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Ky. ecologists track Mexico-bound monarch butterflies

Kentucky Fish and Wildlife environmental scientist Michaela Rogers catches a monarch butterfly.
Kentucky Fish and Wildlife environmental scientist Michaela Rogers catches a monarch butterfly.

Standing in a sea of summer grasses, goldenrod and other native flowers, environmental scientist Michaela Rogers explained how monarch butterfly populations have crashed over the last two decades. 

Urban development, habitat fragmentation and a lack of nectar resources have contributed to a more than 80% decline; so much so that monarchs are now a candidate for the endangered species list. 

That’s why Rogers was standing in the middle of the Perryville battlefield holding a clipboard and a butterfly net. The site of Kentucky’s largest Civil War battle is now home to a 750-acre pollinator habitat for birds and bees.

From August through early October, monarch butterflies migrate south from the U.S. to Mexico. In late September, Rogers ran a monarch tagging event for Kentucky Wild, a non-profit conservation organization.

“Kentucky’s important to monarch butterflies because we are in an area that they move through during the migration, so if they get here and there are no resources, then we’ve really done them a disservice,” said Rogers, who serves as Kentucky Fish and Wildlife’s monarch and pollinator coordinator.

Last year, volunteers caught more than 63 monarchs, one of which was actually recovered 1,600 miles away at the El Rosario Butterfly Preserve in Michoacán, Mexico. Tagging events help Monarch Watch, a monarch conservation program, gather research on their migration patterns. 

The Perryville battlefield’s meadow of wildflowers offers a bounty of nectar for native butterflies, but it’s also a tourist destination for the insects, a resort for a special generation of monarchs on a trek toward Mexico.

While most monarchs live two to four weeks, this super generation lives eight to nine months thanks to something called reproductive diapause, wherein monarchs suspend their reproductive phase until after they've reached Mexico, according to Monarch Watch.

The sun cast its afternoon glow over the field of wildflowers: brown-eyed susans, Queen’s Anne’s lace, violet ironwood and a maze of yellow goldenrod. Among them, clouded sulphurs, swallowtails, viceroys and monarchs dance from flower to flower

Monarchs have been seen feeding on nectar during the day then sleeping by the hundreds in a nearby stand of trees. Rogers walked through the field, keeping her eyes peeled for a flash of orange against the flowing sea of yellow goldenrod.

“I think I see one way over there,” she said. Rogers reflexively dropped her clipboard, stalked toward a butterfly and scooped it up with her net. But she’d been had; it was a mimic.

“So this is not a monarch butterfly. It looks like it from afar but this is the viceroy butterfly,” Rogers said.

The viceroy is Kentucky’s state butterfly, and though the two insects do look alike and are both toxic, Rogers pointed to a line on the back of the wings indicating how they’re different. 

While searching, she pointed to a milkweed plant: the sole flora monarch caterpillars feed on that also gives them their toxicity. The leaves look nibbled on, but there were no caterpillars around. Rogers explained most are already on the wing.

In the distance, she spotted a butterfly fluttering toward the sunset. Rogers crept forward. Then a swing ... and a miss. 

“Oh man, I thought I had it ... So this is a very accurate depiction of how this goes,” she said. 

Not long after, she nabbed one. Listening closely, you could hear the wings beating in the net.

On her clipboard, Rogers wrote down the seven-digit code on the tag. That way, Monarch Watch will have a record of each butterfly. If it turns up, they’ll know just where it came from. 

Rogers reached into the net, and gently grabbed the monarch, pinning its wings together between her index finger and thumb. 

There’s a myth that if you touch a butterfly’s wings, it will die, but Rogers said that’s not true. Butterflies do have wings made from little scales, but if you're gentle, it’s not difficult to apply a tag.   

“The way that you make sure the tag will stay on if you hold it there for a little bit. You hold your finger over the tag, that warms up the adhesive and then that tag will stay with them throughout their journey,” she said.  

Kentucky Wild has tagged more than 600 monarch butterflies as part of its program, but Rogers emphasized there are other, simpler ways Kentuckians can help conserve monarchs. Small gestures like pollinator gardens, and planting milkweed go a long way toward ensuring the survival of a beautiful, and important, species. 


Ryan Van Velzer is the Kentucky Public Radio Managing Editor. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.

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