Posts tagged ‘science’

July 24, 2014

Project-based Homeschooling: A Mushroom Project Teaches Mama When to Let Go

mushroom project-1Last year when my seven-year-old told me he wanted to learn about and grow mushrooms, I was excited. This was something I could sink my teeth into. Though I’m a novice, I love plants and gardening, and mushrooms fascinate me. We see so many cool ones around here, and they never fail to excite me. My boys love looking at them too. So I was looking forward to learning about mushrooms alongside my son.

I had visions of learning how to identify mushrooms, creating a mushroom poster, and learning how to grow them at home. But I was a good PBH Mama. I didn’t mention any of that. 

Instead, I sat down with my son and asked him what he wanted to know. This is what he said and how I wrote it down in our project journal:

Mushrooms — “I want to grow them in the house or in a terrarium.”

  • Where are their spores?
  • Are they made of spores?
  • What are they made of?
  • How do they grow?

“My idea is to crumble mushroom into a terrarium.”

We’ll experiment with layers of dirt and scraps from woods. Mushroom from outside, but we need to identify.

1) Learn about mushrooms –> books from library

2) My idea to use terrarium. (I gave him an old venus flytrap terrarium we had.)

Don’t worry if that doesn’t totally make sense to you. It doesn’t make sense to me either. I need to take better notes!

We checked out some books about mushrooms from the library, and when we got them home, my son enjoyed looking at the mushrooms in the field guides, but he wasn’t as interested in listening to me read about mushrooms. Despite the questions he asked, he mostly wanted to grow mushrooms. I knew his idea to crumble mushrooms into the terrarium would not work because I had looked up some videos on how to grow mushrooms for my own knowledge, and I showed him at least one video too.

I realized two things. 1) He wanted to do it his way, and I just needed to let him try that, and 2) growing mushrooms isn’t simple, but letting a seven-year-old try out his way of growing mushrooms is simple, and that’s what I needed to do anyway.

So, over a month or so, we tried some different things. I found a few notes I took in our project journal:

Sept. 13, 2013

He wants to chop mushrooms smaller and put under dirt. (Current project is very smelly.)

Later, I tried to sum up the few things we did in the journal. (I’m not very good at keeping this journal on a daily or even weekly basis, but I do manage to update it now and then.)

Oct. 8, 2013

We took old carnivorous plant terrarium with its dirt and added wood chips. (Because the seven-year-old knew that mushrooms needed a substrate.)

1) Bought button mushrooms, cut them up, put them on top of wood chips. We kept dome on and left it on front porch — they just rotted. We also put some of the mushrooms on leaf litter in the woods – nothing happened.

2) Seven-year-old found mushrooms with yellow caps in yard. [Since we’re not sure which mushrooms are poisonous and which are not, we never touch wild mushrooms with our hands. My son managed to gather these using two small sticks.] He put that in the pot and left dome off. They were gone in the morning. We think squirrels got them!

3) We bought Bunapi mushrooms at Dekalb Farmer’s Market. 2 days in refrigerator. We put them in terrarium, left dome on, and we’re keeping it inside house. Mist with water.

Unfortunately, my notes stop there, but nothing ever happened with those mushrooms either.  Eventually the terrarium ended up back in the garage, and my son’s other interests kept taking precedence.

However, something serendipitous happened! During the summer we were given some sundew seeds to try to grow. Remember my son’s carnivorous plant project? We kept them in a little cup with another plastic cup over it because it needed to stay wet and humid inside. Though the sundew never grew, we did find this one day when we were checking them! It was unintentional, but we did grow a mushroom!

For a long time, I thought this project was a bust. I felt like I did something wrong because he didn’t pursue it further, but actually I did ask him about it, and he didn’t seem interested in pursuing it further. That’s actually the whole point in project-based homeschooling: you let the child decide when he’s finished with a project. As I began looking back over this year to create an end-of-the-year review and write some of these end-of-the-year blog posts, I realized that we did, indeed, do a mushroom project. It just didn’t look like how I envisioned it would be.

