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Where have all the Monarch butterflies gone?

Article by Nancy Ward

Wildlife – February 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

WHERE HAVE ALL THE BUTTERFLIES GONE — the Monarchs of Central Colorado? That’s what first-, second-, third-, and fifth-grade students at Mountain Valley School in Saguache are hoping to find out. They’re involved in serious scientific research, a portion of which is in conjunction with the Monarch Watch program offered through the entomology department at Kansas University.

For the 22 years R.G. Marold has taught elementary classes in Saguache, his students have studied Monarchs and other live creatures. “The kids power this project with their excitement,” says Marold. Five years ago his students began making butterfly cages from netting and cardboard, instead of using jars with holes in the lids.

Three years ago, first-grade teacher Jeri Trujillo signed the school up for the Monarch Watch butterfly-tagging program, and four of the grades at Mountain Valley began a cooperative butterfly study that ties their work to university research. Trujillo’s class has charge of tags and record keeping, while the second, third and fifth grades maintain butterfly cages.

Mountain Valley students raise butterflies from eggs or caterpillars they find in nearby fields. Beginning as soon as school starts in the fall, the project follows the 30-day butterfly development cycle.

“Observation Post #1” is the outdoors. On field trips youngsters examine Monarch habitat and food sources for butterflies and their caterpillars. They watch eggs, which Monarchs lay on the back of milkweed leaves. In about five days the eggs hatch into caterpillars, yellow with black and white rings. Caterpillars are captured by plucking a portion of the milkweed plant, the caterpillar’s only food source, and carrying the milkweed to school with the caterpillar riding along.

Placed in the three-foot-high handmade cages that hang from the ceiling at kids’ eye level — called “Observation Post #2” — the caterpillars continue to munch the milkweed and grow. They shed their skin (molt) four or five times in the next 12 to 14 days. Then the caterpillar spins silk used to attach its posterior, in a “J” shape, to a leaf or twig or the top of the cage.

Some cage escapees have attached to the U.S. flag, a bulletin board, underneath desktops. Students are careful never to touch the cage, as jostling at any time during the month could prevent further development of the delicate insects.

The “J” hangs two to six hours, then pops its skin one last time — metamorphosis. Underneath that last caterpillar skin is a hard skin — a chrysalis, which changes many times during the next couple of weeks.

At first the chrysalis resembles a miniature bright green chili pepper while the caterpillar body inside turns to a soft liquid. Then wings, legs and the body of a butterfly begin to form as the chrysalis turns to transparent black, and wing markings become visible.

Next the chrysalis becomes opaque and its temperature warms through its last four stages, taking about four hours, so the butterfly can break out of the enclosure.

After the last change of the chrysalis, it takes one minute or less for the orange and black butterfly to emerge, crumpled and wet, on Day 30 after the egg was laid.

Student-parents are very observant. When they realize emergence is imminent, they gather around the cage, all attention drawn from any spelling or geography they may have been studying. Usually someone yells the news out the classroom door, and other students and teachers come running, even from the high school.

A newly emerged butterfly hangs four to six hours, drying and strengthening its wings. Occasionally it’s fed with special sugar water butterfly nectar or flowers, but usually the butterfly is tagged as soon as it dries and is released quickly to find its own food.

The butterfly nursery at Mountain Valley School is a busy place, requiring teacher attention even on weekends. One three-day weekend produced 27 butterflies to be tagged and released.

FOR MONARCH WATCH, Saguache classes tag, record pertinent information, and release butterflies back to the wild. Monarch Watch is one of several cooperative networks of students, teachers, and researchers dedicated to the study of the Monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus. Goals are to further science education, promote conservation of Monarchs, and to study Monarch fall migration.

Monarch Watch tracks the orange and black beauties from Canada and Montana through Texas and Louisiana, checking where they winter and how they get there via paths affected by winds, storms, mountains, and availability of nectar. It also investigates environmental conditions and population at roost sites. Development now endangers roost habitat.

Apparently Monarchs west of the Continental Divide winter in southern California and those east of the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range roost in central Mexico, north of Mexico City and Durango.

The question: Where do “our” butterflies go for the winter?

Though butterflies tagged at Mountain Valley or elsewhere in the central Rockies have not yet been reported in either location, it has not dampened the enthusiasm of the young Saguache scientists. They know that sooner or later, Mountain Valley Monarchs will be identified at one or both of the wintering locations.

“It’s exciting for our students to be part of a university study. Last year we were the only school in the state to participate,” Trujillo reports.”Our Butterfly Study is interactive and results in life-long learners,” explains fifth-grade teacher Amy Coleman. “It brings the outdoors inside.” It gives students the hands-on opportunity to learn every aspect of the Monarch’s life cycle, she says.

Rewards are many for teachers and students including “when their eyes light up because they get to touch a butterfly or release one,” says third grade teacher Roxanne Gilbertson. “Life is generated out of these classrooms.”

“If I do it, I understand it.” That’s the premise of all science studies offered by Marold, Trujillo, Coleman, and Gilbertson.

Students provide information for records — date and time of release, temperature, and sex of the butterfly. Males are identified by a black scent gland (perfume pocket) on the discal cells of hind-wings.

