Monarchs get the royal treatment with pollinator havens

Conservation efforts at Los Alamos National Laboratory add up, driving ecosystem diversity and food security

July 10, 2024

Along the roadside where West Road and N.M. Highway 501 intersect, near one of the Los Alamos National Lab’s access points and the turnoff for Pajarito Ski Hill, a patch of showy milkweed grows each summer, becoming vital habitat for a species in decline.

Once mowed by grounds maintenance crews each June, Laboratory biologists identified the area as critical monarch butterfly habitat in 2019. Since milkweed is the only plant on which the monarch lays eggs, and because the butterfly is a candidate for the Endangered Species Act, these Los Alamos biologists created a plan for managing that area's vegetation.

Left: A monarch butterfly is tagged as part of the Lab's work to assess when the insects arrive on Lab property during their migration pattern. Right: Milkweed goes to seed, creating more opportunity for the monarch's host plant to propagate.

Since that time, these native plants have successfully been kept intact until the fall, after monarchs have migrated to the region, laid eggs on their host plants and completed their reproductive life cycle.

These small but significant acts are gaining traction, and last month, in another patch of grass on the Laboratory campus, raised beds were installed with a variety of native flowers — including penstemon, desert marigold and prairie coneflower — all of which attract and feed pollinating insects, such as the monarch.

Simone Lord with the Lab's Forest Health team waters native pollinating plants in the new garden.

Why protect pollinators?

Pollinating insects facilitate plants' reproduction by moving pollen from the male part of a flower to the female part of a flower, which creates seeds for regrowth. They're responsible for the reproduction of 80% of the world's flowering plants, and they're key to the Earth's plant diversity.

Many of the plants that pollinators support include food crops such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, herbs and coffee — all staples to humans' diets.

"They're really important for food security — in addition to being incredibly beautiful," said wildlife biologist Jenna Stanek of the Lab’s Environmental Protection and Compliance division.

Ladybugs pollinate Rocky Mountain penstemon in the raised beds on the Lab campus.

Fortunately, "The Lab has several best management practices for protecting the monarch, so if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does decide the species should be federally protected under the Endangered Species Act, which would mean updating our habitat management plan, we're already ahead of the game," Stanek said.

The Lab’s plan for pollinator conservation

The Lab began its efforts to protect pollinating insects after the federal government issued a memorandum in 2014 that "called for land-owning federal departments to take immediate action to prevent further pollinator population decline."

This spurred the Department of Energy to create a Pollinator Protection Plan, which encourages its "sites to pursue opportunities to protect pollinators and enhance pollinator habitat."

With its own site-specific Pollinator Protection Plan now in place, the Lab has several proposed best management practices. Suggestions include various controls, like when to mow plants on which pollinators depend and how to manage invasive species that may compete with native plants. 

A collaboration between the Lab’s Biological Resources Program and Logistics Division — and a commitment to learning more about mitigating climate change from the Business Management directorate — helped bring this pollinator garden to fruition on Lab property. From left, Jenna Stanek, Allie Cunningham, Paige Clark, Aaliya Casados, Simone Lord, Justin Sammons, Christobal Trujillo, Cruz Armendariz, Juana Freitag and Marquita Trujillo.

While Stanek and her team have succeeded in getting some of these practices implemented, she and colleague Karla Sartor, in the Forest Health Program, are collaborating with other Laboratory programs, including Logistics, Utilities and Infrastructure; Fire Protection; and their Wildland Fire program partners to further these initiatives.

"We looked at a map of Lab property and came up with six relatively small native-wildflower areas, including those with milkweed, that we thought could be feasible as no-mow areas," Stanek said. "These are areas where we've either seen monarchs on milkweed or that have a lot of native plants already, so it'd be an easier transition to no-mow than a spot that has all invasives and would need to be seeded."

"These are small areas that have critical milkweed habitat for the monarch," Stanek emphasized. "We're very aware of wildfire hazards and understand the need to mow larger areas to protect Lab infrastructure, the community and human life. Wildland Fire has been great to work with in striking this balance."

Biologists also include native pollinator plant species in the reseeding mix after land's been disturbed by construction or other activities.

"Native plants have adapted to our arid climate and take less water and fertilizer to establish," said Alethea Banar, who works in Stormwater Compliance at the Lab. "Also, many of these natives are perennials, meaning they can put down deep roots and regrow year after year."

"The roots increase the soil's capacity to absorb and store water," Banar added, "which recharges groundwater while reducing stormwater runoff and the potential for flooding. They also lock in the surrounding soil, which prevents valuable material from washing away — and potentially undermining structural foundations — and running into stream channels where sediment can bury aquatic life and clog fish gills."

Outreach efforts

Letting milkweed grow naturally, or waiting to mow it later in the season, has another big boon — it allows biologists to collect eggs for educational outreach efforts.

For the past five years, the group has added monarch eggs to an outdoor enclosure at the Pajarito Environmental Education Center in Los Alamos. After the eggs complete their life cycle and emerge as butterflies, Stanek and team hold an event where they release the insects and share information on their importance to the ecosystem.

Jenna Stanek checks on the showy milkweed and other native flowers planted in raised beds on Laboratory property.

The team hosts similar events at elementary schools in Española and Los Alamos, as well as with local 4-H clubs. They also give away milkweed seed, which they collect when the plant has been protected from mowing and given a chance to propagate.

"As a wildlife biologist, I often think about what I can do to make a difference, and I don't always feel like I’m making a huge impact. But with pollinators, you can plant milkweed and have monarch eggs on it that same summer, and that feels impactful," Stanek said.

That's what happened in 2021, when the Lab replanted dead junipers in large planters to make space for pollinating plants, such as milkweed.

Later that summer, monarch caterpillars appeared.