tagging monarchs to track them

on a recent cold and rainy saturday morning, i participated in a a few events for a green apple day of service at lipscomb elementary school.  actually, i was there with my husband so that i could help him give a demonstration on square food gardening.  when he isn’t busy at the university-he is the catering chef, he works with the kindergarten classes in their garden beds.  he has been working with one of the teacher for the last two years and the program has been very successful.
the teacher he works with is also heavily involved with monarch watch.  give becky five minutes and she will tell you all she can about monarchs.  she even manages to work them into every lesson plan she has for her students.  along side of the driveway just outside her classroom is long and narrow garden full butterfly plants.  some are host plants for the caterpillars, like the milkweed for instance, while others, such as coneflowers, herbs and asters are valuable nectar plants for the butterflies.
monarchs like many other creatures are very sensitive to changes within their environment.  the large amount of construction in many areas has meant a drastic reduction in host plants for monarchs and sadly, their numbers are declining quickly.  i can remember seeing so many fluttering about during the summer when i was young but now, i can hardly remember seeing one this summer.  but construction isn’t the only problem that monarchs are facing.  herbicides and genetically modified crops also have a hand in their decline and the bring back the monarch campaign is hoping to prevent further decline.  you can help by planting any of the 15 native(to tennessee) milkweed plants in your yard or garden.  for a complete list of the varieties native to tennessee, follow this link and to find sources for seeds and plants, check this list.
becky watches the plants closely with hope of finding caterpillars or a chrysalis.  when she finds them, she carefully moves them to a secure environment in the building so that she can be sure they will have the chance to become butterflies.   

on this day, one monarch decided to join the festivities by coming out of the chrysalis shell.  it was a complete surprise to everyone-especially the children in attendance.  while the wings unfurl and dry, butterflies are extremely vulnerable to predators.  this one was lucky that miss becky took it inside-the cool temperatures would have made it even harder for it to fly away.

sorry for the blurry shot-plastic containers are not the best thing to take photos through.

one of the things becky does is to tag each butterfly before setting it free.  she keeps careful records of each and every one so that it can be tracked.  she explained that all of the monarchs in this part of the country will actually fly to a small santuary in mexico for the winter.

the tag is placed on the wing and each one has a number specific to that butterfly.  the native people who live in and around the santuary will actually comb the ground looking for tags.  for some, that is a large part of their income and they take the task seriously.

becky will tell you that every so often, they get an email listing a number from one of the tags that she and the children have used.  that means one of the butterflies made it to mexico and for this group, it is news to dance and shout about.

it takes a minute or two for the butterfly to become accustomed to the tag on its wing but once they are, they can fly just fine.

did you know that it is very easy to determine the sex of a monarch butterfly?  well, it really is, by gently splaying the wings open, a five year old was quick to tell me that this was a male.  how did he know that?  by the single large black spot on each of the wings.  this guy went back into the aquarium until it warmed up and then they were going to let him fly off.  and with any luck, he will make it to the santuary in mexico.

my very own field of dreams

open the newspaper, surf the internet, read a magazine, it doesn’t matter which you do to stay informed. when you do, though, you will most likely hear another story of disappearing wildlife due to diminishing habitats.  as a gardener, i take the responsibility of providing a natural setting for all types of wildlife seriously.  we do not use synthetic pesticides and we purposely add native host plants to our landscape.  
as a child, i would see monarch butterflies all summer long.  while living in california, i went on a trail ride with my mother in law.  it was one of many trail rides through the headlands of marin, and as we came down the trail into a valley, we encountered migrating monarchs.  it was an amazing sight to be seen; everywhere you looked were monarchs fluttering by as they headed south.  luckily, the horses didn’t mind them and we were able to just take in the view.  twenty years later, i can still recall the excitement of watching them and knowing that they were headed to mexico powered only by their delicate wings.
these days, so few monarchs come through my yard because their numbers have declined drastically.   one factor is the disappearing environment that they need.  mainly they need a specific host plant, milkweed, for the larvae to feed on.  with the need for housing and all that goes with it, lots of open fields of wild flowers and plants like milkweed have disappeared.  it is with this knowledge that my husband and i have planted milkweed, asclepias syriaca, in our yard.  

we started out with a few plants from seeds that i purchased from easy wildflowers.  it took a couple of years for the plants to mature but when they did, they began blooming.  it never ceases to amaze me just how wonderful “weeds” can be.  a close up view of the flowers is surprising; they are beautiful.

they look like little shooting stars from the side view.  but even more surprising is the scent.  milkweed has one of the most potent scents in my garden.  i snipped a few of the clusters off and put them in water in my living room and within a short time, the entire room was heavy with the perfume of milkweed.  then my husband came home and quickly learned that he is allergic to them.  out went the blooms…

the plants spread quickly by sending out runners underground.  if you do not want them popping up in your landscape, i suggest you plant them in pots.  we want them to fill this otherwise useless strip of property between our yard and the house next door so we have let them run all over.

we see many butterflies coming to the plants but we are still waiting for monarchs.

another type of milkweed is common butterfly weed.  this is asclepias turberosa and the seeds can also be found on easy wildflowers website.

the foliage is very different but we have had monarchs on them in the past, just not the last several years.

one visitor we have had in abundance is the milkweed bug.  they do not do much damage to the plants but make a nuisance of themselves around the yard.  they are often confused with box elder bugs but they are not nearly as pesky.

the story goes, if you build it, they will come.  the plants are in the garden and i will wait, with fingers crossed for the monarchs to come…