The Transylvania Times -

Tagging Migrating Monarch Butterflies In Transylvania For MonarchWatch


Last updated 12/16/2015 at 1:15pm

Several monarchs drawing nectar together on goldenrod. (Photos courtesy of Torry Nergart)

It would be easy to think that if you saw a group of adults out chasing butterflies with nets in the open spaces around town, that they had to be a little off – and maybe so. But when I go netting these beautiful insects, I do it with real purpose.

This year, 100 monarch butterflies that stopped to drink nectar from Transylvania County's fall blossoms were tagged with a small adhesive sticker belonging to the Monarch Watch program. Admin-istered through the University of Kansas, this program tracks monarch migration. These butterflies make an annual journey south – a distance of over 2,000 miles – to return to high elevation spruce forests of Central Mexico. Tagging the monarchs makes data available to researchers to help with many unanswered questions about the monarchs: Is there a certain flyway? How does weather influence the migration? Or how does habitat loss affect monarchs?

One thing that is known is that the one plant critical to the monarch's life cycle is becoming less abundant – the milkweed plant. There are several species of milkweed, most all of which grow in open, field-like conditions. Modern land use practices have pushed milkweed (and other pollinator-friendly plants) out of abundance. Milkweed is crucial to monarchs because it is the only plant that the caterpillar will eat, with good reason. As the caterpillar ingests milkweed, it incorporates a chemical called cardenolides into its body, making it toxic to predators.

We can all help monarchs along with their migration by planting native milkweed species, and also by providing a nectar source of late-blooming flowers like aster and goldenrod. After seeing these beautiful insects visit your garden, perhaps you'll be so moved to qualify your garden as a monarch way station.

Also administered through MonarchWatch, this program verifies you've planted monarch-friendly plants using good organic techniques. Gardeners can get recognition with addition to the national registry, and a metal sign, letting the neighbors know monarchs are helped along.

Joyce Pearsall of Brevard has been one of the most active volunteers with MonarchWatch in establishing many way stations in the county. Her diligent work has netted over 40 registered way stations in the county. Pearsall, a Master Gardener with the Cooperative Extension Service, is always willing to help others in establishing monarch friendly gardens. I'm excited to help out as well. The more I learn about these amazing insects, the more I wish to teach others.

Some of those way stations are at the Cradle of Forestry, the Silvermont mansion, Koala CARE, the Transylvania County Library, the Pisgah Ranger Station, Gorges State

Park and DuPont State Recreational Forest.

Anyone can help monarchs. Here the author's daughter Avery gets an early start in monarch conservation.

Pearsall said that in some of the winter breeding grounds in Mexico, the monarch population once numbered in the billions. In just a short span of time in the early 2000s – after farmers in Mexico began using Round Up – the numbers were recorded in the millions.

It's important to remember that monarch butterflies are an indicator species. If they are affected by environmental factors, then others will in turn be affected.

More information is available online at (check the section on Conservation Specialists for a volunteer in your area), or in print with pamphlets available at the front desk of the county's Cooperative Extension Office. I can be reached by email at [email protected], or by netting me with a butterfly net – I'll be the one out there covered in burrs and sticker thorns chasing monarchs.

Torry Nergart is a ranger at Gorges State Park.


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