We have made an annual pilgrimage to the Butterfly Station at Farnsworth Middle School for nine summers now and every year we learn something new. This year, we learned about the value of perseverance and broad purpose.
We were greeted by a knowledgeable tour guide, 11-year-old Crystal Choi, who, like a score of others, is devoting her precious summer hours to instructing visitors on the science of raising native plants and the butterflies that feed on them.
“We’re hoping to inspire people to plant their own native gardens,” she says as she stands among the Queen Anne’s lace and milkweed in her school’s courtyard.
“I like butterflies,” says Crystal. “I have a lot of caterpillars at home.”
When she learned that monarch butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed, Crystal went to a field near her Harmony Hill home and turned over milkweed leaves until she found the tiny white eggs — each no bigger than the head of a pin.
She has watched her caterpillars grow and thrive. She knows when one hangs in the shape of a J, it is ready to form its chrysalis. When the chrysalis becomes transparent, Crystal knows the butterfly will soon be emerging.
She displays one of the monarchs at school on the fingers of her outstretched hand as if fans its wings, dring them. She can read the black lines that tell whether it is a male or a female.
How long will her monarchs stay in the chrysalis phase?
“I don’t know,” answers Crystal. “I’m going to find out by watching.”
Crystal can see a touch of orange on a chrysalis at home and knows her butterfly will soon emerge. She plans to let it go.
She thinks she’d like to be a biologist. It appears she’s on her way, with her careful observations and questioning spirit.
Inside the net-covered butterfly house, the air feels alive with the flutter of wings. Connor Chew, who announces his age as eight-and two thirds, is madly taking pictures. He is visiting with his family.
Farnsworth volunteer Mike Cavallaro, who, like Crystal, is 11, says of the butterflies that circle him, “I like having them land on you.”
Mike has developed a method to attract butterflies. He wipes some sweat from his brown onto his forefinger and holds it out. soon, a spice-bush swallowtail, with velvet black wings, has landed.
Mike extends his butterfly-festooned hand toward Connor so he can take a picture of the swallowtail. “They like salt,” Mike says triumphantly.
Mike would like to be an inventor. He’s worked since the first grade on trying to build a hover craft. “I love working with magnets,” he says. “So far, I’ve failed.”
He shrugs and goes back to expounding on the glories of the butterfly house. “The coolest thing is watching them mating. One goes inside the wings of the other. They’re cojoined. It almost looks like one big butterfly.
In the Museum Room, Matt Walsh, who will be a high school student next year, offers visitors a strange pair of goggles. He models them himself. “It lets you look at the world like a butterfly,” says Matt. “They have compound eyes.”
With the goggle on, the world is fractured. Looking at Matt, we see bits of his face, repeated, as if in a kaleidoscope, over and over but not in a discernible pattern—a piece of lip here, the dark tutt of hair over an ear there—ad infinitum.
Another optical surprise in the Museum room is the way a butterfly wing looks under a microscope—almost like a pixelated digital photograph, tiny cells in patchy blocks.
Matt enthusiastically describes a trick of nature illustrated by museum specimens. “The monarch is poisonous because it eats toxic milkweed so birds don’t eat the monarch,” he says.
A viceroy butterfly is displayed next to the monarch, with similar orange wings, lined in black —o nly smaller. “Birds stay away from the viceroy because they think it’s a monarch,” says Matt.
Once they’ve tasted it, they never forget.”
Nine years ago, science teacher Alan Fiero told us his plans for a butterfly garden at Farnsworth Middle School would culminate with the breeding of the rare Karner blue butterfly. The Karner blue, which once thrived on the native lupine in the A1bany Pine Bush, is now an endangered species.
This year, Dr. Fiero came close. “We were given five females but it was late in the season,” he said. “We didn’t get any eggs...If they don’t lay eggs in three days, you need to get another female.”
Fiero had traveled to Indiana to “model their procedure,” he said. Farnsworth Middle School, he said, is the first school in the country to get a license from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to breed the butterflies.
Fiero is used to reaching out and applying for grants for his many school science projects. This time, though, he said, the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation and the Albany Pine Bush Commission came to us.”
“Nine years ago, we said, if they ever need us, we want to be ready,” he recalled.
Fiero shrugged, then he smiled.
“We’ll try again next year with more Karner Blues,” he said.
He is working in the Metamorphosis Room as students flutter about him like so many purposeful butterflies.
The tables are lined with many neat rows of plastic containers, each filled with the appropriate plant of growing larvae. At the far side of the room, newly-hatched butteflies are drying their wings in the safety of a net enclosure, preparing for their first flight.
It occurs to us that all around Fiero, students are feeding at the intellectual trough, as it were; they are growing, transforming themselves, and spreading their wings.
We’re sure Fiero will persevere as he always does and next year - or, if not, the year after - Farnsworth will be the first school to have its students breeding the endangered Karner Blue butterfly. But, in the meantime, the broad-based learning that is going on, both for Farnsworth students and the community members who visit, is transforming the world.