In 2015, the University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources’ Agricultural Research Centers planted 22 acres of monarch habitat across the state. The goal of the plantings was to bring awareness to the monarch butterfly migration, a treacherous trip that can cover up to 3,000 miles.
For the past two years, the habitat has continued to grow at the Centers, allowing for observations and community education. The habitats have been showcased during several field days, as well as other community outreach events.
Those observations have now turned into a research study, with help from a grant from the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR). A group from Mizzou will be working to find what combination of nectar plants and milkweed works best to not only keep the monarch population healthy, but the bumblebee population as well. The bumblebee population is incredibly important from an agricultural standpoint, as they pollinate the food grown every day.
“The monarch and bumblebee populations are both dwindling,” said Tim Reinbott, assistant director of the Agricultural Experiment Station. “Habitat is a big factor in that decrease. As we’ve made observations during the past couple of years, we’ve seen that we really need to research this topic more and find ways to help these populations.”
Reinbott is teaming up with Debbie Finke, an associate professor in the Division of Plant Sciences, and Terry Woods, a research specialist at the South Farm Research Center, on the project.
Finke is an insect ecologist, meaning she studies insects and their interactions among other organisms, as well as their interactions with their environment. Woods in an entomologist and brings a strong background of managing insects and plants.
“As an agronomist, I can grow plants – or get rid of them if need be,” Reinbott said. “Working with Debbie and Terry gives us the perfect mix of expertise to make this project really worthwhile. We couldn’t do this research without either of them.”
Reinbott said they have used a “shotgun” approach with their past milkweed plantings, trying a variety of nectar species spread throughout a field setting. Those plantings have occurred where space has permitted at the various Research Centers. The goal of the research project is to find not only how much plant diversity should be included in a pollinator habitat, but where that habitat is best suited on a farm.
The project will include plots with a 10-species mix, a 20-species mix and a 40-species mix. It will be a replicated trial.
“It took us more than two months to decide of the mixtures that we want to try,” Reinbott said. “The mixture with 10 species is one that we feel contains some strong nectar plants. The 20-species mix includes some extremely strong plants, as well as some that we are interested to know more about. The final mix with 40 species contains a little bit of everything. I’m a little worried about that final one, just because there are so many species in the area.”
The group has chosen several locations to feature the plantings. The nectar sources will be planted in an open field, by trees and along fencerows. They wanted a variety of shaded and unshaded areas.
“I’ve noticed that a lot of these habitats are in shaded areas,” Reinbott said. “So we wanted to try something similar. The plot near trees could be interesting. Debbie mentioned that we might just be creating a food source for the birds, so we’ll see.”
The team is using all native plants for the study.
“We appreciate the non-natives and we know they have a role, but we wanted to concentrate on native plants for this project,” Reinbott said.
Reinbott has worked with the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) in the past on different bumblebee projects. The nectar plants that were planted at the South Farm Research Center, in Columbia, led to seven different bumblebee species finding a home at the sites.
“People are starting to realize how important the bumblebee population is to our world in terms of pollination and how we grow our food,” Reinbott said. “If we don’t have bumblebees, our food production will definitely go down.”
Monarchs by themselves aren’t great pollinators. However, monarchs do share a habitat with other good pollinators. A safe habitat for monarchs will benefit a variety of species.
“Sometimes you have to market monarchs and bumblebees together,” Reinbott said. “Bumblebees elicit a much difference response, usually one of staying away from them. Monarchs are an iconic insect which are much easier to sell.”
When the Research Centers planted milkweed in 2015, the sites didn’t focus on adding any nectar sources. The group has learned how important those sources are to pollinators.
“We’ve found out that monarchs don’t always follow exact migration patterns,” Reinbott said. “Last year, we saw them in April in central Missouri and then again in August. What happened to June and July? We’ve seen them in those months before.
“These pollinators have to have food. A lot of what we’ve seen, in terms of habitat management, is just ‘we think’ type of discussions. We’re hoping to be able to provide more concrete research.”
There will be a community involvement part of the research as well. There will be an observational form that individuals can fill out, describing when monarchs are seen across Missouri, as well as several other items.
“Observational learning is going to be a key part of this project,” Reinbott said. “We want to get an idea of the monarch migration across the state.
“At the end of the day, we want to gather as much data as we can. We want to update the literature and make it more accurate. We want to rewrite the book.”