It is this time of year when Lower School students at O’Neal watch how monarch caterpillars turn into butterflies, then release them for their fall migration to Mexico. The experience is incredibly educational, and it’s fascinating to follow how a creepy crawler eventually evolves into a beautiful flying jewel. Students can observe dozens of chrysalises in a special tent and then witness how each butterfly emerges from its chrysalis. In their safe shelter, students get to go inside and let the butterflies land on them and flutter around. The monarch release is the grand finale for the whole activity.
O’Neal parent and trustee Dr. Lynda Acker spear-headed this activity that has now become a highly anticipated tradition at O’Neal. New this year, Dr. Acker worked with Monarch Watch – a program founded at The University of Kansas focusing on the habitat of the monarch butterfly and its fall migration. Monarch Watch researches monarch migration biology and monarch population dynamics to better understand how to conserve the monarch migration and protect monarch habitats throughout North America. The sustainability of monarch habitats has a direct effect on protecting vital pollinators and other wildlife. Over ninety percent of the monarch species has been lost, primarily due to pesticides, herbicides, and reduced habitat – notably in places that grow milkweed. This perennial with leaves filled with milky sap is the only plant that monarch caterpillars can eat. Planting milkweed (away from plant-eating animals such as cows, horses, and goats as it is toxic to them) and eliminating pesticides and herbicides from yards can help grow the monarch population.
Teacher Jenell Copeland applies a tag to the butterfly’s hindwing as fourth-grade student Jason Weiss holds it steady.
Dr. Acker registered O’Neal in the tagging program and Monarch Watch sent the school special stickers to apply to the butterflies’ hindwings. Before they were released, with help from the 4th-grade students, each butterfly was tagged and recorded. If a tagged butterfly is found in Mexico or elsewhere, the tag gives instructions on how to report the finding to Monarch Watch. Monarch Watch will then notify O’Neal of data from any of the butterflies the students released. The objective of the study is to determine if the butterflies reached Mexico, overwintered there, and then journeyed northward to the southern United States in the spring. Four or five generations of monarchs, each living 6-8 weeks, travel as far north as Toronto, Canada between spring and early fall. The subsequent and final generation of the year, known as the Methuselah Generation, migrates 2000-3000 miles to the Sierra Madre Mountains of central Mexico where it hangs in huge oyamel fir trees in a near-dormant state until mid-March. It is this migrating generation that the O’Neal students tagged and released. “The kids have so many wonderful questions about the butterflies,” says Dr. Acker. “They’re fascinated by them and are so gentle with them. The fact that young people care so much gives me hope that we might be able to save this beautiful species.”
Feature photo: Fourth Grade students Sophia Afable and Christina Acker observe a monarch butterfly as it decides to stick around before fluttering away.