Monarch Declines NOT Connected to Herbicides/GMOs

6.cover-sourceThe standard orthodoxy for declines in Monarch butterfly populations is that the rise of GMO crops (especially soybeans) bred for resistance to herbicides allowed for saturation spraying of herbicides (especially Roundup) in the upper Midwest that knocked back milkweed abundance sufficiently to perilously impact Monarch numbers.   A pretty cut and dried case, according to most Monarch enthusiasts and many researchers.

But here’s ANOTHER cut-and-dried case, literally.  It depends on looking at dried specimens of milkweed in herbaria and Monarchs in entomology collections to understand how these two populations tracked going back farther than GMOs, and even farther than herbicides.  The current furor over GMOs dates back to data sets collected only as early as 1993; a paper in the current Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences details a study of collection records going back as early as 1900.

Bottom line, from the authors:  “[M]onarch and milkweed declines begin around 1950 and continue until the present day. Whatever factors caused milkweed and monarch declines prior to the introduction of GM crops may still be at play, and, hence, laying the blame so heavily on GM crops is neither parsimonious nor well supported by data.”

Here’s the abstract, you can download the full PDF here.

ABSTRACT:  Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) decline over the past 25 years has received considerable public and scientific attention, in large part because its decline, and that of its milkweed (Asclepias spp.) host plant, have been linked to genetically modified (GM) crops and associated herbicide use. Here, we use museum and herbaria specimens to extend our knowledge of the dynamics of both monarchs and milkweeds in the United States to more than a century, from 1900 to 2016. We show that both monarchs and milkweeds increased during the early 20th century and that recent declines are actually part of a much longer-term decline in both monarchs and milkweed beginning around 1950. Herbicide-resistant crops, therefore, are clearly not the only culprit and, likely, not even the primary culprit: Not only did monarch and milkweed declines begin decades before GM crops were introduced, but other variables, particularly a decline in the number of farms, predict common milkweed trends more strongly over the period studied here.

Posted in conservation, endangered species, general butterfly news | Leave a comment

First Regional Butterfly Report(s!) for 2019!

Huzzah!  Congratulations to Jennifer Selfridge of MD DNR, who while working in the Foster Tract in Worcester Co. today spotted our first reported butterfly in the region — a Red Admiral.

The warm days predicted in the first half of this week should bring out other nymphalids, including mourning cloaks and anglewings.  And perhaps a Cabbage White or two.


Red Admiral observed today in the Foster Tract in Worcester Co., near Furnacetown, in the Nassawango drainage. [2019 Feb. 4, photo by Jennifer Selfridge]

UPDATE:  Also add Mourning Cloak (Ellicott City) and Eastern Comma (Shenandoah NP) to sightings yesterday.  And today this American Snout seen by David Smith and colleagues while doing fieldwork in Northern VA.  Plus a Question Mark on the wing in Oxford, MD, Talbot Co.

American snout

American Snout in Northern Virginia [2019 Feb. 5, photo courtesy David Smith]

Posted in sightings | 3 Comments

New Year, New Checklist

UPDATE:  The Word version wasn’t working well for a lot of you, so I’ve uploaded it as a new PDF document.  Enjoy!

I took advantage of a slow period this week to update the Maryland Butterfly Field Checklist to note a few recent range extensions and new field work.  It’s in the usual three-column format, so you can easily print it double-sided and fold it into a tri-fold for easy recording use in the field.  Hint:  I print mine on somewhat thicker card stock instead of traditional photocopy paper so it doesn’t melt from sweat.  And be sure to use either a pencil or waterproof pen or sudden shower or accidental dunking will erase your hard effort.

Download your copy here:  Maryland Butterfly Field Checklist 2019 revision

Posted in checklist, checklists, general butterfly news, Identification tips, maryland | Leave a comment

Good News for Monarch Populations

Monarch Butterfly on swamp milkweed, courtesy USFWS.

The news is in from Mexico, and it’s good for change.  2018 was a terrific year for Monarch butterflies — the overwintering population there, the largest overwintering aggregation of the iconic butterfly, was up almost 150% over last year. Huzzah! We noted the somewhat larger populations here in the mid-Atlantic as well, so this was not all that unexpected, even though some of our summer Monarchs apparently are wintering well on the Gulf Coast instead of Mexico.

But what does this mean?

