Bon voyage: Museum assists monarch butterfly populations

Sep. 30—HUNTINGTON — Monarch butterflies might look delicate, but they're able to journey from North America to Mexico during autumn, often with the help of scientists and nature enthusiasts.

Dr. Mike Beck is both.

Beck, director of the conservatory at the Huntington Museum of Art, tends to caterpillars and, when the time is right and butterflies emerge from their cocoons, he tags them before releasing them to begin their journey.

His work is part of Monarch Watch, a nonprofit education, conservation and research program based at the University of Kansas that focuses on the monarch butterfly, its habitat and its fall migration, according to the website Beck said the museum purchases tags from them and reports tagging data to the organization.

"Tagging helps us know from where the butterflies came and which overwintering site they use in Mexico," Beck said. "For example, over the years, three of ours were found in el Rosario. It may also give us some idea of their travel times."

For at least 10 years, Beck has fed caterpillars milkweed at the conservatory, which he said is time-consuming work.

"The caterpillars are ravenous eaters and they only eat milkweed plants. I maintain milkweed plants in my home garden to feed them and allow a place for butterflies to lay their eggs," he said. "It can be difficult to find plants locally that we know for sure have not been sprayed with pesticides."

When butterflies emerge, he said they are checked for disease, tagged, their data is recorded and they are released outdoors, a process he's close to completing for the season.

This year, Beck, who will retire from the museum at the end of the year, said he has released 48; he hopes to release 116 more, making a total of 1,000 released during the museum's involvement with Monarch Watch.

Meanwhile, Josh Hamrick has spend this year training alongside Beck so he can take over the conservatory next year. That includes caring for, tagging and releasing monarchs.

"We take turns checking on them through weekends and holidays, considering several butterflies may eclose (emerge or hatch) from their chrysalis each day and the caterpillars need fresh milkweed leaves," Hamrick said. "Beyond the tagging and release, the caterpillar enclosure needs to be tidied up regularly, new caterpillars brought in from the Steelman Butterfly Garden, checking for parasites and ill caterpillars and, of course, talking with visitors about monarchs and their migration."

Hamrick said he will continue Beck's work with Monarch Project.

"The Monarch Watch project is something visitors ask about all the time and is very important to conservation efforts considering the (International Union for Conservation of Nature) listed monarchs as endangered this year," he said. "However, that doesn't mean the butterflies have been federally listed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service under the Endangered Species Act. Such a listing would put special protections in place and may even change how we conduct monarch tagging in the future. That said, the IUCN listing is meant to draw attention to their diminishing populations due to habitat loss and climate change. Having these insects on display gives us here at the museum a wonderful platform for discussing these issues with the public."

Beck said a loss of habitat in the form of destruction of forests in Mexico and extensive use of herbicides and pesticides have challenged monarchs' existence.

"For me, the importance of monarchs, and the reason I spend my time working with them, is their educational value," he said. "Because of their popularity, they can be a great way to introduce children and adults to many ecological issues, such as the plight of pollinators and other insects in general."

Snow in Mexico at sites where they spend their winters also has caused problems for monarchs.

"One past storm took out about six million butterflies at one time," Beck said. "That can be the danger of having a limited number of small-sized overwintering sites. The sites are shrinking because of logging. Logging pays more than monarch tourism."

Beck said he will continue to help monarchs at the museum by growing milkweed at home, as he encourages anyone to do.

"I'll just let the little guys develop without my intervention," he said.

(606) 326-2661 —