A dialogue about insects and non-native plants

We received a comment on our “Wildlife” page from “entomologist” that deserves a comprehensive response. 

 Conversation with “entomologist”

 “entomologist:”  “Adaptation to exotic species by specialist herbivores is unusual.  Those butterflies that switch to exotics tend to be generalists already.”  

Webmaster:  “Entomologist” is mistaken that the butterflies now using non-native plants are generalists, by which we assume he means that they use many plants, rather than a specific species.  According to Professor Art Shapiro (UC Davis), 26 of the 82 species of California butterflies now feeding on exotic plant species, are using only one plant species.  In other words, nearly one-third of California butterflies presently using exotic plant species are not generalists.(1)  When butterflies have made the transition from a native to a non-native plant, the plants are usually chemically similar. 

Anise Swallowtail, Sutro Forest
Anise Swallowtail, Sutro Forest, March 2010

The Anise Swallowtail is a conspicuous example of a California butterfly that is now dependent upon a particular exotic plant, fennel. This relationship between a specific native insect and a specific non-native plant is one of the reasons why the Million Trees blog was created.  Non-native fennel is being eradicated by every native plant “restoration” in the Bay Area.   

Over ten years ago, a park advocate in San Francisco became enraged by the eradication of fennel in his park because he was aware of the dependence of the Anise Swallowtail upon the fennel.  He made every effort to convince the so-called Natural Areas Program to stop destroying the fennel in his park.  He enlisted the help of Professor Art Shapiro in that effort. His efforts were ultimately unsuccessful.  The Natural Areas Program considered the non-native origins of the fennel sufficient reason to eradicate it, regardless of the needs of a native butterfly.  They continue those eradication efforts to this day. 

It is such mindless destruction of non-native plants, regardless of their benefit to fauna (or other benefits) that has made the Natural Areas Program so unpopular with people with a broader view of nature. We value the Anise Swallowtail butterfly as much as any theoretical benefit from eradicating a non-native plant.

“entomologist:”  “This idea that exotic plants are as good for wildlife as natives is just plain pathetic, especially for anyone who knows about herbivory  patterns on native and exotic plants.”

Webmaster:  By “pathetic” we assume “entomologist” means that he does not believe that insects eat non-native plants.  He is mistaken that insects do not eat non-native plants.  Returning to Professor Shapiro, he reports that 82 of 236 (35%) total species of California butterflies feed on non-native plants

Professor Dov Sax (Brown University) compared insects living in the leaf litter of the non-native eucalyptus forest with those living in the native oak-bay woodland in Berkeley, California.  He found significantly more species of insects in the leaf litter of the eucalyptus forest in the spring and equal numbers in the fall.(2)  Professor Sax also reports the results of many similar studies all over the world that reach the same conclusion.

The California Academy of Sciences finds that several years after planting its roof with native plants, it is now dominated by non-native species of plants in the two quadrants that are not being weeded, replanted and reseeded with natives.  Their monitoring project recently reported that there were an equal number of insects found in the quadrants dominated by native plants and those dominated by non-native plants. 

Damselflies (probably Common Blue) mating on non-native ivy in Glen Canyon Park.

We also use our eyes when we walk in our parks.  We often find insects in non-native plants.  Those non-native plants are often targets for eradication.  The damselflies in a San Francisco park are another example of the contradictory strategies of the Natural Areas Program.  They have made several attempts to reintroduce the rare Forktailed Damselfly to one of the parks in San Francisco.  Although those attempts have not been successful, we see other species of damselflies in that park, using the non-native plants that are repeatedly sprayed with herbicides by the Natural Areas Program.  We wonder if the herbicide use in that park is contributing to the failure of attempts to reintroduce the Forktailed Damselfly. Does the right hand know what the left hand is doing?

“entomologist:”  “Insects eating plants are at the base of the food chain and native plants have more insect herbivores and support more native birds.”

Webmaster:  We can agree that many birds eat insects and those that do are likely to benefit from greater populations of insects.  But, there is substantial evidence that insects are as likely to be found in non-native plants as in native plants and we trust that the birds know where to find them.  However, unlike “entomologist” we are as interested in the welfare of non-native birds as we are in native birds. 

“entomologist:”  “Doug Tallamy’s work shows this in the eastern US conclusively.”

Webmaster:  Professor Tallamy’s (University of Delaware) publications do not seem to be available on-line, which prevents us from reading his publications.  However, since he studies the insects on the east coast we don’t think whatever he reports trumps the studies that we have cited of insect populations here in the Bay Area. 

“entomologist:”     “I certainly feel for the loss of trees, but the alternative is that we accept a homogenized set of urban-tolerant plants and wildlife.  Maybe that’s ok if you don’t know the difference, but for those of us who actually pay attention it is profoundly sad.”

Webmaster:   We don’t see the logic of “entomologist’s” vision of a “homogenized” ecology.  If we destroy non-native plants and animals, our ecology will be less diverse.  And we hope that the readers of Million Trees will agree that we are, indeed, “paying attention.” 

 The Big Picture

 We suggest that “entomologist” and other native plant advocates step back from their deeply-seated prejudices against non-native plants and consider the big picture.  The fact is that insects are particularly vulnerable to climate change because they live in relatively narrow temperature ranges. (3) Although they are adjusting well to changes in vegetation, they are not likely to be able to make an equally successful adjustment to changes in temperatures.  Therefore, if our top priority is insects, we would be wise to reconsider destroying millions of non-native trees that are sequestering millions of tons of carbon, contributing to greenhouse gases and thereby to climate change.    


(1) Arthur M. Shapiro, “Exotics as host plants of the California butterfly fauna,” Biological Conservation, 110, 413-433, 2003

(2) Dov Sax. “Equal diversity in disparate species assemblages:  a comparison of native and exotic woodlands in California,” Global Ecology and Biogeography, 11, 49-52, 2002.

(3) “Mountain plant communities moving down despite climate change, study finds,” Los Angeles Times, 1/24/11