“Miss Olivia, why should we save the monarch butterfly?”

A conversation with children about environmental conservation

Please note that this piece was adapted for publication in a recent edition of the Madison Audubon Society newsletter.

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A photo overlooking the Biocore Prairie in the UW–Madison Lakeshore Nature Preserve.

Do you know …

… monarch caterpillars can only eat milkweed?

… honeybees build cylindrical cells out of warm beeswax that collapse to form their iconic, hexagonal hives?

… owls cannot move their eyes in their sockets?

You might not know these things, but the students at the Goodman Community Center and the Bayview Neighborhood Center sure do! This summer, I have had the distinct pleasure of working with amazing kids at these two wonderful community centers, which are dedicated to serving diverse and often disadvantaged families living in culturally rich neighborhoods in Madison, Wisconsin.

With the input of educators at Goodman and Bayview, the Madison Audubon Society Education Department developed two unique series of lesson plans for small classes of elementary school students to meet the goals and objectives of each center’s summer programming. Each week, students meet with me in “Audubon Club,” and with the help of on-site staff and volunteers I lead engaging classes on environmental science and Wisconsin wildlife, packed with nature walks and hands-on activities.

I am consistently amazed by the kids I work with and how bright and thoughtful they are. One student took me by surprise last week when we were discussing ways we could help monarch butterflies and support their incredible migration, which takes them 2,000 miles south each fall. He turned to me and asked, “Why should we save the monarch butterfly? How is it important for our survival?” At such a young age, this child had asked a question that is truly at the heart of environmental conservation. Why should we protect biodiversity? Why should we protect wetlands, forests, grasslands, prairies, lakes, and rivers to provide habitat for little-known species that we do not directly depend on?

We talked about how every species has a role to play within a larger ecosystem. We talked about food webs and what might happen if we allowed one species to drop out of its food chain. We talked about how the extirpation of species often has unintended consequences, how all flora and fauna are connected, and the value of having rich, thriving natural areas to explore.

After a pause in the conversation, another student chimed in. “I think we should save the monarch because it is beautiful,” she said.

I smiled, thinking that was a pretty good reason, too.

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