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Applying science to life, students release monarch butterflies into the wild

One of the Cloquet Middle School seventh-grade life science classes releases their monarch butterflies after raising them from the larva stage. Jamie Lund / Forum News Service1 / 3
Ashley Austin set a monarch butterfly on her nose before her seventh grade class set them free last week.It was the end of a long experiement when the kids raised a butterfly in class. Jamie Lund / Forum News Service2 / 3
Macie Hoffman catches one of the butterflies that the science class raised. The students have fun putting them on their noses for photos. Jamie Lund / Forum News Service3 / 3

CLOQUET, Minn. — A seventh-grade Cloquet Middle School science class laughed with glee as they sent their monarch butterflies into the air to freedom and, hopefully, Mexico.

Many of the butterflies did fly away into the cloudy day, while others floated to the ground like fall leaves twirling down from a tree or clung to a student's hand instead.

The class is one of several life science classes at the school that raise and then free butterflies each year.

"Have you ever walked into a science classroom and observed students so engaged in caring for monarch butterflies or working on individualized research projects that they may not even notice the bell is ringing?" science teacher Cynthia Welsh asked.

The butterfly project has been taught in the life science class for more than 15 years, Welsh added.

The students monitor the butterfly's growth from a larva through the chrysalis (a hard, protective case) stage, until it emerges from the chrysalis and is set free.

Each year, Welsh orders 170 monarch larvae from a website for Rachel Mueller and Matt Winbigler's science classes as well as her own. When they arrive, they only measure about 1 centimeter long.

The Cloquet Educational Foundation helps pay for the larvae as well as project materials and a bus to take students to participate in the Monarch Ecology Fair each year.

According to Welsh, the students measure, observe and collect data as they raise the little pollinators. The students also take photographs and use a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet to help chart the progress so they can analyze the data and learn how to collect data for their own research project.

"I'm time-lapsing my chrysalis on the iPad because it's almost ready to come out," science student Emily Sapyta explained. "The chrysalis is when it's been green for two weeks and then it starts to turn clear so you can see the monarch inside of it. When it does that (turns clear), it's almost time to come out. When it does, it will be a butterfly."

The larvae need plenty of fresh milkweed leaves to eat as they grow. The students constantly measure the tiny caterpillars as they grow and prepare to build the chrysalis.

Moths spin cocoons around themselves. Butterfly larva become the chrysalis and the chrysalis becomes the butterfly, according to Welsh.

The students can watch as the caterpillar molts and usually eats the skin. Once the caterpillar has transformed into a chrysalis, it will emerge as a butterfly in 10 to 14 days. When the chrysalis changes from green to clear, the butterfly is about to make an entrance. The students video the emerging butterflies using a time lapse app on their iPads so they can watch later.

The excited students need to wait several hours for the monarchs' wings to dry after coming out of the chrysalis before they can handle the butterflies. The classes then set the butterflies free when the temperatures are above freezing. They expect the butterflies to fly to the Twin Cities by the end of the day they are released, then land in Mexico at the end of two weeks.

Sometimes, a butterfly emerges with damaged wings and can't fly. They are kept in large cages in the classroom and fed juice on a sponge.

"I have kept one alive until May, but they usually only live for a couple of weeks," Welsh said.

Monarch butterflies, like other pollinators, have decreased in numbers over the years due to pesticides, loss of habitat and climate changes.

Once the middle school project is done, students can apply what they have learned later in high school and choose to participate in the Monarch/Insect Fair, the regional science fair and/or the American Indian Science and Engineering Fair.

Fun facts about the monarch butterfly

• The lifespan of the monarch butterfly is six to eight months.

• Their migration to Mexico can be up to 3,000 miles.

• Four generations of monarchs will be born each year, with only the last one making the flight to Mexico in the fall.