Going Beyond Stickers To Save Monarch Butterflies

How does a sticker on a butterfly save the species?  In reality it doesn’t in fact very few tagged butterflies are ever recovered.  If you’re into butterflies you’ve probably read how the monarch butterflies are in trouble.  Their population has crashed from historically sustainable numbers and many fear they’re on the brink of extinction. As with any imperiled species there are many theories as to the cause and how best to prevent extinction. The program of tagging is promoted as a way to save them.

Back in the 1930s Canadian zoology professor Fred Urquhart, butterfly enthusiast, began his journey trying to find where monarchs over wintered in Mexico.  He tagged butterflies before their migration hoping to track them.  The hope was  someone would find the sticker and call the number written on them to report where they spotted the butterfly.  At one point he tagged 7,000 butterflies in one year. By the 1940s he was using paper stickers on the wings.  It took many years but he did eventually find where the monarchs over wintered.

‘Through trial and error, they learned to scrape some scales off the lower section of a wing near the body, and fold the sticker around the wing-edge. Campus legend has Urquhart biking around with tagged butterflies tied to his handlebars with thread, seeing if they could fly with the tags. The Urquharts printed their office address on each sticker, so that butterfly sightings could be reported’. –  published in the University of Toronto magazine 2015

In 2017 I heard about this tagging program that a few groups were involved with.  My first thought was how these stickers would affect the butterflies ability to fly and navigate.  According to Monarch Watch and Monarch Joint Venture the stickers are small, lightweight and they say don’t hinder flight.  However anyone familiar with aerodynamics would question the uneven weight distribution since only 1 wing has a sticker.  This also means the scales under the sticker will no longer be usable.  Scales on wings help to insulate the butterfly, aid in the flow of air on their wings, help with heat absorption and are very important for flight.

Another concern is the adhesive used on stickers.  Trying to find out what type of adhesive is used on stickers was impossible.  It has to be strong enough to stick through constant motion, heat, wind, rain and normal wear and tear. There are some less toxic adhesives made from cellulose derived from plants but none of the tagging groups could confirm what the stickers were made with.

According to Monarch Watch the 2018 season results from August 2018 – November 2019 had just 1207 sightings.  According to data collected over the years it’s estimated that about 1% of tagged butterflies are recovered.  Even if sightings were higher that is a very low rate of return.  Adding the concern of toxic adhesive and the interference with flight and tagging butterflies does not live up to the promised way to save the monarch.

A chart from Western Monarch Count  for Thanksgiving counts from 1997 – 2021 shows the dire situation.  In 1997 there were more than 1.2 million reported monarchs but that number dropped to half the following year.  By 1999 approximately 250,000 butterflies were reported though the number of monitored sites had increased.  Despite tripling the number of monitored sights  reported butterflies has stayed pretty much the same.

There are many causes for the drastic decline in population but one of the biggest is the epidemic use of pesticides. It’s estimated that Americans use 80 million tons of pesticides each year on their lawns.  Development of what little open space is left and a mowing down of wildflowers and you see why the monarch is teetering on extinction.  Click here for the sobering chart.  https://www.westernmonarchcount.org/data/

While studying why birds seemed to avoid eating monarchs Urquhart made some discoveries.  “Under natural conditions birds are almost never seen feeding on monarch butterflies. This would indicate that birds know nothing of their taste, for they have never been observed in the process of learning that monarchs are inedible. Is it not more likely that monarch butterflies fail to elicit a feeding response in birds? -that monarchs don’t look like birdfood? (Urquhart, 1957). Monarchs tagged for migration experiments have been eaten in large numbers -apparently because their appearance had been altered ( Urquhart, 1957).”  This should be reason enough to not tag butterflies.

Mating pair of Monarchs
Mating pair of Monarchs

One of the best things to help save the monarch is plant their host plant.  A host plant is what butterflies lay their eggs on.  Each species has their own host plant because once the eggs hatch the caterpillars then feast on the leaves and flowers.  For monarchs it’s milkweed, and there are several types of milkweed native to the US.

Make sure the host plant is native to your and has not been sprayed with any pesticide, not even a temporary one.  Do your research and find a reputable native organic nursery that grows their own milkweed or will vouch for the grower.  Most plants are sprayed by the grower and many nurseries are unaware of this.  If unsure if the plant has been sprayed best to keep it covered with netting for 2-3 weeks to prevent butterflies from laying eggs.  An egg laid on a sprayed plant will not survive.

Second most important way to help is never use any chemicals in your garden.  A healthy ecosystem will take care of itself.  The best defense against mosquitoes are birds and dragonflies so be sure to keep your garden free from chemicals that poison them and their insect food.

A female Monarch laying eggs on their host plant
A female Monarch laying eggs on their host plant.

 

Newborn monarch caterpillars having their first meal the egg they hatched from
Newborn monarch caterpillars having their first meal, the egg they hatched from.

 

An adult caterpillar ready to make her chrysalis
An adult caterpillar ready to make her chrysalis.

Once the caterpillar is done eating they seek out a quiet place for their metamorphosis.  They prefer under twigs and leaves but will attach anywhere.  If you see hanging caterpillars in a ‘J’ position please don’t disturb them.  Once they make their chrysalis it takes a week for them to hatch as a butterfly.  Their chrysalis looks like a green grape which becomes clear the day before hatching. You can see the butterfly inside.

Newly hatched monarchs drying their wings.
Newly hatched monarchs drying their wings.

Engaging the public in citizen science is important but this isn’t the program to do it.  Help spread the message of conservation.  Our monarch butterflies depend on it.  All photos are of wild butterflies from my pesticide free organic garden.

A male resting free of stickers.
A male resting free of stickers.