Migratory insects use a variety of innate mechanisms to determine their orientation and maintain correct bearing. For long-distance migrants, such as the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus), these journeys could be affected by exposure to environmental contaminants. Neonicotinoids are synthetic insecticides that work by affecting the nervous system of insects, resulting in impairment of their mobility, cognitive performance, and other physiological and behavioural functions. To examine how neonicotinoids might affect the ability of monarch butterflies to maintain a proper directional orientation on their ∼4000 km migration, we grew swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) in soil that was either untreated (0 ng g−1: control) or mixed with low (15 ng g−1 of soil) or high (25 ng g−1 of soil) levels of the neonicotinoid clothianidin. Monarch caterpillars were raised on control or clothianidin-treated milkweed and, after pupation, either tested for orientation in a static flight simulator or radio-tracked in the wild during the autumn migration period. Despite clothianidin being detectable in milkweed tissue consumed by caterpillars, there was no evidence that clothianidin influenced the orientation, vector strength (i.e. concentration of direction data around the mean) or rate of travel of adult butterflies, nor was there evidence that morphological traits (i.e. mass and forewing length), testing time, wind speed or temperature impacted directionality. Although sample sizes for both flight simulator and radio-tracking tests were limited, our preliminary results suggest that clothianidin exposure during early caterpillar development does not affect the directed flight of adult migratory monarch butterflies or influence their orientation at the beginning of migration.

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