Prairie Rivers of Iowa Has Had a Busy and Productive 2023

Prairie Rivers of Iowa Has Had a Busy and Productive 2023

Hello and Happy Fall,

Prairie Rivers of Iowa has had a busy and productive 2023 in Iowa, working on a variety of important initiatives related to creating a healthier natural environment and preserving the rich cultural heritage of Iowa.   As we end this year, we have touched kids, families, landowners, historic homeowners and business owners, communities, natural resource professionals, like-minded not-for-profits and oversaw a national prairie conference in Iowa.

Here’s a summary of some of the key accomplishments and initiatives this year:

EDUCATIONAL VIDEO SERIES – We created a weekly video series for YouTube and Instagram The Clean Water Act: 50 Years, 50 Facts. We produced 45 short videos filmed at dozens of locations (including knee deep in a marsh) and featuring 5 music parodies.  The educational videos covered various aspects of water conservation, law and policy.

Water Testing Ioway Creek Near Stratford in Hamitlon County

MONTHLY STREAM MONITORINGConducted monthly monitoring of at least 15 streams, providing updates in the Prairie Rivers monthly newsletter.  Additionally, coordinated volunteer “snapshots” with neighboring counties and supported school groups interested in water monitoring. Additionally, we published a 65-page report analyzing water quality data, including a novel way of looking at the data.

SECURED A NATIONAL FOUNDATION GRANT – This grant assists us in building a network for interpreting water quality monitoring data.  Seven partners joined Prairie Rivers to focus at sharing best practices, looking for tools to monitor E. coli in our streams, providing a monthly opportunity to express their concerns and planning for an Iowa Water Summit in 2024.

Ioway Creek Cleanup

TWO TRASH CLEANUPS — (1) May 2023 — Cleaned Ioway Creek by canoe, S. Grand to S. 16th St (Ames), 40 participants.  The trash collected weighed 3,020 pounds and included 20 tires and three rims. Partners included: Story County Conservation, Skunk River Paddlers, the City of Ames, Outdoor Alliance of Story County.  (2) August 14, 2023 – Cleaned a tributary of Ioway Creek in Stuart Smith Park (Ames), on foot, nine volunteers, 350 pounds of trash removed.  Partners included Iowa Rivers Revival, Green Iowa AmeriCorps and the City of Ames.

POLLINATOR CONSERVATION Launched a 10-year plan involving over 40 persons serving on a committee to support pollinator conservation.  This plan is aimed at conserving pollinators and their habitats, which are crucial for the environment.  You can see the plan at

Monarch Magic Family Fun Event on September 9th, 2023

MONARCH MAGIC Held the first Monarch tagging event in September, where over 300 kids, their families, and others learned about pollinators and tagged 146 Monarchs.  We had 10 sponsors and partners at Ada Hayden Heritage Park and plan to do it again in 2024.

HISTORIC RESOURCE PRESERVATIONReceived a grant from Iowa Cultural Affairs and successfully surveyed 319 historic listings on the Lincoln Highway National Heritage Byway.  In 2024, we will present the findings to elected officials and other interested persons in the 43 communities along the Byway to inform and develop a plan for the restoration and preservation of these important Iowa heritage properties.

BYWAY COORDINATOR AND PROJECTS – Hired a new Byway Coordinator, Jeanie Hau, who is actively working to support our Byway projects.  Prairie Rivers signed a new contract with the Iowa DOT to support work on the Iowa Valley Scenic Byway extending our efforts to preserve Iowa’s heritage.  This Byway begins on Highway 30, Montour turnoff, and travels through the Amana Colonies for a total of 77 miles.

TRAVELING EXHIBITThe Lincoln Highway National Heritage Byway traveling exhibit called The Promise Road:  How the Lincoln Highway Changed America has been displayed at various locations, allowing visitors to learn about the rich history of this historic road.  It’s available for display in museums, libraries, and other community spaces.  So far the exhibit has traveled to Jefferson, Grand Junction, State Center, Nevada, Linn County Historical Society: The History Center, Cedar Rapids History Museum, Nevada Library, Marion Public Library, Carroll Public Library, Harrison County Welcome Center, and currently at the Council Bluffs Public Library.

