If you happen to see a RAGBRAI rider toss what looks like a clump of dirt to the side of the road during this year’s trek across Iowa, they’re not littering – they’re helping save the monarch butterfly.
For the third year in a row, a group called Milkweed Matters is passing out seedballs of milkweed to RAGBRAI riders to help spread the plant which monarch butterflies need to survive during their annual migrations.
Kelly Guilbeau, of Grinnell, is the co-founder of the group. She first entertained the idea of spreading milkweed seeds on the bike trail through Iowa three years ago as a way to do something productive during the ride.
”Well, we used loose seeds first, but it didn’t work very well since they’re so light and small,” she said. “So we had to come up with a better idea.”
Last year, the group reworked their strategy. They and the Monarchs in Eastern Iowa group, plus many volunteers, created more than 2,000 seedballs. The seedballs are clumps of mud with the seeds packaged inside to give the milkweed a better chance of sprouting.
The group also erected an educational booth to help spread information as to why the milkweed was needed – and to spread the message, Guilbeau said.
”That was a huge success. So we thought real big for 2016 and wanted to make 35,000 seedballs this year,” she said.
Instead, they made 50,000 through more than 30 seedball-making events throughout Iowa. And they’re making more.
Guilbeau got in contact with Iowa State University Extension Office Horticulturalist Nancy Crews to help recruit volunteers for the bold goal.
“The monarch migrates from Canada to Mexico and back, right through eastern Iowa,” Crews said. “They’re threatened since their habitat is disappearing, as they use milkweed to lay eggs.”
Volunteers from the Glenwood Resource Center will help create more seedballs using biodegradable bags to carry them in to hand to RAGBRAI riders, Crews said, as Glenwood is the first overnight town on the trip this year, which begins July 24. Riders can just toss the balls into areas they think the seeds will grow, away from being sprayed by weed killer or cut down by lawn mowers.
“They’ll be distributed in the RAGBRAI towns,” she said. “Already through the local 4-H and Cub Scouts, we’ve made 6,000 seedballs.”
Guilbeau will easily be spotted on the trail or in town decked out in butterfly wings and monarch designs on her helmet, along with two other riders sporting the same stylish orange and black decorations.
”We overshot our goal. It’s amazing,” she said. “The energy and excitement for this has been incredible.”