The Magic of Monarchs

The Magic of Monarchs

A male monarch on swamp milkweed.

Last weekend Prairie Rivers of Iowa hosted Monarch Magic, an activity-filled monarch butterfly tagging event, at Ada Hayden Heritage Park in Ames. During this three-hour event, at least 100 families and groups collectively tagged 146 monarch butterflies! Many who had never experienced the magic of holding and tagging a monarch butterfly got to experience this thrill for the first time, and were able to buy a tee shirt to commemorate the experience!

In case you missed the event, or just want to refresh your monarch knowledge, we discuss here why we tag monarchs during their migration south, and review some interesting monarch facts!

The magic of monarch tagging

There are few things that feel as special as holding a monarch butterfly and setting it free with a tag! The “tags”, in this sense, are small stickers. Tagging only occurs in late summer, during the monarch migration to Mexico. To tag a monarch, you gently hold a monarch’s wings together and place a tag on one of the monarch’s hind wings. Next, you place their feet on your hand or on a flower, and release their wings, watching them take off on their way to Mexico! Each tag has a unique sequence, allowing us to identify individual monarchs. People tagging monarchs report the tag sequence they used for each monarch, along with the date and location they tagged the monarch. This information then gets reported to a database. Anyone who sees a tagged monarch can report the sequence on its tag to the database, and can learn where the monarch was originally tagged!

The magic of releasing a tagged monarch!

What does tagging tell us?

Scientists and community members tag and report monarchs to track their migration. The tags and their database are provided and managed by Monarch Watch, a nonprofit research program based at the University of Kansas. Since 1992, Monarch Watch has tracked monarch migration to understand the timing of their migration, their migration routes, mortality rates during migration, the pace of migration, and more! Tagged monarchs that make it to Mexico are recaptured in tagging programs based in Mexico, and are reported to Monarch Watch. Understanding details such as timing of migration and which states and counties are along the migration route can help us determine the most effective ways to support monarch butterflies.

A lucky four-leaf clover.

Tagging a monarch butterfly!

Luna Moth

A monarch butterfly visiting blazing star.

Are monarchs endangered?

Monarchs are not currently considered endangered by the US federal government. They are, however, a “candidate species”, meaning that the government has determined that federal protection for monarch butterflies is warranted. Unfortunately, other species in the US are struggling even more than monarchs, and therefore take priority for the time being. The government will review the status of monarchs annually until they are able to create a proposal to officially list monarch butterflies as a species needing government protection. Until then, participating in monarch tagging events, reporting tagged monarch sightings, and planting native, pesticide-free gardens are the best ways to help monarch butterfly populations!

Monarch Facts!

While their populations are threatened, monarchs are truly incredible insects! For us, seeing migrating monarchs and tagging a few is a magical experience. However, migration is an arduous journey for monarch butterflies, which lends them some interesting traits!

  • The species name for the monarch butterfly is Danaus plexippus.
  • There are two main populations of monarchs – an eastern and a western.
  • Eastern monarchs call Iowa and other states east of the Rocky Mountains home. This population makes the miraculous trip to Mexico!
  • A single monarch can fly up to 3,000 miles from Canada to Mexico.
  • The peak monarch migration time in Iowa is September 3rd to September 15th.
  • A monarch butterfly is about the same weight as a paper clip!
  • The monarchs that migrate to Mexico can live up to eight months!
  • Monarchs overwinter in very specific habitat: the oyamel fir forests on Mexico’s mountaintops.
  • Oyamel fir forests provide cool temperatures and constant moisture to help monarchs survive the winter.
  • The oyamel fir forests are becoming scarce due to habitat loss from logging and farming.
  • Monarchs roost in trees for protection from wind, rain, and snow.
  • Monarch caterpillars can only eat milkweed, but adult monarchs will sip nectar from almost any flower!

Monarchs roosting in a tree!

Pale coneflower provides nectar for monarchs.

How can you help monarchs at home?

There are a few easy steps you can take to help monarchs all year round, and a few flower species that are especially good for helping monarchs on their journey to Mexico in September!

