Glen Arden's Monarch Butterflies

An Epic Journey
Posted on 11/13/2019
Student displays Butterfly DiagramPhotos/Article By: Benjamin Rickert, BCS Communications

Each year, hundreds of millions of monarch butterflies migrate between the Oyamel Fir Forest of central Mexico and locations in North America. It’s an almost unbelievable story involving several generations, thousands of miles travelled, a very specific food source, and Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos (“Day of the Dead”) celebration.

For the past three years, some of these butterflies began their epic journeys at Glen Arden Elementary School, where students raised them from eggs, studied their life cycles, and watched them fly away. The ongoing project led by second grade teacher Ms. Andrea Bassett gave students a hands-on biology experience they won’t forget. The second-graders also gained an appreciation for both the hardiness and fragility of these small creatures, whose numbers and habitats have been threatened in recent years.

Ms. Andrea Bassett inspects a chrysalis with her students.“We’re putting something real in front of our kids,” said Bassett, now in her thirteenth year of teaching. “We could talk to them about it and show them pictures, but actually getting to touch it gives them another way to access that information — and motivation to access that information. It opens a lot more doors of learning to them.”

From the moment a monarch egg was placed on a piece of milkweed, until it transformed into an orange, black, and white butterfly that flew away took about a month, Bassett explained. She supplied the eggs and milkweed for all second grade classrooms and the students kept journals on the insect’s progress. Each day, students were amazed by how much growth took place. They watched closely as their monarch’s life cycle unfolded, progressing through the egg, larvae (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis), and adult stages.

“The egg hatched in just a few days,” recalled second-grader Trey. “Once it ate more, it grew, and you could see it. Then, a few weeks after that, it turned into a chrysalis by making an L-shape and it started spinning around!”

“Our caterpillar started out white,” added classmate Olivia, who affectionately named her classroom’s monarch Cute-Cute. “Later, when it was ready to hatch, it looked black and you could see its eyes!”

Monarch Migration Map (Used by permission of The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.)Each year, students learn about the incredible multi-generation monarch migration across North America. The fall ‘super generation’ is born in the late summer or early fall and flies south up to 50 miles each day — riding air currents for up to 3,000 total miles — to spend the winter under the protection of the oyamel fir trees in the mountains near Mexico City. (Some monarchs also spend the winter in temperate parts of Southern California.) The clouds of returning monarchs coincide with Mexico’s 3,000-year-old Dia de los Meurtos tradition, during which the butterflies represent the souls of departed ancestors. This connection to Mexican culture and history provide additional teaching opportunities, and contribute toward Glen Arden’s Global Education goals.

Second grade teacher Ms. Kaylie Danner said her students were proud of their class butterfly and expressed concern about the challenges faced by monarchs in recent decades. As their class discussed how climate shifts, pesticide use, and farming practices have affected the availability of milkweed — the only food source for monarch caterpillars — students discussed planting milkweed on the school’s campus to help. Students also wanted to plant more flowers to provide nectar to the adult butterflies.

“They’ve been coming to their own conclusions,” Danner said.

“At this age, kids are so full of hope, and they want to save the world,” added Bassett. “We want to encourage them to do that.”

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Learn more about monarch butterflies and conservation efforts through journeynorth.org and xerces.org.