First, for all those who say that the problem with Monarch population declines is lack of milkweed, I can assure you there was not 150% more milkweed planted last year. Private citizens didn’t turn over thousands of acres of suburban yards to pollinator gardens. Farmers didn’t drastically cut back on herbicide use in the nation’s breadbasket.  In fact, almost NOTHING people did in 2018 had ANYTHING to do with this stunning increase.

So what gives?

Mexico took some credit — unverified — lauding its efforts in the past year to prevent illegal logging of the critical fir and pine forests where they overwinter (about 15 acres total this winter). But that didn’t do anything to increase the numbers of butterflies migrating south in 2018. The same 15 hectares were available last year.

The usual Greek chorus of Monarch specialists were quick to throw cold water on the implications of the population turnaround, the best numbers in a decade or more. A fluke year of good weather, they say, almost in unison. It wouldof course be very inconvenient for their plans to list the Monarch as an endangered species if Monarch populations can boom seemingly overnight with no help from the Fish & Wildlife Service.

But in this they’re probably right: Weather — both in Mexico on the wintering grounds but more especially on the migration routes to and from Mexico — appears to be the single key determinant of population size year-over-year for Monarchs. That’s not something you can legislate through herbicide controls, through planting a couple of milkweed plants in your garden, or greening the highway verges in the Midwest with milkweed savannas (although the latter would have beneficial effects for a host of other wildlife, even if Monarch populations remain stubbornly disconnected from our horticultural endeavors).

Human intervention can only have impacts at the margin of Monarch population ecology unless we take broad, societal actions that would control contemporary weather patterns. Curbing climate change would likely mellow out some of the extreme weather events that often spell Monarch disaster, but who’s to say the favorable weather pattern that ungirds the population success this year wasn’t itself related to novel weather patterns in the age of climate change? The biggest takeaway, to me, is that Monarchs are insects — beautiful, mediagenic ones, to be sure — but like most insects they have boom and bust population cycles over which we exercise very little sway.

Posted in conservation, general butterfly news | Leave a comment

New MD Butterfly Records for 2018

2018 may 25 "northern" crescent 3 antennae_md-indian springs wma

Male Northern Crescent (cocyta-group), confirmed for MD in 2018 from this specimen netted in Washington Co. The vibrant orange scaling on the underside of the antenna is the diagnostic character.

Well, 2018 is in the rearview mirror, and most of you should have been able to send your season sightings to the Maryland Biodiversity Project (MBP) by now.  It was a very good year, with one entirely new butterfly species confirmed for MD (Northern Crescent) and 8 new county records.  Good work, everyone!

As you know, the late Dick Smith for many years did yeoman’s work in cultivating and maintaining a far-flung cohort of butterfly observers in MD who would send in new records every year and updated as state and county lists he meticulously hand-updated every spring about this time.  And then I’d go in and edit all the PDF tables by hand.  It took us a couple of weeks of tedious, dedicated work to do this every year.

While we’re keeping up the tradition of noting and sharing new records for Maryland’s butterfly fauna, beginning two years ago we turned to MBP as our depository of record for these new range or species data.  In other words, in order to “count” for our purposes here at LepLog and for maintaining the integrity of Dick’s decades of data, all new records need to be captured on MBP.

Without further ado, here are the new 2018 state and county records (the links take you into MBP for further information):

New species for MBP (1)

Species ID 556 – Northern Crescent (Phyciodes cocyta) recorded by Rick Borchelt was a first record for MBP. (View)

New county records for MBP (8)

Species ID 633Brazilian Skipper (Calpodes ethlius) recorded by Rick Borchelt was new for Prince George’s Co. (View)
Species ID 633Brazilian Skipper (Calpodes ethlius) recorded by Josh Emm was new for Baltimore Co. (View)
Species ID 633Brazilian Skipper (Calpodes ethlius) recorded by Jim Wilkinson was new for Howard Co. (View)
Species ID 508Harvester (Feniseca tarquinius) first observed by Beth Johnson, record submitted by Shannon Schade was new for Queen Anne’s Co. (View)
Species ID 525Henry’s Elfin (Callophrys henrici) recorded by Linda Hunt was new for Howard Co. (View)
Species ID 614Northern Broken-Dash (Wallengrenia egeremet) recorded by Frode Jacobsen was new for Washington Co. (View)
Species ID 556Northern Crescent (Phyciodes cocyta) recorded by Rick Borchelt was new for Washington Co. (View)
Species ID 16033White Admiral (Limenitis arthemis) recorded by Rick Borchelt was new for Washington Co. (View)

[Note: I’ve included here only species-level observations in the county list]

Maryland Biodiversity Project also keeps detailed records at the quad level, and we Maryland butterfliers did a LOT of quad-busting in 2018 (and a shameless plug — many of them came from students in my Natural History Field Studies program!).  I’ve left in the genus-level records (i.e, Celastrina sp.) for these 831 NEW QUAD RECORDS in the following PDF document:

2018 butterfly quad records

I’m hoping we’ll be able to shatter these impressive totals in 2019 — which would be helped by a few more sunny weekends!

