Friday, June 20, 2014

Emily Spiegelman: Tagging Monarch Butterflies

Maybe because it’s National Pollinator Week, I’ve been thinking a lot about my first monarch encounter.

Before the days of living butterfly exhibits — those vast humid rooms you can walk through while brilliantly colored winged creatures alight and ride along on your shoe or your shoulder — my parents had the idea to give me and my younger brother our own up-close-and-personal butterfly experience. They returned from a biking trip in Vermont with several sprigs of milkweed and a very hungry monarch caterpillar that they had kidnapped roadside.

Monarch caterpillars feed on milkweed (milkweed pod shown here).
We would keep the caterpillar in an open box on our closed-in porch, feed it on a steady diet of milkweed, and wait for it to transform. My little brother (barely 2) and I (age 7) cared for this new arrival, which mostly entailed watching day after day, eagerly anticipating change. Or rather, I anticipated and my brother — too young to really grasp the import of what was to come — mimicked my excitement.

We fed our caterpillar and watched as it seemed to turn itself inside-out. Gradually, that green bauble of a chrysalis, with its row of golden dots, became so transparent we could see the black lines of monarch butterfly wings through its surface. We were separated from beautiful butterfly by only this pale membrane; we could almost touch it. DON’T TOUCH IT we said to my little brother, whose chubby hands twitched with a curious child’s need to grab. Over and over we said it, and then one day, in that split second it takes for an unattended toddler to wreak havoc, he touched — or rather, squashed completely — the nearly-hatched monarch with an exclamation of delight.

Our Audubon guide, Cindy, shows us the proper way to hold a butterfly for tagging
This incident, now an oft-repeated family anecdote, was decades in the past by the time my mother and I found ourselves in a field of waist-high milkweed in Princeton, Massachusetts, clutching butterfly nets. We were there to help our local Audubon chapter tag the migrating pollinators, but maybe some small part of me was there to have that moment of connection my seven-year-old self had once hoped for.

The field in front of us teemed with many varieties of butterflys, but we were singularly focused on those orange-and-black beauties. We were briefed on good butterfly-catching technique: wait until they land on something (rather than swiping at them as they fly by), to minimize injuries to their delicate wings. Then, bring the net down gently over the top. It took us some time to master it, but eventually my mother and I could take turns catching and doing the delicate work of removing the captured monarch from the net and applying the sticker. How strange to finally have in my hand a butterfly, to hold that creature between my fingers, the wings not quite like paper, not quite like skin.

The butterflies are tagged with a small, circular sticker with a very strong adhesive. The sticker contains information about where the butterfly was tagged, which organization tagged it, and the date on which the tag was applied.

The tag goes on the mitten-shaped patch on the butterfly’s wing. We knew this was a female — the veins on a female’s wings are thicker than on a male’s, and males have two black spots (glands) on the lower quadrants of their wings.

The Wachusett Wildlife Preserve in Princeton, Massachusetts has giant fields full of milkweed, so is a kind of monarch heaven.

Also in great abundance was goldenrod, which the butterflies (once hatched) use for nectaring, or loading up on food and getting ready for their long migration.

 My mom, on the hunt.
Success: Our first catch
It was mind-bending to consider that the single creature I held — let alone millions of them — could make the journey to California and Mexico on thin air. It’s also mind-bending to consider that, in my lifetime, the world has changed from one where monarch caterpillars are common enough to be discovered by a passing bicyclist to one where I can watch an entire summer pass and not spot a single monarch butterfly in my yard. I often think of that day in the field, and of that short stretch of days when my brother and I watched the beginning of a mysterious and magical transformation.

In the sea of news stories about troubled pollinator populations, I think about how easy it would be to feel helpless to make a difference. Thankfully, days like the one in the field are a reminder that if a single monarch can journey to Mexico on the wind, a single person can do something to make that passage a little easier. It can be as simple as planting a seed, or placing a sticker.

Our final catch of the day  this male (two glands clearly visible on lower half of wings) sits on my mom's hand.

Wondering what you can do to help monarchs?

Evidence suggests that a main threat to monarchs is the loss of their primary food source, milkweed, to the expansion of farmland and to widespread use of pesticides. 

The Xerces Society’s Butterfly Conservation Program has a designated campaign to help monarchs. If you’re wondering what you can to do help monarchs as National Pollinator Week comes to a close, consider these steps from The Xerces Society:
  • Plant native milkweed and nectar plants. Not sure what kind of milkweed is native to your area? Use The Xerces Society’s Milkweed Seed Finder.
  • Avoid using insecticides and herbicides.
  • Support agriculture that is organic or free of Genetically Modified ingredients.
  • Become a citizen scientist and contribute to research efforts to track the monarch population in its breeding and overwintering range.
  • Support The Xerces Society’s monarch conservation efforts.
Want more information? Attracting Native Pollinators is available wherever books are sold. And look for Farming with Native Beneficial Insects, a new book by The Xerces Society, on shelves later this summer.
More Storey books on butterflies:


Regina said...

This is beautifully written! Thanks, Emily.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Regina! I'm glad you enjoyed it.