Butterfly Classroom Activity…It’s time to Re-Think this Lesson

A decades-old trend in the classroom is to order a Painted Lady butterfly kit to teach students about the life cycle of the butterfly. We want teachers to re-think this lesson. Why not choose a Monarch Butterfly Kit instead?

One reason may be that before the last few years, Monarch life cycle kits were not available for purchase. Now that educational supply companies and small farms across the US are popping up with options for shipping the kits, the game has changed. You can now receive a kit with Monarch eggs or larvae, and a full-grown Milkweed plant along with instructions and other items to successfully raise Monarchs.

Why change something that is working, you say. We’ve visited several US-wide blogs and pages over the past few months, and have found that the painted lady kit is not as successful as one might think. Reports of getting over a dozen larvae with only two making it to emergence is common-place. The ladies come with artificial diet, a sand-colored mixture in a small plastic container. The larvae simply eat this mixture, then form their chrysalis’ inside. They don’t hang themselves, just lay on the bottom or in a messy web they weave until they hatch. Painted ladies are beautiful, but small, muted in color, and their life cycle is just not interesting.

Interesting is watching Monarch caterpillars, bright yellow and black striped creatures, munching on a live Milkweed plant. They eat a tremendous amount – 9,000 times their body weight during the larval stage! They change their skin (called the molt) five times to accommodate the growth.

To see the milkweed plant skinned to the stems after housing these voracious eaters is pure entertainment. Then they go into a “j” shape and turn into a vivid jade colored chrysalis, as beautiful as a piece of jewelry. It even has a regal golden band around it. The emergence can be seen, as the chrysalis is adhered to the top of the netted enclosure. No opening a cup lid to see the progress.

Besides their interesting life cycle, other lessons can dovetail with the life cycle curriculum. Teaching the students about milkweed and why we need it in everyone’s garden or on everyone’s porch. You see, the Monarch has hovered just above being labeled an endangered species for years. One of the main causes of this is habitat (milkweed) depletion. A Monarch is also the only migrating butterfly. The ones born in the Fall migrate to Mexico (east coast stock) or California (west coast stock). Tagging them to see if they made it is a fun activity to do with the class. Toxins are another topic that comes along with the Monarch. They eat the toxic milkweed plant and make themselves “unpalatable” to predators. Ants, wasps, praying mantis, birds and lizards recognize toxic prey by their vivid coloring. This makes the Monarch a little safer than other species with less coloring and non-toxic host plants.

Finally, the lessons learned from this butterfly will go with the students, making them more likely to become Monarch enthusiasts and hopefully having some of the host plant at home. That’s our goal. For every household to have these very important plants for generations of Monarchs.

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