Raising monarch butterflies to take flight
It was a little chilly and cloudy late Friday morning.
But no rain was falling so there was no reason for a class full of fifth-graders to abort their plans.
In Lisa Kelly's fifth-grade Barnes Butte Elementary classroom sat a soft, green and white mesh cage with a zipper door. Inside, four young monarch butterflies clung to its sides, seemingly relaxed and unaware of what lied ahead.
For all intents and purposes, the butterflies had really known no other home. They grew up in the classroom under the watchful and curious eyes of the students and their teacher.
This was made possible by one student in the class, Eleanor Klann, whose family spurred the impromptu, month-long science lesson that started the school year. At her home, the family was already in the process of raising monarch butterflies and her parents, Sarah and Eric, wanted to share the experience with the class.
"The Klanns had the eggs," Kelly recalls. "She brought in those chrysalides."
The couple is no stranger to projects like this. Eric is Prineville's city engineer and has often reached out to the schools to involve them in projects on the city-owned Barnes Butte Recreation Area -- which is right next to the school -- and the Crooked River Wetland Complex, where a milkweed station was built to attract monarchs and enhance their local population.
Sarah, who is an academic coach at Barnes Butte Elementary, has helped Eric facilitate some of the city-school collaborations. Most recently, she connected students with the addition of a bee pollinator hotel on the Barnes Butte property that was built by an aspiring Eagle Scout in Bend.
"Providing our students experiences is always my number one goal," Sarah said.
Once the chrysalides – the pupa of the butterflies – were brought into the classroom, Kelly called upon "the butterfly lady" to visit the class and explain what they could expect for the next few weeks.
The butterfly lady is Amanda Egertson, who is actually the stewardship director for Deschutes Land Trust. She came to the classroom and explained to the students what types of chrysalides they were dealing with and what type of butterflies they would become.
"I explained to the students that by responsibly rearing these monarchs and brainstorming ways to plant more native milkweed (monarch host plant) in their community, they were taking leading roles in conservation of a species and environmental stewardship," Egertson recalls. "The western monarch population is in severe decline and only 2-5% of monarch eggs laid make it to adulthood."
The visiting butterfly expert went on to tell the kids that she would later return and help them tag the newly hatched butterflies and release them into the wild so that they could travel to their overwintering grounds hundreds of miles to the south.
"The kids were really intrigued by that – that they could go that far," Kelly said.
The days that followed provided the fifth-graders with many special moments. Kelly remembers that when the butterflies began hatching, the class ran over to watch.
"They got to watch their wings dry and their wings fold out," she added. "It was just magical."When it was time to release the young monarchs, Egertson returned to the classroom. She tagged each butterfly, asking a few lucky students to bring her a tiny sticker that would be affixed to the wing. Sarah and Eric Klann joined the spectacle, helping distribute the stickers while soaking in the conclusion of the butterfly raising process.
The butterfly lady took one last moment to explain the journey the monarchs were about to make. She said that they fly thousands of feet up into the atmosphere, spread their wings, and let the wind carry them.
"They can fly up to 40 miles a day," Egertson said, adding that they stop here and there to nectar and rest. "They are solar-powered, so warm sunny days definitely help them along their way. Exact pathways vary according to weather and winds, but they target the central California coast as their overwintering grounds. Once they arrive, they'll roost in eucalyptus, palms, oaks and other sturdy shrubs and trees."
The students filed out of the classroom with Egertson as she carried the butterfly home out to a small bush near the south end of the school grounds. A crowd gathered around the bush as each of the four butterflies were set free one at a time.
Because of the cooler temperatures, they didn't flutter away into the air and instead chose to roost on the small branches of the bush. But the lack of a dramatic departure didn't take away from the excitement of the moment. The children marveled at the monarchs – and so did the adults.
Back in the classroom, Kelly asked her students to complete a Quick Write on the whole butterfly release experience.
"How did it make them feel? What did they get out of the whole thing?" she asked them.The written accounts only confirmed what Kelly already knew. They loved it – and so did she.
"I just feel fortunate that it was in my room and I got to be a part of it," she gushed.
The experience was similarly special for Egertson who stressed that the students played a vital role in furthering the future of the monarch butterfly, a species in decline.
"When they reared, tagged, and released their monarchs, they made a difference to not only those individual monarchs that made it to adulthood, they contributed important data (tagging numbers) to Dr. David James of Washington State University and his ongoing monarch research," she explained.
Sarah is certain the fifth-graders will never forget the experience of raising and releasing the monarchs, and she is eager to find new projects that involve kids and provide experiential learning.
"Our district continues to develop outside partnerships with amazing organizations like the Deschutes Land Trust, which ultimately connect children and community together," she added.
The butterfly lesson has concluded for now, but Kelly said her students might return to the subject later this school year. This spring, the kids may head back outdoors, this time to plant milkweed on the nearby Barnes Butte property.
"We know that those butterflies are in danger – their population is smaller," Kelly said, "so we are going to work on planting milkweed to try to help restore their population."
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