Research supports adding monarch breeding habitat to Iowa's landscape

July 26, 2016
News

photo of milkweed researchersAMES, Iowa  — Nearly half of Iowa farmers say in a recent Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll that they are willing to plant monarch breeding habitat but are unsure how much land or money they would invest in the effort. Good monarch breeding habitat includes areas having milkweed for larvae and flowering plants that serve as energy sources for adults.

Research at Iowa State University, conducted as part of the Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium, is intended to provide information to help agriculture producers make decisions about this critical issue and encourage farmers to join the effort to reestablish milkweed and forbs that support monarchs during reproductive and late summer migrations across the state.  

“We aren’t looking at interrupting corn and soybean production, but exploring the odd nooks and crannies, roadside ditches and such around farms,” said Steven Bradbury, professor in natural resource ecology and management at Iowa State University. “We know that weed management will be a concern, but the bottom line is – if patches of breeding habitat get started well and get going well they will out-compete weeds.”

Monarch habitat research at Iowa State
Teresa Blader, an Iowa State graduate researcher focused on monarch rearing, is completing her second year of research looking at optimal patch size, planting strategies that lead to best practices for establishing patches and appeal of different native milkweed species. She does a great deal of counting each summer – milkweed plants in a patch, eggs laid on plants, larvae feeding in patches and comparing the numbers from various sized habitat patches.

“Our findings are similar to Australian research in that the monarchs lay more eggs on small patches – sometimes on single stems, and often on small plants. Bigger patches usually contain less eggs, leaving the majority of the milkweed underutilized,” said Blader. “We are also curious if butterflies have a species preference, so I’m including swamp milkweed in my research this summer. It doesn’t spread like common milkweed, which may be appealing to some farmers, and it grows well in wet areas – which may be areas farmers would select for a patch site.”

Blader’s fellow Iowa State researchers are investigating milkweed species preferred by monarchs, monarch travel, how insects affect monarchs and monarch activity on sprayed milkweed. Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium research has been conducted at all 15 ISU Research and Demonstration farms this summer and includes a comparison of the success of direct seeding to installing transplants.

Learn more at Farm Progress Show Aug. 30- Sept. 1
The Iowa’s Monarch Conservation Consortium, which includes the Iowa State researchers, will share recent data with Farm Progress Show guests visiting the Iowa State University exhibit Aug. 30–Sept. 1. They also will share progress toward developing practical and effective guidelines for farmers and landowners. Researchers and members of the consortium will be at the Boone, Iowa event to share research data and findings, and introduce visitors to monarch habitat plants and monarch life stages.

Join the monarch conservation effort
Bradbury says that through the collaboration and coordinated efforts of farmers, private citizens and the consortium’s 25+ member organizations, sound scientific and practical approaches that don’t conflict with agriculture production will become available in the near future. In the meantime he points out several things farmers can be do now to join the monarch conservation effort:

  • Take advantage of the Farm Bill programs to establish monarch breeding habitat.
  • Establish a monarch waystation – with host plants for larvae and plants that are energy sources for adults. 
  • Use habitat management practices to maintain existing habitat in odd areas, roadsides and other right-of-ways.
  • Follow federal pesticide labels and state regulations.
  • Volunteer to participate in habitat demonstration projects or citizen science monitoring.