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How a bike ride through Iowa is saving monarch butterflies

Monarch populations have declined by as much as 85 percent in recent years. Learn what an innovative organization in Iowa is doing to help bring back the butterflies.

Bike riders on RAGBRAI (The Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa) are used to stuffing their jersey pockets with snacks, sunscreen and zip-top plastic baggies: the makeshift wallet of choice to protect cash and cell phones from rain showers and continuous sweat. But this year’s riders had to make room in their pockets and bike bags for something new: small, round brownish-gray milkweed seedballs.

The week-long bike ride across the state of Iowa has been attracting thousands of cyclists to the Midwestern state for more than 44 years. Every July, biking enthusiasts from all 50 states and dozens of foreign countries converge on Iowa’s small towns as they ride the 400-plus miles from the western “coast” of the state—starting at the Missouri River—to the eastern “coast,” ending at the Mississippi River. Over the years, riders have traversed just about every square mile of paved rural Iowan highways, flanked by vast farmland, corn and soybean fields, cows, pigs and plenty of silos. When a small town’s water tower peeks out of the horizon, riders know they aren’t far from their next opportunity to relax and refuel for the hot and hilly miles ahead.

Save the monarchs

A group of my friends and I meet every summer for this quintessential Midwestern experience, escaping our regular lives and appreciating Iowa’s pork chops, breakfast burritos and growing craft brew industry. This year, while pedaling steady toward one of those water tower beacons, we all fished around in our back pockets to retrieve our milkweed seedballs. Taking aim at the wild, unmowed grasses and prairies nestled in the ditches between us and the cornfields, we launched our seedballs into what we could only pray would be a suitable home for them to take root. “You can do it,” I whispered, as I threw my last ball to its eternal resting place, somehow hoping my words would will it into a strong and sturdy milkweed plant.

“What are you throwing?” inquired a rider who pulled up next to me. I assured her that what we were discarding in the fields and ditches around us was not trash, for gasp sakes. It was hope. “We’re planting milkweed to help restore the monarchs,” I explained. She looked a little confused, so I explained more. RAGBRAI is nice for these types of impromptu conversations with strangers who pedal in sync.

The sad reality that monarch populations have declined in the last two decades becomes sadly urgent when you grasp the magnitude of the disappearance. You see, for the majestic monarch, RAGBRAI is just a drop in the endurance-tour bucket. Every fall, hundreds of millions of monarchs flutter 2,500 miles from Canada, through the United States, to the high mountains of Mexico where they spend their winters hibernating. Monarchs used to arrive there in droves, literally coloring the Michoacán sky orange and turning landing trees into fluttering art reminiscent of something you’d see only in fairy tales. It’s a modern marvel, but the monarch numbers have dwindled drastically in recent years—some estimates say by as much as 85 percent.  

Why the decline?

Scientists have pinpointed three culprits related to the monarch decline. The first is climate change. Extreme hot and cold weather, as well as torrential storms have affected monarch’s migration both south and north. A severe unseasonably cold storm in 2010 is reported to have killed millions of monarchs during their trek.

Another reason for the monarch regression is deforestation in Mexico. Between 1990 and 2000, Mexico lost an average of 347,600 hectares of forest per year for a variety of reasons, from agricultural frontier and wood cutting to forest fires. American demand for Mexican imports, such as avocados—and unwillingness to pay premiums for them—has also fueled deforestation of Mexico’s dry forests as farmers rapidly expand their orchards to feed demand and keep costs low.

A third element at play in the disappearance of the monarchs is the lack of breeding habitat. During their journeys south and north, monarchs expect to be able to lay their eggs on the millions of milkweed along their path, which are typically found in prairie land from Toronto to Iowa to Texas and everywhere in between. But milkweed no longer grows in the numbers it used to—one key reason being the heavy use of glyphosphate herbicides on resistant cash crops, such as corn and soybeans, that wipe out everything else in its path. Without milkweed along the way, adult monarchs have nowhere to lay their eggs. You might suggest they just lay their eggs elsewhere, but doing so would be deadly for the next monarch generation, as milkweed plant is the only thing monarch larva can eat.