Lincoln Highway National Heritage Byway Traveling Exhibit

We cannot do this work without your support!

Today, we are asking you as a supporter to make an end-of-year gift of $50.00 to Prairie Rivers of Iowa.  Your support shows us to keep up the good work!   You can make a gift here online or by going to our donation page for additional options. We know that as good stewards of the land, you see how important this work is today.

It is so important for a not-for-profit to receive gifts from individuals. Hearing from you encourages and supports our very difficult work in support of the natural and cultural resources in Iowa.
Thank you!

Board of Directors
Reed Riskedahl, President
Mark Rasmussen, Treasurer
Doug Cooper, Secretary
Erv Klaas
Bob Ausberger
Chuck Stewart
Rick Dietz
Jim Richardson
Christopher Barber

Penny Brown Huber, Executive Director
Mike Kellner, Marketing and Public Relations
Dan Haug, Water Quality Specialist
Jessica Butters, Pollinator Conservation Specialist
Jeanie Hau, Lincoln Highway National Heritage Byway & Iowa Valley Scenic Byway Coordinator
Carman Rosburg, Office Manager
Daniel Huber, Technology
Shellie Orngard, Historic Properties Consultant

One-Time Donate to Prairie Rivers of Iowa
Unexpected Friends: Bugs Are Not Invading Your Home

Unexpected Friends: Bugs Are Not Invading Your Home

This time of year we seem to notice more bugs* indoors. For some people this isn’t worrisome. For others, it may mean frantic googling to ensure you’re not seeing an unknown pest. In this article, we discuss 1) trustworthy sources of information about bugs in the home, 2) common bug misconceptions, and 3) which bugs you might see in your house this time of year.

 *The term “bug” in this article is being used to refer to any insect, spider, or other arthropod. Technically, the word “bug” refers to insects within the order Hemiptera, which is a specific group of insects. We are using this term generally to keep the text simple.

Let’s get right down to it: pest control company websites are not good sources of information. Many are hoping to sell you a service. Some companies may state on their website that certain bugs are harmless, but a nuisance. This is an accurate statement (although, is the bug actively annoying you, or are they just standing on your wall 10 feet away?). However, these companies continue on to exaggerate the venom in spider bites (more on this later), rare allergic reactions, and inflate the idea that bugs are trying to “invade” your home (most are not). Additionally, I’ve found pest control companies that call some insects beetles that are clearly not beetles, and make false statements about native bee nesting behavior. Pest control’s expertise is in extermination, specifically of truly harmful pests. When it comes to harmless bugs, which is what you are likely finding in your house, they simply do not have good information.

The best place to learn about a bug in your house is through university and extension websites. These websites are created with a focus of educating the public, not selling services. If you look through these websites and can’t find information about your specific bug, Iowa State University offers free photo identification through their Plant and Insect Diagnostic Clinic, and their entomology department staff would probably be willing to receive bug photos through email as well. You can also email me photos of your bugs for free here!

Unfortunately, when you google “house bugs in winter”, pest control companies have paid to be the links that appear at the top of the return list. You’ll have to scroll down to get better sources to answer your question or add terms like “university” or “extension” to your search. I also love to read Chris Helzer’s blog, articles from the Xerces Society, and our Prairie Rivers newsletter to get truthful and fascinating information about bugs!

Glowing Jack-O-Lantern

Bugs add beauty to our world!

