Monarch butterflies are wonderful to watch — those little flecks of orange and black — and you probably don't think much about them after they flutter past you.
But some folks can't seem to get their minds off them. There are 15,000 people around the country who watch and catch monarchs — but with a mission. They're tagging the butterflies in an attempt to track their migration patterns.
Each year, monarchs migrate south for the winter, but exactly how they manage to get back to their home grounds of central Mexico is largely a mystery, even to Chip Taylor, a professor at the University of Kansas.
"We know why [the butterflies] are doing it. They have to get out of town," Taylor said. "They have to get to Mexico, because they are going to freeze their little antennae off."
But in an attempt to detemine exactly how these butterflies navigate their way home, Taylor set up a tagging project called Monarch Watch. Volunteers catch the butterflies and carefully place stickers on their wings. After they are released, volunteers around the country keep track of which tagged monarchs they see, and where.
"It turns out it's a very orderly migration ... and we wouldn't have realized this without this massive tagging that's going on," Taylor said.
And there are other benefits to the tagging for Monarch Watch. When a tagged butterfly is discovered in the Mexican tropics, the kids who tagged it will be told exactly how far it traveled, and, it's hoped, be inspired by the journey.
"A lot of kids think of insects as something they should crush. Now, they look at a monarch butterfly and say, 'that's beautiful,'" said Monarch Watch volunteer Don Cook.
For more on Monarch Watch, please visit www.monarchwatch.org.