Still Learning To See

Good news, not so good news & fake news



Good news: lots more monarchs and monarch caterpillars around Central Vermont this year. What a thrill to see the chewed leaves of milkweed everywhere and plants loaded with frass (poop).




Many scientists and citizen scientists are busily tagging adult monarchs with small paper tags to help us better understand their impossible, multi-generational sagas of flight between here and their wintering grounds in Central Mexico. The Vermont Center for Ecostudies reports a number of butterflies tagged in Vermont and later found elsewhere on their migration, including in Mexico. Imagine!

Monarch tags

The not-so-good news? Although this seems to have been a bumper year for monarchs in much of the United States, winter populations in Mexico are still only a fraction of their historic levels. The reasons are probably numerous and complex but certainly include deforestation in the mountains of Mexico as well as the use of herbicides and herbicide resistant corn and soybeans in the vast stretches of agriculture in the American midwest. Even road salt could be a culprit, a hypothesis being studied by scientists in Minnesota (including one of my nieces, Dr. Emilie Snell-Rood).

While it may seem a small thing, we can help by supporting monarch research and by planting and encouraging milkweed to grow. Simply mowing less and allowing the edges of your yard to “go wild” can make a difference for all kinds of insects, especially butterflies.

Now for a bit of “fake news”: this is a monarch I saw recently:


Or maybe not! Science is all about truth and the truth is this beautiful butterfly is not so much a fake as a mimic, an insect that “learned” to appear to be a monarch but is actually a Viceroy butterfly. Why? As monarchs feed on milkweed they become bitter tasting to their predators, primarily birds and the birds, while they may occasionally eat a monarch, have learned to avoid them. The Viceroy has evolved to mimic the monarch and, as a result, has a degree of grace it might not otherwise have. Compare the “fake news” above with the real thing below and notice both the similarities and differences.


Scientists have my deep appreciation for being truth seekers. Only by posing a hypothesis and then testing it can we ever get close to the truth and, by the way, scientific truths, as imperfectly formed as they may sometimes be, are independent of the “fake news” of the political world.

Now…fly onward you magnificent monarchs!

This entry was published on August 30, 2019 at 8:53 am. It’s filed under Ecosystem, Flowers, Garden, John Snell, John Snell Photographer, People, Vermont, and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

9 thoughts on “Good news, not so good news & fake news

  1. Judith Murphy on said:

    Thanks John

  2. Karen Dailey on said:

    Thanks,, John, for another great mini science lesson…this time on monarchs! My walk later will check out our abundant milkweeds more closely. Never knew the body of the monarch was spotted. I love having the two photos (monarch & viceroy) together…clever viceroy!

  3. Just Wonderful!!!šŸ‘ā¤ļøšŸ‘ā¤ļøšŸ‘ā¤ļøšŸ‘ā¤ļø

  4. Veer Frost on said:

    Excellent eye-practice for these two species. I hesitated over that ‘fake’ photo even after so many years!

  5. cool piece. we’ve been helping out the monarchs for some years now and this year we saw a significant increase in their number. A lady in our neighborhood has released almost 200 monarchs. She finds the eggs and ‘rescues’ them from slim chances of survival. She has what I call a “cocoonary”. Amazing to see. I’ll get a pic.

    • I’d love to see more. I know many who do the same and it does make a difference. Yesterday I saw roadside mowing that took out hundreds of milkweed plants, many of which had had caterpillars on them.

  6. Dale Dailey on said:

    Nice Viceroy.

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