Migrating Monarchs Tagged at VINS

by Jim Armbruster
Environmental Educator

A male Monarch butterfly on our datasheet.

Have you ever watched a monarch butterfly struggling to fly on a breezy day and thought to yourself, “I wonder how they get where they want to go?” It might surprise you to know that in fact these butterflies can control their flights and can travel up to 3,000 miles.

That’s right, the butterfly you see dancing on the wind in your yard might someday migrate south and purposefully end up in Mexico. But it depends on when and where they hatched. Eastern monarch butterflies that emerge from their chrysalis in early summer live for two to five weeks. Their main goal in that time is to reproduce and create the next generation. Butterflies that emerge in late summer and early fall live eight or nine months and have another important task. They will need to complete a difficult journey south to reach their overwintering grounds in places like Mexico.  How monarchs make this incredible journey and how successive generations can navigate to the same locations each year is still not known to scientists. 

Tagging the monarch is a delicate process.

This year at VINS we are taking part in the magnificent monarch migration. During the end of August and the first weeks of September we are participating in a citizen science project to catch and tag monarch butterflies before they leave on their winter vacation. The hope is that butterflies tagged on our campus will be recovered at the end of their trip in Mexico. 

Each butterfly gets a sticker with a unique identification number, placed on its wing so as not to impact flight. If the butterfly is recovered at any point on its migration the number can be reported to the study. This information can then be used by scientists to figure out how monarchs can accomplish this amazing feat. Tracking butterflies is vitally important to learn about migration patterns and to determine what sites along the route are critical for the survival of the species.

The tag will stay with the monarch through its migration.

In this first year of tagging we have already placed stickers on 25 monarchs with the hope of adding more before the season ends. We are looking to certify our meadow habitat as a Monarch Way-station, designating it as critical habitat for monarchs. We hope to expand the project in coming years to include more help from the public and more butterflies tagged. 

So if you happen to see VINS educators leaping around our meadow with nets, know that we are not just having fun chasing butterflies during work hours, but are helping to protect the incredible species that is the monarch butterfly. And yes it is also very fun to chase butterflies. 

For more info on how you can help the monarchs contact Jim Armbruster at jarmbruster@vinsweb.org or check out monarchwatch.org.

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