Shoreham kids crown new crop of Monarch butterflies
SHOREHAM — The late, great stand-up comedian George Carlin once said, “The caterpillar does all the work, but the butterfly gets all the publicity.”
That may be especially true when that butterfly is royalty, as in the “monarch,” an increasingly scarce specimen that the eight eager students in Ms. Justine Logan’s first-grade class at Shoreham Elementary School are taking pains to study, raise and release for the insect’s annual marathon flight to Mexico.
Every August for the past 16 years, Logan has arisen during the wee hours of the morning or stayed up through dusk to trudge through local hay fields in search of monarch caterpillars. She carefully harvests any examples she can find and brings them to school, where she and her first-grade charges watch them munch on milkweed until they fashion, and occupy, their chrysalises for a wondrous 10-day slumber. The caterpillars, of course, emerge as monarch butterflies, much to the delight of Logan’s students, each of whom gets a turn sending the winged wonders off on a cross-country flight fraught with excitement and potential pitfalls, courtesy of Mother Nature.
Logan emphasizes that these aren’t just any monarchs; they are the critical fourth-generation of the butterfly that will have the lengthiest and most important migration. The previous three generations of the monarchs spent their entire, short lives winging their way toward Vermont from parts further south beginning this past spring, she explained.
“These monarchs are the only ones that will migrate all the way back to Mexico,” she said.
During past years, Logan has had to search through a lot of different hay fields to find enough monarch caterpillars to make for a thorough study. She has made her rounds in mid-August, carefully picking fields that have not yet been cut by farmers and that feature an abundance of the caterpillars’ dietary staple: milkweed. This year, Logan hit the mother lode of caterpillar caches — in a Shoreham field that she wants to keep secret. She naturally asked the landowner for permission to walk on the property and then collected a whopping 116 of the crawly caterpillars. She hopes to return there for future caterpillar harvests.
“The most (caterpillars) I had ever found before this was 65,” Logan said. “This, to me, is one of the most important hay fields in Vermont. It was an amazing find.”
She brought the caterpillars into class and placed them into a holding cage, along with an ample milkweed supply. Each day, the children charted the caterpillars’ growth, time spent in their chrysalises, and their winged emergence in stunning orange, black and white patterns.
Every one of the surviving 111 butterflies is receiving a heart-felt send-off from the kids. Together, they recite, “Gotta go, gotta go, gotta go to Mexico!” the title of a picture book about the monarch butterfly by Sam Swope and Sue Riddle. They all go out in front of the school, where a designated student sticks out his or her pointer finger to provide a takeoff perch from which the new butterfly wings its way in wobbly fashion to the nearest tree. There, it gains some more strength and courage to begin its 2,800-mile trip to Mexico. The fortunate ones will complete the journey and overwinter in the warmth before the northern migration cycle repeats itself next spring.
Logan noted that each of these Shoreham Elementary monarchs is adorned with a tiny sticker bearing a 1-800 telephone number so people who happen to cross paths with the fanciful flutterers can call and report their whereabouts. She acknowledges it’s rare for the butterflies to generate a call. It’s only happened once in her history of teaching the monarch program, and that case tragically involved a specimen that had flown over Lake Champlain only to have a too-close encounter with the grill of a speeding vehicle in New York state.
But the Shoreham students are confident that most of their butterflies are somehow beating the odds and making it all the way to Mexico for some southern Hospitalidad.
Students weren’t shy about sharing their favorite aspects of the butterfly project.
“I liked when we said ‘Goodbye’ and followed the butterfly when it flew away,” Tenny Laroche said.
“I liked seeing one up close and in a cage,” Seaver Cadoret said.
“We got to see their life cycle,” exclaimed Addie Hyjek.
Indeed, the educational benefits of the monarch project go far beyond entomology, according to Logan. They learn math by counting the insects and geography by charting their path to Mexico. They must also use their reading, drawing and observation skills, Logan said.
“It’s very hands-on,” she said. “Each day, there is something new and exciting happening.”
Logan is concerned that she is not finding monarchs in as many Addison County locations as she used to. She also noted reports of fewer monarchs wintering in Mexico, with scientists pointing to a combination of less milkweed, the application of agricultural pesticides and climate change as among possible contributing factors.
Someday, the students may see the monarch’s metamorphosis as a metaphor for their own maturation to adulthood when they spread their wings and become independent.
But for now, it’s just plain fun — for students and teacher alike.
“I have been doing this for 16 years, and it’s still a miracle to me,” Logan said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]