Retired school teachers and butterfly nets. After 30 or 40 years of them trying to convince kids that education is good for them, it would be easy to insert you own punch line here.
However, these teachers were chasing, not being chased. Their targets? The brilliant monarch butterflies floating fitfully from flower to flower in the butterfly garden atop the Mississippi River bluff at Bellevue State Park.
Have you seen the monarchs gathering up in Storm Lake? No doubt science teachers and their young students have.
Ahead of the cool, rainy weather over the past week, I was noticing dozens of the regal, orange and black butterflies; especially as evening approached and they steered toward protective trees. Ann Burns noticed them, too. As the naturalist for the Jackson County Conservation Department, she wants people to know more about the monarch, it's habits and the habitat that supports it. Besides being an important pollinator of plants, it paints an unmistakable 'splash' of color as it sails across the yard, just out of reach.
She takes that message to school kids and, on the day I visited, to the monthly meeting of retired Jackson County schoolteachers. "The monarch is the only butterfly that we know of, that migrates to Mexico. Now, we are trying to pinpoint routes," Burns explains. "Maybe they have specific stops where clusters gather each year. If that is the case, we would like to protect those critical areas from development or change in the plant species."
She recruited a half dozen of us to scour the milkweed, Mexican sunflower and other bright blossoms in the quarter-acre garden, trying to net a few monarchs. I snagged one, but Carol Frahm had two notches on her net handle, by the end of the session. "Be quick. Hurry and get there before it flies away and pounce on it," coached Frahm, a retired 5th grade teacher from Miles. "Ann showed us how to hold the net up, so it will fly up into it and you've got it. Then, you are careful, so you don't tear its wings."
From there, Burns produced a sheet of tiny, adhesive stickers. As she pressed one on to the underside of a butterfly wing, she challenged her senior students to 'sex' it: male or female? By the second one, they recognized the wider spot in the black line on the top of the wing; actually a scent gland that each male sports. Her class also assigned a condition, from poor to excellent. A tear in the wing or faded color indicated a mature butterfly, perhaps close to the end of its days.
The stickers themselves are the focus. Every tagged butterfly carries a sliver of hope, that it will be noticed and recorded somewhere along the migration trail. As one teacher recorded the information, Burns lined up a volunteer to release the butterfly and its quarter inch tag.
Each flapped upwards, until a prevailing puff of wind blew it out of sight.
The chance of any being recovered? Think needle and haystack. In about 14 years of tagging, Burns has received reports that three or four of her tags have been found. "It's really a good way to get people interested in science; butterflies and all kinds of insects," she offers. "Even the idea of tagging a monarch brings people out to a park on a sunny afternoon."
The butterflies live anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. Those longer-lived specimens are over wintering populations found in the mountains of central Mexico. Most of the Iowa-tagged butterflies will lay eggs before dying on the trip south. Likewise, most of those returning here next year will be the second or third generation of those leaving the Mexican highlands.
"We have known since the 70s that monarchs go to Mexico," says Burns. That information also shows steady encroachment up those mountains. "The tagging process is part of the study of routes and the time it takes them to get there; to show locations for night roosting and feeding." She says by paying attention to the routes and habitat, wildlife and conservation workers can learn more about improving such areas, not just for the benefit of the butterfly, but for those other species that rely on similar areas.
Monarchs on the Web
The University of Kansas maintains a website and files of tagged monarchs reported over the last two decades. You can learn more at monarchwatch.com. Should you ever find a tagged butterfly, don't remove the tag. Simply remember the number and report it via the e-mail route by calling I-888-TAGGING.
Joe Wilkinson is an information specialist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, and an occasional contributor to the Pilot-Tribune.