Monarch Butterfly Tagging, Cades Cove, September 2023
The eldest Ryerson offspring is a senior in high school this year. It is exactly what everyone says — bittersweet. We are so proud of the young man he is becoming and yet so afraid we haven’t taught him enough to make it on his own. We are big on family adventures and will put off unique things until all six of us can be present, which is not easy. Between everyone’s activities and homework, finding time to have our adventures takes more work. And with Jackson’s senior year in full swing, we are seeing a lot of the “lasts.” Last fall break, last spring break, etc. All the “lasts” seem to be approaching at warp speed, and we can do nothing to slow it down.
So, when we can do something unique to create those family memories, I will clear everyone’s calendar and make it happen. We had that opportunity last weekend through the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont’s Butterfly Education Program. Just over an hour from Downtown Knoxville is Cades Cove, where we got to catch, tag, and release beautiful Monarch butterflies as part of Monarch Watch, which tracks butterfly migration to Mexico and back. We were in the Hyatt area with open fields all around on a beautiful fall day, chasing butterflies. It was magical.
We met at the information pavilion near the entrance to Cades Cove with the rest of our group to get some safety guidelines. Then we caravanned over to the fields to get set up. Our guides, Amanda and Carrie, taught us about the Monarch’s migration patterns and behaviors and how we contributed to this large-scale scientific research project to understand them even more. Once we received some net-catching tips and tricks, we were released to chase butterflies.
The star of the day was the majestic Monarch. Three of the six of us (Ryersons) caught a Monarch, and we all got to tag one and release it. The tag is a small sticker placed on the underside of the wing right in the “mitten” design of the pattern. Once the butterfly is noted as male or female and the tag is attached, the insect is released back into the field to eventually and hopefully reach the mountains of central Mexico.
There is a specific way to hold the butterfly to protect its wings, and the sticker is so lightweight that it causes no stress to the insect. It is compared to an adult holding a 2lb weight. If the butterflies we tagged are identified along the migration path, they will be logged, and the organization will let us know where it was found. We all have our fingers crossed that one of our beauties will make it all the way!
The migration patterns of the Eastern Monarch are fascinating. Millions migrate to the same area in the Transvolcanic mountains of Central Mexico each year. This is, on average, a 3,000-mile journey. They are singular migrators, meaning they will not return to their origins. Little is known about how the butterflies intuit how to get to their overwintering site since they don’t learn it from their parents like other migrators. They are generally solitary insects but will roost at night in groups to stay warm on their journey and also as they overwinter in Mexico. Their overwintering site is a tourist attraction as the millions of butterflies cover the branches and tree trunks, creating a visual spectacle you will see nowhere else.
The Monarchs that breed in the spring and summer are the ones who migrate to Mexico. They usually arrive in early November. They will begin their journey back towards the US in March, breed along the way, and die off. The next generation will go north into the US and continue the cycle. The 4th generation of the Monarch will make its way to Mexico the following fall.
Listening to the group’s laughs and cries of “I got one!” was joyful. Cades Cove is always stunning, no matter the time of year you are there. Sunday was no exception. The cool morning breeze and the just-right amount of sunshine with a few wispy clouds in the clear blue sky are the things poets write about, and artists try to capture. We saw several Plein Air Smokies artists, a program through Friends of the Smokies, as we drove to the site.
Not every butterfly captured was a Monarch, but we did get to study each one and learn what they all were. The Pearl Crescent was a popular catch for us all. We also had luck with the Gulf Fritillary, Pipevine Swallowtail, Spicebush Swallowtail, and Clouded Sulphur. Each catch was documented and released. They report these to keep a record of the species commonly found in the area and how this changes over time. Our group also saw a coyote, and my son and I walked right up on a snake (a copperhead).
We made lasting memories this weekend and hope to do it again next year! If you are interested in the Butterfly Education Program and think this is something you’d enjoy, save the website and get on the email newsletter for next year’s dates for the Great Smoky Mountain Institute at Tremont. It fills up quickly, and this year is already full, ending on October 31, but there is a waitlist you can email if any dates this year come open. firstname.lastname@example.org.