Butterflies during the day, moths at night: Multi-species narratives unfolding

Image of brown veined white butterfly - they mirgrate form South Africa's West Coast to Madagascar. Image from :https://littleashcloud.wordpress.com/2014/07/23/the-butterflies-of-beyers-naude-drive/

Image of brown veined white butterfly – they mirgrate form South Africa’s West Coast to Madagascar. Image from :https://littleashcloud.wordpress.com/2014/07/23/the-butterflies-of-beyers-naude-drive/

For this post I wanted to reflect on how a multi-species lens became a powerful tool for collecting narratives about socio-ecological relationships in different maize agri/cultures on our past group trip to KwaZulu Natal. We found that asking different people questions about insects opened up the space for interesting narratives to unfold about the different systems of agriculture we are looking at. One of the insects I am particularly interested in gathering information about is the corn borer  (also known as stalk borer) as these insects, which can severely affect the success of maize crops, have been protagonists in the development of maize crop science and a focus of much research and technological development. However there are of course many more species that are important to look at throughout the system.

On arriving in KwaZulu Natal we noticed strings of white butterflies flying overhead.  When we asked some of the farmers on one of the agro-ecological farms we visited about these, they told us that these butterflies signaled a “bad crop to come”. This is because for the farmers, they indicated the possible onset of a stem borer infestation.

On returning from KZN, we talked about the white butterflies with an entomologist who has worked for decades in maize agriculture research in KwaZulu Natal. We told him about how farmers we had spoken to had told us that these butterflies signaled the possible onset of a stalk borer infestation. He thought about it and then suggested that the white butterflies signaling the corn borer was perhaps a “half-truth”. He said that it was not the butterflies that laid the eggs of the corn borer but rather a small brown moth. However, these two species, the butterfly and the moth hatched at the same time of year and that while the moth laid the eggs that became the stem borer, the butterfly in a sense signaled the time of year and conditions that sustained the borer. He suggested that while the butterflies fly by day and the moths by night, farmers often see the butterflies while less frequently encountering the moths who come under the cover of darkness.

Over the period of the trip we asked a number of farmers we met about how they have dealt with stem borer in the past and how they deal with it now.  This opened up the space for dialogue and created narrative material for thinking about some of the contrasts between an agri-science approach (using pesticides or Bt maize which some of the farmers have now adopted) and an approach embedded in the landscapes and traditions of the places we visited. Traditional approaches included techniques such as using ash or soil to fill the holes in between the leaves of newly emerged corn to stop insects getting into the stem, as well as hand picking the caterpillars off the plants. However, these practices often also included an important social element. For example, one group of women farmers told us about how when they were younger, if there were corn borers in their maize fields, then younger (maiden) women would be sent into the field to pick off the caterpillars and would then throw them in the river. There the young men would meet them and they would act out a staged battle between men and women. In another account, we were told that young women would run into the fields and shout insults and then gather the caterpillars. While at this point in the research I have not yet spent enough time in the field to ask and understand more about the origins and meanings of these traditions, what they point to is the complex socio-ecological relationships that exist in agricultural practice. Furthermore, it points to what is at risk of being lost when new types of seed and technologies replace older ones. It will be interesting to further explore such multi-species perspectives and relationships during my fieldwork to come.

stem borer at night

Image: Stem borer at night Source: https://extension.umaine.edu/ipm/ipddl/publications/5101e/