Trying something and failing at it is one of the best ways of learning. Deciding not to pursue it further is a worthy decision. Though my son may not be able to identify the mushrooms that grow in our yard, and he doesn’t know how to grow mushrooms, he has actually learned quite a lot about mushrooms. He’s learned everything he’s wanted to learn about them. At least for now.

When I realized I needed to write this blog post, I thought I would ask my son one more time. He was standing next to my desk as I was looking at some of the photos we had taken of his mushroom experiments.

“Do you remember how you wanted to grow mushrooms?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you want to do anything more with that?”

“No.” A definite shake of the head. He walked away.

As I’ve written, learning is like a chain-link fence. We build our knowledge one link at a time; it expands and grows in different directions. My son has several links in his knowledge about mushrooms. If it ever matters to him again, he can build onto that knowledge, but it won’t mean much unless he wants to learn about it.

I think it’s neat that he had an idea, and he tried it. That’s what I want to encourage. Questions. Curiosity. Getting excited about attempting things he doesn’t know. 

As for me, I know that if I want to, I could do my own mushroom project. I could learn how to identify and grow them and share my interest with my boys, but as it turns out, all I really want to do is take photographs of them. So, for fun, I’m sharing my photographs of mushrooms here with you in this slideshow. Aren’t they beautiful and amazing?!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

What are you learning about today?

 

July 21, 2014

Project-based Homeschooling: DNA

Way back in September 2013 when I officially kicked off my seven-year-old’s first grade year, I thought we were going to start a project on mushrooms. That’s what he had been talking about for awhile. He had mentioned DNA once, I think. So on that first day, when I pulled out the journal I try to keep updated with the things he talks about/asks about/says he wants to do, and how we follow up on them, I read off what he had recently told me, and he surprised me by saying he wanted to do a DNA project first. So that’s what we did.

(We also did some work with mushrooms, and I’ll write about that in my next PBH post.)

What he wanted to do most of all was build a DNA model. Remember how I told you he’s turning into a little builder? He wanted to buy a kit to build the DNA model, and maybe because his birthday had just passed, I told him he could buy one with his own money, if he really wanted it. But I suggested we look around at our supplies and try to make a homemade DNA model first. He agreed to that, and I tried to go with his ideas on what to use for the model. We ended up using ribbon, straws and pipe cleaners:

I didn’t think we would get it to stand up or twist, but I didn’t say anything, and look what he managed to do? Over time, it has fallen down, however, and he replaced the two pieces of cardboard holding it up with popsicle sticks glued together. That hasn’t held together well either, but he still has this model in his room. I was pretty proud of him for making this!

He still wanted the kit, so then I let him order it. I found the ScienceWiz DNA kit on Amazon, and I highly recommend it. It has a lot of cool experiments and little pieces that you can put together to make a nice DNA model. My little builder did that first.

This is one of my favorite photos of him ever. And I love all these photos I took of him putting together this kit. He is happy. He’s in his element. They speak volumes about who this kid is, so I’ll treasure them forever.

And we did more than that! First, we checked out The Usborne Introduction to Genes and DNA by Anna Claybourne from the library, and we read most of that book in several, short sittings. I think we checked out some other books, but this was the one he was interested in listening to once we got home. It’s a beautiful book. I wish we owned it. Some of it was a little hard for him to understand, but I think he got the gist of what DNA is. I mean, this isn’t an easy topic for ME, so I wasn’t worried if he didn’t understand everything.

Around this time we watched a documentary about the human genome project (I’m sorry I can’t remember the title). I think my son was able to understand it a little better having learned about DNA!

We had the most fun when we extracted DNA from a kiwi fruit! The instructions and most of the supplies were in the DNA kit. If we try it again someday, I may post the instructions on my blog, but for now I’ll send you over to one of my favorite blogs, The Scientific Mom. She’s got some instructions for you there. Because for some reason, though we could see DNA in the final step, we couldn’t pull the strands of DNA out of the tube. We had wanted to see them under a microscope. After they warmed up in just a few seconds, they seemed to disappear in the tub. So, I’m hoping we can try it again sometime with a different fruit.

