Government

Project: More monarch habitat on the way to Cedar Rapids

Project headed by Cedar Rapids residents secures 20,000 milkweed plugs

A tagged monarch butterfly rests on a flower after being released in Marion on Monday, August 31, 2015. (Stephen Mally/T
A tagged monarch butterfly rests on a flower after being released in Marion on Monday, August 31, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — An effort to make Cedar Rapids a hub of monarch butterfly production continues to gain momentum.

The Monarch Research Project, headed by Cedar Rapids residents Clark McLeod and Cam Watts, has secured commitments for 20,000 common milkweed root plugs to be delivered for planting this spring.

“In a tented/protected environment, these plants will have the potential to produce huge rearing numbers (of monarch butterflies) not only next year but into the future,” McLeod said.

The plugs will be provided by Monarch Watch, the nation’s leading monarch conservation group, as part of its ongoing effort to restore habitat for monarchs and other pollinating insects.

In exchange, the Monarch Research Group will provide milkweed seed collected at Linn County and Cedar Rapids parks.

“This is the first time we have worked with an entire community, and it will be the largest-scale effort we’ve done with a single entity,” said Chip Taylor, founder and director of the University of Kansas-based organization.

McLeod said many of the milkweed plugs, which are quite expensive to buy from nurseries, will be provided at no cost to more than 25 Linn County organizations and individuals who have committed to raise monarchs in protected environments.

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Those cooperators, designated Monarch Zones, will raise butterflies through two growth cycles per season — mid-June through July and August through mid-September — and document their production as a means to track growth trends.

McLeod said cooperators will be encouraged to showcase the efforts to friends and neighbors to foster what he hopes will be geometric increases in the number of Linn County Monarch Zones.

The Monarch Research Group will host a pair of kickoff meetings for cooperators and others interested in helping to restore monarch populations on Wednesday at the Big Barn on Clearwater Farms, 4970 Lakeside Rd., Marion. They start at 5 and 6:30 p.m.

McLeod and Watts have been engaged this summer in developing a blueprint for efficient monarch production. Using tents of varying sizes, they have developed techniques to control the monarchs’ environment, provide for their needs, protect them from external threats and monitor their health and welfare.

In a natural setting, the percentage of monarch eggs that develop into mature butterflies is in the single digits, according to Iowa State University entomologist Nathan Brockman, who is consulting with Watts and McLeod.

In their experimental controlled environments, Watts and McLeod have achieved success rates of at least 50 percent and they hope to reach 95 percent.

They already have released hundreds of tent-reared monarchs, and plan to tag about 500 as they release them in the coming days.

The recovery of tags helps scientists determine which regions contribute the most adult butterflies to the annual fall migration to Mexico.

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The North American monarch population has shrunk dramatically, with some estimates putting today’s population at less than 5 percent of the continent’s estimated 1 billion monarchs 15 years ago.

Scientist attribute the decline to habitat destruction at the monarchs’ wintering site in Mexico and the widespread loss in U.S. agricultural regions of milkweed — the only plant upon which monarchs will lay eggs, the only plant upon which monarch larva will feed.

Noelridge Park in Cedar Rapids will become a showcase next year for the habitat required by monarchs and other pollinators, according to Monarch Research Group staff member Becki Lynch, a Linn County master gardener and president of Friends of Noelridge Park.

“Planting for pollinators” will be the theme next year at Noelridge, said Lynch, who will call upon her master gardener colleagues to help harvest milkweed seed pods this fall at city and county parks.

A hand-cranked machine to separate the seeds from the fluffy filaments that enable them to float on the breeze is under development, McLeod said.

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