caffeine, or any other chemical. Then examine the patterns of corporate PR from Monsanto, its political activity–and compare these patterns to Philip Morris.

Suspect: Glyphosate

Alias: “Round-up”

Recent News: The World Health Organization reported that glyphosate “probably” causes cancer–which was hotly contested by Monsanto.

So–which pesticides may be the culprits in sabotaging the immune systems of our humble pollinators and causing them to become weak and susceptible to viruses and parasites? NeonicotinoidsSulfoxaflor? Round-up? All of the above?

The investigation continues…

4.6.2015: At sublethal doses, these insecticides adversely impact honeybee health.

Read more about it in this article here.  Scientists are developing more comprehensive assessments on the harmful effects of pesticides on honeybees and other wildlife.  This study involves the evaluation of enzyme activity in honeybees after pesticide exposure.

4.6.2015 – More News

SUSPECT: Neonicotinoids

Chronic Impairment of Bumblebee Natural Foraging Behaviour Induced by Sublethal Pesticide Exposure.  So here’s a study showing how Neonicotinoids impair bumblebees.

EPA’s Pesticide Evaluation Techniques Considered Biased and influenced by industry.  

4.7.2015 – Back to Wiki

Here are some substances that can impair the locomotion of buzzy worker bees.


by Cyndi Hubach,  March 20, 2015

It’s such a vivid insult. Although it implies age, “going to seed” carries the added, unflattering connotations of being generally rangy and spent, untended and unkempt, and something of an eyesore. An internet search will turn up photos of celebrities who have seen better days. The epithet originates from garden vernacular, of course, and a yard finding itself in a similar state of “seediness” would likely provoke a visit from a concerned neighbor, the local homeowners association, or even the fire department.

KomatsunaBut why is this so (for humans or a garden)? When applied to people, it’s abject ageism, but I would argue that it is actually worse when directed at plants. While we humans might suffer a bit of embarrassment from the stigma associated with “going to seed,” a plant is likely to be unceremoniously ripped out by the roots in order to “tidy up” one’s garden. This insistence on a rigid ideal of “garden perfection” is actually an interruption of the critical cycles of plant life, and the lives of the creatures that depend on them.

Plants reproduce in a variety of ways, but the ones that inspired the saying “going to seed” do so by pulling energy from the leaves, and putting it all into a great burst of flowers, pollen and seeds. In some cases it’s beautiful; in some it’s not (by our standards anyway). But to thwart that part of the cycle is to break crucial strands in the web of life. Those flowers produce nectar and seeds, which feed myriad birds, bees and butterflies. When we pull our plants at the point when they are just going to seed, we are literally sterilizing–destroying the fertility—of our gardens. It’s like a war crime in our own backyards!

Of course, those places “going to seed” that are considered the greatest eyesores are the radishones full of weeds—but that’s another entity that may be worth reconsideration. “Weeds” are often native plants that simply don’t meet our current standards of beauty (sound familiar?), but can provide another important food source for native creatures. I’m not suggesting that we endure a landscape of tumbleweeds and crabgrass, but allowing for a certain number of aesthetically acceptable “volunteer natives” might not be the worst thing. And think of all the time it will save you from having to weed.

The benefits of letting nature take its course don’t end with providing a meal for your local critters. Many herbs and vegetables past their prime can make gorgeous bouquets (arugula, purple basil, chives and other onions among them), and if you let the plants go long enough, you can collect the seeds to sow next season. Some, like arugula and cilantro, are excellent self-seeders: just leave them alone, and they’ll keep coming back, season after season.

Less obvious plants, like lettuce, chard and other leafy greens tend to seed in less attractive ways, but the animals don’t care. We’re all going to seed anyway—why not just accept it, and embrace the cycle of life?


by Cyndi Hubach,   March 6, 2015

Once you’ve got monarch butterflies in your life, it’s actually kind of difficult to get them out. At the moment, for example, I’ve got three chrysalises metamorphosing away in my kitchen, one on a railing outside my front door, and two newly hatched monarchs flitting about in the backyard—all of which suggests more caterpillars (and hence more butterflies) are on the way. As I’ve mentioned, they’re difficult to get rid of. Depending on your point of view, these events occurring in late February/early March are either great news for a species in decline, or a travesty against nature. Yes, welcome to the butterfly wars!

