Archive for Wednesday, August 16, 2000

The monarchs’ amazing journey

August 16, 2000

You just can't get a butterfly to come to you when you want it to. Trust me, I know.

With Ted Grinter's sunflowers in full bloom out by First State Bank on U.S. Highway 24-40, I went out to take a look, camera in hand, of course. The sunflowers were beautiful and I was happy to capture several honeybees feasting in their midst.

Then, just after I shot the last frame on that roll of film, up flew a monarch butterfly.

And so, back to the car for more film.

Never mind the heat of the day.

Never mind the bees everywhere I looked and the suspicious stinging on the back of my leg.

Never mind the shoulder-high sunflowers.

I wanted a butterfly on film.

And now, what I've learned from this sunflower-butterfly excursion is, even if you're in a field full of thousands of sunflowers and thousands of butterflies, it's about as difficult to take a picture of a butterfly as it is to catch one in your hand.

First, they're difficult to see amid all the bright colors of the field.

Second, having their choice of all the blossoms in the field, they flit from flower to flower fast.

And third, you almost need eyes in the back of your head in case a butterfly lands just behind you. After all, you can't hear butterflies coming. They don't buzz, they don't sneeze, and they don't whistle.

But that's almost a plus, because I soon learned, in making a noise in hopes that a monarch on a flower would open his wings and decorate for me, apparently they can't hear us, either.

During this safari into the field by the side of the road, I noted that butterflies like a good game of hide and seek, not only with humans, but also with other species, some of them more closely related. Have you ever seen a butterfly take out after a dragonfly? Well, they do. Take my word for it.

For those curious about facts on monarchs, the Monarch Watch program, headed by University of Kansas professor Chip Taylor, is a place to learn more. Taylor said the program grew out of a 1992 collaboration with a former student of his who later taught high school.

"He suggested we involve students to learn more about the Monarchs migration," Taylor said. "We put out a couple of news releases and from the response, we knew we had something that was engaging for the public, as well as for the students."

The program involves about 100,000 butterfly enthusiasts who tag butterflies to monitor migration patterns each year. Each year the interest grows, Taylor said.

The work by volunteers is leading to even more knowledge of butterfly migration. Here's some of the facts to be found on the Monarch Watch Web site: http://monarchwatch.org:

Monarchs travel up to 3,000 miles during migration. This tops that by all other butterflies in the world.

Monarchs east of the Rocky Mountains fly to Mexico where they winter in fir trees high in the mountains. Monarchs are the only butterflies to make this long, two-way migration. They fly in groups and migrate to the same area each year.

The amazing thing is that individual monarchs only make the trip once. According to Monarch Watch, it is their children's grandchildren that return south the following fall.

Further, monarchs that emerge in the spring are biologically and behaviorally different from those that emerge in the late summer. The Web site states that even though these butterflies look like the ones born in the spring or early summer, they won't mate or lay eggs until the following spring. Or in other words, instead of their bodies preparing for mating, they prepare for the long journey ahead.

That may be one reason the sunflower fields are popular dining spots for monarchs right now. Monarchs are supping on nectar now, and they will continue doing so on their journey south. They even gain weight during their migration.

And so, now being all the wiser about monarch butterflies, these amazing little creatures who so silently populate and beautify our world, creatures who fly in a lifetime the equivalent of one of our frequent-flyer trips cross-country, I've come to a conclusion, a basic notation which I suppose could apply to most things in life.

As I stood in the field and wondered if an icepack would be in order for that sting on the back of my leg, this thought occurred to me:

When chasing butterflies, remember to watch out for the bees.

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