The Great Mussel Rescue of 2022

The Great Mussel Rescue of 2022

Updated 2022-11-14 with final count: 53 mussels rescued, 13 of them threatened species!

Three fun facts about freshwater mussels

  1. Mussels keep streams clean. A mature freshwater mussel can filter 10 gallons of water a day, gobbling up algae and other microscopic organisms in the water.  As this video shows, mussels can clean up muddy water, but too much silt in the water can bury them alive or clog their gills.
  2. Mussels can hitch-hike long distances. Some mussel mamas have a special lure to flag down passing fish so that the baby mussels (glochidia) can hitch a ride as a parasite on the fish’s gills!
  3. Mussels are in trouble. The United States is a hotspot for freshwater mussel biodiversity but many species were nearly wiped out by over-harvest for the button industry, dams and habitat loss, and too much silt in the water.  For more about freshwater mussels, watch this PBS video.
volunteer holding mussel
mussel in Ioway creek

Two state-threatened species of mussels have been found in Ioway Creek–the cylindrical papershell (Anodontoides ferussacianus) and the creek heelsplitter (Lasmigona compressa). An erosion control and stream restoration project is planned at Brookside Park in Ames, so the Department of Natural Resources required that they be relocated before construction begins. Mussel expert Brett Ostby of Daguna Consulting was hired to lead the effort, but finding all the mussels hiding in a patch of streambed is slow work, and there was a kilometer of stream to cover. We needed volunteers…

Volunteers collecting mussels in Ioway Creek

I had been planning volunteer events to monitor water in Ioway Creek and its tributaries and to pick up trash in West Indian Creek, but low water levels forced us to cancel. Low water levels make it easier to find mussels, so Prairie Rivers of Iowa and our partners at the Outdoor Alliance of Story County switched gears and recruited 12 volunteers to help. Five of the volunteers were students at Ames High School, where I’d been talking with earth science classes about runoff and water quality.  Teachers Collin Reichert and Kean Roberts were kind enough to lend us some chest waders — essential gear if you’re planning to spend an hour or more in 45-degree water!

Since mussels can be buried in sand, we had to feel around or dislodge them with rakes. The three guys from Daguna Consulting used wet suits and snorkels to tackle some of the deeper pools. Volunteers helped when they were able over a three-day period. It’s slow, tedious work, leaving no stone unturned, but I can hardly complain about spending time in nature on a beautiful day. Ioway Creek has plenty of wildlife to see if you look long enough. I saw birds including a kingfisher, reptiles including a softshell turtle and northern water snake, and invertebrates including a hellgrammite, crayfish, and fingernail clams. For some of the students, being in the creek and seeing these critters was a new experience.

Ames High School student with crayfish
Spiny softshell turtle

Mussels were fewer and farther between than we expected.  We relocated 53 mussels (representing 5 species) to a stretch upstream of the park, where they seem to be more abundant.

  • 8 Cylindrical papershell (Anodontoides ferussacianus)
  • 5 Creek Heelsplitter (Lasmigona compressa)
  • 1 Fragile Papershell (Leptodea fragilis)
  • 37 Lilliput (Toxolasma parvum)
  • 2 Pocketbook (Lampsilis caridum)

Compare that to the results of a DNR mussel survey this year in the Iowa River near Coralville (which found 28 species, and was catching an average of 22 mussels every hour) and it’s clear that the ecosystem in Ioway Creek is out of balance.  Hopefully, this project will improve in-stream habitat so the populations grows.  Our thorough search ensures that few will be lost during construction.

PRI Iowa Water Quality Specialist Awarded as a New Voice in Water Quality

PRI Iowa Water Quality Specialist Awarded as a New Voice in Water Quality

The Conservation Learning Group, a think tank based at Iowa State University Extension and Outreach has announced the 2022 winners of its New Voices in Water Quality Awards. Prairie Rivers of Iowa Water Quality Specialist Dan Haug is one of 15 Iowans being awarded. Haug was recognized for his excellence in youth and/or community water education.

