Three of 690 commercially bred monarch butterflies tagged and released at San Antonio’s 2018 Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival were recovered in Mexico, citizen science organization Monarch Watch announced this week.

Monarch Watch founder Chip Taylor, who oversees the citizen science tagging program based at the University of Kansas at Lawrence, called the recoveries “quite remarkable.”

Chief Docent Drake White (in butterfly wings) led a team of 15 docents that tagged hundreds of monarch butterflies at the San Antonio Festival. Courtesy photo via Drake White

Use your thumbnail to lift tag from sheet and transfer to butterfly.
Each year volunteers tag tens of thousands of monarch butterflies. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Conventional monarch butterfly science has held that butterflies raised in captivity without natural cues don’t have the Darwinian skill set to migrate. Yet the 2019 recoveries bring to eight the total number of butterflies that were reared at a Florida butterfly farm, shipped to Texas, tagged and released at the San Antonio Festival, and recovered on the forest floor in the Mexican mountains. Last spring, five butterflies tagged at the 2017 Festival were recovered.

The three tags constitute 0.41% of the total 727 tags recovered and reported back to Monarch Watch. Typically, 85,000-90,000 butterflies are tagged each year.

The news arrived via the DPLEX List, an email list managed by Monarch Watch and devoted to the tracking and conservation of the iconic orange-and-black insects.

Each fall, thousands of volunteers purchase tags from Monarch Watch, adhere the tiny stickers to migrating monarchs’ wings, record the sex of the butterfly, and report the data back to Monarch Watch. Volunteer surrogates for the organization then visit the roosting sites in Mexico over the winter, seeking out locals to whom they pay $5 per recovered tag. Those recoveries are then returned to Monarch Watch and shared with the community.

Taylor suggested that the Festival recoveries are teaching us something new about monarchs.

“How can we reconcile the fact that these monarchs reached the overwintering sites in Mexico without being exposed to the conditions we understand are needed to induce diapause?” he asked in a heated discussion on the DPLEX. Monarch butterflies must be in reproductive diapause, a state in which they suspend sexual activities, in order to migrate; if they spend their energies on reproduction, they don’t have the capacity to migrate.

The news was well received in San Antonio, the National Wildlife Federation’s first Monarch Butterfly Champion City.

“Viva pollinators!” said Chief Marketing Officer Elizabeth Fauerso of the Pearl, which hosts the Festival. Festival Chief Docent Drake White sees the recoveries as “hopeful and inspiring.” She added that the massive presence of monarch butterfly caterpillars this spring was another positive sign for 2019.

“The realization that a fragile little butterfly that I held in my hand literally flew all the way to Mexico just boggles my mind!” said Patti Merhige, who served on the docent team with Cheryl Theis to tag male monarch, ZCH854, which was recovered in Cerro Pelón. “And it makes the citizen efforts personal while showing that those efforts are worth it scientifically!!!”

Said Theis: “It’s just really neat, kinda like winning a special lottery.”

The three recovered tags–two from females and one from a male–were applied from 10AM – 2 PM October 21st at the Pearl near downtown San Antonio. Docents conducted more than 500 one-on-one tagging demos during the Festival. They explained the monarch butterfly migration in general, how to tag monarchs in particular, and recorded the data, later shared with Monarch Watch. See the database of recovered tags here.

For years, scientists have asserted that monarchs reared with infinite access to milkweed and protection from predators just don’t have what it takes to brave the elements and complete the migration. While theories on how the sun’s cues, a butterfly’s geographic location, and ambient temperature affect a monarch’s ability to migrate provoke ongoing scientific debate, a general consensus exists that butterflies raised at a butterfly farm in Florida, sent by UPS to Texas and released in San Antonio will never make it to Mexico.

Recovered tags from San Antonio’s 2018 Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival.

Anurag Agrawal, author of Monarchs and Milkweed: A Migrating Butterfly, A Poisonous Plant and their Remarkable Story of Coevolution, agreed with Taylor that the commercially bred recoveries “are teaching us something new about the cues that are necessary versus sufficient to induce migration.”

Other monarch scientists were not impressed.

“This was misguided,” said Andy Davis, migration studies expert and research scientist in the University of Georgia Odum School of Ecology. Davis expressed concerns for the butterflies’ health and a general disgust for commercial breeding. “From a moral argument, monarchs are not a commodity–something to be purchased and profited off of…..The fact that some of these monarchs made it to Mexico does not justify this practice. Nor should you celebrate it.”

Karen Oberhauser, founder of monarch conservation organization Monarch Joint Venture and director of the Arboretum in Madison, Wisconsin, expressed similar concerns about the health of captive reared butterflies and the possibility of loading the gene pool with specific traits that could backfire.

“As a conservation biologist, I am a strong proponent of the precautionary principle,” she said. “I think that there are risks with large-scale captive breeding, and for me, those risks outweigh the benefits (and I know that there are benefits). I do not claim to have a monopoly on the truth, and know that smart people disagree with me.”

The butterflies purchased for the Festival were raised by Connie Hodsdon of Flutterby Gardens in Bradenton, Florida. Hodsdon counts several monarch scientists among her customers. Upon hearing the news that some of her butterfly charges made the marathon journey to Mexico for the second year in a row, Hodsdon said, “I go the extra mile for my butterflies. Apparently they do, to.”

Hodsdon prides herself on a clean operation and teaches the course on raising disease free monarchs to members of the International Butterfly Breeders Association. Her rearing scheme includes constant vigilance, lots of latex gloves, and multiple dousings of bleach for every milkweed stalk that might be noshed by a monarch caterpillar. Such standard operating procedures limit germs and the transfer of the deadly spore-driven, monarch-centric disease, Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, commonly known as OE.

The San Antonio Festival tag recoveries are not the first time that commercially reared butterflies have been documented making it to Mexico. In 2017, WGX139 arrived in the Mexican mountains more than a thousand miles from the Grapevine Flutterby Festival in Grapevine, Texas where it was released. It took 138 days for the tag to be recovered in the El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Preserve in Michoacán. Hodsdon also provided that butterfly.

The three butterflies were recovered at Cerro Pelón and El Rosario sanctuaries, about 800+ miles from San Antonio.

Commercial butterfly breeder Connie Hodsdon of Flutterby Gardens

Recovered tags from San Antonio’s 2018 Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival.