For 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.
The 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.
I’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.
I’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.