In a recent Conservation Learning Group release, its director Jacqueline Comito said, “Each of these individuals was nominated by peers and recognized for their efforts, achievements and passion for improving and restoring water quality.”

The Outdoor Alliance of Story County (OASC) has worked with Prairie Rivers of Iowa, and particularly Haug, on a number of projects. In their nomination letter, the board cited Haug for his expertise at analysis and reporting, his role as an outstanding communicator and his leadership during water quality monitoring and creek cleanup events. “We recall a cold April morning when Dan trained volunteers on identifying macroinvertebrates from Ioway Creek. His enthusiasm was infectious, and the volunteers had fun collecting and examining the samples despite the very cold water,” the OASC further states in the letter.

Volunteers Searching for Macroinvertebrates

Volunteers searching for macroinvertebrates.

Water Quality Monitoring Instruction

Haug teaching water quality testing.

Iowa State University (retired) Teaching Assistant Professor of Agronomy Laura Merrick said of Haug, “Dan has been my closest collaborator starting in 2017 on a variety of citizen-science and community-based water quality monitoring and watershed-centered coalition-building initiatives. He has grown to serve in a central guidance role to transform the nature of community collaboration for monitoring and sustainable improvement of our regional water quality in surface rivers and streams and to promote youth and community water education.

Among Haug’s many accomplishments, starting in the spring of 2020 he was instrumental in assembling in Story County a 24-member planning team that developed a 10-year water monitoring plan with Haug as its primary author. He then subsequently authored its first annual report.

“As nice as it is to be recognized by the Conservation Learning Group as part of this dedicated group of water professionals, it was even more gratifying to know that nine friends and colleagues in seven different organizations sent nomination letters on my behalf.  It really speaks to the level of collaboration we have around water monitoring and watershed projects,” Haug modestly relates.

According to Prairie Rivers of Iowa Director Penny Brown Huber, “Trying to solve critical water quality problems takes dedicated people to understand what is happening. Dan is a key link to helping the public build their understanding so change can happen to improve water quality.”

To meet all the New Voices in Water Quality Award winners visit newvoicesinwater.org.

Water quality Education at City of Ames Open House

Water quality demonstration at water plant open house.

Dan Haug During Ioway Creek Cleanup

Haug helping with Ioway Creek cleanup.

Watershed Education at Eco Fair

Watershed education at Ames Eco Fair.

A Mother’s Love: The Race to Provide

A Mother’s Love: The Race to Provide

Metallic Green Sweat Bee

A speck of sunlight warmed the face of a mother, causing her to wake and stand up. She took a few steps toward the sunlight, letting it warm her cold legs in her tunnel. Looking back at the wall of her nursery, she knew she had limited time to finish her work. Behind that wall was a row of rooms, one for each of her eggs. Each nursery room was provisioned with pollen and walled off from the others, providing a safe place to hatch, overwinter, and hopefully emerge next year. Her antennae started twitching excitedly. She tried beating her wings; they buzzed. She was warm and ready for another day’s work.

She cautiously peeped over the lip of her nest entrance. She was a metallic green sweat bee, and just last week she watched as a parasitic bee invaded one of her neighbors’ nests, ending the hope of a future generation from that mother. To keep all her efforts from being in vain, she had to leave and enter her nest in complete secrecy. She scanned the area around her, checking for someone perched on the tops of rocks or hidden in the shaded spaces between grass stems. So far so clear. She stepped out of her nest, allowing the sun to warm her entire body. Looking around once more, and seeing no sign of threat, she zipped off to start her chores.

Gathering pollen was her favorite chore. She had already started a new nursery cell; all there was left to do was to lay an egg and provide a provision of food. Using the sun as a compass, she navigated to a large patch of gold that she had seen yesterday. The yellow rays of one unoccupied flower caught her eye, and she flew into its center, landing on a blanket of brown bristles topped with yellow tufts of pollen. The buzzing of other insects at neighboring flowers reverberated in the air around her, and caused the flower to tremble even more in the breeze. The air was slowly growing cooler each day. It was taking her longer and longer to warm up enough to fly in the mornings. The frantic buzzing of other insects confirmed a sense of fear she didn’t quite understand. She sensed that she must hurry.

