Tiny Charges

Tiny Charges

Earlier this week, toward the end of the vacation my husband and I took to the island country of Bermuda, I remembered to ask my sister-in-law who was staying with our boys how the monarch eggs that I charged with her care were doing.  I did not get a response.

Our cell phone service on Bermuda was nil, and I only used the “free” wi-fi at our resort, so the occasional text I sent might have been missed or not even received. I worried more about how my sister-in-law would feel about some of the eggs not hatching or the caterpillars not surviving than about whether there would still be ten tiny representatives of the monarch life cycle upon my return.

Monarch eggs, the first stage of the monarch life cycle, hatch in anywhere from 1-4 days after being laid by an adult female monarch on a milkweed leaf, depending on conditions. I had found the eggs approximately three days before we left on our trip. I laid out all the leaves and showed my inexperienced, yet willing, monarch conservation participant what they looked like. We discussed what they do when they hatch – eat their egg shells, and then start eating a lot of milkweed. I told her that the caterpillars will be so tiny they will look like a whitish string on the leaf, encouraging the important tool of daily observation when rearing monarchs. The string is a caterpillar, without stripes. The stripes appear in several days, as the caterpillar eats milkweed and starts to grow.

My boys have helped me to rear monarchs for the last thirteen summers. They could manage the monarch care, if my sister-in-law felt unsure or things started to go awry.  Yet, when my question went unanswered, I wondered if it was because I had bad news awaiting me upon our return from vacation.

I would find out soon enough, so I did not ask again. The day arrived yesterday. We arrived home and after initial hugs, updates, and animated conversations about all our international wait staff on the island, I asked again about the monarch eggs.

“Did any hatch? Do we have any caterpillars?” I asked.


My answer was a firm yes! We have nine caterpillars! Only one egg did not hatch. Wow! I was so impressed! Last year, I found most of the monarchs I raised in the caterpillar stage. Of the three eggs I found, only one did not hatch. So I was hoping to have a better percentage of success than 66%. Ninety percent was excellent! I was really pleased and thanked my sister-in-law and our boys for taking such good care of our tiny charges.

After dinner, I needed to refresh the milkweed the caterpillars were eating. When they are very small, I empty the entire contents of the netted growing container leaf by leaf on to the counter and make a count. Guess what?! We have TEN, not just nine, Monarch caterpillars. They all are striped now, making them somewhat easier to see, but still they like to hide in the curled edge of the drying leaves.  TEN! Ten means 100% of our eggs hatched! Wow! I am so thankful!

After counting and cleaning, which only entails getting rid of old, dried leaves, and dumping the frass (poop), new milkweed leaves were supplied, along with a slight misting of unsoftened water (something I used to do regularly, but found it is not absolutely necessary to do).

When arriving at my milkweed patch in my garden, I was greeted by a monarch flying from plant to plant! What a welcome sight! I picked some fresh leaves to place in the growing container and just happened to find three more eggs!


Today, I will order my tags from Monarch Watch, so that when I release these monarchs after they complete their life cycle, they can be tracked, if found.  This will be the third year I have participated in tagging the iconic butterfly. It will be a special year, as I will have raised more from eggs than ever before!

Thanks, Aunt Mary, for taking such good care of your tiniest charges! (And the big, human ones, too!)


Inspection Time

Inspection Time

Late last week I spent some time looking at my milkweed patches for signs of monarch caterpillars. It is one of those activities that no matter how many times I do it, it is always filled with hopeful anticipation for me.

I have three main patches. The first patch is common milkweed, next to my garage wall in a long perennial bed. These plants are about knee-high right now and some are even starting to have flower bud clusters.  Eagerly, I looked for eaten leaves, or leaves with holes in them. I found a few and turned the leaves over to inspect the underside. Adult Monarch Butterflies typically will lay their eggs on the underside of a milkweed leaf. There are many reasons for doing this. The egg is protected from the elements – sun, wind, and rain, that might do some kind of biological damage to the developing caterpillar within. Obviously, if a predator cannot see the egg, it is a built-in protective mechanism. The egg is out of sight, under the leaf, it cannot be eaten or disturbed. However, I cannot imagine the egg would provide much sustenance for any other species, as it is tiny! As tiny as the head of a straight sewing pin! It ovoid in shape and a pale lemony color. It took me years to be able to find and identify a monarch’s egg.  I still find it so much easier to just look for the second stage of the monarch life cycle which is the characteristically white, orange, and black striped caterpillar. The common milkweed yielded no eggs or caterpillars, despite some suspiciously eaten leaf margins leading me to believe I would be lucky and see evidence of monarchs visiting my yard.

