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 an obstacle course and other activities 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 had by all.

Monarch being release after tagging during Monarch Magic event.

Prairie Rivers of Iowa Pollinator Conservation Specialist 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.

Welcome Center On Unique Five-Mile Stretch

Welcome Center On Unique Five-Mile Stretch

Lincoln Highway National Heritage Byway Coordinator Jeanie Hau also contributed to this article.

Currently, the Lincoln Highway Traveling Exhibit is at the Harrison County Historical Village and Welcome Center located three miles northeast of Missouri Valley, Iowa. So we thought there was no better time to tell you about this exceptional complex. Owned and operated by Harrison County Conservation, the welcome center is on a unique five-mile stretch where three of Iowa’s Scenic and Heritage Byways coexist — the Western Skies Scenic Byway, the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway, and the Prairie Rivers of Iowa-managed Lincoln Highway National Heritage Byway. Furthermore, the complex is listed as a welcome center for the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.

omplex and conservation area which includes: a historical village, a playscape incorporating the Lincoln Highway theme, an old gas station turned into picnic shelter, one of Iowa’s 99 Freedom Rocks, an original Lincoln Highway Marker in its original location, and a mile long concrete and limestone hiking trail through a portion of Loess Hills. To top off the view from the complex, there is a balcony spelling out, “Lincoln Highway” and a station to take a selfie at.

The complex and conservation area includes a historical village, a playscape incorporating a Lincoln Highway theme, an old gas station turned into a picnic shelter, one of Iowa’s 99 Freedom Rocks, a Lincoln Highway Marker in its original location, and a mile-long hiking trail through a portion of Loess Hills. To top off the view from the complex, there is a balcony spelling out, “Lincoln Highway” and a selfie station. It’s wonderful to fill visitors in about the highway and how it got started,” boasts Welcome Center Program Director Kathy Dirks, “The center’s auditorium showcases historical photos of the Lincoln Highway many of which depict locations a traveler can still see today.”  Some Lincoln Highway in Iowa images that are on display include the First Seedling Mile, the Honey Creek Cut, the Iowa Lincoln Highway Bridge in Tama, and Lincoln Way in Ames that many visitors find it hard to believe was once a muddy road Dirks remarked.

Harrison County Welome Center Playscape
Welcome Center Lincoln Highway Viewpoint
Old Gas Station Picnic Shelter
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!  <<

The Historic Lincoln Highway Bridge Is In Danger!

The Historic Lincoln Highway Bridge Is In Danger!

The Lincoln Highway Bridge in Tama, IA, once again needs your help to survive. Due to severe deterioration, engineers say it should be replaced if it’s going to continue serving as a truck route. The Tama City Council is holding a public hearing Monday, August 21, at 5:30 pm, at the Tama City Auditorium to hear comments on whether to repair or replace the bridge.

If you can attend the meeting and speak, please do so. If you can’t attend, you can send comments to , and / or make a comment below and we’ll pass it along to make sure you are heard.

Lincoln Highway Bridge in Tama, IA needs your help!

If you commented before, feel free to recycle your earlier comments. Possible topics include but are not limited to: What does the Tama Bridge mean to you? What special memories of the bridge, do you have? What would be lost if the bridge were replaced? 

Two ways to save the bridge the Council might consider are 1) Make the LH Bridge a pedestrian-only bridge and create a new truck route, and 2) Redesign the replacement bridge with modern safety railings and include the historic railings and lamp posts as design elements. Option 1 is the most likely to keep the bridge on the National Register of Historic Places and maintain its historicity.

Prairie Rivers of Iowa would like to collect as many comments as possible to make sure the messages are delivered. 

Prairie Rivers of Iowa Now Managing the Iowa Valley Scenic Byway

Prairie Rivers of Iowa Now Managing the Iowa Valley Scenic Byway

It seems a good fit that Prairie Rivers of Iowa has embarked on the management of the Iowa Valley Scenic Byway under a new contract from the Iowa Department of Transportation. Especially since the 77-mile Byway intersects with the 460-mile Lincoln Highway National Heritage Byway that we’ve been managing for a number of years.

For a stretch of roadway from approximately Le Grand, IA to Belle Plaine, IA, the Iowa Valley Scenic Byway and the Lincoln Highway National Heritage Byway intersect, cross, and are often on the same route. The Lincoln Highway National Heritage Byway continues to traverse east to the Mississippi River and west the Missouri while the Iowa Valley Scenic Byway dips south through the river valley to the communities of Marengo, Homestead, and the Amana Colonies.

The Iowa Valley Byway takes you through rural agricultural land, the Iowa River wetlands/prairie, and a diverse cultural palette of Native American, Czech, and German heritages. There are trails, museums, tournaments, and festivals to teach and engage the traveler on all of the qualities which contribute to the significance of the area as a Scenic Byway of Iowa.

The Iowa Valley Byway takes you through rural agricultural land, the Iowa River wetlands and prairie, and showcases a diverse cultural palette of Native American, Czech, and German heritages. There are trails, museums, tournaments, and festivals to teach and engage the traveler on all of the qualities which contribute to the significance of the area as a Scenic Byway of Iowa.

It is anchored by two distinct cultures. At the western end of the byway is Iowa’s only Native American community, the Meskwaki Settlement. Visit the cultural center and museum, attend the annual powwow, or try your luck at the Meskwaki Bingo Casino Hotel anytime.

At the eastern end are the Seven Villages of the Amana Colonies. The Amana Colonies were created as a communal society in 1855 by Germans fleeing religious persecution. There you can find Iowa’s oldest winery, oldest microbrewery, a woolen mill, a furniture shop, a lot of great food, festivals, and a cluster of quality antique shops.

Our audio tour is a wonderful way to discover and connect with 40 special places along the Byway. It features well-known attractions, locations and unique curiosities, all of which tell an authentic, place-based story of the Iowa River Valley.

Download the audio tour brochure here to have handy on your phone or print it and take it with you as you explore the Iowa Valley Scenic Byway. Or if you prefer, listen to it via podcast here.

Visit our Byway page here to learn more and download a map and itinerary. And be sure to follow our Facebook and Instagram pages for the latest updates. See you along the Byway!

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?