Monarchs set hearts aflutter

Group tracks migration of majestic, vigorous butterflies

By Pamela H. Sacks



Kristin Steinmetz is utterly captivated by monarch butterflies.

With a hint of humor, Ms. Steinmetz described her feelings for the brilliant orange and black creatures as “a totally irrational passion.”

“I just love them,” she said in a telephone interview. “My heart goes all aflutter when I see a monarch. It’s ridiculous.”

Ms. Steinmetz’s fascination started to grow several years ago when she planted a butterfly garden with her daughters, now 4 and 7. Monarchs drank the nectar and laid eggs on the plants, sending Ms. Steinmetz, a natural history guide at Broad Meadow Brook Conservation Center and Wildlife Sanctuary in Worcester, on an Internet search for more information.

She soon came across Monarch Watch, a project at the University of Kansas that is studying the annual migration of monarch butterflies between Mexico and the United States and Canada. Each fall, hordes of monarchs, exhibiting a mysterious ability to orient themselves in latitude and longitude fly south to “overwinter” in the mountains of central Mexico. The monarchs migrate back again in the spring and summer. The 4,000-mile round trip is considered an amazing natural phenomenon, particularly because the butterflies that return from Mexico are the great-great-grandchildren of the monarchs that flew south in the fall.

Monarch Watch started a tagging program 15 years ago to gain an understanding of the origins, timing and pace of the migration. Fifteen thousand volunteers, many of them from schools, nature centers, zoos and city parks programs, join in the effort, which takes place in September and October. They catch monarchs in nets and place adhesive tags about a third of the size of a penny on a mitten-shaped space between two black veins on the back wings. The tags indicate when and where each butterfly was caught.

Ms. Steinmetz already has tagged five, and she has big plans. She is running a monarch tagging session from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday at Broad Meadow Brook and is hoping that 20 people will join her. She will start the session with an orientation and instruction in how to net and tag. Even children as young as 4 can participate, she said. With nets and tags provided by Ms. Steinmetz, the group will hike a mile to the power lines at the conservation center, a favorite monarch gathering spot.

“If the weather’s good, we’ll be seeing waves of monarchs passing through,” she said. “I’d be happy if each person caught and tagged one butterfly.”

Of the 100,000 tags that are applied each year, roughly 1 percent are recovered in Mexico by people living there and are returned to Monarch Watch for analysis, according to Orley R. Taylor, the scientist who runs the project.

“There are lots of reasons we do this,” Mr. Taylor said. “We are dealing with an organism in some jeopardy because of loss of habitat. When you have a major conservation issue, you have to know the biology of the organism you are working with. You need fundamental information on the habits of the butterfly, the size of the population and the mortality. ”

Monarch Watch, which operates east of the Rocky Mountains, sells a set of 50 tags for $15 to raise money. It is the only major undertaking of its kind in the country and receives no government funding or grants.

Last year, Ms. Steinmetz’s husband gave her a set of tags for her birthday. Although she started a bit late, she managed to tag five butterflies. “I was a novice, and I had trouble netting them,” she said.

Many people believe that the same monarchs make the trip to Mexico and back. The real story is in its way even more remarkable, Ms. Steinmetz said.

The butterflies that migrate south mate in Mexico and then start the trek north. They lay their eggs in Texas and then die. Those eggs hatch, and the adult butterflies migrate to the Southeast United States, where they lay eggs that produce butterflies that lay eggs in New Jersey, Pennsylvania or Maryland. The butterflies from those eggs are the monarchs that come to Massachusetts. They lay eggs and die. Those eggs hatch. The offspring mature and then lay eggs, and those butterflies could be the ones that migrate to Mexico.

“There are always exceptions, and there could be an extra generation,” Ms. Steinmetz explained. “That’s the general pattern.”

Adult monarchs generally live a month. Members of the migrating generation live six to nine months and their sexual maturation is delayed. They drink large amounts of nectar and store fat to use for energy. Monarchs appear to be delicate, Ms. Steinmetz said, but they are very tough. They can survive bird bites, rain and wind and are not injured from being tagged.

The butterflies are, however, struggling with a shrinking habitat both here and in Mexico, where deforestation is widespread, Mr. Taylor said. Populations of monarchs naturally go way up and down. Monarch Watch is looking at what effect the changes in habitat are having on the population.

“One of the shocking revelations I’ve come to is that in 15 years we have lost habitat virtually equivalent to the landmass of the state of Illinois,” Mr. Taylor said. “You have diminishing resources and a population that is changing. Are human activities having a significant impact? You have to have a thorough understanding of the cause and effect.”

Monarchs are dependent for nourishment on milkweed and nectar from wildflowers. In order to survive the arduous migration, they need to find those plants along the way. Both are in decline because of development and the widespread use of pesticides.

In response, Monarch Watch has set a goal of creating 10,000 milkweed-monarch habitat patches – called “monarch way stations” – in home gardens, along roadsides and fields, and at schools, parks, zoos and nature centers. Without this effort, Mr. Taylor said, the outlook for the monarch population is grim.

“We really have to be wise about how we are using our landscape,” he said. “We are losing our pollinators, our butterflies and our wildlife.”