Fairies, unicorns, and butterflies are staples of childhood folklore, but while the first two are hard to come by, butterflies aren’t. What parent hasn’t seen a kid gazing in wonder at the tiny creatures? People of all ages appreciate butterflies without knowing anything beyond the critters’ caterpillar origin story, but the monarch, in particular, provides a great way to get kids interested in conservation. First, there’s the monarch’s easy-to-spot orange and- black pattern. Then there’s its awesome annual pilgrimage, in which the butterfly migrates by the millions. With New England’s monarch season peaking mid-September through mid-October, fall is the perfect time to introduce kids to this incredible insect.
Coming to a Bloom near You
AMC’s Pinkham Notch Visitor Center in the White Mountains of New Hampshire sees an influx of monarchs—just like hikers—fueling up for their journey each fall. The The butterflies are drawn to the nectar-rich flowers in the on-site wildflower garden. Families, too, can attract and assist the colorful creatures en route to their final destination of Mexico. To provide monarchs with a warm welcome in your own yard, plant yellow and purple late-blooming flowers, such as goldenrod and aster. If your kids get a chance to observe the butterflies closeup, point out the insects’ striking pattern, which says to potential predators: “Don’t eat me. I’m poisonous.” The butterflies get their toxins from the milkweed plant, their sole food source as caterpillars. (In case kids express concern for family pets, an animal that eats a monarch typically doesn’t die but does feel sick enough to avoid monarchs and similar looking butterflies in the future.)
A Family Affair
The monarch’s epic journey tends to captivates young minds. “It’s amazing what they can do,” says Paul Motts, a former ranger for the National Park Service and a current consultant with the U.S. Forest Service. Motts loves to educate people on what he calls monarchs’ never-ending quest for survival. Kids and adults alike may be surprised to learn the butterfly’s migration takes place over four separate generations. “If one generation doesn’t make it, none do,” he says, with each playing an essential role. The first generation flies from Mexico to the U.S. Gulf states. The second travels from the Gulf to the southern Appalachian states (think Tennessee and Virginia), while the third reaches the northern United States and Canada.The fourth singlehandedly makes the return trip to the Sierra Madres, outside Mexico City, where the whole process starts again. In generations 1 through 3, adult butterflies live only two to three weeks each. The fourth generation, which returns to the oyamel fir trees of mountainous southern Mexico, overwinters there before breeding in the spring.
More on Monarchs
For budding biologists fascinated by the flying beauties, the National Wildlife Federation offers its Butterfly Hero program, wherein kids receive a butterfly-garden starter kit after pledging to aid the monarch. For further kid-friendly reading, try the book Monarch Butterfly, by Gail Gibbons. And nothing beats a visit to the Magic Wings Butterfly Conservatory in Deerfield, Mass., or Mount Desert Island’s Butterfly Garden at the Charlotte Rhoades Park, in Maine.