Saving the Monarch Butterfly

Photo Credit: Stephanie Rathsack


According to recent data from overwintering monarch colonies, there are indications that both eastern and western monarch populations have declined by ~70% over the last 20 years—a dangerous figure when considering long-term survival of the species. These overwintering data provide scientists with information about survivors of each year’s migration to Mexico or California.  However, because monarchs are widespread throughout North America, it is extremely challenging to accurately understand and estimate how many individuals are present in the population before migrating. To help solve this problem the Monarch Joint Venture is partnering across Canada, the US and Mexico to engage citizen scientists in gathering data about the monarch late summer breeding population for one week (July 29th – August 5th). By collecting data from across the entire range during one small time window, citizen scientists from all three countries will help capture a snapshot of monarch breeding activity prior to peak migration.


Why a Monitoring Blitz?

Monarch butterflies are declining—this is a trend that has been seen over the course of several years, but it is still impossible to say just why it is occurring. It is easier for scientists to monitor monarchs in their overwintering sites due to their concentration in small areas. But this provides information during only a portion of the year, with several generations of butterflies occurring between each measuring period. With limited resources and a wide range to cover, it would be impossible for scientists to accurately measure monarch numbers throughout their breeding range. However, these numbers would provide new insight never yet considered, and would allow for a better understanding of why monarch populations are declining, and more importantly, what can be done to save them.

Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack


How can we help?

Anyone can help during the week of the International Monarch Monitoring Blitz. All you need is a location where milkweed is growing, and a way to record and submit the data you collect.  The blitz runs from July 29th to August 5th, and covers the entirety of the North American monarch butterfly range, including Mexico, the United States, and Canada. Depending on your site location, there are three locations where data will be collected:


United States:




In order to record data, participating citizen scientists should become familiar with the monarch life stages (egg, larval instars, pupa, and adult), and be able to commit a block of time to searching for them. The time spent searching can vary based on the participants availability, but can range between fifteen minutes and several hours.

In order to participate in this exciting event, River Bend Nature Center will be hosting a Monarch Larva Monitoring Project (MLMP) Training On Saturday, July 29th. Participants in this training will receive in depth information on the monarch butterfly including identification, life history, and rearing instructions. The remainder of the training will be an outdoor, hands-on data collection session. The information gathered during the course of this training will be submitted to the Monitoring Blitz, and participants will be able to use their knowledge to conduct their own data collection offsite.


Interested in participating in the MLMP training?

Seats are still available, but filling up fast! Pre-register online, over the phone, or in person in order to guarantee a spot.


New Summer, New Faces!


Here are the newest members of the River Bend Nature Center family! These three ladies are here for the entirety of the summer, helping out and teaching summer camps to all the little humans that come walking through our doors! Scroll down to get to know the new faces of RBNC!



Hello! I’m MacKenzie Nagel, but most people just call me Kenzie! I graduated from Bemidji State University this last Spring with my Literature and Arts Bachelor’s Degree, and will graduate this Fall with my Bachelor’s Degree in English Education. I LOVE the craziness, spontaneity, and creativity of kids- they make ME think out of the box on the daily and I just can’t get enough of that! I have a huge extended family, and am the eldest of five, so family is the core of my very existence. I am an avid reader, lover of all movies, Disney Karaoke World Finalist, professional sarcastic comment giver, 22 year old. I am constantly referred to as the “female Steve Erwin” if that gives you a better picture in your mind (not because I’m amazing with animals, but because I am so overwhelmingly charming …and the Australian accent helps.)


Favorite food: ANYTHING THAT IS MADE OUT OF POTATOES. And Chinese food.

Life motto: “Let your freak flag fly!”

Favorite Trail: Rabbit Trail, for SURE!

MN Spirit Animal: Coyote. I am very good at adapting to new situations, I love joking around, and I find joy in all the things I do. I am super close to my family, love to work with children, and know how to be myself! I feel like that is the very core of a coyote!

Favorite Outdoor Recreation: Sleeping…….outside… a hammock.



Sydney (Syd)


My name is Safari Sydney, Syd to my co-workers. I am a recent graduate of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and decided to leave the Great Smoky Mountains for the Minnesota plains. I enjoy biking and hiking around River Bend, my favorite trail being Trout Lily since it follows the river bank and is a shaded, peaceful ride. My favorite outdoor activity would have to be sea or flat water kayaking, I’ve always had luck seeing a variety of wildlife as a kayaker. I enjoy eating hot wings. My Minnesota spirit animal would be a Plains Hog-nosed Snake because these fascinating little snakes fake their own deaths and flatten their necks like cobras to defend themselves, pretty clever!




I’m from Grand Meadow, MN. I am the oldest of 4 kids. I graduated from Winona State University in 2013 and majored in Recreation & Tourism. I’ve been teaching Environmental Education for a few years now and have travelled somewhat extensively throughout the U.S. working in different places. My favorite outdoor recreational activities would probably be hiking, biking, fishing, and kayaking. My favorite trails here at River Bend so far are Walnut and Raccoon. My favorite foods are Buffalo Wings (Garlic Parmesan), BBQ Ribs, and Chicken Fettucine Alfredo. My Minnesota spirit animal would be a lynx. My life motto would be the Henry David Thoreau quote, “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.”



