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Someday we might be able to mass produce monarch butterflies

On the wing

A monarch butterfly in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, July 23, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
A monarch butterfly in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, July 23, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Two local researchers are cranking out thousands of monarch butterflies this summer as they develop husbandry techniques they hope will, when replicated on a grand scale, turn around the frightening population decline of the continent’s favorite insect.

“We believe the techniques will be simple and inexpensive to deploy, allowing thousands of individuals and communities across the country to become the ultimate vehicle that will restore the monarch populations,” Clark McLeod said.

McLeod and Cam Watts, both of Cedar Rapids, have been engaged full time for the past two months in developing a blueprint for efficient monarch production.

Watts, a lifelong monarch rearing hobbyist, said their research focuses on ways to control the monarchs’ environment, provide for their needs, protect them from external threats and monitor their health and welfare.

“We have learned a lot, but we have a lot left to learn,” said McLeod, the telecommunications pioneer who founded Teleconnect and McLeod USA.

“We are working hard to produce solid research yet this year. We think we can take it to the next level — getting a production blueprint out to the public — next year,” he said.

Iowa State University entomologist Nathan Brockman, who is consulting with Watts and McLeod, said 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.

“We are at a tipping point. When you see a monarch now it is a rarity,” McLeod said.

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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.

McLeod has at least 5,000 milkweed plants on his property, most of which grew spontaneously after he quit mowing meadows for hay. That milkweed and the wild butterflies it attracts provide McLeod and Watts with the raw material for their research.

While many agencies, organizations and individuals are engaged in increasing stocks of milkweed, as exemplified by President Barack Obama’s recent announcement of a plan to restore pollinator-friendly vegetation on 7 million federal acres, Watts said their research focuses on how to maximize monarch production in protected environments.

In the rather precarious natural world, the percentage of monarch eggs that develop into mature butterflies “is surely in the single digits,” Brockman said.

In the BioTents under development by McLeod and Watts, initial results indicate at least a 50 percent success rate, and the researchers hope to achieve 95 percent with additional refinements.

Their first BioTent consisted of a four-by-eight-foot plastic enclosure set atop a dense stand of milkweeds in one of McLeod’s fields. They introduced a few adult butterflies, which dined on sweetened liquid and mated before the females began laying eggs on the milkweed.

Before long the tent was crawling with hundreds of caterpillars, which fed on the milkweeds, grew through five-skin-shedding stages of development, formed chrysalises and emerged as adults.

“Our initial assessment is that we lost too many caterpillars through overcrowding. We’d have had more throughput if we’d thinned out the cats,” McLeod said.

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BioTent 2, populated Thursday with adult butterflies, sits atop 48 milkweed plants, which will be supplemented with cut milkweeds as needed to meet the caterpillars’ nutrition needs. The researchers will limit the caterpillar population to a range of 200 to 300 and transplant any caterpillars that exceed the target.

BioTent 3, populated this past Wednesday, incorporates potted milkweed to be supplemented as needed with cut milkweed, as well as potted flowering nectar plants to nourish the adult butterflies.

When they are satisfied with their production rates, the researchers will post instructions for replicating “the little butterfly factories” on a yet-to-be-developed website.

“You could establish a BioTent in your backyard and make hundreds of monarchs in a summer,” McLeod said.

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