Bringing Butterflies Back to Malibu

We usually think of schools teaching children math, history, science, literature and P.E. But Malibu students can add “nature conservation” to that list, thanks to the Malibu Monarch Project (MMP), a local organization hoping to make Malibu hospitable to monarch butterflies once again.

The Malibu Monarch Project, headed by local Pat Healy, began in the summer of 2013. An idea that, in the words of member Kim McCarthy, “started in someone’s living room,” has already grown into an active program that one day hopes to become a nonprofit.

“Children get it, they understand,” said McCarthy, a member of the Monarch Project as well as the Our Lady of Malibu School Board. “They’re linked to nature.”

In January, kindergartners and second graders at OLM planted 50 milkweed seedlings, provided by the MMP, in a garden on the school’s property. Milkweed is a crucial plant for monarch butterflies, which lay their eggs on its leaves and eat it as caterpillars.

Malibu lies along the southward migration route traced by the butterflies every winter. Beginning in November, the red-and-yellow monarchs fly from Canada to winter forests in Mexico. But according to the World Wildlife Fund, the monarch population in December was at its lowest point ever recorded, taking up only 56.3 percent of the acreage it occupied in Mexico in December 2012.

It is thought that the disappearance of milkweed, often mistaken for a weed and trimmed by landscapers, is a key factor in the sharp decline in the monarch population. Other factors include a heavy use of pesticides and over-trimming of Sycamore trees, the monarchs’ favorite habitat, according to the MMP.

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Administrators say exposing children to real-world scientific lessons that directly impact Malibu is a powerful teaching tool.

“Any kind of hands-on learning they can do right here in our backyard is great,” said Karen Medrano, the school secretary at Our Lady of Malibu.

The seedlings provided to OLM by the Malibu Monarch Project are a local species, asclepias fascicularis, which was approved by the National Park Service to plant in Malibu.

The planting coincides with upcoming units on monarchs, which the kindergartners and second graders study each year. According to principal Michael Smith, the school often ties units together, by having themed art or literature coincide with science or history lessons.

“When Kim McCarthy brought up this idea, we said, ‘Well yeah, why not?’” said Smith. The school already had the gardens, newly landscaped through a donation from a kindergarten parent at the end of the 2012-2013 school year.

When asked why they planted the seedlings, students had a lot to say about protecting the habitat of the monarchs.

“Cause if we don’t [plant milkweeds], monarchs will have to live in places where they don’t feel comfortable,” said Gillian Flynn, a member of Miss Russell’s second grade class.

“We want the butterflies to have a home and eat,” added her classmate Riley Markey.

The interest expressed by second-graders at OLM is helping to fulfill one of the three goals stated by the MMP: “to educate children and adults about what we can do to help the monarchs.” The other goals, which McCarthy laid out in an email, are to “restore Milkweed to Malibu by raising seedlings and distributing them to the public” and “encourage the public to plant nectar plants that attract monarchs.”

“Children are very aware of the fact that it’s our development and cities that are taking away from the area that butterflies need,” said McCarthy.

Second-graders Titus Kahl and Mia Quilici seem to agree. “Their habitat is chopped down because we’re making houses out of wood, and pencils” said Titus.

“People pull milkweed out because they think they’re weeds, but that’s where they put their eggs,” said Mia.

Additional plantings are scheduled at Webster Elementary and The Muse School in Calabasas in the near future, and the plan is to continue plantings throughout the area, McCarthy said.

As monarch populations decline, Malibuites won’t see the swarms of butterflies that used to flock here every winter. This, according to McCarthy and others, is a great detriment both to the butterflies and to the people of Malibu.

“It’s for the butterflies, but it’s for the children, too. It’s what they’re gonna miss,” said Kim McCarthy.

To learn more about the Malibu Monarch Project, visit www.malibumonarchproject.com.

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