Common bug misconceptions

No, most bugs are not actively trying to enter your house. Bugs are adapted to thrive outside, and mostly wander in by accident or are brought in by you through clothing or wood for your fireplace. No offense, but most bugs think your home is a subpar habitat. Compared to the outdoors, your house is probably too dry (many bugs are prone to drying out, which is lethal to them). Secondly, your house has very little food in terms of dead leaves, other bugs, and plants. You may have indoor plants, but they are probably not what most bugs are adapted to eat. Lastly, many bugs in Iowa overwinter outside, near or in the ground, as larvae, eggs or pupae. The adult bugs you see are likely on their final days because most adult bugs in Iowa are not adapted to surviving winter. If they do overwinter as adults, they are likely slow, don’t eat much (if at all), and don’t reproduce. The best way to keep bugs out of your home is to caulk holes and cracks, check screens for holes, and fix any drafts in doors and windows. Many pest control companies boast about their pesticide treatments that “create a border/defense” around your house to keep all bugs out. This kind of broad treatment will also harm non-pest insects, such as next year’s fireflies (their juveniles overwinter in soil), ground-nesting bees, and other beneficial insects.

Bugs you may see around your house this winter

Spiders: Some spiders have the ability to bite, but most will not unless they are handled roughly. They are not “invading” your home. They may have been in your house for a while, but are now more active because it’s mating season. Another reason you may see them more is because your doors and windows were open thanks to the lovely fall weather, and they wandered inside. Serious reactions to spider bites are very rare. Even the brown recluse spider avoids people, and only 10% of people develop a reaction to their bite. Truly: 90% of people who are bit by brown recluses are completely fine, with no complications or problems. A quick iNaturalist search will show you how rare brown recluses and black widows are in Iowa. If a spider (or really any bug) bothers you, catch them and release them outside, or vacuum them up and empty your vacuum (minus the household waste) outside.

Reversed Haploa Moth

A pretty emerald jumping spider.

Multicolored Asian lady beetles (Harmonia axyridis): These beetles are not native to Iowa, though they look similar to many of our native species. They helped you in the garden all summer by eating aphids and other pests. Yes, they can nip if handled, but it feels like a small prick and leaves no resulting bump or itchiness. Like most bugs, they do not reproduce in homes. Lastly, don’t you think this is the cutest bug you could hope to find in your house? I’m always happy to find one inside when it’s cold out; it’s like a small piece of summer reappeared.

Common Buckeye

The cute multicolored Asian lady beetle.

Brown marmorated stink bugs (Halyomorpha halys): These bugs are not native to Iowa, and may nibble on some indoor plants. Yes, they do seek warmth, but they want to stay outside, where they receive direct sunlight. If found indoors, know that they didn’t mean to find a gap in your window and wander in. I only get them when I don’t check outdoor plants before bringing them inside. These bugs only stink if you smash them, so be sure to catch and release them or vacuum them up. They will not reproduce/lay eggs during winter. I’ve never been bit or smelled anything foul by just removing them with my hands and tossing them out the door into some bushes.

Common Buckeye

The friendly stink bug!

Boxelder bugs (Boisea trivittata): Yes, they gather on the sunny sides of buildings for warmth, but that’s where they want to stay. Maybe when you opened your door two of them were swished inside. These bugs are great because they don’t bite, don’t harm plants, don’t eat human food, and do not reproduce during the winter. They don’t even harm the plants they’re famous for feeding on (boxelder and maple trees)! They have cool red lines and little red eyes, making them look like little superheroes or race cars, which I find quite endearing!

Swallowtail Caterpillar

The boxelder bug with racing stripes.

As the days get colder, try to be curious and more understanding when you find a bug unexpectedly in your house. They are not invading vermin; oftentimes they are friendly wanderers that found a crack near your window. Take some time to take pictures and learn about the bug before releasing it outside. You might learn something new, and it would be a nice reminder of summer during some of the drearier days of the year.

Support bugs this season by leaving your leaves, keeping your outdoor lights wildlife-friendly, and staying curious!

Other great sources to learn more about bugs are the University of Wisconsin’s Bug of the Week and the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Further reading: An article explaining a study by the California Academy of Sciences on the ecology of bugs found in homes (homes are likely a passive travel area for bugs, and not an attraction).

Five Stages of Watershed Awareness

Five Stages of Watershed Awareness

October is Watershed Awareness Month, by proclamation of Story County Conservation Board and city councils in Ames, Nevada, and Gilbert. Okay, so what exactly do we want people to be aware of? I would suggest the following progression…

Stage 1 of watershed awareness

Stage 1: What’s a watershed?  Who cares?

