Earlier this month, the Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium announced its goal for a set of acres devoted to monarch butterfly habitat in the state by 2038.
The updated “Iowa Monarch Conservation Strategy” seeks to establish approximately 480,000 to 830,000 acres of monarch habitat by 2038. This strategy, developed by the consortium members, guides the implementation and documentation of a voluntary, statewide conservation effort, based on the best available science. The consortium is a group of 40 organizations, including agricultural and conservation associations, agribusiness and utility companies, universities and county, state and federal agencies.
Nevada resident Anita Westphal, assistant curator of the Christina Reiman Butterfly Wing at Iowa State University, believes the state's initiative is a great plan, not only for monarchs, but for other butterflies and pollinators in general.
“Helping to insure that people consider the conservation of the monarchs important provides us with a stepping-off point to create a climate in which we can bolster support for conservation of other invertebrates species that are in decline,” Westphal said. “People need to realize that butterflies and other pollinators are needed to provide pollination of one-third of the crops that we consider important food sources.”
In her job at Reiman, Westphal is an entomologist responsible for helping to maintain the flight house, both the butterflies and plants within it, and she is also coordinator of the Iowa Butterfly Survey Network that was established at Reiman Gardens in 2006. “This is a citizen science project that uses volunteers from across the state to help monitor the state's butterfly populations on a yearly basis,” she explained.
Westphal shared that in Iowa, there are 120 species of butterflies, of which a little over a third are deemed “Species of Greatest Conservation Need.”
“Having an idea of what populations are doing from year-to-year is increasingly important. These surveys help us also track the monarchs as they come into the state in the early summer, and how their numbers look in the fall as the migration moves through the state,” she said.
Reiman Gardens and Iowa State are also part of the Monarch Zone project from the Linn County area. “We have worked with this project for several years now. We have a 12 x 12-foot bio-tent that we use for rearing monarch caterpillars in the summer; these are released as they emerge as adults to help boost the local populations or the migrating population. Last year, we released about 500 adults,” Westphal said, adding that Reiman also hosts a monarch-tagging workshop each fall to teach the community about monarchs and their migratory behaviors.
When it comes to community members who are into monarchs, two very passionate enthusiasts are Story Medical Center doctor of acupuncture Valerie Stallbaumer and her clinic office assistant, Karen Craft. They have attended some of the educational events at Reiman, finding it a way to connect to others who have the same interest.
“Karen is the most active and knowledgeable person in these efforts,” Stallbaumer said about their shared interest. “We grow a few varieties of milkweed around the parking lot of our clinic (located along Duff Avenue in Ames, behind Car-X). Karen gathers the eggs whenever she spots them. She takes them home to raise through their stages to become butterflies and gives some of the eggs to me.”
Stallbaumer said Craft has been educating many of their clients to plant more milkweed, “or to tell us where we can find more…,” she said. “Last year, Karen released 100 healthy monarch butterflies. I only released a dozen.”
Craft said her love of monarchs started early when she was a kid as a general love of all insects — especially bees and butterflies. “I raised many a black swallowtail caterpillar from my mother's yearly parsley crop, but only a few monarchs because mother didn't like to let milkweed grow in her garden.”
As an adult, Craft said, she hadn't raised any monarchs, thinking they were better off in the wild. Then she read an article, published in 2015, that stated less than 10 percent of monarch eggs survive to become butterflies, mainly due to predation from other insects. “Some research,” she added, “suggests the figure is closer to only 6 percent survival.”
She hit the Internet and found Tony Gomez and his “monarchbutterflygarden.com” website. “He lives in the Minneapolis area, so his gardening tips apply well to Iowa, too. He teaches people how to raise monarchs with a 90 percent survival rate.” She said he also sells supplies, like net caterpillar cages, that simplify the process.
“I released 67 monarchs the first summer I raised them. Last year, my 'cat' herd produced 100 healthy butterflies,” Craft said.
She refers to her summers as “one long Easter egg hunt!” “Collecting eggs reduces the chances of disease contamination… And during the winter, I miss the distinctive sound of caterpillars munching on milkweed inside the cages in my home office,” she said.
Craft has several varieties of milkweed growing in her gardens at her home. She wants people to know that there are kinds of milkweed that are not as invasive as the common milkweed traditionally hated by farmers and her mother. “I was surprised to learn that over a dozen milkweeds are native to Iowa. I also grow tropical milkweed in pots and planters to make it easy to pick up the whole plant to check the undersides of the leaves for eggs.”
Westphal, too, has multiple species of milkweed in her yard in Nevada. She said they provide host plants for monarchs; and she has other nectar plants as food for adult monarchs as well. “There are many great programs for the public to participate in that help not only the monarchs, but all pollinators, and the more involved people get, the better chances of making a difference in the future continuation of important species.”
Stallbaumer and Craft agree that they'd like to see more people involved and taking advantage of the programs offered.
“I just read an article in a science magazine that stated that scientists are gravely concerned about the future of the monarchs as a species,” Stallbaumer said. “At this time, there is a 13-51 percent chance that this butterfly can become extinct by 2020.” It's a low chance, she said, but that is a very soon date if it were to happen.
“I'm hoping the state of Iowa's efforts will not only boost the monarch population, but bring awareness to ecology in general,” Craft said.
She and and Stallbaumer both agree that indiscriminate pesticide use is a problem, along with the use of herbicides that kill off so much of the monarch caterpillars' food sources. Again, they look to education and getting more people involved. “Public education is critical and every gardener willing to grow milkweed helps the cause too,” Craft said.
“Each generation (of monarchs) has to have enough to eat,” Stallbaumer said, with emphasis on the word has. It is only one generation that flies south.”
To learn more about monarchs and to watch for opportunities to be educated about ways you can help, watch the Reiman Garden's website: www.reimangardens.com, under events.
Support butterfly safety and 4-H by buying a butterfly house
Predators are one of the most dangerous things to the lifespan of a butterly. To protect butterflies and to support the efforts of local 4-H members, local residents can purchase a butterfly house.
What is the cost of each house? A free-will donation that would go back into other projects that the 4-H'ers work on.
Eric Phipps of Nevada is one of the board members for Pheasants Forever and is also a parent of kids in 4-H. The butterfly houses were built last year by members of the Indian Creek Circles 4-H club, who also showed them as projects at the fair. “One of our board members asked Pheasants Forever to sponsor the materials (the houses are made of wood) and the club would put them together,” he said.
Pheasants Forever agreed.
Many different designs of butterfly houses are available, but the purpose of each is to allow butterflies to rest, away from predators, and, Phipps said, it hoepfully keeps larger amounts of butterflies in the area.
There are 10 houses available for purchase at this time. Call the Story County Extension office, 515-382-6551 to get a contact number for the 4-H group.
The 4-H'ers have also built houses for bluebirds, kestrels and bats. The houses can be placed anywhere by blooming plants. “Gardens in town are a great starting point,” Phipps said. “Place them adjacent to a garden about four feet off the ground.”