  • Plant milkweed and provide native flowers for nectar year-round:
    • Spring: Hoary vervain (Verbena stricta), pale coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia)
    • Summer: blazing star (many Liatris species)
    • Fall: goldenrod (many Solidago species), sunflowers (Helianthus species), and asters (Silphium species).
  • Be sure to plant late-blooming plants to help migrating monarchs fuel up on their way to Mexico!
      • Some of their favorite fall plants are:
        • Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum)
        • Goldenrods (Solidago species)
        • Sawtooth sunflower (Helianthus grosseserratus)
        • False boneset (Brickellia eupatorioides).
      • Planting these fall flowers will also help our other native pollinators, especially bumble bees!

The magic of seeing the bright orange monarch soar in the blue September sky, the magic of holding and tagging a monarch to help understand them, and the joy they bring to all of us, is truly inspirational.  Have a truly Magical Monarch Migration Season!

>> Buy a Monarch Magic shirt to support more Prairie Rivers of Iowa events!  <<

Glitter in Your Grass: The Secret Lives of Fireflies

Glitter in Your Grass: The Secret Lives of Fireflies

While the season of twinkling twilight in Iowa has nearly ended, fireflies (aka “lightning bugs”) live in Iowa year-round! What do you really know about these mysterious sparks of light? They are not just magical glittering displays – they are real insects that serve important ecological and medicinal roles and are threatened by habitat loss and light pollution. Nearly 30% of firefly species in the US and Canada may be at risk of extinction. But how can you support firefly populations? Where do they live? Should you collect them in jars? Here, we discuss all things fireflies, from their terrifying larval traits to their endearing embers of light. Read to the end for tips to attract fireflies to your yard!

A species of dark firefly found in Iowa called the Black Firefly, or Lucidota atra.

Fire Beetles

What is a firefly? Fireflies are actually beetles in the family Lampyridae. There are over 2,000 species worldwide, with about 170 in the US and Canada. Here in Iowa, we commonly have 7-9 with the potential to have up to 13 species(see Insects of Iowa and The Xerces Society – pg 4). Because most fireflies are nocturnal, we know very little about them despite their popularity. They go through complete metamorphosis, the same life cycle that butterflies and other beetles go through.

There are actually three kinds of fireflies in the world: flashing fireflies, dark fireflies, and glow-worms. Flashing fireflies are what we are most familiar with. They blink and glitter at dusk or during the night. Dark fireflies are active during the day and do not light up much, if at all. Lastly, glow-worms are fireflies in which the adult female looks a lot like it did when it was a larva (worm). They give off a near-continuous glow, giving it the name “glow-worm”. Male glow-worm fireflies look similar to the flying adults of dark and flashing fireflies. Iowa has mostly flashing fireflies, several dark fireflies, and so far has no glow-worm observations (but read here about another kind of glowing grub that can be found in Iowa).

Bioluminescence in Fireflies – and Our Food!

The firefly’s sparkle is created through a process called bioluminescence, which is the production of light by a living organism. There are few bioluminescent species outside of the ocean, so fireflies are pretty special! Flashing fireflies have an organ near the tip of their abdomen called the “lantern” where chemical reactions cause the enzyme luciferase to activate the light-emitting compound luciferin, causing the lantern to glow. Firefly light is one of the most energy-efficient lighting techniques in the world, with almost 100% of the energy used to emit light, and nearly zero energy lost as heat. In comparison, the most energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs give off 90% light and 10% heat. Firefly bioluminescence has been re-created synthetically since the 1980s, and has been medically significant for decades for identifying everything from blood clots to bacterial contamination in food. Fireflies, however, use their light to communicate to potential predators and lovers. For predators, their flicker warns that they contain a terrible-tasting compound called “lucibufagin” (more like luci-barf-again – ha!). For lovers, the glimmer means the firefly is looking for love.

Snowberry Clearwing Moth

A bioluminescent firefly in the grass.

A firefly larva, or “grub”. Yes it glows!

Baby Fireflies

Fireflies lay their eggs in sheltered, moist places such as leaf litter, shallow tunnels, rotting logs, or moss. Some species’ eggs even glow! From the eggs hatch glowing larvae. They spend most of their lives (up to a few years) as larvae, living under or near the ground and hunting soft-bodied animals such as slugs, snails, earthworms, and grubs. Moisture is important for firefly survival – much of their prey requires moist soil. The larvae gorge themselves with soft-bodied victims, and are extremely beneficial in the garden, keeping food such as cabbages and strawberries safe from slugs and other pests. Firefly larvae survive winter if there is enough moisture and cover in the form of leaf layers, logs, mulch, rocks, or moss. Come spring and summer, the larvae pupate, and in a few weeks emerge as adult fireflies.