In a world without human interference, there would likely be no breeding monarchs in Los

butterflyAngeles over the winter. Instead, they would be setting off from their hibernation grounds to the north and south.  Mating would still be a little ways off. These newly minted butterflies are here only because meddlesome people like me have planted a tropical variety of milkweed (the only plant monarch caterpillars can live on) that grows here year round and encourages year-round breeding. As I explained in last week’s post, this tropical milkweed may interfere with the monarch’s migration patterns and lead to the buildup of disease, predators and parasites. On the other hand, there be butterflies!  So, what is the best course?

There are purists who insist that we should all find out what species of milkweed are native to our area, and plant only those. I asked this native vs. tropical question on a respected butterfly site and received a curt response: “The only type of milkweed you should be planting is native. Period.” Not long after this, I reposted a link on Facebook for t-shirts that read, “Milkweed—if you plant it, they will come,” and once again, a friend posted “It should say native milkweed!”

In a perfect world I guess that’s what we’d do. We would have native plants in all of our yards, and native species frolicking about in a happy little Eden. But, spoiler alert, “a perfect world” left the station a few million stops ago. We need to deal with the fractured, urbanized, artificially landscaped and irrigated world that we actually find ourselves in, and more importantly, the world that these hapless creatures, through no fault of their own, find themselves in.

This exotic vs. native dilemma is really a microcosm of the civilization vs. wilderness debate that grips the environmental movement today. Many old school environmental organizations have devoted themselves to setting aside pristine wilderness, safe from the insatiable human assault. I myself for a long time subscribed to that way of thinking. But there is a school of thought that finds this characterization destructive in its own way, limiting our perspective as it does, to an either/or, wilderness or civilization duality. Environmental historian William Cronon argues that if we see ourselves as killing nature, we are inexorably doomed. “If we allow ourselves to believe that nature, to be true, must also be wild, then our very presence in nature represent its fall,” he says. “If nature dies because we enter it, then the only way to save nature is to kill ourselves.” Which doesn’t seem like a very workable solution.

There are some in the butterfly world who would agree that the purist, “natives only” approach is not necessarily the best. The fact is that (for now anyway) the tropical variety of milkweed is much easier to find than the native varieties. It’s also easier to grow, and interestingly, less invasive than some native varieties that spread through underground rhizomes. After the New York Times and others raised the alarm about exotic milkweed last fall, some monarch groups and amateur butterfly wranglers, citing their own experience, pushed back. For West Coast dwellers, this was all doubly confusing because the articles, pro and con, almost exclusively focused on problems around the Gulf States. It wasn’t at all clear if these dangers applied to those of us in Southern California.

I have had sleepless nights over these damn butterflies. I have cried over them. I have dreamt about them. I am doing everything I can, in my own small way, to help them.  So what then—for the love of god—is the answer to this vexing question in my native burg: tropical or native? I finally made contact with a local butterfly expert, Julian Donahue, retired curator of lepidopterology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, and here’s what he had to say: “I don’t worry about tropical milkweed in my yard at all.”

Wait, what? All of that, and he just doesn’t worry about it? “The urban environment is so full of non-native plants already that I’d prefer to see any butterflies rather than none at all. I let the plants and the Monarchs do their thing without any interference from me.”

He does add a caveat though. Julian tells me he can just ignore his milkweed plants because when the monarch caterpillars feed on them, they tend to eat it down to the stems, so no milkweed, no butterflies, no disease. But if the milkweed persists over the winter it can invite repeated breeding on individual plants, and that can to lead to the buildup of parasites, and other bad stuff. So the advice from Julian and other experts is, let the plants die back. If they don’t die back, cut them back over the winter months to remove foliage that may be harboring disease, and to remind the butterflies to be on their merry migrating way. And by all means, plant the native milkweed if you can find it and get it established in your garden (find one source here). That’s the ideal, but it’s painfully clear at this point on planet Earth, we are far from the ideal.

