You wouldn’t know it from my recent obsession, but I only recently learned about monarch butterflies. It happened randomly one day, as I crammed 20 or so odd books into a basket in the children’s section of our local library. As we read through the pile over the next week, I came across the book, Mr. McGinty’s Monarchs by Linda Vander Heyden. Now one of my favorite reads for inspiring and educating the budding environmentalists in my life (check out my favorite children’s books list), this bright book took ahold of our household. We loaded up for a trip to the Monarch Butterfly sanctuary in Pacific Grove, passed out milkweed seed packets to trick-or-treaters (my father in law was super thrilled about that. NOT!), and for planting the monarch larvae host plant, milkweed, in my new pollinator garden.
I don’t know why, but I was skeptical that simply planting milkweed would attract monarchs. After all, their population has plummeted by 95%! But holy moly! You plant it, and they come! When my husband reported a monarch sighting in our backyard, and I scarcely believed him. I quizzed him on shape, color, exact location, etc., etc. Then, while looking out a window onto my milkweed plant, I noticed the leaves looked a little…. munched. And they were! I counted at least 9 caterpillars!
Like Mr. McGinty, I wanted little helpers to tend to my little larvae friends and whilst educating them about monarch butterflies in the process. I scooped a few off into a jar and dusted off my aquarium from the shed and off to the preschool I went.
I set up my tank, complete with built in ventilation and plant growing spectrum lights, in my daughter’s “Butterfly” classroom (love the irony of the name). I’ve also heard of using collapsable mesh hampers turned upside down, but I wanted to use what I had on hand, and an aquarium would provide for excellent viewing. Always a mason jar fan, I made mason jar vases for milkweed, with holes in the tops to keep the cats out of the water. I put in some branches for them to climb and form their chrysalises on, and brought in fresh sprigs daily of milkweed from my garden.
By the time the caterpillars made it to the classroom, they were pretty big and took little time form into chrysalises. The first one happened right in front of the tank on a branch, and the entire class crowded around to watch it happen. One teacher caught it on video and posted it to the class’s Instagram. It was so cool to watch the kids watching the transformation. The three other caterpillars soon followed suit.
The jade and gold-crusted chrysalis were beautiful beyond words. It was so beautiful and perfect, that they looked fake or manufactured, or something you could put on a gold chain and wear around your neck. Eventually, the green gave way to a translucent and then black casing, and you could see the tell-tale monarch markings inside, indicating that the butterfly emergence was imminent. Two weeks after chrysalis, they turned into beautiful butterflies!
I supplied them with pesticide-free zinnias for a tasty nectar snack while we waited for all four butterflies to emerge (but no longer than 24 hours). At recess the next day, I dressed the girls up in their butterfly wings and off to school we went. In front of a group of kids and another parent, we released the butterflies from the aquarium. I must admit, it was a beautiful sight, and I choked up a bit.
This experience, raising milkweed and learning about the monarch lifecycle, environmental stressors adversely effecting their population, migration pattern, teaching our replacement generation, is not unlike my journey to learn more about what I can do to help stem the tide of climate change. I don’t really know what I’m doing, I know there’s a problem, I can help in my own way, and I can teach my kids about it so they can live lighter lives on our planet, and spread the word in the meantime.
Want to help the monarchs? Don’t buy or use pesticides, and plant milkweed! Here’s a foundation that gives you free milkweed seeds based on your location: http://www.livemonarch.org. You can also pick some up from your local nursery or ask a friend or neighbor. I’m on a local Facebook homesteading group and a quick request on their had me well take care of. Here’s a list of other butterfly host plants, as well as nectar plants.
I’m no expert, and I certainly have more to learn, but here’s what I did. If you are reading this little blurb and have experience or insights on how to improve, please! Comment or contact me!