A watershed is the land area that drains to a common outlet. Imagine a river valley between two mountain ridges. Now replace that mental image with gentle hills–we’re in Iowa. But more important than knowing the definition is understanding why it’s important: because water flows downhill, actions on land can have consequences for downstream water bodies.

Perhaps the best illustration of this principle is an incident from 2020. Following a power outage, some Hy-Vee employees in Ankeny poured 800 gallons of spoiled milk down a storm sewer, turning the nearby creek white, killing 2,000 fish, and costing their employer almost $25,000 in fines and restitution. The silver lining of this boneheaded decision was that it made the news and reminded many Iowans that yes, storm sewers drain to rivers (usually without any treatment) and so we should think twice about what we pour or let wash in. The same principle applies to ditches, gullies, and drainage tiles.

Want a more positive framing? Watch this one-minute video we created with the City of Ames about the South Skunk River, and how cities and farms in the watershed can make a difference.

Stage 2 of watershed awareness.

 Stage 2: What’s my watershed(s)?

It’s one thing to know that my actions could (in principle) help or harm some downstream water body. It’s another thing to know that what goes down my neighborhood storm drain ends up in Ioway Creek at Brookside Park, a place where I’ve taken my kids to play. In 2018, we partnered with Story County Conservation to put up watershed and creek signs, in hopes that more people make those kinds of connections.

Creeks flow to rivers and rivers flow to the sea (except in endorheic basins) so we live in multiple, nested watersheds.  A convenient way to represent this is with the US Geologic Survey’s Watershed Boundary Dataset, which has mapped American watersheds at six levels and assigned them each a unique hydrologic unit code (HUC).  You can look up your “watershed address” with our interactive map.  For example, that grocery store in Ankeny is in the lower Fourmile Creek watershed, within the watershed of Red Rock Lake, within the watershed of the Des Moines River, and within the upper part of the giant Mississippi River basin.

Watershed awareness, stage 3

Stage 3: Who are the other people in my watershed?

One reason to learn which watershed you live in is to connect with other people who are concerned with flooding, water quality, fisheries, and recreation.

Twenty-eight watersheds in Iowa have a Watershed Management Authority with representatives from local governments in the watershed (cities, counties, and soil and water conservation districts) who might collaborate on water quality or flood control projects.  Fourmile Creek WMA is one of the more active WMAs; its member jurisdictions pooled money to hire a watershed coordinator who can work with farmers and landowners.  In some watersheds, farmers and landowners have access to additional cost-share programs or receive higher priority when they apply.

In some watersheds, a volunteer group, land trust, or other non-profit organization organizes projects to protect the water or raise public awareness.  For example, the lake at Ada Hayden Heritage Park in Ames has a friends group, while the Raccoon River has a volunteer Watershed Association in addition to three WMAs.


Unfortunately, I’m not aware of any central clearing house where one can find out what groups and projects are active in your watershed. I’m also not aware of any plans by state leaders to provide WMAs with stable funding or to delegate to them any powers that would help them accomplish their tasks. Watershed projects tend to be grant-funded (and thus short-lived) and watershed coordinator jobs often have high turnover.

Stage 4 of watershed awareness

Stage 4: What are the issues in my watershed?

Some watersheds have management plans (like this one for Fourmile Creek) that identify creek- or lake-specific problems and solutions. However, in many cases, the data needed to evaluate a problem and track progress toward solutions is missing until volunteers, universities or local government step up to do monitoring.

Knowing which issues go with which watershed can help us prioritize and find solutions.

  • Not every stream has the right conditions to support a trout fishery (like Bloody Run in Clayton County).
  • Not every stream has a history of destructive floods (like Fourmile Creek in Polk County).
  • Not every lake or reservoir has suffered from toxic algae blooms (like Brushy Creek Lake in Webster County).
  • Not every river is deep enough and has access for canoeing (like the South Skunk River in Story County).
  • Not every river affects the supply and safety of drinking water for thousands of people (like the Raccoon and Cedar rivers).
Stage 5 of watershed awareness

Stage 5: How big are the problems and solutions in my watershed?

