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Eradicating non-native plants does NOT benefit insects

May 4, 2019

We briefly reactivate the Million Trees blog to publish an interesting and important debate between Jake Sigg and Professor Art Shapiro about the relationship between insects and native plants.  Their debate was initiated by this statement published in Jake Sigg’s Nature News on April 26, 2019:

“Did you know that 90 percent of insects can only eat the native plant species with which they’ve co-evolved?”

Jake Sigg has been the acknowledged leader of the native plant movement in the San Francisco Bay Area for 30 years.  He is a retired gardener for the Recreation and Parks Department in San Francisco. Art Shapiro is Distinguished Professor of Ecology and Evolution at UC Davis.  He has studied the butterflies of Central California for 50 years. 

Jake and Art are both passionately committed to the preservation of nature, but their divergent viewpoints reflect their different experiences.  Jake’s viewpoint is based on his personal interpretation of his observations.  As a gardener, his top priority is the preservation of plants rather than the animals that need plants.  As a scientist, Art’s viewpoint is based on empirical data, in particular, his records of plant and butterfly interactions over a period of 47 years as he walked his research transects about 250 days per year. The survival of butterflies is Art’s top priority.

Although their discussion is informative, it does not resolve the questions it raises because Jake and Art “agree to disagree.”  Therefore, Million Trees will step into the vacuum their discussion creates to state definitively that it is patently false to say that “90% of insects can only eat native plants.” That statement grossly exaggerates the degree of specialization of insects and underestimates the speed of adaptation and evolution.

There are several reasons why insects do not benefit from the eradication of non-native plants:

  • Insects use both native and non-native plants.
  • Pesticides used to eradicate non-native plants are harmful to both plants and insects as well as the entire environment.
  • There is no evidence that insects are being harmed by the existence of non-native plants.

Insects use both native and non-native plants

This statement was recently made in an article published by Bay Nature magazine about Jake Sigg:  “More than 90 percent of all insects sampled associate with just one or two plant families.”  (7,500 insect species were sampled by the cited study.  There are millions of insect species and their food preferences are largely unknown.)  This exaggerated description of specialization of insects seems the likely origin of the subsequent, inappropriate extrapolation to the statement that specialized insects require native plants.

Anise Swallowtail butterfly in non-native fennel. Courtesy urbanwildness.org

There are over 600 plant families and thousands of plant species within those families.  Most plant families include both native and non-native plant species.  An insect that uses one or two plant families, is therefore capable of using both native and non-native plant species.

We will use the Oxalidaceae plant family to illustrate that insects can and do use both native and non-native plants.  Oxalidaceae is a small family of about 5 genera and 600 plant species.  We choose that family as an example because Jake Sigg’s highest priority for eradication is a member of that plant family, Oxalis pes-caprae (Bermuda buttercup is the usual common name)In a recent Nature News (April 9, 2019), Jake explained why:  Oxalis is not just another weed; this bugger has a great impact on the present and it will determine the future of the landscapes it invades.” 

Five members of the Oxalis genus in the Oxalidaceae family are California natives. An insect that uses native oxalis can probably also use the hated Bermuda buttercup oxalis because they are chemically similar. 

Honeybee on oxalis flower, another non-native plant being eradicated with herbicide.

The consequences of eradicating non-native plants

Partly because of Jake’s commitment to eradicating non-native oxalis, San Francisco’s Recreation and Parks Department has been spraying it with herbicide for 20 years Garlon (triclopyr) is the herbicide that is used for that purpose because it is a selective herbicide that does not kill grasses in which oxalis usually grows.  Garlon is one of the most toxic herbicides available on the market.  More is known about Round Up (glyphosate) because it is the most widely used of all herbicides.  However, according to a survey of land managers conducted by California Invasive Plant Council in 2014, Garlon is the second-most commonly used herbicide to eradicate non-native plants. 

Garlon is toxic to bees, birds, and fish.  It is an endocrine-disrupter that poses reproductive and developmental risks to female applicators.  It damages the soil by killing mycorrhizal fungi that are essential to plant health by facilitating the transfer of nutrients and moisture from the soil to plant roots. 

A recent article in the quarterly newsletter of Beyond Pesticides explains that insecticides are not the only killers of insects: “Insecticides kill insects, often indiscriminately and with devastating consequences for biodiversity, ecosystem stability, and critical ecosystem services. Herbicides and chemical fertilizers extinguish invaluable habitat and forage critical to insect survival. Taken together, insecticides, fungicides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers make large and growing swaths of land unlivable for vast numbers of insect species and the plants and animals they sustain.” The loss of insects where herbicides are used to kill non-native plants are undoubtedly contributing to the failure of attempts to “restore” native plants which require pollinators and insect predator control as much as non-native plants.