That’s all we have for THIS blog post folks!

And remember!!

Adventure is out there!



That Yellow Flower

While walking on the trails at River Bend, you may have enjoyed the sight of numerous summer flowers—in the prairies, forests, and ponds. And while these splashes of bright color are great for both nature lovers and pollinators alike, there is one species among them that acts as a bit of a villain. Chances are you’ve seen these plant before, but like any good villain, it stays well under the radar and disguises itself. Because of this, many people remain unaware of the danger. The plant in question is what’s known as “wild parsnip”. And if it sounds like something you’d find in the kitchen, you’d be right—the wild parsnip is a vegetable specifically cultivated for its large edible taproot (similar to carrots and other parsnips). It is a native plant to Europe and Asia, but after being brought overseas, it quickly escaped cultivation and took to forest and field with a vigor that outcompeted and overwhelmed most other native species of North America. In Minnesota, it is predominantly found in the southeastern region of the state, where it takes over prairies—sometimes to the point of turning them into complete monocultures. The resulting prairies resemble an “ocean of yellow”, as no other plants remain, leaving nothing visible except the bright yellow flowers on their tall stalks.



The Minnesota DNR describes parsnip as the following:

Appearance: Monocarpic perennial herbaceous plant (plant spends one or more years in rosette stage, blooms under favorable conditions, and then dies), 6″ high in the rosette stage and 4′ high on stout, grooved stems in the flowering stage.

Leaves: Alternate, leaf is made up of 5 -15 egg shaped leaflets along both sides of a common stalk; leaflets sharply-toothed or lobed at the margins; upper leaves smaller.

Flowers: Flat-topped broad flower cluster 2 – 6″ wide, numerous five-petaled yellow flowers; bloom from June to late summer.

Seeds: Small, flat, round, slightly ribbed, strawcolored, abundant take 3 weeks to ripen before they can reseed; viable in the soil for 4 years.

Roots: Long, thick, edible taproot.



Unfortunately, the plants’ aggressive tendencies really is the least of it. Not only does it push other species out, but it actually poses a health hazard. The danger lies in the sap of the plant—the juices that flow through the stem and leaves and bring nutrients to all parts of the plant.

There are chemicals in wild parsnip sap called psoralens (speifically, furocoumarins) that cause what dermatologists call “phytophotodermatitis.” That means an inflammation (itis) of the skin (derm) induced by a plant (phyto) with the help of sunlight (photo). When absorbed by skin, and then exposed to the sun, furocoumarins are energized by ultraviolet light (present during BOTH sunny and cloudy days) causing them to bind with nuclear DNA and cell membranes. This process destroys cells and skin tissue, though the reaction takes time to produce visible damage. In less severe cases, affected skin reddens and feels sunburned afterwards. In more severe cases, the skin reddens first, then blisters rise, with some potentially even being quite large. And for a while the area feels like it has been scalded. Places where skin is most sensitive (arms, legs, torso, face, neck) are most vulnerable. Moisture from perspiration also speeds up the absorption of the psoralens.


According to the Wisconsin DNR, concerning the burns:


  1. Everyone can get it. Unlike poison ivy, you don’t need to be sensitized by a prior exposure. Wild parsnip causes a non-allergic dermatitis that can occur with the right combination of plant juice and sunlight.


  1. You can touch and brush against the plant – carefully – without harm. Parsnip is only dangerous when the juice gets on skin from broken leaves or stems. Fair-skinned people, however, may be extra-sensitive to tiny amounts of juice.


  1. Wild parsnip’s “burn” is usually less irritating than poison ivy’s “itch.” Generally, wild parsnip causes a modest burning pain for a day or two, and then the worst is over. The itch and discomfort from poison ivy, in contrast, can drive people crazy for a long time.


At River Bend Nature Center, wild parsnip has become a large problem—it dominates the southern prairies, and creeps up into the edges of trails where the largest danger comes from unaware visitors (especially young ones) picking the attractive flowers. To help reduce this risk, the staff and volunteers of River Bend have been removing parsnip as it appears along trails in order to keep it “out of reach”. In addition to this, prairie burns are conducted, as well as organized pulls and cuts. However, due to the number of plants and the large area they cover, it is often a slow process which is difficult to see progress in. For this reason, River Bend relies on the help of volunteers and other members of the community. We rely on them to be aware of the plant, heed warning signs posted along trails, and to also help educate others. We also rely on their assistance with the removal of the plant itself.

If you are interested in land restoration and the removal of parsnip, there are several upcoming opportunities for you to get involved:


Restoration Work Day – Parsnip Pull

Ages 10 and up. Free!
Wednesday, July 12th, 2017, 3:00pm – 5:00pm
Sunday, July 23rd, 2017, 10:00-noon

Join us for a restoration-themed work day.  Twice a month we’ll head out onto the River Bend property to remove non-native invasive species and work to restore native habitat.  You’ll learn restoration skills at River Bend that you can take home and implement on your property!  No experience needed, no commitment required.  Come once or come for them all!

This month’s program will be focused on the removal of wild parsnip. But the Restoration Program is ongoing through the summer on the 2nd Wednesday of the month from 3:00pm – 5:00pm, and the 4th Sunday of the month from 10:00am – 12:00pm, with a different focus each meeting.

To register, call or visit our website: