Monarch butterflies are in trouble. Once they fluttered across North America by the billions. But in the last 20 years, we’ve lost 90 percent of the continent’s population.
It’s not just the monarch, of course. Many other creatures have declined in the face of similar threats — habitat loss, climate change and more. But the monarch is an important indicator for many species — plus the health of our American landscape.
According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the monarch’s decline points to larger environmental problems that also threaten food production, natural wonders and our own health. Likewise, efforts to preserve the monarch population benefit many other plants and animals — humans, too.
That’s why Kristin Siewert, Central College lecturer of biology, is connecting students to the monarch conservation movement. Students are participating in multiple research and service-learning opportunities to protect monarchs, enrich their education and discover the difference they can make.
The Monarch’s Downfall
Monarch butterflies are utterly dependent on milkweed. It’s their food source, their resting place, the only place to lay their eggs. But countless milkweed habitats have been destroyed in the United States’ Corn Belt region, where most monarchs are born, through nearly universal adoption of genetically engineered crop systems, herbicides and pesticides. Logging, land development and climate change have also helped eliminate milkweed.
The plant has an unfortunate name, observes senior Collin Strickland, a biology and environmental studies major participating in several of Central’s monarch projects. “It’s not a weed — it’s a really beneficial plant. There are several species, and butterfly milkweed has such a gorgeous flower.”
A National Icon
Besides serving as portents of environmental change, monarchs are famous for their eye-catching splendor. Millions of Americans have raised monarchs in grade school classrooms, learning about metamorphosis, mimicry and many other biology concepts while watching their caterpillars become black-and- orange beauties.
“Monarchs help get people excited about conservation,” Siewert says. “They’re an exciting species for kids — a lot of adults remember that.”
Return of the Milkweed
Saving monarchs means restoring America’s milkweed, Siewert says. This objective is included in President Obama’s national strategy for protecting honey bees and other pollinators. One of the proposals involves lining Interstate 35 with milkweed and other habitat plants, making a highway for monarchs on their way from Mexico to Canada.
“As a nation, we’re trying hard,” Siewert says. “The monarch itself is important, but it stands for much more. This is eco-system level restoration.”
In Iowa, the heart of the monarchs’ flyway, Central students have many opportunities to conduct research and help restore lost habitats. Their first link to the monarch movement came when Siewert connected with The Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium. The consortium, established by Iowa State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, investigates monarchs’ use of nine milkweed species at sites throughout Iowa. With three study sites — one at Carlson-Kuyper Field Station and two at Pella Community High School — Central has the most research plots of any participating group.
Central students are helping collect three years of data to discover which milkweed species grow best — and which monarchs prefer. Pella High School students are also getting involved, making regular observations of plants, eggs, larva, caterpillars and butterflies.
Siewert says she was excited to get Central students involved with the consortium because she has a passion for restoration and engaging students in meaningful work. “This work is endearing to me personally because monarchs helped spark my passion for science at a young age,” Siewert says. “It will also help students develop contacts and partnerships, gain research experience, and participate in community outreach and education.”
Last year, Siewert and Strickland also studied monarchs’ preferred milkweed in the lab at Central. Strickland raised monarch larva and conducted tests with two plant species to learn the critters’ tastes, later presenting his results at the Undergraduate Research Symposium.
Rest Stop at Central
Iowa’s vast swaths of prairie may be gone forever, says Siewert, but monarchs can still survive if they have enough stepping stones to complete their migration. Milkweed can be planted in gardens, ditches, schoolyards, parking lots — any available space — and provide an oasis for monarchs on the move.
Many at Central helped create a monarch waystation in the organic garden, adding to thousands of registered milkweed habitats. Central’s project is certified by Monarch Watch and the University of Kansas as a valuable habitat site, and Central staff and faculty continue to strengthen it with additional milkweed and nectar plants.
Siewert hopes the waystation will become an exciting place for community members to observe monarchs and other pollinators. A monarch refuge also provides educational opportunities for local schools — and a wealth of research projects for Central biology students.
All Things Monarch
Several Central students volunteer their time with Siewert to support monarch conservation projects in other ways, too. Siewert hopes to increase student awareness of “all things monarch” through service-learning. In a recent project, students helped tag monarchs so researchers can track their survival en route to Mexico (besides the loss of milkweed, about 90 percent of monarchs die before reaching adulthood thanks to enemies like spiders, ants, wasps and other predators).
Students also recently collaborated with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, helping Siewert collect native milkweed seed and cultivate plants. Siewert says the group learned through this project just how severely milkweed has been reduced, searching for weeks to find mature milkweed pods. The group overwintered and germinated the native seed, then presented plants to the college for the Graham Center parking lot and other campus locations, alumni who attended Green Drinks and Pella community members for private gardens.
Strickland hopes people who love monarchs will be motivated to avoid using pesticides and herbicides — and plant milkweed. “It would be cool to see them make a comeback. I’d like to see more monarchs around and loving life — they’re beautiful,” he says. “It’s like the bald eagle in a way.”
Bumper Crop of Butterflies
Monarchs are also beloved in Mexico, where they make a spectacular entrance in early November while Mexico celebrates Day of the Dead. Last winter, researchers celebrated monarchs’ largest overwintering population in five years — an encouraging reversal of many years’ decline. As the spring migration began, however, a deadly winter storm killed millions of the butterflies still in Mexico.
In 1983, the monarch migration was listed as an “endangered phenomenon” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. It’s difficult to protect monarchs in the same ways as endangered species, Siewert says, because they migrate across such a vast area. The monarch’s essential habitat stretches from Canada to Mexico.
The journey, as long as 3,000 miles, requires several generations of monarchs to complete, since most of the butterflies live only three to four weeks. One special, migratory generation is born late each summer and lives eight months, flying all the way back to Mexico. These winter in native forests, semi-dormant until warm spring winds draw them north again. No one knows how the monarchs do it. New generations of butterflies find their way to the same places at the same time each year — the first time for each generation completing the journey.
Despite the challenges of protecting a species that migrates 3,000 miles, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is reviewing a legal petition filed by The Center for Biological Diversity and Center for Food Safety, in conjunction with the Xerces Society and Lincoln Brower in 2014 seeking protection for the monarch under the Endangered Species Act.
Siewert, students and many more are working toward another good year for the monarch — and another, and another. “And if the monarch is having a good year,” Strickland recalls, “it’s a good year for other plants and animals, too.”