Milkweed is for the Birds ... and Butterflies and Bees

e19fbd99-d4a0-4bda-b9e9-9bcf15822d7b

Pheasants Forever leads the national charge putting milkweed in the ground, and it benefits much more than game birds 

By Tom Carpenter

What’s good for pheasants has always been good for other wildlife. Sometimes overlooked in the habitat equation, though, were pollinators -- butterflies and bees most famously, but also beetles, moths, wasps, flies and insects that carry pollen from flower to flower and plant to plant.

All that has changed, and Pheasants Forever along with its sister organization, Quail Forever, are leaders in the effort to bring back pollinators of all kinds. One of the most important beneficiaries is the monarch butterfly, which depends solely on milkweed as a host for butterfly eggs, food for hatched caterpillars, and housing for chrysalises that nurture developing butterflies until they burst forth, dry their wings and flutter off as they have for millennia. 
 
But milkweed is in trouble. That has put the monarch butterfly in jeopardy. Real jeopardy. Let’s look at what happened to all the milkweed, document the resulting troubles for monarch butterflies, and explore the leadership role Pheasants Forever is taking in bringing both back to the landscape … to the tune of over half a billion milkweed seeds in the ground to date.
 

Vanishing Milkweed: Bringing It Back

“Milkweed is a volunteer plant, and it loves sun,” says Drew Larsen, Habitat Education Specialist for Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever. “It does well where there’s been a disturbance,” such as burning, grazing (think buffalo or cattle) and, strangely enough, even plowing to some extent. 
 
Much of the American prairie has been plowed for well over a hundred years now. Milkweed, and monarchs, survived relatively well for much of that time. What changed the balance?

Milkweed blooms in a Pheasants Forever Nebraska habitat project.
 
“The development of herbicide-resistant corn and soybean seeds in the mid-1990s really accelerated the downward trend,” says Larsen. “Milkweed could no longer survive between the rows.” While that amount of milkweed couldn’t match pristine conditions, it did provide a decent count of plants that were surprisingly productive for monarchs, according to Iowa State University studies.
 
“Fence-to-fence plowing also hurt milkweed,” says Larsen. The practice eliminates the grassy margins, field edges, fencelines and road edges where milkweed previously thrived.
 
“Those marginal areas that previously could grow grass, including milkweed, are now plowed or developed,” confirms Aaron Keuhl, Director of Seed Operations for Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever. “And now, herbicides can kill all the weeds, including milkweed, but not the crops.” Rows are clean as a whistle.
 
Another Iowa State study said that the U.S. had half the milkweed plants in 2010 compared to the mid-1990s, while at the same time the number of monarch butterfly eggs produced went down by 81 percent.
 

Enter Pheasants Forever: Creating and Improving Habitat 

“When planning a habitat project, Pheasants Forever Farm Bill biologists work with landowners to design seed mixes that fit their land and its needs,” says Rick Young, Vice President of Field Operations for Pheasants Forever. “Putting milkweed in our mixes has been a priority and a concentrated effort.”
 
“We also work to educate landowners about milkweed’s benefits,” adds Young. “That’s an old stigma that’s hard to overcome. But we’re doing it.”
 
“There are over 100 species of milkweed in the U.S alone,” says Larsen. “From a monarch standpoint, common milkweed is the most important variety, but the butterflies will use all species. Butterfly milkweed is also good, but there are many other milkweed varieties included in our seed mixes. For example, swamp milkweed is used near wetlands and moist places.”
 
Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever have exponentially grown the amount of milkweed included in their seed mixes. The following table tells the story:
 
Year                    Seeds for Year          Seed Total            Acres for Year        Acres Total
Thru 2012                   NA                   12.75 Million                 NA                        5,792
2013                      513,392                 13.26 Million                933                       6,725     
2014                      74,978,810            88.24 Million              14,206                   20,931
2015                      238,403,482          326.65 Million            42,738                   63,669  
2016                      114,258,345          440.9 Million               33,449                   97,118
2017 To Date       75,044,409            515.9 Million              15,664                   112,782
 
“Almost all monarchs are hatched on and hosted by common milkweed,” explains Kuehl. “By including it in Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever grassland seed mixes, we are impacting large-scale landscapes at a time – acres upon acres, over 112,000 to date. That’s exciting. And milkweed flowers are an excellent nectar source for all pollinators.”


