Citizen Science and Summer Fun

The photograph shows two orange, white, and black monarch butterflies gathering nectar from a stalk of lavender sage.
Photo by Robert Thiemann on Unsplash.

by Jean B.

Last spring, as a COVID lockdown project, I expanded my backyard garden and planted some milkweed to attract monarch butterflies.  I was rewarded with not only bright orange-yellow flowers throughout the summer, but dozens of striped monarch caterpillars in August and then, the ultimate treasure:  one glittering pale-green chrysalis, from which I watched a monarch emerge one late September day.  Observing this life cycle drama unfold in my backyard was absolutely a pandemic highlight!

As you may know, habitats for monarch butterflies are declining rapidly, threatening their ability to make the incredible migration from Canada to Central Mexico that species survival requires. But there are tangible ways individuals can help monarchs. It can be a wonderful family activity to learn about, observe, and take action to help monarch populations, with help from some fantastic children’s books available at HCLS. Become citizen scientists!  It’s fun, it gets everyone outdoors together, and it’s rewarding. 

First, check out Winged Wonders: Solving the Monarch Migration Mystery. In this book, Meeg Pincus explores how the monarchs’ amazing migration journey was uncovered through the actions of not only scientists, teachers, and explorers but also thousands of volunteers, who helped tag and observe the butterflies to figure out where they went. When the mystery finally was solved, whose achievement was it? As this book joyfully replies, the discovery belonged to “all of them – the scientists, the citizen scientists, the regular folks along the way.”  Learning about that remarkable effort, it’s easier to appreciate how each of us can play a part in helping solve the problems facing monarchs and other struggling species.  

Now we need some specifics to get to work. Check out Citizen Scientists: Be a Part of Scientific Discovery from Your Own Backyard by Loree Griffin Burns, with photographs by Ellen Harasimowicz. This beautiful, family-friendly book guides kids and their grownups through four seasonal projects: tagging monarch butterflies in the fall, counting backyard birds in the winter, frog watching (and listening!) in the spring, and photographing ladybugs in the summer. Each section contains a visually-rich full spread with practical information for “when you go,” including a checklist of equipment, close-up photos of the creature to be observed, and a quick quiz to learn some useful facts.  Links to organizations that collect citizen scientist information are provided, too. It’s every curious and naturally-observant kid’s dream to count, name, and dig around outside to find interesting creatures, right? This book gives just the right blend of guidance and inspiration to harness that excitement to a great purpose.

While you’re outside looking for monarchs, you’re bound to see all kinds of other butterflies, caterpillars, and insects you’ll want to learn more about. Capturing the beauty and wonder of butterflies, the nonfiction picture book A Butterfly is Patient by Dianna Hutts Aston, with spectacular artwork by Sylvia Long, is my favorite guide. It contains fascinating information presented with gloriously colorful and detailed illustrations. It’s available as an eBook from CloudLibrary, too. (And since this summer will be full of cicadas, check out A Beetle is Shy, by the same duo, to boost your beetle appreciation.)

Finally, if you embark on this journey of discovery, be sure to stop in at the HCLS Enchanted Garden located at the Miller Branch, a certified Monarch Way Station. Through the HCLS website and classes, the Enchanted Garden offers more resources to support citizen scientists and monarch watchers.   

Make HCLS your partner as you encourage the budding naturalists in your family this year and maybe you’ll get to see a brand new monarch stretch its wings, too!

Jean B. is a Children’s Instructor and Research Specialist at the Central Branch and loves reading books for all ages when she isn’t enjoying the outdoors.

Milkweed for Monarchs

A bright orange and black monarch butterfly sits on purp
A monarch butterfly flexes its wings in the Enchanted Garden at HCLS Miller Branch.

by Ann H.

Now is a great time to harvest and plant milkweed to support the dwindling monarch population. Milkweed is the host plant of the monarch butterfly. It is where monarch butterflies lay their eggs, and when the eggs hatch the tiny monarch larvae (caterpillars) start chomping away on their one and only food – milkweed leaves. Monarchs cannot complete their life cycle without milkweed. Common milkweed, Swamp milkweed, and Butterfly Weed are all native to Maryland and suitable for the butterflies as they journey through our state. The Enchanted Garden showcases vivid orange Butterfly Weed and, especially this year, an abundance of Common Milkweed. The latter one spreads easily. During the garden closure it found its way to our compost bins, the pathways, and between the rocks lining our stream!

Milkweed seeds are easy and fun to harvest. In the fall, fat pods dry on the plants and burst open to reveal hundreds of seeds in a single pod. Each seed is attached to silky fluff also called coma. That silky fluff allows the seed to float through the air with the hope of landing in fertile soil. You can pull the seeds from the fluff or put an open seed pod in a bag with some pennies for weight, close the bag and shake. The seeds will come loose from the fluff.

Collect and plant seeds now so the seeds get the winter chill or cold stratification they need to germinate in the spring. If you want to wait, put them in a bag in the freezer for a month and they’ll be ready for planting come spring.

Would you like to plant some milkweed? I am happy to share the many common milkweed pods I harvested from the Enchanted Garden. I’ll place a container of pods in front of the Enchanted Garden Gate on days I’m in the garden (see times below) and for as long as the supply lasts. Bring a small bag and take a couple pods home. Every seed planted has the potential to support our monarchs!

WHEN:
Monday, Tuesday & Wednesday
October 19, 20, 21 & 26, 27, 28
9:30 am – 12:30 pm

You can find additional information about Monarchs in our HCLS collection.

For Adults

The Monarch: Saving Our Most-Loved Butterfly by Kylie Baumle

Monarchs and Milkweed: A Migrating Butterfly, a Poisonous Plant, and Their Remarkable Story of Co-evolution by Anurag Agrawal

For Children

Monarch Butterflies by Josh Gregory

Monarch Butterflies Matter by Cecilia Pinto McCarthy

Ann is a Master Gardener and the Enchanted Garden Coordinator at the HCLS Miller Branch, where she has worked for eight years. You can find her smiling in the garden and sharing her passion for plants, nature, and our community.