UK students provide respite, nursery for monarch butterflies as they make 3,000-mile journey

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By Carol Lea Spence
Special to KyForward

It’s an epic journey by a creature so fragile that it is almost beyond the imagination. Thousands of times a monarch butterfly’s wings stroke the air, buffeted by winds and soaked by rains on its 3,000-mile autumn trip from southern Canada to central Mexico.

Faced by numerous threats, their populations are in decline. University of Kentucky graduate student Jerrod Penn decided to study people’s interest in helping the butterfly.

Penn, who is working on his doctorate in agricultural economics in the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, spent the summer conducting a survey of 800 people in Lexington to find out what they know about the plight of the monarch and how much they’re willing to support efforts to help the butterflies.

Rachel Hart and Jerrod Penn plant a monarch waystation on UK's Spindletop Farm (Photo by Stephen Patton)

Rachel Hart and Jerrod Penn plant a monarch waystation on UK’s Spindletop Farm (Photo by Stephen Patton)

He came up with the idea for his monarch project in 2015 while interning with the Economic Research Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. During his time in Washington, D.C., the Obama administration announced the National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators. As Penn read through the plan he realized there isn’t a lot known about the economics of insects.

“I thought monarchs represented a really interesting part of that, because most people actually do know about monarchs, whereas they may have no idea about a lot of other insects,” he said. “This was an interesting way to try to understand what the public knows about the problem and how much they’re willing to support it.”

Monarch populations are in decline, due in some part to deforestation in Mexico, where millions overwinter in oyamel fir forests. Because they concentrate in just a few areas, any climate or human disturbance can result in large losses.

Those monarchs that survive the winter begin their reverse migration in March, fluttering their way to Texas, where they lay their eggs and die. The next generation continues the journey north. Though the fall migration to Mexico is done by a single generation of monarchs, the spring and summer northern migration is made by three or four generations, each taking a leg of the journey. It is during this part of the journey where Americans can play a role in the survival of the species.

Penn spent the summer at Lexington ballparks, festivals, bike trails, playgrounds and parks, intercepting people at random to survey them about their willingness to donate in support of butterfly habitats.

“We had our opportunity to get more than just nature lovers or park enthusiasts,” he said. “We wanted to collect a cross-section of opinions from all of Lexington and not just fervent supporters.”

One of the hard parts of economic research is people tend to overestimate what they would donate in a situation. To get beyond this problem, Penn required that survey participants “earn” $10 by doing a word search.

“If I just give you $10 and start asking you questions, you’re much more likely to not treat it like it’s your own money and would be more willing to just give it back to me,” Penn said. “I think it worked. People kept the money, which means they did treat it like their own money.”

Over the course of the summer, the survey process collected more than $2,200 in donations to develop two plots of plants that support monarchs.

Penn connected with Stephen Zumdick, a graduate student in the UK Department of Biology, and Rachel Hart, an undergraduate in agricultural economics. Outreach was an important part of the project, so the team invited student activity groups to join in and paid each participating group to help plant the gardens.

On an early fall weekend, the students planted 300 native plants in each plot, one along the Legacy Trail on the UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment’s Spindletop Farm and the other at the Department of Biology’s Ecological Research and Education Center on Russell Cave Road in Lexington.

The team hopes to certify each site as a monarch waystation, two of more than 15,000 waystations around the country certified by Monarch Watch, a network of students, teachers, volunteers and researchers dedicated to studying and protecting the butterfly. A certified monarch waystation supplies butterflies with the plants they need for egg-laying and nutrition.

The teams planted eight native species in each of the plots. Little bluestem and big bluestem grasses will provide refuge from harsh winds. Nectar plants Joe Pye weed, New England aster, purple coneflower and false blue indigo are a food source for adult butterflies as they migrate through the area and for newly emerged butterflies to fuel up before they start the next leg of the migration.

Milkweed is the sole food source of the monarch’s larvae. Because of that, they lay their eggs there. In this instance, the team planted butterfly milkweed and common milkweed.

“We chose these plants specifically after talking to various local experts, as well as national monarch experts, to create something the monarchs are going to like and that is attractive and as natural as we can make it,” Hart said.

The Spindletop Farm location was chosen because of its adjacency to the Legacy Trail. A sign identifying the waystation will be posted in the near future. Penn hopes that the walkers, runners and cyclists who use the trail will take notice of the garden and think of ways they can help the monarch survive.

Penn and his team also focused on whether student groups at other universities could replicate this project with relatively little support. Hart presented the project during the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education conference in Baltimore in October. The team intends to continue its efforts and work with more student groups to add additional monarch habitat next spring.

Support for the project came from the UK Student Sustainability Council and Lynne Rieske-Kinney, professor in the UK Department of Entomology.

Carol Lea Spence writes for UK Ag News

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