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Nov14

State Parks Encourage Pollinator Populations

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Chip Taylor demonstrated the delicate technique of catching, and holding, a butterfly.

With net in hand, he ventured off Blazing Star Trail at Cuivre River State Park into the tallgrass prairie. He was stalking a spicebush swallowtail, which was flitting among the flowers and grasses.

“The way to catch a butterfly is to move very, very slowly,” said Taylor, who has caught thousands as founder of Monarch Watch. The group distributes tags for volunteers to attach to a migrating monarch’s wing and monitor the plight of that charismatic orange-and-black species.

“The reason you go slow is insects have compound eyes, if they see movement, it will trigger a response,” Taylor said. “You come up behind it and below it, slowly, with your net and you can get within six inches – they’re busy with the flower.”

With a quick sweep of the net, Taylor had his target. He gently removed the butterfly by grasping it body and folding back its wings. His audience of 20 or so moved in to get a closer look.

The inspection revealed a black body with shiny blue-green wings. It was blue between two rows of orange spots on the underside of the hind wings and the upper side had one row of white spots.

If it had been a monarch, Taylor would have attached a white tag printed with data in its wing. Instead, he raised his hand and released the swallowtail, which headed out, unharmed, in search of another flower.

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Taylor, who founded Monarch Watch in 1992 while a biologist at the University of Kansas, was at Cuivre River State Park as the keynote speaker at the Association of Missouri Interpreters conference. Monarch Watch is in its 25th year of tagging monarchs on their migration route through the Midwest to Mexico.

Missouri State Parks sponsored the conference, and is promoting surveys at other parks, because of the crisis that is impacting pollinators, especially bees and butterflies, across North America.

The monarch is the poster butterfly of the crisis because of the drastic fluctuation in the population that arrives at its wintering ground in Mexico. While habitat loss is blamed for much of the decrease in butterflies and moths, parasites and pesticides are believed to be the main culprits in the decline of bees and bumblebees.

Pollinators are important because they transfer pollen between flowers to cause fertilization that leads to seed and fruit production. At least 75 percent of all the flowering plants on earth are pollinated by insects and animals, leading to food not only for humans, but for animals as well.

“Some spotty reproduction is taking place here and there, but, overall, populations of monarchs are down,” Taylor said in opening remarks at the workshop. “We’ve lost a lot of habitat and we need organizations to step up and restore habitat or we’ll lose this migration.” 

Parks Provide Habitat

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For pollinators, state parks are a safe oasis of green in a sprawling landscape of farm fields, parking lots and subdivisions.

The land around Cuivre River State Park, for example, is predominately agricultural with fields. Babler State Park, which held a “Pollinator Palooza” in August, is surrounded by suburbia in St. Louis County.

The 4,000 acres of Prairie State Park, which regularly schedules walks to inspect its bounty of pollinators, represents the largest remaining remnant of the prairie grasses that once covered 13 million acres of Missouri.

“The diversity of park habitat also is important,” said Kendra Swee, interpretive resource coordinator for state parks. “A lot of things we do in state parks to manage the diversity of plants is assisting pollinators as well. Prescribed fire, for example, increases the diversity of host plants.”

Swee said homeowners can help by using native plants such as milkweed, golden rod and coneflowers in their landscaping. However, she said buyers should use caution when choosing plants. Plants, and seeds, also, should be grown in nurseries that do not use neonicotinoid, an insecticide associated with declining populations of bees.

120 Years of Collecting

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Phil Koenig of O’Fallon, Mo., was among the group following Taylor through the tallgrass prairie at Cuivre River State Park. While Taylor is gathering data nationwide on monarchs, Koenig is doing similar work on a smaller scale in Missouri.

“My grandparents always had vegetables and flowers in their backyard and I became fascinated with the butterflies and never gave up that childhood interest,” said Koenig, who is 73 and retired.

Koenig has a collection of some 5,000 butterfly and moth specimens from North and South America, and currently is transcribing hand-written data cards from the life-time records of the late Richard Heitzman to an electronic database.

“I’ve almost finished putting 216,000 records from his small data cards into the database, so they will be easy to access for researchers,” he said. “It covers about 120 years of collecting, and you should be able to see some variation in the populations.”

Generally, Koenig said, the loss of habitat has led to declining populations of pollinators in Missouri.

“Parks are helping preserve what’s left,” he said.