GreenUp hosts Monarch butterfly tagging event

October 16th, 2015

Blog and and photographs by GreenUP volunteer, Samantha Stephens

Fiery leaves falling through the autumn air are a familiar September sight in Ontario. But if you’re watching closely, you’ll notice another, more directed orange fluttering- these are the monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus). They are embarking on a 3 000 mile migration. Signalled by the cooling temperatures and shorter days, they are taking off towards the Transvolcanic Mountains of Mexico. How do they get there and what do they face along the way? That’s what the scientists behind Monarch Watch would like to know.

Monarch Watch is a non-profit program based out of the University of Kansas. They maintain a database of information collected through the tagging of butterflies by volunteers. The tags are small, adhesive stickers placed on the wing that contain an ID number and contact information. When a tagged butterfly is found, the retriever can contact Monarch Watch and provide its location. This data can then be used to understand migration routes, survival rates, and to help determine if these two things are affected by weather.

These butterflies were collected as larvae and keep in a mesh housing, waiting to be tagged and released to begin their southern migration

These butterflies were collected as larvae and keep in a mesh housing, waiting to be tagged and released to begin their southern migration

Earlier this summer, in partnership with Kawartha Land Trust, GreenUP held a monarch workshop. Participants collected monarch larvae – but not too early! The monarchs returning to Ontario in the spring have one job: to reproduce. These individuals survive for only 2-5 weeks, leaving the responsibility of fall migration to their grandchildren that emerge in early fall. It is this single generation that must successfully migrate in order to ensure the species’ survival. They enjoy the warm Mexican temperatures for 9 months and then turn-around and make the long journey back.

Participants make sure each butterfly has a full stomach before release, providing it with energy that will fuel its journey. The butterflies are fed a sugar and water solution that mimics the flower nectar they feed on in nature.

Participants make sure each butterfly has a full stomach before release, providing it with energy that will fuel its journey. The butterflies are fed a sugar and water solution that mimics the flower nectar they feed on in nature.

 

Here you can see the butterfly’s proboscis. This is the tongue, acting like a long straw used to reach into a flower to stuck up nectar.

Here you can see the butterfly’s proboscis. This is the tongue, acting like a long straw used to reach into a flower to stuck up nectar.

The collected larvae were housed in the GreenUP store, where staff fed them a sugar solution daily. On September 19th the butterflies were brought to Ecology Park where GreenUP’s Marcy Adzich led a workshop inviting the community to participate in the Monarch Watch program. Children and adults of all ages came out to learn about the biology of the monarch butterfly and lend a hand in tagging, as well as parasite testing. Parasite (Ophryocystis elektroscirrha) infection weakens a butterfly. To help understand more about this parasite-host interaction, scale samples collected from tagged butterflies are sent to the University of Georgia for further study.

Marcy wears gloves while demonstrating how to sample the butterflies for parasite testing. An adhesive sticker is used to lift some scales off the butterfly’s body. These samples will be sent to the University of Georgia for further study.

Marcy wears gloves while demonstrating how to sample the butterflies for parasite testing. An adhesive sticker is used to lift some scales off the butterfly’s body. These samples will be sent to the University of Georgia for further study.

 

The tags are adhered to the discal cell on underside of the butterfly’s hind wing. Each tag has a unique ID and includes contact information so that anyone who retrieves the tag can contact Monarch Watch.

The tags are adhered to the discal cell on underside of the butterfly’s hind wing. Each tag has a unique ID and includes contact information so that anyone who retrieves the tag can contact Monarch Watch.

In addition to parasite infection monarchs face some other hazards. Marcy explains that here in Ontario dog-strangling vine (Vincetoxicum rossicum) is invading. This is a problem for monarchs because the leaf of the dog-strangling vine is similar to that of the milkweed (Asclepias spp.) which adults lay their eggs on. Because of this, adults may mistakenly lay their eggs on a dog-strangling vine rather than a milkweed. Dog-strangling vine is toxic to the emerging larvae and they die after consuming the leaf. In Mexico, butterfly habitat is becoming scarce as humans encroach upon these areas used by overwintering monarchs. Currently, there are 11-14 sites that host millions of monarchs. Ensuring that monarchs have a healthy habitat here in Canada where they spend the summer, along their journey and in their overwintering grounds in Mexico, is the best way to ensure that these majestic insects continue to thrive.

Shari gets ready to release her butterfly into the Ecology Park garden so it can begin its migration.

Shari gets ready to release her butterfly into the Ecology Park garden so it can begin its migration.

 

George puts some sugar water on his nose, and a butterfly licks it up!

George puts some sugar water on his nose, and a butterfly licks it up!

As the Monarch Watch’s vision statement says, it is the people of the United States, Canada, and Mexico that must work together to create, conserve and protect monarch habitats. GreenUP is encouraging monarch stewards and helping to make our Peterborough community a healthy habitat for these butterflies. You can find out more about how you can help at monarchwatch.org.

Here another butterfly is being released. You can tell that this individual is a male as it has a black spot on each hind wing; females lack these spots.

Here another butterfly is being released. You can tell that this individual is a male as it has a black spot on each hind wing; females lack these spots.

 

Ayla brings this butterfly into the Ecology Park garden for release

Ayla brings this butterfly into the Ecology Park garden for release

 

Ayla places a butterfly on a flower in the Ecology Park garden.

Ayla places a butterfly on a flower in the Ecology Park garden.


 

Special thank you to Samantha Stephens for writing this blog post and for capturing these wonderful moments. Samantha is a GreenUp Volunteer and is completing her Masters of Science in Environmental and Life Sciences at Trent University. Thank you, Sam for your vision and for sharing your gift of storytelling with us!

Posted in GreenUP Ecology Park, monarch butterflies