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Helping butterflies beat danger

In the world of insect migration, monarch butterflies rule the sky. Every fall, hundreds of millions of these black, orange and white insects migrate thousands of miles from the eastern United States and Canada to the mountains of central Mexico, where they spend the winter. By late February, they begin their return journey north.

“We’re estimating that many of these butterflies fly more than 5,000 miles in their lifetime,” said Chip Taylor, who runs the Monarch Watch Program at the University of Kansas. He and his team place small tags on monarchs’ wings to monitor where they fly.

Migrating monarchs face many dangers, including storms and predators. But according to Taylor, their biggest threat is habitat loss.

Like all living things, monarchs need food, water and shelter to live. Adult monarchs eat nectar from flowers, and their larvae (the caterpillar stage) eat milkweed plants. In the United States, about 6,000 acres of land are paved over each day for roads and buildings, leaving less space for butterfly habitats.

But butterfly enthusiasts can help: by raising the caterpillars to butterflies, then releasing the adults; by planting milkweed and other butterfly-friendly plants in gardens; or by catching and tagging adult monarchs before migration begins.

“Catching butterflies isn’t as easy as it may sound,” Taylor said. “There are some skills involved.” But every tag helps researchers learn more. And when it comes to these tiny traveling butterflies, there is much to discover. To learn more, go to www.monarchwatch.org.

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