Tagging Monarchs for Science

monarchs-caughtFor those of you who don’t know, I work at a natural history museum as the head of citizen science.  I oversee the collection and entry of data for about 40 citizen science projects at my museum’s field station, do a ton of education based on citizen science projects, create my own citizen science research projects, and help other people create and/or promote their projects as part of the overall program at the museum.  It’s a ton of fun and I absolutely love what I do, but I especially like it when my current life as a natural history museum citizen science person and my past life as an entomology researcher combine.  It should come as no surprise, then, to learn that one of my favorite projects to participate in every year is Monarch Watch.

Monarchs have been a focus of citizen science projects for a long time.  The first major monarch project was called the Insect Migration Association and was started by a pair of Canadian entomologists named Fred and Norah Urquhart.  For 40 years, they tracked movements by gluing small paper tags to monarch wings and enlisted the help of enthusiasts throughout Canada and the US to track where they went by reporting the tag numbers back to the Urquharts.  Thanks to their efforts, in 1975 another couple who participated in the project, Ken and Catalina Brugger, tracked the monarchs through Mexico and eventually found their overwintering grounds in the oyamel fir forests in central Mexico.  It’s a pretty miraculous story, but also one that could never have happened if the Urquharts didn’t enlist the help of many other people.  It’s a great example of a citizen science project, and one that worked amazingly well in spite of getting its start long before the convenience of the internet made this sort of research so much easier.

tagged-monarch-before-releaseThe Urquhart’s project eventually became Monarch Watch under Chip Taylor at the University of Kansas and the process is essentially the same.  Now we use stickers instead of paper tags that need to be glued on, but you still have to catch the monarch, handle it gently while you affix the tag, record the data (date, location, sex of the butterfly, wild or reared, and the tag number), and release it. Monarch Watch does a survey in Mexico each year to look for tags and eventually reports back to the public about where monarchs were tagged and which ones made it all the way to Mexico.

I really enjoy participating in Monarch Watch.  I’ve gotten my process down well so that I can catch, tag, photograph, and release a monarch in under 30 seconds. As much as I like tagging monarchs myself (I spend many hours every year walking up and down the dirt road at the field station catching and tagging monarchs), I think I might actually enjoy teaching other people how to do it even more.

taqged monarch feeding on nectarI’ve been catching butterflies a long time.  I started my insect collection when I was about 11 years old and I’ve handled hundreds, maybe thousands, of butterflies.  While I adore monarchs and think that tagging them is a wholly worthwhile experience, I don’t think I get the same sort of rush from it that the people I teach do.

Most of the people who come to the monarch tagging programs I host have never held a butterfly before.  Many are terrified of hurting them and some people refuse to hold them.  They’ll watch me tag the monarchs they catch instead.  Most of these people have been told that touching a butterfly will rub scales off the wings (true) or kill it (unlikely if you’re handling them carefully) and worry about hurting them. They also worry they’ll get the tag in the wrong place or break a wing vein.  I don’t pressure people to tag the monarchs themselves if they show any hesitation, but I usually ask to release the butterfly by setting it on their arm.  The way their faces light up when they see a tagged monarch flap its wings and take off on its way to Mexico is amazing.  It is usually a look of pure, unadulterated joy, a rare moment of pure peace and tranquility.

Other people want to dive right in and do the tagging themselves.  They will bring the first monarch they catch over to me and have me show them how to get the butterfly out of the net.  They’ll usually put the first tag on themselves and will take the butterfly from me when I pass it to them.  These people release them from their hands, then rush off to catch another one so they can do the whole process again themselves. They might be a little more focused on the hunt and a little less worried about hurting the butterflies than other people, but the moment the monarch leaps into the air from their hands, they get the same beatific look on their faces as everyone else.  It’s simply amazing to watch.

