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Not playing scientists; ‘We’re being scientists’

Students do their part to help save monarch butterflies


CeCi Whitmer arranged a handful of plastic bags and jelly jars on a tabletop.

“Some of these are a little frosty,” warned the seventh-grader. The containers were fresh from the freezer, and each held the remains of a caterpillar or chrysalide (cocoon), and in some cases, evidence of what had done them in.

Ceci’s, which she had named J-orge after her brother “because they both kind of wander off,” had succumbed after being “infected by something,” she said.

CeCi Whitmer points out a chrysalide that has chosen to undergo its metamorphosis inside a classroom cabinet

Finding out the something is the task for those in Lea Sevigny’s Natural Expressions class. They’re not playing scientists; “We’re being scientists,” CeCi said.

Since the second day of school, Sevigny’s students at Eastern and Central middle schools have been bringing caterpillars and monarch chrysalides indoors from their native plant garden outside, in order to boost their chances of surviving the transformation from caterpillar to monarch butterfly.

They’ve tagged — using super-sticky eraserhead-sized labels and an extremely light touch — and released more than 30 butterflies so far, and will send their the data to MonarchWatch.org.

Sevigny said she’s read that just 10 percent of monarch caterpillars in the wild make it to the butterfly stage, whereas up to 95 percent of those reared indoors live to adulthood.

“They are very close to being added to the list of endangered species,” she said.

A monarch’s wing can be seen inside this chrysalide, which is close to opening

Learning About Threats

There are native plant gardens at both middle schools and at Collins Elementary aimed at attracting species such as monarchs. At Eastern, for example, students experienced the challenge firsthand: There were many dead caterpillars and chrysalides outdoors, Sevigny said, and a number that were alive when brought inside have not survived.

Students researched and determined the specimens died primarily from becoming infected by tachinid flies and chalcid wasps that lay their eggs inside the chrysalides; ophryocystis elektroscirrha parasites, transmitted when monarchs scatter spores on milkweed leaves; and viral or bacterial diseases.

Seventh-grader Zoe Freeman explained that monarch butterflies “are caterpillars and you hum to them, they bob their heads.”

Zoe Freeman watches a monarch chrysalide whose metamorphosis is hoped to be captured on camera

This is the first year Sevigny has done the project with students. She said Natural Expressions students have been engaged at a deeper level than normal and consequently, have been able to easily communicate what they’ve noticed and learned so far this semester.

What’s more, Sevigny pointed out that students have seen the reality of the statistics play out.

“(They) noticed firsthand how important it is for humans to play a part in helping the monarch population succeed. They now understand the importance of human intervention to rear monarchs indoors, to tag the butterflies through a citizen science project, and to plant milkweed.

“They now know they can make a significant difference with this approach.”

CONNECT

SNN article: Making way for the butterflies

How to rear monarchs at home or in the classroom

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering East Grand Rapids, Forest Hills and Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio or email Morgan.

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