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Ann Bailey, Forum Communications Co., Published August 27 2010

March of the Monarchs

CROOKSTON, Minn. – Laura Bell hopes that monarch butterflies will be all aflutter Saturday.

Bell, lab services coordinator and naturalist at the University of Minnesota, Crookston, is tagging butterflies Saturday at the Red River Natural History Area near the UMC campus.

Bell tagged butterflies when she was a naturalist at Ponca State Park in Nebraska, bringing the tradition with her when she came to UMC six years ago.

Tagging is part of the University of Kansas’ Monarch Watch, a network of students, teachers, volunteers and researchers who study monarch butterflies. Typically, migration of monarchs in northwest Minnesota and northeast North Dakota peaks in late August, triggered by shorter days.

This week, there were “flutters,” or groups of hundreds of butterflies, spotted in Grand Forks and the surrounding area. Bell hopes that some still will be around for tagging.

“We tag them so we get more ideas of their migration patterns and what they do,” Bell said.

Long journey

The monarchs’ migration will take them 2,500 miles to trees in the mountains of Mexico, where they have landed for generations. The monarchs will arrive at their destination in November unless they fall victim to car windshields, predators or pesticides (such as what happened in East Grand Forks and Grand Forks last week) along the way.

The monarchs that emerge from cocoons in North Dakota and Minnesota during August have a life span of eight months, so it’s a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Mexico. “That would be like trying to find our great-great-great grandma’s house and not having a map,” Bell said.

The tags Bell uses on the monarchs include a code and website where information about them is recorded as they travel to Mexico. Even if the butterflies die before they get to Mexico, they are still useful in the research.

“When I tag something it may get hit by a car in Oklahoma, but if a person reports it, I know,” Bell said.

Life cycle

The monarchs will begin reproducing in mid-February. After they mate, they lay their eggs and then die. Once those eggs hatch and the caterpillars become butterflies, the monarchs begin migrating northward

“It takes about four laying eggs and dying cycles to make it to Minnesota,” Bell said. When the butterflies reach Minnesota and North Dakota, they lay eggs on milkweed, which is the sole source of food for the caterpillars.

This year, because it was such an early spring, there were plenty of milkweed plants for the caterpillars.

“It was a buffet when they got up here,” Bell said. That’s in contrast to the past three years when there was a sparse population of caterpillars because late springs resulted in a food shortage. Bell said.

The public is invited to the butterfly tagging, which will be held from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Red River Valley Natural History Area. There will be signs to mark the route. Nets will be provided, but guests also may bring their own.

Ann Bailey is a writer for the Grand Forks Herald