There’s something so awe-inspiring about handling a small, fragile animal knowing that it might fly all the way to Mexico, overwinter high in the mountains, and then fly all the way back to the US.  I suspect that when people release a tagged monarch, they form a sort of connection to the migration.  Perhaps they think that part of them will travel with the butterfly as it completes its amazing journey.  That this monarch you hold in your hands might be the same butterfly that researchers record when they survey the monarchs in Mexico – well, that’s a truly awesome thought.  I think this idea is the source of that joyous smile as people watch the butterflies fly away, but I never ask.  I’d hate to ruin the moment for them by asking them to dissect their feelings immediately after having what is clearly an amazing experience.

tagged monarchI’ll keep tagging monarchs and I’ll keep teaching other people to do it because I love it.  Since I moved to North Carolina in 2012, I have generally tagged between 6 and 15 monarchs each year.  This year has been a magnificent monarch year at the field station: I’ve tagged 26 so far.  That’s 26 butterflies out of millions that I held in my own two hands that will attempt to fly to another country.  Only time will tell how many of them make it, but I wish them the best of luck on their journey.



Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth.


8 thoughts on “Tagging Monarchs for Science

  1. I just watched a bunch of monarchs in Cape May, NJ (ostensibly bird-watching, but, hey…) & they were mostly on that same perennial sunflower-y plant that your photos show!
    Migrating, I suppose. There were green darners a-plenty, too.

    • Cape May is known for its darner migration! Lucky you got to see it, even if you were supposed to be watching birds. And monarchs are always worth watching I think. Interesting that they are feeding on tickseed sunflowers there too!

  2. Hey, Chris, I hope you recognize I’m a huge fan of yours. As such, I say the following with a bit of trepidation…

    You seem to have done some research into the monarch issue, so why is Lincoln Brower not mentioned in your blog post? I used his fold-over tags way back in the mid 1990’s, until Chip Taylor came out with his spot adhesives. I also raised at least a thousand monarchs in my Ohio bedroom for a museum program – something I discourage anyone to do nowadays. It was the same summer the Browns came back to Cleveland. I remember this, because the promised-t.v. crew got called onto a new assignment to cover football at the last minute. I don’t begrudge them, because they now make a ton of money and are actively helping their neighbors.

    I’ve been developing a theory over the past few decades (ever since Lincoln made the cover of National Geographic in the late 1970’s) in how monarch butterfly tagging projects (yes, the original citizen science project 40+ years ago) are actually doing great harm to the wild monarch population numbers in the US.

    I see a definite correlation between the increase in monarch tagging programs (traditionally fall in eastern US and now late-winter here in CA) and the startling decrease in actual winter count numbers of monarch butterflies. I’ve read industry articles suggesting we’re loving our butterflies to death.

    Chris, you have the power of voice. And, I hope you use it wisely.

    • Hey Katie! You know, I have been wondering whether tagging impacts monarchs in a negative way a lot lately. I don’t work on monarchs specifically, so I do not claim extensive knowledge of them – I’m honestly retelling the well known story of the Urqharts here more than anything. I love the idea of tracking monarchs and the strong connection that people make to the species through tagging efforts. However, I do think that sticking what is probably a heavy tag onto a butterfly, even a large, strong-flying butterfly like a monarch, just has to impact their flight capabilities. I’m not convinced that by adding the tags that we’re not adding enough weight to significantly increase their food requirements or decrease the distance they can fly in a day. Those tags almost have to be impacting their flight. I will admit, however, that I have not delved into the literature to look for studies exploring the impact of tagging on monarch flight. Please suggest any references I should read! This is a topic that I want to delve into more as I’ve gotten a lot of questions about it recently and wonder about it myself, but I have awkward access to sci lit these days and it requires a lot of time and effort to get publications through my current library. I will get to it eventually though!

      Now that said, the story I told in this post is meant to illustrate the powerful connection the people I work with form through this activity. I am sort of stuck in a bit of a catch 22 a result – do we tag monarchs with the public so they can form those essential connections that lead them to want to conserve the species or do we stop tracking them to make sure the butterflies are unmolested and miss out on those amazing, powerful connections that make people want to protect the species in the first place? A lot of people go home after those experiences with plans to plant milkweeds or create monarch waystations, and a lot of that is because of that direct and personal interaction.

      I do also feel the need to point out that, as I know you are aware, correlation does not equal causation. There are so many factors that are potentially playing a role in the decrease in monarch populations (pesticide use, loss of habitat, disease, release of disease ridden lab reared monarchs into the wild, deforestation, etc) that I wonder if it might be overly simplistic to look at tagging as a primary cause of mortality in the species. I’m sure it has an impact, but I’m not convinced that putting a tag on a monarch is as dangerous to the species as, say, habitat elimination and degradation. But, if I do find out I’m wrong about this and that tags do cause significant problems, I will be the first to admit my complicity in the decrease of the species and celebrate the fact that we tag far, far fewer monarchs than we ever have on site and that most of them continue on their way untouched by anyone at the field station.

