A close up view of a tagged monarch butterfly that is part of the Monarch Watch tracking program. (Photo by Gage Rudick)

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The majesty of the monarch butterfly is hard to miss this time of year. 

You may spy one sipping nectar from a butterfly bush or zinnia, wearing a robe of blazing color, panels of orange adorning its rich black canvas. See its wings, with their border of black and white polka dots? Those wings can spread up to four inches in flight. 

And so they will, as these regal butterflies say goodbye — at least for a season or so —and make their way to Mexico over the next few weeks. 

Scientists know where they’re going: to roosting grounds near El Ejido El Rosario in Central America, where they cluster for the winter, carpeting the trees. Some will have flown more than 2,000 miles to get there, said Gage Rudick, program director for Friends of the Garden, a nonprofit supporting the Springfield Botanical Gardens at Nathanael Greene/Close Memorial Park. 

Where do monarchs stop along the way–and why? That’s one mystery scientists have been hoping to solve since they began tagging monarchs a few decades ago

Visitors at Nathanael Greene/Close Memorial Park help tag monarch butterflies for tracking (Photo by Chris Barnhart)

On Saturday afternoon, when citizen scientists gather near the Roston Native Butterfly House at the park to tag and release monarchs, they’ll be contributing to a database of information at Monarch Watch, a nonprofit education, conservation and research program based at the University of Kansas. 

A co-sponsor of Springfield’s free tag and release event one — of several such events in North American communities at this time of year — Monarch Watch relies on the help of volunteers to tag monarchs since 1992.

Want to go? 

What: Monarch Tag and Release 

When: Saturday, 2-3 p.m. 

Where: Springfield Botanical Gardens at Nathanael Greene/Close Memorial Park, 2400 S. Scenic Ave. 

The first Friends of the Garden ceremony at Nathanael Greene Park was in 2011, said Missouri State University Distinguished Professor of Biology Chris Barnhart, who with his wife, Debra, curates the Roston Native Butterfly House at the park. 

Chris Barnhart calls monarchs, “just one of these outstanding things of nature.” 

“You’ve got something the size of a playing card that can find its way to Mexico,” Barnhart said. “That’s an absolutely fabulous feat of navigation. They do it without GPS, without satellites. Just watching the sun and knowing the time of day, they’re able to navigate with that kind of precision.”

Super bugs 

The monarch honing in on fall blossoms in your front yard is four generations removed from the one you saw last spring on its way north. 

During their summer migration, monarchs travel in “generational steps,” Rudick explained. 

“This is where it gets crazy,” Rudick said. “On that last generation, through changes that they detect in the length of the day and temperature, the females will lay eggs for what they call a ‘super generation’.”  

A man uses a zinnia flower to attract a monarch butterfly from the inside of a netted butterfly house.
Gage Rudick trying to attract a butterfly with a zinnia in the butterfly house at Springfield Botanical Gardens at Nathanael Greene/Close Memorial Park. (Photo by Susan Atteberry Smith)

By the time North American monarchs begin their fall migration, Rudick said, they have entered a state of reproductive stasis–a pause called “diapause,” and do not produce eggs.  

“So they essentially stop aging,” Rudick said. “This super generation is typically a little bit bigger, they’re hardier. So they’re able to make that trip all the way from north in one go–the same generation.

“The trip that took multiple generations to get there, this group is able to fly all the way back down to Mexico. Some have recorded distances of over 2,000 miles.” 

When this generation alights in your yard, they aren’t scoping out prime egg-laying property on a milkweed plant, the native plant favored by their foremothers. They’re looking to fuel up for their flight. 

“They’re only going to be going to anything that has nectar,” Rudick said. 

Following their journey 

At Springfield’s latitude of 37 degrees, the ETA of monarchs to southwest Missouri is expected to peak next Wednesday, with late arrivals flying through by Oct. 1, according to Monarch Watch. 

That’s why this is the right time to tag monarchs and send them on their way, Rudick said. 

By lunchtime on Thursday, Chris Barnhart and butterfly house volunteer Jeff Grayless had netted nearly 200 wild butterflies to tag at Saturday’s event. 