Adult Fireflies

Because most adult fireflies don’t eat, their chief concern is finding a mate and laying eggs. For flashing fireflies, males fly around and blink to communicate with females. Each species has a unique flashing pattern (see the flash chart image below). The time of night, the duration of each flash, the height of the flash, and the pattern or shape of the flash come together to communicate the species, their sex, location, and willingness to mate. For example, the big dipper firefly emits a flash pattern that dips, making the shape of the letter “j”. For most species, female fireflies don’t move much. Many can’t fly at all and instead find a perch, respond with their own signal, and let males come to them. Once a male finds a female, they mate and the male passes a “nuptial gift” in the form of extra protein and nutrients to the female. This is important because most adults don’t eat, and the extra nutrients allow the female to be a more successful egg layer and ensure a healthier next generation. Depending on the species, mating displays can last anywhere from 20 minutes to several hours. These displays are special and are one of the few kinds of insect communication that humans can see with the naked eye and distinguish which species is “speaking”!

An adult firefly of the “flashing” firefly group. Note the white underside of the abdomen, where the lantern is located.

A flash chart for the different species of fireflies created by Mass Audubon, a nonprofit in Massachusetts that heads Firefly Watch, a community science program.

Femme Fatales

A big exception to normal flashing behavior is in a group of fireflies known as “femme fatales”. Females in the genus Photuris are deceptive and carnivorous. They purposely flash the signal of the female Photinus genus instead of their own. The male Photinus firefly approaches the carnivorous female, thinking it’s a friendly female of its own species. The Photuris female strikes and eats the male. Females eat males not out of spite, but to acquire the predator-repelling lucibufagin toxin that tastes bad. These femme fatales evolved to glow but did not evolve to create their own lucibufagin. Eating these male fireflies of a different species provides them with energy and the protective toxin.

Shine Little Glow-Worm (glimmer, glimmer!)

Less intense glow-worm fireflies are trying to find mates as well. The flightless, larvae-like females emit a continuous glow to attract flying males. Males have a weak glow, if any. They mate, and the male leaves unscathed. Lastly, the dark firefly group doesn’t glow much, if at all. As adults, these fireflies are active during the day so communicating with light is pointless. We all know how hard it is to see a flashlight or a phone screen on a bright day. So instead of flashing or glowing, dark fireflies communicate using chemical signals called pheromones.

See the graphic above from a Xerces Society brochure. Carnivorous fireflies are depicted on the left, larvae and glow-worms are along the bottom, and dark and flashing fireflies are on the right. Click the image to read more!

Habitat for Fireflies

Fireflies need specific habitats to survive. Firstly, they need darkness. Over 75% of firefly species communicate at twilight or during the night by flashing or glowing. Artificial light from windows, garage lights, street lights, etc. contributes to light pollution. We have all witnessed light pollution – it is obviously harder to see the stars in the city versus the country. Fireflies have a similar problem seeing each other’s flashes through light pollution at night. This is a major issue because if they cannot find each other, they cannot mate and produce the next generation. Dark Sky International has great resources on this subject, including the graphic depicting light pollution.

Secondly, fireflies need their natural habitats. This means a diverse set of native plants with varying heights, including trees, undisturbed streams, and other water features. Plant diversity gives females different heights to perch on for mating, and water resources ensure a moist environment for larvae. So what can you do at home to support and attract fireflies?

Attract Your Own Light Show

To make your home firefly-friendly, lower light pollution. This is simple, and saves energy and money! It also helps migrating birds and moths. Use curtains, not just mini blinds, to seal light inside. Put outdoor lights on a timer or use a motion sensor. Opt for red or warm-colored light bulbs (or add several layers of a red filter to your current LED bulbs). Red light doesn’t bother wildlife nearly as much as white or blue LED lights. Trees can help shade out the glow of street lights, and lights that shade the light down rather than up and out also help. Ask your neighbors to take similar steps – light pollution doesn’t stop at property lines! Another simple step is to stop using grub and slug killers on your lawn and garden – they harm not just slugs and grubs, but the firefly larvae that feed on them. Mowing less helps a great deal and an easy step to take. Add native plants when you can. Add flowers, bushes, and grasses as you go to create different kinds of perches for female fireflies and safe places to hide during the day. Leave leaf litter and logs retain moisture and give overwintering fireflies a cozy place to stay. Fireflies aren’t very mobile (think of how easy they are to catch), and if something happens to their habitat, they are not able to move quickly to a better location, especially when they are larvae.

