When a butterfly dines in a homeowner’s garden, that’s not unusual.
But when some internal compass guides that winged visitor into the yard of Kathy Keatley Garvey in Northern California, it’s downright remarkable.
“ ‘What are the odds? What are the odds?’ kept going through my mind. I was totally amazed to see it,” Keatley Garvey said of the recent afternoon when she spotted the monarch butterfly sipping nectar from a Mexican sunflower outside her home in Vacaville.
Affixed to the elegant orange and black insect’s wing was an adhesive tag the size of a small fingernail that read: Monarch@wsu.edu A6093.
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This monarch was from a Prosser-based program of Keatley Garvey’s alma mater, Washington State University, about 800 miles away.
What’s more, two years earlier, she had written a story about the monarch study under way at WSU Extension’s Irrigation Agriculture Research Station in Prosser.
Now, one of the study’s subjects was perched on a blossom just 4 feet away.
It’s one of the biggest surprises of my research career.
David James, WSU entomologist
“I wanted to do a happy dance or a pirouette,” said Keatley Garvey, a science writer for the University of California-Davis department of entomology and nematology who also happens to be an insect photographer and author of the popular blog, “Bug Squad.”
Ever so quietly, she raised her macro zoom-lens camera to her eye and began to shoot.
Later that day, entomologist David James of the WSU Extension’s Irrigation Agriculture Research Station in Prosser read Keatley Garvey’s email saying that A6093 had lingered in her yard all afternoon.
In October 2014, she had featured his research in a blog encouraging readers to be on the lookout for tagged monarchs.
The story explained that James was spearheading a study in which volunteers were tagging and releasing Northwest monarchs to track their mysterious migratory paths.
“I immediately recognized Kathy’s name and it took a few seconds for it to sink in,” he said. “It’s one of the biggest surprises of my research career.”
It flew almost 41 miles each day to get to Kathy’s house.
David James, WSU entomologist
Monarch A6093 was among 3,000 butterflies tagged and released by volunteers during August and September. It fluttered its way into the yard of a science writer and bug lover who graduated from WSU and who, decades later, wrote about his research.
A6093 had been released seven days earlier from Ashland, Ore., James said. The male monarch stopped by Keatley Garvey’s garden to consume enough calories to power the rest of its flight to the California coast to overwinter, he explained.
Weighing less than a dime, “it flew almost 41 miles each day to get to Kathy’s house,” he said.
Two decades ago, about 1 million western monarchs migrated to their California wintering grounds each year. That number has plunged by 70 percent to 90 percent, James said.
By tracking their movements, he hopes to better understand where and why their journey unexpectedly ends. This, in turn, could help revive one of nature’s greatest migrations.
Hopefully, Monarch A6093 made it another 100 miles or so to a roosting grove of eucalyptus trees along the Pacific coast. Come March, it will lift off northward. And maybe, just maybe, it will refuel in Keatley Garvey’s garden once again.