Sunday, April 12, 2009


For the last several years the big talk in the farm seed industry has been about new technology that makes possible the biological engineering of plants in ways that make them vastly superior to normal versions produced by natural means. One of the most successful has been the new “Bt” corn that is now planted on many acres here in the corn belt. The ability of a specific type of bacteria to produce an insecticide has long been a matter of great interest. Modern plant engineering has now made it possible to incorporate that factor into the corn plant, to design new Bt hybrids that can create their own “insecticide,” and actually kill the European corn borer larvae that would feed on, weaken, and destroy them.

Many serious environmentalists, along with numerous other assorted individuals and groups, take a dim view of this sort of progress. They all warn of the possibility of creating a Frankenstein-like monster. Some even put a religious spin on it, saying that when we bypass God’s natural laws we are sure to create many new problems that will vastly outweigh any gains. They like to use

Atomic-fission and atomic-fusion as horrible examples, often adding quotes by famous people such as Gen. Douglas MacArthur and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.

This summer, someone came up with data indicating that pollen from the tassels of Bt corn, when landing on the leaves of milkweeds, can weaken and even kill the monarch butterfly larvae that feed only on these leaves. I discussed this with an old friend, a corn breeder who has recently received a good deal of well-earned recognition for helping develop a corn hybrid that is currently one of the more successful in the state of Iowa. We kind of lamented: Of all the insects and other assorted bugs in the world, why did it have to be the monarch butterfly? What other bug is as widely known and universally loved as is the monarch? Scotty didn’t seem to take too kindly to my suggestion that the next move would have to be an attempt to develop a Bt-resistant monarch butterfly.

In late July a group of us visited the Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison, Wisc., to see their special show, “Butterfly Bonanza.” Thousands of butterflies of assorted species were turned loose in the Bolz Conservatory, an indoor tropical jungle, where they fluttered and flitted about to their hearts’ content among the banana, breadfruit, and countless other rain-forest trees and plants. Giant Swallowtails, Monarchs, Queens, and Viceroys; Painted Ladies, Zebras, White Peacocks, Julias, Malachites, and many others gave us a colorful show of their flimsy, faltering aerobatics.

Arrangements were made to supply a variety of flavors of nectar for them to sip. In a special “birthing area” many chrysalis hung in rows, giving viewers a chance to watch newly-formed butterflies emerge, to dry their wings, and fly away.

The enthusiastic crowd that enjoyed the lively display included many family groups. Small children bustled about, searching the plants beside the paths for the brightly colored insects, anxious to report their finds to their parents and grandparents. Together they would try to identify each newly-found butterfly by comparing it to the 24 colored photographs in their beautiful brochures. Those with cameras recorded their sightings of various “Lepidoptera” on film.

Watching the fragile-looking creatures flutter slowly from plant to plant, it seemed difficult to believe that a monarch butterfly can attain a speed of 20 MPH, or fly as high as 10,000 feet above the ground. Much less survive a 2,000-mile migration from Canada to Mexico.

A large banner proclaimed: “A world filled with the magic of butterflies is a world of natural diversity!” All of the happy, smiling faces at the “Butterfly Bonanza” convinced me that many people have a soft spot in their hearts for the flutter-bugs. And that butterflies do have their own brand of beautiful, colorful, magic.


Pretty butterfly,
As you flutter by
On your hither-thither way,

I sure hope you know,
As you come and go,
That you brighten up my day.

What a jolly sight,
With your colors bright,
As you clear my garden wall!

Soft, warm breezes blow,
You come and you go
Even above trees so tall.

You’re a welcome guest
(The one I like best)
In my garden by the lane.

Tomorrow, at noon,
If that’s not too soon,
Please, flit by this way again.

If I could but be
Light, footloose, and free
As you, off, away we’d fly

On our wings of gold,
We would flutter, bold,
Exploring the broad blue sky.

Air-borne jewel bright,
In the summer’s light,
Thrilling mere earthlings, like me,

Once some girl or guy
Much wiser than I
Reasoned: “Butterflies are free”