Left: A habitat seed mix containing milkweed. Right: A handul of only milkweed seeds.
 
Milkweed offers indirect but impactful benefits for game birds. “Good monarch habitat and good quail habitat have significant overlap,” says Tim Caughran, Director of Field Operations for Quail Forever. “Monarchs need milkweed as a host and for nectar. Milkweed and other flowering plants also attract the tiny insects that young quail – which start out smaller than the size of a golf ball -- eat exclusively the first two weeks of life.” Young pheasants benefit similarly.  
 

Disappearing Monarchs: Helping Them Rebound

Monarch butterflies reached their lowest migration numbers ever in 2014, when only about 33 million butterflies occupied 1.6 acres of wintering habitat in Mexico. For comparison, in historic times, the acres covered numbered well into the hundreds, and as recently as the mid-1990s monarchs covered 30 to 40 acres of wintering ground.
 
Upwards of 90% of the monarch butterflies in North America winter in one relatively small cluster of oak, pine and fir forests west of Mexico City in Michoacán state, Mexico. The Mexican government has largely put a stop to logging and other habitat exploitation there, though. Now it’s the loss of milkweed that has threatened the monarch to the point of being considered for the endangered species list in 2016.  
 
It takes four generations of short-lived monarchs – using billions of milkweed plants -- to get from the forests of Michoacán to northern summering grounds. Much of the route is roughly 200-mile-wide path flanking the Interstate 35 corridor through the United States’ heartland.

 
A monarch caterpillar chows on a milkweed leaf.

That pathway happens to encompass a good chunk of pheasant and quail country.
 
“When the White House’s Monarch Initiative kicked off in 2014, Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever started including milkweed in our seed mixes as allowed, even where it wasn’t required,” says Keuhl.
 
“Illinois is a good example,” he explains. “Prior to that there was not much milkweed at all in the mixes designed for that state. Then in 2015 it became part of pretty much all our seed mixes there, not just the special pollinator mixes.”
 

Habitat Partners: Making a Difference

“Like anything, it takes real partnerships to get habitat improvements on the ground -- working with both government agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs),” says Young.
 
The Bee & Butterfly Habitat Fund (BBHF) is a collaborative, regional partnership recently kicked off between Pheasants Forever, Project Apis m, an organization that funds and directs honeybee research, and Browning’s Honey Company, one of the largest beekeeping and production honey companies in the United States.

 All kinds of pollinators utilize milkweed.
 
The BBHF brings together groups with diverse interests but common goals. Pheasants Forever’s involvement with milkweed and the BBHF is just one example of hunters, conservationists and food producers being one and the same in their interest for healthy wildlife habitat.
 
With monarchs, the habitat is milkweed. It was a natural kickstart to the milkweed effort to add seed to the mixes Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever use to generate new grasslands and improve older habitat.
 
“A big goal of ours is to design seed mixes that are affordable,” says Keuhl. “That affordability is key for making it easy for landowners, agencies and organizations to do what’s right for bees and butterflies.” 
 

Conclusion

“We’re more than half way to our goal of a billion milkweed seeds in the ground,” says Young of Pheasant’s Forever’s milkweed mission. “We’ll get there. It’s been a fun ride. Monarchs are doing better. But the story is not over.”
 
“It’s going to be a great story,” adds Kuehl. “The big question is, will it be enough? Over 9,400-plus habitat projects, we’ve put more than 500 million milkweed seeds out there – pure live seeds ready to germinate. Multiply that by three stems each and it grows to 1.5 billion. Natural regeneration and dispersal compound the effect.”
 
For some perspective, consider the total weight of those half-a-billion miniscule seeds: about 5,100 pounds. 
 
No one knows how many milkweed plants graced the Big Wide Open when the buffalo roamed, and Lewis and Clark first visited. Humans have changed the landscape. But Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever are on the front lines of the charge to bring milkweed back.
 
It’s good for habitat, monarchs, and pollinators of all descriptions. 
 
Oh, and game birds too.
 
 
A breeding-ready rooster patrols the grass.


Tom Carpenter is Digital Content Manager at Pheasants Forever.

Lead Photo Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.