Learning Soars in Butterfly Garden

By Eve Pranis

"Our students have certainly learned the basics about butterflies and the plants they depend on, but our butterfly garden has yielded an even richer harvest than that," says fifth grade, Orion, IL, teacher Marcia Whitmore. "What we've learned in this microcosm has prompted a richer understanding of ecology and the need to conserve habitats in other parts of the world," she adds.

Marcia's students regularly bring journals to the butterfly garden to record weather data and observations of butterfly visitors and the plants they frequent. "I want them to appreciate that if you're going to be interested in the natural world, you need more than casual observations. It's best to carefully observe and keep good records, then review data and patterns that emerge," she explains.

Her students' keen attention to detail has had its rewards. For instance, some students noticed that the zinnias and marigolds they'd raised weren't attracting as many winged visitors as the asters, big bluestem, bergamot, and other wildflowers in the garden. This prompted further observations and a discussion of why native plants might be most appropriate for local wildlife. "When they looked more closely, the students had a tough time finding the nectar on some of our classroom-grown plants, and began to appreciate that the wild plants and butterflies were better adapted to one another," says Marcia.

Students' curiosity about the colors and patterns on many butterflies yielded a "real life" lesson on adaptations. Their research revealed that such characteristics helped the creatures survive. They learned that monarchs, for instance, eat milkweed and incorporate its toxins into their bodies. This makes them distasteful to birds who avoid not only the monarch, but also the viceroy, which mimics the monarch patterns.

Classroom Butterfly Nursery

"My keen observers also learned how to spot butterfly eggs and identify caterpillars on the underside of leaves," says Marcia. They found black swallowtail caterpillars on Queen Anne's lace and dill, and plenty of monarch caterpillars on milkweed, then set up recycled bottle chambers in the classroom to rear the insects.

"Student observations and questions often lead to experiments," notes Marcia. For instance, one group speculated that the waste produced by caterpillars might be a good plant fertilizer, and plans to set up an investigation to test their hypothesis.

Marcia's Classroom Caterpillar Rearing Tips

* Cut the top of a 2-liter bottle, then run hot water in the base to loosen the glue and separate the base.

* Add moist, sterile potting soil, sand, or gravel to the base.

* Add the caterpillar, along with some twigs with leaves of the plant on which it was found.

* Place the inverted clear plastic top over the base and punch small holes in the top for air circulation. (If you have very small caterpillars, glue screen or netting over the holes to prevent their escape.)

* Add fresh leaves of the host plant each day and use a paintbrush to remove the waste, called frass. (You can place sprigs of the host plant in a small-necked bottle of water to keep them fresh, then put that in the chamber. Don't leave a container with open water, since caterpillars can't swim.)

* Add some extra twigs to give the larvae a place to crawl when it pupates.

* Leave the container in a warm location out of the sun and watch for a week or two until the caterpillar forms a chrysalis. Your butterfly should emerge, to your students' delight, in two weeks. Once its wings are dry and rigid (in about four hours), you can release it into your garden if the weather is calm.

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