Friday, December 14, 2012

Of Monarchs and Other Metaphors

Of Monarchs and Other Metaphors
Creation is soul-searching.  Nothing is ever finished. ~Carl Ruggles

Regina Tauke of Northampton County is a
volunteer for the University of Kansas here
collecting Monarchs in the Lehigh Gap.
It is unknown what they truly know, but these Monarchs know their place.  The late Summer Monarch foregoes the normal creation cycle and devotes itself to travel.  These travelers live for eight months!  Compare that to the lives of the ones who live at the breeding site, of just weeks.  This traveling generation winter in the Transvolcanic Mountains of Mexico.

(A monarch born here at the end of August, will make the migration to Mexico, winter there, and will migrate back to their breeding site in and around April in time for the emergence of the plants they need to survive and lay their eggs on, all a delicate pattern of balance and interdependence of nature's other life cycles.)

I met Regina Tauke in the waning days of summer.  She’s a volunteer collector for the University of Kansas (Try  She was catching butterflies just north of the Lehigh Gap on the D & L Rail Trail.  Things were going well until the wind picked up. 

She caught and tagged sixteen in three hours.  The last male we tagged “RCM 180” with a telephone number to call if this insect was found.  Regina saw the telltale black bump near the bottom outside corner of the wing.  This is thought to be a vestigial scent gland of the male.  (Just like white-tail bucks have scent glands that does don't.)

Here a male Monarch gets tagged with "RCM186."

I saw firsthand how delicate a process it is.  Catching them on the perch is preferred over catching on the fly to reduce injury.  The adhesive sticker is placed on the “mitten” shaped cell at the center of the wing.  This is the best spot to tag Regina says.  It keeps the extra weight near the center of mass so it doesn’t impede or burden their flight more than necessary.

There is a cause behind this hobby.  Monarch numbers are down due to a number of factors: this summer’s drought, pesticides, loss of habitat and more.

Each tag used will be carefully recorded
in her log book and sent to the university.
Particularly alarming to future generations is the use of Roundup Ready Seeds.  These allow farmers to blanket their crops with herbicide, killing weeds (such as milkweed) between the rows.  Milkweed is the only plant Monarchs will lay their eggs upon because they are the only leaves the larvae will eat.  And so begins the destabilization of the life cycle.

It is a fascinating cycle.  There are about four generation cycles over the summer.  But something happens on the final one.  The shortening daylight and the cooler days of late summer trigger a biologically and behaviorally different Monarch to emerge.

A summertime Monarch lives about three to four weeks.  The last generation, the migratory one, lives eight to nine months.  Their return 3,000 miles later in Spring ends with the laying of eggs on the milkweed plant. 

All Monarchs east of the Rockies roost in Mexico or in southern Florida.  The eastern Monarchs use the thermals of the Appalachian Mountains to assist their soaring south.  They collect nectar as they go, actually gaining weight on their journey. 
Male "RCM186" about to be released.

They cluster by the millions in each of the eleven to fourteen sites located in the near-freezing mists of Mexico’s oyamel fir tree forests.  The canopy helps protect them from freezing snowstorms, yet allow them to stay cool enough to slow their metabolism, sustaining themselves throughout their winter dormancy.

Meeting Regina and learning more about Monarchs was an unexpected gift.

No other animal migrates and cycles like the Monarch.  Untold and unseen generations follow in their figurative contrails. 

Life in Carbon would go on even without these seasonal visitors, but like so much in life, it is sometimes the smallest of things that carry a great weight.

They may not know their part in the cycle, they may not know their children, and they certainly don’t know the fourth generation that repeats their feat the following year.

Their greatest gift to us may be the lesson of how to live in the present, fulfilling our daily roles, being mindful of the past while careful to complete what determines our future.