I spent this morning at a neighboring school district, about twenty minutes away by car. Sixty first graders, in three separate classes, sat quietly and listened to my presentation on the Monarch Life Cycle, the importance of milkweed, Monarch Migration and the development of the Monarch Highway. With the exception of the information on the Monarch Highway, it is a presentation I have done many, many times before. And, I still love doing it. It truly is my passion.
It is now, at this time of year, that monarch butterflies migrate. The little details of this migration are lost on many. What follows is a little bit of what I shared today:
- Only monarchs born in starting in late August and into the fall migrate South to the Sierra Madre’ Mountains in the central region of Mexico.
- Monarchs travel several thousand miles to reach the overwintering grounds in Mexico. Actually, from my home in West-Central Wisconsin to the preserve in Mexico is approximately 1, 750 miles. An insect, weighing roughly as much as a paperclip – a mere 1/2 a gram, flies this entire distance on its own power. It is the only butterfly to migrate and can cover the span of three continents, up to 3,000 miles if travelling from Canada.
- Monarchs also overwinter in Florida and, if west of the Rocky Mountains, on the coast of the Pacific Ocean.
- Monarch butterflies have declined in population by 90-97% over the last 30 years depending on the source you rely upon.
- Monarchs born in the warm months, preceeding early August, only live about a month. It is only the last (fourth/fifth generation – depending on where you live) that migrate. This generation of monarchs lives 8-9 months.
- The monarchs we see in the upper midwest in the Spring are NOT the same monarchs that we saw in the fall. It is most likely their grandchildren or great-grandchildren.
- Nature signals when the migration should start in the fall.
- Monarchs cannot survive our cold winters, so they start leaving when our days shorten and get cooler. Monarchs cannot fly if it is less than approximately 60 degrees F.
- Monarchs need habitat. Habitat loss is one of the reasons for the decline in this iconic species. Other reasons include: widespread pesticide use, mono-culture farming practices, and the spread of human development.
Couching this all in terms that first graders can handle takes some practice putting terms into phrases they can understand and making connections to things that most first graders know. We spent most of our time talking about the life cycle stages today, and obviously part of the reason for that is due to the Common Core State Standards being addressed with the content.
However, today, I also talked about tagging monarchs, which is something I have been involved with doing for the last three summers. It is part of Citizen Science. Monarch Watch is an organization that studies monarch butterflies. You can purchase tags in August and attach them to butterflies you raise for release or capture wild just to tag. You report your tag information, release date, and sex of the butterfly, along with the tag number (found on a sticker that goes on the distal cell of the hindwing) to a Monarch Watch data base. When the butterfly is found, the individual can report the information to Monarch Watch and then the recovered tags are reported to the public.
Although being a Citizen Scientist is where I am in my journey in raising monarchs, I realized that the tagging was information that was just not necessary for most of the first graders. There were probably only 1-2 students per class that showed understanding of what the tagging actually meant and was used for by the scientists. However, is that not differentiation? All learners should have something to reach toward and be able to grab on to once they are ready, right? Would it not be boring to sit there as a first grader and only hear what you already know about monarch life cycles? I think so. I would rather err on the side of too much detail than not enough. This has always been my approach.
Milkweed was discussed since it is the only plant that the caterpillars eat in stage II of the monarch life cycle. This one plant sustains and entire species of butterfly. So, I asked what could be done about the monarch’s population decline.
And, you know what?!
First graders can actually come up with what needs to be done!
We need to plant milkweed.
Since I was at this school two years ago to discuss the same topic, their supply of milkweed has grown and is plentiful in their school yard garden. With the exception of caterpillars brought in from the students’ homes, I believe they are raising only the wild caught caterpillars for subsequent release. This is an improvement over ordering caterpillars through the mail, a practice that needs to be strongly discouraged due to the possible spreading of disease.
I mentioned the Monarch Highway at the conclusion of my presentation today. It is a relatively new phrase coined to designate the I-35 corridor that runs from Minnesota through states further South to Texas and into Mexico. These states, along with academic institutions and environmental/conservation groups such as Monarch Joint Venture, are leading the way to provide increased habitat and milkweed in the ditches and rights of way along this highway. Attempts at curbing roadside mowing, especially in the fall, is also being promoted. Monarchs need milkweed and hopefully, soon, the Monarch Highway will provide a plethora of this sustaining plant.
As you can see, there is a wealth of information that can be shared and excite children, even the very young, into providing for the well-being of another species. It is one of the things I love about this topic – I can customize my presentation to be appropriate for preschoolers to adults, making the topic awe-inspiring for the young with the miracle of metamorphosis and migration, to a pressing need for adults to be called into action. Butterflies are pollinators and without pollinators, our food supply is greatly diminished, and that fact has great implications for humans.
I left the classrooms today with hope for the future. Thursday, I will return to speak to three more first grades. After that visit, all 120 students will be armed with milkweed seeds to plant in their home garden beds. They got it! Monarchs need Milkweed, Monarchs go through Metamorphosis, and in the late summer Monarchs Migrate to Mexico! The monarchs might need a miracle now to keep their population from dwindling further. But, on days like today, I think it is entirely possible!
Thanks, West Salem Elementary First Graders!