Friday, September 18, 2020

Adirondack Monarch Tagging:  Tracking Migration

Monarch butterflies are an iconic species, easily recognized by their vibrant orange and black wings speckled with white dots and can be seen feeding in fields and open areas here in the Adirondacks.

Monarchs carry out one of the most incredible cross-continental journeys in the animal kingdom, travelling upwards of 3,000 miles from Canada and the northern United States to the oyamel fir forests in the mountains of Mexico. 

Each fall, millions of monarch butterflies migrate to this overwintering site and to a scattering of locations along the coast of California. In the spring, monarchs return to breeding areas and the cycle starts again: a two-way migration that is one of the greatest natural events on Earth.  

Unlike most other insects in temperate climates, Monarch butterflies cannot survive a long cold winter and began preparation to fly south from the Adirondacks mid-month in August this year.  Shortly before this time the first members of the migratory generation emerged in the north. These butterflies are the great-great-grandchildren of the monarchs that left Mexico last spring. They have a long and challenging life ahead as migration sets off. 

Monarch numbers reach their peak by migration time.  At no other time of year is the population larger. Monarchs produce four generations during the typical breeding season and the population grows with each new generation.  This year here in the mountains the monarch populations were much lower than other years, with our efforts to rescue, rear and release at a little over 562. (Compared to nearly 900 in 2018 and over 1,200 in 2019.)  Last year we experienced one of the latest monarch migrations in the last 28 years and were rescuing, rearing and releasing Monarchs into the 2nd week of October due to the abnormally high temperatures at that time.  This year has been a fast-paced migration due to the lower temperatures of the season. 

This temperature shift also means that late developing monarchs could be left behind as migration of millions of monarchs began earlier than last year.  There have been reports of fall roosts, a classic sign of fall migration.  It is not unheard of to see fall roosts in mid-August. Each year is different. Data from previous years shows fall roosts being reported as early as Aug. 11. 

Migrating monarchs change both physiologically and behaviorally. Declining daylight hours triggers the monarch’s migratory state. Beginning this year in mid-August in the north, adults are in diapause when they emerge from the chrysalis. They are full grown but not reproductively mature. Their reproductive development is on pause. These monarchs will not complete development and begin to mate until next spring in Mexico. The hormone deficiency that leads to diapause also leads to increased longevity. Breeding monarchs live only 2-6 weeks; migratory monarchs live up to 8 months.

Fat, stored in the abdomen, is a critical element of their survival for the winter. This fat not only fuels their flight of 1,000-3,000 miles, but must last until the next spring when they begin the flight back north. As they migrate southwards, Monarchs stop to nectar, and they actually gain weight during the trip.  It is believed that Monarchs conserve their “fuel” in flight by gliding on air currents as they travel south.  Migration pathways occur in large urban centers such Toronto, Detroit, Chicago, Kansas City, and Atlanta as well as the mountains of Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia, the fields and prairies of southern Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska, and along the coastlines of the Great Lakes, the Atlantic, and Gulf of Mexico.

This data is primarily accessible due to tagging.  With a tiny tag, migration times and locations can be recorded.  As lepidopterists, apiarists and conservational education teachers, we reach out to the public to aid in restoring the dwindling populations through Milkweed restoration growing.  We also collaborate with large organizations like Monarch Watch to tag migrating monarchs in hopes to better understand the changes and effects on world populations. 

We love to get the public involved in anything we are doing.  If you’re curious about the migration of this year’s Monarchs from the Adirondacks, we are giving you the tagging numbers of 25 out of 100 Monarchs tagged by SkyLyfeADK this season.  You would simply go to, hit the green VIEW TAG RECOVERIES, scroll down until you see Monarch Watch tag Recoveries in bold and click on any of the links to find the tag numbers of Monarchs sighted. 

These tags will not be added until the end of December this year so this is when you would begin searching for these tag numbers.  The tagging numbers are ABSG875, ABSG876, ABSG877, ABSG878, ABSG879 respectively to ABSG900.

We would like to thank all the people who attended the 13th Annual Habitat Awareness Day at the Adirondack Wild Refuge and took a free packet of common Milkweed seeds with sowing directions.  Fall is a great time to plant plant a plot of milkweed for the coming season as these seeds need to be stratified to grow.  This year, SkyLyfeAdk distributed 127 packets of milkweed seed that were hand-picked and packaged to give the public opportunity to be a part of making a real Monarch difference.  

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Jackie Woodcock was born and lives in the Adirondack Mountains. She is an apiarist, lepidopterist, conservationist, teacher, writer, artist, and a co-owner of SkyLyfeADK. You can find her SkyLyfeADK on Instagram and Facebook.

One Response

  1. Phil Fitzpatrick says:

    Fascinating. Love the details. Thank you!

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