Every year, monarch butterflies travel more than 3,000 miles before winter for a warmer climate.
The South Plains College Biology Club and Dr. Scott Starr, biology instructor, tagged 25 monarchs during their recent migration to help researchers track their journey.
“So it’s a fun little exercise for students to do,” Dr. Starr said. “We used nets to catch the butterflies off of flowers and other vegetation matter they landed on. Or sometimes in the air when they’re flying by. Then you simply just hold onto them, and it is a tiny circular tag that you placed on to them. So it’s not too hard of a process to do.”
Dr. Starr explains that the monarchs are migrating to Mexico for the winter, gathering in a forest in the mountains that are northwest of Mexico City.
After they tagged the monarchs, they reported the information back to the organization that is running the tagging effort, Monarch Watch.
“We record the date that we capture them and tag them,” Dr. Starr explained, “ if they were male or female, and the location of where it was. We release and we supply Monarch Watch with that information. So if somebody finds a butterfly that is tagged on the way (to Mexico), there is information on the tag for where they can report their sighting. Each tag has its own little unique code, so they just have to either call or email the one on the information to Monarch Watch.”
Monarch Watch is a nonprofit education and research program based at the University of Kansas that focuses on the monarch butterfly, their habitat and fall migration. Dr. Starr said that Monarch Watch runs the tagging program, while also promoting research for monarchs.
“Migration is just one part,” Dr. Starr explains. “Their website has a lot of information about the butterflies. They also provide information about what type of flowers you can put into your yard to help attract them. The website talks about different types of milkweed that the larva need to have in order to grow. So they try to provide a lot of different information for people so they can learn about the butterflies more and what they can do if they would like to have them in their backyard.”
Dr. Starr says that he has participated in tagging the monarchs in the past. But getting to tag and handle them is something new to the students that they enjoyed.
“This year we had a really high amount of monarch butterflies going through our area,” Dr. Starr said, “so it was a little bit more prevalent for them to see. They’re helping with a larger project, and often we refer to these types of projects as citizen science. Because anybody can do it, it doesn’t have to be biology student. It can be somebody buying these same tags and do it in their own backyard.”
Dr. Starr plans on participating again next year, and is hoping for another large sighting of the migration in the area.
“We’ll probably get a few more tags than we did this year,” Dr. Starr said. “It was a good one. Hopefully it’ll be just as good next year, but we never know. We’re kind of on the edge of their territory for where they migrate through.”