While it seems nearly every aspect of our world has been impacted by COVID-19, in reality, the non-human natural world has gone on largely un-impacted by our concerns. Winter turned to spring then summer, and the plants and wildlife have probably not even noticed our concerns – beyond maybe seeing more human activity in “their” space.
Among the specie unconcerned with our problems is one that most Iowans and many in North America recognize and enjoy seeing – the monarch butterfly. In 2014, the Center for Biological Diversity – along with the Xerces Society (a butterfly conservation organization) and distinguished monarch biology professor, Dr Lincoln Brower (now deceased) – petitioned the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) to protect the monarch butterfly under the Endangered Species Act. The USFWS determined in late 2014 that there was sufficient evidence to initiate the procedure to formally evaluate the species for protection. A decision is due on the listing by December of this year.
In an unusually fast U.S. Government response to this petition, by May 2015, President Obama launched the National Pollinator Strategy the provided funding in the millions to plant habitat beneficial to both monarchs and other declining pollinators. Especially targeted was the so-called I-35 corridor – an area about 50 miles wide surrounding I-35 from Minnesota to Texas – that has been shown to be crucial to monarch fall migration. Thus, Iowa saw an influx of funding for roadside and CRP pollinator plantings.
Buchanan County landowners have been a big part of the process, and you can easily note some of those acres planted to pollinator habitat as you drive along our roadways this month. Plantings from 2016 and 2017 are blanketing acres of land in the yellows of gray-headed coneflower, the pinkish purples of bee balm, the whites of fleabane and mountain mint, and the greens of all the leaves. In some areas, the landscape has been transformed from our modern “prairie” of corn and beans to a semblance of what it may have looked like prior to European settlement (see photo of a planting along Quasky-Diagonal Boulevard).
Funding has not been so readily available for individuals interested in inviting both monarchs and pollinators to their own yards – especially for those with a couple of acres they wish to convert. Pollinator seed mixes are not cheap at over $1,000/acre for a diverse mix of native wildflowers and grasses. More on options for these landowners later. But for those with a small space they wish to dedicate toward helping monarchs, there are some low-cost options that can be easily implemented and successful in your first growing season.
Collect Your Own Seeds
Visit a nearby ditch in fall and collect milkweed seeds from their pods. Scatter them on loosened soil in the fall. To be even more attractive, collect other native wildflower seed and scatter them together to create an oasis of nectar and larval milkweed food for the caterpillars.
Many native seed sources exist and will sell seed in mixes for pollinators or butterflies – you can order by the area you wish to cover with these plants. Or you can purchase the butterfly seed packages available at Fontana Park Gift Shop (usually by November or early December, depending on when I get everything collected and packaged) that contain 15 to 25 species of wildflowers and perhaps a short native grass or two. The packages sell for a reasonable $12, and suggested planting time is late fall through winter as many seeds require some cold temps to germinate the following spring.
You can get packets of up to four species of milkweed for FREE at Fontana Nature Center – again usually late November or December – that you can use to supplement your existing flower beds to include food for monarch caterpillars.
But those options are either very time consuming or impractical for larger parcels, and I do not want to have one person buy or take all the seed I collect. So how to put some of your acreage in pollinator mix (and reduce your mowing while helping monarchs and pollinators)? There are a couple of organizations that will provide seed for FREE for your larger projects as well.
Bee & Butterfly Habitat Fund
The Bee & Butterfly Habitat Fund (BBHF) offers habitat assistance on projects through their Seed A Legacy program. That program provides free pollinator seed mixes on projects larger than two acres that commit for at least five years and can be located on private, public, or corporate lands. Signup in the program is an easy online application process that can be accessed at https://beeandbutterflyfund.org/habitat-programs/seed-a-legacy-program/iowa-application The primary acceptance criteria is whether or not the site is fully prepared and ready for planting.
This is either ag land that has been cropped (some restrictions on pesticide applications in the past) or grass that has been killed with at least two applications of glyphoside – details on acceptable preparation are available on their website. For sites that are fully prepared, the BBHF is accepting 100 percent of the applications received. This program has a planting requirement of half prairie seed mix and half clover mix.
Monarch Watch has limited numbers of free milkweeds available for two-acre or larger restorations of native habitat. These milkweeds are young plants called plugs, and they will be accepting applications in October for 2021. This is a great way to give milkweed a good start in a seeded prairie space, so you might consider using both options. See https://monarchwatch.org/bring-back-the-monarchs/milkweed/free-milkweeds-for-restoration-projects/ for details.
BCCB and Pheasants Forever
The Buchanan County Conservation Board (BCCB) and Pheasants Forever offer a Prairies to Schools/Prairies to Business program to schools and businesses in Buchanan County. For those that qualify, they will receive at no cost:
- Planning of a mix that will grow best on their site and provide the best mix for the location
- Free seed for the planting
- Free planting of the prairie site
- Monitoring of the prairie for the first two years
- Schools receive a Prairies Teacher Guide
Schools or businesses must provide an area of land that will be designated for the prairie and a commitment to dedicate this area as prairie for the future. Schools must have commitment from a teacher, administrator, and maintenance person. Details are available at https://www.buchanancountyiowa.org/services/conservation/prairies_to_schools.php.
Perhaps you are concerned about monarchs and pollinators, but do not have an area to dedicate to pollinator plantings or you are not able to care for a planting. There is still a great opportunity for you to assist in creating more habitat – all three of the above operate their programs largely on donations, and all three are tax-exempt organizations that are actively seeking donations. If you are able, consider looking closer at the programs each provides and consider donating financially (or in the case of Monarch Watch, they are also looking for milkweed seed donations).