BAINBRIDGE TOWNSHIP, Ohio - The sky was clear without a sign of wind by late afternoon on Monday for Geauga Park District's senior naturalist Dan Best and his butterfly net.
Best had had little luck during the morning trying to catch a monarch butterfly for a second grade class field trip from St. Mary's Elementary School in Chardon, but he was hopeful for this 5 p.m. search in Bainbridge.
Best's hope was to catch and tag healthy monarchs in an effort to track their annual migration to Mexico this fall.
Two weeks ago there were hundreds to be found in Geauga County's Frohring Meadows in Bainbridge on Savage Road.
"Monarchs are looking for nectar this time of year. Their bodies change that sugar back to fat, so they're like a fat pack, a fuel cell, and that's what they travel on," said Best.
Monarchs are unique in the fact that they migrate each year. It's an amazing part of their life that entails many generations going to and from the Sierra Madre Mountains in Mexico. Many of the monarchs start and end their journey in Ohio. Many begin their trip from Canada. Lake Erie's Island meadows are some of their stops.
"Their flight appears leisurely or relaxed when they're cruising the meadow here. They're just kind of looking for what looks like to them the right flower to stop and fuel up on," said Best. "If you see them with their legs dangling down, they have their landing gear down."
Best has been helping tag Monarchs with tiny stickers on the outside of their lower wing for more than 20 years, all for Monarch Watch, based at Kansas University, tabulating their flights, tracking their progress. The tags have Monarch Watch's website and toll free number printed on them. Decades of monarch flight routes from their northern summer homes to Mexico have been recorded with the help of the tags' information.
"If somebody finds them, dead or alive, hopefully alive, they'll have the wherewithal to go that website or toll free number and they'll be connected to Monarch Watch and they'll be asked when and where they found it," said Best.
"This actually was started by the University of Toronto back in the 1930s. Since then, it's lead to the discovery for the North Americans of the wintering areas in Mexico which were unknown up here."
"They had a bunch of people in Mexico wonder where in the heck these butterflies came from by November," Best said.
"It's defined a lot of the major routes," Best said. "Certainly many of them make it, but as you can imagine with confronting the many obstacles and weather, like hurricane Isaac, it isn't good for a butterfly."
"As caterpillars, these guys eat milkweed, which is toxic, but it doesn't hurt them. In fact, it gives them a toxicity to predators throughout their life," said Best.
Defying their appearance as a delicate insect, their resiliency for such a long flight is incredible.
Best records the date and the tag number after each catch then releases the monarchs without harm. Best adds that monarchs can be raised here inside one's home. The eggs can be found on milkweed plants then saved in insect containers during winter.
"They can be released as emerging adults," Best said.
Residents, teachers, groups, or students who want to be a monarch tagger can request tags from Monarch Watch, or the Geauga Park District, for a small fee. Those fees are used to help continue the Monarch Watch program and to hire people in Mexico to look for tagged monarchs in the Sierra Madre mountains.
"It's like the lottery, the more you tag in the states the more likely we'll find tagged monarchs somewhere along their route," said Best. "We will see their grandchildren, or their great-grandchildren by the time they get back, but the trip down takes from late summer to November each year."
The trip to Frohring Meadows was a success. Best netted two female monarchs, releasing one named Elizabeth. The second butterfly was placed safely in an insect container with a small clipping of goldenrod for food to take back to St. Mary's second grade class who missed out on a successful tagging.
"The monarch will settle down in the container, but any flower or goldenrod clipping placed inside must be shaken out first to rid it of any small spiders who may bite the monarch, using their venom to kill it for its own food supply," said Best.