LIFE IN EASTERN IOWA

Take Wing: Helping monarch butterflies and other pollinators survive in a changing world

A monarch butterfly feeds on a hydrangea blossom at the home of Carol Elliott in Cedar Rapids on Friday, June 23, 2017.
A monarch butterfly feeds on a hydrangea blossom at the home of Carol Elliott in Cedar Rapids on Friday, June 23, 2017. Elliott is one of the homes featured on this year’s garden tour hosted by the Linn County Master Gardners. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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Mike Martin and others with Linn County’s Monarch Research Project are making great strides in restoring pollinator habitat, part of a global effort to save the colorful butterfly.

“The monarch is the insect that is basically setting off the alarm that there is a concern, not just with the monarch, but other pollinators alike,” Martin said.

“With the reduction in habitat, the effects this has on pollinators can be traumatic. Native bees are being restricted as are other insects. We know that every third bite of food we take as humans is impacted by pollinators ... If we don’t do something now, then who?”

Martin, 63, is retired and volunteers his time as the operations manager for the Monarch Research Project. The non-profit, based in Marion, was founded by Clark McLeod, Cam Watts and a group of core volunteers and supporters.

After working in the business world for years, Martin returned to Kirkwood Community College as an older, nontraditional student to earn a degree in horticulture. He worked as Kirkwood’s grounds department manager before retiring in 2017.

As a Master Gardener, he became acquainted with the Monarch Research Group by helping make hundreds of milkweed plugs — seedlings that can be planted in backyards or fields.

“I’ve seen the reduction of native habitat throughout Iowa and the Midwest,” Martin said. “Knowing the impact of such losses, I wanted to do whatever I could to help make a difference.”

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Martin describes native habitat as the plants that insects live, feed and grow on. Different insects require specific host plants for rearing their young.

Monarch butterflies, for example, lay their eggs on milkweed. The hatching caterpillars feed on milkweed leaves before transforming into the next generation of monarch butterflies. The drastic reduction in the number of milkweeds in roadside ditches and fields has made it harder for monarchs to survive.

An easy way to note the stark loss of pollinators in recent years, Martin said, is to look at your car’s windshield.

“Back in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when our parents would drive from point A to B, you definitely wanted to make sure you had windshield fluid in the reservoir,” he said. “Not only was your windshield covered, but the front grill of your car, the headlights, would be covered with insects. When you drive nowadays, you don’t have that problem.

“It’s been years since I’ve seen the monarch the way I used to.”

The Monarch Research Project estimates the Midwestern population of monarchs has decreased by more than 90 percent over the past 20 years. And the Center for Biological Diversity estimates 165 million acres of habitat — an area the size of Texas — has been lost in that time.

To help pollinators locally, the Monarch Research Project has planted more than 177 ditch miles of new pollinator habitat in Linn County.

“In addition, to date we’ve worked with public and private Linn County landowners, increasing new pollinator habitat by 802 acres toward our 1,000-acre goal,” Martin said. “We continue to see an increase in private property owners stepping forward to help make a difference with their own pollinator zones.”

Pollinators, he said, need help from community leaders, farmers and homeowners in Linn County to create native habitat on public and private lands.

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“The work that you’re doing is going to have an impact on nature,” Martin said. “Not necessarily immediately — but over time it helps.”

Learn more about future Monarch Research Project programs and monarch release events at MonarchResearch.org

How you can help

For those interested in creating their own pollinator habitat for butterflies, bees and other pollinators, Mike Martin from the Monarch Research Project offers these five tips:

1. Plan and do research before planting.

Make sure you know your planting zone, the characteristics of your planting area, and the light, soil and moisture requirements of the plants you buy. If you’re unsure of where to start, contact the Master Gardeners at your county extension office. The Linn County Master Gardeners Hortline is (319) 447-0647. Local garden center staff also can answer questions. Lots of information is on the internet, but be sure your research is specific to Iowa and the Midwest.

2. Buy plants free of neonicotinoids.

Before you buy any pollinator plants, verify they are pest free and free of neonicotinoids, a type of insecticide. Ask your supplier if they use or if their supplier uses any pesticides for control of problem insects. If they say yes or are uncertain, move on and find a supplier that is neonicotinoid free.

3. Don’t limit yourself to an in-ground garden.

If you live in an apartment, condo or assisted-living community that has a balcony or patio, you can create your own monarch/pollinator zone with plants in containers or pots. If you have a site to plant, start small, be creative and check with your neighbors to see what is working for them.

4. Plant for year-round interest.

You can turn your space into a living/giving habitat, benefiting both you and the pollinators. Choose a diverse variety of native plants for pollinator food, as well as those pleasing to your design aesthetic. By choosing plants with a continuous succession of blooms, you will draw in pollinators the entire growing season.

5. Have fun with a variety of native host plants.

Learn which plants are preferred by the pollinators you’d like to attract. By planting host plants, you’ll experience the life cycle of pollinators and help make a difference, not only in their lives but yours, too.

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