Third grade students at West Friendship Elementary School talk to scientists who are in Mexico studying the annual migration of Monarch butterflies while studying these butterflies in class. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun video)
Third-graders in a Howard County classroom strained to watch a fuzzy video feed of thousands of monarch butterflies flying across the sky in a Mexican nature preserve earlier this week.
What they were seeing in the live stream was the culmination of a grand migration they had begun witnessing in the fall outside their classroom doors. And as the scientist on the screen talked to them, the questions from a bunch of enthralled 8- and 9-year-olds from West Friendship Elementary School flew back at him.
“Why do they go to Mexico? Why don’t they go to other countries?”
In an unusually close partnership between the school system and county nonprofit organizations, thousands of third-graders throughout Howard County will begin raising and releasing butterflies at school in the fall and then study their migration to Mexico in the early spring.
Known for their distinctive orange and black markings, monarch butterflies make an extraordinary annual journey from Canada and the northern United States to Mexico and back, a trip of 2,000 miles each way that takes months.
For the past several years, county third-graders have studied the monarch as part of a unit on life cycles and traits, said Amy Reese, the elementary science coordinator for the Howard County public schools. The school system went to some lengths to make the experience as hands-on as possible for children every spring.
Schools purchased caterpillars online, then brought in milkweed grown in the school system’s greenhouse to more than 40 schools so the caterpillars had something to eat.
But the project didn’t go so well. Despite the effort, the schools only produced about three or four live butterflies each year to release. And those wouldn’t survive because they were non-native monarchs flying off into the wild at the right time for the curriculum but the wrong time for their viability.
But from that scientific failure, teachers reported a great classroom experience.
“Even if the monarchs were dying, they couldn’t believe the motivation in their students. They were motivated to do more research,” Reese said. “It became powerful because they were living it and experiencing it.”
So this summer school officials enlisted the help of the Howard County Conservancy and a group of master gardeners in Howard County. Volunteers harvested common milkweed at the Conservancy property and then separated the seeds from the fluff it was attached to. Visitors to the conservancy building were greeted with flying fluff, said Meg Boyd, executive director of the Howard County Conservancy.
The school system crews dug 10-foot-square beds for the milkweed at a spot next to every elementary school in the county. And volunteers planted the seeds in the flower beds last fall.
The hope is that this spring the milkweed will sprout providing the perfect habitat for the butterflies to lay eggs, as well as creating small plots to host butterflies that will end up in the migration to Mexico.
Students will be able to witness the life cycle of the monarch. Boyd said the Conservancy believes students will understand that what happens in their schoolyard can have an impact on a species that lives far beyond their county and that the butterflies are part of a world ecosystem.
Even as the new monarch butterfly program was being developed, a West Friendship Elementary teacher found native monarchs eggs on milkweed by chance last fall and brought them into the school.
“It was weeks. We got them when they were caterpillars and we fed them and watched them,” said 9-year-old Morgan Miles.
Eventually, the caterpillars spun themselves into a silk cocoon, known as chrysalis, in which they would transform.
One day, Morgan said, the students saw a crack in a chrysalis. One morning soon after as she arrived at school, she saw a big crowd gathered to look at the recently emerged butterflies. They tagged two of the three butterflies.
“We went into the field and released them,” she said. “They were flying toward the sun. I thought it was amazing.”
When the Conservancy learned that two researchers from Howard County were visiting Mexican nature reserves where monarchs are wintering, Boyd contacted the school system to see if it was possible to connect the scientists with the West Friendship Elementary students during their visit.
Although the internet connection only lasted a short time, the students were able to see the brightly colored butterflies on the classroom screen and ask some questions.
The numbers of monarch butterflies that winter in Mexico has been on the decline, although scientists have not determined what factors have led to the reductions.
Those questions are what teachers and conservationists want more Howard County students to understand as they begin to study the life cycle of this traveling royalty of the insect world next fall.