Chris Barnhart and Jeff Grayless capture wild monarchs for the monarch tag and release. (Photo by Chris Barnhart)

A couple dozen monarchs to be tagged will hail from the Barnharts’ home, where he and Debra rear all kinds of butterflies and moths from eggs. 

“I expect we’ll have some (monarchs) hatch on that day,” Chris Barnhart said. 

At the tag and release, butterfly house docents will help participants tag a monarch, fill out a tracking card and guide them to the park’s Butterfly Garden to release their monarch, Rudick said.  

Later, it can be a joy to spot tagged butterflies along their journey. 

“A couple of times I have found tagged monarchs in the garden, and that’s cool,” Barnhart said. 

When he reported their recoveries on the Monarch Watch website, he discovered the butterflies had flown to Springfield from Kansas City.  

This fall’s tagged generation of monarchs will enjoy longer lifespans than their parents and grandparents had. While their ancestors may have lived only two to six weeks as adults, the super monarchs can live two to four times longer, Rudick said. 

“It’s like having a child that could live to be over 400 years old,” Rudick said. “It’s magical.” 

After overwintering, a migratory brood of monarch butterflies can potentially survive until next spring, Barnhart said. 

“The same butterflies fly down and fly back,” Barnhart said, adding that every spring, “We get butterflies arriving from Mexico in Springfield.” 

Then, after that, he said, monarchs reproduce rapidly. 

The cycle begins again. 

A fragile abundance 

In 2005, when the Monarch Watch program began, U.S. habitats for monarchs were declining by about 6,000 acres a day, according to its website. 

However, Monarch Watch Director Orley R. “Chip” Taylor, a professor in the University of Kansas Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, said in an email interview that even though the number of monarchs reaching Mexico varies each year, running averages for the past 11 years show that the overall population is not declining in North America. 

Chris Barnhart noted such evidence, too, and added that the cultivation of milkweed could be a reason for that. 

“A study last year made a strong argument that monarchs are as abundant as they were 20 years ago,” Barnhart said. “That could be because of people planting milkweed. That could be one of the factors.” 

age Rudick uses a zinnia to entice a monarch in the butterfly house at Springfield Botanical Gardens at Nathanael Greene/Close Memorial Park. (Photo by Susan Atteberry Smith)

Even in the Springfield butterfly house, the effects of human choices — both intentional and unintentional — can be seen. While native plants are grown to provide food for caterpillars and butterflies, there was one time when nature’s balance got out of whack due to the lack of one common natural predator: Birds. 

Birds love to scarf down a good caterpillar, and in the wild, a chickadee, for example, can eat 10,000 of them, according to Rudick. Unthreatened by this predator in the house, though, caterpillars defoliated a pawpaw tree growing there, he said. 

“They were eating all the leaves,” Rudick said. “They were taking over.” 

For Friends of the Garden, it was a teachable experience that demonstrates why the cycle of nature has “a certain fragility,” Rudick said, “because obviously if we don’t take care of our environment, the rise of temperatures, the increase in pollution and all this other stuff starts killing off our bugs, then that’s food for your birds. When your bugs go, your birds go, and you lose.” 

After Saturday’s event, tag data will be sent to Monarch Watch, Rudick said.

With data from tag recoveries, Taylor said, Monarch Watch can determine how successfully monarchs have migrated from points of origin to overwintering sites, giving scientists numbers as well as monarch sizes and genders to work with. 

With such data, they can also see the effects of climate change. 

“We can also identify how droughts affect the number (of monarchs) reaching MX (Mexico),” Taylor wrote. “And now, we can see the impacts of climate change on migratory success.” 

As a species, monarchs are worth preserving and protecting, Rudick said. 

“They’re such a great species for people to look at and really see the magic that happens in the natural world,” Rudick said. “Their story is just amazing. It sounds like fiction, but it’s not. 

“We truly have so much to learn from them, too.”

Susan Atteberry Smith

Susan Atteberry Smith is a Dallas County native, a former college writing instructor and a former Springfield News-Leader reporter. Smith writes freelance pieces for several publications, including Missouri Life Magazine, Biz 417 and Missouri State University alumni publications. More by Susan Atteberry Smith