With great appreciation for MBP’s tireless work to help us better understand Maryland’s butterfly (and moth) fauna, and especially to Bill Hubick for pulling these data for us.

Posted in Field Trips/Annual Counts, general butterfly news, maryland, sightings, state butterflies | Leave a comment

Welcome to 2019!


Chrysalis of a Common Crow Butterfly (Euploea core) in India. (WIkiMedia commons)

Welcome to yet another new season, and thanks for continuing to visit and contribute to LepLog.  I’m just now updating some of the content to get us ready for field work in 2019, and soon you’ll see fresh interfaces for a 2019 field calendar, new MD county records for 2018, and a slimmed-down menu of options on the right side as I consolidate a lot of our content that has grown rather unwieldy over the past decade.  Think of this as LepLog’s chrysalis stage for the year.

Yes, that’s right — LepLog’s first posts date to 2010, so our official 10th birthday will actually be the 2020 field season, but I can hardly believe we’ve been at this this long.  Over this time, butterfly organizations in the mid-Atlantic have come and gone (or gone dormant), peaked and waned to almost nothing, changed mission or focus entirely, or declined in popularity or use.  In 2010, Facebook and Twitter were only five years old and had not yet dominated the naturalist culture.  Digital cameras were just coming into widespread use.  iNaturalist was just launching out of a masters’ student’s project at UC Berkeley.

LepLog has grown with the field of lep observation and research, and I hope you’ve found our work helpful as much as I’ve enjoyed providing and populating the site.

I think we can all agree that 2018 was a terrible year to be in the field — more than half of all the weekends featured measurable precipitation.  Butterfly numbers (diversity and abundance) were well off normal tallies.  But it had bright spots, too, like Brazilian Skippers and Northern Crescents.  LepLog reported on it all, as it did for eight seasons before it.

Our regular viewership now numbers in the hundreds, and for that I’m very grateful (and not a little surprised!).  But I want to keep LepLog responsive to new butterflies, and new way that we old(er) butterfliers work these days.  So please think about what existing features of LepLog you value most, what you could honestly live without, and what you wish we would do (or do more of).  You can leave your public comments below (I have a thick skin, trust me!), or email me directly at


Posted in general butterfly news | Leave a comment

2018: The Butterfly Year in Review


Watching snow falling on the garden outside my kitchen window this morning, it appears I can finally call a wrap to this year’s butterfly season.  For weather, 2018 had it all in the mid-Atlantic states — very early season warm spells followed by intense cold snaps, a wet and rainy early summer with a hot, dry July and then monsoons in August and September.  The combination did not result in a very good year for most mid-Atlantic butterflies — nor did it give us much in the way of good weekend weather for field exploration! Below are some highlights.

Azures, Blues, and Coppers — There were some very early dates (late February) for the spring form of Summer Azure; a return to frigid winter put an end to this flight for a month and few emerged during their normal late-March and early-April timeframe.  The second brood was likewise small (apparently the eggs and caterpillars produced in that first early flight perished), but by the end of the summer this azure was back to almost normal abundance in the mid-Atlantic, and the last flight was a long one, with adults on the wing well into October.  The univoltine Spring Azure did not fare so well; it is increasingly harder to come by and 2018 proved no exception.  Silvery Blues did well in their limited range, but the flight was short.  Eastern Tailed-blues suffered greatly; first brood members were scarce, and it wasn’t until the late summer brood that anything approaching normal numbers appeared.  Appalachian Azures appeared late in small numbers but lingered well into mid-June.  Bronze Coppers appeared to have a good flight at midsummer (good at least for this dwindling species); American Coppers were not common but flew as late as Hallowe’en this year.

Elfins — This was a very good year for Henry’s Elfin, which bordered on abundant (for an elfin) in most of its range.  Eastern Pine Elfin numbers were down.  Even well known populations of Brown Elfin turned up few individuals; it emerged late and the emergence seemed staggered over several weeks.  Frosted Elfin flew in only modest numbers this year, and apparently not in all its usual locations.

