Excuse me, have you seen this Monarch? Staci Cibotti, Ph.D. candidate in Entomology

It is one of the most iconic butterflies in North America. They have vibrant orange wings with black stripes and white spots. They can be seen feeding on milkweed plants and migrating from North America to Mexico at certain times of the year. If the image of a monarch butterfly popped into your head, then you get the picture! Unfortunately, monarch populations have declining rapidly over the last couple decades. So, the question is why are the monarchs disappearing? Penn State Entomology PhD student Staci Cibotti is trying to answer this question with her research.

Over the last century agriculture has improved dramatically because of new tools and technology being developed; however, some of these innovations have come at a cost. One of the innovations that has been the subject for debate for many years is pesticides. Up into the 1970s many pesticides were toxic to humans and the environment and eventually banned. A new class of pesticides (the neonicotinoids) was developed as an alternative to combat agriculture pests, but still possessing a low toxicity that it would not affect other animals and the environment. Research over the last decade however has found that neonicotinoids can have negative impacts on other animals and the environment. Some examples of these impacts include killing beneficial insects like bees that promote plant pollination or being leeched into the ground where it can contaminate the soil and influence plant development.

Monarchs travel great distances during their migration, so they can encounter many different conditions and environments that could affect their survival. One environment they might be exposed to on their flights are agriculture systems that have been treated with neonicotinoids or other pesticides. Staci mentions,

There's a substantial body of research that demonstrates the detrimental effects that neonicotinoids can have on bees, but unfortunately we just don't have the same level of understanding when it comes to monarchs. The fundamental question my research will address is what are the effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on monarch-milkweed interactions, monarch behavior, and physiology?"

“I will conduct two different experiments to answer my fundamental research question”, says Staci. The first experiment will be exposing monarch caterpillars to milkweed planted with neonicotinoid treated corn in a greenhouse. Studying this close interaction between the different plants will help to understand how neonicotinoids can be leeched into the soil and up-taken by milkweed and observe any effects it may have on plant or caterpillar development. The second experiment will be looking at growing milkweed plants at different distances in neonicotinoid treated corn/soybean fields to assess different leeching rates. Studying this process will help to understand how far and fast neonicotinoids can travel in the soil through leeching and the possible effects it has on the surrounding environment.

I hope that my findings can be used to help inform growers, policymakers, and conservation groups in implementing strategies to conserve these at-risk insects", says Staci.

So the next time you see a monarch try to help this butterfly out, so it can be around in the future and not forgot about!

By Jonathan Hernandez


Created with images by Kathy Servian - "untitled image" • Kathy Servian - "untitled image"