Monarch butterflies making annual journey through the Tennessee Valley
One of nature's most amazing wonders is traveling through our area right now - the annual fall migration of the monarch butterfly.
The migration covers thousands of miles from southern Canada to Mexico.
You can see monarch butterflies in the Tennessee Aquarium's Butterfly Garden, but you can also look right outside in your yard.
They started appearing locally in mid-September.
"They're still migrating, but it'll probably be just another couple of weeks that people will see them coming through this area. As soon as it gets cold, they'll pretty much be to the south of us," Bill Haley, Education Outreach Coordinator at the TN Aquarium explained.
Monarchs are genetically wired to take the epic migration every year.
"They start flying south. Now they've never been to Mexico before, but they're heading all the way to Central Mexico. They'll end up out in the middle of Mexico, two miles up, on a mountain," Haley said of the journey.
They find a certain grove of oyamel fir trees there, where millions of butterflies stay draped over the winter.
As it warms in the spring, they'll start mating and successive generations will work their way back north, arriving back in Tennessee around April.
"If people want to encourage monarchs in their gardens, one of the best things they can do this time of the year is to plant lots of plants for nectar," encouraged Haley.
Monarchs need this nectar as fuel for their long journey. They also need a habitat locally, especially earlier in the year.
"Monarchs have declined over the years, so one of the things that we've been telling people to do, butterfly people have been telling people to do, is to plant milkweed in your yards specifically for monarchs," Jennifer Taylor, TN Aquarium Entomologist, said.
Monarchs lay eggs on milkweed and the caterpillars eat it, so you might see the butterfly’s whole life stage in your yard.
At the aquarium, their monarch butterflies are from butterfly farmers in Costa Rica. They do not naturally go on the long migration like their North American counterparts.
Whether at the aquarium or outside, don't touch a butterfly's wings when interacting with them.
"If you have a butterfly sitting on your hand or it lands on you that's perfectly fine. We don't want to disturb it, but their wings are so fragile. They can get damaged so easily," instructed Taylor.
If you love butterflies, the Tennessee Valley chapter of the North American Butterfly Association does butterfly counts in Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, and Kentucky that you can participate in.
Haley is the president of the local chapter. You can find more information on their website.