This article appeared in the November 22, 1995 addition of The News-Item, Shamokin, PA
COAL TOWNSHIP-Mexico and Cuba may seem far away and unreachable to the students of the Shamokin Area Elementary School. However, a group of tiny ambassadors will make the long iournev for them.
The students recently raised and released monarch butterflies for the Monarch Watch program. The local extension of the nationwide program was coordinated by butterfly expert Rick Mikula.
Mikula, a former machinist from Hazleton, spoke to the students in mid-September. His lecture included a slide show, specimens mounted behind glass, and live insects, including caterpillars and butterflies.
The students were so interested that Mikula decided to take the program off the projection screen and into the classrooms for a hands-on lesson in nature.
Mikula, who runs the Hole-In-Hand Butterfly Farm, supplied a caterpillar for each classroom. Students watched them and fed them, keeping them in plastic cups. Eventually, the caterpillars crawled to the top of the container and curled into what lepidopterists (those who study butterflies) call the J-position.
The caterpillars then formed a chrysalis, a coccoon-like shell, and began to change into butterflies.
Students waited patiently for the chrysales to open, normally a two week wait.
When the butterflies then came out of their shells, some classrooms created butterfly cages from paper plates and fine mesh. The butterflies' wings were still wet, so they could not be released until the afternoon of October 23.
There were some mishaps along the way. For example, one caterpillar house fell off a desk when the insect was in the J-position. The caterpillar died. Just part of the learning experience.
Another butterfly got drenched during weekend rains. No problem; believe it or not, according to Mikula, you could dunk a butterfly in a bucket of water and, after it dries, it will fly away.
One butterfly got a head start to warmer climates. She made her escape when Mikula went to tag her. The butterfly flew over the school's roof and out of view.
Mikula tags each butterfly before release so the Monarch Project is able to track them as they travel south. He carefully takes off a small patch of powder (the colored part of the wing), places a dab of non-toxic adhesive, and sticks a small fluorescent tag on the spot. On the tag are small numbers identifying where the butterfly was released, and an address at the University of Kansas where the project is coordinated.
Finally, the time has come to release the butterflies. Mikula hands the tagged insect to a student and demonstrates the proper release procedure: swing your hand up in an arc and throw the butterfly into the air (they're more durable than they look). The students toss them into the air where they flutter overhead for a few seconds to get their orientation. Then the butterflies wing across the parking lot, over the trees, and toward Mexico, 2,500 miles away.
Of course, there are stragglers. One butterfly lands on a nearby arbor vitae to sun herself before continuing. Mikula inspects her: the wings are fine, she is not malnourished, and she can flutter her wings. Maybe she's cold; butterflies need a body temperature of 83 degrees to fly.
The butterflies' journey will take several weeks. If a tagged butterfly is spotted along the way, the finder is encouraged to inform the University of Kansas headquarters.
According to Mikula, the monarchs may return to the Shamokin area in the spring, so students might see the butterflies they released.
The Monarch Watch tagged approximately 75,000 butterflies in 1994. Over 20,000 students in 30 states participated in the program.
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