A small polypropylene, all-weather, press-on, light- weight tag furnished by Monarch Watch is attached to the upper side of the lower wing, generally the right wing. Two adults tag, one to hold and one to tag, to reduce handling time, stress and possible injury to the butterfly, “a very gentle, docile insect,” as Gilbertson describes it.

Tagging-releasing also draws an audience. A student makes the release. Holding the Monarch gingerly in cupped hands, the student leads a parade from classroom to playground. As the Monarch flies away, circles to get its bearings, and heads for the willow patch and blossoming thistles south of the school, these five- to ten-year-olds feel parental pride. They cheer as though their progeny just made the winning touchdown.

Occasionally a butterfly escapes from the classroom without a tag — always heading for the light of the open and outside door, and then toward the willows and thistle nectar.

AT SEASON’S END Trujillo files her report with the university, which inputs data from all program participants and shares a summary report the following August.

Besides having fun, what do students learn in Butterfly Studies?

They learn to conduct and record scientific research. They learn new words — spelling and meaning — like pupa, chrysalis, molt, caterpillar, cocoon, hatch, emerge, cycle. “The kids get fairly technical. They soak up information and become very fluent and conversant in the subject,” says Marold. Their vocabulary includes Spanish words, because Mexico is a winter habitat for some Monarchs.

Students know “their offspring,” autumn butterflies, immediately head south for the winter, to a warmer place where they will enjoy pseudo-hibernation, “sleeping” during cold spells but awakening in warm periods to gather flower nectar. They know “their kids” will return to this same area next spring, to lay eggs and start another cycle, and that each butterfly will die after depositing its eggs. They’ve learned that butterflies which emerge in springtime do not hibernate. They flit, flutter, migrate. and drink flower nectar during the summer, lay eggs in the fall, and die. Alternating generations go south, hibernate, and return.

A classroom visitor should not confuse this information, nor the terms “hatch” and “emerge.” Students know the difference and are quick to correct. They also recognize different caterpillars, explaining that fuzzy black and orange caterpillars, which some observers confuse with Monarchs, spin cocoons and become Tiger Moths — a totally different process than the Monarch’s.

“Here in our back yard, our kids can experience the whole life cycle,” Gilbertson says. They learn that the Monarch butterfly is an insect, has four wings and two eyes. It has two antennae with which to feel, smell, hear, and find food. It has six legs; the top two are usually kept crossed under its body. The Monarch feeds by sucking liquid from flowers with its mouth/proboscis/tongue, a long tube that’s rolled up when not in use.

As in all of nature, some butterflies don’t make it through metamorphosis or perhaps through the chrysalis stage, even though students are fiercely protective. Occasionally a butterfly emerges with deformed wings, or just too weak to survive. In these classes, students feel and express joy, sadness, anger, grief, pride, and they learn to cope with their feelings, assisted by the teachers.

All grades have looked through microscopes, “Observation Post #3,” and discovered veins in wings, realized the proboscis is actually a split-tongue, and “butterfly dust” is tiny scales on wings.

“Little kids are natural observers,” says Marold, “a special talent.”

IN COLEMAN’S FIFTH-GRADE CLASS, students sift through cages after emergence is complete, collecting dead caterpillars or skin shed by molting caterpillars, and leftover chrysalis including empty ones from which butterflies emerged as well as those that never fully developed to yield butterflies.

“Under microscopes, they dissect and scrutinize every particle they can find including Monarch poop,” Coleman says. “Their study fully utilizes everything in the cycle of living.”

“Observation Post #4” is designed for fifth graders only — journaling. Students observe every stage of the butterfly cycle and learn, among other things, that Monarchs are territorial and combative. In their journals, students describe what they see, and what they learn, and how “cool” it is to release. They write about their feelings — in triumphs and disasters.

Two deformed Monarchs emerged this term. One was released — nature allowed to take its course. The more seriously deformed insect was euthanized with alcohol in the fifth grade room where students requested, almost demanded, that it be immediately put out of its suffering. From this dead Monarch, they learned about the split tongue and saw the crossed legs.

“We do our best” Marold notes, “to help prepare students for life. The kids have different skills, different levels of ability. There are some things we can’t test, like values, like learning that good guys don’t always finish first and some never make it (butterflies or other things). Roxanne uses the butterfly experiences in her third grade class of human health, relating to healthy habits, aging, and death.

“Our students even have a little bit of philosophy background when we get through with them,” Marold says, smiling. “They don’t have the concepts of philosophical terminology, but they can relate to the death of pets, or births in the family, partly because of some tears shed over a deceased chrysalis or their joy at a Monarch’s emergence.

“Every year, we all get excited about the Monarch project,” Marold admits. “The students have done a tremendous job, releasing 60 to 90 tagged Monarchs each year. They can be proud. It’s only a matter of time before one of our tags is spotted.”

It’s this kind of early education that sparks the desire to learn all that’s possible — the kind of drive that produced the 1996-97 Class l-A Knowledge Bowl State Champions from Mountain Valley High School. It’s this kind of teaching and learning enthusiasm that produces young adults eager for life-long learning.

Nancy Ward, a former Saguache resident, now lives and writes in CaƱon City.