Butterflies, bugs, and bees, oh my! All will make an appearance during the Kansas Wetlands Education Center’s 10th annual Butterfly Festival from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 23.
For monarch butterflies, the North American migration is a remarkable journey, said Pam Martin, education specialist at the KWEC.
“It’s like if your great-great-grandparents told you, you’re going to have to make a trip but we’re not going to help you and we can’t give you directions,” she said. “It’s absolutely amazing and will never cease to amaze me.”
Martin has been helping tag monarch butterflies for over 30 years.
“The super generation, the one that makes the migration in the fall, can travel up to 3,000 miles from up north but those that emerge here locally travel about 1,200 miles,” she continued. “It still amazes me and I’ve been doing it since 1992.”
The life cycle of monarch butterflies is truly special. It all begins and ends with what is called the super generation.
This is the generation of butterflies that makes the migration southward in the fall and over-winters in the Transvolcanic Mountains of Mexico. After wintering in the Oyamel Fir trees in the forests of central Mexico’s mountains, they fly north in the spring following the emergence of milkweed, on which they lay their eggs, and give way to the next generation. This second generation which emerges in the spring lives a short life of only three to five weeks but spends its time reproducing. During the spring and summer there are several generations spreading northward, following as the milkweed emerges to its northern range in southern Canada and parts of the northern United States, Martin explained.
“Here, locally, we’ll have a lot in the next week emerging from chrysalis, but the ones that were here have already left or died because they were not the super generation that makes the migration.”
A good year for monarchs
So far, this promises to be a much better year for the monarch butterfly migration than last year. Millions of monarchs will undertake their annual fall flight from the milkweed’s territory to the mountains of central Mexico.
“What I’ve noticed, since I’ve been tagging for 31 years, is that along with there being less milkweed in the fields, the wildflowers are blooming earlier and dying off earlier, so when the monarchs start migrating the food isn’t available,” she said.
She offered some words of encouragement, however. “We can all do our part and plant more native flowers and milkweed. Our yards don’t have to be just all grass. Put in a patch of flowers. Plus, it helps with stress release.”
When it comes to the number of monarchs to be seen at the KWEC Butterfly Festival, each year is different, Martin said.
“In 2021 we hit the migration just perfect with the festival and we tagged 400 in two hours, but last year wasn’t as good due to the drought.”
Either way, there will be things to do at the festival.
“There’s lots going on with the magic show and kids crafts. Plus, there’s lots of other bugs and critters to catch even if the monarchs aren’t coming through.”
Just as Martin said this, she spotted a monarch and, with well-trained eyes and an expert swoop of the net, she caught a male monarch from the branch of a cedar tree along the tree row west of the KWEC. She explained how and where the tag is placed on the wing and how to identify males versus females before releasing it. “Kind of like our wisdom teeth, monarchs have a scent gland that they don’t use anymore but it makes identifying them really easy.”
At the festival, nets and tags will be available for those who want to capture and tag monarch butterflies. Participants will head out into the flower-filled meadow and tree row surrounding the KWEC to hunt for monarchs. Tagging leaders and volunteers will be stationed along the trail to help with the tagging process.
“We really couldn’t do this festival without all the wonderful volunteers.” Martin said. “They really make it special, from helping us tag and document to making cookies and (creating) just a wonderful environment for everybody that comes out. And I’ll add that we are the largest butterfly festival west of Lawrence. We’ve had over 800 visitors some years but it works out great because people are always coming and going and there’s so much going on that it just works out perfect.”
She added, “It’s really neat that for the past several years, monarchs tagged at the event were recovered at three Mexico roost sites. It all depends on how many we tag but it’s pretty common to find them down there.”
Entertainment and Education
In addition to everyone’s favorite activities, comic duo The Instars will present their “Butterfly Magic” show. Entertainers Steve Craig and Amy Short use large doses of humor and magic to interpret the butterfly life cycle. Craig and Short present to schools, libraries and festivals in a four-state area from their home base in Missouri.
Something new and special this year to the KWEC Butterfly Festival is a partnership with Outdoor Kansas Kids (OK Kids) through a Kansas Wildscape Foundation grant. OK Kids is an organization promoting outdoor opportunities for kids within the state. The grant will provide funds for a wide selection of outdoor-related prizes for children. Prizes include items from insect nets and carriers, to field guides, nature vests and T-shirts, and exploration kits.
A demonstration beehive will be on display, weather permitting, in the insect zoo along with giant walking stick insects, butterflies, caterpillars, chrysalises, fluorescing scorpions and more. Kids can make a fun pom-pom caterpillar magnet at the craft station, get a temporary butterfly tattoo and take part in other games and activities.
Also on view, the butterfly/pollinator garden provides wildflower planting ideas to use at home. Milkweed plants and wildflower seeds will be available for free until they run out. When you need a break, stop by the refreshment table to grab a home-baked cookie or two, and lemonade or iced tea.
Martin said this is the festival’s 10th year and will be her last, in an official capacity, as she will be retiring at the end of the month. “I’ve been following the monarch migration for over 30 years and it still amazes me,” she said.
Learn more about monarch migration online at https://www.monarchwatch.org/migration/. The Kansas Wetlands Education Center (wetlandscenter.fhsu.edu) overlooks Cheyenne Bottoms, the largest inland marsh in the United States and a Ramsar designated Wetland of International Importance. It is managed by Fort Hays State University in cooperation with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.