Herbicides, Native Critters, and Us

17 Oct

Rainbows, Butterflies, and a Few Poisons

Praying Mantis

Praying Mantis

John and George today wandered Seabranch State Park the party-colored autumn wildflowers under heavenly heavens.  Funny what you ponder while playing in Mother Nature’s sandbox.  Today’s niggling thought was, “the flowers are spectaculous, but where are all the birds, bees, and butterflies?”  Now this may just be imagination or merely rosy historical re-creation, but compared with earlier life experience, butterflies and bees seem sparser.  Of course, “Silent Spring” documented Rachel Carson’s similar perception way back in 1962.  The Eagles were dying in ‘62, yet John and I think maybe we saw one far yonder today.  “Situation turned around,” we gloat.  Not so fast there Polyanna.

Katydid.  Todays' photos by John Bradford  (except maybe the butterfly.  Forgot who took that picture.)

Katydid. Today’s photos by John Bradford (except maybe the butterfly. Forgot who took that picture.)

Pretend there really has been decimation in the Hundred Acre Wood.  Who’d be surprised?  Assaults to wildlife are beyond obvious:  habitat loss, pesticides, climate change, and bioinvasion leap to mind.  The mounting evidence against the popular neonicotinoid insecticides such as imidacloprid (Merit) in bee Colony Collapse Disorder is getting harder to sweep under the carpet.  You don’t tug on Superman’s cape, you don’t spit into the wind, and you don’t dismiss lightly Harvard University research.  But today it’s herbicides, not insecticides.

Don’t weed-killing herbicides kill just plants?

Not necessarily.  Many herbicides have links to mammalian cancers, developmental deformities, endocrine disruptions, and more.  Many to this day are chlorinated hydrocarbons, the very chemical class Rachel Carson indicted convincingly before we shot a man to the moon.  The nation’s most-used weed killer, Atrazine, is a chlorinated pesticide in the water water everywhere.  This billion dollar baby is implicated in amphibian decline, not to mention data indicating human toxicity. Even in the drinking water?  You bet:  Right here in the Sunshine State:  CLICK.  And I take little comfort in the notion of,  “well, concentrations are low, so don’t sweat it.  Let the BRITA snag it and don’t tell the Tourism Bureau.”

Grizzled Mantid

Grizzled Mantid

Continuing with the big question, don’t weed killers murder just plants?  Answer 2.  Plants are the salad bar at the bottom of the food chain.  In that connection, a whole new herbicide familycalled sulfonylureas has crept up on us, although they are not widely known among the hoi polloi.  Examples include Manage, Manner, the cutely named Sedge Hammer, and many more with active ingredients ending in –sulfuron, such as halosulfuron.  These are touted as environmentally compatible, and may be the best of the SOB’s.  Sulfonylurea herbicides have two potentially troublesome attributes:  they are extremely water soluble, and they are jaw-droppingly deadly at snuffing plants.  Agricultural doses can be as low as grams per acre.   A little dab’ll do-ya.

So here’s the worry.  Super-water soluble suggests slippage into canals and aquifers, although breakdown is probably rapid, usually.  In the water AND lethal in minute quantities hand-in-hand wink at undermining microscopic plankton at the base of aquatic food chains.  I am not saying this is happening on a Chicken Little scale.  Just the opposite, you have to search under stones to find kindred neurotics.  Yet we fret.

Asclepias curtissii likes scrub.

This Milkweed likes scrub. Do Monarchs like it?

Even if the watery ecological pyramids have rock-solid bases, here’s a parting gift.  Monarch Butterflies are in decline.  Have you noticed?  Have you shrugged and muttered, “insecticides”?  An article in Scientific American this summer (online June 2014) collared a different suspect: the weed-killer Round-Up (glyphosate).  Monarchs breed on Milkweeds, predominantly in the U.S. Corn Belt.

The Corn Belt has been de-weeding itself with showers of Round-Up applied to crops Round-Up resistant GMO crops.  The regional weed purge has spared too few Milkweeds to sustain Monarchs as we knew them.

What a freakin’ pity.  Maybe it’s not just our imagination.

Where did the Milkweeds go?

Where did the Milkweeds go?


Posted by on October 17, 2014 in Herbicides


10 responses to “Herbicides, Native Critters, and Us

  1. Kathy

    October 17, 2014 at 7:05 pm

    The other side of this coin is that herbicides are necessary to manage the incursion of non-native shrubs and other plants bullying our remaining relict natural areas. Here in the Midwest, Japanese Honeysuckle and European Buckthorn have become scourges in our forest preserves, pummeling biodiversity. Reed Canary Grass is taking over orchid-filled wetlands. Teasel has become an ubiquitous and prickly hazard in the prairies and right-of-ways. Fortunately, citizen scientists and caring volunteers are taking the time to become certified in the careful and judicious use of herbicide, using lowest dose necessary and avoiding off-target damage. So careful use of herbicide, as an integral part of ecological management, helps preserve habitat for pollinators and other native species.

