Butterfly education and identification a surprise at Labor Day picnic

Jason Love, executive director at Highlands Biological Station, explained the life cycle and migration patterns of the monarch butterfly. Butterfly nets were passed out to picnickers at a private Labor Day weekend event so butterflies could be caught, identified, and then released. Caught monarchs were tagged with a tiny sticker that included information for biologists.

 Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer

Attendees of a private annual Labor Day picnic in Tessentee were treated to a butterfly presentation by Jason Love, associate director of Highlands Biological Station. Love brought 30 butterfly nets, identification charts, migration maps, and research tags and spent about 30 minutes explaining the life cycle and travel patterns of primarily monarch butterflies. 

“This is the time of year that monarch butterflies migrate to the transvolcanic mountains in Mexico where the temperature is perfect for them,” said Love. “Hundreds of millions of monarchs migrate from here and through here to the area in Mexico.” 

After butterflies were identified and released, they sometimes perched for a few moments on someone’s nose or finger. Samantha Smith, 6, enjoyed this Great Spangled Fritillary.

He explained that starting in October, monarch butterflies will begin arriving in Mexico. They settle in the Oyamel fir tree forests, which are situated in the eastern perimeter of the Mexican state of Michoacan, in the forested mountains west of Mexico City. Once there, they remain for the winter. “Some local folks say the butterflies are returning souls because they migrate to the area around the time of All Soul’s Day.” 

Not all butterflies migrate. Some winter as chrysalis inside of stumps and under rocks. 

 “A monarch’s normal life span is two to five weeks,” said Love, “but a migrating monarch can live about nine months.”

Tim Sadlon caught what Jason Love, associate director of Highlands Biological Station, identified as a female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly. Ginette Christian caught a small Zabulon Skipper. Christian said she realized catching butterflies was not as easy as it looked.

Milkweed plants are the essential food source for a monarch’s caterpillar stage. Although the milkweed contains a chemical that is toxic to many species, monarchs are able to assimilate the toxins and store it in the cells of its outer skin. The toxins, in turn, provide the butterfly with a powerful defense “shield” against potential predators and keeps them safe during their long 2,100-mile (from Macon County) journey to winter in the mountains west of Mexico City.

“To predators, the color orange means stay away,” Love told the picnicking crowd. 

He said that migrating monarch butterflies travel in colonies of about 20 million insects and will travel between 80 to 120 nautical miles per day, depending on the wind and other weather conditions. “The butterflies take advantage of ascending warm-air currents, needing only to flap their wings when the air current diminishes a little or when they change their flight path,” said Love. This technique, he added, helps migrating butterflies use their energy efficiently, and it also enables them to physically carry out the long journey. Plus, they rest at night by roosting on the branches and trunks of trees.

Love handed out butterfly nets and showed attendees how to carefully catch butterflies. 

“There are 105 species of butterflies in Macon County,” he said. Then he asked “picnickers turned biologists” to bring back any and all butterflies caught so they could be identified and monarchs tagged with a minute identity sticker that includes an email address and a combination of letters and numbers helpful for biologists studying monarchs. All butterflies caught were eventually released.

Although millions of monarchs still migrate, the numbers have been dwindling of late because farmers often eradicate milkweed with weed killers.

After butterflies were identified and released, they sometimes perched for a few moments on someone’s nose or finger. Samantha Smith, 6, enjoyed this Great Spangled Fritillary.

“In the cornbelt, especially, farmers grow corn and soy beans and there has been an 80 percent decline in milkweed,” said Love. “However, people are starting to leave milkweed to grow in some areas, and some are even growing milkweed just for the monarchs. If people want butterflies on their property, they need to grow a rich diversity of plants.” 

Love announced that Migration Celebration is Oct. 7-11 at the Tessentee Bottomland Preserve. Macon County 6th graders participate in the multi-partner event with activities that include a bird banding station, a monarch tagging station, a farm history station, and educational games. Partnering for Migration Celebration are Mainspring Conservation Trust, Highlands Biological Station, Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory, and Macon County Schools.