In other words, eradicating non-native oxalis is damaging the environment and the animals that live in the environment.  Furthermore, after twenty years of trying to eradicate it, Jake Sigg admits that there is more of it now than there was when this crusade began:  “Maybe you’ve noticed that there’s more and more of it every year, and fewer and fewer other plants.  That is unlikely to reverse.”  (Nature News, April 9, 2019).

coyote in oxalis field. Copyright Janet Kessler

In fact, local failure of eradication efforts mirrors global failures of similar attempts:  “…despite international policies aimed at mitigating biological invasions, the implementation of national- and regional-scale measures to prevent or control alien species has done little to slow the increase in extent of invasions and the magnitude of impacts.” (1)

Update:  The California Invasive Plant Council has published “Land Manager’s Guide to Developing an Invasive Plant Management Plan.”  It says very little about the disadvantages of using herbicides to eradicate plants they consider “invasive” other than a vague reference to “unintended consequences,” without discussion of what they are or how to avoid them. 

However, it does give us another clue about why eradication efforts are often unsuccessful. When herbicides are used repeatedly, as they have been in the past 20 years, weeds develop resistance to them:   “The International Survey of Herbicide Resistant Weeds (2018) reports there are currently 496 unique cases (species x site of action) of herbicide-resistant weeds globally, with 255 species…Further, weeds have evolved resistance to 23 of the 26 known herbicide sites of action and to 163 different herbicides.”  The Guide therefore recommends that land managers rotate herbicides so that the “invasive” plants do not develop resistance to any particular herbicide.  The Guide gives only generic advice to use “herbicide X” initially and “herbicide Y or Z” for subsequent applications.

In other words, the California Invasive Plant Council continues to promote the use of herbicides to kill plants they consider “invasive.”  They give advice about ensuring the effectiveness of herbicides, but they do not give advice about how to avoid damaging the soil, killing insects, and harming the health of the public and the workers who apply the herbicides. 

Do insects benefit from eradicating non-native plants?

There is no question that insects are essential members of every ecosystem.  They are the primary food of birds and other members of wildland communities.  They perform many vital functions in the environment, such as consuming much of our waste that would otherwise accumulate. 

The Economist magazine has reported the considerable evidence of declining populations of insects in many places all over the world.  (However, the Economist points out that the evidence does not include large regions where insect populations have not been studied. The Economist is therefore unwilling to conclude that the “insect apocalypse” is a global phenomenon.) The report includes the meta-analysis of 73 individual studies that describe declines of 50% and more over decades. The meta-analysis concluded that there are four primary reasons for those declines, in order of their importance:  habitat loss, intensive farming, pesticide use, and spread of diseases and parasites.  The existence of non-native plants is conspicuously absent from this list of threats to insect populations.

In other words, although the preservation of insects is extremely important, there is no evidence that the eradication of non-native plants would benefit insects.  In fact, eradication efforts are detrimental to insects because of the toxic chemicals that are used and the loss of the food the plants are providing to insects.

Jake Sigg and Art Shapiro discuss insects and native plants

The discussion begins on April 26, 2019, with this statement published in Jake’s Nature News:

“Did you know that 90 percent of insects can only eat the native plant species with which they’ve co-evolved?”

On April 26, 2019, Arthur Shapiro wrote:

“No, I didn’t know 90% of insects can only eat the native plants with which they’ve co-evolved. I’ve only been studying insect-plant relationships and teaching about them for 50 years and that’s news to me, especially since on a global basis we don’t know what the vast majority of insects species eat, period! That’s even true for butterflies and moths, which are probably the best-studied group. And it’s even true here in California, one of the best-studied places on the planet (though way behind the U.K. and Japan). Where on earth did that bit of non-information come from?”

Jake Sigg responds:

“Art, I did my best to run down source for that statement.  As I suspected, it may lack academic precision.  That kind of precision is hard come by, and what exists is not entirely relevant.  Most of the information comes from Doug Tallamy.  But the statement is not accurate; it should have read “…90 percent of plant-eating insects eat only the native plants they evolved with”.  Whether that is true or not I don’t know, but it accords with my understanding and I am willing to go along with it, even if proof is lacking.  If you wait for scientific proof on everything you may wait a long time and lose a lot of biodiversity.  I have had too much field experience to think that exotic plants can provide the sustenance that natives do.

I expect you will be unhappy with this response.”

