Ready to fly: Monarchs raised at Libertyville High School prepare for their winter migration
The last monarch butterfly set to leave its temporary home at Libertyville High School is aptly named Caboose.
After being tagged and gently placed among the wildflowers in the school's native plant courtyard, the colorful creature will take nourishment before embarking Monday on a long, perilous journey to spend winter in the mountains about 60 miles northwest of Mexico City.
The annual migration of hundreds of millions of monarchs from eastern North America is a remarkable natural wonder. Their return to Mexico in late October is associated by some tribes with returning souls on the Day of the Dead, a holiday celebrating those who have passed.
This year, about 55 of the delicate creatures making the journey were raised from eggs collected from milkweed near Libertyville High and matured in a mesh enclosure in Room 226.
"The end of the season is bittersweet," said Jennifer Kahn, an AP Environmental Science teacher who for the past three years has incorporated monarchs into the classroom. "We will definitely miss watching these creatures develop through their life cycle, but it is a good feeling to know that we have contributed to the restoration of this fascinating species."
The butterflies are indicators of the health of open space, said Ken Klick, restoration ecologist with the Lake County Forest Preserve District. While monarchs are doing well in Lake County where habitat exists, declining numbers overall reflect the loss of unprotected open space to development and other land use changes, he said.
Kahn's class is an effort to support the migration of monarchs and spread knowledge.
"The monarchs are absolutely a hook for a lot of kids into the ecology topic," she said. "There's no doubt that having the butterflies in the classroom makes a huge difference in student interest and engagement."
Improving habitat by planting milkweed is the most important way to conserve monarchs, according to Monarch Watch, a nonprofit education, conservation and research program based at the University of Kansas.
But rearing them has "incredible educational, inspirational and scientific importance," according to Monarch Watch's Dr. Karen Oberhauser, who has worked with monarchs for decades.
The LHS project began with the collection of monarch eggs from milkweed, the sole source of food for monarch caterpillars.
Over about a month, their lives unfolded in stages from larva (caterpillar) to pupa (chrysalis) and, finally, to butterfly. The transformation provides teachable moments, as well as responsibility for students who monitored and cared for the charges.
Senior Sophia Simpson had a front-row seat.
"I think everything we learn is really interesting, but learning about the butterflies is really fun," she said.
Students show up before and after school to check on the progress, according to Kahn, and there is no shortage of helpers.
"It's fun and very interactive, and it engages kids," said Sophia's classmate, Camden Hart. "We're hoping these butterflies make it to Mexico."
In April and May, butterflies returning from Mexico lay eggs on milkweed plants in the southern U.S. Their children continue north to lay eggs. That next generation continues the migration north to Canada, as more wildflowers produce nectar to sustain them.
By July, the third generation is common in this region, drinking nectar and laying eggs on milkweed. They will become the parents of the monarchs that migrate back to Mexico.
This fourth generation emerged with wet wings from the chrysalides in Kahn's classroom.
"Tagging" is the final and most delicate step in the process. Students affix stickers supplied by Monarch Watch to a specific spot on a monarch's wing. The tags help Monarch Watch volunteers define the window, timing and pace of migration.
It also shows how the probability of reaching Mexico is related to geographic location, size of the butterfly and date, according to the organization.
This year, the organization distributed about 500,000 tags. About 1% to 3% are recovered, said Angie Babbit, communications coordinator for Monarch Watch.
Sustaining the migration will require the cooperation of the U.S., Canada and Mexico, according to Monarch Watch.
"The North American Monarch Conservation Plan" is in the early stages of being implemented. It advocates control of illegal logging in Mexico and the enhancement, restoration and protection of monarch habitats throughout the continent.
Kahn said none of her monarchs have been reported so far and the odds of that happening are low. But she plans to keep at it.
"For one reason or another, monarchs are popular," she said. "People love them, their life cycle is fascinating and it draws people in."