DECATUR – Students and teachers at Dennis School can expect to encounter random, floating fluff for a while, thanks to the milkweed-planting project taking place there this week.
Third-grade teacher Linda Burnham, thinking ahead, visited the family farm last fall and brought back milkweed pods to save for the school's butterfly garden this spring.
“Our driving question is how can we, as conservationists, help our habitat and create homes for our creatures,” Burnham said, referring to the method of project-based learning in which students identify a question and then answer it. “We've done mammals, reptiles and birds, and now we're on insects.”
And the insect that the school is most interested in is the monarch butterfly. In 1975, third-graders at Dennis successfully petitioned the state of Illinois to name the monarch the state insect. The Department of Natural Resources sent out an appeal this week for help in increasing the monarch population, which has seen an unprecedented drop in the last 10 years due to the loss of milkweed.
Dennis students are planting those milkweed seeds in starter pots now, and when they sprout, will move them to the butterfly garden. They're also studying the monarch's life cycle and other pollinating insects in the second-grade class, where teacher Jim Dawson said giving the kids “a voice and a choice” often leads a project in directions he didn't foresee.
“It keeps us (teachers) on our toes,” he said with a chuckle.
Alex Contreras, a third-grader and one of Burnham's students, said the monarch lays its eggs on the milkweed, and the resulting caterpillars eat the plant while they wait to transform into butterflies.
“Farmers and people are putting stuff out that kills the milkweed, so monarchs can't eat or lay eggs on them,” he said. “(The monarch) is one of the prettiest butterflies.”
“And it's our state insect,” Garrett Mangan said.
The state has asked residents to include milkweed and other native plants in backyard landscaping and for people to avoid mowing or spraying milkweed. Cut back on mowing roadsides and field edges, where milkweed grows and provides habitat for birds and mammals as well as insects, officials urge.
Wyatt Braner asked Burnham if he could have a few of the seeds to take with him to his grandmother's house, where he's going this weekend, to plant milkweed there, too.
Butterflies taste with their feet, said Andrew Finley, a second-grader in Dawson's class.
“If you put a butterfly on a cupcake, they would taste the cupcake with their feet,” said Ashlee Gibson. “It's kind of weird.”
They're learning how important it is to save the insects that do the pollinating because without them, plants wouldn't produce.
The students visited Rock Springs Center on Wednesday to learn about insects that are native to Illinois, and they saw a butterfly, though they weren't sure it was a monarch. It's a little early for monarchs, Ashlee said.