The past several years, 9-year-old Milo Workman has raised, tagged and released monarch butterflies as part of his Monarch Rescue Task Force. Manning a booth Sunday with parents Shubitha Kever and Jeremy Workman, Milo was helping educate visitors about the insect's importance at the Eagle Marsh nature preserve. He's raising funds for the preserve through the task force.
“(Butterflies) are important because of pollination and if we didn't have pollination, we wouldn't have any fruit,” Milo said, adding that he's been raising monarchs almost five years.
Milo said he is currently doing a science project on light and how it affects when chrysalises hatch.
Every half-hour Sunday during the annual Monarch Festival, dozens of the iconic butterflies were released and took flight for the long trek to Mexico for the winter.
The butterflies are tagged so researchers studying monarchs can identify where they came from, said Jeff Ormiston, a naturalist for the Allen County Parks Department.
Ormiston said he has been raising monarch butterflies the past six years and he's released hundreds into the wild.
Between the end of May and the middle of June, Ormiston collects monarch eggs, raising them through the summer as they hatch into caterpillars and as the caterpillars form chrysalises. Those chrysalises will eventually hatch into adult monarch butterflies.
There were about 140 monarchs released during the festival Sunday, Ormiston said.
“Hopefully, they will end up somewhere in Mexico beginning around the end of October,” he said.
Thousands of monarch butterflies pass through Fort Wayne every year as they migrate north and south, said Betsy Yankowiak, the Little River Wetlands Project's director of preserves and programs. The idea for the festival came about after one particular early morning hike with area students.
“The first day I walked out there and I saw the leaves start to fall from the trees, and I was like, 'Oh no, it's fall already,' and it was the first week of September,” Yankowiak said. “I was talking to the kids when I realized they were not leaves. They were monarch butterflies and they were just waking up and starting to get their wings warm.”
The butterflies flew over the students' heads and landed in a nearby patch of flowers.
“They were roosting here on their trip down to Mexico,” Yankowiak said.
The butterflies that migrate south every autumn aren't the same ones that left Mexico in the spring, Yankowiak said. They're the insects' descendants. Spring-hatched monarchs live about five or six weeks, but those that hatch right before migrating to Mexico live up to eight or nine months.
“Something happens in September. The butterflies just stop mating and they all start flying south,” Yankowiak said. “That's the Methuselah generation. ... They're as far north as Canada and they'll fly all the way to Mexico. That's over 2,000 miles and they're just the weight of a leaf.”
Now in its eighth year, the Monarch Festival celebrates the migratory butterfly – and other pollinators – while educating children and families about the insects' needs. Monarchs need a plant called milkweed to survive, as it is the only plant monarch caterpillars eat. Every year, the Eagle Marsh staff give out hundreds of milkweed plants to individuals and families interested in attracting monarchs to their homes.
“We have these wonderful community assets, so it's cool that we're able to gather everybody together,” Yankowiak said.
Ormiston said he raised almost 700 monarchs last year and he tagged and released 609. The year before that, he tagged and released about 130.
“Every year we see a gradual increase in the number that we're seeing out here,” he said.
Part of the reason behind that increase, Ormiston said, is because people are becoming more aware of the biggest problem monarchs face, which is the elimination of milkweed.
“Farmer's don't like it in their fields, people don't like it in their gardens. So for quite a while, people were trying to eliminate it,” Ormiston said. “Now, we're kind of turning that around with more awareness. A lot of kids are introduced to butterflies now in elementary school, so they become aware of butterflies and then they get interested in monarchs, so there's this huge gradual increase in awareness and that helps.”
The monarchs will arrive in Mexico just in time for the annual Day of the Dead celebrations, Ormiston added.
Helen Frost, a local author who wrote a children's book with illustrator Leonid Gore titled “Monarch and Milkweed,” said she loves coming to the Monarch Festival.
“This is the most wonderful event of the year, it brings out a lot of families and grandparents with grandchildren. It's just so energetic,” Frost said. “We're all enjoying this day because of this one little butterfly. I love that.”