Wednesday, October 19, 2011

being witness to a miracle

I admit... that title sounds a bit corny, but I wholeheartedly believe that the life cycle of butterflies is nothing less than miraculous.  Today I'm talking about butterflies and one of my favorite genres (and most problematic) in children's literature: non-fiction.  We'll begin with the later. 

Kids LOVE non-fiction.  As a kindergarten teacher, with a classroom library, it was always those non-fiction books with big full color photographs that were most often in need of repair.  The kids were always looking through those books and asking me about them.  The real life mysteries of nature are intriguing to adults and children alike.  Here's the catch... A LOT of non-fiction written for young kids is pretty terrible.  Often times the writing is contrived and hard to read.  You'll find some with SO much information that it's almost impossible to get through as a read-aloud (let alone and independent read) and others that have so little text (often meant to be independent readers for beginners) you hardly get any information at all (these are almost always poorly written).  Not to worry, things are improving at a quick rate in this genre.  Better books are being written all the time.  For example-

Watch Me Grow Butterfly published by DK

This book is a great example of children's non-fiction done well.  The text is simple yet informative.  There's a basic storyline in large font which you can read through and get cohesive information.  The pages are filled with large bright beautiful photographs.  The book also features lots of extra facts and tid-bits featured on each page in smaller font found in text boxes or with arrows pointing to different parts of the photographs.  This book has been read a ton in our house.  My children have loved it from ages 2 and up.  They enjoy reading is to themselves and having me read it to them.  (side note- this is a series- I also highly recommend Watch me grow Frog)

After reading this book the kids still wonder how caterpillars do that!  Even though they see the pictures of the complete life cycle of a butterfly it still seems so mysterious (to me too).  So every year by mid August our family begins our annual caterpillar hunt...

I'm not sure how it has been everywhere in the world, but in my small section EVERYTHING has been slow this year... including the caterpillars.  My mama is a big contributor to our annual hunt, you see she has a large beautiful yard in which she and my papa (the amazing gardener) always allow the milkweeds to grow.  It may seem funny to most, but it's all for the sake of the Monarchs.  Monarch Butterflies only lay eggs on milkweeds because Monarch caterpillars only eat milkweeds.  When I was a kid it seemed like these striped little bugs were a dime a dozen, but it's just not so anymore.  So we do everything we can to encourage more!  For the past two years we have found four (one for each of us each year- we think there must be more because we see other Monarchs fluttering around).  This year we figured we'd completely missed our opportunity with no caterpillars found by the end of September, then on the 30th she brought one over.  Within 3 days it was hanging upside down, as you can see below.

It didn't take long for the transformation between hanging caterpillar and chrysalis.  In fact it takes under two minutes for the caterpillar to shed its skin one last time, underneath is a beautiful green pod- very plant like in appearance which is excellent camouflage.  At first the chrysalis isn't very defined, but within 24 hours it has golden spots dotting the bottom ridge and a beautiful piping along the top.

Then begins the wait.  And boy did we wait this year!  Mom exchange school for the 3 year olds was at our house the day our striped fellow hung himself upside down- two days later the children returned to see the beautiful green chrysalis.  It was a full two weeks before any changes were noticeable to the naked eye.  (I was a little worried).  With a little research I found that it can take anywhere from 7-16 days for the transformation to be complete (depending on temperature and it's been pretty chilly around here in the past two weeks).  We found the chrysalis completely black when we awoke Tuesday morning.

As the day progressed more and more color could be seen through the shell of the chrysalis.

It wasn't until 4:30 in the afternoon that the butterfly finally emerged.  At first it's wings were wrinkled and it's abdomen seemed immense.  For about two hours this beautiful insect spent time pumping fluids into its wings and letting them drip dry.

Finally around 6:30 it began to spread its wings, I didn't think it would be great to have it flying through out the house all night... but at the same time I was also worried about the dropping temperatures outside.  You see the Monarch butterflies are an amazing creature.  After becoming butterflies in Canada and North America in the fall they migrate, through instinct, to forests in Southern California and Mexico for winter.  After a little more research I found that they can tolerate pretty cool temperatures.  I took this Monarch outside and transferred it high in the branches of a tree.  (And I hoped that it would start flying south SOON).  This morning I found it still in the tree, but later in the day when it warmed up I actually watched it fly away.  GOOD LUCK!

Goodness, from this post it sounds as if this whole activity was more for me that the kids.  Truth is I really love watching this miraculous event each year.  My kids really love it to.  They checked on our little friend daily and were as glued to the transformation as I was.

I'm sorry I couldn't post this earlier in the season, perhaps August... it's not a very practical or realistic activity suggestion for the end of October.  That being said, I highly recommend adding it to your list of things to do next year. (btw I sent a picture text to the kids from school after it emerged-  I had kinda left them in the lurch after all) 

Lastly- for anyone who wants to be amazed here's a time lapse video of the life cycle of the monarch.  It isn't long, but it's really cool... my kids loved it.

...signing out with a spirit of science and discovery! -Robyn

ps.  If you have ever caught any other type of caterpillar and had it transform in a jar please leave a comment to tell me about it.  I would love to know what plants to find other caterpillars on, and what works.  I've only ever done this with Monarchs.

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