Though you can’t really see it in the photo, we could see strands of DNA in the tube. (It looked like gooey string.) We could see it even better after putting it into the freezer for several hours.

There are several more activities to do in the kit, but after this one, my son seemed satisfied. Recently, however, he said he would like to do another project from the kit, so maybe we’ll do that this summer. Though the DNA project lost its momentum after this, I’ve seen it come up here and there, such as when they were playing with their zoob pieces.

And even just a week or two ago the four-year-old was practicing writing his letters on a dry erase board, and he thought he’d add some DNA to his number practice. :) What a memory!

All our projects are open-ended. I remind my son about his projects, and if he’s not interested in pursuing them further, that’s okay. (Although I admit sometimes that disappoints me because I want to learn more!) He seemed to lose interest in this after we finished extracting DNA from the kiwi fruit. Indeed, that felt like a grand finale! But this is a project I think we’ll continue over the long-term as we do more with that DNA kit, and maybe as he gets older, he’ll be able to better understand DNA and that will help him too.

Have you tried extracting DNA from fruit? I would love to hear about your experience.

 

November 5, 2013

Scary, Oozy, Slimy Day at the Sandy Creek Nature Center

Attending Scary, Oozy, Slimy Day every October at the Sandy Creek Nature Center in Athens, Georgia has become a tradition in my family. There’s nothing scary about it, of course. It’s a wonderful event that showcases under appreciated animals such as snakes, frogs, bugs, spiders and more. There are many hands-on activities and games for children, and children are invited to wear their Halloween costumes, if they want to.  We have especially enjoyed meeting and speaking with the college students who man several of the stations and share creepy crawlies from the university. Since my son is interested in biology, we’ve learned a lot by chatting with them.

Here are just a few images from our visit this year, in October 2013.

 

 

 

My husband the beekeeper? I don’t think so.

 

 

October 10, 2013

Project-based Homeschooling: Carnivorous Plants

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on October 9, 2013.

Last year my son acquired a fascination with carnivorous plants. He had been interested in them for a while, but then one day we saw a little Venus flytrap at Home Depot, and right then his interest exploded. He wanted to learn about them and grow them. We brought the little flytrap home, and he kept good care of it.

Carnivorous plants are plants that have a mechanism to trap prey, mostly insects, and they digest the prey in order to receive valuable nutrients that they need to survive. There are over 670 species of carnivorous plants in the world, and in the United States, they are found in every state. They also live on every continent except for Antarctica. Did you know that the Venus flytrap is native to North Carolina?

Carnivorous plants grow in boggy areas with poor soil that is very acidic and low in nitrogen, which is why they need to supplement their diets with insects or other small prey.

I would have never guessed that we could grow carnivorous plants in our yard, but silly me…not only can we grow them in our yard, some pitcher plants are native to Georgia.  Most of them can probably be found in South Georgia or along the coast in boggy, swampy areas, but you can go to the State Botanical Garden of Georgia and see them behind the conservatory in an area where they are growing bog plants. At a glance, it looks like an unkempt area of weeds, but look closer, and you’ll find some beautiful Sarracencia or pitcher plants.

The pitcher plants are tall with leaves that look like tubes. The beautiful colors on the top of the leaves lure insects by looking like flowers, and they also produce a sweet-smelling nectar on the rim of the “pitcher” which slightly intoxicates the insect. As the insect travels down the tube, it’s almost impossible for them to climb back up because of the tiny downward pointing hairs. At the bottom of the pitcher plant is a pool of digestive enzymes and the end of the road for the unsuspecting insect.

One day this summer when my son was at camp at the Botanical Garden, we were lucky to find some white-top pitcher plants on sale in their gift shop. I bought him the plant, and we had a long talk with one of the garden’s staff members who knew a lot about carnivorous plants.

