At first glance they may appear a little lost, their delicate orange and black wings surfing the early autumn breeze.
But make no mistake. These little creatures are no dummies. In fact, they may be the most sophisticated of all insects.
And for a very brief time, within the next two weeks or so, thousands and thousands of these monarch butterflies, which originated in Canada and the U.S., will be struttin’ their stuff right through the Emporia area as they make their annual 3,000 mile journey to central Mexico.
Weighing in at less than a half of an ounce, one monarch’s journey south from central and eastern Canada and the eastern and Midwestern U.S. is the human equivalent of running a 6-week marathon.
“It’s a magnificent biological phenomenon,” said Chip Taylor, University of Kansas ecology and evolutionary biology professor and director of Monarch Watch. “There is no other insect that does this.”
But what really sets this butterfly apart from the rest is that each of the 1 billion monarchs on this trek is headed to a place that not one has ever been before. How the monarch’s find their way each year is an unsolved mystery. No one knows exactly how their homing system works, according to monarchwatch.org.
During the late summer and early fall a biologically and behaviorally different kind of monarch emerges from their chrysalides. Unlike their parents and grandparents, great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents, whose lifespan was a mere four to five weeks, this generation of monarch, the “Methuselah generation,” is built to travel — up to 3,000 miles — and to live for up to 7 or 8 months.
Traveling 50 miles a day at 10 mph, the butterflies’ destination is the Transvolcanic Mountains of central Mexico. Clustered under a canopy of fir trees, millions and millions of them will winter in a space equivalent to that of 7 football fields until the end of February when they will begin their journey back north.
This magnificent migration, however, is endangered, according to Taylor. The habitats for the monarch are threatened and declining at a rapid rate.
“We are losing 6,000 acres a day due to development,” he said. “That’s 10 square miles a day.”
Herbicide-resistant corn and soybeans also have resulted in the loss of the milkweeds and nectar sources that are vital to the monarch’s survival on this annual journey.
In an effort to reverse this habitat loss, Monarch Watch was founded in 1992 as an educational and conservational resource. The organization, which is based at KU, provides information on the biology of monarchs for educational use and through a tagging and “waystation” program, is a strong national force in conserving the monarch and its habitat.
Monarch waystations have become a primary tool to preserve the annual migration. According to monarchwatch.org, a waystation is an “intermediate stop between principal stations on a line of travel.” For monarchs, that means resource-rich habitats, in the form of nectar and milkweeds, along their journey south.
Monarch Watch encourages people to create waystations in parks, backyard gardens, the edges of fields and other unused pieces of land. A waystation kit is available for purchase from Monarch Watch. It includes seed kits for the host plants needed by the caterpillars and the nectar sources needed by the adult butterflies.
These plants include butterfly weed, swan plant, nine types of milkweed and nectar plants such as blazingstar, purple coneflower, zinnia and verbena.
Out of a total 1,629 waystations registered with Monarch Watch, 68 are in Kansas. There are none in Lyon County.
F For more information on the monarchs and the Monarch Watch program go to monarchwatch.org.