Orange-Winged Emissaries

Monarch week has begun at Prairie Wetlands Learning Center! Four generations of monarchs have hatched this summer from their eggs on Minnesota’s milkweeds. The generation, which will be winging it to Mexico and other wintering sites, have emerged from their chrysalis on the prairie. Dozens can easily be found flitting from flower to flower as they fatten up on nectar before their flight.

This invertebrate-world phenomenon coincides with a Citizen Science event we hold annually, Monarch Tagging. Open to the public, we currently have droves of volunteers taking to the prairies with nets to catch monarchs and bring them to us, where we tag them, record their sex, release them and hope similarly nature-minded people notice and report the tag numbers. This research, which happens at many natural areas, is coordinated by Kansas University and it records data from hundreds of tags each year.

Chipper volunteers of all ages have migrated here from locales as far-flung as Fargo or the Twin Cities for the couple of days we’ve hosted the event so far, and we can only hope turnout will stay this high! The line of people with monarchs in their nets waiting for me to help them tag and record relevant information has already gotten up to 5 people at times.

From talking to them, I’ve found that local naturalists have brought their vacationing family members out to help with this quirky event. Not only can folks from a variety of places have a chance to see the prairie wildlife and wildflowers up close as they swing nets on the blooms from which the butterflies receive nectar, but they also lend their talent to a multi-state research effort.

This study, not entirely unlike the duck and songbird banding performed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife, allows scientists to study and hopefully understand the patterns, life cycles, and threats to this precious species. Despite their diminutive size, these tags are often returned.

Every volunteer that grabbed a net came back with a butterfly—these bewildered bugs beat their wings with righteous indignation, but most of the catchers held the nets closed to prevent their breakout. After myself or my coworker Teresa gently removed the butterflies from the mesh traps, we allowed the volunteer (mostly kids, but parents, grandparents, and nature lovers of all kinds) to hold the butterfly as we checked the sex of the butterfly and affixed a sticker-like tag.

Some of our volunteers had been coming year after year; for many, this was their first time holding a butterfly. Their reactions to being a part of helping these natural wonders was very touching to me. I can only hope their nascent love of nature does not fade with time, as I can only hope we will have monarchs to tag here at the Prairie Wetlands Learning Center for years to come.