Science Club Helps to Save Monarch Butterflies

Traditionally, students of the first term Science is Fun club for grades 1 to 3 at KCS learn that monarch butterflies are a threatened species. They also learn that they can take action and create awareness by participating in a program called Symbolic Monarch Migration. This is a program promoting international cooperation for monarch conservation between Mexico, USA and Canada. Together eager KCS students turned a file folder into a large, beautiful, group butterfly, and they also made personalized, life-sized butterflies. These paper butterflies, along with pictures of our school and a message of cooperation, were all sent early October to coincide with the real monarch migration to the Oyamel Forests in Mexico. The first destination of our butterflies was Georgia, home of the Environmental Education Alliance of Georgia who works in partnership with Journey North, which is a large citizen science program for educators and the general public. Two of the largest monarch sanctuaries, El Rosario and Sierra Chincua are in central Mexico and provide shelter for the many thousands of butterflies that hang in clusters from the trees during the winter season. These monarchs become sedentary and live off the fat stored in their bodies before migration. Why they migrate to these cool mountain forests where they can get knocked out of the trees by hail or snow is a mystery. Only the monarchs born in late summer make it to Mexico.

Estela Romero is a program coordinator in Mexico for Journey North. She receives the symbolic butterflies from Georgia and delivers them by car to schools around the sanctuaries. Our KCS butterflies were received recently by a student at a private elementary Catholic school called Colegio Corregidora which is near one of the protective forests. This student will take care of our package of butterflies until it is time for the monarchs to migrate north again and will prepare a letter thanking participating students for taking care of the monarchs after they leave the protection of the forests and promising to help preserve the vital Oyamel Forests for overwintering.

We will not get our own symbolic butterfly back. Instead, it will be sent to a participating school from either Canada or the USA, and we will receive an exchange butterfly from another school.  Each student will also receive their own small butterfly from somewhere across the three countries. That will happen in the spring to coincide with the migration north.

The wintering monarchs will make it to Texas in the spring where they will lay their eggs and die. It will take two more generations for the offspring to make it back to Canada. The latest reports say that the monarchs are hyperactive now and show signs of early migration due to an unusually mild winter in the mountains of Mexico. They are a month ahead of schedule. Roosting monarchs are actually counted and the good news is that the monarch count in Mexico has increased by 144% this year despite the declining numbers over the past several years. The bad news is that the monarchs overwintering in California have hit a record low count. As a side note, monarchs do not cross the Rocky Mountains, so there is an exclusive western population of monarchs.

Congratulations to our KCS students for helping to make a difference! We can all do our part by protecting and planting milkweed, the only host plant for the monarch caterpillars. Pollinator gardens are a boost for hungry butterflies, and KCS does a great job providing that element in our Learning Garden at the front entrance. Expect to see more monarchs greeting you this spring as you arrive at school and flitting around the community.

As a further note, this past summer I had the honour of raising a monarch from a tiny caterpillar, and it was indeed a very rewarding experience. I received the caterpillar from Carol Pasternak, author of How to Raise Monarch Butterflies: A Step-by-Step Guide for Kids, who was putting on a workshop at Christie Pits. I was able to obtain a signed copy of her book for our KCS library for any family interested in pursuing this adventure over the summer. The book was an excellent guide to prepare you for the signs of impending metamorphosis, which could be easily and quietly missed.

I will be following up with the first term Science is Fun students when our exchange butterflies arrive sometime around early May. Take a responsible risk, plant some milkweed; the monarchs will come to you.

Sharon Freeman RECE

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