When thousands of snowbirds came to Southwest Florida last fall they likely crossed paths with another traveler, a monarch butterfly which flew 1,240 miles in three months from New Jersey to Southwest Florida.
The story of monarch number 175531 began at Cape May Point, N.J., when it was tagged in a program called Monarch Watch through the University of Kansas.
The tag, no larger than a pencil eraser, is folded over the butterfly’s wing with contact information and an identification number. On Sept. 23, 2009, number 175531 left Cape May Point and finally arrived in Nick Bodven’s garden in Fort Myers on Dec. 2.
And what made this trip remarkable is that the normal life span of any monarch butterfly is only four to six weeks, he said.
“Normally those butterflies migrate to Mexico,” said Bodven. “I got an email from one of the ladies who tagged it.”
He explained that monarchs from the eastern United States typically spend their winter in Mexico. Because of their short life spans, Bodven said it’s likely that the generation of butterflies in Mexico are the “great-great-grandchildren of the butterflies that migrated north” in the spring of 2009.
Each year, millions of butterflies spend their winter near Mexico City at the Transvolcanic Mountain Range. There are approximately 12 wintering sites that were first discovered by scientists in 1975 and now play host to tourists from all over the world. And today, the Monarch Watch program compensates Mexican locals for every tagged butterfly they find.
Denise Gibbs, from the Chincoteague Monarch Monitoring Project, who corresponded with Bodven about the tagging of 175531, has assisted with the tagging of thousands of butterflies and only a dozen have been recovered over the past 13 years using tags originally designed by Dr. Lincoln Brower from Sweet Briar College, said Bodven.
In an e-mail message to Bodven, Gibbs pointed out that only three of her tag identifications have been from states north of Virginia. She said the chances of 175531 making it that distance was remarkable.
“So I would say that chances are pretty slim. You are lucky,” she wrote.
National tagging programs mark over 200,000 butterflies each year, many of which go unidentified.
Of course, for Bodven, catching number 175531 took the patience and experience of a person who knew the behavior of butterflies.
While in his garden on Nov. 25, Bodven saw what looked like a monarch with a white tag. It took him more than two hours to snap a picture with a digital camera — the shot wasn’t clear enough to make out the identification number — and he didn’t successfully net 175531 until days later.
The butterfly died shortly after capture, yet Bodven was able to ascertain through correspondence with Gibbs that it had departed from New Jersey.
Bodven said there are still other questions unanswered, such as whether 175531 was a returning third generation butterfly or whether it made the trip to Mexico? And he points out that it is unlikely these questions will ever be answered.
He also questions whether Florida had a larger monarch population in the past.
“The fact is humans are altering the forests where the monarchs winter and habitat is diminishing rapidly here in Florida,” he wrote in an article for his blog. “Unlike the butterflies that winter in Mexico, they are very active in Florida during the winter months.”
Bodven and butterfly activists are now asking Lee County residents to plant milkweed in their yards because it is a source of food for monarchs. They are hoping to increase the local populations.
He also regularly sets up informational booths at the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island, and recently founded a program called “Cats for Kids,” which provides caterpillars, an observation cage and a DVD on butterflies for students in Lee County to learn about a butterfly’s life cycle.
For more information about local butterflies, visit his blog at nickiebodv.blogspot.com or the website of the North American Butterfly Association at www.naba.org.