Hairstreaks — In all, a poor year for hairstreaks, especially the first half of the summer.  The satyrid hairstreaks were quite uncommon, with surprisingly low numbers of Banded, Striped, and Coral Hairstreaks.  The first half of the season also lacked much in the way of Red-banded, White M, or Gray Hairstreaks, all of which however rebounded well in late summer.  Great Purple Hairstreak had a surprisingly good run in the areas around Blackwater NWR this year; many folks got their lifer sighting of this butterfly in 2018. Juniper Hairstreak also had an unusually good year, with a possible partial third brood late in the summer.

Swallowtails — This season was a middling one for swallowtails.  Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, usually one of our most abundant swallowtails, mustered a very poor first flight and never really recovered.  There were only sparse reports of Appalachian Tiger Swallowtail.  Both may have suffered early season mortality during cold snaps that occurred after a very warm, very early spring.  Zebra Swallowtails had mostly normal flights, including an apparent partial fourth brood in some parts of the area.  Spicebush and Pipevine Swallowtail numbers were down (except in downtown DC, where Pipevine is insulated from the vagaries of weather by surviving on exotic Aristolochia plants wintered over in greenhouses by the Smithsonian).  Black Swallowtail was MIA for the most part until late summer, when a normal brood emerged.   Too few Palamedes reports came in for comparison with previous years; apparently not many of our gang visited its haunts along the Pocomoke River swamps this year.

Whites and Sulphurs — It was generally a bad year for pierids.  The lone bright spot was the largest flight of Olympia Marbles in 15 years or more; one could find them at almost any likely spot in Green Ridge State Forest.  Marbles emerged late (middle of April) and flew late (well into May).  By contrast, Falcate Orangetip numbers were way down across the area, emerging quite late and finishing up early.  Even normally ubiquitous Small (Cabbage) Whites were a good find in spring and early summer; they were easier to tally as the summer wore on but still nothing like their normal abundance.  Both common sulphurs, Orange and Clouded, had terrible flights in spring and summer and only flew reasonably well in the last brood of the season.  Sleepy Orange didn’t make an appearance until mid-summer, and never reached the large numbers we sometimes see.  Cloudless Sulphurs required diligent searching all summer long, appearing only late in the season.  There was a single report of Little Yellow in the region that I’m aware of, and no Dainty Sulphur reports.

Metalmarks — Northern Metalmark had one of its best flights in the past few years.  Virtually every stem of woodland sunflower had its complement of metalmarks throughout the Green Ridge forest complex; the high numbers appeared to be repeated in VA and WV.

Anglewings and Cloaks — Reliably our first butterflies of the spring, we saw rather few Eastern Commas or Question Marks until early fall, which at least gives us some hopes that if winter conditions are favorable we might have a normal anglewing spring in 2019.  Ditto for Mourning Cloaks, only even more so — just a handful of early spring sightings and the same for the close of the summer.  Gray Comma apparently showed up in regular numbers along the Appalachian Spine.  We missed out on any errant local tortoiseshells this year although they seemed to fly well in PA.

Crescents and Checkerspots –– 2018 may be best remembered in checkerspot history as the year we started to get a handle on the Northern Crescent-cocyta group complex in MD, with good numbers for the May brood in all three western counties.  The situation is not as clear for later in the season, mostly because (I suspect) we weren’t looking (I didn’t get into the field nearly as often as I had hoped). Our normally abundant Pearl Crescent made a very poor showing all summer, with just a few locations racking up high numbers in the early autumn.  There were a couple of microbursts of Silvery Checkerspots in a few local irruptions; at least one explosion of caterpillars came to naught in the wet, moldy days of midsummer.  Very few reports of Baltimore Checkerspots were recorded this year.  By contrast, field work in Garrett Co. revealed some new populations of Harris’s Checkerspot which, while never common, flew reasonably well in 2018.

Admirals, Viceroy, Emperors and Ladies — Red-spotted Purple was the only member of this tribe to have a good season in 2018.  Huge populations in May and again in August.  The May-June brood also sported some White Admiral morphs.  No significant migrations of Red Admirals or American Ladies were noted; neither was abundant anywhere this season and in fact American Ladies were sparse until late summer.  Red Admirals could be found on most field trips from midsummer on, but not in any significant numbers.  Painted Ladies were at best uncommon, though sightings picked up in early autumn.  Viceroy was uncommon all season long.  Common Buckeye only lived up the “common” part of their moniker late in the season, and even then in only modest numbers.  Neither emperor — Tawny or Hackberry — mounted very good flights in 2018.

