The Beauty of Prairie Butterflies

Fri, 2013-01-04 02:23 am | By Paige Greenley '09

Before last summer, the only butterfly I could identify was a monarch, and the only prairie plant I knew was a coneflower. Thanks to an internship grant from the Center for Prairie Studies at Grinnell, I not only learned how to identify a multitude of butterflies and their favorite flowers, but I also spent last summer teaching kids in the Grinnell community to do the same.

Grinnell is located right in the middle of what used to be tallgrass prairie from horizon to horizon. What is now a landscape dominated by row crops and the occasional town was once an extremely biodiverse landscape where bugs of many varieties, including beautiful butterflies, used to roam. Today there are massive sycamores in the middle of campus and lots of other trees scattered around, but prior to European-American habitation of the area, it is rumored that there wasn’t a single tree within a three-mile radius of campus.

My journey to learn all about Iowa’s native butterflies and plants began with the Poweshiek Skipper Project and a talk with Larissa Mottl at the Center for Prairie Studies. The Poweshiek skipper is a small brown butterfly first identified by a Grinnell professor in the late 1800s; it is named for the county in which Grinnell resides. Due to loss of habitat, the Poweshiek skipper hasn’t been spotted in Poweshiek County for many years, and Grinnell’s Center for Prairie Studies decided to investigate.

Larissa realized early on that the best way to get people looking for and talking about the Poweshiek skipper was to tell kids about it, putting not only their sharp young eyes and brains to work, but also their parents’. Together Larissa and I created a unique one-time internship with the city of Grinnell Parks and Recreation Board in which I would work on creating and implementing butterfly conservation education projects and opportunities for kids in Grinnell. The goal was to get Grinnell kids excited about butterflies and the prairie and help create and renew the natural habitat of Iowa.

My internship entailed collaborative projects that spanned the realms of the College, the Grinnell elementary schools, and the Grinnell Public Library. I worked with the College’s art gallery to develop and implement community art projects featuring butterflies. I arranged a butterfly day at the public library. By the end of the summer, I had created a plan with the principal and teachers at one of the elementary schools to plant a butterfly garden on the school grounds. I also got to attend the North American Prairie Conference in Winona, Minn., and connect with other people working on increasing prairie habitat awareness.

In addition to my interesting and educational encounters with educators, artists, insect biologists, and prairie specialists, I also got to see the beauty of summer in Iowa. Summer in Grinnell includes such delights as the weekly farmers’ market, Thursday Music in the Park, and endless BBQs with other Grinnellians who also made Grinnell their home for the summer. I ended up with new networking and organizational skills, a wealth of new knowledge about butterflies and prairies, and a mind full of memories of a town I have grown to love.

Paige Greenley '09 is a Anthropology/Environmental Studies major from Eugene, Oregon.