Minnesota group uses artificial intelligence to aid monarch butterflies

a monarch butterfly on a purple flower
A monarch butterfly on a purple coneflower in Moorhead, Minn., on July 29. A new artificial intelligence program will measure pollinator habitat in Minnesota and elsewhere.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

St. Paul-based Monarch Joint Venture has a faster, more accurate method for measuring the reach and quality of pollinator habitat on the landscape.

An artificial intelligence program called POLLi can count milkweed plants in images collected by drones. Milkweed is the host plant for monarch butterflies and critical for their survival.

Similar technology is widely used in agriculture to check crop quality and monitor for disease.

“We’re really mimicking that same precision ag technology and monitoring into the wildlife conservation and habitat conservation space, but it’s not really been done before and not in this way that makes it broadly applicable and commercially available,” said Wendy Caldwell, executive director of Monarch Joint Venture.  

pink flowers and green leaves
A milkweed plant in Marshall County, Minn.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News 2021

The organization has tested the AI in Minnesota, North Dakota, Iowa and Wisconsin and is now making it available for other organizations to use as a tool to monitor habitat. 

Another iteration of the program will count other pollinator-friendly flowering plants, and Caldwell expects to also use AI to monitor invasive species encroaching on habitat.

“The idea is that these data that are collected at the organizational level or even just one particular parcel of land can help paint this bigger picture by being contributed into a larger assessment of where pollinator habitat is across the country,” said Caldwell.  

That data can help land managers make more informed decisions about habitat restoration or management.

a person controlling a drone
A drone is used to capture images of conservation habitat. Artificial intelligence can count pollinator friendly plants in the photos.
Courtesy Monarch Joint Venture

The artificial intelligence program combined with drone images can cover large areas in a short time with better than 90 percent accuracy.

“The accuracy is actually pretty incredible knowing that the human going out and counting that milkweed on that same piece of property is not likely to have that same consistent accuracy that the technology does,” said Caldwell.

The technology has primarily been used on private conservation lands, but the Monarch Joint Venture plans to focus on energy and transportation related habitat next year.