While much of the world has slowed down over the past few months, there has been a recent flutter of activity for the Minnesota Zoo’s Prairie Butterfly Conservation Program. As the weather continues to warm and the daylight lengthens, hundreds of caterpillars on Zoo site are taking their cue to prepare for a truly magical transformation.

The Zoo’s Prairie Butterfly Conservation Program works to save some of the world’s most imperiled butterfly species. In Minnesota, the Dakota skipper and Poweshiek skipperling were once widespread throughout the state, commonly found across expanses of prairie. But as their habitat dwindled, their numbers began to drop. In addition, they now face other threats to their survival such as climate change and pesticide use. These two species of butterfly are now listed on the Endangered Species Act and face a very uncertain future.

In an effort to prevent the disappearance of these beautiful species, researchers at the Zoo are working tirelessly to study and rear thousands of individuals, from the tiniest of eggs through to their emergence as adult butterflies, ready for flight. Over the past few weeks, hundreds of Dakota skipper and Poweshiek skipperling caterpillars, that astonishingly can survive the freeze of a Minnesota winter, continued their metamorphosis as they built their chrysalises and began transforming into butterflies.

Butterfly rearing facility at the MN Zoo.

The hoop houses at the Zoo are nearly filled to the brim these days with native plants, each home to a determined and destined caterpillar. And as the season progresses, Zoo researchers are witness to the first butterflies of the year. Each caterpillar that successfully emerges as a butterfly is a sign of hope for these endangered populations. The butterfly adults will soon be transported to various prairie sites throughout the region where they will be released and have the potential to help boost the local population.

The ultimate goal of this program is to save these amazing species from extinction and to raise public awareness of the importance of pollinators and the crucial role that humans can play in ensuring not only their survival, but their success in the wild. Visit the Prairie Butterfly Conservation Program page to read more about this amazing work!

Want to help?? Here are some actions you can take to help the conservation of Minnesota’s vanishing butterflies:

  • A great way to start is to plant native wildflowers, such as milkweed, in your garden. Plant to have wildflowers blooming throughout the entire growing season so you can help the various life stages and species of pollinators. You don’t need much space to help out either! A few plants along a sidewalk or garage can provide valuable resources to many pollinators!
  • If you have one, you may consider converting your turf lawn to a pollinator-friendly lawn by mowing less frequently and allowing “weedy”plants like clover to flower.
  • Pesticides harm and even kill many insects and other pollinator species. You can help by reducing or eliminating pesticide use on lawns and gardens.
  • We can also help our pollinator friends who hunker down with us and brave a Minnesota winter! Leave dead and standing plant debris in the fall, instead of clearing it from your garden, so that overwintering insects can utilize it for habitat.
  • It’s important for scientists and researchers around the globe to know how pollinators are doing so we can help out where needed most. But they can’t do this work alone! You can join a citizen science project and contribute your own data! Check out the following projects for more information:

Your support will help ensure that projects like this will continue to work towards a future where wildlife thrives in Minnesota and beyond. Please donate to the Minnesota Zoo Foundation today. Thank you!