Archive for Tuesday, September 22, 1992

TRACKING THE MONARCH BUTTERFLY

September 22, 1992

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For most people, the annual migration of a group of insects probably wouldn't be something to get excited about.

But to Ken Highfill, it's one of the best times of the year.

"It is probably one of the top 10 seasonal events in Kansas," said Highfill, a Lawrence High School teacher who has been involved in a delicate hobby in recent days.

Highfill, who each year tries to breed monarch butterflies in his classroom, has been especially busy this year working with the butterflies as they migrate through the state.

He and his students are just a few of the people who have been asked to grab their butterfly nets in an attempt to count monarchs.

Highfill and other teachers earlier this year were contacted by Orley "Chip" Taylor, a Kansas University entomology professor who is concerned about reports of diminishing monarch populations.

TAYLOR has asked volunteers to collect and tag monarchs in the hope of determining whether their number is dwindling.

Highfill and about 120 of his students recently heeded the call and labeled hundreds of butterflies.

"We found some excellent collecting areas" in the Baker wetlands just south of Lawrence, he said.

"Every one of my students has labeled a butterfly," Highfill said. "I don't think any one of my kids will look at monarch butterflies the same again."

Highfill received about 400 butterfly tags from KU last week. The tags contain the KU ZIP code and other numbers for identification.

When a butterfly is captured, a tag is carefully hand-placed on its wing.

"They are very delicate and you have to be careful," Highfill said.

The tagger removes a small area of the butterfly's scales with his fingers, and the tag is folded over the edge of the wing.

STUDENTS at West Junior High and Centennial schools, as well as LHS, have labeled butterflies in the Lawrence area.

In addition, Taylor said he received 50 calls from people offering to help tag butterflies in the Wichita area.

Highfill said the response "has gone way beyond what he (Taylor) expected."

According to news reports, the monarch population was decimated by severe weather in Mexico last winter, and monarch populations in the Eastern states have been low this year.

Thirty years ago, the wintering grounds of the monarch were discovered in the mountains northwest of Mexico City. Up to three-fourths of the butterflies that nest there were killed by extreme cold.

But the monarch population appears to be normal in the Midwest, leading scientists to suspect they may have another, unknown winter home in Mexico.

In Kansas, the monarch migration usually continues through the first three weeks of October.

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