    • George Rogers

      October 17, 2014 at 10:46 pm

      Well, hmmm, ok, ahhh, not sure what to say. If I said I don’t think it’s a great idea for anyone to walk into one of those giant box sporting good stores and walk out with an assault rifle, a 20-shot magazine, a box of ammo, and a diet coke….a reader might respond to the other side of the coin that society needs guns, private citizens have the right to arm bears, soldiers need weapons to defend their countries, police need guns to protect the community and themselves, Elmer Fudd needs to shoot that wascally wabbit. General affinity for herbicides is, sure, all agreeable in a broad sense. And that is true of so many lopsided arguments where broad generalities are argued to counter specifics. Why do teachers flunk students—after all, don’t they believe in being supportive? Why do parents punish children when it’s best to love the kids? We’re not talking about two sides of the same coin.

      There are so many herbicide-related variables it spins your head past sweeping generalities. To begin with, I don’t even know how many hundred different herbicidal products exist, and then come questions of for exactly what purpose, under what conditions, using which products, with what level of knowledge, balancing what pros against what cons. The take-home lesson today is the specific care, research, awareness, skepticism, and caution involved in selecting an approach to any weed, insect, or fungal situation. A fully informed cost-benefit-and alternatives analysis. Not a sweeping condemnation of herbicides.

      One thing I do not believe even a little is that getting certified, reading the label, and “avoiding off-target damage” is “the” answer to much of anything. We live on top of aquifers bearing plenty of contaminants no doubt applied properly. There is no authority on earth who really knows what becomes of it all, and I’m pretty surewhen you put a contaminant on top of the Surficial Aquifer, it’s going to go off-target in the afternoon thunderstorm. Atrazine in the mist over the Bering Sea is off-target.

      Nobody would disagree that invasive exotics are a huge general problem…although you can argue about what to do case by case, and I have seen counter-productive herbicide usage to smite invasive foes. Hey, it is even possible to make bioinvasion worse with overuse of herbicides, just like bacterial problems can worsen with overuse of antibiotics.

      I favor non-chemical exotic control over exposing staff or volunteers to known or likely carcinogens or other dangers. I am director of a plant nursery and associated gardens, and operate accordingly. People get cancer, and I prefer to be 100% certain it had nothing to do with volunteering on my turf. Several herbicides are documented as carcinogenic or otherwise iffy. I did not wish to imply that there’s no place for well selected well considered well understood herbicides, chainsaws, firearms, motorcycles, vodka, or dynamite in the world, but that ol’ devil is in the details. Going back to the blog, here are some devilish details:

      1. Of the countless herbicides out there, I am skeptical about the chlorinated (and other) products with established links to serious trouble, including 2,4-D and its close chemical relatives, and especially Atrazine. I would favor a U.S. ban on Atrazine. You might agree after some Googling. Nobody was too worried about Agent Orange back in the 70s. One of a few ways to get a quick peek at the known and suspected hazards, if any, for any given pesticidal product is to consult the Pesticide Action Network web site database (Another useful peek is at

      2. Before applying anything anywhere in Florida, the fragile vulnerable groundwater must be taken into account. There’s a good bit of yuk in it already, and getting worse. Even Round-Up applied on a large scale adds unwelcome phosphorus to the soil and underlying water.

      3. The sulfonylurea herbicides are potential (and actual) water contaminants. That fact might be a useful point to consider in balancing variables during decision-making.

      4. Some herbicidal products are applied in massive quantities. Seems like these big-usage products interface with public policy, voting, commercial decisions, regulatory activity, and things where voters, students, and concerned parties could have a voice. For instance, Atrazine is banned in the E.U. but not the U.S. That Round-Up applied heavily over a huge swath of the U.S. has reportedly caused Monarch Butterflies to decline is the sort of thing I’d like decision-makers to work into the equation.

      We all know that herbicides serve to clobber weedy pests that compete with human interests, even if those interests are to counter bioinvasion at a natural area…but what we don’t all know is the rest of the story. (We can’t pretend to, but should strive to have as much data as possible.) And before I’m convicted in court or subjected to surgery or sent to combat, I’d sure like all possible relevant details, including alternatives, on the table.

      I’m blind in one eye and impaired in the other, having had the first of several eye surgeries on a ruined cornea at age 20-something. I’m 62 now with a long miserable history of eye trouble. When I was young I worked several years under prolonged exposure to one particular pesticide. It was obvious that in general suppressing the destructive insects was a good idea. The detail nobody considered enough was that the product in question is known to initiate progressive eye deterioration. Guess what, when the old boss retired, the new boss replaced the offending pesticide with a more benign alternative, simple as that, no total pesticidal ban, no total pesticidal embrace, just better awareness, and no more young employees got their peepers wrecked.

