Monarch Butterfly: What is Citizen Science?

Citizen Science is the collection of scientific data by individuals who are not professional scientists. Professional biologists from the land management agency prepare the individuals for their work as citizen scientists. These projects are on-going and consist of a network of volunteers. Citizen Science networks are very important. The citizen science monitoring programs would not be the success it is without the participation of citizen scientists. Without these dedicated volunteers, too few data would be collected to accomplish research objectives. Much of what has been learned about the monarch butterfly and its migration is the result of citizen science projects.

Picture of a tagged monarch butterfly being released.
Releasing a tagged Monarch. Photo by Anne Okonek.

Picture of two women, volunteers, one holding a monarch and the other recording data on a data sheet.
Two volunteers record data on a monarch butterfly they recently tagged. Photo by Anne Okonek.

Monarch Larva Monitoring Project (MLMP)

The Monarch Larva Monitoring Project involves citizen scientists from across the United States and Canada. Researchers at the University of Minnesota developed this program to collect long-term data on larval monarch populations and milkweed habitat. The focus is on monarch distribution and abundance during the breeding season in North America.

Picture of a monarch larva on a milkweed stem.
Photo by Mike Higgins.

Closeup picture of a monarch larva on the underside of a milkweed leaf.
Photo by Anne Okonek.

Picture of a monarch larva eating a milkweed leaf.
Photo by Mike Higgins.

Picture of a man holding a net with a woman reaching for the captured monarch inside the net.
Netted monarch. Photo by Anne Okonek.

Picture of two women counting and recording the number of monarch eggs and larvae on milkweed.
Monarch Larva Monitoring Program volunteers counting the number of monarch eggs and larvae on milkweed. Photo by Janet Ekstrum.

Picture of two researchers inspecting a milkweed plant.
Researchers inspecting a milkweed plant. Photo by USDA.

Monarch Watch

Close up view of a Monarch Watch tag.

Monarch tags are tiny, round stickers made of polypropylene. They are 9mm in diameter, a little larger than a hole-punch, and account for about 2 percent of a butterfly’s weight.

Monarch Watch is a citizen-science project based at the Kansas Biological Survey, University of Kansas. This project involves volunteers across the United States and Canada who tag individual butterflies to assist scientists in studying and monitoring monarch populations and the fall migration. The tagging program helps answer questions about the geographic origins of monarchs that reach Mexico, the timing and pace of the migration, mortality during migration, and changes in geographic distribution.

Picture of a tagged monarch butterfly.
A tagged Monarch. Photo by Mark Garland.

Picture of a tagged monarch butterfly being held by one person over a clip board and data sheet in the lap of another person.
Recording data for a tagged Monarch. Photo by Anne Okonek.

Picture of monarchs basking on a groundsel-tree at the edge of Oyster Bay.
Monarchs bask just after sunrise on groundsel-tree (Baccharis halimifolia) at the edge of Oyster Bay in the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, Virginia, where they roosted for the night. Photo by Denise Gibbs.

During the fall monarch migration, monarchs congregate at several shoreline locations in North America, waiting for a gentle northerly breeze to help carry them across open water. Volunteers have been monitoring monarchs for over ten years at Peninsula Point in Michigan, Cape May Bird Observatory in New Jersey and Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia.

In addition to tagging and migration monitoring, Monarch Watch has begun a monarch Waystation Program. Waystations are flower gardens or natural areas with milkweeds that act as host plants for monarch larvae and nectar plants that serve as energy sources for adult monarchs.

Journey North

Journey North is an on-line global study of wildlife migration and seasonal change. Students K-12 report their own field observations of the northern migration of a variety of wildlife species including the monarch butterfly.

Project Monarch Health

Researchers at the Institute of Ecology at the University of Georgia are studying monarch health as part of a national citizen-science program. The protozoan parasite, Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, does not affect humans but it can hinder a monarch butterfly’s growth and survival. Volunteers capture live butterflies and collect parasite spores to help scientists map the locations and amounts of parasitism and disease in monarch butterfly populations.

North American Butterfly Association Butterfly Counts

Volunteers in the United States, Canada, and parts of Mexico conduct a one-day census of all butterflies sighted within a 15-mile diameter circle during the annual North American Butterfly Association (NABA) Butterfly Counts. The NABA compiles and publishes the results in annual reports that provide information about the geographical distribution and relative population sizes of the species counted. The information can be used to monitor butterfly populations and study the effects of changes in weather and habitats.

Monitoring Areas

The citizen science monitoring programs includes areas all across North America. There are over 700 monitoring locations participating in the Monarch Larva Monitoring Program in the Eastern United States and Canada. Currently Monarch Watch has over 1,250 Waystations. Their goal is to have a total of 10,000 Waystations over the next three years.

Select the points on the map below to see more information about some of the monitoring areas.

Monarch Butterfly Monitoring Area Locations. Base map source: USGS National Atlas.