Last year, my rose milkweed, which is behind our barn and started as seed planted by my garden club students in May of 2015, was teeming with caterpillars. It was hard to count, there were so many! My milkweed inspection turned to this patch next. Now, the rose milkweed is about 3 feet high already! It is a much different looking plant, with a more elongated, sharper margined, darker leaf, supported by reddish stems.  My anticipation was dampened again, after not finding any signs of monarchs in this patch. I did not even see any eaten leaves.

Swamp milkweed is the last type of milkweed in my yard. This type of milkweed likes wet soil. Our yard varies from a sandy loam to a wet, dense clay depending on where you dig. Under a rapidly growing maple tree, in a shady spot, where the soil is almost always moist, grows my swamp milkweed. This plant is different still, not requiring the bright, hot sun, but milder conditions The leaves are a lighter green than the rose milkweed but similar in shape to that plant.  The blooms are white. Again, flower buds are already forming but there is no evidence of flying or crawling visitors.


My hope was dashed. It is mid-June and I haven’t seen a monarch butterfly yet. There is no evidence they have been here, either. No eggs, no caterpillars, no butterflies. I looked back at my reporting records on Journey North’s Citizen Science Reporting Log for first sighting an adult monarch. In 2008, I saw one on May 14th.  Last year, in 2016,  I first saw a monarch butterfly on July 5th.  This is not good, folks!  I hope they show up soon. I have lots of food for them!

Looking for monarch eggs and caterpillars can be an exciting activity for youngsters. When they were young, my boys loved looking for the caterpillars and now will still report to me if they find one.   Even just learning to identify a milkweed plant on a local roadside hike can be a valuable learning experience, leading to more curiosity about a disappearing icon of the natural world.  Learning about the life cycle of another species is helpful in that we also learn how we, as humans, influence their habitats.  Knowledge is power!

Here are a few children’s books that I have used in the past to engage either my own boys or my students in learning about the Monarch Life Cycle.

The message is simple. Without milkweed, there are no monarchs!

A Personal Metaphor: Shared for Slice of Life Tuesday

A Personal Metaphor: Shared for Slice of Life Tuesday

Slice of Life Tuesday crept up on me this week. Notably, we’ve had the college graduation of our oldest son and the death of one of our dear cats, Clark. Additionally, I’ve seen many posts about summer learning, and even written an educationally themed post mid-week on Positive Behavior Intervention & Supports (PBIS).  Our fruit trees are blooming, blue birds are nesting, and I cut the grass for the first time in many years, just to help out my husband, who is swamped with projects of his own right now. But, since my head is spinning, I thought I would offer a creative piece I wrote for a course that just ended on teaching and learning. The writing was an assignment, written and completed ess than two weeks ago. While I did not look forward to writing this piece, it began to gel as I wrote. It is an exercise that upon completing, I was filled with satisfaction and more sure that it was a worth-while endeavor. What follows is my personal metaphor for teaching and learning. Thank you, Professor Cook!

I am an Adult Monarch Butterfly!