My son added his Venus flytrap to the pot with the pitcher plant, and now they are probably the nicest looking plants in my yard. They must be kept wet with rainwater, so they were very happy with our summer rains. When it doesn’t rain, my son uses water from the rain barrel.

To complete his carnivorous plant collection, my son has been asking for a sundew, which is his favorite. Sundews trap insects like flypaper. They have long leaves that look like fingers with tiny red spikes on them. At the end of each spike is sticky mucus, and if an insect lands on it, it gets stuck. Then the leaf will wrap itself around the insect and devour it.

I told my son that he would have to wait awhile before we found a sundew. They don’t sell those at Home Depot, and I wasn’t in a hurry to order one from the Internet. But we experienced serendipity a few weeks ago when we went to the Insect-ival at the Botanical Garden. We were enjoying the interesting displays of insects, including a butterfly release into the garden when we happened upon two large tables full of carnivorous plants. A young man with a passion for the plants had brought his collection to the festival, and my son’s eyes were bulging at the sight of them.

I asked the man if he knew where we could purchase sundew locally. He told me that the sundew reproduce like crazy, and he was going to throw some of the seeds away that morning, but as an afterthought, he put them in tiny envelopes to give away at the festival. My son was thrilled. Now we’re nursing these tiny seeds in a pot inside our house and hoping that they will grow!

This is a sundew. I took this photo at the Chicago Botanical Garden.

For more information about carnivorous plants and how to grow them, you may enjoy looking at the International Carnivorous Plant Society website at www.carnivorousplants.org.

If you liked this, be sure to read my next post about how I supported my son’s interest in carnivorous plants in a project-based learning way.

September 24, 2013

Inspire Kids: You are your microbes

One of my seven-year-old’s favorite words is “microscopic.” Does your kid have favorite words like that? He’s always talking about microscopic this and that. So when I found this short video, I thought he’d like it, and he sure did! It’s really interesting too.  If you have an older child or adult in your house interested in this subject, I recently heard a good program on NPR about this subject. They are doing a series.

(If you subscribe to my blog by e-mail, you may have to view this post on the Internet to see the video.)

pink columbines You can view all of our Inspire Kids videos by clicking on the Inspire Kids tag. If my seven-year-old likes it, then maybe your children will too!

August 22, 2013

Tellus Science Museum

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on August 21, 2013.

The Tellus Science Museum must be one of Georgia’s best kept secrets. I was surprised when I found out there was such a cool science museum in Cartersville, Georgia. My family decided to check it out last weekend. It took us one and a half hours to drive there, but we weren’t disappointed.

We like it better than the Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta. Beautifully sculpted grounds surround the Tellus Museum. There are trees lining the driveway, and the building is modern but attractive. Parking was free and easy, and I’m impressed that someone thought to put a bathroom on the building with a door facing the parking lot. Also next to the parking lot is a heavy machinery exhibit that most little boys are going to love.

Inside the museum, there’s a life-size cast of an Apatosaurus, and surrounding it are the four main exhibit halls: the Weinman Mineral Gallery, the Fossil Gallery, Science in Motion, and the Collins Family My Big Backyard Exhibit, which is full of hands-on science activities for children. There’s also a planetarium, and shows start every 45 minutes. Another theater at the museum is used during special events.

The Weinman Mineral Gallery is quite breathtaking, especially if you have an interest in geology. I was quite taken with the periodic table, which covers a wall, and each element has a small window so that you can see a visual representation of it.  According to their website, the Tellus Museum is an expansion of the old Weinman Mineral Museum.

The fossil gallery isn’t huge, but it’s attractive, and the boys loved to see the life-size casts of several of their favorite prehistoric animals, including a T-rex, elasmosaurus, and the reconstruction of a megalodon’s mouth using real teeth.  The museum owns at least one real bone from each creature, and it was displayed next to the cast in a glass case.  There were also many smaller, real fossils on display that captivated my husband and me.