Firefly flashes can be seen in the above picture. Photographers use long exposures with cameras to capture the light of many fireflies at once, and to “see” better in the dark.

There are few pictures more nostalgic than fireflies in a jar. The amount of fireflies captured in this jar is a good amount – it’s not too crowded. Adding some leaves and sticks to perch on, along with a piece of damp paper towel, would make this jar even better.

Fireflies as Night-Lights

In my opinion, and the opinion of Dr. Sara Lewis, it is perfectly fine to collect fireflies in a jar responsibly. It’s great that kids and adults alike want to observe them closely! The best place to observe fireflies is a place with taller or native vegetation, with trees, near a river or stream. Start looking for flashes around dusk. Watch for different flash sequences and see if you can identify different species! Gently catch fireflies with your hand or a net and place them in a large jar with a damp (not sopping wet) piece of paper towel or a small piece of apple. You especially want to include a damp paper towel if your jar lid has “air holes” in it (fireflies can dry out quickly). I recommend letting captured fireflies go in the place you caught them before you leave or go indoors for the night. This is because Iowa does have carnivorous fireflies, and if you accidentally capture them and the kind of fireflies they eat, you will have an all-night feeding frenzy. Not the end of the world, but it can be upsetting. Also as previously mentioned, fireflies can dry out in the jar overnight. Lastly, if you caught the fireflies in a public place like a park, please let them go before you leave so that others can enjoy those fireflies –  you don’t want to keep the magic from others.

If you catch fireflies in your own backyard and periodically want to wait until morning to let them go, you can learn ahead of time what the carnivorous firefly looks like and remove them before you go to sleep – they won’t bite and can’t hurt you. Also, don’t collect so many fireflies that they cover the sides of the jar. I remember waking up as a kid with a jar full of dead fireflies on my nightstand and feeling sad and guilty. Not overcrowding the jar and keeping it slightly moist will make firefly collecting a positive experience! Don’t forget to release your overnight guests in the morning in vegetation near where you caught them.

There is a sort of magic that happens when kids catch a firefly for the first time. However, these little jewels are real insects, with real problems we can help solve. We also don’t know much about these shining beetles, and need more community scientists reporting what they see. By reporting firefly sightings, choosing a few light-reducing options, and creating more native and pesticide-free habitats, we can experience the joy of watching fireflies each summer for generations!

More Resources and Fun Links:

Firefly-Friendly Lighting Practices (The Xerces Society).

The Firefly Atlas – Community Science by The Xerces Society.

Firefly Watch – Community Science by Mass Audubon.

Fantastic children’s book: The Very Lonely Firefly.

Dr. Sara Lewis’s website.

The Firefly Experience – an Iowan’s beautiful firefly photography and videos!

What are synchronous fireflies?

What are blue ghost fireflies?

How to Start Caring About Pollinators: A Guide for Iowans

How to Start Caring About Pollinators: A Guide for Iowans

Now that the City of Ames has its own Pollinator Plan, we know how the city feels about Iowa’s native pollinators. But what about individual Iowans? We asked three central Iowans from vastly different backgrounds about how they 1) came to appreciate pollinators and wildlife in general, 2) what catalyzed their appreciation into action, and 3) how they stay energized and hopeful for the future of pollinators and our natural environment as a whole. Lori Biederman, Lynn Kellner, and Todd Burras share their journeys with us here.

A trout lily at Brookside Park, where Lori has spearheaded a Plant Corps with Friends of Brookside Park to remove invasive plants.

Lori Biederman – Ames, Iowa

I grew up on a 10-acre hobby farm in southern MN and both of my parents are biologists.  I spent much of the summer playing outside. I was tuned into the natural world, but mostly for plants, and did not think too much about insects.

