Spring 2024 Issue

Nurturing Nature's Royalty

Kristen Baum ’94 is the new director of Monarch Watch and a leader in monarch conservation

By Gabriela Trauttmansdorff ’26

The monarch butterfly is instantly recognizable, with its bright orange and black wings. These insects are as impressive as they are beautiful, with the ability to fly at a speed of over 30 miles per hour and cover a span of 3,000 miles during their annual migrations from the northern United States and southern Canada to Central Mexico. In fact, monarchs are the only butterflies that can make such a long two-way trip every year.

In many Indigenous cultures, monarchs serve as symbols of rebirth and ancestral heritage. Since the monarch migration to the south coincides with the Mexican Day of the Dead, the arrival of these creatures serves as a celebration of lost loved ones and the long-awaited return of their souls to their homeland.

Kristen Baum ’94 knows just how special the monarch butterfly is, having dedicated her career to researching the insect and its migration patterns, and supporting pollinator conservation efforts. In November 2023, Baum was hired as the new director of Monarch Watch, an international program based at the University of Kansas (KU) that focuses on the conservation and study of monarch butterflies. The program started with a small monarch tagging project in 1992 and expanded from concentrating on research and outreach into international conservation efforts.

Now, Baum is at the head of the program, guiding it toward continued innovation in the face of newly appearing challenges.

A former resident of Waynesboro, Virginia, she grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains near the Appalachian Trail. Her childhood cultivated Baum’s love of nature, and William & Mary appealed to her as an academically rigorous institution situated in a region rich with stunning foliage and full of natural life.

After an orientation assistant who helped her move into her dorm told her that she could use her leg strength from her years of cross country and track in high school to become a proficient rower, Baum joined W&M’s rowing team. She remained on the team for all four years at W&M, and now credits her involvement as an integral part of her experience at the university. The early morning practices, physical toll and intense competitions all helped her create deep bonds with her teammates that Baum says taught her valuable life skills.

“When you’re rowing or sitting in a boat with eight other people, you’ve really got to count on everybody else to do their part. You can’t row that eight-person boat by yourself, and you also have to do your part to help the rest of the team. So, there’s a lot of team building and perseverance,” says Baum.

Baum earned her degree in environmental science and took courses in other fields relevant to her career now, such as economics, sociology and government.

“That multidisciplinary perspective has been very beneficial to me,” Baum says.

After receiving her degree from W&M, Baum took a field tech position at the Conservation and Research Center (now known as the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute) in Front Royal, Virginia, working on a project to study small mammal responses to habitat fragmentation. Then, she moved by the Savannah River Site in South Carolina to work on a large-scale corridor project with butterflies and lizards.

“The habitat, landscape-level conservation perspective stuck with me, and then the butterflies and other pollinators stuck as well,” Baum says.

monarch butterfly sitting on flower

She continued her studies by acquiring both a M.S. in wildlife and fisheries sciences and a Ph.D. in entomology from Texas A&M University. For her master’s degree, Baum worked on hummingbird foraging behavior. For her doctorate, she studied Africanized honeybees in south Texas.

After earning her degrees, Baum took a postdoctoral position for two years at Louisiana State University that also focused on habitat fragmentation, then settled into a faculty position as a professor in the Department of Integrative Biology at Oklahoma State University (OSU), where she taught and conducted research for a little over 18 years. During her last five years at OSU, Baum also served as the associate dean for research for the College of Arts and Sciences. Her research at OSU concentrated on the effects of land use and management practices on pollinators.

When she arrived at OSU, one of the first projects she worked on was investigating pollinator responses to patch burning in rangeland sites, which involves the purposeful burning of a specific section of pasture every spring and every summer to alter patterns within the plant community.

“Patch burning has lots of impacts on pollinators, in terms of floral diversity and resource availability,” Baum says. “And when you burn in the summer, one of the first plants that regrows and actually blooms is milkweed.”

Milkweed is a central part of the monarch’s life cycle, as the host plant for the butterfly to feed on to grow from a larva into a butterfly. Without milkweed, monarchs would not be able to survive as a species. Because of its importance to monarchs, studying the distribution, abundance and phenology of milkweed can reveal a lot about the monarch population.

“One interesting system that I studied in Oklahoma was late-summer monarchs that would lay eggs on the milkweed that had reemerged in recently burned sites and then emerge as adults in time to join the fall migration. That system was one of the things that really got me focused, research wise, on monarchs,” Baum says.

