Collaborations Mark Monarch Conservation Consortium’s Beginning

Surveying for monarchs
Graduate student Teresa Blader surveys milkweed plants for monarch eggs and larvae.

AMES, Iowa — Collaborations marked efforts to increase the number of monarch butterflies as the Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium got underway this year.

The consortium was created in March by farmer, rancher and conservation organizations, state agencies, companies and Iowa State University to enhance monarch butterfly reproduction through collaborative and coordinated efforts.

A widespread affection for the butterflies was evident.

“I have yet to meet a person who doesn’t like monarchs,” said Rick Hellmich, research entomologist with the USDA-ARS, Corn Insects and Crop Genetics Research Unit and a collaborator and assistant professor with the Iowa State Department of Entomology. “Nearly everybody wants to help. In some ways, the monarch can be the flagship species to help butterflies, bees, birds and other animals. I think the monarch can help them all as we move to increase biodiversity along with productive agriculture.”

Collaborations with Luther College and Central College and high schools in Marshalltown and Grundy Center have established demonstration plots on those campuses. Even a Boy Scout troop in Story City contacted Hellmich and is growing three milkweed species in the town’s prairie plot.

Other collaborations are underway:
• A rapid response project connects up the land grant universities in the Midwest, Oklahoma and Texas to form a coalition to address many of the research projects without duplicating efforts
• Work with Chip Taylor at the University of Kansas, and founder of Monarch Watch, to obtain plants and collaborate on research ideas
• Partner with the Tallgrass Prairie Center at the University of Northern Iowa
• An developing collaboration with the U.S. Geological Survey, which is doing monarch population modeling on a national scale

The Iowa State University Research and Demonstration Farms established plots of milkweed from seedlings to determine the best growing conditions and to acquaint producers and the public with the many different kinds. One lesson learned was that the seedlings planted in isolation within demonstration plots had to be protected from deer and rabbits.

Growing the “weeds” may seem counter to farmers and gardeners usual practices, but the plant is essential to monarch reproduction because the butterflies lay eggs only on that plant, which the larvae then feed on.

Hellmich and Steve Bradbury, a professor in the natural resource ecology and management department, have been working with the consortium, researching ways to increase the plants.

There are nine kinds of milkweed being studied to find the best ways to plant and cultivate them, and which are most attractive to monarchs. Students surveyed milkweeds to see which have the most eggs and feeding larvae.

Bradbury said milkweed gets a lot of the attention, although there is a range of plants needed for the monarchs.

“Adult butterflies get some nectar from the milkweed flower and the developing caterpillars eat the leaves,” he said, “but having other nectar plants around the milkweeds is necessary for adult butterfly feeding, and ones that bloom throughout the year to provide a sustained source of food.”

A new ISU Extension and Outreach publication, Gardening for Butterflies and Pollinators (RG 0601), gives homeowners tips on making their yards attractive to monarchs by including such things a water source and rocks for warmth. The publication is free online at:

The consortium’s web site ( has several resources to help establish monarch habitat including research publications and news about its activities. It offers firsthand accounts of researchers and links to more information, such as a site to report monarch sightings as they migrate.

Iowa State recently received a USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service grant “to develop and accelerate the adoption of innovative approaches to monarch butterfly conservation” in agriculturally intensive corn and soybean production areas.

“We want growers and others to consider where they can establish milkweed sites:  maybe little odd shaped areas where they can’t farm, maybe some riparian buffer areas or even along fence rows,” Hellmich said, adding that dozens of locations have been identified on the university’s research farms.

Bradbury said butterfly habitat might fit in with some of the nutrient reduction strategies, such as bioreactors or saturated buffer zones, which usually are planted in brome grass. Grants awarded by Iowa Soybean Association and the Iowa-USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service are supporting studies on introducing milkweed and nectar plants to link increased habitat and nutrient reduction in a single conservation practice. The Iowa Pork Producers Association also is funding research into establishing monarch habitat around swine production facilities.

Monarch larva
Monarch larva feeds on milkweed.