Native Sunflower

Thinking of her young ones back at the nest, she worked as quickly as possible, picking up pollen and snatching a mouthful for herself every now and then. As she moved across the flower, she let her body brush against as much pollen as possible. She paused periodically to comb this pollen from her abdomen, head, and feet to tuck it onto her back legs where she had thicker, hooked hair that was much better at holding pollen in place. The sun shone on, warming her even more. Through the race to gather and provide for her family, it was nice to be out in the sun and surrounded by velvety gold rays. The bristled brown underneath felt good on her feet and belly. Once she was through gathering here, she remembered a bright purple area that had looked promising.

Looking for her Nest

After a while, the little sweat bee had as much pollen as she could carry. Pushing off the sunflower, she flew back toward her nest, only pausing once for a breath on a stand of purple flowers. Back on the ground, she felt around with her antennae until she found her own nest entrance. She peered inside her dark nest. All was quiet, just how she left it. She glanced behind her. No one had seen her; her family was safe.

As she pulled pollen off her legs and rolled it into a loaf, she had a sense that this may be the last nest she would finish. She felt much more tired compared to a few weeks ago. She was particularly proud of this nest: it was in a well-hidden location, its walls were smooth, and she had a good mix of pollen from different flowers within each loaf she had made for her children. Although she would never get to meet them, she was glad they would have all the nutrition they would need to start a successful life. She hoped they would find the yellow and purple flower patches. She grew more tired. Maybe one more pollen collecting trip before she turned in for the day.

Thank You, David Stein!

Thank You, David Stein!

Prairie Rivers of Iowa's David Stein talks about native plants, pollinator and wildlife restoration during a Prairie Rivers of Iowa field day in 2019.

Last month marked the departure of our pollinator and native plant expert David Stein as he heads back to work in his home state, our neighbors to the north, Minnesota. We are missing his passion and work ethic, but our Watersheds and Wildlife program continues as always and efforts are well underway to find his replacement.

David contributed to a large part of Prairie Rivers of Iowa’s continued efforts to impact public awareness and implementation of conservation practices to create native plant, pollinator and wildlife habitat to help improve soil and water quality while protecting the endangered rusty patched bumble bee and other species of greatest conservation need in Iowa. He was instrumental in creating a native seed bank and the development of many acres of habitat.

I recently visited with David as he reflected upon his work here at Prairie Rivers and his hopes for the future state of native habitat and pollinators in Iowa.

What do you feel was your biggest accomplishment while working at PRI?
There are a lot! I think both completing the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant and setting the stage for PRI’s next series of habitat/conservation projects was probably the biggest accomplishment during my time here. On top of that, raising awareness of pollinator issues and educating interested landowners on how to install habitat was also a major highlight of my work. Re-discovering the rusty patched bumble bee, and mapping out new sightings was definitely a high point for me too.

How do you feel the health of native habitat and pollinators is currently in Iowa? What progress has been made? Where do we need to go from here?
 We have a long way to go, but I think we’re in a better place than we were a few years ago.  Our outreach and education efforts, especially our work with counties, cities and landowners have definitely gotten the ball rolling, but a more hands-on-deck is always better. A coordinated conservation and restoration effort between non-profits, municipalities, farmers, landowners, homeowners, businesses, and interested individuals is really the best and only way forward to reverse pollinator and habitat decline.

What’s next for you?
Next, I’ll be working up at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in St. Paul. I’ll be able to be involved in habitat projects all throughout the state and be able to meet with a bunch of different stakeholders that are doing some amazing restoration work.

How has working at PRI enriched your professional life?
Working here has definitely enriched my professional life. I’ve been able to improve my own knowledge and passion regarding pollinator and wildlife conservation and directly apply it in real-time. I’ve also been able to connect and network with so many amazing stakeholders and partners from a variety of backgrounds. I know that I’ll be able to use these skills and lessons throughout my professional life moving forward.

