116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
QUASQUETON — Monarch butterflies and their offspring have been scarce around here this summer.
“It’s been slow in most parts of Iowa,” said Cam Watts, co-founder of the Monarch Research Project in Marion.
As it does every year, the organization has hatched thousands of monarch eggs under controlled conditions for distribution to cooperating monarch stations throughout Linn County and beyond, including me. Yet, even though vast fields of milkweed and other native wildflowers surround the research station, they have attracted relatively few wild monarchs this year, Watts said.
Watts, who has been studying and raising monarchs for decades, called 2022 “one of the biggest slack years for monarchs that I can remember.”
Following a 35-percent overwintering population increase in the mountains of Mexico — from 2.1 hectares in 2020 to 2.84 hectares in 2021 — Iowa monarch enthusiasts looked forward to a productive summer.
But when the monarchs moved out of Mexico in February and completed the 800-mile journey north to their first major reproductive zone in Texas and Oklahoma, they met extreme heat and drought — conditions that shrunk the size of the generation that would eventually reproduce in Iowa.
“Texas is the key to Iowa’s summer monarch population, and the heat and drought hurt big time,” Watts said.
Conditions have been similarly gloomy in central Iowa, said Iowa State University biologist John Pleasants, a member of the Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium.
“Monarch numbers are way down this year,” said Pleasants, who regularly monitors two milkweed plots, each with about 150 plants.
Data from the Iowa Butterfly Survey Network, which includes 99 participants in 34 counties, provides a more optimistic picture of monarch numbers, according to Anita Westphal, a research technician at Iowa State University’s Reiman Gardens in Ames.
“Numbers were down at the beginning of the season, but they are looking pretty normal now,” she said Thursday.
Pleasants said this summer reminds him of 2012, when drought and high heat inhibited monarch activity and reproduction in Iowa and throughout the Midwest.
Following the 2012 drought, the overwintering population in Mexico plummeted to a then-record low of 1.19 hectares, down from 2.89 hectares the preceding winter.
Pleasants said he expects a significant decline in the number of monarchs in Mexico this winter — another blow to the insect listed last month as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
In the meantime, the monarchs’ comparatively rare visits to my milkweed make me appreciate their grace and beauty all the more.
I realize of course that the few monarchs I release from my rearing tent cannot begin to offset the negative impacts of climate change, habitat loss and the ever increasing use of herbicides and pesticides.
But, in my opinion, those who dismiss monarch rearing as a feel-good activity for the rearers underrate feeling good, which, as it was for Kris Kristofferson and Bobby McGee, is good enough for me.
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