LOGAN — Visitors to southeast Ohio’s Hocking Hills region this month have a one-of-a-kind opportunity for hands-on immersion into the lifecycle of iconic monarch butterflies, as naturalists attempt to help the species from threatened global extinction.
A team of volunteer naturalists is tagging this year’s bumper crop of the insect beauties — almost daily — at the Hocking Hills Regional Welcome Center, encouraging visitors to take part and experience firsthand uniqueness of monarch migration. Tagging and releasing the newly emerged monarchs takes place nearly every day (except in the rain), depending on emergence.
Naturalists, with the help of Hocking Hills visitors, place tiny, numbered sticky dots on Monarch wings before they’re released. They can then be tracked and logged on the Monarchwatch.org website when spotted in other locations. The practice helps researchers learn more about monarch migration. The Welcome Center team ordered 500 tags, but very few remain as they used far more tags than anticipated.
“Monarch migration is truly one of the world’s greatest natural wonders and this is a chance for travelers to learn to appreciate and nurture monarchs,” said Ohio Certified Volunteer Naturalist Andrea Jones, who spearheaded the program. “A good number of monarchs have been sighted in the Hocking Hills this year, spending the summer and laying their eggs in Ohio before their offspring pupate, emerge and instinctually take off to fly some 2,300 miles south to Mexico for winter.”
Jones added that beginning in early summer, monarchs stop in Logan to refuel and lay eggs for the next generation, with nearly 1000 caterpillars pupating in the area from late summer to fall.
During the chrysalis stage, Jones and her team move the jade green chrysalides into the Welcome Center’s educational monarch display for up to two weeks before the larvae naturally emerge as adult butterflies. They’re then tagged and released. The program will continue in 2019, with plans in place to expand the garden and tagging operations.
Unfortunately, this natural marvel is threatened by habitat loss, with a more than 90 percent decline in monarch populations over the last 20 years serving as a massive ecological alert. Thus, the volunteer naturalists created the Monarch Waystation at the Welcome Center by planting a butterfly garden filled with nectar-producing flowering plans that attract the blazing gold, yellow, orange, black and white insects.
In addition, naturalists planted milkweed, which inspires females to lay eggs by providing a rich source of food for monarch larvae. Frequent spring rain fed a prolific milkweed crop, resulting in an abundance of eggs. Jones encourages travelers who visit to create butterfly habitat by planting milkweed and native flowers in their own yards and natural areas at home.
Monarch Waystation programs, like the one in the Hocking Hills, work together across North America to study the decline of the monarch population, tracking migration and encouraging conservation. Each fall, millions of monarch butterflies migrate from the United States and Canada to Mexico, Texas and California where they wait out the winter until conditions favor a return flight north in spring.