An adventure in monarch tagging

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The Driftless Area Wetlands Centre in Marquette held a monarch butterfly release party Saturday afternoon, with participants tagging and releasing several monarchs reared there over the last few weeks. Some butterflies caught in the wild that day were tagged and released, as well. (Photos by Audrey Posten)

Tagging involves placing a small sticker on each butterfly’s hind wing. Each tag contains an identification number along with a phone number to call when the butterfly and tag are found. Monarch tagging is done now, as it is the peak time for monarchs to begin their migration to Mexico.

Jim Langhus shows the difference between a male (left) and female monarch butterfly. The males have noticeably thinner veins, as well as black spots on their hind wings.

Wetlands Centre Director Alicia Mullarkey shows off one of the monarch butterflies reared at the Wetlands Centre and later tagged and released.

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor

The Driftless Area Wetlands Centre in Marquette held a monarch butterfly release party Saturday afternoon, with participants tagging and releasing several monarchs reared there over the last few weeks. Some butterflies caught in the wild that day were tagged and released, as well.

“This has been our first adventure in tagging,” said Wetlands Centre Director Alicia Mullarkey.

Tagging involves placing a small sticker on each butterfly’s hind wing. Each tag contains an identification number along with a phone number to call when the butterfly and tag are found. It does not hinder the monarch’s movement.

“It’s like putting on a sock,” remarked Jim Langhus, a former MFL MarMac science teacher as well as a volunteer at Monona’s Butterfly Garden, who’s been tagging monarchs since the mid-1990s.

When the monarch is tagged, an individual records information about that butterfly—the tag number, release date and location, gender and whether the monarch was reared or caught in the wild. 

For those who are wondering, a monarch male can be identified for having thinner veins and a black spot on the back wings.

That information is then submitted to Monarch Watch, a nonprofit education, conservation and research program based at the University of Kansas that focuses on the monarch butterfly, its habitat and fall migration.

“Without that information, the tag is useless,” Mullarkey commented, noting that now is the peak time for monarchs to begin their migration to Mexico.

Monarchs are unique, she said, in that they’re the only butterfly to migrate north to south.

“A lot [of other species] stay put and overwinter,” she added.

In Mexico, the monarchs from the Midwest and Canada will gather in trees in the mountains outside Mexico City, Langhus said. 

Monarch Watch pays people there to report the tags. In an area with slight incomes, where logging has endangered the butterflies’  habitat, the payment aids both families and the environment.

“There’s a value for keeping the trees standing,” Langhus shared, “and they’re creating something people can make an income off.”

Mullarkey and Langhus said threatened habitat in all areas of the monarch’s life and migration has contributed to a decline in the population. In this area, the use of herbicides to kill milkweed plants has been particularly damaging, Mullarkey said.

“There’s less frequent milkweed,” she said. Although adult monarchs will nectar off other plants, milkweed is the only plant monarch caterpillars will eat. “They have to have it to complete the life cycle.”

That’s why rearing monarchs from the egg or caterpillar stage can be helpful.

“They survive better if we rear them here,” Mullarkey mentioned. “The more we can do to protect their habitat, the better off they’ll be.”

From egg to butterfly, the monarch’s growth is quite fast, Langhus said.

“It’s only about 30 days from start to end,” he explained. 

As adults, monarchs live for only a matter of weeks—enough time to reproduce—before they die, Langhus said. Each female can lay more than 200 eggs.

Langhus said this cycle explains why there’s a lull in the population for several weeks, followed by a flush of butterflies.

This occurs throughout the summer, until mid-August. The monarchs born from that time into September will make the migration.

“You can see them cluster and roost in September before they make the trip south,” Mullarkey stated. “Right now, they’re nectaring and getting resources.”

Unlike their ancestors born earlier in the summer, these monarchs will live for up to nine months, through the winter.

“They’re the same species, but some only live for a month,” Mullarkey said of the interesting process.

In the spring, the process will begin anew, as the monarchs head north.

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