In Flurry of Motion, Lessons Take Wing

by ANNE MILLER Staff writer

On a wing and a cheer, more than 50 monarch butterflies left their birthplace at the Farnsworth Middle School Friday afternoon for their ancestral winter grounds in northern Mexico.
More than 50 students gathered in the school’s courtyard, where the butterflies were raised, and launched the orange and black beauties on their transcontinental migration, chanting, “Gotta go, gotta go, gotta go to Mexico,” to speed the insects on their way.

“It’s getting buggy out here,” said science supervisor Alan Fiero, sporting one of his many butterfly ties.

Four years ago, Fiero said, he began a lesson inside the school to replicate the Pine Bush environment around the campus, particularly the plants preferred by the endangered Karner blue butterflies. Studying them led Fiero and his students to catch and raise five to 10 species of local butterflies, including monarchs.

A nationwide program through the University of Kansas involves tagging and releasing the king of butterflies to monitor its numbers each year. Fiero thought the program was perfect for his students.

For the past three summers, students have raised and bred the butterflies in a greenhouse with walls of wire mesh. Plastic Chinese restaurant takeout food containers are excellent places to hatch cocoons, said teacher Demian Singleton. The students gave public tours of their gardens while they raised the butterflies’ offspring.

When the third generation hatches each fall, students place tiny, white stickers on their wings, and off they fly. Earlier generations die before they can migrate; butterflies live about a month.

“It’s like kind of watching a baby or something,” said eighth-grader Lily Rowen, 13.

The numbered stickers include the address to contact if the butterflies are found, although the farthest teachers said they have heard from is Voorheesville.

The importance of tagging rose this year. Cold weather in Mexico killed many butterflies last year. Fiero said scientists hope to find out how much the monarchs suffered this time by counting them.

The butterfly facts pale, however, to other lessons the project offers his students, Fiero said: “They learn to work with the public. They become the teachers. It’s a maturing process for them.”

He waxed poetic, too, calling the butterflies a metaphor for pubescence. “Although you may be awkward at the start,” he said, “You become beautiful and fly away.”

Eighth-grader Jen Meglino, 13, put it another way: “It’s, like, amazing, oh my God, I can’t even explain it, it’s so cool.”

Printed in the October/November 2002 Newsletter