Monarchs in Motion

The children opened the containers and waited, their eyes filled with anticipation. Four butterflies fluttered effortlessly up into the air. They spread their orange and black gossamer wings and flew away. The people at Sharon Country Camp cheered. We were officially now part of the 1996 national Monarch Watch Project.

I had tagged each butterfly on the hind wing. We hoped that in the next two months our monarchs would unerringly navigate about 2,500 miles to reach their wintering grounds near Angangueo in the Mexican highlands.

Every fall, millions of delicate, beautiful monarch butterflies migrate to Mexico from areas in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains. Scientists know how this marvelous journey begins and ends. But how do these incredible insects find their way? How do weather and other factors influence their migration routes?

"Migration Watch" is a network of researchers and volunteers of all ages who are studying the monarch migration to try to find answers to those questions. I purchased a rearing kit so that the campers coming to my natural-science program could see the metamorphosis of caterpillars to butterflies.

The caterpillars were striped in bold black and yellow. They spun a patch of soft silk and attached themselves by tiny hooks on their hindmost legs. Then they hung like gymnasts upside down and shed their skins into yellowish-green pupae. Soon the pupae, or chrysalides, turned a beautiful pale green with gold spots! For about a week they hung motionless.

Finally, the pupae turned transparent and we could see the black- rimmed orange wings of the butterflies inside. The pupae split open, and out emerged four wet, soft, and crumpled monarchs. By constantly fanning their wings and drying them out, soon they became regal and glorious butterflies ready to soar skyward!

Everyone involved with rearing or catching monarchs uses special tags that adhere to one hind wing in a specific location. The tagging process does not hurt the butterflies or impede them in any way. Everyone keeps scientific records and have assigned numbers for future recognition.

Monarchs can cruise at 12 miles an hour and hitch rides on any south-bearing weather system. They use lofty thermals to conserve energy high up in the skies or purposefully fly closer to the ground in order to eat and rest.

The more knowledge we gain, the more we can do to preserve our natural resources for future generations. Perhaps our tagged butterflies would reach Mexico safely and be seen by scientists! In any case, it was so much fun and so worthwhile!

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