Straub sharing new-found knowledge with area youth
By Mike Courson
Each fall, millions of monarch butterflies travel thousands of miles to escape cold weather. With declining populations, however, the color is fading on one of North America’s most famous insects. Now an endangered species, a handful of area 4-H youth are doing their part to increase monarch populations.
“There aren’t very many of them left,” said Lexi Straub, a member of the Ellinwood Energizers 4-H Club. “To survive, monarchs have to have milkweed. We’ve been able to keep it down because it’s a noxious weed. Now there’s no food source for monarch caterpillars, and without that, they can’t survive.”
The Barton and Ellis County branches of Kansas State Extension teamed up to form the Cottonwood District. Earlier this year, the Cottonwood District applied for a grant with 4-H Ag Innovators Experience, sponsored by Monsanto. This year’s project is the Monarchs on the Move Challenge.
Straub was one of just three 4-H members from the Barton and Ellis branches selected to attend a special training session on monarchs at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. The Kansas delegation teamed up with 4-H members from Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois, and Missouri.
Straub and company arrived in at Reiman Gardens, a botanical gardens and butterfly pavilion on the campus of ISU on Feb. 2. The students spent the next two-plus days covering everything there is to know about monarch butterflies.
“We were basically in the same building the whole time,” Straub said. “It was just constant information being thrown at us.”
The Kansas delegation departed Ames on Feb. 4 with the goal of returning home to teach a larger group what they had learned. The Kansas trio taught 19 more 4-H kids for a total of 22 4-H members that were then able to share their knowledge around the state.
Part of the project included getting other youth to fill out a survey about monarch butterflies. Cottonwood needed 1,000 completed surveys split between the Barton and Ellis County offices. “They’re targeting kids to raise awareness because those kids will take it home,” said Lexi’s mother, Alicia Straub, a former board member for the Barton County Extension Council. “Children are pretty influential in the home. If the kids tell their parents they need to recycle or plant milkweed so the butterflies have food, that kind of stuff actually works. It gets the message out there.”
Lexi, along with her sister, Alaina, have carried the message to various area classrooms. Lexi has also taught at library programs, at an agricultural field day in Greensburg, and she spoke at the Kansas 4-H Inspect Spectacular at the Sedgwick County Zoo last week, and at Discovery Days, another 4-H event held at Kansas State University.
The group at Iowa State left armed with a PowerPoint presentation about monarchs, but Lexi has relied on other avenues to share the message. “We took the PowerPoint to some presentations, but with younger kids, it was usually just easier to use posters,” she said. “For the most part, everything they told us really did stick with me. It seemed like a lot while I was there, but now I understand it.”
So what is the message? In a nutshell, monarchs are dying off because of a lack of food. Monarch larvae, also known as caterpillars, eat only milkweed, so when those plants are killed by herbicides, the monarch larvae cannot survive into adulthood. According to www.monarch-butterfly.com, some 97 percent of milkweed along the monarch’s migratory path had been wiped out as of 1999.
There are other factors contributing to dropping monarch populations, namely the loss of habitat in Mexico and the use of herbicides and pesticides along the migratory route. Changing climates may also be leading to the spread of disease and parasites that hurt butterfly populations.
But the 4-H group has a solution in mind: increase the milkweed. “We have had a lot of skeptical farmers,” Lexi said. “We completely understand why they wouldn’t want milkweed on their ground. But there are some people who are willing.
“We’re trying to get it planted in ditches. They want to make I-35 the monarch corridor. They fly right through those Central States from Canada down to Mexico. If they can plant milkweed in the ditches along I-35, it would be handy for the monarchs and wouldn’t really get in anyone’s way.”
Lexi, 15, has been pleased with her experience. She was able to spread the word about monarchs and teach other youth about protecting a value species. She still keeps in contact with 4-H members from the other four states involved in the project. Upon arriving home, she made a clay pendant for Lynne Campbell, professional development specialist for Iowa State University extension and outreach, and one of the women behind the Monarchs on the Move Challenge.
“She came down to teach the 19 other kids with us,” said Lexi. “I made her a butterfly pendant and I brought her to tears with it. She’s so dedicated to this project. This is her baby right now.”
Now that passion has spread to youth all around Kansas and the Midwest, thanks to the challenge.
“When Berny (Unruh) first called me about it, I thought I could do that because insects are something I’ve always been interested in,” Lexi said. “It was that much cooler once we got there and learned about the monarchs, how unique they are, and how important it is to keep them here.
“Once the monarchs are gone there’s nothing like the monarch and there won’t be anything like them again. They’re just a special species of butterfly. I think it’s pretty important to keep them here so future generations can have that.”