Royal Flyers

By: Madison Jade and Jake Causey

The monarch butterfly.

Well known for their distinctive black and orange beautiful wings, and adored by so many who flock to witness their spectacular mass migration, these incredible insects rule over a kingdom all their own. You may believe monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) to be delicate and fragile – and in some ways they are – but to this I would say that they are some of the toughest animals alive. They are the only species of butterfly to travel up to 3,000 miles for their annual migration. The duality of their existence, something so small and delicate taking on such an immense and daunting task, is what makes monarch butterflies kings and queens by their own right.

Monarchs have a four-stage life cycle. Adults breed and lay eggs on milkweed plants. After four or so days, the eggs hatch and produce a larval caterpillar. The caterpillars feed exclusively on milkweed leaves. They gorge themselves for two weeks and then proceed to the next part of their life cycle: the chrysalis. Caterpillars attach themselves to a branch or other horizontal surface via strands of silk and shed their skin, revealing a chrysalis, at which point it begins to harden over the course of a few hours and becomes the vessel in which the adult butterfly develops. Ten days later, the adult emerges from the shell-like chrysalis and searches for a mate to begin the cycle anew. Adults typically live anywhere from 2 – 6 weeks. This process repeats four times every year from March to October.

If we consider each breeding event a generation, then this year’s generation 1 was born Between March and April, generation 2 in May-June, generation 3 in July – August, and generation 4 in September-October. Generation 4 brings us back to that 3000 mile migration. These butterflies differ in their development than their parents and grandparents in that they do not emerge, breed, and die in a matter of weeks. Instead, they travel across the United States to overwintering grounds in California and Mexico. Generation 4 monarchs live for roughly 6 to 8 months. They hibernate in their overwintering grounds and return to their breeding grounds in February or March. There they breed and lay the eggs that will become that year’s generation 1.

In 1995 it was estimated that one billion monarchs made the journey from their breeding grounds all over the United States to Central Mexico. This estimate was created by measuring the acreage covered by the monarchs after they had arrived in their overwintering grounds. The migrating population of one billion monarchs covered 44 acres of Mexican forests. Flash forward 20 years and that number falls dramatically to 1.66 acres in 2013. A 2016 population estimate based on a 10-acre coverage area suggested about 200 million butterflies made the trip that year.

A loss of that magnitude in overwintering butterflies led experts to question the factors creating such a decline. A major contributing factor, they discovered, was a far-reaching reduction in the populations of native milkweed plants. These are essential host plants for monarch eggs and caterpillars and contribute heavily to their survival. Native milkweeds are being removed at an alarming rate due to agricultural practices and land developments, an issue that has caused much concern for the conservation and continuation of this species.

In Mexico, people have long revered the return of the monarch butterflies, the endless flowing orange cloud that arrives over the mountains at the same time every year. This event coincides with Dia de los Muertos celebrations, from October 31st to November 2nd. The monarchs hold a spiritual and cultural significance for the Mexican people, having come to be regarded as the souls of departed ancestors returning to Earth for their annual visit. During the celebrations and parades associated with Dia de los Muertos, many people dress in attire to honor monarch butterflies and the end of their 3,000 mile journey.

Pictures by: Unknown

Here, in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, citizen science projects take place in areas like Cades Cove, where we have a significant amount of open space with prime monarch butterfly habitat and food sources. They are able to rest in this oasis, a stopover along their arduous journey. However, any place can be a monarch butterfly’s paradise with the right kind of planning – not just your National Parks, or other large stretches of open space. You can create your very own oasis for these incredible creatures right in your own backyard, regardless of how much acreage you might be working with. Milkweed, an essential host plant for these insects (as we discussed earlier), is a relatively inexpensive weed to plant in your yard and will quickly become a safe haven for monarch butterflies. Additionally, milkweed does not require much care or attention, and thrives in harsh conditions like the cold. Therefore, you can plant these seeds year-round. Just take care not to plant them in areas you’ve designated for other things, such as a vegetable or flower garden – milkweed is a hardy and successful plant that will soon dominate your veggies! For the greatest positive effect on your local butterflies, be sure to cultivate plants that are native to your region.* By planting milkweed and other native food sources, you are actively contributing (with little to no effort involved) to monarch butterfly conservation by helping to offset the tremendous losses of these plants across the country.

*When purchasing milkweed seeds, be absolutely certain that the variety you’ve found is the indiginous species for your region. Be careful – there is a species of milkweed known as tropical milkweed which hosts a parasite that infects monarch butterfly eggs and causes harm to their health and even death (the opposite of the intended effect). Here is a link provided for your reference:

Myself and Jake Causey, one of our contributing writers and field reporters, attended the impromptu citizen science educational monarch butterfly tagging event in Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Jake has provided a step by step explanation of the process, and I’ve provided pictures below to serve as visuals. No animals were harmed in this process in any way, and it was overseen by expert entomologists and instructors.

Step one: Catching the butterfly. This is honestly the hardest part. Chasing it down with a net and swinging to catch what looks like a lackadaisical flying bug is much more of a challenge than anticipated. If you are able to capture one of these dexterous insects, count yourself lucky.

Step two: Bringing in your catch. At the event we attended there were ample trained volunteers standing by to teach us about the butterflies we captured and handle them correctly.

Step three: Tagging. After reporting to the designated checkpoint and verifying that we had indeed captured a monarch, data collection began. This process is fairly quick. It starts with learning how to safely handle the butterfly. I was quite surprised to learn that butterflies are held at a particular place on their wings for the tagging process. These fragile-looking wings are built for a 3000 mile migration, so it makes sense that holding them properly for a few seconds wouldn’t hurt. After making sure I had a proper hold, I was given a circular sticker about the diameter of a pencil eraser to place on the wing.

Step 4: The release. Once we were sure the number on the sticker had been recorded in the logbook, I made sure the little flyer had a foothold on my hand. Then I released its wings and, after a few flaps, off it went to complete its grand journey.

Each one of the tags used at events like this has an individual ID number. The goal of these projects is to see what percentage of distributed tags show up in Mexico or other overwintering sites at the end of the migration, indicating a successful journey. If you participate in a monarch tagging event, follow up with the organization in the future. If your butterfly was one of the tags spotted at the overwintering sites, they will happily let you know. I’ve definitely marked my calendar.

There is so much to be learned from monarch butterflies. Possibly the most important of which is that delicate does not necessarily mean fragile, and that size never indicates the ability to persevere.

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