BUTTERFLY CENSUS COMES UP SHORT
Experts differ on cause of decline
BY Lawrence Budd DAYTON DAILY NEWS
Dayton Daily News
September 10, 2000
WAYNESVILLE - An international survey of Monarch butterflies held locally at Caesars Creek State Park is turning up fewer creatures than last year, a decline of special concern because a 1999 study found Monarch caterpillars can't stomach a biotechnology-engineered toxin widely used in genetically altered corn in Ohio.
Hayley Johnson smiled in wonder Saturday as the Monarch butterfly she set free flitted off toward its winter haven in the mountains of central Mexico. The 8-year-old Oakwood girl took part in the survey coordinated by Monarch Watch, a Kansas-based group tracking the 2,000 to 3,000 migrations of the delicate creatures.
This year, fewer Monarchs flew into local volunteers' nets since tagging began in August, coordinator Joanne Wilson said. No hard numbers were available Saturday.
While skeptical of an environmental hazard, OSU researchers say Ohio farmers might want to abandon the more expensive BT corn for traditional brands simply on a cost basis. "You can be darn sure farmers aren't going to pay for something if they don't need it," said Pete Lane, the OSU agricultural extension agent in Montgomery County.
Scrutiny of BT corn use began last year. Scientist John Losey published a study in the science magazine Nature blaming the deaths of 44 percent of Monarch caterpillars he had fed milkweed leaves dusted with BT. The toxin has been added through genetic modification to corn seeds to kill caterpillars feeding on cornstalks. Other research has since raised questions about Losey's findings, which were attacked by the agribusiness industry.
Still Losey's work has prompted more research designed to end the debate over whether BT corn, which Lane said is used by almost half of all Ohio farmers, could be killing Monarchs and other butterfly species before they sprout wings.
"I hope it's not that," Wilson said. "If it's so bad for them, it's got to be bad for us," Wilson said.
Lane dismissed the significance of Losey's findings, charging the dosage used was larger than that found in BT corn and the milkweeds favored by Monarch caterpillars seldom grow near corn crops.
"BT corn is an alternative to going out there and spraying something that will kill not only Monarch butterflies, but any insect, good or bad," Lane said.
While skeptical of the environmental hazards, Lane said studies by OSU researchers suggest another reason for farmers to giving up on the genetically altered seeds, which have been in use since 1995.
"Overall, it appears the cost premium of BT corn doesn't prove out," Lane said. "The damage to corn rarely exceeds the cost of treating the corn."
Meanwhile butterfly lovers like Hayley Johnson and her friends at E.D. Smith School in Oakwood will continue to study the orange-and-black beauties.
"I just like them. I like the way they fly," she said.