GREENSBURG – It’s a tale as old as time.

In the waning days of summer, countless monarch butterflies take flight on a long, arduous pilgrimage to Mexico – just as their ancestors had – intending to live out the remainder of their nectar-slurping days in the warmer climate south of the border.

What began as an endearingly ugly caterpillar completes its metamorphosis from squishy, semi-beastly larva into the stately beauty of the monarch in a matter of days. It’s one of nature’s swiftest and more surprising transformations, and a large group of North Decatur Elementary School (NDES) students are experiencing it firsthand.

Teacher Linda Smith’s multiage class composed of first and second grade students are doing their part to make sure the butterflies’ journey goes as close to planned as possible. For several weeks they’ve been collecting the black, yellow and white-striped bugs that will one day take on the signature appearance of the orange and black monarch butterfly, keeping watch over the eight-legged larvae as nature takes its course.

They’ve seen the milkweed-fed caterpillars begin the molting process, cocooning themselves in what is known as a chrysalis (not actually a cocoon – that’s for future moths only) before emerging, wings already aflutter and ready to take flight.

Smith’s students determine the gender of the butterfly and help attach a tiny sticker to one of its wings as a way of tracking the insect’s progress. While the monarchs are vacationing in sunny Mexico for the winter, researchers there record the tag numbers. That information is relayed back to the North Decatur kids in the spring who can then determine how many of their tiny friends bested the myriad dangers – birds, weather and even windshields – between here and their destination.

Students closely monitor the caterpillars’ transformations, and once the butterfly emerges the kids are there to give it an appropriate send-off.

Smith’s class gathered outside the school to send well-wishes Wednesday morning to a small contingent of erstwhile caterpillars prepping for the long journey. The kids cheered loudly as the butterflies took flight, especially as the insects cleared the roof of the building, officially on their way to Mexico at that point. The butterflies themselves appeared to revel in the attention as well, taking their time and flying in erratic patterns before making their exit. One particularly stubborn lady butterfly took her leave before the teacher and her students could apply the tag, drawing laughs from the kids. Another dropped straight to the pavement, its wings not quite ready yet for its 1,800 miles or so flight. That fledgling specimen will get another chance soon, once its matured a little more.

It’s uncertain what will happen as the butterflies begin their journeys, but the project is definitely keeping the elementary school students entertained.

Smith, who has been engaged in this project for years, told the Daily News the lifespan of the monarch butterfly is approximately nine months. This particular insect was chosen, Smith said, due to the short time it takes for students to watch the entirety of the bug’s life prior to its great migratory adventure.

She said many of the butterflies who return to Decatur County to lay eggs in the coming months will in fact be the children of the gentle creatures the young Chargers waved goodbye to during this project.

But if that sounds at all bittersweet, the entomologists-in-training at NDES are well aware of the circle of life they’re seeing in class each day. And though only about half of the monarchs will actually make it safely to Mexico, the kids in charge treat each one with the type of care reserved for a favorite pet.

They’re learning plenty along the way, too.

Six-year-old Jessa said she and her family raised a monarch from the time it was an egg until it was released on its own little nonstop flight to the furthest southern reaches of North America. Jessa joked that a poem about butterflies written by her big brother used the wrong terminology, saying the insects hatched from cocoons instead of from a chrysalis.

“His poem is just wrong,” she said with a laugh. Jessa happily said she once attempted to chase down a monarch butterfly while playing outside but was unsuccessful in capturing it.

Classmate Dot, also 6, is happy to be able to recognize if a butterfly she sees is a boy or a girl.

“I think it’s cool,” the student said of the project. “I learned if you see a monarch butterfly and if it doesn’t have any dots that means it’s a girl.”

Eight-year-old Cooper said he’d never been involved in a science experiment like this before but was enjoying it.

“I think that it’s a fun project to do during school,” Cooper said.

Garrett, age 6, said he liked helping tag the butterflies and watching them take flight. The four kids also tried to describe what the caterpillar feels like, saying it was “squishy, smooth and soft.”

The learning experience lends assistance to researchers at the University of Kansas who track the monarchs’ migration.

The children and their teacher are hoping Decatur County residents will help them out with their project by collecting monarch caterpillars and bringing them to the school. The hairless bugs are typically found on milkweed leaves, their sole food source.

Anyone wishing to assist the project is free to bring their caterpillars to NDES. The school can be reached by phone at 812-663-9215.

 

Contact: Brent Brown 812-663-3111 x7056; brent.brown@greensburgdailynews.com

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