Local lessons bring focus to national pollinator efforts

Wednesday, October 11, 2017
Families of all shapes and sizes held their assigned butterflies gingerly as they applied a unique ID tag to the insects’ wings and set them free. The numbers will be used to track the butterflies online as they migrate. Youngsters made pollinator-themed crafts, played games, listened to presentations, watched demonstrations and received treats from the festival’s mascot, Sweetie the Bee. The Bee and Butterfly Festival is aimed at educating the public about pollinators and the important role they play in nature./ Photo by Seth Boyes

The gray skies got a few splashes of orange and black on Sept. 1, during the Dickinson County Nature Center’s Bee and Butterfly Festival. Members of the public released hundreds of monarch butterflies into the open air after tagging the insects with identification numbers.

The monarch tagging is perhaps the hallmark of the nature center’s annual festival, but the day included crafts, games, vendors, food and presentations from various experts on the natural world.

“The main goal of the Bee and Butterfly Festival is to educate the community members, both young and old, on the importance of pollinators,” Bryanna Kuhlman, environmental education coordinator at the nature center, said.

Kuhlman said the community learned about the population decline of species like the monarch butterfly and the importance of pollinators to the environment. She said the festival’s fun and exciting atmosphere creates a less formal way to educate the public. She estimated 850 people attended this year and said most participated in at least one of the festival’s scheduled presentations or activities.

The butterfly tagging continued to be a crowd favorite this year.

Children stayed in step with adults as they formed a line through the nature center’s exhibit space, soon after the doors opened. Visitors slowly made their way to the board room, where the long, wooden table had been replaced by a butterfly tent. Volunteers ushered small groups into the tent and helped them tag their assigned butterflies with a unique identification number before releasing them into the wild. The tags will be used to identify and track the butterflies along their migration path.

Volunteers said they weren’t sure if there would be many monarch butterflies at this year’s Bee and Butterfly Festival. The black and orange insects had reportedly been scarce in the fields leading up to the event, but seemingly sprung up in the clover a few days prior to the celebration. Volunteers estimated 450 monarch butterflies were captured and brought inside to be tagged.

Anita Westphal, a butterfly wing assistant at Iowa State University’s Reiman Gardens, said butterflies are more easily seen and easier to track than many insects. She said tracking butterfly populations gives researchers a reasonable indication of how other important pollinating insects are faring.

“Pollinators are very important to our survival,” Westphal said. “They’re the very bottom of the food chain.”

She estimated a third of the fruits and vegetables humans consume would not exist without pollinators. She said natural events, like flooding, can destroy pollinators’ habitat and cause populations to drop. Other causes are man-made. She said changes in agricultural practices are some of the most visible causes in Iowa.

Many rural landowners have chosen to mow their ditches, rather than maintain the natural vegetation that feeds and shelters pollinators, according to Westphal. The same can be said for residential landowners.

“Everybody wants a perfect, green lawn,” she said. “That’s fine, but a perfect, green lawn does nothing for butterflies.”

She said many homeowners are unaware of the impact their actions have on pollinators. Some will attempt to keep their gardens pristine by killing a pestilent species with insecticides, believing the chemical is taylor-made to target a single species. However, many kill both the pest and the pollinator, according to Westphal.

“Insecticides are broad,” Westphal said. “There are no insecticides that only kill one species.”

In Iowa, approximately 35 percent of the butterfly species have dwindled to a population that is of concern, according to Westphal. The Dakota skipper, an Iowa species, is listed as federally threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Westphal said the Poweshiek skipperling, which shares its name with an Iowa county, is listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and has not been seen in the state for years, according to Westphal. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service believes the skipperling only exists in a few native prairie remnants in Wisconsin and Michigan as well as Manitoba, Canada. Dickinson County is home to five of Iowa’s 11 Poweshiek skipperling critical habitat areas, according to the service. Iowa joined five other neighboring states in creating 25,900 acres of habitat for the endangered butterfly.

But Iowa’s coldest season isn’t particularly hospitable to the lifecycle of a butterfly. Westphal said female butterflies generally lay their eggs in the late summer and hatchlings survive by eating the eggshell until the spring. She said young caterpillars have to survive cold Iowa winters among the leaf litter on the ground but the larva are hearty.

“They just need a little help from us to give them a fighting chance,” Westphal said.

Westphal said the public can give pollinators — especially butterflies — that fighting chance by planting milkweed. Milkweed is especially critical for monarch populations traveling through the Midwest. Westphal said, while some monarch populations stay in Florida or California year-round, others are running out of food and habitat along their way. She said Interstate 35 is roughly the midpoint of the main migration path — dubbed the flyway — which runs from Lake Superior to Laredo, Texas.

“That’s why there’s such a big push for research and replanting of habitat in the migration flyway,” Westphal said.

Iowa landowners and county conservation boards developed several “stepping stone” habitats in 2015, using U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service funding specifically earmarked for addressing the concern for the monarch on a national scale. Others are simply taking steps in their own backyard gardens.

Westphal said some gardeners are hesitant to plant milkweed because insects will lay eggs nearby and feeding hatchlings will cause blemishes. She said planting nectar plants inside other plant clusters will generally keep the disguise blemishes.

Westphal said the public can also help by joining a citizen scientist organization, like Journey North, which maps and tracks populations of butterflies. Participants walk an area and simply report the number of adult butterflies, roosting locations and signs of breeding.

Although there is concern for stable populations among dozens of the 120 species of butterfly in Iowa, others are experiencing a population boom. Westphal said the population of both red admiral butterflies and painted lady butterflies grew during the previous two springs. She said states are also partnering to repopulate threatened and endangered species.

Locally, the Dickinson County Nature Center is well on its way to completing the new Pollinator Paradise addition. Floors have been poured and studs have been put in place for the building’s new wing. The addition will serve as an interactive learning experience, with butterfly rearing, native vegetation in a greenhouse setting, life-sized honeycomb tunnels and other hands-on features.

In the meantime, the nature center has seen some increased traffic after the festival, according to Kuhlman. She said the public has been asking which types of plants would be most helpful in their home gardens. Kuhlman also highlighted a group of Spirit Lake High School students who developed scannable QR codes for signage in the Dickinson County Nature Center. She said the signs are at the ready, waiting to be scanned and provide digital facts about pollinators to visitors.

“As a whole, we get a lot of people interested in learning how they can help,” Kuhlman said. “I would definitely say it’s a success.”