Braving the hot sun and blackberry briars, a group of amateur naturalists crouched in a thicket of milkweed, scanning the leaves for tiny caterpillars.
The “citizen scientists” gathered Friday at the Prairie Ridge Ecostation in West Raleigh were learning to take their interest in insects and butterflies to the next level: a nationwide monarch larva tracking project to gather data for scientists.
Since it started in Minnesota two decades ago, the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project has given insect enthusiasts a chance to get involved in important research in their own backyards.
“My goal is to help people learn that they can become a part of science,” said Chris Goforth of the N.C. Museum of Natural Science, who led Friday’s class.
While monarch butterflies are found all over the U.S., Goforth says it’s particularly important to research them in North Carolina, where the warm climate allows for two breeding seasons a year.
Volunteers at the museum’s 45-acre ecostation collect larva numbers every week at the site, which preserves a swath of open land for wildlife and outdoor education on Raleigh’s western edge.
Many of those who attended the class Friday plan to monitor caterpillars at their homes.
Bob Winstead said he has filled his garden with plants that attract butterflies, and he keeps a close eye on his winged visitors. “We’ve actually tagged monarchs in the yard before,” Winstead said. “It’s fun.”
Before hitting the fields, Winstead and other participants examined caterpillars through magnifying glasses, learning to recognize each stage of the growth cycle. “You have to pay subtle attention to the features to understand the growth stages,” he said.
Once in the milkwood patch, observers pick a line of plants at random and begin the slow, methodical process of counting.
“You have to look at every leaf on every milkwood plant that’s within arm’s length,” instructor Kim Smart said.
Volunteers then enter the data into the national project’s website, and scientists have been able to generate statistics that show how monarchs reproduce.
“It’s really pretty simple, but it produces great results when you have 700 monitoring sites,” Goforth said.