Life along the ‘nectar superhighway’

Tiny stickers are placed on the butterfly’s wing to track migration.

For several years, Brian Bockhahn has been cruising what he calls the “nectar superhighway” and checking for tags. This year, he pulled over 244 erratic drivers.

Bockhahn, a former ranger and now district education specialist for state parks, helps in a national monarch butterfly tagging program in early fall, when monarchs set out for winter homes in Mexico. Each year, he invites park visitors along on some days to help with the research. This year, 19 people including one girl scout troop, tagged along with nets in hand. Once butterflies are captured, tiny stickers are placed on their wings. On his busiest day this year, Bockhahn tagged 109 monarchs.

The butterflies, searching for natural areas to gather nectar on their journey, often pass through state parks, especially Kerr Lake and Falls Lake state recreation areas and Eno River State Park in the northern piedmont. And, Bockhahn has had some limited success further west in Pilot Mountain and Hanging Rock state parks.

“What I term the ‘nectar superhighway’ of rail lines and power lines along and north of Interstate 85 were again the hotbed of activity,” Bockhahn said. “Several miles north or south of this location, even with the same exact nectar sources and at peak times, I had almost no luck finding monarchs.” Monarchs gather nectar from whatever sources are in bloom along the route, he said, but their favorites seem to be tickseed sunflower, goldenrod, eastern baccharis and aster. One or two dozen butterflies will sometimes descend on a shrub and can be plucked by hand for tagging.

Other times can be quite frustrating, he said. “At the Pilot Mountain hawk watch, I sat in vain as hundreds of monarchs flew overhead without stopping. I tempted them with some flower cuttings to no avail. Next year, I would like to try a few potted flowers and maybe I’ll dangle some plastic monarchs on them to see if that helps bring them down.”

Bockhahn occasionally recaptures monarchs he has himself tagged, and websites allow him to compare notes with other taggers. One butterfly tagged in Granville County this year was observed a few days later in a Greensboro backyard, traveling about 20 miles a day.

Monarchs will suddenly descend on a flowering shrub to gather nectar.

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