Monarch Butterflies Get a Head Start in the Schoolyard

NRDC joins with Monarch Watch to distribute free milkweed plants to schools across the country and turn students into butterfly gardeners.

Students at Kelly Mill Elementary in Cumming, Georgia, studying their garden and tracking their success with milkweed

Courtesy Laura Fedorchuk

Elementary school teacher Laura Fedorchuk is on a milkweed crusade. It’s a relatively recent venture. At the start of 2016, Fedorchuk hadn’t even heard of the milkweed plant, much less its critical importance to one of the animal kingdom’s greatest migrators, the monarch butterfly. But a reading assignment on butterflies (and a few unanswerable student questions) sent Fedorchuk and her class at Kelly Mill Elementary in Cumming, Georgia, down a rabbit hole of research. Soon enough, they were taking action.

A monarch caterpillar eating a milkweed leaf

Courtney Celley/USFWS

Now Fedorchuk easily rattles off facts on tropical versus native milkweed species, the role the plants play as the monarch’s egg-laying habitat and their caterpillars’ only food source, and the threats facing the monarch as these plants diminish across their range due to the skyrocketing use of herbicides that are toxic to the milkweed plant. In the school’s milkweed garden, which Fedorchuk started in mid-2016, she and her students-turned-botanists tend dozens of milkweed plants, which have since housed hundreds of monarch chrysalises and become an important stopover site for the butterflies on their migration across the United States and back to Mexico.

Fedorchuk’s story is one of many like it to come out of a free milkweed distribution program run by the education, conservation, and research nonprofit Monarch Watch in partnership with NRDC. Launched in 2014, the milkweed program invites schools and nonprofits to apply to receive 32 young milkweed plants along with instructions for setting up and tending a garden. (Schools also receive suggestions on other species of flowering plants to provide nectar for adult butterflies.) The program has since distributed 27,000 free milkweed plants to nearly 850 organizations across the country.

At participating schools, the growing process requires students to problem solve in real time, Fedorchuk says. For instance, they must figure out what their seeds need to thrive, or why certain milkweed plants survive and others don’t. “These students became citizen scientists,” she says, “and I did, too.”

Sylvia Fallon, senior director of NRDC’s Wildlife Division, has managed the partnership with Monarch Watch since its founding. “We’re not only getting milkweed into gardens across the country, which will help benefit these pollinators, but also reaching a new generation of kids,” Fallon says. “We’re letting them know about the problems monarchs are facing and what we can do about it. And we’re inspiring them to be good stewards of the land.”

Dr. Orley “Chip” Taylor founded the University of Kansas–based Monarch Watch in 1992 and is known to his colleagues as “the monarch guy.” With the public’s help, Taylor crowdsourced milkweed seeds from various regions across the country, and these seeds have since become the backbone of the distribution project. Today, Monarch Watch’s milkweed grows in most U.S. states to help support both the eastern and western North American monarch populations.

Angela Babbit, communications coordinator at Monarch Watch, says she’s continually impressed by the investment from schools and teachers and by the diverse ways they fit the milkweed into their curricula. “Some schools have vegetable gardens or pollinator gardens. A lot of these students are Future Farmers of America–type students, or tech students learning about the importance of pollinators and planting,” she says.

Angela Babbit, communications coordinator for Monarch Watch, holding a flat of milkweed seedlings ready to ship from Applied Ecological Services’ Taylor Creek Nursery

Courtesy Monarch Watch

In addition to developing their green thumbs, students get a lesson in the remarkable natural history of the monarchs themselves. Every spring millions of these butterflies start making their journey northward from the Sierra Madre range of Central Mexico. They lay their eggs on milkweed plants that they encounter en route and the next generation continues the migration in search of more milkweed. The monarchs spend several generations on their summer breeding grounds that span the United States—some make their way as far north as the southern parts of Canada. Finally, each fall, a “super generation” is born that makes the southward migration all the way back to the same forests in Mexico, where the butterflies spend the winter.

Migrating monarch butterflies resting on a pine tree branch in a forest in Mexico

W. Perry Conway/MediaBakery

 “Once you are aware of the tremendous migration that these little butterflies make each year you can’t help but be in complete awe of them as they stop in your backyard to fuel up,” Fallon says. “They look so fragile and aimless that it’s hard to believe they are actually hardy and tenacious.”

A tagged monarch preparing for its journey

Courtesy Laura Fedorchuk

Students participating in the Monarch Watch program can receive the butterfly passersby as they’re traveling either northward or southward, depending on the garden’s location along the migratory path. Students learn to spot monarch eggs on milkweed plants, snip the leaf, and bring the egg inside—away from potential environmental threats. Then, over the course of a month, they observe that most classic of transformations: egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly. Students also help in tagging the visitors with light, noninvasive stickers given to them by Monarch Watch—a way to collect data on migration patterns—before letting them go for the next leg of their long journey.

The work of these students—and monarch enthusiasts across the country helping to provide more monarch habitat—gives the beleaguered butterflies a critical boost. In the past two decades, the monarch population has dropped by a staggering 80 percent. There are multiple causes, but one big culprit is the heavy use of the weed killer glyphosate—better known by its brand name, Roundup. It’s used largely on corn and soybean crops that have been genetically modified to withstand the application of the herbicide; it is also sprayed widely on golf courses, parks, and residential lawns. Not only does glyphosate kill off milkweed, but the World Health Organization’s cancer research agency has identified it as a probable carcinogen. (NRDC has gone to court to fight the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s approval of this and other herbicides.)

Though threats loom large for the monarch, there was a recent sliver of good news: The monarch population count released this year shows that the eastern population is up—perhaps, researchers guess, due to favorable weather conditions and the impact of restoration projects. The bad news: The western population has crashed, reaching a crisis level. All the more reason for programs like Monarch Watch to double down.

Tell the EPA to protect monarchs from toxic herbicides

“Monarchs are the butterfly,” says Fallon, who has a monarch tattoo inspired by the insect’s remarkable journey. “It’s the one butterfly most everyone knows. But the great thing is that the solutions that are going to help the monarch—such as reducing herbicide use and increasing flowering habitat—are going to benefit lots of other pollinators too.”

Bringing awareness to the threats is half the battle. So much of the success of Monarch Watch’s program has come from teachers like Fedorchuk and from the young citizen scientists who become apprentices in their schools’ gardens.

Case in point: With their newfound enthusiasm, Fedorchuk’s students have expanded the project off site by getting approval to plant more milkweed seeds in a nearby park alongside “Got Milkweed?” educational signs. “We love that we are reaching so many more people than just our school community now,” she says. A project to make and sell “eastern wildflower seed bombs”—seed-packed pods that can be thrown into backyards to promote the growth of the native species that pollinators depend on—is also in the works.

“Once you make something relevant and real for a student, they’re excited. We were going outside, getting our hands dirty. We even got featured in the Forsyth County News,” she says. “Of course they wanted to do more.”

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