Helping butterflies take flight

Habitat: Pupils plant a turtlehead garden to help boost the dwindling population of the state insect.

Education Beat

News from Carroll County schools and colleges

September 11, 2005|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

With sturdy garden trowels and their bare hands, a group of Carroll County fifth-graders cleared a weed-filled plot behind Mechanicsville Elementary School in Gamber. They came across spiders, worms, one black snake and a few frogs, but no butterflies.

"I have a spider on my trowel," shouted Taylor Getz. "I am going to put him back in the woods. We want butterflies. They are pretty and make the world look nicer."

But as his classmate Tristin Swain pointed out, "We have no checkerspots because we have no turtleheads."

Two weeks into the school year, Tristin and his classmates have familiarized themselves with butterfly names, habitats and lore. They have learned the fate of the Baltimore checkerspot - Maryland's official insect - is entwined with a snapdragon-like flower known as the turtlehead.

"We have to help this insect," said Olivia Shure. "It is our state insect and the population is low."

The checkerspot has declined sharply because of the ravages of deer and development on their specialized habitat of turtleheads.

"We want to help bring back the butterfly population," said Jessica Carder. "Other insects are taking over, and the deer ate all the turtleheads so butterflies have nowhere to lay their eggs."

Mature butterflies live for about 10 days each June, mating and laying eggs. The eggs hatch each summer, and the young caterpillars eat the leaves where they emerge, molting periodically as they grow. Eventually, they crawl down the plant and burrow into the ground for winter. In spring, they climb back up and begin eating until they take flight on orange, white, red and black wings - colors that match the crest of Maryland's founder Cecilius Calvert, the second Lord Baltimore.

Stacy Kowaleviocz said her fifth-grade science class soon discovered a lack of caterpillars or butterflies in the school's yard, which borders a cluster of trees. They planned the garden, hoping to draw butterflies to the campus.

"They are close to being endangered," said Gregory Gonder. "If we don't plant this garden, the butterflies won't have food to eat."

In a little more than an hour under sunny skies Friday, the fifth-graders had dug into the moist clay soil and embedded 30 leafy green plants, many topped with white flowers.

"It is hard to dig because there are tons of roots," said Carli Shaw. "But, since butterflies only lay eggs on this plant, we have to do this to keep butterflies coming."

With a little exertion, Carli had a hole deep enough and wide enough for the plant. She crumbled the soil around it and gently patted down the dirt with her palms.

In the school media center, the pupils are researching insects and their habitats. They will also write a grant request to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, hoping to acquire funds to buy more plants and expand their garden.

Hashawha Environmental Center, where the fifth-graders will attend an environmental science education program next year called Outdoor School, donated the plants and has critters to lend, too. Mary Hoy, the Outdoor School teacher who organized the planting, promised the pupils she would return with caterpillars this week.

"They will hibernate all winter outside your classroom," Hoy said. "In the spring, you can release them in your garden, and you will see checkerspots in June."

Abby Shriver thought helping butterflies was a cool project.

"Maybe, they will be our class pets," she said, but added by the time they are fluttering the class' elementary school days will be done.

Kowaleviocz said, "We'll have a class garden, instead."

The pupils plan to surround their flowerbed with brightly colored string and possibly fishing line, which, they have learned, deer detest.

"Maybe, even an electric fence," said Gregory.

An idea his teacher immediately vetoed.

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