Before the snow melts and spring planting begins, now is a great time to start the prep work to plant habitat for monarch butterflies and other pollinators, experts say.
Early results from demonstration plots show that if you plant the monarch habitat, the butterflies will find it, says Dana Schweitzer, program coordinator for the Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium, based at Iowa State University (ISU).
“We see monarch butterflies in our demonstration plots (all across the state),” Schweitzer says. “We hope folks will consider adding more habitat plots this year.”
With their bright orange and black wings, monarch butterflies are some of the most recognizable — and adored — insects in Iowa.
However, the monarch butterfly population has declined by about 80 percent over the past 20 years, according to monarch counts in their winter habitat in Mexico.
Iowa is an important habitat zone for monarch butterflies, particularly in the summer, when they breed and feed on milkweeds and other pollinator-friendly plants and flowers, Schweitzer explains.
The Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium, launched in 2015, is a community-led initiative with a goal to enhance monarch butterfly habitat in the state through collaborative efforts of farmers, citizens and their organizations.
Partners in the consortium include ISU, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. The consortium also partners with conservation organizations, utility service providers, private colleges and agricultural organizations, including the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation.
Creating a win-win-win
Specifically, the Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium aims to create a “win-win-win” scenario, Schweitzer says.
The three “wins” are to achieve successful monarch conservation, to find flexible conservation strategies so landowners can choose what works best for their situation, and to keep the monarch butterfly off the U.S. Fish and Wild Service’s Endangered or Threatened Species list.
As one of its first actions, the consortium developed the Iowa Monarch Conservation Strategy. The strategy helps define what some of the best management practices are to manage monarch habitat, Schweitzer says.
The strategy also shares ideas on how landowners — working in all land-cover types — can get involved in the effort, Schweitzer says.
“That includes agricultural lands, urban and suburban land, rights-of-way and other public lands ...,” Schweitzer says. “It’s going to require all hands on deck in order for any effort that adds more (monarch) habitat into the landscape to actually have an impact for the species population.”
Benefits for farmers
Planting pollinator habitat offers many benefits to Iowa farmers and landowners, says Seth Appelgate, research agronomist for ISU’s monarch research team.
For one, pollinator habitat can beautify the landscape and, over time, reduce the time spent mowing grass, Appelgate says.
“Iowans love to mow. But think of all the time and money you spend on mowing. If we could stop mowing, and put in some prairie, it’s cheaper over the long run to establish diverse habitat than to mow,” Appelgate says.
If you’re a hunter or wildlife enthusiast, monarch habitat is also one of the best environments for quail and pheasants, Appelgate says.
In addition, monarch habitat benefits other pollinators, including the rusty patch bumble bee, which recently was added to the Endangered Species list, Appelgate explains.
Also, for landowners who want to re-enroll in the Conservation Reserve program (CRP), they may improve their chances of re-enrollment if they are willing to plant pollinator habitat, Appelgate says.
When farmers demonstrate that they are proactive and voluntarily working to enhance monarch butterfly habitat, it could help avoid more government oversight and regulation in the future, Appelgate notes.
“Remember, there are a lot of people who do care about monarchs, and they will tell you (that) you have to care too ...,” Appelgate says. “Then you could be told what to do, and it won’t be voluntary.”
Plots throughout Iowa
Currently, ISU researchers are studying 45 demonstration plots of pollinator habitat planted throughout the state to determine what works and what doesn’t when trying to support the monarch population, Schweitzer says.
So far, the researchers have identified which of the 18 different native species of milkweed in Iowa are most preferred by monarchs, she says. ISU researchers have also developed a pollinator seed mix
Much like winter cover crops, pollinator habitat is planted in the fall, Schweitzer says. However, the spring is a good time to start talking with conservation experts to determine the best locations and seed mixes for monarchs and other pollinators, she says.
Landowners are encouraged to contact their local USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office to learn more about pollinator habitat and possible cost-share dollars for planting.
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ private land biologists and Iowa Pheasants Forever are also good resources for landowners interested in learning more about pollinator habitat, Appelgate says.
Iowans are invited to attend one of the Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium’s field days across the state this year.
“There is an investment of time and money, just like there would be for anything you’re growing in the soil. So we want folks to be happy with the habitat they are putting on the ground,” Schweitzer says.
For a calendar of upcoming field days, and details on the Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium Strategy, visit https://monarch.ent.iastate.edu/.