The Science in Motion gallery showcases “100 years worth of changes in transportation technology.” My favorite part was a life-size replica of the Wright Brother’s first airplane. There are old cars, parts of aircraft, spacecraft and models of the NASA space rockets, which was fun for my six-year-old to see since he made a model of the Saturn V this past year.

The museum has several impressive paintings of moon landings, shuttle take-offs and other science-related artwork that I thought was a nice touch.

You could easily explore the whole museum in an afternoon, but since we had small children and weren’t familiar with the area, we only went to these four main exhibits and toured a solar house, which is on display outside. We missed the opportunity to let our kids dig for fossils and pan for gems, but we’ll definitely go back someday, and we also hope to see a planetarium show.

If this isn’t enough, there’s also an observatory with a 20” telescope, which visitors can tour during special events!

If you go, we can recommend stopping at John Boy’s Home Cooking, which is located at 904 Joe Frank Harris Parkway in Cartersville. It has an all-you-can-eat country buffet, and we even found a few items that our picky children would eat.

If you’re not familiar with the area, I suggest you spend a little time on Google maps getting the lay of the land. The museum is located right off I-75 North. We took exit 293 to go to the museum, but after spending too much time driving around, we discovered there are more restaurant options off the two exits before that.

The Tellus Science Museum is located at 100 Tellus Drive, Cartersville, Georgia 30120. General admission is $14 per adult and $10 for children ages 3-17. A planetarium show is $3.50.  See tellusmuseum.org for more information.

Have you been to this museum? What was your experience like?

August 1, 2013

Why Study Ants?

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on Wednesday, July 31, 2013.

Last week I wrote about the School of Ants, a project that anyone can participate in. Scientists at North Carolina State University and the University of Florida are asking citizens to assist them in collecting ants, particularly those in urban areas.  You can learn all about it at www.schoolofants.org.

As I wrote that column, I dashed off an e-mail to the School of Ants team knowing that they might not get back to me before my deadline.  I was right about the deadline, but I wasn’t expecting to get such a great response this week.  Lauren told me that after considering my question, she found it important enough to write a response as a blog post on their website. I thought you might enjoy reading it too, so I’m sharing it with you today.

My question was “Why is it important to collect data on ants?”  Here’s what she wrote:

First of all, thank you for participating in the School of Ants!  I’m delighted that you and your son enjoyed the experience.  And thank you for your question.

The data that you and your son have helped us collect, along with hundreds of other citizen scientists, is giving us valuable data about the diversity and distribution of ants across the United States.

Ants are ubiquitous.  They are widespread and diverse, such that most people can easily pick out the ant when presented with a line-up of insect photos.  Yet despite how familiar ants are to us and how often we may encounter them in our daily lives (sometimes more often than we would like) we actually know relatively little about their diversity and distribution, particularly in urban areas.  The species we know the least about are the very same species that we interact with most frequently – those that are commonly found in backyards and on sidewalks, in street medians and on playgrounds.

Some of the species we are hoping to learn more about are exotic species – those that have been introduced from habitats outside of the United States.  Many of these exotic species are considered harmful to ecosystems and people, and are termed invasive species. While invasive species tend to be better studied once they have become established and caused havoc in an ecosystem, it’s hard to gather data about them in their earlier stages of introduction, before they have become widespread.

This is where School of Ants participants can save the day! In fact, just this past year, young participants helped us determine that the Asian needle ant (http://www.schoolofants.org/species/1157), a nasty invader well-known in the southeastern US, had expanded its range to Wisconsin and Washington State. Yikes!

We are also interested in the least studied of our native species, especially those that aren’t pests and are therefore often overlooked.  While some ants can be nuisances, many have beneficial roles in ecosystems.  By digging tunnels they turn over dirt and aerate the soil.  They can even help keep other pests at bay, including cockroaches, fleas and termites.  Yet so little is known about their role in urban ecosystems!  Some of the ant species crawling around on sidewalks in major cities haven’t even been named yet!

