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Monarch butterfly caterpillar not a 'bad-guy bug,' Ortho is told

David Snow was unhappy that two Ortho pesticides had images of the monarch butterfly caterpillar on their packaging despite the fact that it eats only milkweed.

July 10, 2012|By Louis Sahagun, Los Angeles Times
  • A monarch butterfly caterpillar sits on a milkweed plant at the home of David Snow in Thousand Oaks.
A monarch butterfly caterpillar sits on a milkweed plant at the home of David… (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)

As quests go, the one Thousand Oaks garden designer David Snow embarked on is a doozy.

For six months, Snow has devoted himself to saving the reputation of America's most beloved butterfly by getting the world's largest maker of pesticides to change its ways.

Specifically, Snow wants Ortho to change the labels on its "Bug-B-Gon" and "Flower, Fruit and Vegetable Insect Killer" so they no longer feature images of the striking monarch butterfly caterpillar under the ominous vow, "guaranteed results."

"This campaign isn't intended to bring peace to the world, heal the sick, end poverty or bring down Ortho," Snow said. "All I want really want to do is right a wrong."

Snow noticed the labels last winter and called the consumer complaint center at the company's Ohio headquarters in February. As he recalls, he said: "I'm sure I'm not the first person to call about this, but why'd you put a good-guy bug on your insect killer? It's like putting an innocent child's picture on aU.S. Post Office'Most Wanted' list."

The response: "Can I have the bar code of the product you're calling about, please?"

Snow, 52, hung up, but he was only getting started.

In the months since, he has become a chronic pest for Ortho and its parent firm, theScotts Co.LLC, filing formal complaints and urging others to do so on behalf of monarchs, whose numbers are rapidly dwindling. California's monarch population has fallen an estimated 80% over the last 15 years due to urbanization, drought, weed abatement programs and pesticides, said Scott Black, executive director of the nonprofit Xerces Society, a Portland, Ore.-based organization dedicated to conservation of invertebrates.

"It's a great effort on behalf of monarchs," Black said of Snow's work. "If people decide that these companies are too big to tackle nothing will get done. The labels in question only add another insult to injury for monarchs out there."

The caterpillars are about 2 3/4 inches long, with a pair of black antennae-like appendages at either end of a body ringed with black, yellow and white stripes. They spend most of their three weeks of existence munching on milkweed leaves — the only plant upon which the caterpillars feed, a fact that renders them harmless to home gardeners.

Snow has been something of an ambassador. He lectures frequently on the life cycles and benefits of the large, fragile orange-and-black insect scientists know as Danaus plexippus.

At Snow's home, the front and back yards are covered with potted stalks of milkweed, which he offers to clients interested in increasing the number of monarchs. On a recent weekday, he spent the morning tending waist-high plants laden with grazing caterpillars destined to metamorphose into butterflies within six weeks. Dozens of adults fluttered overhead.

Snow's rallying cry — emblazoned on family T-shirts, bumper stickers, coffee mugs and fence signs: Got Milkweed?

Snow said that all he wants is for the company to revise its labels, replacing the caterpillar with "a certified bad-guy bug."

Three weeks ago, with Ortho showing no signs it would change the labels, Snow took his campaign up a notch, posting a petition on the website change.org urging people to "force Ortho to acknowledge their mistake."

As of Monday however, the petition had attracted a modest 239 signatures.

The Times called Ortho for comment Thursday. Kokouvi Danklou, supervisor of the company's call center, gave The Times a measured response. "Everything about this case has been forwarded to our marketing team," Danklou said. But he added: "We consider this a very, very serious matter."

On Friday, Lance Latham, a spokesman for the Scotts Miracle-Gro Co., called The Times to say: "We're updating that label to ensure there is no confusion with the monarch butterfly caterpillars. Consumer concerns are something we always look into."

A few minutes later, a company official left a cheery message on Snow's business phone.

"Hi there, David," the official said. "I just want to let you know I followed up on your calls, and we're changing the labels. Thanks for letting us know about your concerns."

Score one for the butterfly.

louis.sahagun@latimes.com

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