Mourning Moorhead’s Monarchs

Deacon Joyce (left) and Elliana Spriggs (above) examine some of the dead butterflies found in Rebekah Haag’s yard. (Photos/Rebekah Haag)

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

Rebekah Haag’s son was laughing when he let the family puppy back inside last Wednesday night, Aug. 26. “Mom,” he said, “the butterflies are drunk.”

Behind their house on the southeastern edge of the city, orange-and-black monarch butterflies were flapping in dizzy circles around the yard light. “We laughed a little and didn’t think any more about it,” she remembers.

Until the next morning. When Rebekah’s husband Josh came back from walking the dog, he told her he’d seen dozens of butterflies dead or dying in the ditch outside. “They didn’t look right,” she observes. “They seemed to be seizing right on the ground with their wings folded backwards, kind of curled over their feet.”

She and the children she cares for – 10 of them in her licensed home daycare – found clumps of the dead insects beneath the pine tree where they often rested for the night. They walked up and down the street and found many, many more little winged corpses. “My garden had been so enchanted last week,” she says. “Now they’re all annihilated.”

Rebekah and dozens of other Fargo-Moorhead residents quickly connected the dots: On the evening before, Cass County Vector Control – with whom Moorhead contracts to fight mosquitoes – had conducted aerial spraying over about 100 square miles of the metro area. Intended to thin the population of the biting pests that had exploded after recent rains, the application – as always – caused widespread and predictable collateral damage: The chemical of choice, Permethrin, is equally deadly to beneficial and benign insects like bumblebees, honey bees, crickets, dragonflies, flies, moths and ladybugs. (It also kills wasps and yellow jackets, but they receive less sympathy.)

Horrified residents lit up social media with photos of piles of dead butterflies. Local media picked up the story, then regional broadcasters and even People magazine. While Moorhead mourned, many asked hard questions: Why now?

According to Cass County Vector Control director Ben Prather, his agency followed exactly the same practices it uses whenever its airplanes fly overhead – same application of Permethrin, same timing, same planes, same pilots. He called the death of the beneficial and beloved insects unfortunate, but added, “casualties among non-target insects like butterflies always occur after applications because the chemical used is a broad-spectrum pesticide that affects many insects. Such losses always weigh heavy for us,” but cited the primary goals of his agency’s mission – human health and comfort. Eighty miles to the north in Grand Forks, some mosquitoes trapped the week before tested positive for West Nile Virus, adding a degree of urgency.

But if the agency has been using Permethrin, an artificial chemical based on the repellent naturally present in chrysanthemums, all along, why was the latest application so dramatically deadlier?

Sarah Carlisle, who lives near Gooseberry Park, believes timing is at the root of the problem. Sarah is captivated by monarchs – so much so that she maintains a Facebook page called Monarchs of Moorhead. She stresses that her knowledge of the beloved butterflies is strictly as an amateur. Years of enjoying them and raising them from caterpillars to free-flying adults in her back yard, though, have taught her a great deal about their habits.

“The monarchs begin their annual migration to Mexico at the end of August,” she explains. “They winter there, then migrate north in the spring, laying eggs on milkweed plants,” their only food source.

Several generations hatch, emerge from cocoons, live and die over the summer. The last hatch, though, has a more rigorous challenge before it. These are the creatures that join the 3,000-mile migration. “They’re the big, important ones,” she says. “They live longer and are strong enough to make the long trek.”

The slaughter of so many Moorhead monarchs, then, is being tied to timing. The deadly spray was apparently applied just as the butterflies were gathering for their journey south.

On Sunday before that fateful spray, Sarah recorded a video of the backyard flower patch she’s nurtured to attract and support pollinators. Her lyrical footage shows a fluttering horde of monarchs, as well as painted ladies, bumblebees, honeybees, and soldier beetles, another common yellow-bodied flying insects, too, with black on their wings. In the video, she rhapsodizes, “This is my happy place.”

Five days later, she posted a more somber video. “The monarchs are all gone. I do see two painted ladies, and there are flies. No soldier beetles. One little bumblebee – I’m glad he made it out. It’s so sad to see.”

Rebekah was one of many, many F-M residents who contacted Cass Vector Control to demand answers. As the chorus of concern rose, the county was prompted to make a public statement about the issue. Among the points made, it stated: “It was determined that the level of mosquito nuisance and the presence of mosquitoes carrying West Nile virus in surrounding communities warranted the aerial spraying application last week. … The timing of the monarch migration is a sporadic event that unfortunately occurred during the latest adult mosquito control application, we are working with Federal and State resources to determine the cause of the loss of monarchs and if it was related to this application. Again, it is very unfortunate that spraying for adult mosquitoes can result in the loss of other insects – we do not take this fact lightly but there are considerable efforts underway to determine if there was a link.”

A number of residents have contacted their city council members, prompting the addition of the issue of mosquito control onto the agenda for the next meeting Sept. 14. Another Moorheader, Andy Koskela, created a petition on calling for Clay and Cass counties to use less toxic, pollinator-friendly measures. As of Tuesday, it had more than 1,000 signers.

“Butterflies and dragonflies are popular and easy to see, but what about all the other beneficial insects that are killed by mosquito spraying?” Rebekah asks. “We need our pollinators. Without them, we eventually won’t have fruit and vegetables to eat.

“There’s no way of fixing this now, but I think Vector Control needs to issue an apology and find a better way – either another method of control or better timing. They’ve taken something precious away from us. They need to find a way to give back something.”

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