I started appreciating pollinators relatively recently. Although I have two advanced degrees in ecology, my focus has been on plants and the soil. Animals in general were just not my focus area. However, now when I’m outside working at field sites or in my garden, I like noticing the activity of birds and insects around me. This suits me as I get older and cannot move as quickly as I used to; plants don’t mind activity around them, however animals such as pollinators require sitting still and watching.

As an ecologist, my gardening philosophy aligns with my training – plants will sort themselves out to the conditions they like. Because native plants are adapted to local conditions, they are the easiest to grow! Now I have lots of plants to enjoy. My backyard is forested and unmanaged; I buy forest seed every year from Prairie Moon Nursery and spread it around – plants pop up when they are in a good place that matches their sunlight and moisture needs. Right now my backyard is full of purple giant hyssop and it’s covered with various bees, from big bumble bees to small little sweat bees!

I am in despair about the loss of biodiversity, but people can only appreciate what they know. I try to share my excitement about different organisms, and I am also learning new things too, which is always fun!

Lynn Kellner – Des Moines, Iowa

Growing up, my mother always had a yard full of flowers, fed the birds, watched butterflies, and loved the natural world. She was always reading, learning, and sharing. She inspired me, and I count it as one of her greatest gifts to me. No matter where I’ve lived, I’ve always had flower gardens, vegetable gardens, herb gardens, and bird feeders, and I’ve learned more as time has passed. I started deeply appreciating pollinators in 1981 when my then 5-year-old daughter and I searched a country road’s ditch for monarch caterpillars for a school project. As the class watched the caterpillars transform to butterflies, we learned all about milkweed, host plants for other moths and butterflies, and learned that some flowers are better than others for supporting bees, wasps, and other insects.

I started to become concerned about insects and bees when I learned about colony collapse disorder. Since then, I’ve become even more interested in pollinators, native plants, and other wildlife. I see myself as a realist, and that’s why I have hope during insect declines and climate change. I believe in the change of seasons, in science, and I believe in the goodness and perseverance of humankind. It may not be a direct line, but we will always keep moving forward.

Snowberry Clearwing Moth

A longhorn bee in just one of Lynn’s pollinator-friendly gardens.

Todd’s business, Wild Birds Unlimited, Ames, hosts many presentations about our native wildlife.

Todd Burras – Ames, Iowa

I grew up on a farm in north-central Iowa, with parents who took a great interest in birds, animals, insects, trees, and flowers. My dad was very active in implementing soil and water conservation practices, and he and my mom planted many windbreaks, shelterbelts, waterways, and bufferstrips. It was probably inevitable that I would adopt an appreciation for the same things in which my parents were interested.

Many things that raised my curiosity converged to eventually interest me in pollinators. To complete the Story County Master Conservationist program, I started a weekly outdoors page for the Ames Tribune that ran for over 20 years. While I learned about hunting and fishing, I was introduced to federal habitat programs that, while created to help pheasants and waterfowl, had the added benefit of providing habitat for songbirds, butterflies, amphibians, and other wildlife. But it was while learning about the native flowers incorporated in the seed mixes used in these programs that I became interested in prairie and the natural history of Iowa. Through this interest, I was introduced to an entire niche group of prairie enthusiasts that opened my eyes to the wonder of what Iowa was like prior to European settlement. The desire and urgency to learn more and to be actively engaged in conservation practices took root and has been growing ever since.

My wife, Stephanie, and I started supporting wildlife and pollinators by planting trees, shrubs, and flowers – not exclusively native ones at first. We eliminated pesticide use on our property, and Stephanie started keeping honey bees. I know that honey bees can be seen in a negative light, but they really were a “spark” insect that accelerated our interest in learning about and helping other pollinators and wildlife. Lastly, our deepening friendships with other conservation-minded people have been instrumental in our evolution of trying to become better stewards of the land and all creation.

In terms of insect decline and climate change, I’m encouraged when I see people make connections between their favorite birds or butterflies with their specific habitat requirements. Once that connection is made, they begin to understand how they can steward their land to provide for, and hopefully secure a better future for, the wildlife they are interested in and all creatures that play an integral role in the ecosystem. The pollinator project undertaken by Prairie Rivers of Iowa and the City of Ames is going to accelerate these connections for countless residents, and help change the trajectory of how our community grows more environmentally friendly for years to come.