We’re harnessing the power of citizen scientists to collect data across a much wider range than we could possibly sample on our own (although what a road trip that would be!). We are learning a great deal about the diversity and distribution of ants.  We have already found cases of species living outside their previously described ranges.  For example, a native seed-harvesting ant (Aphaenogaster miamiana), believed to live only as far north as South Carolina, was found by a participant in the piedmont of North Carolina (http://www.schoolofants.org/species/2105).

Studying the diversity and distribution of ants is not only relevant today, but can also help us understand how climate change, land use, and urbanization might affect ants in the future.

So thank you, again, for participating in the project and contributing your data! Please let me know if you have any other questions!

Best,

Lauren and the School of Ants Team

July 30, 2013

The School of Ants

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on Wednesday, July 24, 2013.

This past school year, my son and I participated in the School of Ants project.  Any adult, child or classroom can participate in this fun, educational project, and by doing so, you can help scientists collect data on ants that live in urban areas.

When I told my six-year-old about the project, he couldn’t wait to do it. All we had to do was collect some ants in our yard and send them to North Carolina State University where the scientists identified the ants and labeled a U.S. map, which you can view on their website. If you live in Florida, you’ll send your specimens to Dr. Andrea Lucky’s lab at the University of Florida. She heads this whole project.

The School of Ants has already helped scientists identify an invasive Asian needle ant in samples from New York, Wisconsin and Washington.  Other rare species have been found too, such as the Bigfoot ant, which is North America’s rarest ant species. It had been discovered in the 1940s and never seen again until a North Carolina State University student found two of them under a rock outside his apartment. He took pictures of them and then released them, not knowing that they were so rare!

Though it’s easy to do the project, participants must make their own kit and pay for postage.  You’ll need 8 3×5 index cards, 1 pen, 2 Pecan Sandies cookies, 8 1-quart zip-lock bags, 1 1-gallon zip lock bag, and 1 envelope plus postage for submitting your kit.  You’ll also need to sacrifice some ants.

My son and I took four of the notecards and labeled them “green.” These had to go on a lawn, garden or forest about one foot apart. We left a quarter of a cookie on each card for one hour in the woods beside our house.

On the other four notecards, we wrote “paved.” These had to go on a paved surface for one hour, so we put those on our driveway.  After an hour, we were instructed to quickly dump the card, cookie and any ants we collected into a separate plastic bag.

The cards we left in the woods had plenty of ants on them, but the cards on the pavement only had a few tiny ants. They were just beginning to find the cookies.

We collected what we found and put all the baggies into one big gallon-size bag, and then put them into the freezer overnight. Supposedly, this is a humane way of killing the ants.

We had to fill out a small form, register our kit online and get a confirmation code, which we mailed with the ants.

When we did the project, I read that we would be e-mailed within a few weeks about our ants. We never received an e-mail, and it took several months, but we finally found our ants listed on the School of Ants website.  According to their site, we found three different species. The two in the woods were common ants, but the tiny ants in our driveway were not so common, so there’s not much known about them. Pretty cool, huh?

I asked my son if he’d like to try to find those ants again and observe them for a while. Perhaps we can make a small contribution to science. My son was excited about that, so maybe we’ll try it. That is, if we can find them again.

If you’d like to participate in the School of Ants project, go to www.schoolofants.org to get detailed instructions and additional information.

Come back on Thursday when I post a letter from the School of Ants answering my question, “Why is it important to study ants?”

July 11, 2013

2nd Generation Butterflies

{Raising Painted Lady Butterflies} {Butterfly Life Cycle}

A. 2nd generation butterflies

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on June 26, 2013.

If you read my column regularly, you may recall that we raised Painted Lady butterflies this spring. We ordered the larvae from an online company and watched them grow, pupate and emerge into adult butterflies. Then we got the crazy idea to keep the butterflies, watch them mate, lay eggs, and raise a second generation.

I had visions of my house being invaded by tiny caterpillars, but I persevered thinking that at any time, I could throw the whole thing outside. I thought we’d just try it and see what happens.

