Agri Leader

Tagging the butterfly to learn by the butterfly

The majestic monarch butterfly has bright orange and black wings, along with white spots. They are one of the largest and most beautiful butterflies found in North America. And if you happen to spot one with a little white tag on its wing, the experience may be even more magnificent. That’s because someone has tagged the monarch butterfly.

Butterfly tagging is done in order to learn more about how monarchs migrate, what affects the migration, how migration has changed over time, and also to study habitats, food sources, parasites and infections. During the winter months, monarchs migrate to avoid the cold climate. And in the spring, they head back to where their larval food plants, those in the milkweed family, are plentiful.

The sticky tags are easily applied to a wing, and are able to withstand the flight of the butterfly and the various weather conditions that the butterfly encounters. The recorded and numbered tags, often applied by volunteers, have contact information. Once applied, the tagged butterfly is freed. When a tagged butterfly is found, the information on the tag is recorded and submitted.

While many monarchs throughout the states migrate long distances, the monarchs in Florida don’t travel as far — thanks to the year-round warm climate.

“The Southwest Florida population of monarchs is non-migrating and sexually-active,” said Gayle Edwards, a coordinator for the Southwest Florida Monarch Monitoring Program. Edwards explained that any migrating monarch found in Southwest Florida, during the spring and fall migration, is probably coming or going to Cuba.

Although Florida monarchs don’t travel all that far, other North American monarchs are known to travel as far as 3,000 miles in all — from Nova Scotia, Canada, to the mountains west of Mexico City. With an air speed of up to 30 miles per hour, and an altitude of up to 12,000 miles, the monarch can travel those 3,000 miles in about eight to 10 weeks.

The focus of the Southwest Florida Monarch Monitoring Program (SFMMP), a year-round program with scientific support from the University of Florida, is to study their migration, habitats and food sources, as well as diseases and parasites, such as Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE). OE weakens the monarch and causes damage to their wings.

The SFMMP is now in partnership with Odom’s School of Ecology’s, Project Monarch Health, at the University of Georgia. “We have about 25 people swabbing the abdomens of the monarchs and reporting back to Dr. Sonya Altizer, the project director,” said Edwards, who explained that the University is thrilled to have the extra assistance. Over 70 percent of the monarchs in South Florida have the OE infection, however, with some migratory populations, such as eastern, the infection rate is less than 8 percent.

In order to tag a butterfly, it must first be captured. Generally, they are carefully netted in the early morning hours or cooler parts of the day. They are then tagged, recorded and freed. Tagging does take some expertise, however, there are instructional videos that can assist, such as those found on Nick Bodven’s blog. Bodven is the SFMMP’s tag designer and supplier. “I send the online video link to our new taggers,” explained Edwards.

Most of the tagged butterflies found by the SFMMP travel about two or three miles. In between their travels, they can be found resting and feeding on colorful flowers, such as English Lavender and Purple Coneflower. However, monarchs lay their eggs exclusively on milkweed while their larvae feeds off of it.

Two milkweed plants that are perfect for attracting monarchs are the orange and yellow Butterfly weed, and the Scarlet or tropical milkweed that features bunches of orange, yellow and red tubular flowers.

Both the butterflies and the butterfly observers alike enjoy the lovely milkweed plants.

“After planting a milkweed next to the lanai of my elderly neighbor, she said she would have never imagined that she would sit for hours watching the beautiful butterflies and a ‘worm’ eating her plant,” said Edwards.

For More Information:

The Atala Chapter of North American Butterfly Association

Monarch Watch

Southwest Florida Monarch Monitoring Program

Southwest Florida Monarch Monitoring Program’s

Tag Designer and Supplier