I would like to invite you to “be a kid” again and/or bring your kids, and attend the Kansas Wetlands Education Center’s “Mad About Monarchs” event from 9 a.m. to noon on Sept. 24.
In addition to being a part of a great research project that has answered questions about the monarch butterfly migration, you can chase butterflies across a field or down the nature trail. It’s a great stress release and just plain fun, as long as you watch out for gopher holes.
The opportunity to catch and tag butterflies is yours, as long as they cooperate and are still migrating. Regardless, we will have caterpillars and captive monarchs to view, along with other interesting insects. Learn how to attract butterflies to your own yard from Jim and Betty Taylor, who are in charge of the Dillon Nature Center gardens. You can help restore monarch habitat by purchasing a butterfly quilt ticket too.
Scientists are trying to unravel some of the mystery surrounding monarch migration and Kansas happens to be the Mecca for monarch research. Orley “Chip” Taylor, University of Kansas entomology professor, has been studying monarch migration behavior for over 20 years and came up with the best citizen science project ever.
When we moved here 20 years ago, I happened upon an article calling for volunteers to help tag monarchs. Immediately I ordered tags, along with thousands of other people. In those first few years, we received a small bottle of glue and tiny brush to apply the tag to the hind wing. It worked but it was a challenge! Now we use self-adhesive tags – thank you modern technology.
This year’s migration started in late August, with recent cool fronts that progressed into Kansas. Those monarchs hatching from chrysalises in August are physiologically different from monarchs hatching earlier in the year. They do not undergo reproductive behavior, instead storing fats and clustering with other monarchs. August monarchs have a lifespan of eight to nine months, compared to two to four weeks for those emerging earlier in the summer.
Weighing less than an ounce, monarch butterflies migrate, on average over 1,500 miles, every fall to Central Mexico. Averaging 25 to 30 miles each day, they utilize thermal updrafts and cool fronts to make leaps, sometimes of 60 miles. The journey takes two to two and a half months to complete, with many not completing the journey. Hazards are many, including collisions with vehicles and storms.
Moving south, they stop to sip nectar, growing plump. Those that not storing enough fats won’t survive the winter in Central Mexico’s oyamel fir tree forests, where the tree canopy provides protection. Once they arrive at the forest roosts, they spend their days hanging from the tree branches that sometimes become so heavy with butterflies they break. If the temperature warms to over 55 degrees, they become active and may fly in mass from the trees to nearby streams, drinking water to activate stored fats.
By mid-February, the butterfly’s reproductive system activates and mating begins, along with a northern migration. They follow the growth of milkweed plants their caterpillars feed upon, arriving in southern Canada by mid-June.
There are many questions remaining about this migration – how did they locate the fir forests that contain the right canopy denseness to protect them in the first place; how do they find their way? One amazing fact we do know is all the information they need to make the journey is instinctual. Monarchs making the journey in the fall are three to four generations removed from those that made the trip the year before. All that information is preprogrammed in their tiny brain.
So get outside and watch the migration at Cheyenne Bottoms. For more information about “Mad About Monarchs” call KWEC at 1-877-243-9268 or visit wetlandscenter.fhsu.edu.
Pam Martin is the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism educator at the Kansas Wetlands Education Center. She can be reached at email@example.com.