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Butterflies are on the move, and Oklahomans are keeping track of them in monarch conservation effort

Emily Geest, a post-doctoral fellow at the Oklahoma City Zoo, holds a male monarch butterfly that she just weighed, measured, and placed a tracking sticker on the hind wing.
Britny Cordera
StateImpact Oklahoma
Emily Geest, a post-doctoral fellow at the Oklahoma City Zoo, holds a male monarch butterfly that she just weighed, measured, and placed a tracking sticker on the hind wing.

Monarch butterflies, like many insects and birds, migrate twice a year, in the spring and in the fall.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, before the weather gets cold, monarchs travel more than 2,000 miles from North America to central Mexico to hibernate.

Emily Geest is a postdoctoral fellow with the Oklahoma City Zoo. She said central Mexico has the perfect climate for butterflies to overwinter.

“It gets cool there at night for them to be able to breed again. They have to be exposed to so many nights that are cool but not freezing, which you can't guarantee in Oklahoma or anywhere in the Midwest.”

Monarchs that hatch just before the migration can live up to nine months to make the trip. Geest said butterflies are dependent on changing temperatures and daylight with the seasons. Eggs laid closer to fall have less of a hormone that makes them smaller and live shorter lives.

“These butterflies tend to be bigger, they have longer, more narrow wings as they have to fly further, they live longer, and they don't breed right away,” she said.

Geest said the Oklahoma City Zoo has been participating in monarch tagging for over 25 years through a nationwide community science program called Monarch Watch.

“And we have collectively, over those 25 years, tagged over 3,000 monarchs. And we've had over 100 recoveries in Mexico,” she said.

Volunteers and conservationists come to the zoo every fall to catch, tag, and release monarch butterflies. When I visited the zoo, Geest had already caught a female butterfly and placed it in a wax envelope.

To catch a butterfly is a little tricky, you need a large mesh bug net. Geest said the easiest way to catch them is with a bug net while they are flying.

“If it's flying in the air, you're just going to swoop and catch it and just go back a few times and once it's in, you flip your net so that it would be here and not just fly straight out,” she said.

After Geest catches another butterfly, this time a male, we go to the zoo’s education center to collect data on the butterflies.

The Oklahoma City Zoo collects health data, how much they weigh, how big their wings are, and they check each butterfly for a parasitic single-celled organism the insects can get from each other. Geest uses calipers and a gram scale. Then Geest gives the butterflies a wing wear score.

“This one has a tear in its hind wing here, probably from getting caught in some vegetation. Sometimes you'll see them missing pieces of their wings from bird strikes,” she said. “So on a scale of 1 to 5, five being an absolutely perfect butterfly, this one's probably going to be a three because of that tear.”

Afterward, she sticks a sticker with a unique code in the middle of the hind wing. Geest enters all this data into the database.

The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation is also hosting events where volunteers and students can tag and monitor monarch butterflies.

This week, fourth graders from Chattanooga elementary went to Hackberry Flat Wildlife Management Area in southwest Oklahoma to learn about monarch migration.

Brayden Gibbs’s favorite part of the day was placing identification stickers on the butterflies’ wings and giving them names.

Robert Zabielski and his wife were volunteering that morning too. He tagged nine butterflies. He sees monarchs every day at his home in Lawton.

He felt inspired to participate in tagging this year because of his concerns for the environment and climate change.

“I'm interested in wildlife, and the monarchs have always been. We always spot them around our home and it's wonderful. Just, I guess a concerned human being,” she said.

Getting the community involved in this science project is crucial. According to Monarch Watch, tagging helps answer questions about the origins of monarchs that reach Mexico, the timing and pace of the migration, mortality during the migration, and changes in geographic distribution.

Britny Cordera has been StateImpact Oklahoma's environment and science reporter since July 2023.