Monarch Butterfly

A Distant Pair of Wings

Thanks to some faculty and students, art and science came together to raise awareness of the monarch’s plight and start an effort to help the butterflies migrate.
By: Therese Boyd

Monarchs are often the first butterflies a child learns to identify—the orange and white edged in black on their wings is unmistakable. We know their life cycle—larvae to caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly—and that they migrate thousands of miles during the fall and spring. And we love to watch these bright creatures flit from plant to plant as they feed and pollinate. But we also know that as its habitat disappears the monarch butterfly is at risk. Thanks to some faculty and students at Penn State Altoona, art and science came together to both raise awareness of the monarch’s plight and start an effort to help the butterflies migrate.

Michael Lucas, associate professor of visual arts at Penn State Altoona, teaches Art 297: “Art in Nature” as part of an effort to combine the visual arts and environmental studies; he asks his students “What speaks to you from the natural world?” The course timing coincided with the maturing of milkweed, the caterpillar’s main food source. The goal for his students was to draw milkweed. In order to learn more about their subject, they researched the monarch’s life cycle and Lucas invited biology professor Carolyn Mahan to speak to the class about the monarch butterfly. Some students even visited the “butterfly nursery” at Penn State DuBois led by Senior Instructor in Wildlife Technology Keely Roen.

With the students well prepared, Lucas provided milkweed he had collected as art models. His students worked for weeks “very methodically building a drawing of milkweed,” he says. “As the drawing began to develop, they turned their drawings of milkweed into a picture.” Caterpillars were “already eating the milkweed” when Lucas gathered it and—as nature would have it—one caterpillar made a chrysalis and eventually emerged as a monarch butterfly in the classroom. This inspired students to create a record of the experience. “Some of the students decided to include emerged monarchs in their pictures, some drew chrysalis.”

Dr. Lori J. Bechtel-Wherry and Tracie Cobb Irvin

Tracie Cobb Irvin, recipient of the 2017 Nontraditional Student Award, with Chancellor and Dean Lori J. Bechtel-Wherry

Credit: Penn State

Lucas wanted his students’ artwork to reach beyond Altoona and encouraged them to look for outlets that could display their work. “I was trying to make them understand it would be nice to have wider context,” Lucas says. “It can have larger appreciation if we share it.” Senior Tracie Cobb Irvin, “in particular, found several monarch sites.” Lucas says she was the driving force: “She sent pictures to Monarch Watch,” an education, conservation, and research project at the University of Kansas. “They wanted to add it to their media. She took the pictures of the drawings and sent all the information.” The class artwork now graces the Monarch Watch website.

Irvin was also a student in Mahan’s “Ecology of the Mid-Atlantic” course. Mahan elaborates: “One of the parts we studied was wildlife species that migrate through the Appalachians. Tracie fell in love with the monarch rearing station at DuBois.” Irvin’s attraction to the monarch was not satisfied, though, with having some drawings posted on the Monarch Watch and visiting the DuBois site. For her senior project Irvin decided to initiate a monarch waystation at Penn State Altoona. These waystations are important because they give the butterflies a place to feed during migration.

“Everything is set up for spring semester,” says Irvin, who just graduated with a degree in biology. “We completed the application online with Monarch Watch. An area has been designated behind the Holtzinger building next to the greenhouse and it’s been approved by the physical plant and Dr. Mahan. Michelle Smithbauer will be the next student to work on it. We will be able to raise the plants needed to sustain the monarchs and the larva. It will take a couple of years for the milkweed to sustain the pods and seeds. In the meantime we will take cuttings from the local area to feed the generations.” With the continuing decline in habitat a reality, the new waystation will provide a welcome respite for the monarch butterfly.