A tiny sweat bee foraging pollen on a native flower, purple prairie clover.

Tallgrass Prairie – A View from the Fly on the Gall

Tallgrass Prairie – A View from the Fly on the Gall

The North American Prairie Conference was a big conference (638 people from 24 states and 2 countries) but not all the sessions dealt with big mammals, tall grasses, and wide open spaces.  During a break from working the registration table, I caught some delightful talks by MJ Hatfield and Chris Helzer about the tiny creatures you can meet and the stories you can learn if you “walk slow, look close, and be curious” – MJ Hatfield.

Prairie at Ewing Park, Des Moines

Howdy! I’m a goldenrod gall fly (formally, Eurosta solidaginis). Have you ever seen flower stems with an odd, ball-shaped growth? These round growths are called galls, and if you’ve seen one on goldenrod, I may have been the architect that created it. But what exactly is a gall? To me, a gall is a highly specific and comfy nursery, created with a little hijacking (picture to the left © MJ Hatfield).

A gall can be about anywhere on a plant, including flowers and leaves, and are created by hijacking the plant’s hormones. You read that right. I’m a hormone hijacker. In spring, before I was born, my mother inserted her egg (me!) into the goldenrod’s stem. Later, when I hatched into a larva inside the goldenrod, I started eating the inside of the stem. My saliva contains chemicals that trick the plant into thinking the saliva is its own hormones. My saliva signals the goldenrod to grow more tissue in the feeding area (or nursery, as I like to call it). The goldenrod ends up creating a beautiful, round nursery. In short, I’ve built my very own gall. I’ll eat and grow in this goldenrod gall throughout the summer until fall. In autumn, I chew a tunnel near the outside of the gall and then pupate, waiting until spring to emerge. But how the heck am I supposed to get out of the gall?!

Goldenrod gall, by MJ Hatfield

This is where it gets seriously interesting. I have an air bag like structure on my head between my eyes. I inflate this air bag against the gall, and bam! I break through, seeing the outside world for the first time. Also, this whole process doesn’t hurt the goldenrod. It nearly always flowers like normal and continues enjoying life as a goldenrod plant.

My species can’t survive in any other plant. Because I’m a weak flier, I will probably stay in the same neighborhood that I grew up in. I hope nothing happens to this patch of goldenrod…I’m not sure if I could make it to a different prairie patch. Maybe if there were more prairie plantings, it wouldn’t be so drastic if changes came to my neighborhood. The prairie restorations could act as a safety net.

Goldenrod gall with gall fly, by MJ Hatfield

As the goldenrod gall fly, my entire life and future requires the presence of goldenrod. And I’m not the only one! At least two moth species also make galls on goldenrod.  There are quite a few bees that rely solely on goldenrod pollen. You might think we are picky, but can you imagine how hard it is to find a home that you can not only live in, but also eat? And us gall flies have to develop specific chemicals in order to hijack specific plant hormones to even make our home and food. It’s very complicated, and we can’t just change all that with a snap of our wings!

Stiff leaf goldenrod, photo credit Dan Haug

Many people now know that monarch caterpillars can only eat milkweed, and are planting gardens with milkweed to help them.  That’s great, but monarch butterflies are not the only insect that needs a certain plant for food or shelter. Sawtooth sunflower has four different species of gall-forming insects that dependent upon it. The blue sage bee requires pollen it can only get from blue sage flowers.  Swallowtail butterflies rely on plants in the carrot family (such as golden alexander).  Make room for a diverse prairie planting and you could be supporting ten times as many species of insects, many of them so small or well-camouflaged that few people have ever met them!

How a Pollinator Plan can Enrich Life in Ames

How a Pollinator Plan can Enrich Life in Ames

Luna Moth

Prairie Rivers of Iowa, Ames Public Works, and the Pollinator Task Force with Mayor Haila proclaiming Pollinator Week and the Ames Pollinator-Friendly Community Plan.

June is National Pollinator Month!

