The annual flutter of orange and black wings has passed through the Kansas City area — and one school in Peculiar was ready for it. Earlier this month, students at Raymore-Peculiar High School tagged dozens of monarch butterflies heading to Mexico for their yearly migration.
It’s all part of a larger program where field biology and botany students created a waystation for the monarch migration. The field of nectar-rich plants is almost like a truck stop for the butterflies.
Botany students planted a 20-by-20-yard patch of milkweed for local monarch caterpillars to eat as they develop. They also planted a field of nectar-rich plants including New England asters, blazing stars, goldenrod and slender mountain mint.
The school has devoted about an acre to this first phase of the project.
Teacher Mike Roberts heard about the Monarch Watch program at the University of Kansas about five years ago. When he started teaching field biology, he decided to include monarch migration as part of the class insect collection unit.
Instead of collecting them, though, the idea was for the students to tag and release the monarchs to help track their migration. The first year, he was only able to tag one butterfly. The next, it was somewhere between five and 10 butterflies.
This was the third year Roberts and his classes tried tagging the monarchs. The night before, he was working in the outdoor classroom area and saw between 50 and 100 butterflies settle into nearby trees. When the sun came up the next day, they were all aflutter.
“All of the sudden, kids were catching them left and right. We used up 25 stickers in half an hour,” Roberts said.
Emily Behymer, 18, participated in the butterfly tagging.
“Most of the kids are running around like they’re on fire. I’m more of the slow stalk-it type,” she said.
She took the botany class last year and is part of the field biology class this year.
“It’s a visual, hands-on thing that I like. It really connects with nature,” she said.
Behymer has been so fascinated by the project that she’s considering majoring in something related to it when she goes to college.
After the butterflies leave the Kansas City area, they head south. Later, people in Mexico will collect butterflies and publish the tags of the ones they find with Monarch Watch.
Around Labor Day, Roberts found about 30 caterpillars chowing down in the milkweed patch and brought them inside his classroom as they developed their chrysalises. Once they emerged as butterflies, “we put stickers on at least 20 and wished them a good flight to Mexico,” Roberts said.
In the future, he’d like to add to the waystation area and include plants to help fuel the monarchs who pass through in the spring on their way from Mexico to Canada.
He likes having the developing butterflies in his classroom for students to see, although research he’s seen suggests that the butterflies that develop outside have a better chance at successfully migrating.
In the future, Roberts will have some financial support to help fuel this project and others related to his classes. He started with a $750 grant from the Ray-Pec Foundation that paid for the seeds.
Now, he’s gotten a $6,000 grant from the Missouri Department of Conservation. Part of that money will go to the monarch project, and the rest will go toward other classroom projects.
His next challenge for students is to manage invasive plants, such as Japanese honeysuckle, that will try to encroach on their waystation area. In the future, he’d like to pair his high-school students with elementary-aged students to show the younger kids how it all works.
Anyone can create a small waystation, either with milkweed to promote caterpillar envelopment or nectar-rich plants to help fuel monarchs on their migration path, Behymer said.
“It doesn’t have to be a big, huge thing. Plant a small patch of milkweed or nectar-bearing plants. Anything helps,” she said. “It can start a domino effect. You do something, and your neighbor sees it and does something.”