Student works as a monarch butterfly caretaker

By Megan Lutz, College of Agriculture and LIfe Sciences Communications Service

Hailey Arthur loves her job. It’s a job that not many college students get to do - butterfly caretaker.

“I’ve always liked butterflies. When I was little I would go outside and catch them and show my parents and put them in jars and try to keep them as pets,” said Arthur, a junior in animal science. “Now, I’m raising butterflies. I joke that they’re like my babies.”

Arthur's job is one part of the Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium, a community-led effort based in the entomology department in the College of Agriculture and LIfe Sciences at Iowa State University. The consortium includes the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

Researchers in the consortium gather scientific information on Iowa’s monarch butterfly population and milkweed conservation. The goal is to restore and retain the monarch and the milkweed plants they feed on in Iowa.

Watching the life cycle of butterflies is rewarding, Arthur said. Getting the chance to take care of the endangered species and do her part in preserving the monarchs is also rewarding.

As a student lab technician, Arthur works an average of 18 hours a week caring for and raising a colony of butterflies. She is one of five undergraduate students in the lab raising butterflies for multiple research projects and educational programs. The research includes studying butterfly flight patterns, toxins affecting caterpillars and the genetics of monarchs.

Arthur, a native of Randall, Iowa, first got involved with the monarch program the summer after her freshman year at Iowa State. Learning how to use the equipment to raise butterflies was her favorite job.

“I was new to it all,” Arthur says. “Summertime is our busiest time with hundreds of butterflies, so I got thrown in to doing a lot and learning a lot, as well as having fun with my co-workers.”

Taking care of more than 50 butterflies during the winter requires attention to detail. Arthur has a daily schedule to feed the monarchs, water them and give them a sip of their favorite drink - Gatorade.

To monitor egg production, Arthur places a sprig of leaves in Erlenmeyer flasks and sets them in each monarch cage. She then counts the eggs laid each day and provides those numbers to researchers. Once the eggs hatch they are placed on individual agar plates. The next week the caterpillars are moved into cups where they grow, form a chrysalis and emerge as monarch butterflies.

The job also requires Arthur to assist with duties in two greenhouses that house milkweeds and other plants. She waters, fertilizes, plants milkweed seeds and transplants plants. The greenhouses include coneflowers, which attract butterflies, and tropical milkweed plants, which are used to feed the monarchs and serve as a place to lay eggs.

Dana Schweitzer, program coordinator and part of the Iowa State monarch research team, works closely with Arthur.

“Hailey is a very dependable and detail-oriented team member. She embodies the leadership qualities the ISU monarch research team looks for in all of our student employees and she isn’t afraid to speak up when she notices a problem,” Schweitzer said. “Juggling the demands of a full course load with an hourly job can be challenging, but Hailey manages her time well and makes time to help others, too.” 

The lab environment is exciting for Arthur and isn’t like anything else she’s done.

“You wouldn’t think there would be so many deadlines for this kind of work, but there are,” Arthur said. “You have to make sure everything gets done correctly and on time for the next life cycle step because one problem can mess up the whole colony.”

Arthur and her co-workers also put together monarch-related displays for the Iowa State Fair, Farm Progress Show, ISU Extension and Outreach 4-H programs and schools. The displays are used to share information with the public about the Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium. The purpose is to explain what can be done to help restore the monarch butterfly population and the milkweed species around Iowa.

This summer Arthur will intern with PigCHAMP, a swine management software company in Ames, on the customer service side, an area she’s excited to learn about.

March 27, 2018