Without a doubt, these are difficult questions. We do so much damage as a species, the last thing we want to do is wreck things even more when we’re trying to help. But if we need perfection to define success, we will most assuredly fail; and if all we can do is fail, why make the effort at all? Seeing those glorious orange butterflies in the yard is a sign of success. If we did it with the wrong kind of plant, well that’s not great, but as Julian says, “I’d prefer to see any butterflies than none at all.” Imperfection is better than nothing, and for the most part, the monarchs don’t really seem to mind.


by Cyndi Hubach  February 27, 2015

“I’ve got two caterpillars and a chrysalis in my freezer right now, heading to their doom.” That was how a friend of mine thought I should start a blog about my misadventures in raising monarch caterpillars. It was the end of a litany of disasters I’d shared with him, and he thought it was the most hysterical thing he’d ever heard. “You’ve got to write this stuff down. All you want to do is help them, and you’ve got them dying in your freezer. You’ve got to admit it’s kind of funny.”

So, not everyone is a bug person.

Even when it’s something as lovely as a butterfly, it can be hard to relate to bugs in the same way we do to most birds and mammals. They’re so “other”—with their multiple legs and

Monarchcompound eyes—their articulated bodies, and I’m sorry but yes, often horrific mien. Butterflies may be great ambassadors to this foreign bug world because of their beauty, but it’s clear from my friend’s comments that even they are often low on the human empathy scale.

That being said,monarchs with their striking orange and black coloring and epic, multi-generational migrations have always held a special place in most people’s hearts. So news that their numbers are plummeting has received significant attention. In case you haven’t heard, the iconic butterfly is facing a double threat:

  1. Destruction by logging of its traditional overwintering grounds in Mexico
  2. The rapid, near obliteration of its summer breeding grounds in the Midwest by the widespread agricultural use of Roundup. (See abstract of article here)

The devastation has been so swift that butterfly populations plummeted by an estimated 90-percent from 1996 to 2013 (numbers rebounded a bit last year).

As if this were not enough, the butterflies now face a surprising third threat: me—and the thousands of well-meaning people like me across the country, who are trying to help.

The problem is that monarch caterpillars feed only on one type of plant—milkweed—which is what is being killed off by all that Roundup, and what people like me are busy planting in our gardens to replace it. What nobody tells you is that there are more than 140 species of milkweed, and there can be problems associated with planting the wrong type for your region. So when I went to the nursery, I bought the only kind they had—the only kind most nurseries have—a tropical, non-native variety called Asclepiascurassavica. Before I knew it, I had nearly two-dozen monarch caterpillars gobbling it up. So, success, right?

This gets to be a long story, but suffice it to say, before long I was asking questions like: Why is there a puddle of green liquid around that one? Why is that one turning black? Why is that one just hanging like that? And finally, how do I put them out of their misery — which is how a few of them ended up in my freezer (they’re cold-blooded and slowly shut down and die, or so they say). It turns out there are myriad things that can go wrong with monarch caterpillars, and planting the wrong milkweed can exacerbate them.

The issue was, the ones that did survive never seemed to go away. “Aren’t you supposed to be migrating or something?” I’d say to them as October gave way to November and on to December. But there they’d be, flitting about, laying more eggs, begetting more caterpillars, and causing me to seek out more of that tropical milkweed. And as this cycle repeated itself, the caterpillars seemed more prone to illness, were increasingly plagued by predators and parasites, and gave me the distinct sense that I was doing more harm than good.