Missing Monarchs, What it Means, Why it Matters, and How to Help.

Missing Monarchs, What it Means, Why it Matters, and How to Help.

It seems to be a yearly event nowadays, that we wait with bated breath for the release of the year’s final monarch count from Mexico, where they spend the winter.  Similarly, each year, we’re let down with the news that the population has fallen again.  This same thing has happened this year, with MonarchWatch’s yearly report from the field.  Yet again we’ve seen a decline, with the total area covered by monarchs in their overwintering site falling 26% compared to last year, now only covering 2.1 hectares (5.2 acres).  For a comparison, the indicator of a healthy Monarch population is an overwintering area of 6 hectares (14.8 acres).  So what’s going on here, and more importantly, what does it mean?

The Continual Growth and Collapse of Monarch Populations. Photo Credit: MonarchWatch.org

It’s time for my controversial but true statement, monarchs really aren’t good pollinators. There, I said it! They don’t contribute very much to fruit or seed production, and they certainly don’t help with our food security.  So what’s the deal?  Why are we spending our time and energy monitoring and reporting on them?  Well, there are a lot of reasons why protecting them matters. For example, if you felt uncomfortable, angry, or saddened by any of my previous statements in these last 2 paragraphs, then that’s a fantastic reason on its own to protect them.  

Monarchs have a special place in the culture of Iowa, the Midwest, and North America as a whole.  Most people that I talk to about the plight of the monarchs reminisce about seeing them delicately flying around in the summer.  Many more, myself included, have fond memories of raising and releasing Monarchs as part of countless elementary school science classes.  For many people, monarchs were a great introduction to the wonders of nature, highlighting how creatures can grow and change through time in order to adapt to their surroundings.  Monarchs also teach us about migration and animal movement, how creatures overcome great odds, and large distances all for the sake of the next generation, who in turn will repeat the cycle.  

Monarchs after Migrating to Mexico.

Outside of nostalgia, metaphor, and symbolism, monarchs have an important role in conservation as what’s called an indicator species.  Because of their size, recognizability, and large range, tracking a trend in the population of monarchs is far easier than, say, a small, camouflaged, yet more-efficient pollinator.  If we know that both of these creatures have similar habitat and dietary needs, it is in our best interest, time and energy-wise to focus on the big, orange, easy-to-track species.  By providing the good habitat, food, and space for a monarch, we can expect other pollinators to use those resources in a similar way.  Similarly, if we see declines in monarch numbers, we can use that data to assume that other species of pollinators are also declining for similar reasons.  

Monarch on Swamp Milkweed, but did you spot the sweat bee?

It’s in our best interest to protect monarchs, because by extension, we’ll be protecting pollinators as a whole.  Now you may be wondering how you can help monarchs and pollinators, what things you can do to help reverse these declines?  The good news is that no matter where you live, or how much land you have, you can help your local pollinators.  All it takes to start is a few seeds, easy enough right?  

Well, no…you need to make sure you plant the right seeds for the job.  Monarchs and pollinators evolved right alongside our native plants, so those are the plants to grow that will cover all of their nutritional needs.  If you aren’t able to access native plants, or don’t have the space for them, non-native nectar plants like lavender, mint, and clover are all good options (just make sure that they don’t spread outside of a designated area!)  Also plant “host plants.”  These are specific species of plants that caterpillars will eat to prepare them for becoming butterflies.  The host plants for monarchs are famously milkweeds, but every other butterfly has their own version of this.  Finally, your plants should bloom throughout the season, with species blooming continuously between May and October.  This way, you’ll know that you’re providing a source of flood for hungry pollinators at all times.  

Pollinator Gardens Provide Nectar Throughout the Summer.

Monarchs may not be the best at pollinating, but they are an important symbol.  They symbolize migration, change, and the cycle of nature.  They also symbolize pollinators as a whole, illustrating their needs, their declines, and their need for protection.  Again, by protecting monarchs, providing them with spaces for them to grow, thrive, and eventually venture out from, we’ll be able to protect all of our pollinators.