We kept our first generation in our butterfly habitat, a roomy mesh cage about the size of an aquarium.  Four out of six larvae made it to maturity, and when we observed them mating, we figured out only one of them was a female. She may have been overworked, but she was determined to carry on life, and she laid dozens of eggs on a small hollyhock plant that I had dug up and potted from my yard so that I could put it down into the cage.

Butterflies don’t live very long after they mate, so when we released our first generation, I’m not sure how much time they had left. For one, it was real quick – before it reached the tree in our front yard a bird came out of nowhere and snatched it up. My husband and I weren’t sure whether to laugh or cry. We were all sad, but fortunately, my six-year-old “little biologist” understands how nature works. My three-year-old didn’t seem to notice.

There are a few plants that Painted Lady butterflies will feed on, including hollyhock, and by sheer luck I had some growing in my yard because I had received the seeds for a present. The female butterfly will only lay her eggs on these plants so that once the larvae hatch, they can start eating right away.

The eggs are smaller than the point of a pin, and they’re a beautiful aqua blue with vertical lines that look like the longitude lines on a globe. We looked at them twice under a microscope. I had read that you can see the tiny caterpillars inside them, but we never observed that.

The eggs were tiny and scattered over the leaves of the hollyhock, so I’m not sure how many there were. I decided to put the plant on our front porch to avoid an “invasion,” but I left it in the mesh cage to protect it from predators. After about a week and a half, we found the tiniest caterpillars you can imagine wiggling on the plant leaves. They were less than a millimeter in length.

At this point, we clipped the leaves with the caterpillars and put them into a big mason jar. We covered it with a coffee filter and secured it with a rubber band. Punching holes into the filter is not necessary because the caterpillars don’t need a lot of air – the filter lets in enough. We added a fresh leaf from our hollyhock plants every other day.

Then we watched them grow and grow and grow. And eat and eat and eat. And poop and poop and poop. This is the life of a caterpillar. After six days, they were the size of our first generation when we received them in the mail. They moved so fast that I never bothered to get an accurate count, but I know we had at least 24 of them.

When they got a little bigger, we let some of them go in our garden, and I wished them well.  I feared we wouldn’t have enough hollyhock to continue feeding all of them.

We kept 16 and divided them into four big mason jars to give them extra space. Of those, only ten of them survived to the pupa stage. All of them emerged or “eclosed” into adult butterflies, but, sadly, one of them was not fully formed.

2nd gen butterflies!-2

The most troubling part of the whole process, however, was discovering that one of the butterflies went missing from our cage.  Did they push open the cover? Did our cat get it? Did the three-year-old open the cage when we weren’t looking? Was I going to find a dead butterfly while vacuuming under the sofa?  I was baffled.

It was even more troubling the next day when two more went missing, so we immediately took them outside to release them, only two days after they eclosed and while we were still waiting on two more to emerge.  Luckily the case of the missing butterflies was solved when I lifted the paper towel from the bottom of the cage – three of them had crawled into the folds of the towel, and luckily they were healthy and strong and flew away as soon as I released them.

After that, it wasn’t long before the last healthy butterfly was born, and we discovered that last one was not healthy enough to fly away.  We released the healthy one, and the other rests in peace.

Raising the butterflies from eggs to adult and witnessing the entire life cycle was a wonderful experience for my whole family. It showed us how fragile and beautiful life is, and while trying to help the butterfly with miniature wings, I thought of a line in my favorite poem by Mary Oliver.  “Life is infinitely inventive,” she writes.

We hope some of them survive and are creating a third generation right here in Barrow County.

***

I hope you enjoy the following gallery of the butterfly life cycle! Click on an image to enlarge. To view a slideshow of the cycle of our first generation of butterflies, click here: Raising Butterflies

May 9, 2013

Raising Butterflies

Scroll down for a slideshow of our butterfly’s life cycle!

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on May 8, 2013.

Last year we raised toads from tadpoles, and this year we’re raising butterflies. This is surprisingly easy to do, and I’d encourage any family to give it a try.  It’s a wonderful experience for children and adults.

