(This video was originally broadcast on Iowa Outdoors, Episode 701, May 24, 2017.)

Populations of pollinators, like bees and butterflies, are declining. And that could spell trouble for our ecosystem and food supply. Several Iowa organizations are determined to reverse the trend and hope to get you involved.

Native pollinators are very important to humans and every animal in our ecosystem. One third of our global food supply is directly related to pollination. But a variety of pollinating insects, like bees and butterflies, are disappearing at alarming rates.

Jessie Lowry, Conservation Manager, Blank Park Zoo: Many things are happening to pollinators, things like global climate change, disease, some modern agricultural and landscaping practices, but most of all, loss of habitat, loss of nectar sources, which is their food resource, and host plants, which is how they can reproduce.

Milkweed is the host plant for monarch butterflies. It is the only plant in which they can lay their eggs, and milkweed is the only plant their caterpillars can eat. Monarchs have an iconic migration pattern. They winter in Mexico and they move up through the Central United States generation by generation over the spring and summer until the super butterfly is born that flies all the way from the upper Midwest back to Mexico.

Steve Bradbury, Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium: So you can imagine in all those different landscapes there's lots of different stressors that the monarch populations are facing. How to establish those conservation practices that can increase habitat in underutilized areas in rural landscapes so we can grow corn and soybeans and cow and pigs and we can grow monarchs at the same time. We're trying to find that sweet spot.

Lowry: A small backyard garden, even a pot, can be like a gas station for these insects to stop as they travel between larger swaths of appropriate habitat.

So Blank Park Zoo created the Plant Grow Fly program to encourage planting specialized butterfly gardens of any size, anywhere.

Lowry: Our plant lists are plants that you can easily find in a greenhouse, that will thrive in a backyard garden, that are relatively inexpensive and will look nice because people aren't as used to seeing native gardens as they are used to seeing those exotic plants that we traditionally use in landscaping. But the good thing is, they can look beautiful, you can make them look manicured or you can make them look more wild, and they're going to require a lot less maintenance.

The prairie system at Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge wouldn't be able to survive and reproduce without pollinators. Last year, the refuge grew 40,000 native plants in its greenhouse to help give Iowans a jump start on planting large gardens and patches of prairie through its People for Pollinators program.

Karen Viste-Sparkman, Wildlife Biologist, Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge: We just try to get as much diversity of plants as we can, we try to get plants that bloom through the seasons, so from spring through fall. There are certain bee species that are active that whole season and then others that are active for only a short period. This is a big, important area for breeding butterflies, monarchs but also for migrating monarchs. And so we need to be sure there are plants blooming when the monarchs are migrating through.

The Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium is working on ways to collaborate with the agriculture community on common goals in rural landscapes. There are even grants and Farm Bill programs that can help farmers get involved.

Bradbury: We're working hard in the state of Iowa to advance our nutrient reduction strategy. And so there is an increase in the amount of farmers putting in bioreactors and saturated buffers. And so one of the efforts of the consortium is how to link up these different activities. So instead of just putting grass on top of a bioreactor let's put monarch habitat on top of that bioreactor so we can improve water quality and grow monarchs at the same time on the same footprint. And those flowering plants that we're picking, we're picking them to also be sure that they're attractive to native bees.

During the peak of monarch migration, which is usually mid-September in Iowa, several groups help tag monarchs for research. Volunteers catch the butterflies and attach a small sticker with information on it.
And hopefully this little girl will be found in Mexico and we can track the migration of it. She came from Blank Park Zoo. And we'll let her go.

Lowry: It's going to take empowering school children and a change in mindset about what a garden is for. It's not just for humans to think something is beautiful, it is habitat for animals. And a successful pollinator garden is a garden that the leaves will be chewed up, there will be larvae present, there will be predators present, there will be this whole ecosystem.

Bradbury: So it's something everybody can do to pitch in and it really is an all hands on deck. We know agricultural acres, landscape is going to be really important. But even if we did everything on agricultural land it won't be enough. We need everybody pitching in and it's kind of fun because it draws everybody together in the state with the same goal.

Lowry: And I feel that pollinator decline and monarch decline is kind of like what happened with the bald eagle, we saw that something was wrong and we needed to fix it or we were going to lose this charismatic animal, we made the right decision and now we have bald eagles. I think that is going to happen in the case of the monarch too.

Gilchrist Foundation