After this year’s RAGBRAI was over, I caught up with Tabitha Tahbo, one of the monarch superheroes I met during the ride as she was coordinating the milkweed seedball distribution in Iowa. Tabitha is a volunteer with partner organizations Milkweed Matters and Monarchs in Eastern Iowa.

DL: How did milkweed seedball distribution start in Iowa?

TT: Milkweed Matters was the brainchild of Kelly Guilbeau. She set out two years ago to spread loose milkweed seeds across Iowa on the 2014 RAGBRAI. She soon realized there had to be an easier way and came up with the idea of seedballs. Seedballs were already being used to spread wildflower seeds, so why not milkweed too? For the 2015 RAGBRAI, Milkweed Matters paired up with Monarchs in Eastern Iowa and hosted a booth at a town stop in Mt. Vernon, Iowa. We handed out more than 2,000 seedballs and information to cyclists in just 6 hours. We decided to go bigger for 2016 RAGBRAI and set out to make 35,000 milkweed seedballs. We surpassed our goal with an amazing 50,816 seedballs!

DL: What are milkweed seedballs made of?

TT: The seedballs are made with 3 to 5 milkweed seeds and a 50/50 soil/clay mixture. We moisten the mixture with a little bit of water, form it into a small ball no bigger than a quarter, press down to form a pocket, add seeds, fold over to envelope the seeds, roll it back into a ball, let it dry and Viola!

DL: How do milkweed seedballs help restore monarch populations?

TT: Because milkweed is the only thing that monarch caterpillars can eat, we need as much of it as we can grow in order to help the declining population. More milkweed = more food for monarch caterpillars. The clay medium protects milkweed seeds from being eaten by small mammals and supports cold stratification that the seeds must go through in order to germinate.

DL: Why was RAGBRAI chosen as a distribution effort?

TT: We have a captive audience! Since RAGBRAI riders are already traveling across the state, they don’t have to go out of their way to spread the seedballs. The routes take them right by prime milkweed real estate and we are able to spread seeds across the entire state.

DL: Do you know if milkweed seedballs planted by RAGBRAI riders are taking root? Is it working?

TT: After the riders left Mt. Vernon in 2015 they traveled along the road that runs right by my house. I can see a significantly larger number of milkweed plants since last year! We have tested our seedballs in a greenhouse and have gotten an 80 to 90 percent germination rate. I am currently working on a project to determine germination rate in a prairie environment. Additionally, I am testing various soil/clay ratios to see if that also has an effect on germination rate.

DL: What is your next big distribution effort of milkweed seedballs?

TT: We plan to continue the RAGBRAI efforts next year. Who knows what our seedball total will be! Monarchs of Eastern Iowa will also continue our numerous seedball events throughout the year.

DL: What can our readers do to help?

TT: We encourage everyone to plant not only milkweed native to their area, but also nectar plants. If you decide to purchase plants or seeds, please make sure that they have not been treated with pesticides. Also, avoid using insecticides and herbicides in yards and gardens. If you’re located in Eastern Iowa, I encourage you to join our Facebook Group, Monarchs in Eastern Iowa. If not located here, find a similar group in your area. Monarch Watch is also great organization for valuable information on monarch conservation and tagging.

Why are pollinators so important?

Simply put, we need monarchs, bees and other pollinating creatures, such as birds and beetles, to survive in order for thousands of growing plants (including many that we eat) to live and bear a variety of fruits, vegetables, seeds and nuts. Additionally, from recent research funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, we learned that a disappearance in pollinators could result in worldwide nutrient deficiencies. For example, without the pollinators, global supplies of fruits would decline by as much as 23 percent and as many as 71 million people in low-income countries could become newly deficient in vitamin A. Additionally, 173 million people could become newly deficient in the essential nutrient folate. This was the first study to link global declines in animal pollinators to human health, and the results warrant some urgency.

So when I ride RAGBRAI next year and in the future, I won’t just be seeking out the state’s water towers and strategically placed refreshment tents. You’ll find me scouring the ditches in hopes of spotting some milkweed plants like the ones my mom planted in the front yard at my childhood home. Our front yard was host to many monarchs over the years and my siblings and I had the joy of witnessing the monarch's life cycle from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly. So if you'll be riding RAGBRAI next year, look for me. I'll be the gal with a sore throwing arm, wearing the jersey with extra-large pockets.  


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