Wesley Hutchins: Studying and advocating for migrating monarchs

Wesley Hutchins knows how to handle butterflies. The third-year University of Maine undergraduate studying wildlife ecology has spent the past two summers carefully gluing radio transmitters the size of a grain of rice to the abdomen of monarch butterflies, where it won’t get in the way of its wings or legs.

“It is very delicate,” Hutchins says. “I take a very, very small amount of super glue that you dip the tag in. I pinch the monarch in my fingers belly up, and I hold the tag there for about 30 seconds to be sure it’s attached. Sometimes the butterfly is really wiggly and you have to set it aside and do it in a few minutes. If the butterfly isn’t having it, it can’t be done.”

For the past two summers, Hutchins has tracked monarch butterflies to learn more about how they behave — more specifically, how long they stay where they emerge from their chrysalises before starting the multi-thousand migration south for the winter. His undergraduate research has allowed him to cultivate a passion for insects — and share that passion with the local community. 

Hutchins grew up in Swanville, where he was interested in wildlife from an early age. He says some of his earliest memories involve watching the family bird feeder or flipping over rocks looking for critters. He found insects particularly fascinating; he remembers a book of magnified insects that enthralled him because “they seemed so alien and cool.”

Hutchins had an early knack for research, too. In high school, he applied for and was awarded a grant from the Coleopterists Society to conduct a study on the beetles in his backyard.

“That was the earliest sort of serious research I conducted. I really enjoyed that. I thought it was really cool,” Hutchins says.

When he came to UMaine, Hutchins knew that he wanted to study wildlife ecology.

“There was never a second option in my mind. I wanted to study wildlife in itself and how they relate to each other and other aspects of the ecosystem. I just find all of that so fascinating,” Hutchins says.

Coming out of high school, Hutchins was named a Maine Top Scholar, which provided him with funding to conduct research during his undergraduate years. He scoured the university’s faculty pages until he came across Amber Roth, assistant professor of forest wildlife management, and he reached out to see if she could help him develop a project.

Roth works with data from the Motus Wildlife Tracking System, or Motus, for her research about birds. The collaborative research network uses radio receiving stations to track tagged animals as they travel along their migratory paths. 

Because Hutchins was interested in invertebrates, he and Roth began talking about using Motus to study monarch butterflies in Maine. Hutchins was interested in the behavior of monarchs that hatch in Maine before they begin their migration southward. With Roth, he devised a research project the summer after his freshman year to watch how long the tagged butterflies were picked up by area Motus stations before they started flying south. 

“That was a question that I don’t believe has really been addressed before in other scientific literature that I’ve been able to find,” Hutchins says. “I wanted to know how long does it take for them to fuel up before they move or are they mostly fueled up already from energy reserves. Last summer the average length of time they stuck around was about four days.”

This past summer, he was able to secure a grant to purchase more tags for the butterflies and expanded his research to look at the differences in how long it takes monarchs that are wild born versus those raised in captivity to start their migration. Hutchins captured monarch caterpillars from Fields Pond Audubon Center at his home in Swanville, feeding them milkweed from the roadside and waiting for them to form and emerge from their chrysalises before tagging them and bringing them back to where they were born.

Roth has been impressed with Hutchins commitment to the conservation of monarch butterflies — and the delicate methodology of his project.

“It’s not something everyone is comfortable with, handling a butterfly and gluing a tag on correctly and he was rearing all these caterpillars at his house,” Roth says. “He’s really gotten into caring for the caterpillars and the butterflies and figuring out how to make this project work.”

Hutchins’ passion for his subject extends beyond his research. This past year, he volunteered at the Fields Pond Audubon Center’s Butterfly Festival, even appearing on Fox 22 Bangor talking about the event and his research alongside David Lamon, manager of the center. He has also worked with Roth to talk about science with high school students as part of the Cobscook Institute’s high school program when they visited the Orono campus.

“I love it when undergraduates can fill those roles. For high school students, a college undergraduate is much closer in age to them so they can see that person as a role model,” Roth says. “It’s cooler if you have someone who’s 20 talking to you about how awesome science is. They can picture themselves in that role.”

As far as his research goes, though, Hutchins said that it’s a little too early to tell what he can learn from his past summer studying monarchs, but he hopes that what he is eventually able to reveal about the way these “charismatic,’ “fan favorite” insects behave in the Pine Tree State will be able to play a role in their protection.

“They were just recently listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The more that we can know about these animals, the better we can work towards conserving them. Milkweed is the only group of plants they’ll feed on, so just knowing their lifespan, knowing not to mow your lawn because it’s only been two days and the butterflies stick around for four, it can help protect them.”

Contact: Sam Schipani, samantha.schipani@maine.edu