Snouts — Poor numbers all season.  Little if any migration noted.

Satyrids — A mixed report on satyrid brushfoots.  Whether for lack of field activity or because its numbers were down, there were hardly any reports of Carolina Satyr.  Little Wood Satyr flew well but not in very good numbers.  Northern Pearly-eye numbers seemed about on par with recent years; Appalachian Brown numbers bucked the trend and this species seemed to be doing quite quite well in 2018.  Common Wood Nymph also had a good year in terms of flight time; it showed well all summer long, if in rather low numbers.

Fritillaries — With the exception of Meadow Fritillary, frits were hard to come by this season.  Meadow Fritillaries flew early and late and in good numbers across a variety of habitats across the region.  The first brood of Great-spangled Fritillaries was almost non-existent; they gained some numbers and flew late into late summer but nothing like their normal abundance.  Not many reports of either Aphrodite or Atlantis Fritillaries from the western counties.  Diana Fritillary had an exceptionally poor year.  Silver-bordered Fritillary was represented by only a handful of reports.  Variegated Fritillary had modest flights in the early season, and even late in the summer was overall uncommon with a few scattered local irruptions.  Where they were abundant they were everywhere, but this was not a widespread phenomenon.  The Gulf Fritillary pop of 2017 was not repeated (IMHO, because there wasn’t a mass migration of eclipse-viewers transporting them up here).

Monarchs — Likely the best flight in a decade here in the mid-Atlantic.  We’ll see if we have similar numbers returning from overwintering in Mexico; for the mid-Atlantic it increasingly appears that whatever is putting downward pressure on Monarch populations has little or nothing to do with milkweed availability on the East Coast into maritime Canada.  Queens apparently made it this year to NJ and into the Midwest but not locally.

Spreadwinged Skippers — Most of the spreadwings had a decent year, beginning with Horace’s and Juvenal’s Duskywings in the early spring, as well as the Dreamy and Sleepy contingent.  There were a couple of early dates for Wild Indigo Duskywing — April! — and then it became hard to find until the very end of summer.  Horace’s had a terrific late-summer flight.  Silver-spotted Skipper flew in small numbers season-long; Hoary Edge numbers seemed down in its limited range.  The spreadwing skipper standout for 2018 was a couple of very early (late June-early July) teases by Long-tailed Skipper, which after a complete hiatus would become almost common in early autumn. Common Checkered-skipper was anything but; ditto for Common Sootywing and Hayhurst’s Scallopwing.  Northern Cloudywing was common in early spring; few cloudywings of any stripe were around later in the season,

Grass Skippers — a poor flight for almost all species, especially early in the year.  Few species showed up in early summer, save for modest numbers of Zabulon and Hobomok.  Zabulon had a short but intense mini-explosion in late summer.  Indian Skipper flew early and in low numbers.  Mulberry-wing numbers were stable in the one location for which we have a report.  European (Essex) Skippers showed in good but not spectacular numbers, as we sometimes see with this species.  With few exceptions, our normally common grass skippers — Sachem, Crossline, Little Glassywing, Tawny-edged, Dun, broken-dashes — failed to put in appearance early in the season, but flew in a brief series of intense activity in the August-September timeframe.  Fiery and Sachem approached their normal abundant status late in the season  Clouded and Dusted Skippers both had less-than-average numbers for the year.  Leonard’s Skipper had a shorter flight than usual, likely because extreme drought took out their nectar sources early.  Among the coastal and marsh skippers, only one good spike of activity in midsummer stood out; even then really only Aaron’s, Broad-winged, and Rare had what could be considered decent flights.  Dion and Delaware were difficult spots this year.  Pepper and Salt Skipper in MD seems to have taken a year off; reports from WV suggest it had an otherwise normal year.  Cobweb Skipper appears to have had an off year; very few reports.  The grass skipper highlight was Brazilian Skipper, which offered an unprecedented flight here in the mid-Atlantic.

Here’s hoping 2019 will be a better field year all-round.  That will take, among other things, better winter weather — and especially a moderate spring with no see-sawing between Arctic and tropical temperatures.  And at least a handful of summer weekends that aren’t soggy!  A lot of things will conspire to keep me out of the field next summer, but keep your eyes out for MD-LepsOdes ad hoc excursions on short notice by following the listserv at!forum/mdlepsodes.



Posted in Field Trips/Annual Counts, sightings | 2 Comments