Research Experience for Teachers 2020: The Metamorphosis of the Monarch Butterfly and the Citizen Scientist

Author: Britney Christensen, 2020 RET, 4th Grade Teacher at Ealy Elementary in Whitehall, MI

Originally posted September 11, 2020 by KBS Long-term Ecological Research (KBS LTER), view here.

Most often, citizen scientists are exactly who you thought they would be – gardeners, teachers, nature enthusiasts. However, sometimes, the last person you would expect emerges as a surprising citizen scientist.

We were standing in a small patch of milkweed in what we called the Ealy Ditch, dividing our patch into sections and getting ready to count each plant. Gabe was squatting next to a small plant carefully searching for a monarch egg when I noticed a man walking around one of the school buses. He was heading toward us from our school’s bus garage parking lot. Tim introduced himself as one of the mechanics for Whitehall and asked if we were the butterfly people he read about in an email.

Tim asked questions about what we were looking for and what we were trying to find. As we talked, Gabe shared information about our Regrow Milkweed for Monarchs project and invited him to take a look at one of the monarch eggs we found. I couldn’t help but notice his work boots. His boots were scuffed and slightly covered by the hem of his dark blue work pants. These boots seemed like they were tiptoeing in the grass, avoiding any chance of damaging a milkweed plant. He glanced at the leaf Gabe held, commented on the egg’s tiny size, and carefully made his way back to safer ground. We encouraged him to visit again, and he walked back to the bus garage.

Each week Gabe and I set out to make our observations and to count every milkweed plant in our designated areas on our Whitehall campus. Each day was a different location and some had hundreds of milkweed. In the early weeks of June, we asked our superintendent for permission to mark off sections of the school’s property with pink marking flags knowing that when we cut back the milkweed, some might see it as unsightly blemishes to the otherwise well-manicured landscape. We also emailed our maintenance and grounds crew about our milkweed and monarch endeavor and started our fieldwork. 

In the beginning weeks of our research, Gabe and I weren’t exactly sure how to get started. We had a car full of supplies like pruning shears, a string trimmer, pink marking flags and tape, meter sticks, and orange snow stakes. We armed ourselves with coffee, water, sunscreen, bug spray, hats, sunglasses, and field notebooks and headed to one of three research sites each day. As we worked, we often wondered if we were following the project’s protocols correctly and if our sites were appropriate for the experiment. We found that a coin toss to determine the difference between a cut and uncut side of a milkweed patch is astonishingly suspenseful.

The two of us learned marking cut milkweed plants with small pink flags isn’t smart if the grass around it grows tall and hides the flags and the milkweed. We double-counted milkweed and double-checked for eggs and caterpillars for hours at a time. It was an incredible feeling of accomplishment

I’m not sure what people thought about when they saw us bent over or squatting down in the middle of what looked like untamed nature during one of the hottest weeks of summer. Occasionally, the head of maintenance, Rick, would check in with us to find out how we were doing. On other occasions, Tim would stop and chat when he saw us working in the Ealy Ditch. As the weeks went by, we often contacted Dr. Landis and Dr. Haan from the Landis Lab for help and almost grew comfortable calling them Doug and Nate. Those conversations pushed us to ask more questions and develop more hypotheses about our observations in the field. Eventually, we became more efficient with our counting and developed smarter strategies for keeping track of the data we were collecting. Orange snow stakes and meter sticks created grids within our milkweed patches. We discovered our efficiency made it easier to notice the fascinating ecosystem living on each milkweed plant. In these moments, we brainstormed ideas to answer the question, “How will we give this experience to our students?” 

The days are becoming shorter, and our time in the milkweed patches is waning; it’s August. We are still keeping track of our July cut at Hilt’s Landing, but more and more, our days are becoming dominated by unit writing and lesson planning. Last week, during one of our work sessions, we received an email from Rick, the head of maintenance. It read, “Tim found a cocoon on a bus wheel well, and we need to know what to do with it. We need to move the bus.” I couldn’t believe it! Tim recognized a chrysalis dangling in the wheel well and thought enough to contact us to try and save it. My husband and I met Tim and Rick in the bus garage, and sure enough, the bright green chrysalis had formed. 

The bus garage was buzzing with excitement and curiosity. Rick, Tim, and the head of the transportation department asked questions and made observations about the life cycle and migration patterns of the monarch butterfly. Everyone wondered how the caterpillar reached that part of the bus, where I would take the chrysalis, and how I was going to move it. I opened my bag and pulled out my “save the monarch” kit. With pointed tweezers in hand, I stared at the chrysalis. Rick didn’t think I had enough light, so he grabbed a flashlight and shined the light while staring at the chrysalis with me. Carefully, I detached the chrysalis from the bus and kept a tight squeeze on the tweezers.

Then my husband and I walked out of the bus garage and headed to our Ealy garden across the parking lot. With thread, a needle, and a little super glue, we attached the chrysalis under the picnic table, only inches away from an empty chrysalis from earlier this year.

There is power in conversations. The most significant aha moment for me was witnessing the initial discussion with Tim come full circle by August. I arrived at the picnic table for my daily photo session just after the miracle happened. I watched a newly emerged monarch butterfly, trembling in its new form, navigating the picnic table and fluttering to the brick wall in our Ealy garden. I considered the connection between the monarch’s life cycle and the role the milkweed plays in its survival. Similarly, I considered the relationship between the natural world and the role citizen scientists play in building awareness of conservation. Our Whitehall maintenance staff, with their oil-stained work boots and powerful hands accustomed to heavy machinery, emerged, just as the monarch appears in its new form, as genuine citizen scientists.

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