|Miyamoto tallies a monarch. Photo by USFWS|
Days spent outside chasing butterflies started Kate Miyamoto on the path of conservation; now she helps engage others
After 20 minutes of twists and turns on a gravel road, I arrived at a small building and parked next to a wall of grass. My watch read 8:00 a.m., but the sun was barely shining through the thick fog. I stepped out of my car and gazed at the surrounding prairie. Unlike Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, I was definitely in Kansas.
Quivira National Wildlife Refuge in Kansas lies in the heart of the Great Plains, in the center of the continental United States. The refuge is at an ecological crossroads, where eastern tallgrass prairie meets western shortgrass prairie. Its 22,135 acres feature a unique combination of rare inland salt marsh and sand prairie. More than 340 species of birds have been observed at the refuge, thanks to its rich habitat and location.
It was early, but people bustled around the Environmental Education Classroom building, the home base for Monarch Mania, an event at the refuge. Two large bins near the entrance of the building overflowed with dozens of butterfly nets.
Inside the small room, a group of people folded paper into butterfly shapes. A large chicken-wire cage filled with green leaves caught my eye. I approached the display and noticed the bright yellow and black stripes of a monarch caterpillar munching on its only food source, milkweed.
More than 100 native milkweed species exist in North America, but pesticide use, agricultural development and mowing along roadways have reduced milkweed across much of the monarch butterfly’s range. As a result, monarch populations are in decline. The Service is working with partners and the public to increase milkweed and nectar plants for monarchs across their range.
After a quick tutorial on how to tag monarchs, identify their sex and record important data, I was ready for Monarch Mania.
Miyamoto’s first customer. Photo by USFWS
The monarch butterfly is one of the most recognizable insects and undertakes one of the longest insect migrations in the world. Each fall, the eastern population travels up to 3,000 miles from Canada, through the United States, down to Mexico. During this migration, monarchs travel up to 250 miles per day. The monarch butterfly is an indicator species for pollinator health across the nation. Protecting the monarch and its migration benefits many other North American species, such as grassland birds and other pollinators.
At 9 a.m. the event officially began. I wore a bright orange vest to indicate I was an official monarch butterfly tagger and waited for visitors to bring me monarchs. A smiley, young boy in an orange T-shirt and blue jeans tucked into shark-adorned rain boots was my first customer.
He swung his net within my reach and I gently retrieved the monarch inside. In less than a minute, I recorded the sex of the butterfly and the number of the tag I would place on it, tagged the butterfly with the small round tag, and placed the monarch into the boy’s outstretched palm for release back into the wild. His face lit up as the monarch lingered for a moment before it fluttered its wings and took off. We watched it fly away and then he walked off, net in hand, to search for another monarch.
The next four hours passed quickly, and I tagged and recorded data for dozens of monarch. The thick fog from the early morning lifted, and by the end of the event at noon, the sun shone brightly.
Every visitor I saw wore a smile, happy for the chance to interact with the celebrated butterfly.
A tagged monarch. Photo by USFWS
People often ask, how do you tag a butterfly? The answer is, carefully! To tag a monarch, the butterfly is caught in a net. Next, you retrieve the monarch from the net by lightly grabbing its closed wings between two fingers. Make sure to hold the monarch’s wings at the leading edge, just above its head. The tags are tiny discs of polypropylene that are gently stuck on the monarch’s discal cell, a mitten-shaped cell on the underside of the hind wing at the butterfly’s center of lift and gravity, so not to impede its flight. Each tag weighs approximately 0.006 g— approximately 1.2 percent of the mass of an average monarch—and has a unique ID code and a phone number that people can call if they find one on a dead butterfly. These recoveries can provide critical information about the species’ migration, habitat and population status. Tagging monarchs is a great way for kids and adults to get involved in monarch conservation.
Quivira hosts the family-friendly Monarch Mania event every year to support Monarch Watch, educate the public about monarchs, encourage citizen science and connect kids with nature. Monarch Watch strives to provide the public with information about monarch butterflies, and engages in research on monarch migration biology and population dynamics to better understand how to conserve the monarch and their migration.
For the past seven years, Quivira visitor services specialist Barry Jones has run the event.
“This year was the 20th year the refuge has hosted this event,” says Jones. “I love seeing visitors’ enthusiasm to learn about and interact with monarch butterflies.”
In total, 303 monarch butterflies were tagged in just four hours. It was the second largest tagging total for the event; the highest was 400 in 2007.
At the end of the event, I felt connected to nature and more in awe of monarch butterflies. The experience brought back fond memories from my youth, when I frequently chased butterflies with my mom and sister in a field near our apartment in Texas. Those days started a lifelong love and appreciation for wildlife and conservation, and I hope the Monarch Mania event sparked that same love and appreciation in at least one young visitor that day.
KATE MIYAMOTO, External Affairs, Mountain-Prairie Region