Help monarch butterflies with milkweed seed pod collection

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monarch butterfly
(Farm and Dairy file photo)

Have you ever wondered what happened to the butterflies? I remember growing up seeing so many of them, it seems. And there were different ones too — yellow ones, orange ones, black butterflies with iridescent spots, big ones, small ones, spotted ones, and even cool-looking moths.

But now, especially this year, it just seems so hard to see very many of these magical insects at all. Maybe it’s just me, and the fact that I’m paying more attention to what impacts we are having on their habitats and life cycles.

Playing outdoors

I also recall as a kid playing outside quite a bit, and mother nature and the outdoors was my “play-station.”

I knew back then what milkweed seeds were, only because of how cool it was to find them in the fall; they weren’t hard to find — the pointy dried seed pods would burst open, and white, cotton-ball seeds would be so much fun to take out and blow in the wind.

It was almost like they were puffs of white feathers with tiny little brown anchors!

The plants were not hard find either — along field edges, in the ditches or a wild patch of un-mowed habitat. Little did my brother and I know we were helping plant food sources for monarch butterflies by playing with the seeds in the wind!

So now, where are the butterflies, and what happened to all the milkweed? Got Milkweed? I’m not going to get into the whys of what has lead us up to this drastic decline in pollinators and monarch butterflies, so I’m just going to say matter of fact, that here in the U.S. as well as the wintering grounds of Mexico, the monarch butterfly has declined 80-90 percent in the past 20 years.

Part of the problem lies in the lack of milkweed. Yes, milkweed. That fun plant with the seeds that blow in the wind in late fall that when I was a kid seemed to be everywhere!

Critical to survival

Milkweed is critical to the butterflies’ survival. It is the only plant on which monarchs can lay their eggs and it also provides nectar along their migration route. In response to this decline the Ohio Division of Wildlife and other partners have created the Ohio Pollinator Habitat Initiative (OPHI – http://www.ophi.info/) to educate the public and help create beneficial habitat to pollinators, such as the monarch butterfly.

To help foster the creation of habitat for the monarch butterfly, OPHI, in cooperation with Ohio Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCDs) is organizing a statewide milkweed pod collection this year starting Sept. 1 and ending Oct. 30.

The monarch butterflies that hatch here in the summer migrate to Mexico for the winter and are responsible for starting the life cycle all over again in the spring. During September and October, everyone is encouraged to collect milkweed pods from established plants and drop them off at the nearest pod collection station.

The majority of Ohio counties have a milkweed pod collection station, most of them being located at the local Soil and Water Conservation District office.

Visit Wayne SWCD’s website at www.wayneswcd.org (under News & Events) for a current list of counties.

Collecting seed pods

When collecting milkweed seed pods, wear appropriate clothing for the outdoors. It is recommended that you wear disposable gloves when picking and handling pods. Also, sometimes people confuse milkweed with hemp dogbane, especially with younger plants.

Both plants have similarly shaped leaves that exude a milky juice when broken. But the main stem of hemp dogbane is branched, forming a bushy plant, while milkweed stems are simple or branch only at the top.

Seedpods on hemp dogbane are long and curved, smaller in diameter than a pencil, while milkweed seedpods are soft and plump. According to OPHI, to collect the seed pods from a milkweed plant it is best to pick them when they are seed inside is brown.

Do not collect pods when seeds inside are white or cream colored. If the center seam pops with gentle pressure, they can be picked.

It is best to collect pods into paper bags or paper grocery sacks. Avoid using plastic bags because they attract moisture. Store seeds in a cool, dry area until you can deliver to the closest pod collection area.

Harvesting pods from milkweed plants does not have any effect on the population of milkweed in established areas. All of the milkweed pods collected during this time will be processed by OPHI partners and all of the seed collected will be used to establish new plantings and create additional habitat for the monarch butterfly throughout Ohio.

So, it’s not too late to make a difference for our monarch butterflies and pollinator friends! I’m hoping that someday I will again see and delight at the sight of a field of butterflies.

Please, get outside, enjoy a nice hike, look for some milkweed, and collect the seed pods and bring them to your local Soil and Water office.

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Kelly Riley has been the Education Specialist for the Wayne Soil and Water Conservation District since 2003. She earned her B.A. Degree in Education from the University of Akron and was previously a teacher with the Tri-County ESC. Kelly can be reached at (330)-262-2836 or by e-mail at kriley@wayneoh.org.

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