SMITHFIELD — Fluttering butterfly wings beat against the gold-screened fabric holding a swarm of monarchs inside a basket of colorful flowers at Smithfield Middle School.
Like the students set to launch them, the monarch butterflies would not be still. The seventh-graders bounced around, chatted and giggled while waiting for Thursday’s big event — sending the milkweed butterflies on their seasonal migration.
Monarch butterflies are easily recognized by their distinct orange and black wings spotted with white dots. They’re found throughout the United States and Canada, and the only butterfly that makes a roughly 3,000 mile migration to the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Mexico or southern California, depending where they start their journey.
This kaleidoscope of monarchs started as larvae raised in a spare bathroom at Smithfield resident Ruth Meredith’s home. She nurtured more than 100 butterflies for the middle school’s life science classes to study as part of their hands-on learning project.
“This is the first time I’ve done this with butterflies,” Meredith said, carefully preparing the monarchs for release. “My son is a student here and last year we looked at honeybee migration.”
Millions of monarch butterflies make the trip south or west because they can not withstand the freezing temperatures of winter. During the migration, tens of thousands can be seen covering trees in states along the migration path, according to National Geographic.
Meredith moved the butterflies outside to a sunny area near the school’s garden plots. From a foam cooler, she pulled out envelopes, each with a single monarch butterfly folded neatly inside. Through its opaqueness, the butterflies looked frozen, but kicked their legs to signal they were alive.
Each butterfly is marked with a tiny sticker and a number. In Mexico, butterfly trappers would catch them and record the number on a butterfly tracking website the students can check in the spring. Teacher Ellen Peterson’s students lined up for butterflies and a cotton swab to feed it.
“Look! Look, mine’s a girl,” said Nadiya Head, pointing out the female monarch’s lack of black spots on her wings.
“I just know she’s going to make it,” the 12-year-old added. “She looks like she has a lot of energy.”
Nadiya and other students dipped cotton swabs in a water and honey solution to lure the monarch butterflies out of their envelopes and to feed them before the long trek.
Four other students named their butterflies after animals — panda, giraffe, zebra and dog — while debating about whose butterflies would make it all the way to Mexico.
Maddie Lilly said, “Dog isn’t going to make it.”
“C’mon! Don’t be like that,” her friends, Sarah Hoffsaetter, Abby Pope and Carlin Lockwood told her. The girls urged her to stay positive — all their butterflies would survive.
After each student had a butterfly, Meredith told students to open the envelope and feed them. Many butterflies skipped past the offered meal and flew up and away.
Others were more relaxed like Jacobbie Johnson’s butterfly, sipping the sweet solution from the cotton swab at its leisure. Jacobbie prompted it, saying, “OK, butterfly — you can go now. Fly.”
The butterfly, however, stayed on its perch and continued the meal. Around Jacobbie, other butterflies were released and flew short distances before stopping on the grass near the flagpole. Still more flew away, some carried by the wind off into the sky.
“The sunshine and breeze are part of its compass,” Meredith explained. The monarch use these guides to get to Mexico, flying during the day and then resting together as groups on trees at night, she added.
Seventh-graders held tight to their empty envelopes containing the butterfly tracking information. Meredith said some released butterflies would link up with those from New York and New Jersey and head south at speeds ranging between 12 to 25 miles an hour.
Other members of the pollinator species will stay closer to home, mating in Virginia and therefore won’t migrate, she added.
Canty can be reached by phone at 247-4832. Follow her on Twitter @DPMCanty.