The most difficult thing to understand about a watershed is the scale.  It helps to have some familiar reference points.  Here are some of mine.  (I’ve used an app that makes it easy to delineate a watershed for any point of interest.  The area is rounded to the nearest 100 acres.)

  • 1,000 acres: Creek at Tedeco Environmental Learning Corridor, Ames.
  • 5,900 acres: Peas Creek at the Ledges State Park.

At the HUC12 scale, most creeks are too wide to jump across, but shallow enough to wade.  Watersheds are small enough to fit in one county.

  • 14,100 acres: Walnut Creek at Neil Smith National Wildlife Refuge
  • 24,000 acres: Bloody Run at Marquette.
  • 56,800 acres: Fourmile Creek at Sargent Park in Des Moines.

At the HUC10 scale, it might be called a creek, but it often has enough water to float a canoe, and watersheds usually cross a few county and city lines.

  • 132,700 acres: Ioway Creek at Brookside Park in Ames.
  • 173,500 acres: Maquoketa River at Manchester.
  • 209,300 acres: South Skunk River at River Valley Park in Ames.
  • 356,100 acres: Rathbun Lake

At the HUC8 scale and beyond, the rivers are big and the watershed meetings can involve many jurisdictions and long drives.

  • 586,400 acres: Floyd River at Sioux City
  • 1,285,200 acres: North Raccoon River at Squirrel Hollow Park in Jefferson
  • 2,306,200 acres: Racoon River at Waterworks Park, Des Moines
  • 3,733,300 acres: Des Moines River at Saylorville Reservoir
  • 97,191,700 acres: Mississippi River at Dubuque

For each of these watersheds, you’d need to plant about a third of the cropland to cover crops to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus in the stream by 10%.  Most watershed plans will include more ambitious long-term goals and more complicated scenarios to achieve them, but this is a handy benchmark for thinking about the scale of change needed.  Reaching the 1/3 mark for cover crops in a watershed would be good progress toward our 45% nutrient reduction goals and could produce a big enough improvement in water quality in the stream that we could conceivably measure it, though maybe not with test strips (i.e. from 10 to 9 mg/L of nitrate, from 0.40 to 0.36 mg/L of total phosphorus).

I don’t mean to discourage anyone, but I’m not aware of any watershed project in Iowa that has achieved success on this scale.

How to Have a Delightful Halloween Hike

How to Have a Delightful Halloween Hike

As the rays of summer creep towards the embers of autumn, now is a great time to go on a long walk to breathe in the changing of the seasons. While most people will be putting up lights and hoarding candy for Halloween, you can hit the trails to see some of the most interesting and spooky beings found naturally, right here in Iowa! Here we compile all things October to give you the best time to hike, where to find fairy fires and ghostly plants, and facts about curious birds this autumn.

Fantastic Foliage and When to Find It

To enjoy the best fall leaf display, the best practice is to go for a walk each day. If this is impossible, or you love planning, check the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ Fall Color Report online (or sign up for email updates on their report page).

Toadstools at Twilight

Did you know that Iowa is home to glowing mushrooms?! The Jack-O’-Lantern mushroom (Omphalotus illudens) is pumpkin-orange in daylight, and lights up at night! Its light, also called fox fire or fairy fire, is created through bioluminescence. Remember that mushrooms are merely the reproductive parts of fungi. The majority of the fungus is actually underground. To find Jack-O’-Lantern mushrooms, search forests during the day for orange, classic-shaped mushrooms at the base of trees, and then return to areas where you found them on a dark night (with a friend for safety!). Give your eyes time to adjust after you put your lights out – the glow comes from the gills (on the underside of the mushroom) and will be faint. Please don’t harvest the mushrooms – they are poisonous.

