Recently, I joined an educator’s program to study “Caterpillars and Climate Change” for Earthwatch’s Teach Earth. We connected the smallest of caterpillars with the biggest of scientific concepts. Then, we discussed the many ways we wanted our students to have the same experience. A year later, I’ve seen my students go through the same process with a truly amazing animal—the monarch butterfly.
With a simple garden bed, and just about an hour a week, we’ve created something special that has finally netted the most elusive of scientific outcomes: an appreciation and concern for the natural world. Here’s how we did it, why it was worth it, and how you can give the same experience to your students.
Monarchs In Your Area
There are two main divisions of monarch migration, East and West, so these butterflies can be seen across the majority of the continental United States. Chances are high that one migratory pattern will visit your elementary school area. Students will enjoy learning how monarch caterpillars consume milkweed and be fascinated by their truly incredible migration.
Personally, I think the best part of creating a monarch garden is that you will literally be helping the monarch population thrive by providing habitat right at your elementary school. If you live in southern Florida or coastal Washington, which lie outside of the migration path, you can create a butterfly habitat for other species.
How to prepare yourself, students, and the garden
For you: It’s a good idea to start research during springtime, in March and April. If you’re an avid reader, I recommend Monarchs and Milkweed, which is also available as an audiobook. For a quicker study that you can read along with your students, try How to Raise Monarch Butterflies.
For students: You’re looking for general knowledge of two cycles. First, students should understand the life cycle of the monarch butterfly, from a hatching egg to an egg-laying butterfly. Second, it’s important for students to understand the migratory cycle of the monarch.
For the garden: By late March or early April, you’ll want to plant your milkweed to attract the monarchs. However, it’s crucial to point out that monarch butterflies and caterpillars consume two different things. The butterflies themselves consume nectar that can be taken from a wide variety of native flowers. This is important because the caterpillars only consume milkweed.
Therefore, when constructing a bed or finding a place for milkweed, it is best to place the milkweed in an area where other native flowers are readily available for the butterflies. If need be, you can plant milkweed in pots near the native plants or in garden beds.
Talk with a local nursery or garden specialist about the type of milkweed that is preferred by monarchs migrating to your region. For example, in San Diego, where I live, most migratory monarchs seem interested in our local milkweed, adapted for our hot, dry, and sunny Mediterranean climate; whereas in the Southeast, gardeners will do better with a more tropical style of milkweed.
When purchasing your milkweed, understand that it comes in many varieties, much of them poisonous to livestock and to little humans. Keeping this in mind, monarch gardens may not be suitable for some classrooms, depending on the level of supervision. In other cases, teachers may want to send home a release of liability waiver and review this fact with their classrooms.
You won’t need a lot of plants to attract monarchs; sometimes, one plant will be enough. I recommend purchasing at least three to five healthy plants so that you’ll have enough foliage for the voracious eaters.
Experiencing the Monarch Life Cycle
The monarchs could arrive well before the end of the school year, during summer school months, or even in August and September when the next academic year begins. Whenever you begin seeing them in your area, prepare your materials for students. Then, watch the milkweed carefully for signs that the plants are being eaten and that you have caterpillars. While the caterpillars grow, have students keep a daily observation log, teaching them what to record and how to record it. To make this a more authentic and powerful experience, students can report their findings on Journey North.
During this time, be sure to keep milkweed well-watered so that foliage is plentiful. Monarch caterpillars are absolutely ravenous, and just a few caterpillars can whittle a plant down to woody stems in only a few days.
Caterpillars can arrive like a hurricane and totally devour your milkweed. Soon thereafter, they’ll be plump and sluggish—seeking a place to form a chrysalis. They don’t do that on the milkweed itself, so you’ll want a structure nearby so that the caterpillars can hang and transform. Woody twigs and small branches from weeds or trees are perfect for this.
Once I see that caterpillars are nearing their transformative state, I place the branches in the milkweed bed so that they look like little trees. When caterpillars are ready, they will crawl off the milkweed and onto the branches to hang and make a chrysalis. I then move the branches into the terrarium in our classroom for further observation. You can also purchase inexpensive containers designed for this purpose so that students can watch them in your room.
When the butterflies hatch, it’s quite the event, but don’t forget to let them hang in order to dry their wings. That day, simply take them outside, roll the terrarium lid back, and wait for the butterflies to take their first flight.
Track Student Research
The study cycle for my class usually begins in early May with understanding the monarch as a species and then continues in late May and June by observing the monarch life cycle. We keep a scientific journal of our field findings, and we read and respond to a variety of videos and literature. I encourage students to compare and contrast what they research and what they see in the real world.
I like to use thinking maps to help students organize their research notes and observations. They allow students to use their research to write comparisons and contrasts, cause and effect, sequential order, and especially descriptive formatted paragraphs and essays.
It’s also important for students to see that with a steep decline in habitat, as well as changes to the milkweed/monarch relationship due to climate change, monarchs are now considered an endangered species. Much of our research at this point therefore involves writing and presenting what we are learning to others. We also like to encourage our community to grow more native vegetation for other butterfly and bird species as well.
Finally, it isn’t just the joy of your students, nor the intense scientific study that you’ll inspire, that makes studying monarchs so special. Monarch butterflies are a gateway species to children’s education about the changing world. Beginning with monarchs, students soon realize that there are many other species out there worthy of study and stewardship.