      Please do send me suggestions for reading materials! I might not be an expert on monarchs, but these issues are something I do want to look into more.

      And thank you for making me think about this response. You send me the most challenging comments and I appreciate it.

      • One thing I learned is to fact check BEFORE I shoot off my mouth on a blog comment and provide personal opinions based on my old memory. I misremembered the 1976 NatGeo article which featured the Mexican Bruggers and the Canadian Urquharts, not Lincoln Brower (http://www.flightofthebutterflies.com/discovery-story/). My apologies, Chris.

        I dated myself by only considering Brower’s fold-over tags I used from 1996-2000 at the CMNH, the same ones that Monarch Watch specifically states, “Also, many butterflies were damaged in the process of applying the tags, sometimes contributing to the death of the butterfly.” (http://monarchwatch.org/tagmig/tag2.htm). This is putting it lightly. Either poor handling while applying the tags and/or rough netting created grave injury to the monarch butterflies – extremely common in my own experience and observing many others out in the field, which is the reason why I refuse to net today, to much public mocking by my peers. I witnessed this first-hand on numerous occasions, and my volunteers and I had many discussions about the sad fact that almost half of our tagged butterflies left participants’ hands with some sort of obvious damage. However, we consoled ourselves that the positive PR generated in favor of monarch butterflies outweighed any bad that we might have done. This was ~20 years ago.

        PR. Sigh. It’s a blessing and a curse. I’ve noticed an alarmingly trend of deifying anything mentioning science these days, as if the scientists involved are beyond reproach and beyond the usual trappings of human behavior. Through my years, I have also witnessed well-respected scientists (who have been in their game for longer than I’ve been alive) simply ignore any information that goes against their hypotheses… and probably more importantly, their funding. It’s not a perfect system. Everyone has their own agendas, whether thought out or not.

        So, say Monarch Watch has 100,000 human participants per year (a stat I no longer have direct online reference, but is likely included in the links I provide below). A conservative average of 10-20 tagged monarchs per person =1,500,000 individual monarchs. If half of those die due to undue handling stress (~750,000) and roughly half are female (~375,000), then when each surviving female lays 300-400 eggs out in the wild… this equates to a potential loss of more than 131.250 million monarch butterflies every single year, solely due to tagging programs. This is not taking into account the aggregate effect over 20+ years, nor is this a bland statistic to brush aside to ease our own conscience.

        My question then becomes how much has the PR-generated tagging programs affected monarch population numbers in the Eastern part of the U.S.? No one in their right mind will study this phenomena, because no one wants to loose their means of funding. We’re eventually peer-reviewed, no?

        Here are my additional public internet resources for you:
        http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/crux/2016/06/21/are-we-loving-monarchs-to-death/#.WAo01dy9_Ip (this is not the article I first referenced, but I can’t find the original publicly available online – typical).

        Click to access Monarch-Monitoring_en.pdf


        Another quote from Monarch Watch, “Most of the recovered tagged Monarchs within the United States and Canada are found dead by people.” http://monarchwatch.org/tagmig/tag.htm.


        • Thanks for the references! I will check them out.

          And I have personally experienced scientists who are so enamored with their ideas of how things should work that they refuse to admit to anything that goes against it. Funding and reputation mean more to some people than doing good science unfortunately. Still, I like to think that most have good intentions and work to do the best science they can. I know more good scientists than I do bad ones!

  3. I will never forget the first time I stumbled upon a monarch migratory stopover in south-central Texas. They were EVERYWHERE! Imagine, SO many butterflies hanging on tree limbs that you could no longer see leaves, and their combined weight bent the limbs!

    Covering the ground like a carpet in many places as well, I quickly taught my 5-year-old daughter everything she needed to know so that none would be harmed. Then I watched as she tenderly held them, her eyes aglow in wonder, her little mouth shaped like an “O”.

    Your writings about the looks on peoples faces. . . immediately surfaced that memory.

    We went back to that park the next two years around the same time, and got to see them again and again. . .

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