Tomorrow 8,500+ cyclists will depart from Glenwood, IA to begin the annual week-long RAGBRAI tradition. Amongst them are Kelly Guilbeau and others from Monarchs in Eastern Iowa who will complete their annual milkweed seedball expedition on the ride.

Three summers ago, Ragbrai 2014, Kelly and her roommate decided to ride their first Ragbrai, and they knew they wanted to give back in some way along the ride. Kelly had a growing fascination with monarch butterflies (which has since grown exponentially) and before moving to Iowa, she’d read a good deal about monarch populations, but she had never heard about the milkweed crisis. The basic facts: 1) milkweed is the only plant where monarchs can lay their eggs 2) the decline in milkweed plants in Iowa and the decline of monarchs go hand in hand. Here in Iowa, that environmental correlation is extremely clear given the state’s focus on agriculture. Kelly and her roommate decided to make milkweed distribution the focus of their ride.

That year, they brought 3oz of milkweed seedballs (as it sounds, a small biodegradable baggie filled with milkweed seeds)  on the ride with them and spread seedballs along the route or gave them to other people to spread. Kelly said it was a very “grassroots” way of approaching the idea—mostly she and her roommate tossing  the milkweed seedballs off their bikes into the ditches on the side of the road. But over past two years, they’ve really developed quite a program of education, advocacy, conservation and fun out of this initial adventure. Kelly has worked with David Osterberg of UI Public Health and Patty Ankrum of Monarchs in Eastern Iowa who were also working on initiatives to educate and help the monarch population. Together, they’ve gotten hundreds of volunteers involved in the movement. Making seedballs is a really simple, from scratch process. The group has hosted seedball making events with four-year-olds and other events in nursing homes. There has been a lot of excitement all around from people of many ages and backgrounds. The press has picked up the Ragbrai story more than a few times, causing lots of volunteers to show up for more than 20 preparatory seedball making events in advance of this year’s ride.

Seedball booth in Mount Vernon, IA from the Monarchs in Eastern Iowa website

This year, riders will depart with over 50,000 seed balls holding 4 milkweed seeds in each pod. Adding up to over 134,000 milkweed seeds, Kelly says if even 10% of those come up over the next few years it could make a big impact.  The group will also have 7 educational booths (one for each day) along the Ragbrai route. Admittedly, it’s difficult to track correlation with a project like this, but after having an active plan  in place for distributing milkweed seeds and plants in Iowa, the monarch population has gone up 2x. Kelly says it’s all about taking steps in the right direction, and the education.

I asked, what can the average person do if they’re interested in helping the monarchs. Turns out, in some ways it’s pretty simple. You can’t plan milkweed plants or seeds. You can plant nectar plants in your yard that will attract a lot of adult butterflies. Butterflies are attracted to very colorful nectar plants, and if you’re interested in what types of plants are recommended for planting, you might consider visiting Monarch Watch to read about plants for your personal garden. You can also register to be a “Monarch Waystation” if you’re already growing monarch favorites. This video from National Geographic explains how. It’s also surprisingly easy to raise monarchs from eggs if you find them. If you find an egg on a milkweed plant, just bring it inside on the leaf. Then, assist the egg in becoming a caterpillar by putting it on a fresh milkweed plant. By raising it indoors, you’re giving that egg a higher chance for survival against predators.

There’s also the “what not to do,” which seems to be where people feel a little more stuck on this issue. Pesticides and herbicides used in personal gardens prove harmful to the monarch population. Educating yourself on the effects of these chemicals on the environment is highly recommend. Unshockingly, many people who grew up living on Iowa farms worked for years to pull milkweed plants from their farms.

Fortunately, Kelly says, Iowa farmers have been open to conversing with their group about conservation issues and the environment. Some common solutions found between farmers and monarch advocacy groups are to plan milkweed on unused highway roadsides, like is being done during the RAGBRAI ride. Also to postpone mowing these areas during peak migration season, June-September. If you’re interested in encouraging your local DOT representatives to take up this program, consider writing a letter asking them go easy on the milkweed plants in areas they mow.

All in all, it’s fun and easy to get involved and help the monarch population here in Iowa. Whether you’re supporting monarchs in your own personal gardens, rescuing eggs so they can develop into caterpillars, writing to local agencies in support of this mission, or tossing milkweed seedballs from your bike on RAGBRAI, you’re helping out with a problem that needs solving. Monarch supporting groups in Iowa say thank you and hope you enjoy all the fun ways they’ve developed to support this educational and advocacy movement!

Be sure to check out Monarchs in Eastern Iowa for more ways to get involved!


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