In 1975, a 14-year-old kid named James Street placed a sticky tag on the wing of a monarch butterfly.
It was one of hundreds he attached over the course of many Saturday afternoons at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, part of a program at North Junior High in Hopkins to teach kids about the environment.
Across the country, thousands of people were attaching thousands of tags to thousands of other monarchs. They were among the “citizen scientists” inspired by Fred Urquhart, a zoologist in Toronto who was trying to solve the mystery of where all the monarchs flew to each winter.
As a child, Urquhart had wondered where butterflies fly. As an adult, he sought to answer that question. But an initial dilemma loomed: how to get a sticker to stick to a butterfly wing.
Urquhart’s determination and imagination are showcased in “Flight of the Butterflies,” a new Omnitheater film that debuts Friday at the Science Museum of Minnesota.
The movie also is a primer on monarchs: how they go from egg to butterfly in four weeks, how they lay eggs only on milkweed plants, how less than 1 percent of eggs and caterpillars become butterflies. Most important, how it takes three generations of butterflies fluttering north each spring to create the long-lived “super generation” that swoops and sips among the coneflowers and phlox all summer in Minnesota and regions to the northeast.
The super generation is the one that migrates south each fall. But how far south? That was the mystery.
After much trial and error, Urquhart found the right adhesive in the glue used on grocery store tags. He began tagging monarchs, enlisting others’ help, then began receiving reports from people who’d found the tagged insects. All flight paths led to Texas, yet no one ever reported seeing the expected colonies of butterflies wintering there.
He delved further south, finding allies in two naturalists who lived in Mexico. Kenneth Brugger and Catalina Aguado traveled the country, showing photos of monarchs to villagers. Everyone pleaded ignorance — a curious circumstance that the movie suggests may be related to monarchs being considered the souls of children returning for Day of the Dead celebrations.
Finally, though, Brugger and Aguado climbed the right mountain and discovered tens of thousands of monarchs near Michoacán. Still, without a tagged butterfly, the migration theory, however obvious, remained unproven.
When Urquhart, by that time in poor health, finally was able to visit the colony, he was overcome by the sight. In the movie, he gingerly settles on a log as he gazes around him, up, down — and down again, transfixed by the sight of one butterfly, dead on the ground at his feet, with a small tag on its wing.
The tag read PS 397. The theory was proved. Just one detail remained: finding where PS 397 had been tagged.
He traced it back to Hopkins.
‘I was freaking out’
The call came in to Jim Gilbert (who has long written a nature column for the Star Tribune). He’d been using the PS prefix that summer on his tags. He then called Street with the news that a butterfly he’d tagged may have changed the course of science.
Street, now a family court referee for Ramsey County, remembers the call.
“I was a junior high student, you know, and I was freaking out,” he said. “All I can remember thinking is, ‘Omigod, please let me find the records.’ ”
He did, confirming the 2,000-mile flight of this particular butterfly. Decades later, Street remains boggled that he played a role in unraveling the mystery.
“When you think of all the things that had to come together,” he said, “it’s been the gift that keeps on giving to me, personally.”
Street has fielded calls over the years from the TV show “Nova,” the Smithsonian Institution and publishers of children’s nature books.
“It’s an easy story to tell and a great way to talk about nature,” he said. “And the metaphor of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly is pretty powerful.”
Street still brings caterpillars into his house in St. Paul, protecting them on their path to chrysalis and butterfly, just as he did when the couple’s two kids were little. Last year was the first year he didn’t find any caterpillars, which alarmed him. The movie also addresses concerns about agricultural practices that have reduced numbers of the crucial milkweed plant.
“But we saw some this year, so maybe the attention being paid to the state of the monarchs is having some effect,” he said.
Watch them fly
Street credits Gilbert, of Waconia, as being “the consummate teacher,” making sure that news stories at the time focused on the students. Gilbert declined to attend the recent debut of the movie in Washington, D.C., because he had a class to teach that night, Street said.
Wearing the monarch-emblazoned tie he’d gotten at the Smithsonian gift shop, Street said the experience has grown only more meaningful.
“When it happened back then, I don’t think I had enough experience in life to really appreciate how amazing this was.”
Street has not yet visited the colonies in Mexico, but intends to. The sites are protected as ecological preserves by the Mexican government and known as the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve.
Where are the monarchs now on their flight south? Monarch Watch (www.monarchwatch.org) is the chief source of information, where you can access Journey North’s map of the butterflies’ progress as observers report overnight roosts. Visit bit.ly/ZYIqk9 to see where they are.
The butterflies still have a long way to go. But they’ve always known where they’re going.
Through a Minnesota connection, now we do, too.