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Queen of the monarchs

By Rachael Jaeger

Teresa Jaskiewicz of Fergus Falls has a passion for butterfly advocacy. That passion started 39 years ago with a card in the mail from the University of Kansas. At the time, she attended Northern Michigan University. The card asked for volunteers for their monarch tagging program, launched two years earlier.

“Oh, that would be interesting!” Jaskiewicz said, recalling her reaction to the invitation.

She signed up and has been working with butterflies ever since.

A couple Breckenridge teachers enjoy time learning about monarchs from Regional Director Tom Melius and Environmental Education Specialist Teresa Jaskiewicz near the Prairie Wetlands Learning Center. Photo provided by USFWS

Jaskiewicz is now the Environmental Education Specialist for Prairie Wetlands in Fergus Falls, and she educates the public about her accumulation of knowledge and experiences about monarchs.

Catching monarchs wasn’t as easy as one might think. For one, Jaskiewicz and an intern were the only two people catching them, and they were covered 330 acres. For another, they had only a few hours to accomplish this task.

Once a monarch tagger spots a monarch feeding on a flower, they should creep up slowly and keep close to the same level as the monarch so that they don’t startle it,” said Jaskiewicz. The monarch tagger steadily moves the handle outwards with one hand. Then the monarch tagger uses their other hand to guide the net over the monarch and the flower. Because the monarch senses movement, it flies up into the net, and the monarch tagger can hold the bottom side of the net so that the monarch doesn’t escape but still has some freedom to fly around.

“But if you swipe at the monarch fast from one way, you scare it,” Jaskiewicz said. “You always want to be sure that the net falls over the top of the butterfly. You have to be stealthy and sneaky.”

During that time, Jaskiewicz and the other intern ended up marking only eight monarchs. “Catching butterflies was harder than what we thought,” she admitted. She and the other intern had also discovered one monarch from New Mexico that someone else had previously tagged.

Teresa Jaskiewicz shares a photo of her home prairie garden in Fergus Falls. It reflects her passion and love for the environment, as well as encouraging monarch butterflies to pollinate so other life forms can thrive. Contributed photo

Jaskiewicz is also humble enough to admit that when she started catching monarchs, she learned through her own experiences. But she also learned by observing her professor, Karen Oberhauser, who taught at the University of Minnesota after Jaskiewicz had transferred from Northern Michigan University. Initially, Jaskiewicz had met Oberhauser at a conference where Oberhauser had shared about her children’s curriculum in the classroom about monarch butterflies. Later, after Jaskiewicz graduated in 1982, she personally studied under Oberhauser for the Monarch Larva Monitoring Program.

“She became my expert in the field,” Jaskiewicz said of Oberhauser, “who I could call with all my questions. I’d have silly things like, ‘What is the coldest temperature that caterpillars can survive? It got down to 22 last night.’” Jaskiewicz said Oberhauser had laughed and said that temperature sounded alright if the caterpillars were still alive.

Now that Jaskiewicz is an educator, she is able to apply her own knowledge to the students. Every year, the classroom teachers educate the fourth and fifth graders about monarchs’ biology and life cycles. Then they are brought to Jaskiewicz, who engages them in further study. Before the kids tag monarchs, Jaskiewicz shows them how to properly fill out the paperwork and then tag them. This process involves determining the monarch’s sex. She expressed that she wished she had a learning environment like those students when she was growing up.

One of the tagged monarchs at the Prairie Wetlands in Fergus Falls. Contributed photo

When catching monarchs, most people usually swing their nets wildly to catch the monarchs, she said. But that isn’t good for them. Often people also use the wrong nets, nets that are too short. Both the nets and the handles on them should be long enough so that the net can trap the monarch. The nets also must be silky and soft so that they don’t damage the wings.

Even after a person acquires a butterfly, the person must tag the monarch, and to do that, they hold the monarch’s head between two fingers and create enough pressure so the butterfly cannot escape, but it will not be hurt. Then, with the other hand, the person must locate the discal cell, which is shaped like a mitten and is in the middle of the monarch. That is where the tag goes. When a person places a tag on the monarch, they must minimize contact with the sticker. Then, after the person gently squeezes the monarch from both sides, they release the monarch into the wild again.

Since Jaskiewicz received that card, she has stayed involved with tagging monarchs. She believes that part of advocating for monarchs lies in spreading what she knows about them. She gave a personal example of a time that showed how far she would go because of her passion for monarchs. After she helped her local community plant a small habitat behind the Mills Street Senior Living, she noticed what looked like what was supposed to be a butterfly garden with a walkway.

While the garden vibrated with beauty, it was dominated with ornamental plants, known to be grown for landscape purposes.

Teresa Jaskiewicz mentors a volunteer about the proper and safe way to remove a monarch from a net after a monarch has been caught for tagging. Contributed photo

Jaskiewicz was concerned. “I walked through that garden and I didn’t see any milkweed, I didn’t see any monarchs, and I hardly saw any bees.”

After these observations, she contacted the Director of the Mills Street Senior Living and they went for a stroll in his butterfly garden.

“’What do you not notice?’” she asked the director. When he didn’t see past the garden’s mesmerizing appearance, she pointed out the absence of insects. He then understood he needed to grow native plants and milkweed so he would attract monarchs. He asked for Jaskiewicz’s help to enhance the garden and she happily obliged. She and the local community, which included her Prairie Science fourth graders, added native plants to the garden. Last year, while the students couldn’t meet in the classroom, they visited the butterfly garden to see how it was coming along.

“They found caterpillars and milkweed and monarchs!” Jaskiewicz exclaimed, mirroring the unquestionable excitement from students at that time. “’Guys, this is a butterfly garden!’” She had told them. “Milkweed is getting munched on by the caterpillars and monarchs!”

Since Jaskiewicz works for the government, she has initiated monarch tagging programs in other states including the Loess Bluffs National Wildlife refuges in Missouri. She has also trained visitors and volunteers in her area. Some of her volunteers have gone off to college and developed careers such as biologists or researchers. She consistently trains a few interns who she knows also educate their siblings and friends about monarchs.

“People come and go,” she said. “And they spread the word.”

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