Just as summer has taken flight, so have the orange and black butterflies that a group of Fredonia High School students is studying.
Students of science teacher Karyl McLean are taking part in a national study of the migration patterns of the Monarch butterfly.
For three years, the school has been participating in Monarch Watch, a program run by Chip Taylor of the Department of Entomology at the University of Kansas. The program is not only educational; it seeks to preserve areas frequented by the Monarch.
Starting in late August, the Monarchs begin migrating from eastern North America and Canada to central Mexico. Most of the butterflies have left this area by the second week in October.
"They only roost in three forest areas of Mexico," Mrs. McLean said. "If the forests are not protected, this species could be annihilated."
Under the program, students capture the butterflies with nets and record their gender and other information. Then, a small sticker is placed under the wing of the butterfly, and it is set free to continue its journey.
Farther south, other Monarch Watch participants capture the butterflies and record information about them. All of the data is sent to the University of Kansas.
In 1996, Monarch Watch reported that nearly 50,000 butterflies were tagged, and 177 were recovered at some point.
A butterfly tagged by Mrs. McLean's students last Oct. 1 was found about 676 miles away in Folly Beach, S.C., on Oct. 20. The farthest recorded distance was approximately 1,760 miles.
The 35 Fredonia students in this year's program have tagged nearly 400 Monarchs. On Saturday, several of Mrs. McLean's students were catching more butterflies in a field of golden rod on Whitaker Road.
"I do a lot more extra work for this class," said Matt Berkshire, a senior. "It's fun. It's not like I'm just sitting around learning something out of a book. I probably spend about two or three hours a week working out in the fields."
Travis Spier, a senior, also enjoys the work. "I like being outdoors and learning about the Monarchs," he said.
Emma Jugovich, a senior, said she is impressed with the Monarch's ability to travel great distances.
"I did not know they migrated at all," she said. "I always thought they were just pretty little butterflies."
Also on Saturday, Mrs. McLean's students repaired a couple of damaged butterfly wings with stickers. One of the students brought Mrs. McLean a newly hatched Monarch that was unable to "hang" and correctly unfurl its wings. Mrs. McLean said the wings will have to be delicately straightened or the butterfly will die.
According to Monarch Watch, very few of the butterflies will return to their point of origin. Monarchs have a maximum life span of up to a year, but many will live only several weeks.
After roosting in Mexico for about five months, the Monarchs will begin mating and laying eggs during their migration back north in the spring.
How the butterflies know where to migrate, without any prior experience, remains a mystery. It is believed that the amount of daylight and temperature changes signal the butterflies to migrate.
Watching the students wander through the field with their butterfly nets, Mrs. McLean said, "this is the epitome of teaching. They are just so eager to learn."