Book Review and Reflection: Monarchs and Milkweed

Today, I am taking the easy way out to post to my blog. However, it does not mean my post does not have value, it just means I’m trying to save myself some time, as I have other writing projects to attend to.

The following is a reflection paper (book review) I wrote during my last semester in graduate school (2018) for a Master’s degree in Natural Resources with a focus in Environmental Education and Interpretation. The assignment was part of our final graduate seminar, taken as part of the formal curriculum and had a specific structure that was to be followed.

However, despite that structure, I hope you read with interest this book review and then obtain a copy of the book to read. I’ve recommended it to several like-minded individuals over the past three years. If you truly want to understand the complex relationship between these two species – one plant and one insect, you need to read this book. One warning: it is filled with complex chemistry and research – but the writing itself is accessible, even without the background in those subjects.

Large, 5th instar monarch larva at Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah Iowa, © Carol Labuzzetta, 2018.

A Review of Monarchs and Milkweed by Anurag Agrawal (2017)

To my family, it appears that I devoured this book like a monarch caterpillar devours a milkweed leaf! Almost every person I had contact with in the last six weeks has been told some recounted story from this text. I know that each of these people also heard my passion as I exclaimed they must read about the fascinating co-evolution of two species and the field of chemical ecology that virtually no one knows exists. Surely, I did not know of the field until reading Agrawal’s account in his book. Nearly every page was marked with a post-it filled with my reactions which included surprise, shock, satisfaction, wonder, amusement, inspiration, awe, questioning, and desire. In short, I wish I was one of the fifty living environmental conservationists, biologists, or chemical ecologists studying the monarch butterfly today. My supportive husband’s answer to that musing was, “well, why can’t you be?” My grossly inadequate answer to him was stating my age, which might be true but also erroneous or irrelevant. However, like a monarch in the fall, there is only so much time to get where one is going. Instead, I must be content with being a passionate, self-taught, monarch conservationist and citizen scientist who has contributed data for the last twelve years [as of 2018] to some of the very studies mentioned in this book. It is who I am, and also makes me largely mis-understood by friends and well as strangers, as I was so unfortunately reminded this past week. In short, however, I strongly feel that one does not have to have a degree to be conservationist, ecologist, or do important work to help a species in decline or the environment itself. You just need passion, and that is something I know I have for both monarchs and milkweed!

What did I find to be the most influential aspects of the book? One of the most influential aspects of Monarchs and Milkweed is the accessibility of the story that is told. Agrawal could have easily chosen to tell less of a story and focus more on the science. Instead, they are woven gently but intricately together so that one comes away with the theme of the chapter even though the technical aspects of the scientific study might not be truly understood by all that read the book. This will help me, as I am writing my own research or pursue other research based activities, to always consider how accessible the information is to the reader. There needs to be a “story” or reason why or person behind the facts that make them come to life for the reader. Agrawal does this exceptionally well.

Another amazingly influential part of the book comes at the very end. Agrawal boldly makes claims against the popular thought of what is driving monarch population decline. Sharing this hypothesis was an extremely brave act. Agrawal believes that milkweed availability (or lack thereof) is NOT the reason for the monarchs’ decline. He is really “bucking” the system here as it makes him possibly adversarial towards other researchers in the field that disagree with him. This leads me to be more open to different ideas, ways of conserving, and supports one’s need (especially as a researcher) to keep questioning. Although, I do not agree with him, I applaud his effort and brave stance.

One other remarkable aspect of this book is the status of monarch butterflies being nothing but a pest! This was shocking to me and took some time for me to digest. Of course, the milkweed plant “sees” it this way, unable to appreciate the beauty of the monarch, which unquestionably, humans can note. To the milkweed, all aspects of the monarch life cycle are that of pests. The co-evolution of these two species is fascinating and made me think of how amazing nature can be. As far as my own practice, this just reinforces how important it is to use the “science of awe” in our teaching. I will make sure to continue to do so.

Book by Cornell University researcher, Anurag Agrawal (2017).

Research is interwoven throughout this book in an accessible and seamless fashion. Agrawal explains most research results in a matter of fact, down to earth, but still reverent kind of way. Agrawal uses the research of scientists as far back as the 1950’s to substantiate what is known about monarchs and milkweed individually, as well as their co-evolution. He uses the research to show (not just tell) that these species have been keeping pace with one another over the eons, and exactly how their chemistry and biology contributes to each species’ survival. There are classic studies offered, such as Brower’s “puking” blue bird and newer studies that he questions such as that of Dr. Karen Oberhauser’s documentation of the decline of milkweed in the mid-west. Agrawal does use some narrative accounts of his own, but makes sure the reader knows just that.

Personally, I felt that every page, story, and piece of research was important in this book for my own practice as a monarch conservationist and for my teaching as an environmental educator, especially if I move towards teaching more adults than children. The science behind the actions of the characters of both the monarchs and the milkweed helps one to understand their survival mechanisms better and gives rise to the reader rooting for both, not one over the other. The book gave me some fact-based research to back up what I might have been intuitively using in my own practice or in the encouragement of others in our work to save the monarch. I do believe the decline of the monarch population is a multi-factorial problem that will not only be solved with the planting of more milkweed. Research into monarchs and milkweed must (and will) continue. I will look to both Dr. Agrawal and Dr. Oberhauser to lead the way.

Monarch Larva on Common Milkweed. © Carol Labuzzetta, 2018.

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