      • christopher mccullon

        October 22, 2014 at 11:44 am

        You are right about the pesticides harming more than just pests. You are a perfect example about the harm to humans that pesticides pose. “I” hope your eye sight can be fixed, but in the mean time you are a wonderful and knowledgeable professor.

  2. Laure Hristov

    October 18, 2014 at 7:31 am

    Thanks George, well said!

    • George Rogers

      October 18, 2014 at 9:00 am

      Hi Laure, Always a pleasure to hear from you. How does the garden grow in this perfect weather?

  3. Uncle Tree

    October 18, 2014 at 8:16 am

    Well, darn, George. This makes for a fretful Saturday morning. Glory be to the Milkweed.
    Sorry to hear about your eye damage, too. That really sucks. Best wishes for your good one.

    Pretty pic of the Monarch, John. They are precious and few
    this year up here in corn country. Have a great weekend, fellers!

    • George Rogers

      October 18, 2014 at 9:03 am

      UT. I do love a Saturday morning, even if the chore list is long…and it is. I’ll reward myself after spraying all the pesticides by dropping by the t-house to see what’s your fret.

  4. Martin

    October 19, 2014 at 4:50 am

    Having been so close to the use of such agents for the last 35 years, similar doubts have bedeviled me for a long time. We have sprayed god-only-knows how many THOUSANDS of gallons of various approved, benign herbicides in Jonathan Dickinson State Park alone, and while the Park Manager and his staff have achieved amazing results beating back the terrible invasion of the Lygodium and Downy Rose Myrtle and others, who really knows the long-term effects of the use of THIS MUCH of these contaminants?

    When I first started at the park, there were so many wading birds – actual flocks of egrets and herons. Now it’s a nice focal point of your day if you get to see one. There used to be big flocks of red-winged blackbirds, and you could count on hearing meadowlarks singing in the grassy fields. Now there are none. Conversely, where turkeys had once disappeared, now they are seen routinely on the roadsides in the park, hens with their chicks, and big strutting toms, fighting it out. As the Buddha taught us, the only constant is change. We no longer live in the Holocene Era; now we are in an era that WE HAVE ACTUALLY CREATED – the Anthropocene Era. The very existence of humans is altering the physical structure of the Earth.

    So it’s no longer a matter of whether or not we wish to tinker with our precious habitats, but how and how much.

    Once again, thank you George, for a thoughtful and heartfelt piece. And I didn’t know about your eye – I’m sorry to hear that, brother.

  5. George Rogers

    October 19, 2014 at 9:58 am

    Martin, Hard to think of another topic where how you see it depends on where you are standing— at the moment. My attitude, to tell the truth, can go through broad swings even in a day. I guess that’s the way it goes with those questions having no good answers. No matter what you decide, there’s always so much more to it, always a valid different standpoint. But I guess that’s why we need as much information as possible to make the tough balanced choices.

    One thing for sure, JD Park is the most beautiful piece of creation anywhere around. Glad your team is on top of it, even if making omelettes must break an egg now and then. (Just not an Eagle Egg.)

    Thanks, I think (!) for adding to the sense that a wilderness trip doesn’t reveal as much wildlife as fond memories. Today, though, I’m going to go see birds for sure—at Wakodahatchee, because my wife wants to run down there to take some photos (and then go to JoAnn Fabrics nearby). Lots of birds to see at Wakodhatchee, and visitors to observe in funny looking hats (like mine). So maybe what we need to bring back the birds is more sewer water. (For those not familiar, the site is a wastewater cleansing area with boardwalk nature trail. It is enormously attractive to all the big wading birds.)

    Our PBSC campus looks like the Apocalypse sometimes after mass spraying to suppress invasives. The campus is hidden behind a pretty green rim, but much of the rim is invasive exotics such as an Earleaf Acacia jungle, O.W. Climbing Fern, and Melaleuca in the lower areas. (Then somebody comes along and makes sure the plate is full by landscaping with Cat. I invasive “Mexican Petunia Ruellia.” I am personally tempted to get out the Round-Up squirt gun on that some dark night.) As you just described in the state parks, and the commenter above noted, what the heck can you do? What an impossible balance to strike. (I just hide in my office, let other people figure it all out, and write annoying blogs. That’s much easier than balancing the tough calls, and the only consequence of being wrong is academic.)

    Viewing your Avatar, you seem to have something going on with the eyes too.

  6. Martin

    October 20, 2014 at 6:03 am

    Yeah, it’s all too much for me to figure out. I have changed my “firm position” on a number of important questions as I’ve grown older and realized that there are always more dimensions than we can see.


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