Roughly one percent of all monarchs tagged will be recovered in Mexico. This photo, featured on the back cover of my book, THE MONARCH: Saving Our Most-Loved Butterfly, shows the very first monarch I ever tagged.

In late July, early August, I walk through my gardens with a mission. I make a beeline for the eight different species of milkweed growing there. At each plant, I inspect every leaf for tiny pearlescent eggs, laid one at a time, usually one per leaf, and often just one per plant.

At that time of year, these monarch butterfly eggs will hatch out a very important generation. It’s called the Methuselah generation or the supergeneration. They are called by these names because instead of living the usual 4-6 weeks like their parents and grandparents, these monarchs may live for as long as eight months.

Not only will they live extraordinarily long lives, they will make a journey of thousands of miles to a place they’ve never been, guided by landmarks and their internal compass, along with forces we don’t entirely understand yet. These monarchs will be the parents of next year’s monarch population.

Prior to 1975, scientists didn’t know just where the monarch butterflies disappeared to in winter. They knew they flew south, they knew they ended up in Mexico, but their exact location had yet to be discovered. I use that word “discover” loosely, because of course, the locals in Mexico knew. They wondered a different thing about these colorful butterflies – where did they go in summer?

It was in the 1930s when Dr. Fred Urquhart of The University of Toronto started experimenting with marking and tagging monarch butterflies in an attempt to track where they went. In January 1975, he and his wife Norah, who worked alongside him, received a report from a couple he’d hired in Mexico to try and locate them that they’d found thousands of monarchs clustered in oyamel fir trees up in the mountains of Central Mexico.

Incredibly, when the Urquharts made their own trip to Cerro Pelón the following year, Dr. Urquhart looked down and found a monarch on the forest floor with one of his tags that had been placed by a science class in Chaska, Minnesota. This is recounted in the 2012 film, “Flight of the Butterflies,” available for viewing via various streaming services.

In 1992, the tagging program was taken over by Dr. Orley “Chip” Taylor, a research professor at The University of Kansas. Chip oversees the program to this day, as thousands of people, including citizen scientists like you and me, participate in tagging the migrating monarchs every fall.

That the monarch, weighing no more than a paper clip, makes this trip in the first place, seems against all odds: predators, fast-moving vehicles, pesticides, weather, and lack of nectar sources. Once they reach their destination, they must survive the winter, mate, and begin the trip back north in the spring.

I have been tagging monarchs through Monarch Watch (U of K) since 2015. Every tagger dreams that one of “their” monarchs will be found in one of the monarch sanctuaries. Locals scour the forest floors, looking for the tagged monarchs among the dead. Monarch Watch pays approximately five US dollars per tag collected. Each tag’s unique identification number tells researchers where and when that particular monarch began its journey.

Last Saturday, I learned that a male monarch I raised from an egg found in my garden last summer had been recovered at El Rosario sanctuary. ACAP565 had been tagged and released by me on August 31, 2020, and while it’s disappointing that he didn’t live through the winter, it’s still a happy moment to know for sure that he made it Mexico successfully.

For more information on how you can participate in the Monarch Watch tagging program, visit https://monarchwatch.org/tagmig.

Read more about Kylee’s garden and nature by following her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/kyleebaumle. Contact her at PauldingProgressGardener@gmail.com.