The Monarch is a rare creature, delicate looking but strong, brave, very self-directed, and whose life depends on one plant. There are four life-cycle stages: 1) egg, 2) larva, 3) chrysalis, and 4) adult. Life is a journey in more ways than one. It is these traits that I identify with as I have learned about monarchs over the last 14 years. I also identify with the process and value of transformation, something both the monarch and I have experienced. I hold the belief that teaching needs to be transformative, not transactional, when working with students. In the book, Models of Teaching, the authors tell us many ways in which we can adapt our teaching to fit the needs of our students, allowing for transformation to occur (Joyce, Weil, & Calhoun, 2015). Adaptation is critical, whether it be for a nurse turned stay at home mom turned non-formal educator, a student learning in a system that does not teach how he/she learns, or the monarch attempting to survive lack of habitat. As authors Joyce, Weil, and Calhoun put it on page 365 of this book, “significant learning is frequently accompanied by discomfort.” Without adaptation (following the discomfort) and transformation, there is no learning and consequently, there is no life.  “Learning means changing.” (Joyce, et.al., 2015).

As an Adult Monarch Butterfly, I have passed through these stages, and changed – not just developed, but truly changed along the way. The stages are akin to a human’s developmental stages. While the timeframe each stage possesses varies according to the species, I have passed through the stages, just like the monarch. Each stage is essential and has significance.  Without the stage before, there can be no further development, or “next” stage.

We are all “eggs” at one point in our lives. The baby stage. Comparatively, my “egg” stage was longer than a monarch but still short. As a child born to a teacher and self-taught data manager, I was curious, intelligent, and introverted – a shy wisp of a thing who only aimed to please my teachers and my family.

Hatching out of the egg, the monarch larva eats its eggshell first and then the milkweed leaves on which it was born. Milkweed is the monarch’s only nourishment, as knowledge is mine. My eggshell were the lessons of my family, loving parents and grandparents, as well as a cherished sister. As soon as I had a taste of knowledge, my hunger for it grew. Just as a monarch caterpillar eats more and more milkweed, I hungered for more and more information. Through my primary and secondary education, and my initial college degree, my only food was information. I thrived on it. It was readily available – everywhere. I dined on it daily, as it seemed to be the only food I needed. During my college and graduate school programs for nursing, I fed my thirst and hunger by devouring more science and facts, nourishing me as I grew, needing no other food. Work was secondary to learning, just as moving from milkweed plant to milkweed plant is secondary to eating for the monarch.

There are five stages of my development as an educator that coincide with the five instars of the Monarch caterpillar. Essentially, the caterpillars are still the same being, but are getting larger. Just as I was the same being, only gathering more information. During the first instar, I was home learning from family during formative years. The second instar for me were my K-12 schooling years. The third instar was spent getting my baccalaureate degree in nursing. My fourth instar was getting my graduate nursing degree and working as a nationally certified Pediatric Nurse Practitioner. I was “plump” with knowledge by then, just as the caterpillar is plump from devouring milkweed. Finally, the fifth instar was a period of self-examination, staying home with my children, volunteering, and developing enrichment programs for students.  I reached the 5th instar stage about 14 years ago while searching for more food (knowledge). The fifth instar monarch caterpillar is huge, increasing its size many times over since birth, just as I increased my knowledge many times over. This happens until a signal is received from nature for the caterpillar and inspired by acquired knowledge of nature for me.

I pupated (Stage 3) and metamorphosis took place as I left my nursing career behind to emerge as a teacher. Although, I believe that being a teacher is what I was meant to be, just as the monarch caterpillar is meant to be a butterfly! It is a new life!

Being an adult monarch is hard. I flit from student to student never really having them as my own (as I am an informal educator), but needing them and developing relationships with them along the way. They are the source of my purpose and my inspiration. This is just as the monarch butterfly flits from flower to flower, needing their nectar and visiting with them for sustenance, leaving their beauty behind to find another.  Both of us are fighting for survival, me as a non-formal educator, and the monarch, as it seeks habitat.

My quest for knowledge has been entirely self-directed, just as the long journey of migration is completely self-directed for the monarch. I must be a late season adult monarch then, one who must sustain myself for the long journey to Mexico that lies ahead.  It has become apparent that my journey will be long as well, as a non-formal educator.

I know I will not survive all environments as some do not accept me or provide me a welcome place to share the results of my nourishment (their classroom). The monarch cannot survive without milkweed or habitat. In the same vein, I will not survive if I cannot share the results of my metamorphosis – knowledge, a love of learning, adaptation, self-direction, and transformation – in essence, passion. These are traits all students need to navigate the educational system today.  Traits we hope to impart through modeling and models, such as myself, that it can be done.

