Where are the monarchs? That's the question being asked by a woman who once tagged a butterfly that undertook the longest-recorded flight of a monarch in New Zealand. Taupō & Tūrangi Weekender editor Laurilee McMichael meets butterfly enthusiast Jean Stanley.
Monarch butterflies are mysterious creatures and there's very little known about them in New Zealand.
However it's thought they can fly long distances and Pukawa, at the southern end of Lake Taupo, has the distinction of being the starting point for the longest-recorded flight of a monarch butterfly in New Zealand.
The butterfly in question was tagged in 2008 by local butterfly enthusiast and pest controller Jean Stanley. Jean, along with others in butterfly circles, was astounded when the butterfly she had tagged was discovered near Whangarei, Northland, months later, some 470km from its origin.
"It was an absolute miracle the [finder] saw it. She was closing a sliding door and realised a monarch was caught between two doors and saw the tag on it."
One of the things that's unknown about monarch butterflies is where the ones who hatch in the autumn spend the winter, and Jean says she is sure they have a special wintering-over spot in the Taupo district.
So she's asking people to keep an eye out for them and to let the Monarch Butterfly Society know if they see a large group of monarchs asleep on a tree.
"A friend in Omori had one appear in October which is quite early and two weeks later one appeared in my garden. I believe they are hanging on a tree and wintering over."
Jean says monarchs hang with their wings closed and it's not even known which types of trees they prefer, but they must be in the district somewhere.
"Yesterday I picked up a monarch on the paving stones and it looked newly hatched because its wings were still crumpled and I put it in my greenhouse.
"It'll be interesting to see whether it will winter over there and come to life in spring."
Monarchs have an over-wintering tree in Timaru's Botanic Gardens which is well-known locally, so Jean thinks the Taupo district should not be too cold for them. Monarchs are known to be relatively cold-tolerant.
Jean's quest to find out more about monarchs in the Taupo district is part of a drive by butterfly enthusiasts around New Zealand who are trying to learn more about the beautiful but short-lived creatures and the effects of environmental change on insect life.
A tagging project has been running for some years to trace the monarchs' path. With a supply of the special tags, which are basically just a small printed dot, and knowledge of the right technique to avoid damaging the butterfly's wings, they can be successfully tagged. The tag number is recorded in a computer database and when they turn up later and are spotted by somebody who know about the Monarch Butterly project, it adds to the body of knowledge that's slowly building up.
Jean heard about the tagging project by the Moths and Butterflies of New Zealand Trust and began tagging butterflies. She took a break for a few years but returned to it this year and only last month the trust secretary rang to say one of Jean's tagged butterflies had been found in Gisborne.
For people interested in rearing monarch butterflies in spring, Jean says those who have swan plants to attract monarchs often find the caterpillars eat all the leaves off the plant. If they run out of leaves, a piece of cut pumpkin will also be good food and caterpillars can be gently moved on to it, although swan plants will sometimes also make new leaves.
You also have to keep an eye out for pests — wasps will attack the caterpillars at certain stages of their development and soldier beetles suck the liquid out of them.
• If you see monarchs wintering over in the Taupo district, want to join the tagging project or learn more, visit www.monarch.org.nz.