McGrath shares monarch butterfly knowledge

Kathy White McGrath shows the crowd a monarch butterfly she was readying to release at her July 19 program in McGregor’s Triangle Park. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

Here, McGrath shows the crowd holes eaten through a milkweed leaf—a sign that a monarch butterfly caterpillar was about. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

After the presentation, the kids and parents enjoyed peeking at the caterpillars. (Photo by Audrey Posten)


By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor


After teaching kindergarten for 31 years, Prairie du Chien native Kathy White McGrath gained a lot of knowledge about monarch butterflies. For several years, she’s shared that knowledge with the McGregor community, holding a presentation in Triangle Park each summer.


McGrath and her husband, Pat, live in Port Edwards, Wis., and their home is an official monarch butterfly way station. Since early June, they’ve raised and released over 300 butterflies, said McGrath. Although she had only one butterfly to release Saturday, McGrath said this summer has been better for monarchs.


“I’m working with nature here,” she said. “I was afraid there wouldn’t be any.”


McGrath said the butterfly’s life cycle takes about one month, going from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly. She showed the crowd of riveted kids many eggs (smaller than a pin head) and caterpillars (smaller than a grain of rice), explaining that, if they were to go hunting right now, that’s what would likely be found. A sure sign of a caterpillar, said McGrath, is holes eaten through a milkweed plant—the monarch’s main food source. There are 100 different varieties of milkweed, though not all are found in the area. 


Any new butterflies, she said, will live for three to five weeks, during which time they mate and lay eggs. Butterflies born in late August and early September are the ones that will migrate to Mexico.


Those butterflies, said McGrath are also tagged. To do this, she and her husband place a sticker on the butterfly’s discal cell, on the lower wing, that contains a tiny code. That tiny code is written down, along with the date, the butterfly’s sex (you can tell it’s a male if there are spots on its lower wings) and whether the butterfly was raised or caught in the wild. When the butterflies are released, that information is sent to the University of Kansas, where it is kept in a database.


The butterfly, which will likely be dead, can be recorded if someone in Mexico finds and reports it. Some butterflies have traveled great distances, said McGrath, recalling one that traversed 1,808 miles and another that made it 1,822. The butterflies fly in flocks, like birds, and shift places while traveling. They largely rely on wind currents to help them reach their destination, explained Pat McGrath.


“They can fly at 30 to 50,000 feet, so the jet stream will pull them along,” he said.


McGrath said she’s hoping more and more Mexicans will continue to report finds.


“People are working to educate the Mexicans and encourage them to keep the habitat going,” she said, mentioning that the $5 paid out for finding a monarch also prompts some people to participate.


McGrath capped off her presentation by showing the crowd the lone butterfly she was going to release that day. Since there were no spots on it, the kids identified the monarch as a female.


“Hopefully she’ll find a mate,” said McGrath once the butterfly took flight. “One butterfly can lay 400 eggs, but only one out of 100 in the wild will become a butterfly since there are so many predators. That’s why we raise them.”

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