Tagging butterflies is O’Brien’s hobby

“I learn a little bit more about them every year,” Diane O’Brien said about the Monarch butterflies she tags outside of her residence at Park Place of West Knoxville.

“I learned some new things this year, too,” she said.

O’Brien places tiny stickers on the wings of the monarchs that leave their chrysalis (cocoon) at her home, so when they head for Mexico, where they winter, researchers in Mexico can identify from where they came.

“They live for about three or four months before they return to Mexico,” she said. “They look for the tags in Mexico … they record it … and then they get put into a computer system.”

O’Brien started tagging the butterflies this year, but her interest in butterflies began when she was a child.

“I saw my first Monarch chrysalis, when I was 10, hanging underneath a leaf,” she recalled. “I thought it was the most beautiful, oddest thing I had ever seen, and I couldn’t imagine something in nature could have gold on it.”

O’Brien’s next encounter with the winged creatures was in the 1970s, when her husband, Jim, was stationed in Omaha, Nebraska, and she planted zinnias.

“Little did I know that monarch butterflies love zinnias,” she said. “Our daughter was 4 years old at the time, and all the kids would come (to see the butterflies). There were hundreds of Monarch butterflies on (the zinnias) every day.

“I wondered where these guys are going because they are coming back every day” O’Brien added. “I discovered they were going to a tree next door and hanging onto the leaves.

“I didn’t realize when they would (leave, they would) go to Mexico until years later,” when she read a National Geographic article.

In 2017, O’Brien recalled reading a newspaper article about growing milkweed, which Monarchs eat, and decided to grow the plant at her Lenoir City home. Since milkweed is an invasive plant, it had to grow in tubs.

“The very first caterpillar (on the milkweed) I saw was caught in a spider web,” O’Brien recalled.

She realized to protect them, she had to capture the butterflies, place them in a bucket with a screen fabric over the top and feed the creatures milkweed leaves.

“They went up top and formed their chrysalis,” O’Brien said. “We got to watch them.

“I saw one of them form into a chrysalis, and the very last one I saw it turn into a butterfly. That was exciting.”

When the O’Briens later moved to Park Place, she continued to raise Monarch butterflies. O’Brien planted milkweed in half tubs under her bedroom window, and the caterpillars were placed in a screened enclosure on a table in the activity room, where everyone could watch their transformation.

This year, O’Brien decided to tag the butterflies and the activity director ordered the tags. “You have the numbers, the months they emerged, whether they are male or female, and where (her location),” she said. “We named a lot of them for some of the people who died from COVID and others who passed away.

To learn more about tagging, visit monarchwatch.org