What started as a small piece of prairie land has now become a beautiful, shade-filled area covered with trees, flowers and various plants that each spring beckon the Monarch butterflies to stop and sit awhile before continuing their journey southward toward Mexico.
For 20 years Washington Irving fifth-graders have been building on the school’s butterfly garden, expanding it and spending time tending it.
What started as merely a butterfly garden to attract butterflies in the spring has grown into a garden with the purpose of attracting Monarch butterflies and banding them so their flight paths can be followed.
Retired special education teacher Cheryl Coffelt-Kern planted the first trees in Washington Irving Elementary School’s Butterfly Garden, and although she has left her indoor classroom, she is still teaching in the outdoor classroom she started 20 years ago.
“There was a surge of butterflies a few weekends ago, and at one time there were 12 Monarch butterflies throughout the garden,” Coffelt-Kern said.
When asked what they had learned about Monarch butterflies this year the students were eager to reply. One student described how they create a habitat for Monarchs.
“One thing is that you get to learn about milkweed and that it is a host plant for Monarch butterflies. Monarchs cannot survive without milkweed. Their caterpillars only eat milkweed plants, and monarchs need milkweed to lay their eggs for birthing,” Keegan Miller said.
The students used all of the tags they were allotted tagging 25 monarchs this year. They are working through the Monarch Watch Program out of Kansas University to track monarch butterflies’ migration paths. The tags tell if the butterfly was raised in captivity or caught wild, and it also tells if the butterfly is a male or female.
“This year we tagged 17 males and eight females. The students had many opportunities to observe the Monarchs. This year they were able to capture, tag and release Monarchs from the Washington Irving Butterfly Garden. It was wonderful seeing the effect that the garden has inviting the Monarch come to visit the garden,” Coffelt-Kern said.
This year the students began with eight caterpillars and four Monarch butterflies that were raised and tagged, Coffelt-Kern said.
“The butterflies are so fragile in the beginning,” she added. “It is easy to see why there have to be so many eggs laid in order for the population to grow. There were three males and one female in our caterpillar population.”
Coffelt-Kern said there seemed to be more Monarchs migrating through their garden area this year.
“That is why we work so hard in our garden so we can help the butterflies survive,” fifth-grader Grace Pierce said.
In the autumn of each year, tens of millions of Monarchs start their 3,000-mile journey from the northeastern U.S. and Canada to their wintering grounds in the volcanic mountains of central Mexico. The location of their breeding grounds remained a mystery until 1977, and how a new generation of butterflies finds it each year is still unknown.
“Monarch butterflies are on the Endangered Species list as their habitats are being cut down. A Monarch’s life span is only two or three months, but the butterflies that are born from the eggs that are laid somehow instinctively know to come to a specific area,” Coffelt-Kern said.
The students realize what they are doing does not go unnoticed.
“What we do is important for the environment,” Isaac Brack said. “They are the only butterflies in the U.S. that migrate.”