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Tagged And Tracked: Monarch Butterflies Set Out From Connecticut To Mexico

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Patrick Skahill
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WNPR
Monarch butterflies power-up on a plant at Natureworks in Northford, Conn., before beginning their migration south.

Connecticut’s monarch butterflies are now making their annual migration thousands of miles south to Mexico. 

WNPR set out to check in with two citizen scientists -- and self-proclaimed “monarch mommas” -- who raise and track the butterflies.

It looks like a magic pendant. Jade green, lined with a brilliant band of gold dots, and carefully placed inside a display case.

So, you’d be forgiven if like me -- you thought Jillian Shea sold jewelry.

“I think that’s why people don’t think it’s real,” Shea said. “Because it’s rare that you get to see 150 chrysalises next to each other in one space.”

Shea is at Natureworks, a gardening business in Northford, where she raises monarch butterflies with the store’s manager, Diane St. John.

“We’re like the monarch mommas,” St. John said. “Within 10 days, all of these will have hatched into butterflies. They are the migrating generation, which means they want to leave here.”

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Credit Patrick Skahill / WNPR
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WNPR
Diane St. John, left, and Jillian Shea raise monarch butterflies at in Northford, Connecticut.

As I leaned in, some of the chrysalises wiggled. Butterflies even clambered out, hungry to undertake their epic migration south.

Before they do, Shea and St. John place a small little sticker on the butterfly’s wing. It’s a tag they got from “Monarch Watch,” a citizen-science program based at the University of Kansas, which supplies labels that help identify butterflies should they turn up later in Mexico.

“More and more people have told us this year that they’re seeing more than they have ever before, in their gardens,” said Shea.

“All the information I have is that this was an incredible summer for monarch butterflies,” said Anurag Agrawal, a professor in the entomology department at Cornell University and author of “Monarchs and Milkweed.”

Last winter, overwintering numbers in the highlands of Mexico had stabilized “at a low, but not dangerously low level,” Agrawal said. “It was a bit of an early spring … and we had good rain in the summer. People, beginning in June, started reporting monarch butterflies and caterpillars in a way that was very surprising.”

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Credit Patrick Skahill / WNPR
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WNPR
A freshly emerged monarch butterfly. In the background are rows of green chrysalises.

Monarchs seemed to be going further north earlier, he said, and in higher densities than in recent memory.

“The question that many monarch biologists are asking is: ‘Will this translate into a substantial increase number that are overwintering and successful the next year?’” Agrawal said.

Agrawal, who rears his own monarchs every summer, said monarch tagging programs like the one at Natureworks help connect people with the cycles and systems of the outdoors.

“We did a release last year and it was very emotional,” Jillian Shea said. “I remember that a lot of people came and had someone that they credited that monarch to when it was flying off.”

Shea said two of the monarchs released from her business last year were recovered in Mexico.

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached by phone at 860-275-7297 or by email: pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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