On May 2, 2019, Art Shapiro replies:

“If Tallamy said “90% of the plant-eating insects that I have studied…”  or “90% of the plant-eating insects that have been studied in Delaware…” or some such formulation I might take him more seriously. The phenomenon of “ecological fitting,” as described by Dan Janzen, is widespread if not ubiquitous. “Ecological fitting” occurs when two species with no history of coevolution or even sympatry (co-occurrence) are thrown together and “click.”  A.J.Thorsteinson summed up some 60 years ago what is needed for an insect to switch onto a new host plant: the new plant must be nutritionally adequate, possess the requisite chemical signals to trigger egg-laying and feeding, not possess any repellents or antifeedants and not be toxic. That set of circumstances is met very frequently. To those of us who study it, it seems to happen every other Tuesday.  As we showed, the urban-suburban California butterfly fauna is now overwhelmingly dependent on non-native plants. The weedy mallows (Malva) and annual vetches (Vicia) are fed upon by multiple native butterfly species and are overall the most important butterfly hosts in urban lowland California. . Within the past decade, our Variable Checkerspot has begun breeding spontaneously and successfully on Butterfly Bush (Buddleia davidii). The chemical bridge allowing this is iridoid glycosides. When I was still back East I published that the Wild Indigo Dusky Wing skipper, Erynnis baptisiae, had switched onto the naturalized European crown vetch (Coronilla varia) which had converted it from a scarce and local pine-barrens endemic to a widespread and common species breeding on freeway embankments. And the hitherto obscure skipper Poanes viator, the Broad-Winged Skipper, went from being a rare and local wetland species best collected from a boat to becoming the most abundant early-summer butterfly in the New York metropolitan area by switching from emergent aquatic grasses and sedges to the naturalized Mesopotamian strain of Common Reed, Phragmites australis. I can go on, and on, and on. If you find a sponsor for me to give a lecture about this in the Bay Area, I’ll gladly do it. If you promise to come!

I won’t snow you under with pdfs. Here’s just one, a serendipitous one that resulted from my walking near Ohlone Park in Berkeley. And one from the high Andes in Argentina. That paper cites one of mine in Spanish demonstrating that the southernmost butterfly fauna in the world, in Tierra del Fuego and on the mainland shore of the Straits of Magellan, is breeding successfully on exotic weeds.-! Copy on request.”

On May 2, 2019, Jake Sigg published his last reply:

“I believe many of your statements, Art, and many of these cases I am familiar with.  A conspicuous local example is the native Anise Swallowtail butterfly that still lays eggs on native members of the Umbelliferae, the parsley family, but which also breeds on the exotic fennel, which is an extremely aggressive weed that in only a few years can transform a healthy and diverse grassland supporting much wildlife into a plant monoculture—that, btw, won’t even support the butterfly, which shuns laying eggs where its larval food plant is too numerous and easy target for a predator, like yellow jackets.

What puzzles me is why you can keep your equanimity at the prospect of losing acres of very diverse habitat to a monoculture of fennel.  You live in the heart of the world’s breadbasket where for hundreds of miles both north and south there are almost no native plants except those planted by humans.  That would tend to distort one’s view.  I don’t mean to be flip, but it is not normal for even an academic to be indifferent about a loss of this magnitude.  I have worked hands-on on the land (I was raised on a ranch) all my life and still work every Wednesday maintaining our natural habitat in San Francisco—a task that hundreds of citizens pitch in on because they value the quality and diversity of the areas.  And why do you remain indifferent, are you just a contrarian?  You cite examples to bolster your view, but the examples are too small a percentage to be meaningful and wouldn’t stand up against a representative presentation.

I got my view from life.  I type this in my second-floor sunroom, which looks into a coast live oak growing from an acorn I planted in the late 1960s, about 50 years ago and which is immediately on the other side of the window.  It is alive with birds of many different species—flocks of bushtits, chickadees, juncos every day (plus individuals of other species), which species-number balloons in the migratory season.  What I can’t figure out is how the tree can be so productive as to stand up to this constant raiding.  I will take instances of this sort as my guide rather than the product of academic lucubrations.  And I will throw in Doug Tallamy; the world he portrays is one I recognize and love.

I think our battle lines are drawn.  This discussion could go on, as we have not even scratched the surface of a deep and complex subject.  But will either of us change our minds?  No.”

“Jake Sigg:  N.B.  Art responded with another long epistle, not for posting.  It clarified some of the points that were contentious and seemed to divide us.  We differ, but not as much as would appear from the above discussion.”


(1) “A four-component classification of uncertainties in biological invasions: implications for management,” G. LATOMBE , S. CANAVAN, H. HIRSCH,1 C. HUI, S. KUMSCHICK,1,3 M. M. NSIKANI, L. J. POTGIETER, T. B. ROBINSON, W.-C. SAUL, S. C. TURNER, J. R. U. WILSON,  F. A. YANNELLI, AND D. M. RICHARDSON, Ecosphere, April 2019.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Pam Walatka permalink
    May 4, 2019 9:36 am

    Thanks 

    pamwalatka.com

  2. May 5, 2019 10:57 pm

    Thanks for this interesting discussion between a professor of well-deserved international fame and Jake Sigg, whose reputation as an expert far exceeds his knowledge.

Trackbacks

  1. Refuting Jake Sigg: No, 90% of Insects Do Not Eat Only Native Plants | San Francisco Forest Alliance

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