Glowing Jack-O-Lantern

Glowing Jack-O’-Lanterns on a dark night

Peculiar Plants

Some native plants you can see now in central Iowa, with quintessential Halloween-like names, include “false boneset,” “doll’s eyes,” and “ghost plant.” False boneset (Brickellia eupatorioides) is named for the fact that its bone-colored flowers and plant structure resemble “true” boneset flowers. However, it is in a different genus of plants. False boneset is an important late-blooming flower for pollinators, and has a fluffy white display after flowering. It also does not spread aggressively, making it a great addition to pollinator gardens.

Sweetheart Underwing Moth

False boneset in bloom

“Doll’s eyes” (white baneberry, Actaea pachypoda), is native to eastern Iowa. This small shrub produces white berries with a large black spot in the center, looking eerily like doll eyes. Adding to this eeriness, the “eyes” are poisonous to mammals, including humans. The closely related red baneberry (Actaea rubra) is native to central Iowa and sometimes produces white berries as well. Berries of both plants are eaten by birds, who don’t digest the poisonous seeds. You can find both plants in forested, shady areas with deep leaf layers.

Reversed Haploa Moth

Doll’s Eyes keep watch in the forest

Ghost plants (Monotropa uniflora) are the star of our peculiar plant category. This plant is truly ghostly white, containing no chlorophyll (read: no green color) for photosynthesis. So how does it get its nutrients? It steals it from fungi! The fungi (specifically, mycorrhizae) share nutrients with neighboring tree roots, and the ghost plant taps into this nutrition-sharing system to help itself. October is near the end of this plant’s flowering season, but the best chances of finding it are in undisturbed forest areas with a deep organic layer.

Common Buckeye

Pale Ghost Plants on the forest floor

Alluring Animals

The harbinger of spooky season is the caw of the crow. Though present year-round, they are more appreciated during the twilight of the year. Seemingly ominous with their dark feathers and willingness to scavenge, these birds are in fact quite endearing. Not only are they intelligent enough to create and use tools to get food, but their offspring, once grown, normally return the next year to help tend to their younger siblings! Maybe groups of crows should be called “families” rather than “murders.” Lastly, how can you tell the difference between a crow and a raven? Firstly, ravens aren’t really found in Iowa – the closest area of their range is in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin. Secondly, the classic “caw” sound is distinctly crow, while ravens croak instead.

Swallowtail Caterpillar

A crow perches in a young tree

October is a lovely time of year, providing unparalleled weather and colors to enjoy Iowa’s outdoors. It is easy to agree with Aldo Leopold’s musing, that “…other months were constituted mainly as a fitting interlude between Octobers.” May you soak up this golden month of the year, and all it has to offer!

Monarch Magic in Ames Was a Day of Adventurous Fun!

Monarch Magic in Ames Was a Day of Adventurous Fun!

Prairie Rivers of Iowa hosted the family-friendly event Monarch Magic on Saturday, September 9, at Ada Hayden Heritage Park in Ames. Attendees had the experience of tagging a monarch butterfly to help scientists track their migration and participated in many fun activities to learn more about this butterfly and other pollinators.

Over 300 individuals were in attendance and participated in diverse activities that ranged from navigating an obstacle course where kids had fun while learning caterpillar and pollinator survival tactics to helping local scientists and naturalists weigh, measure, tag, and release monarchs. One hundred and forty-six monarchs were tagged during the event.

Besides the primary goal of tagging monarchs to aid in tracking their migration to Mexico, pollinator education was front and center as well. Raising Readers in Story County gave away over 200 pollinator-themed books. Other partners like Story County Conservation, the Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach /4-H Youth Development, and Bird Friendly Iowa shared their knowledge throughout the delightful adventure.

Monarch being release after tagging during Monarch Magic event.

Prairie Rivers of Iowa Pollinator Conservation Specialist Jessica Butters said it best, “The magic of the event was seeing a kid holding an insect, some for the first time, and participating in community science by tagging a monarch and setting it free!”

The ISU Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Organismal Biology, ISU Entomology, and Prairie Rivers of Iowa board members were on hand to share their expertise while helping with tagging.

This event would not have been possible without the support of Alliant Energy, the City of Ames, the Outdoor Alliance of Story County, and the Friends of Ada Hayden Heritage Park.

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!  <<