National Wildlife Refuge System
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A colorful cluster of monarch butterflies drapes a shrub at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Florida.
A colorful cluster of monarch butterflies drapes a shrub at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Florida.
Credit: David Moynahan
A monarch butterfly feeds on dotted horse mint at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Florida.
A monarch butterfly feeds on dotted horse mint at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Florida.
Credit: Lou Kellenberger

Monarch Madness

The annual butterfly frenzy is still months off, but at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge on the Florida Panhandle, the anticipatory phone-calling frenzy has already begun. Callers' most frequently asked question: When will the butterflies arrive?

Falling temperatures and shorter days up north generally start butterflies on their migrations by late October, staffers reply. That should put them on schedule to show up in force on Saturday, October 23, the date for this year's St. Mark's Refuge butterfly festival, and if this year is anything like last, the monarchs' carpeting of the refuge in orange and black should be spectacular. But when you're dealing with Mother Nature, nothing is certain. "If we get a big tropical storm, it could be November before we see them," acknowledged Robin Will, St. Marks' supervisory refuge ranger.

Monarchs have the longest migrations of all tropical butterflies, flying up to 3,000 miles to their wintering sites in Mexico. En route, they stop to feed on nectar-rich plants such as salt bush and goldenrod, found extensively on the refuge.

"We're trying to enhance nectaring plants along the coast," said Will. "We're also trying to educate neighbors to leave shrubs unshorn and not mow everything down to the ground. Marshes are different from dunes; they're meant to be productive. The plants are also good for tropical songbirds."

The butterflies rest 24 hours, then take off across the Gulf or follow the coast. Either way, experts fear they will be impacted by the oil in the Gulf of Mexico from the burst Deepwater Horizon well. "Many times they rest on the water surface, in estuaries and inlets," said Will.

Last year using a tweezer or toothpick to glue a numbered dot on a wing, refuge volunteers tagged more than 3,000 butterflies to track their flights. But only a very few of those tagged were later found in Mexico, said Will. More tagging is scheduled to take place this year.

Two more frequently asked questions:

Q: How do the butterflies get here from up north?
A: They ride a cold front, often at speeds of 10 to 30 miles per hour, covering up to 80 miles a day.

Q: Do the same butterflies return from Mexico when the winter is over?
A: Yes, but they’re on a tight time clock. Migrating monarchs live up to nine months longer than other butterflies. That gives them just time enough to fly several hundred miles north in the spring before laying eggs and dying. Two subsequent generations proceed further north. The fourth generation begins the migratory cycle again.

For more information on butterfly biology and migration, check out online Monarch Watch, educational outreach program based at the University of Kansas at: http://monarchwatch.org/.

To learn more about the Service’s efforts to protect pollinators, visit: http://www.fws.gov/pollinators/. For additional information on pollinators, visit: http://www.pollinator.org/.

The 22nd Annual Butterfly Festival will include tagging demonstrations, guided hikes and wagon tours, a photography exhibit and booths about native landscaping for butterflies. Folks of all ages will have the chance to hold butterflies in their hands inside the live butterfly tent, chart their own "migration," make butterfly crafts, as well as talk with monarch butterfly researchers.

For more information about St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, visit: http://www.fws.gov/saintmarks/ or call 850-925-6121.

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