It was at this point I got wind of the great native vs. exotic milkweed debate that was raging in the butterfly world.  As it turns out, this is an issue of remarkable complexity and nuance. It is also an issue that has people intensely polarized. I was determined to get to the bottom of it.  I wanted to find out more than just what was expedient, and what was ideologically pure.  I wanted to discover what was the best way to raise and care for this poor, beleaguered butterfly. And I’ll tell you what I found out—in next week’s posting…



By Cyndi Hubach,   February 20, 2015

Maybe you’ve seen the weather map making the rounds on Facebook that shows most of the country suffering under variations of “Cold as F***,” “F*** You Winter,” etc., while we on the Left Coast look on with a disdainful “LOL.” You could excuse our New England friends for regarding us with a heaping snowshovelfull of loathing curdled with envy, but if you’re anything like me, these scorching winter days don’t inspire gloating so much as a swirling contradictory blend of emotions. Yes, there’s the delight of walking the dog on a warm, sunny day, but there’s also some guilt at our good fortune, a bit of sartorial confusion, and not a small amount of alarm.

crowsFor what are we to make of 85-degree temperatures in mid-February? Have we rotated down to the Southern Hemisphere (we knew California would break loose one day!) without anyone taking notice? Are we parked outside the gates of Hell? Or is this just finally a sure sign that climate change is here? Whatever it is, we humans can dig out our shorts and tank tops and slather on the sunscreen, but what are the local flora and fauna to do? How do they cope, and is there anything we can and should (or shouldn’t) do to help them endure this wholly unholy, unseasonal baking?

It’s extraordinary that anything besides us humans manages to live in our noisy, congested, overheated cities, but there they are, these intrepid beings, finding a bit of shelter and sustenance in our medians, “green spaces,” and mowed and blown backyards. These extreme weather fluctuations, though, make things just that much more challenging for the flying and furry set. They are adapted to a rather narrow range of habitable conditions, and these extremes can wreak havoc on their breeding, eating and migratory behavior.

So here are some tips to help you help them – with a really big one at the end:

Adjust your watering. It’s a bummer to have to water in the winter when we should be relying on natural rainwater, but be aware that the heat pulls water out of your plants and soil at a fast clip. It seems that every drenching rain we’ve had this year has been followed by a heat wave, so artificial irrigation is a necessary evil. Many insects and animals get shade and sustenance from garden plants, so you help them when you help your yard.

  1. Apply generous amounts of mulch. An inch or two of chipped wood over bare earth holds moisture in the soil, protects delicate roots from extremes of heat and cold, and helps keep soil organisms alive and thriving.
  2. Install rain barrels. One way to smooth out our cycles of heat wave-downpour-heat wave is to irrigate with water you’ve collected yourself during those downpours. An inch of rain on a 1,000 square foot roof can yield about 600 gallons of water, enough to get you through to the next big storm.
  3. Provide a water source. Whether it’s your birdbath or just some saucers scattered around the yard, a little pool of water can be a lifesaver for a critter on a hot day. I’ve seen birds and bees lapping up sprinkler runoff in the middle of a street, desperate for a little H2O. Give them a safe spot for a little hydration – and make sure to provide life rafts of rocks or sticks with access to an edge. I’ve found half a dozen bees floating helplessly in a birdbath. Bad news.
  4. But beware of disease! Seems like there’s always a potential downside to our meddling, and this winter, there’s a doozy. The band-tailed pigeon, California’s only native pigeon, is succumbing by the thousands to an infectious disease that interferes with its ability to swallow. People who have yards that are host to these birds are urged not to fill their birdbaths.

And what’s the one big thing? It’s simply this: take out your lawn and all of the plants in your yard, and replace them with landscapes that are suited to our climatic conditions. Michael Pollan has called the modern lawn “nature under totalitarian rule,” and it applies to the camellias, azaleas, roses and hedges that we’ve forced into our yards as well. If you plant natives and other plants suited to your region, you reduce your water needs, and provide a home to your local and migrating bird, bee and butterfly populations. And you will be amazed how quickly your garden comes to life. It’s really true: if you plant it, they will come!