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Milkweed Pods Needed For Monarch Butterflies

Cincinnati Nature Center
Monarch butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed plants so the larvae have a food source once they hatch.

The Ohio Department of Transportation is helping to collect milkweed seed pods, with the idea of creating more wildlife habitat in a bid to help agriculture.

That would mean increasing the population of monarch butterflies, which eat nothing but the leaves of milkweed when they are caterpillars.

Milkweed has often been thought of as just a weed, a nuisance to crops. It grows well without much help and competes against corn and other cultivated plants. So farmers have done their best to eradicate it. 

But Cory Christopher at the Cincinnati Nature Center says the plant fills a very specific niche in the wild.  Monarch butterfly caterpillars eat the leaves. And that's all they eat.

Credit Cincinnati Nature Center / Provided
Monarch caterpillars only eat milkweed leaves. The leaves help make the caterpillars taste bad to predators.

"Milkweeds contain a number of secondary compounds that are actually toxic for most things to eat," Christopher says. "Which is why you don't see a lot of herbivores eating milkweeds. These same secondary compounds are the things that protect larvae themselves from being eaten by things like birds or small mammals."

So, without a healthy population of milkweed, you can't have a healthy population of monarchs. And Christopher says butterflies are important.

"We're not simply supporting monarchs because they're beautiful," Christoper says. "Monarchs provide a really important ecosystem service. They are going from one crop to the next, carrying pollen from one flower to the next."

Without butterflies and other insects and birds, pollination is a lot trickier.

Enter the Ohio Pollinator Habitat Initiative. That's a partnership between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, and the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT), among others. Coordinator Marci Lininger says ODOT is accepting donated seed pods from the public.

The seeds will be planted for and by some of the partners in the Initiative.

"AEP, First Energy, Ohio Gas Association, they can all use plugs and seeds on those areas where they have new transmission lines or they're maintaining transmission lines," Lininger says.

The land beneath transmission lines is generally empty. Few people want to live there and sometimes the ground isn't level or clear enough for farming. So, now it's being recognized as a good place for wildlife habitat.

Credit Cincinnati Nature Center / Provided
The Cincinnati Nature Center gives away thousands of milkweed seed pods while the Ohio Pollinator Habitat Initiative is hoping to collect pods from the public.

Some seeds will be planted along highways. Although moving vehicles and butterflies don't mingle well, Lininger says that's been taken into account.

"You can't make pollinators not fly, and you can't make the road go away. So there's always going to be some mortality but there haven't been any studies that show increased mortality due to providing pollinator habitat via right of way."

In short, Lininger says the more habitat for butterflies, the less they'll have to fly around looking for food.

Cory Christopher says the Cincinnati Nature Center knows that and has its own program.

"Since we started Milkweeds to Monarchs, we've given over 200,000 packets away. And each packet of seed will have upwards of 20 seeds in it."

While the Pollinator Habitat Initiative is doing large scale planting, Christopher says the center's give away is targeted more toward your neighborhood.

"Literally your backyard, your front yard, along sidewalks, along your driveway. I've got a patch in my backyard. It's in the very back corner, and it's an area I simply didn't want to mow. And so I took some milkweed seeds, threw them out there, and hopefully, fingers crossed, we're going to see some of those milkweed babies coming up in the spring."

He says the center still has plenty of seeds left to give away and is also working to help the Pollinator Habitat Initiative.

Marci Lininger says ODOT is also working the Honey Bee Laboratory at Ohio State, the Toledo Zoo, and is about to partner with the Columbus Zoo to help gather more milkweed seed pods for planting.

"We try and keep ourselves connected with these initiatives that have already been around which would just strengthen those initiatives on a statewide basis."

Initiative partners are holding a symposium Wednesday in Columbus at the Ohio Expo Center.

Rinehart has been a radio reporter since 1994 with positions in markets like Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska; Sioux City, Iowa; Dayton, Ohio; and most recently as senior correspondent and anchor for Cincinnati’s WLW-AM.