The journey of the monarch butterfly from the northeastern United States to the tropical forests in Mexico every fall is considered a magical one. How could such a lightweight, delicate looking insect survive a journey of more than 3,000 miles?
The feat has drawn the admiration of naturalists and others, including Dan Jenkins, who lives on the shores of Upper Saranac Lake. Jenkins’s property is located on what, he says, is a monarch flyway between Upper Saranac Lake and Raquette River. Because of that, he consistently sees monarchs passing through his yard in the fall as the insects head south.
Jenkins also captures and tags them as they pass through his property. The tags are provided by Monarch Watch, a nonprofit dedicated to researching and protecting the butterflies. Last fall Jenkins tagged 24 monarchs, and for the first time in more than a decade, one of tags was located further south.
According to Monarch Watch, the tag was found in El Rosario, Mexico, a nature preserve where thousands of monarchs spend the winter before heading back north in the spring. The spring journey is completed by several generations of butterflies in one season, where as only one butterfly makes the fall migration journey.
Jenkin’s butterfly tag (UGT-500) was the first one that he applied last year. He put the small sticker on the male butterfly’s wing on September 16 and it was later found on March 6. Jenkins is still waiting to hear more information from Monarch Watch, as the organization is still processing its butterfly data.
Jenkins appeared surprised by the finding because it’s rare for Adirondack monarch tags to be found and because the number of monarchs tagged locally last year was low. The monarch population is way down from what it was a decade or so ago.
Jenkins said 2004 was the last time a tag from him or his tagging partners was recovered.
Overall, Jenkins said he and his partners only tagged 80 butterflies last fall in the region. Sue Grimm Hanley tagged 20 at the Butterfly House at the Paul Smith’s College VIC, Wild Center intern Avery Lavoie tagged 18, and Tupper Lake Middle School science teacher Sylvia Trudeau did 18 with her students.
“It wasn’t a big year for tagging so the odds are very low,” said Jenkins, who noted that his group has tagged more than 600 some years and not had any tags recovered.
In general, the number of butterflies tagged in recent years is down, although 608 were tagged in 2012.
Scientists have said that the overall monarch population has been shrinking for the last couple decades, threatening the migration to places like the Adirondacks. There are substantial resident populations in places like the western United States, so the insect isn’t considered endangered in the U.S.
However, the decline that has hurt the migration has been blamed on logging in overwintering sites in Mexico, excessive eco-tourism pressures in some of those sites, and the decline in the number of milkweed plants along the migratory route in the United States. Monarchs feed and reproduce on milkweed. Natural events, such as unseasonable cold weather and storms, have also played a role in the dwindling numbers.
Photo: Monarch butterfly.