Every year, millions of Monarch Butterflies undertake an arduous journey of about 3,000 miles. Unable to survive the cold winters, these butterflies head south to Mexico, but traveling that distance is no small feat, especially with wings that are gossamer-thin.
As anyone who’s undertaken a road trip would understand, Monarchs have to make several stops along the way, one of which includes the Southeast.
“Monarchs should be in the area right now,” says Tennessee Aquarium Entomologist II Rose Segbers. “The butterflies travelling south likely started trickling in about a week or two ago, and larger groups will start coming through the area this week through early October.”
Given the recent weather patterns, though, it is possible that the swarms were delayed or blown off course by the most recent storms. However, Segbers says any such delays are likely to be short.
“They’re rarely stalled for more than a few days, and they can travel up to 100 miles per day,” she says.
But why would swarms of butterflies be attracted to Chattanooga in the first place?
The answer — quite simply — is food.
Plants native to the Southeast produce nectar that Monarchs love. So where would you be likely to see Monarchs in Chattanooga?
“Monarchs like to roost in the evening on evergreen trees like pine and cedar,” she says. “They’ll roost in other places, but they prefer trees where they can hide easily.”
They’re not just pausing to snack, though. The Chattanooga area serves an important role in the Monarchs’ life cycle.
Fig. 1 Aquarium Entomologist II Rose Segbers
“The Monarchs coming through the area right now aren’t going to be laying their eggs until next spring,” Segbers adds. “But when they come back through next year, they’re going to need plenty of host plants like butterfly weed and other species of milkweed.”
Speaking of the next generation of Monarchs, she adds, it’s important to note that there are fewer Monarchs today. That decline is due to habitat loss in their overwintering ranges.
Whether seen singly on a plant or filling the air in an orange-and-black cloud, Monarch Butterflies are a spectacular sight to behold. Chattanooga is lucky to host one of nature’s greatest, most spectacular migrations.
Fortunately, ensuring Monarchs thrive in this area and are properly supplied for their incredible journey is something all Southeasterners can take part in, Segbers says.
“Migration takes a ton of energy out of these butterflies,” she explains. “The best thing you can do for them is make sure they have access to lots of nectar plants to snack on along the way.
“Also, being sure to plant lots of pesticide-free milkweed in the spring will make sure these guys have the healthiest start to their lives and will positively impact the whole four-generation-long migration cycle.”