My sons received the Backyard Safari Butterfly Habitat as a Christmas present, but you can find other companies who sell butterfly habitats and the larvae online. The cages are around $15. The Backyard Safari Habitat came with a coupon so that we could order the larvae when we were ready for them. You need to wait for warm weather, if you plan to release the butterflies. (The larvae were approximately $10 with the coupon, but they are under $20 without it.)

We received six Painted Lady larvae (or caterpillars) in a small container with everything they needed to survive during this second stage of their life cycle. There were explicit instructions to not open the container. All we needed to do was set the container by a window (but not in direct sunlight). Note: I have read different opinions about leaving them in the container, so I suggest you do some of your own research.

Painted Lady Butterflies live almost everywhere, which is why they are often used in schools and homes for this purpose. In most places it’s okay to release them back into the environment. Another option is to find butterfly larvae in your local area and raise them, but each species has different needs, so you have to make sure you have the right food source.

We watched our caterpillars for less than two weeks as they stirred up the food, spun silk, and proved to be extremely bad housekeepers. When we got them, they were less than a centimeter in length, and in two days, they doubled their size. Right before they formed themselves into a chrysalis (or pupa), they were about an inch long and quite plump.

After the butterflies emerged, my son turned this into a project by making a model of the Painted Lady Butterfly! He studied it like a real artist!

According to the instructions I received, the caterpillars were supposed to climb to the top of the vial and attach themselves to the gauze that was placed under the lid of the container. There they would hang down and form into chrysalides, and then we weren’t allowed to disturb the container for two days. After that time, we could carefully remove the lid, and then pin the gauze with the chrysalides near the bottom and on the wall of the cage.

This is what really happened: The caterpillars made a huge mess in the container, and we couldn’t see through it very well. All of the caterpillars crawled to the top, but most of them didn’t stay there. In the end, there were only two caterpillars that formed chrysalides and hung from the top. We could barely make out one chrysalis on the bottom, and since there wasn’t any movement, I assumed the others down there were changing too.

Per the instructions, we waited two full days after the last caterpillar we could see formed his chrysalis. Finally we got out the butterfly cage, and found a small branch that fit nicely into it. Then I removed the lid to the container, and we discovered that the caterpillars had eaten most of the gauze! The two chrysalides were hanging from silk and the plastic lid. Luckily I managed to fit it over the twigs in the cage so that they hung down safely.

I had to scoop out the four other chrysalides from the bottom of the container with a spoon, and I laid them gently on the bottom of our cage. We had read that this can happen, and they should be okay, but unfortunately, two of these never formed into butterflies. We weren’t surprised.

After only five days, two of our butterflies emerged!  Two more butterflies emerged in the next few days.  They are beautiful, small orange and black butterflies, and we’re feeding them watermelon and oranges.

The whole process has enamored my six-year-old, and he wants to keep going, so we’re going to attempt to raise a second generation. Yep, call me crazy. If it turns into a good story, and I’m pretty sure it will, I’ll be sure to share it with you. Note: Yes, indeed, it’s turning into a story, and I will share it with you!

Below is a slideshow I created to show you our experience, and you can see the life cycle here too!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Notes you may be interested in:

  • The butterfly’s life cycle is in four stages: egg, larvae (or caterpillar), chrysalis, adult butterfly.  (I highly recommend the simple app Life Cycles by nthfusion.com to help with learning about nature’s cycles!)
  • The plural for chrysalis can be either chrysalides or chrysalises. (You can go here to hear the pronunciations.)
  • The word eclose is a verb which means to emerge from the pupa as an adult or from an egg as a larvae.
  • The red liquid that drips out off the butterfly after it emerges is meconium or the waste that was secreted while it was in chrysalis.
  • After the butterfly emerges from the chrysalis, it can live for about two weeks. During that time, they seek a mate, and the female seeks a host plant to lay her eggs.

If you like this, you might enjoy the slideshow I made of our tadpoles to toads last year.

Have you raised butterflies? Please share your experience!

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