MARION, IOWA–Hundreds of fourth and fifth instar monarch caterpillars have replaced prize-winning show horses as the preferred livestock at Clearwater Farm in Linn County, Iowa. The hungry creatures nosh on common milkweed in a mesh enclosure inside the barn’s lab area. In the back, where dressage halters and fancy saddles once occupied the storage area, shovels and hoes, hundreds of plant pots, and stacks of boxes fill the stable’s tidied up stalls. Known for the clear blue waters of its manmade ponds, the former thoroughbred horse breeding facility now houses the Monarch Research Project (MRP), a small nonprofit organization driven by a mission to help save the monarch butterfly migration.

Monarch Zones Biotent: a solution to monarch butterfly population declines? –Photo by Monika Maeckle

The MRP’s signature program:  Monarch Zones, a program that crowdsources the raising of monarch butterflies to the local community by providing everything needed to raise them in trademarked BioTents. The fostered livestock is released to the skies, hopefully increasing the number of migrating monarch butterflies. MRP claims to have raised and released 30,000 monarch butterflies in the last two years.

Participants purchase special rearing enclosures from Monarch Zones (MZ). The MZs include access to free milkweed plugs, monarch butterfly eggs, caterpillars–even gravid females for laying future eggs. MRP also provides a User Manual filled with 39 pages of how-to information on raising the butterflies.

“As a Monarch Zone you will raise monarch stock for 30 days, releasing them after completion of MZ protocols,” reads the welcome card and member agreement that accompanies MZ membership. To date, MRP has placed 141 of the pop-up enclosures, which sell for $230 – $417, depending on their size.

Michael Martin, Research Station Manager who oversees MZ day-to-day operations, explains what he calls a “one and done” approach to “rearing monarch butterflies on the wild side” during a recent tour of the facility.

Monarch Zone kit includes landscape cloth precut with holes for milkweed plugs. Photo by Monika Maeckle

First, identify a suitable location for your Monarch Zone. Cover the space with landscape cloth that comes with your MZ kit–the precut holes in its fabric allow for easy planting. Install milkweed plugs in the holes. Place the BioTent over the milkweed-planted landscape cloth, add monarch butterfly livestock to the enclosure, zip up the door and walk away.

“You can close it up and never have to go in again until you see butterflies flying,” says Martin, a Master Gardener and professional landscaper who worked for years at nearby Kirkwood Community College. The specially selected mesh allows rain or supplemental water into the enclosure without even unzipping the door. Ample airflow keeps the insects healthy, and the enclosure keeps out predators like birds, wasps, tachinid flies and possibly diseased wild butterflies.

Monarch Zones began in 2014 at the former thoroughbred horse farm owned by Clark and Marian McLeod in Marion, Iowa, near Cedar Rapids. The 80-acre spread sits in the heart of the monarch butterfly summer breeding grounds.

Michael Martin, Research Station Manager, at the Monarch Research Project in Marion, Iowa. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Clark McLeod says he was taking a lesson from his tennis coach Cam Watts when Watts introduced him to the magic of monarch butterflies. The former science teacher had been raising the insects for years. After McCleod learned the story of the monarch migration and its recent decline, he decided to apply his energies and resources to the task. “The monarch is magical, it pulls you into the conundrum,” says McLeod.

Perhaps best known for his career as a self-made billionaire telecom executive whose company MCLeodUSA became the subject of multiple lawsuits in the mid 2000s when it went bankrupt, McLeod has a history of thinking big. He says he likes to apply business principles “to problems that people are dancing around.”

Monarch Zones is just the pilot for what he envisions as a three-pronged, national program to help save the monarch migration. He describes the MRP’s goals as “moonshots,” a term typically used to describe a bold, exploratory or groundbreaking approach that sometimes includes an incomplete understanding of potential risks and/or benefits.

Moonshot 1, says McLeod, is to replace the population in Linn County, Iowa, by creating Monarch Zones. McLeod favors focusing on a specific geographic area during this pilot period. Moonshot 2 aims to create 10,000 acres of habitat in Linn County by partnering with cities and counties, private landowners and public land managers. And Moonshot 3, hopes to qualify and quantify the success of the project into a “playbook” to be shared nationwide for “Zones across America.”

Intern Michelle Mattes feeds monarch caterpillars common milkweed. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“I think ‘moonshot’ is an apt descriptor,” observes Anurag Agrawal, PhD in chemical ecology and author of Milkweed and Monarchs. Agrawal says he is bothered by the audacity of the approach and compares the systematic introduction of captive bred monarchs into the wild to “ladling water out of a sinking ship.”

“Sorry to be negative…It’s a losing battle,” he says. “Adding these drops in the bucket won’t save the migration, species, or our planet. It will make some of us feel good, and we might learn some butterfly biology along the way.  Both are good, but they are not sufficient.  I worry that such approaches contribute both to plausible deniability about our environmental problems and to our superiority complex as a species.” 

Sonia Altizer, one of the foremost experts on monarch diseases, especially the monarch-centric, spore-driven Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, commonly known as OE, also has concerns.

“How do we know the monarchs are healthy and disease free?” asks Altizer. Despite constant vigilance and sterile procedures at the lab she oversees at the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia, she says even small lapses in screening (missing one infected monarch) can lead to a disease outbreak–and not just OE. “Every few years in my lab we have catastrophic larval and pupal mortality due to non-OE causes – and that’s even when rearing monarchs singly with clean plants, sterile containers, etc.”

Martin contends MRP abides by best practices developed by commercial butterfly breeders. He and Watts have attended workshops staged by the International Butterfly Breeders Association and the Association for Butterflies to learn procedures and protocols. Breeding stock are tested for OE and milkweed leaves are triple washed in a 5% bleach solution and dried in a salad spinner before feeding to caterpillars. A recent tour required stepping into a tub of bleach solution before entering the caterpillar rearing area as a safeguard. Martin says MRP also limits the number of eggs and/or caterpillars supplied per BioTent to 34–typically one per milkweed plant.

“We test for OE and have only had one case,” says Martin. “For us, it’s about rearing right along with nature, providing as natural an environment as you can get outside.”

The Monarch Zones experiment continues this summer. Milkweeds and BioTents have already been issued. Monarch eggs will be available June 9.

“We feel like we’re doing some good here,” says Martin. “We’re making a difference. If we don’t do something, then who? Coulda, shoulda, woulda–we don’t want to be caught saying that.”

TOP IMAGE: Fifth instar monarch caterpillars chow down on milkweed at the Monarch Research Project in Marion, Iowa. Photo by Monika Maeckle

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