Fifth-graders at Flint Springs become caretakers for generation of monarch butterflies this fall

Flint Springs Elementary fifth-grader Gabby Betterly (right) uses her finger as a launch pad for the inaugural flight of a newly-emerged monarch butterfly Thursday, Aug. 31, in the school’s courtyard garden. She is joined by Paige Russell, also in fifth grade. The butterfly was raised in teacher Courtney Whitney’s preschool classroom. The pupils in the afternoon class waved goodbye as they watched the butterfly find its way out of the courtyard.
Flint Springs Elementary fifth-grader Gabby Betterly (right) uses her finger as a launch pad for the inaugural flight of a newly-emerged monarch butterfly Thursday, Aug. 31, in the school’s courtyard garden. She is joined by Paige Russell, also in fifth grade. The butterfly was raised in teacher Courtney Whitney’s preschool classroom. The pupils in the afternoon class waved goodbye as they watched the butterfly find its way out of the courtyard. Photo by Rebecca Sandlin.

Originally published Sept. 11, 2017.

Uncharacteristic of youngsters their age, the pupils in teacher Courtney Whitney’s afternoon preschool class sit quietly on the concrete risers inside the courtyard garden at Flint Springs Elementary School on Thursday, Aug. 31, their eyes collectively fixed in anticipation on a little mesh cage sitting on the ground.

Inside, flexing and expanding its unmistakable orange, black and white-dotted wings, is a freshly-emerged monarch butterfly.

The cube-shaped cage has been in their classroom for about a month, while the butterfly-to-be inside went through the stages of metamorphosis — from an egg, to a caterpillar, a pupa and finally an adult — to the day it is to be released. For the kids in Whitney’s class, that day has come.

The release is the culmination of a project in John Stoffel’s fifth grade class. Two of his students, Gabby Betterly and Paige Russell, conduct the ceremony. Betterly reaches into the cage to coax Diamond Liam, as the butterfly was named, onto her finger.

“She isn’t quite ready,” Betterly says, as Diamond Liam clings to her finger, unsure of what to do next.

“If you look very closely, on the inside of the wings, how you can tell if it’s a female, the black lines are thicker than the male’s, which are skinnier, and there are dots on the inside of her wings,” Betterly explains.

Stoffel’s class has become somewhat of a collective expert on monarchs, their habits and the care and raising of them. It’s the third year for the program, and Stoffel says he believes the monarchs have rebounded since Flint Springs, and other schools and groups, started the program.

“Finding caterpillars was pretty easy this year, as compared to some years,” Stoffel says. “We’ve got over a hundred in the building. They’re in every room — every classroom has a caterpillar in it. We have about 40 or 50 in the library.”

The kids find the tiny eggs and bring them in to school. Many of them were just outside the building near the playground, where there is a “monarch waystation,”  a monarch habitat area.

They place the eggs inside the mesh cages with the caterpillars’ favorite food, milkweed plants. Then they wait for them to hatch.

“They grow 2,000 times the size of the egg,” Stoffel says. “It’s just amazing. ”

The process takes about a month, from egg to an adult butterfly, also called an imago.

“They’re usually in their chrysalis stage for like a week,” Russell says.

“It goes from 11 to 18 days,” adds Betterly, the butterfly still clinging to her finger.

After the eggs hatch, Stoffel’s students are kept busy all over the building.

“The real work of rearing the monarchs takes place every morning when the students come in, mostly between 7:45 and 8:15. My class of 23 students is out and about in the building, taking care of everything,” Stoffel says. “They clean the cages and get the milkweed ready and get water to the cages.”

In the process, the kids have become very knowledgeable about their charges and answer questions with confidence about the insect and its habits.

“Caterpillars have ‘generations,’” Russell explains. “They start out in Mexico, and they get all the way to Canada through the generations. Ours is on the fourth generation, so it’s going to make it all the way back to Mexico, and then the rotation is going to start all over again.”

The students get excited when they see a butterfly return that may have been one they released in a previous year, Betterly says.

“A couple of days ago, when we were searching for monarch butterflies in the Garden and Nature Club, we actually saw a butterfly that might have been laying eggs somewhere, because she was fluttering around,” she says. “So they usually come around here and they stop all over the places, so we are thinking she might have just laid her eggs or was looking for a safe place to lay them.”

The club, also mentored by Stoffel, makes sure that there are plenty of milkweed plants to attract the monarchs and native wildflowers for the adults to sip nectar from. So far this season, they have hatched 120 caterpillars and have released at least 30 butterflies out into the wild.

Although their program has had a lot of success, the fifth graders are aware that the odds are not always in their favor when it comes to monarch butterfly survival rates. Stoffel says 90 percent of the adult monarchs die young. Although he has not discussed the reasons for the butterflies’ mortality rates, several students have researched it on their own.

Fifth-grader Douglas Cannizzaro says there are many reasons why the monarchs can succumb early in life, some seemingly gruesome.

“It could be from tachnid flies. Tachnid flies are like these tiny, tiny, tiny little flies that lay their eggs inside the caterpillars’ bodies … and it kills them,” he explains. “When they get to Mexico they have to stay in these highly-elevated mountains, and there is just like one spot where they just all come and they just squash together there and hibernate there. But sometimes the winters have been getting too cold, and the frost just goes all over the butterflies and butterfly wings. It’s kind of beautiful, but very sad at the same time.”

However, the students have experienced much more fun at Flint Springs with the monarchs, as they complete their metamorphosis.

“It was kind of funny because we think the preschoolers may have unzipped our cage a little bit, so one of my caterpillars crawled out, on the side of a stool,” Paige recalls. “We had to find it again. He was on the side of the stool, and we just put him back in the cage.”

“Have you heard about Nathan?” pipes up fifth grader Lia Morrison. “He was releasing a butterfly, and instead of leaving it shot right back and landed on the side of his head. It looked like a bow! We said he looked like a girl.”

Stoffel says he hopes his students come away with a greater awareness of the butterflies and their importance to the ecosystem and continue to create habitats to foster their resurgence.

“I know that they’re doing it at home, I know that people have seen us on Facebook and have started doing it,” he says. “My own daughter does it. So hopefully, the number grows because the idea grows. And maybe these kids, 20 years from now, will have kids that they do it with.”

Several butterflies are emerging from their chrysalis homes at Flint Springs every day, Stoffel adds, and as they stretch their wings, the students in his fifth-grade class take them to the school’s courtyard garden and set them alight.

“The monarchs usually eclose (emerge) from their chrysalis in the morning, maybe 8 or 9 o’clock — maybe 10 o’clock,” Stoffel says. “We don’t release them until four or five hours later.”

By the time this season is over, Stoffel’s classes will have sent around 250 butterflies on their journeys as adults, 100 or so of them this season alone.

It was a bittersweet afternoon for the young children in the Flint Springs afternoon preschool class, who were sorry to see their friend go.

They had witnessed each stage of the butterfly’s development, much like parents doting over their beautiful child. But they also knew that they couldn’t keep her any longer.
As a class, they waved adios to the insect, once she alighted from Gabby’s finger and, finding the purpose for her wings, rose upward and out of the enclosed garden.

“Bye-bye, butterfly,” one of them said. “Don’t forget to send us a postcard from Mexico.”

Find updates on the Flint Springs monarch project on Facebook at Flint Springs Garden and Nature Club. Additional information about monarchs butterflies and how to create a butterfly habitat can also be accessed online at www.monarchwatch.org/waystations.