We are *buzzing* with exciting news! Mayor John Haila recently proclaimed National Pollinator Week in Ames, starting on Monday, June 19. Additionally, Haila announced a plan to make Ames a more pollinator-friendly city! To our knowledge, Ames is the first city in the United States to create its own 10-year plan, tailor-made for Ames residents and Iowa-native pollinators. Prairie Rivers of Iowa partnered with the City of Ames Public Works Department to organize a Pollinator Task Force, comprised of Ames residents, who came together to write the City of Ames Pollinator-Friendly Community Plan. Prairie Rivers and the City of Ames are now calling on even more residents to get involved in implementing this 10-year plan. You may be asking: ‘Why proclaim a national pollinator week, and why should we have a plan concerning pollinators for Ames?’. Because supporting pollinators is supporting the Ames community!

Do you like apple pie topped with ice cream? Thank pollinators!

Supporting Pollinators = Supporting Our Food

A pollinator is any animal (insect, bird, mammal) that moves pollen between flowers (the Ames Pollinator Plan focuses on supporting native bees, butterflies, moths, and other insects). The pollen exchange facilitated by pollinators allows plants to be fertilized and consequently grow fruits and seed. The fruits and seed produced with the help of pollinators is infinitely important! About one-third of our global food supply depends upon pollinators. If you like almonds, apples, tomatoes, or even steak and butter, you have pollinators to thank. Wait, steak and butter? Yes indeed. Pollinators are very important in producing seed for growing alfalfa, a hay crop fed to beef and dairy cattle. Without hay in livestock rations, it would be harder to access all things cattle, from ice cream to beef tacos. Lastly, almost 90% of flowering plants depend on pollinators! If you like seeing wildflowers on hikes or along roadsides, then you should want to keep pollinators around. Imagine if we lost nearly all of our flowering species? Our landscapes would be quite boring and colorless, and our plates would look more empty.

Supporting Pollinators = Supporting Ames’ Natural Resources

Yes, pollinators are very important for food crops at the national and global scale. But what are some benefits that we will be able to see locally, here in Ames? We’ll list two: 1) our water quality and 2) our soil health could be improved by planting pollinator habitat. One of the best ways to support pollinators is by planting native vegetation, or plants that have evolved and are originally from Iowa. Pollinators eat the nectar and pollen of these plants, and some also create nests in their stems. Many native plants are perennial, and because of this have expansive, thick root systems. Planting a patch of native plants is similar to casting a thick, wide net underground. This net of roots holds soil in place on slopes, soaks up extra water during heavy rain, and absorbs excess chemicals such as fertilizers and pesticides as water moves through. These actions provided through native vegetation will lower erosion, mitigate flooding, and keep our local waterways cleaner if planted in the right areas.

Pollinator habitat also supports water quality!

Luna Moth

Planting for pollinators is also planting for people.

Additionally, because these plants are well-adapted to Iowa, they need fewer inputs such as pesticides and thrive without fertilizer. This creates a low-input, sustainable planting system. Lastly, creating a good pollinator habitat will create a good human habitat (see graphic on page 4 of link). Bear with me here. Being surrouned by greenery and wildlife such as butterflies reduces stress and stimulates curiosity and creativity. Strategically planting more diverse vegetation and flowering plants may increase the observations of birds, butterflies, and other wildlife, which could have a positive impact on the mental health of Ames residents. This plan will support the pollinator community to address food insecurity, ecological health, offset the impacts of climate change, and will serve as an example for other cities around the world. Supporting pollinators truly supports the Ames community and beyond!

So What’s in this Plan?

The vision of the Pollinator Plan is for the City of Ames “to become a leader in developing and sustaining pollinator habitat that will enrich the quality of life for the human and biological communities of Ames“. Besides creating habitat that benefits pollinators and people, this plan also contains four pathways to bring this vision to life: 1) public education about pollinators and other important wildlife in Ames, 2) policy enhancements to support habitat implementation in the city, 3) research current and future conditions for pollinators and residents, and 4) the creation/strengthening of partnerships to use all resources to the fullest potential. Through education, policy, research, and partnerships, our plan will leverage the excitement and interest in pollinators to reach a beautiful vision of Ames: a more engaging, sustainable, beautiful, and healthy place that will not only serve pollinators, but the people and visitors of Ames.

You can read the plan in its entirety on the City of Ames’ Bird and Pollinator Friendly Community webpage!

Do you live in the Ames area? Are you excited to be a part of this vision for Ames? If so, click the blue button to fill out our volunteer form! You can also contact Jessica Butters at or call 515-232-0048 to let us know you are interested in volunteering!