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The Mast-Head: The Butterfly Bomber

Wed, 08/17/2022 - 13:31

A friend, who will remain unnamed here for reasons that will be clear in a moment, is something of a hero to me. Having grown up amid the wide-open places of Bridgehampton between the highway and the ocean, she developed early on a profound affection for all things natural — and, as time went on, a deep sadness as they began to dwindle. I have my own similar memories and sorrows, remembering a flat, agricultural landscape fringed by marsh and windrows where wildlife and farming existed side by side.

It was no Eden before the Fall, of course. Many of the things that farmers put on their crops took a heavy toll on nontargeted species — and probably still do. I read recently that aldicarb, sold under the brand name Temik and used on the South Fork to fight off the Colorado potato beetle, but then found in drinking water, may be making a comeback. Though it was phased out by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2010, it can be used by Florida citrus growers through next year to combat an invasive pest and, during the Trump administration, was allowed again for use on cotton, soybeans, and potatoes in some places in the United States.

Recently, an international group declared the familiar orange-and-black monarch butterfly globally endangered, in large part because of the continued use of agricultural chemicals known to be harmful. Among these are glyphosate, or Roundup, which is applied to corn and soy crops to keep down competing plants.

Milkweed, on which monarchs lay their eggs, is unable to survive a soaking with Roundup, threatening the butterfly’s ongoing generations. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the loss of milkweed has led to a more-than-80-percent decline in the North American monarch population. In addition, current research may show that the same insecticides putting bees and other critical pollinators at risk can also harm the monarchs.

So my friend, who loves all things butterfly and insect, became something of a beneficial bomber, sneaking onto suitable roadside properties at night to spread milkweed seed. One location she seeded repeatedly is now ringed by a dense stand of the pink-purple flowers that regenerates itself each year. Milkweed from a pod she gave me did surprisingly well at my house, despite being soaked from time to time in salt spray from Gardiner’s Bay.

I find the softly bobbing milkweed heads profoundly satisfying to see. So, too, do the monarchs making their late-summer movement south toward Mexico. They have found my yard again this year. It is a cheering thought that even a small step, casting a handful of silken seeds, can help fight back against the usual gloom about the natural world.

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