When Monarch Watch’s founding director, Orley “Chip” Taylor, stepped down last year, the recruitment team at KU began searching for a replacement who could also join the research and teaching faculty. Soon, they discovered that Baum was perfect for the role, additionally hiring her as a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and a senior scientist with the Kansas Biological Survey.

As she assumed this new responsibility, Baum focused on learning more about Monarch Watch’s education, conservation and research programs to identify areas on which to focus as the program develops.

She explains that research is one of the foundational elements of Monarch Watch, providing scientific information about the monarch’s migration. Monarch Watch started out as a tagging program in 1992, with volunteers catching and placing tags on the monarchs in order to track their migration patterns.

“Our tagging program is focused on the fall migration,” Baum explains. “People order tags throughout the year, we'll send out the tags when it's getting close to the start of the fall migration, based on where people are located. We have people tagging from southern Canada all the way through to southern Texas.”

The Monarch Watch website provides instructions and guidance for those interested in tagging.

“On the overwintering sites in Mexico, local people collect tags that they're able to find, and then Monarch Watch will buy those, so that we've got records of the ones that made it to the overwintering sites,” Baum says. “Sometimes you might get tags from a few years ago, and occasionally people send us pictures of a tagged monarch in a cluster of monarchs on a tree. We can then use the tag recoveries to identify the path of individual monarchs, estimate recovery rates of monarchs tagged in different regions, and ask other interesting research questions.”

The tagging process goes hand in hand with another of Monarch Watch’s goals, which is to encourage more community engagement with the sciences. Baum says the general public’s involvement with monarch tagging is an instrumental component of the work that the organization does.

Additionally, in 2005, Taylor started the Monarch Waystation program to address the need for monarch habitat. In an effort to create more high quality habitats for monarchs, Taylor encouraged people to grow nectar and milkweed plants in anything from a garden to a larger scale natural area in the hopes that these sites would provide more resources for monarchs to survive.

Baum created a monarch waystation at her home, and says, “Anything from a container garden to a small flower bed to a larger prairie will help monarchs and other wildlife. There are so many different levels depending on your time, and your situation and what works best for you. There are opportunities for everyone to be able to contribute in some way.”

More than 46,000 Monarch Waystations have been registered so far. Baum explains that education is a key piece of Monarch Watch’s mission, which connects with the organization’s conservation goals.

“We have a program that offers free milkweed for schools and educational nonprofits which includes lots of connections with teachers and schools. We also have a free milkweed program for large-scale restoration projects,” she says.

Through efforts to increase education and habitat monarchs, Baum hopes to gather more support for pollinator conservation efforts as well.

“Pollinators are very important for many crops as well as natural plant communities. We depend on pollinators for our food, as well as habitats and food such as seeds and fruits for wildlife,” she says.

THE VERY HUNGRY CATERPILLAR: Each monarch is a larva (caterpillar) for 10-14 days before creating a chrysalis. It remains in the chrysalis for another 10-14 days before emerging as a butterfly.

In Baum’s opinion, climate change and habitat loss are among the primary challenges facing monarchs today. She says that drought conditions throughout the fall migration route including Oklahoma, Texas and Mexico contributed to the decline this year, which was the second lowest population size on record. Baum believes that providing more habitats, with abundant nectar plants and milkweed, that are resilient to climate extremes would help tackle this obstacle and prevent the further endangerment of monarchs.

However, according to Baum, there is still much reason for hope.

“Ten years ago, the lowest population size was recorded,” she says. Since then, “there have been so many different new groups, networks and organizations that have formed to support monarchs — it’s impressive, the amount of interest and concern. It’s well beyond anything I would have expected back in 2014.”

Given the progress that has been made in the last decade, Baum has confidence that Monarch Watch will continue to make a positive difference in the conservation of the monarch butterfly and other wildlife.

As the organization develops, Baum says, “There’s a lot of value in what Monarch Watch does and there's the opportunity to continue to build on those successes.”

She hopes to expand Monarch Watch’s research and education efforts to both spread awareness about the monarch migration and promote the creation of more habitat.

“It's a great foundation to be able to continue to expand on. And so, I'm really excited about all the opportunities.”

Read about the discoveries of William & Mary professors studying monarch butterflies in this article from W&M News.