When you're a monarch butterfly wrangler, you've got to be ready to saddle up, even on a Sunday.
One recent weekend in the tiny beach community of Lonelyville on Fire Island, Ellen Federico assembled on her deck an enthusiastic crew of cheerful neighbors — about a dozen children and adults ready to partake in a yearly ritual that will help scientists uncover the secrets of the monarch butterfly. Much about the monarchs, such as their uncanny navigation system, how they're able to travel such great distances and the possible ways to address their dwindling numbers, remains a mystery.
As more volunteers join the effort to track the monarchs' migration, scientists are getting a clearer picture of the butterflies. Earlier this month, a scientific study published in the journal Nature pinpointed the gene that affects flight muscle function and allows the insects to travel long distances. The article also pointed out that the number of migrating monarchs was estimated to be about 35 million this past winter. That's a huge drop from the estimated 1 billion that scientists believe migrated in 1996. Scientists attribute the decrease in monarch numbers to climate change, the use of herbicides in large-scale farming and deforestation in Mexico.
On a recent Sunday on Fire Island, the sky was blue and streaked with gauzy white clouds. A gentle breeze was blowing out of the southwest. Federico and her assemblage were armed with nets, small, round scientific adhesive tags, data sheets to log information and a passion for the environment.
Mary Vermilyea, 12, and her sister Lucy, 7, live across from Federico every summer. They've been tagging butterflies for three years, and this day they were leaping and swooping like graceful dancers with their nets.
"You've got to sneak up quietly and be gentle but quick," said Mary, who lives in Sayville and is a seventh-grader in the public middle school. That afternoon, Mary caught and tagged between 10 and 15 butterflies, she said. Each tag has a code consisting of three letters and three numbers, plus an email and phone number for Monarch Watch, one of the nonprofit organizations that promotes tagging. Taggers must fill out data sheets where they record the code, the date, the gender, whether it is reared or wild and the tagging location. The data sheets must be mailed back by Dec. 1. The Monarch Watch website lists any tags that are recovered so taggers can find out where their butterflies went. The data also opens a window onto the butterflies' travel patterns and numbers.
"We tagged over 200 Monarch butterflies in fall 2011," Federico said. " . . . five of them made it to Mexico. One of these monarchs was tagged by my friend and neighbor, Forrest 'Pete' Clock."
The wranglers are on alert from Labor Day to Columbus Day weekend, which is when fourth-generation monarch butterflies head over the Fire Island area as they journey thousands of miles away to Mexico. The monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus, is a flying insect with striking orange, black and white wings. The generation that migrates south has a life span of up to nine months. On the East Coast of North America it starts traveling from as far away as Canada and sometimes covers hundreds of miles per day. It arrives in the oyamel fir forests in the mountains of Central Mexico, where millions of monarchs settle to roost on the trees that grow at elevations of 7,000 to 11,000 feet. The monarchs stay there until springtime, when they start their journey back north.
A family tradition
Federico's work on behalf of the monarch butterflies holds a meaningful family connection. Her late father, Robert Federico, taught his children all about appreciating and learning from nature, Federico says. He was especially fascinated by the migrating monarchs.
Robert Federico, a retired naval officer who died in 2010, was affectionately known as Captain Bob and purchased the family's beach home in 1973.
"We were raised on the shore," said Federico, the oldest of eight siblings and owner of a corporate event planning business in Manhattan. "Come April, our shoes were off and we were coming over to Lonelyville on the weekends."
Shortly after her father's death, Federico said she began noticing the monarchs.
"That fall, I was paying more attention when massive flutters came through," she said. "Maybe it's my father saying hello?"
Federico got involved with Monarch Watch, a nonprofit education, conservation and research program based at the University of Kansas. She created a monarch way station in her yard, a habitat full of milkweed and other nectar-producing plants. She recruited a few neighbors and their children to join her on most weekends in catching and tagging. But the following year, in 2012, superstorm Sandy devastated the area, destroying the habitat and much of the natural vegetation necessary for butterflies to exist.
"I was going to say 'forget this,' but it was the children's care and concern for the butterflies that made me say 'let's go bigger,' " Federico said. "I could just see how wonderful and healing and simple it was."
In the past few weeks, Federico and her wranglers have tagged more than 100 butterflies. Federico shows the children how to carefully hold the butterfly between thumb and forefinger with its wings folded back. You look for the discal cell on the hindwing. This is the correct location to stick the tiny adhesive tag. The tags, no bigger than your fingertip, are recovered after the butterfly has died and can be found anywhere on the migration path.
Among those tagging recently was first-timer Tom Croci, Town of Islip supervisor. He brought his niece, Nicole Inserillo, 5. Croci named his tagged butterfly Tomaso and wished it well before releasing it toward Mexico. His niece named her butterfly Lucy.
"This is about being good stewards of our environment," Croci said. "This is not only a unique ecosystem on Fire Island, but it's also a national treasure."
The migrating monarchs arrive at the start of November, which coincides with the Mexican holiday El Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. During the holiday, families visit the graves of their relatives to pray for and honor them with flowers, food and gifts. Mexican tradition holds that the monarch butterflies represent the returning souls of their loved ones.
For Federico, the monarch migration is just one more beautiful part of life in Lonelyville.
"It really is quite wonderful," she said. "We're just doing this one good thing. A gentle flutter can change the world."
It takes about three generations of monarchs to reach their northernmost destination. The first generation starts in the spring. Those monarchs are moving north away from Mexico. Each of the first three generations lives an adult life of about two to six weeks only.
The fourth generation lives eight to nine months and is the one to make the long trip south, where they roost during winter and the cycle of generations is started again in the spring.
It takes about one month for all monarchs to go through a complete metamorphosis, from egg to fluttering adult.
A female butterfly will lay 100 to 200 eggs — one at a time — on the leaves of the milkweed plant. The egg hatches and a caterpillar emerges and hungrily feasts on the milkweed.
The caterpillar grows about five times bigger and longer until it's time to turn into a chrysalis. At that point, it hangs out in a little shell for about 10-14 days and emerges as the stunning adult butterfly.
There are a handful of nonprofit organizations that help the public catch, tag and release monarch butterflies. Parents, children, teachers and anyone else who wants to participate in tagging can become a citizen scientist, said Ellen Federico, who turned her Fire Island yard into a monarch way station.
It's possible to start a habitat with the free information available from the nonprofit websites and about $50 to buy milkweed seeds, nets and tags.