I have gotten off on the wrong foot imagining the process of monarch butterfly tagging.
I’ve been thinking of it as “monarch banding,” analogous to bird banding — envisioning a circle of metal clasping the monarch’s tiny leg like a miniature insect leg iron. Not the case.
We are a group of about 20 volunteers gathered in a barn near Arlington, Wisconsin, just north of Madison, on the Madison Audubon Society’s Goose Pond Sanctuary. This Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin field trip will teach us how to tag the butterflies so that the monarchs can be tracked on their path from Wisconsin down to winter in Mexico, to a spot just south of Mexico City.
That is the big picture. I, however, am hung up on the details. Like, how do you tag a butterfly without killing it?
“They are tougher than you think,” says Mark Martin, a volunteer with the Madison Audubon Society.
The butterflies are marked with a small round sticker, about the circumference of a standard pencil. But they seem so fragile. I have seen the butterflies in the Butterfly House on Mackinac Island, whose wings look like used Kleenex after too much manhandling over the course of a tourist-laden summer.
Aim for the center of the hind wing. Do not bend the wing. Push the sticker down with your thumb. After the sticker is on, open up the wings carefully to see if it is male or female — males have a black dot, mirror image, in the lower center of each wing.
“What is the adhesive?” I ask. No one knows. But it is effective. The tags stay on, all the way to Mexico, where Monarch Watch pays five pesos — about 25 cents — to anyone bringing in a tagged butterfly down at winter HQ. By the time this happens, the butterflies are, by and large, dead.
Because the sky is threatening, we dispense with further instruction and rush out into the prairie to net some butterflies before it starts to rain. (Rain makes it too easy to damage the butterfly and keeps the stickers from sticking.)
It turns out that the hard part is not getting the sticker onto the monarch, but getting the monarch in the first place. Butterfly nets are clever inventions, to be sure, but they work best when the object is at rest — say, perching on a milkweed plant, a favorite of the pollinator — and not high in the sky. And the monarchs are few and far between today (they prefer sunny weather).
The other hard part? Mosquitoes. Gray clouds of mosquitoes. Insouciant, ravenous, DEET-ignoring mosquitoes. I have forgotten my Deep Woods Off, and the “Repel Gentle” that the Audubon folks brought is about as effective as Old Spice. At any rate, you can’t have any bug spray on your hands if you want to touch the butterflies, so I pull up my sweatshirt hood and draw my hands inside my sleeves. I swat a couple of mosquitoes flying around my face, ending up smearing them onto my glasses.
We stalk through shoulder-high prairie grasses, chasing butterflies, waiting for them to land, stumbling over prairie plantings while keeping our eyes on the prize. Volunteer Jim Otto beckons me to an area where he’s seen a monarch land. This is my chance. I sneak up to the showy goldenrod plant where the insect sits — Can it see me? Sense me? — and manage to scoop the monarch into my net. Then the technique is to twist the mesh over quickly, like flipping a pancake, closing the net opening. I flip too slowly, and the monarch escapes. Later, dude. I actually feel relief I haven’t trapped him. Thunder rumbles in the distance.
I never do capture a monarch this day, but I do help hold one still while Otto delicately rolls the tiny sticker off a toothpick and onto the wing. Then, after checking for the sex (he is male) it’s up to me to let him go.
Should I fling him, as if to speed him on his way? Or just let go and trust that he will fly and not drop, wounded, to earth? It seems to me I can feel its heart beat. The creature is trembling, as if longing to spread his wings again. I open my hand and before I can even perceive the departure, he is gone, just a speck, now almost invisible, high above my head.
Monarchs banded in this half-hour session before the rain set in: 21
Tags ordered by the Madison Audubon Society this season: 1,500
Final tag attached to a butterfly by Madison chapter: Sept. 24
Percent of tagged monarchs whose tags are retrieved: 1
Milkweed stems Wisconsin needs to stabilize the monarch population: 119 million by 2038