If I am lucky enough to survive, (and I might not as they sprayed my garden home with pesticide today – truly, they did), I will continue to try to inspire our youth to care for the home we share – our earth.  It doesn’t matter what country you travel to or call home, the U.S., Canada, or Mexico – such as the monarchs as they migrate, we need to provide and care for those that are with us; Butterflies or Students. This means adaptations to fit their needs. If students are not learning with an inductive model, try direct instruction; if students are not learning with direct instruction, try experiential or project based learning. It is up to us, teachers or butterflies, to adapt to our surroundings.  Right now, we have a better chance than the Monarchs. We both need our youth to survive. Let us provide the right environment or habitat.

I believe that a major tenant of all the models discussed in the text Models of Teaching (2015) was transformation.  We want our teaching to be transformational for our students. This means being vulnerable. It means learning new things from each other and adapting to new methods and new surroundings. This is no better described than in The Power to Transform by Stephanie Pace Marshall (2006).

Another theme of all the models in the text, Models of Teaching (2015), was teaching students to learn and use strategies, the strategies we model as teachers.  Strategical adaptation is as essential for learning as it is a survival tactic for monarchs. Unfortunately, as they are not sentient beings, monarchs do not have the ability to be strategic. We do. We must.

In so far as I have transformed myself, I wish to be the inspiration for future transformations and encourage others to fly as far as they can.

I am an adult monarch butterfly.


Joyce, B., Weil, M., Calhoun, E. (2015). Models of Teaching,06). 9th edition. Pearson, Boston,       MA.

Marshall, S.P. (2006). The Power to Transform. John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken, NJ.

Mad about Monarchs

Mad about Monarchs

Monarch Caterpillar. Summer 2016. Copyright, C. Labuzzetta.                                                               Do Not Reproduce without permission. 

Today I am going to write about something very close to my heart. Monarch Butterflies. You may have been hearing that they are in trouble. They are facing possible extinction. Their numbers are dwindling rapidly. Many are pledging to help the monarch. My story is different. I have been actively involved in Monarch Habitat Conservation for the past 13 years! Yes, that is a long time!  Their miraculous metamorphic life cycle never ceases to amaze me. During the  2005-2006 school year our garden club converted an old perennial bed to a butterfly garden. The group of students, ranging from second to fifth grade, researched host plants for butterflies and caterpillars native to our area of the mid-west.  Colorful plants including purple coneflowers, yellow  yarrow, and black-eyed susans were voted in as butterfly host plants. Milkweed was planted. Milkweed is essential for monarchs. It is the only plant that is eaten in the larval or caterpillar stage of the life cycle. Milkweed depletion from monoculture agricultural practices, wide-spread herbicide treatments, and increased human development have all contributed to the monarch’s current plight.

In 2008, our butterfly garden was certified by Monarch Watch as a Monarch Way Station. This entailed making sure we had host plants and three types of milkweed for caterpillar consumption. We proudly mark our garden with a Way Station sign from Monarch Watch.

The students have learned about the monarch life cycle, butterfly habitat, and how they can help the monarch. We have collected milkweed pods for Monarch Watch and planted milkweed seeds, collected from my home gardens to raise for more plantings. This is citizen science and service learning at its best!  Yearly, we follow migration by using the updates and maps on Journey North, a website designed to help teachers and students follow migrational patterns and report sightings.  We have reported since 2006.

My personal outreach has developed and continues. In 2015, I spoke to seven sections of first grade in a neighboring district about milkweed and monarchs. Last spring, three sections of fourth grade at another one of our district’s elementary schools planted milkweed with me on a late May afternoon. Excitement was palpable when we discovered it had germinated, gracing the prairie once again with the essential meal for monarchs.

Countless Monarchs have been raised, released, and tagged by myself and my family. We welcome them back each year, eagerly awaiting as their arrival becomes more and more precious and a reminder, at least for myself, of a mission and a very beautiful insect that has become an integral part of my life personally, as well as my life as a conservationist in environmental education.