For the last three years, I have tagged Monarch Butterflies. Having raised these fascinating, and now troubled, iconic creatures for the last 15 years, I took on the task of tagging their hind wings in the late summer/fall of 2015. I was hooked! It was easy and fun! I was acting as a contributing citizen scientist, providing data to Monarch Watch on the migration of these miraculous insects.
So, I did it again in the fall of 2016 and again, this past fall, 2017. I tagged 16, 17, and 25 monarchs each respective year for a total of 58 monarchs. It is not a lot, but it is significant for me. I receive a great deal of joy from helping sustain the monarch population. It has also been the subject on which I have focused many of my environmentally based garden club lessons with students over the last 14 years. For me, the act of tagging brings their life cycle full circle. It is a sign of hope I am placing on them as I attach the tag to their hind wing. I carefully raise each monarch caterpillar or egg I find in the habitat meant for them in my yard. I feed them daily and clean their “cages.” When one ecloses or emerges from the chrysalis, as the term implies, it is a beautiful transformative moment. A moment signaling hope for their future.
Immediately upon emergence from the chrysalis, the monarch’s wings are crumpled and wet. They cannot fly at this time and, as I understand it, if they fall before their wings dry out and straighten, they will most likely not survive! Luckily, I have never had this happen. After a short time – an hour or two – the wings have stiffened and the butterfly is starting to move them to open and close. The monarch can be tagged at this time. Holding the butterfly securely with the wings closed, the tiny tag is attached to one of the hind wings. The tag has letters and numbers – a code, if you will – in sequence for the number of tags you purchased. The tags are very sticky and need to be placed on the wing in the correct position, the first time, for they cannot be repositioned without stripping the scales from the wing.
Tags can only be ordered in late summer for it is only this generation of monarchs that make the great migration to Central Mexico for the winter. The tags must only be used the year they are purchased, and remaining tags (unused) should be returned to monarch watch with the data record sheet of those monarchs you tagged that season. Sex is noted, as is whether the monarch was caught and tagged was wild or reared. Tagging location is also indicated on the sheet. It is a relatively simple, yet effective means for tracking the butterflies.
Yesterday, I got some very exciting news! After three years of tagging, and looking for recovered tags on the reported data sheets, I was finally was able to identify two codes from tags that were placed on Monarchs by me last fall! TWO! Both tags were found in Mexico! Monarchs I had raised in my home gardens in West Central Wisconsin had made the complete migration all the way to Mexico! How cool is that?!
Monarch Watch receives the report of found tags. The person finding the tagged monarch reports their location and the code on the hindwing tag. This is then shared via their website through social media outlets, so people – interested citizen scientists, like myself – can look to see if any of the monarchs they tagged made it to Mexico! Thus, scientists can tell if they are seeing a large number of monarchs successfully make the migration from one area of the country versus another.
Last year I tagged 25 monarchs. Sixteen were females and 9 were males. All were hand-reared. Two were recovered in Mexico. One, a female was released here on 9/8/17 and found in Sierra Chincua Mexico on 2/10/18. Another, a male – actually, tagged by my husband on 9/20/17, was found on 3/3/18 in Cerro Pelon, Mexico. This was such exciting news! You can be sure I will be tagging more monarchs this coming fall. Thank you Monarch Watch for encouraging citizen scientists to contribute to your understanding of these iconic creatures. Hopefully, it will help us all save them.