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  • Writer's pictureBrice Claypoole

Let's Save the Monarchs!

My sister, Coco, and I holding a monarch we tagged. (Photo by Ail Claypoole)

We had a pretty productive first day of our third-year tagging monarchs. We caught, tagged, and released three monarchs. The first one was easy to catch. The next one was a traitor to its species. The raggedy little butterfly cooperated with us as we tagged her, then she sat with us and egged us on! The last one was tricky. It would land in the most inconvenient places, then, as I contemplated whether it was worth trying to catch him, he would fly to another place. Monarch tagging is so much fun and it’s really important to the monarch’s future.

The organization through which we tag monarchs is called Monarch Watch. For 29 years, volunteers have been tagging monarchs. Without the information from tagged monarchs, we probably wouldn't know enough to save them. These people have provided the information we need to save the monarchs! We have not yet done what we need to do to save them, but because of people who tag monarchs, we can! Now, let’s get to how you can tag monarchs.

First, order a tagging kit from Monarch Watch and read all of the instructions. Then you need to know how to tell if the monarch is male or female. If the monarch is a male (below), it will have a pouch (a dark spot) on either hindwing. If the monarch is female, it will not have these pouches. We have not found the method of using the size of the monarch’s wing veins to be reliable.

A male monarch. (Photo by Ali Claypoole)

Then, there’s the question of catching the monarch which can be tricky, butterflies are a lot smarter than we give them credit for being. I find the best technique to be waiting at a milkweed plant (or gayfeather or goldenrod if you don’t have milkweed). Then when a monarch lands (it is nearly impossible to catch one while it is flying), hold a butterfly net over it and bring it down over the monarch all the way to the ground. Once the monarch has flown up into the bottom of the net squeeze the exit of the net shut. Then reach your hand in (hold the monarch in the way shown in the picture to the left) and pull it out, being careful to disentangle the monarch’s legs from the net. It is a myth that touching a butterfly’s wings will harm it, just be careful and the butterfly will be fine.

Another way to help monarchs is growing native plants. Monarchs depend on native plants for nectar and food for their caterpillars. Non-native tropical milkweed is often planted to help monarchs, but this plant is a deceiver; it carries a deadly monarch parasite called Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE for short). This parasite coats the butterfly’s wings, the crippled butterfly then starves to death. Yikes, that’s grim! So, to avoid this happening, plant native milkweeds and nectar plants. Here are a few plants native to much of the USA for monarchs:

4. Goldenrod which does not cause allergies. That is only a myth.

When you plant milkweed, you will probably see milkweed bugs and aphids on it, these animals will not kill the milkweed. They have as much right to live there as the monarchs do and if you try to kill them you will probably wind up killing the monarchs, too.

Another important part of saving the monarchs is not using insecticides. If you use insecticides, you will kill the monarchs in your yard. Insecticides are so overused that they have become a serious issue for the monarchs. One butterfly poison, Bacillus thuringiensis (or Bt) is often marketed as organic. Mother Earth News claims that “

Bt is one of the safest natural pesticides you can use to control caterpillar pests without harming beneficial insects.”, I guess that is true if you don’t count monarchs and other butterflies as “beneficial”. One time we bought parsley from Home Depot for our caterpillars unaware it had been poisoned. It efficiently killed our baby butterflies. If you don’t want to kill butterflies then do not use insecticides. Killing caterpillars is just as bad as killing butterflies because the only way to get a butterfly is to have a caterpillar survive to adulthood.

Those of us who already care about monarchs, can’t save them alone; we need to spread the word! Post a picture of a monarch you tagged on social media or tell a neighbor about your efforts and how they can help. We need all hands on deck if we are going to save the monarchs!

This chart shows the monarchs decline and how bleak their future looks. But do you see that little increase at the end? Maybe it’s a fluke, or maybe… maybe it’s because of people who care. I am hopeful. I do know that if we work hard, if we start planting native plants and if we stop using insecticides that we can save the monarchs. But we must put in the effort or we may well see the monarchs’ eventual extinction. You know how to help now, so go save the monarchs!

Here is a link to a video Coco and I made on tagging monarchs: Monarchs: A Documentary

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