Monday, October 6, 2014

*Monarch Butterflies are in Trouble. What Can You Do? Plant Milkweed, Say Experts. Here’s How*

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
A Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) caterpi...
. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Monarch butterflies are struggling. Counts of the familiar orange-and-black
insects, admired for their flights of up to 5,000 miles a year, are
trending down so sharply that their migration is now under threat. That
means fewer monarchs to pollinate crops, spread seeds and feed birds.

So how can we help? One simple way is to follow the lead of Neal Smith
National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa and consider collecting and sowing
milkweed seed.

But don’t delay. In much of the country, milkweed pods are ripe for picking
in early fall.

Why milkweed? Milkweed is the host plant for monarchs—the lone plant on
which the butterflies lay their eggs in spring and the only food source for
monarch larvae. One reason monarchs are failing is that milkweed is
disappearing from the American landscape. Scientists blame land-use
practices such as farming with crops genetically modified to resist
herbicides. The herbicides kill plants such as milkweed that grow around
farm fields and have no such protection. Urban sprawl and development have
also chewed up monarch habitat.

While conservationists weigh broad-scale rescue options, individual efforts
can make a difference. “Every little bit helps,” says wildlife biologist
Karen Viste-Sparkman at Neal Smith Refuge. “It doesn’t take a huge number
of plants in any one place to help monarchs, especially during migration.”

At Neal Smith Refuge, school groups and volunteers have begun scouring
fields for milkweed, as they do each fall, helping refuge staff collect
browning pods for processing and planting.

Here’s a primer on how to do it.

*How do I recognize milkweed?*
The Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service has
photos of many varieties of milkweed in various stages of growth here:

*How do I collect seed?*
Wear gloves and avoid touching your face; milkweed sap can injure your
eyes. Seek permission before harvesting seed on private, federal or state
property. “Collect only the gray seed pods, not the green ones,” says Wedge
Watkins, wildlife biologist at Big Muddy National Fish and Wildlife Refuge
in Missouri. “If you squeeze the pod and it pops open, it's ready to pick.”
When gathering pods in any one spot, leave a few behind on each plant.
Don’t collect seeds unless you plan to sow them.

The University of Kansas’s MonarchWatch offers more guidance:

*What do I do with the seed pods I’ve collected?*
You can send the pods to MonarchWatch (Monarch Watch, University of Kansas,
2021 Constant Ave, Lawrence, KS 66047 for processing and planting. Or you
can process and plant seeds yourself.

To separate seeds from milkweed silk – the white fluff inside a milkweed
pod to which seeds attach – place a few coins in a clean, empty plastic
container. Add the contents of the milkweed  pod and close the container
tightly. Now, shake the container until the seeds fall to the bottom and
the fluff forms a ball on top. Unscrew the lid and remove the ball of silk

Either sow the seeds outdoors on bare soil before the first snow, or place
them in a labeled, rodent-proof container that has air flow and store them
in a cool, dry, ventilated area.

If Viste-Sparkman is saving seeds for starting indoors or in the
greenhouse, she lets them dry completely to prevent mold. Then, she puts
the seed in moistened sand in a sealed plastic bag with a few holes in it
and stores the bag in the refrigerator. In early spring, she starts to
germinate the seed indoors in potting soil (with the seed planted just
below the surface). She plants the seedlings outdoors after danger of frost
has passed. She plants seedlings near nectar-bearing plants that monarchs
also need, such as asters and blazing star.

More tips on seed handling:

*Where can I learn more about monarchs and milkweed?  *