Butterflies Flutter By
As a docent for my local state park, I led a spring nature walk for a group of elementary students. We practiced being “naturalists” by noticing all of the plants and animals living on and around an old rock wall. Looking closely, we discovered small, reddish eggs on some of the heart-shaped leaves of a Pipevine plant, which was winding its way along the wall’s crevices. Just as I was about to explain what kind of critter laid these eggs, a beautiful black butterfly with iridescent blue hind wings fluttered over our heads. “That’s it!” I excitedly told the group, “A Pipevine Swallowtail Butterfly!”
The adult Pipevine Swallowtail only lays her eggs on host plants that her larvae will eat, such as Dutchman’s Pipe, California Pipe, and Virginia Snakeroot. These plants have chemicals in them that are poisonous to most animals. However, Pipevine Swallowtail caterpillars can eat them without being harmed. The pipevine’s chemicals stay inside the caterpillars, making them poisonous to predators, such as birds. Monarch butterflies use a similar survival strategy using poisonous chemicals in milkweed plants.
Butterflies have other strategies in their survival bag of tricks, including camouflage, disguise, coloration, and transparency. But no matter how well these survival strategies work, they can’t help butterflies survive one of their greatest dangers—loss of habitat.
The life cycle of butterflies is really fascinating, going from a tiny egg to a crawling caterpillar to a floating butterfly. One of my favorite poems, “Chrysalis Diary,” describes this process in the delightful book Joyful Noise: Poems in Two Voices. It’s all about insects! Listen to the entire book being read aloud, or skip to 16:48 to just listen to the poem about the butterfly.
Inside: Predator Prey Hide and Seek
To prep this activity, make photocopies of an outline of a closed butterfly wing (several wings will fit on one piece of paper). Use colored pens or crayons to “camouflage” four-six wings by coloring them to look like different surfaces in the classroom. Cut out the wings and stick them to those surfaces with tape. Make some wings more difficult to find than others.
When students arrive in the classroom, invite them to become predators and hunt for the butterflies that you’ve placed around the room earlier. Keep the hunt brief (30 seconds-1 min).
Collect the butterflies that were found and point out any that weren’t. Discuss the features that made some easier to find than others. Discuss the importance of camouflage.
Provide students with colored markers or crayons, scissors, tape, and several copies of butterfly wing outlines. Ask them to camouflage their paper butterfly wings using colors or patterns that blend with different surfaces in the classroom. Remind them that their butterfly must be in full view, not hidden under a desk or behind a bookcase. Have children label the uncolored sides of their butterfly wings with their names and tape them into place around the room.
Invite a willing and playful adult, such as school principal or counselor, to become the predator. Give the predator a time limit of 2-3 minutes to find as many prey (butterflies) as possible.
Alternately, have your class hide butterfly wings for another class to find. Then have the other class reciprocate by hiding butterfly wings for your class.
Outside: Butterfly Gardening
You can create habitat for butterflies by planting a butterfly garden. Follow the step-by-step directions in a Teacher’s Guide to Creating a School Butterfly Garden. Butterfly gardens can be any size—a window box, part of your landscaped yard, or even a wild untended area on your property or school grounds. By planting a butterfly garden with all of the right kinds of plants and flowers that butterflies love to feed on and lay eggs on, you will certainly have a (school)yard full of butterflies throughout the growing season. Keep in mind that local native plant species will attract and support local butterfly populations.
- Monarch migration is happening right now! Involve your students in a citizen science project that follows the Monarch’s amazing migration south in the fall and north in the spring. Plan now participate in Journey North.
- Wild Kratts for Teachers has lesson plans for raising Monarch butterflies, tagging them, and learning about their yearly migration.
- My Monarch Journal by Connie Muther makes it easy to record observations of a Monarch butterfly’s life cycle.
- On One Flower: Butterflies, Ticks, and a Few More Icks! by Anthony D. Fredericks introduces butterflies and other insects that are found on a flower.