"How many legs do you have?" Maddie Koenig asked the group of five children, ages 2 to 9, early into the Monarch Magic program at Bear Branch Nature Center on Saturday, Aug. 27.
The question was one of many that taught the children about monarch butterfly bodies by asking them to think about how their own bodies work.
Koenig asked the children how they taste things before explaining that butterflies taste through their six feet.
In addition to teaching the children about the different parts of monarch butterflies, she explained some simple facts about monarchs, including the migration route of the butterflies seen in Maryland.
With pictures and living specimens of monarchs from egg to larva (caterpillar) to chrysalis to metamorphosis, Koenig told the story of the monarch butterfly life cycle, giving kids and their parents an up-close, first-hand look at monarchs in varying stages of development.
Bear Branch Nature Center in Westminster, where Koenig serves as a park naturalist, participates in Monarch Watch, a program of the University of Kansas that studies and maintains data on monarch populations and migration.
"This year is the 10th monarch festival, so we've been doing monarch programs for at least 10 years," Koenig said, referring to the annual Monarch Madness at the center, set for Sept. 11 this year.
The festival draws hundreds of people to Bear Branch for an afternoon to celebrate fall with seasonal activities and opportunities for kids of all ages to learn about monarch butterfly migration. A highlight of the afternoon is the monarch tag and release.
Children at Saturday's smaller Monarch Magic program were able to do their own tag and release with monarchs reared at Bear Branch. The five butterflies had recently emerged from their chrysalises and were ready to take flight.
Koenig removed each of the distinctive orange and black butterflies with white polka dots from the nature center's monarch habitat and affixed a small, round sticker to one of its wings as the group counted to 20 with her, 20 seconds being the length of time needed to ensure the adhesive tag would stick to the butterfly's wing throughout its migration south to Mexico for the winter.
Monarch fans anywhere along the migration route who spot one of the butterflies can report the tag number to Monarch Watch to help track the butterfly's journey from Maryland to Mexico.
Maisie Optenberg, 9, of Eldersburg, was the first to volunteer as a monarch takeoff pad. Koenig placed the butterfly on Optenberg's nose, where it slowly fluttered its wings several times in the heat of the sun before it flew away.
"I liked it. It tickled," Maisie said.
After all five monarchs had been released, Koenig led a walk along a path on the nature center grounds as she talked about monarchs' energy needs and how they spot food sources from the sky. The path led through a field of goldenrod, a late-blooming wildflower, which Koenig said is an important nectar source for the butterflies before they begin their fall journey to Mexico.
The walk ended at a sunny patch of milkweed plants. Milkweed is critical to the monarch population as it is the only plant on which they lay their eggs. Koenig taught participants where to look for and how to identify Monarch eggs and caterpillars. Children and adults alike eagerly began searching the milkweed and soon found both eggs and caterpillars.
Maggie Newill, 4, of Westminster, attended the program with her mother, Jenn.
"She's very fascinated with bugs and things," Jenn said. "I'm trying to get her started [learning about them]."
Within a few minutes of reaching the milkweed, Koenig found and handed Maggie the smaller of the two caterpillars the group was to find that day. Maggie, in a pink T-shirt with printed butterflies on it, cupped the caterpillar in one hand.
The group found five eggs and gathered them by tearing the leaves from the milkweed. The leaves provide the larvae with a food source once they have hatched.
All seven of the eggs and caterpillars were taken back to the nature center and placed into separate plastic containers with air holes so they can grow within a protected environment inside the nature center.
Monarch eggs hatch within about five days, and the larval caterpillars go through five stages lasting 10 to 14 days before forming their chrysalis and emerging as full-grown butterflies another 10 to 14 days later.
Jacqueline Rech Pavao, 8, of Westminster, and her sister, Gabriella, 5, attended with their mother, Sharon Rech. They had found two eggs in the milkweed patch.
"I thought their eggs were cool because they were so tiny," Jacqueline said.
Koenig offered suggestions for creating butterfly-friendly gardens, not just for monarchs but for all butterflies.
"If you don't have milkweed or other plants butterflies love in your yard, definitely consider planting some," she said.
Before Maisie and her mother left the nature center, they asked Koenig for the tag number of the female monarch Maisie had helped release, so they can follow its journey at www.monarchwatch.org when observers spot and report its location to the program.
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"[Bear Branch] is a great place, a great resource. It's inexpensive. The whole Carroll County rec[reation] department has amazing programs," said Maisie's mother, Wendy Bennett. "Where [else] are you going to have a butterfly on your nose?"