Monarch butterflies appear fragile but they are mighty, flying up to 3000 miles during their fall migration from Canada and the upper Midwest of the United States to overwintering grounds in Mexico each year. We know a lot about monarch migration because of a long-term citizen science study run by Monarch Watch, which is based at the University of Kansas. The tagging program provides vital information about migration patterns and how variables like temperature, weather patterns and habitat conditions affect the migration.
OKC Zoo staff have been tagging monarchs each fall for the last 20 years. This year we were thrilled that one of the monarch butterflies tagged here at the Zoo by our Horticulture staff was recovered in Mexico! A male tagged on October 5, 2016, was found in Cerro Pelon, Mexico on January 26, 2017.
It’s quite rare to have a recovery among the millions of monarchs that spend the winter in Mexico. Last year the Zoo’s Horticulture team tagged 177 monarchs from September 24 through October 5. To have even one of those found is amazing.
The information gathered from tagging is especially critical now that the monarch population has declined by 90 percent. This decline is a result of human activity that has reduced monarch habitat by 171 million acres. To save monarchs, we need to protect and provide more habitat in Oklahoma.
The Oklahoma City Zoo is one of many organizations working to increase monarch habitat in Oklahoma. We are helping write a statewide conservation plan for monarchs and other pollinators. That plan will be finished by the end of this year, and then implementation will begin.
You can help monarchs and other pollinators by planting milkweed and a variety of nectar producing flowers on your property. It’s important to plant early blooming flowers that will be available in March and April when hungry monarchs fly north from Mexico. Late blooming flowers are also needed in September and October to fuel the journey south to Mexicoand to provide enough fat stores for monarchs to survive their winter hibernation. Do not use herbicides or pesticides anywhere near these plants. Those chemicals are harmful to monarch butterflies, their caterpillars and other pollinators.
You can also help monarchs by tagging monarchs yourself for Monarch Watch. The Monarch Watch website provides instructions for ordering tags and catching and handling the butterflies. (http://monarchwatch.org/tagmig/tag.htm)
To learn more about monarchs and what you can do to help, please come to our Monarch Festival on Saturday, September 23, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. There will be fun butterfly crafts, butterfly garden tours, nature inspired artwork by local artists, storytelling and monarch tagging!
– Dr. Rebecca Snyder, zoological curator of conservation and science