Walking with 2 different feet and eyes wide open

We are lucky to have a new build school in a green leafypart of North Nottingham. Surrounding us are green playing fields and longestablished trees. It’s a pleasant and beautiful site and as a large secondaryschool it bustles with life but of humans.

30 years ago James Hansen first warned of climate change (global warming) and two years after that I started teaching. Up to the present I have taught Biology to over 5000 students and witnessed a changing world as we embrace technology but as books give way to online media there has been a growing indifference to biology. The “incredible” catches our attention and there is fierce competition for our clicks and fleeting notice. Problems can be solved quickly with a card number and an online order. Experts multiply online and share opinion loudly as fact.

So there I stood outside for my 30 minutes of duty, keeping an eye that everything was calm and safe. I looked over the landscaped vista before me, as students pass the time before their afternoon lessons, and I begin to imagine the setting with nature bustling around the students. It’s cold at this time of year but in optimism my mind conjures up a butterfly in flight. When did I last see butterflies in number? Why would I? Where are the nectar laden flowers for them to feed on? Suddenly I am thinking hard about the biodiversity around me or rather the lack of it.

A bee flying into class is a drama, not an everyday clue toa season. Even a fly causes a stir? How disconnected are we with the livingworld around us? An idea is born.

Could something small, lead to something big? Butterflies are small, simple and yet intrinsically beautiful. They are passive and cause no alarm and yet play such a crucial role in our world, one we haven’t even thought to tackle with technology.

What if we could walk through our world with different feet? Leaving behind us more gentle footprints. What if we looked with eyes wide open and saw that the squadron gulls that patrol for dropped food are changing what should be there? Realise they are here because we are and we waste food.

The idea survives and grows. We could grow butterflies and release them, in many ways a metaphor for the journey of students that come to us. A time of change and impact as they change into something wondrous. It would be fun and wonderful to do but in a world struggling with change, would that not be simply like turning off an unneeded light switch just once? Where is the habit? Where is the long lasting impact? What if we bred butterflies? Became an oasis in an urban setting. Could we change the diversity of our academy, neighbourhood or even post code?

With support the story begins, I start talking to students and there is some experience out there, I’m delighted. The students that seem to live in the “LiveLab” are caught up and discussions begin of what we would need. Quantity, scale and cost are explored. An order is drawn up, considered and refined. The first posters go up quietly for the “Butterfly Farmers” and the enthusiasm builds. With an order placed we wait.

Stage 1

Food, we are going toneed food. A dip into the local superstores yield packs of Butterfly friendlyseeds and we are off planting. First dilemma… The windowsills of the LiveLabare already full of plants. Conversations grow, Science is up to something andit involves Butterflies.

Within a week the Special needs Unit are on board caring for a tray of seeds, a maths teacher expresses interest and suddenly has seeds to tend. A chemist admits doubt in her skill as a gardener but takes up the challenge and the responsibility.

Well done nature, over the weekend cornflower seeds erupt in the trays, so quickly some think it is a trick but this is nature bursting through. Suddenly it starts to get noticed who is part of the Butterfly project. A quick purchase and magnetic paper butterflies appear on whiteboards, just to bate the breath.

Watering and tending become the norm, growth is noticed. There are our flowers and they have a purpose to fulfil.

Stage 2

Boxes are delivered. A curious huddle as we unpack and examine. The butterfly cages have arrived. Metal rods, boards and a bag of netting is unpacked. No instructions though. Time to sit back. We’ve seen a picture and the students start to think, test and suddenly they see how to do it. Then don’t realise but this is STEM in action. As we stand back and admire the first Cage lessons are learnt, experience processed. The need for care after one near netting disaster and several washers hunted for but we are ready for the next. Each of us imagining the butterflies that will emerge in here as part of their journey.

Vandalism in ignorance.

We’ve bought Osier cuttings. These are amazing and recommended foliage plants. At first the group are puzzled by two packs of sticks. Into teaching mode and cuttings are explained. With a fair amount of disbelief sticks are planted in compost, watered and set aside. The Easter break is upon us and we depart. After taking our break we find vibrant find leaves growing out of the sticks. This is amazing. Seems the lab is an excellent growing space.

Another tub of cuttings is brought in that is just showing signs of growth. Everything seems to be going well until one set of cuttings are found vandalised. In the course of a class practical someone has thoughtlessly pulled the sticks out and left them lying in the tub. Presumably idle curiosity but this has killed the roots and condemned the cuttings to being no more than sticks. It is not the cost but the human presumption that they can poke, prod or remove without thought. This prompts a 10 minute “teach in” next lesson on the costs of simple human actions. The class are serious, I suspect this is because this is what they think I expect. I explain my fears that the flowers we are growing will also be badly treated and that attitude is part of the big problem facing our planet. Over time I am surprised that this is now a theme in the class. Individuals, not all, show greater interest in what we are doing and opinions on reducing climate change become more frequent. If that is at the expense of 4 cuttings, then maybe the butterfly effect is happening. More notice is taken of progress and care taken. Maybe this will be fleeting or become the norm. That said the Butterfly group still see this as unforgivable.

Stage 3 “Arrival”

Responsibly Worldwide Butterflies delayed delivery of the caterpillar stock so that they didn’t arrive during Easter. So it was with great excitement that the first stock arrived. Surprising how many students expected delivery of adult butterflies rather than caterpillars and were then surprised by how small they were.

The small tortoiseshell butterflies prosper well on nettle leaf and suddenly ecological guilt descended as I pondered the years I have spent removing nettles from the garden. Eyes wide open I now scour land for areas of healthy nettles and ones unlikely to have been treated by herbicide. Contamination would be disastrous for the stock. This becomes a big discussion for the group. How often we change our surrounding to suit what we like rather than what is good for our ecosystem.

The Painted Lady butterfly stock arrived with the advicethat they feed best on Thistle but will eat nettle. Full of confidence wescoured uncultivated areas for Thistle only to find none. The net was widenedto even include garden centres. Thistles that I was so used to seeing seem tohave become rare without my notice. How often is this happening as we rushthrough busy lives? Animals and plants dwindling without notice.

In the mean time we placed them on nettle and an anxious time passed until we were certain they were feeding. Curiously they feed on the underside of the leaf. Discussions and some arguments followed as to whether this was to avoid predation or to avoid the tougher cuticle on the upper epidermis of the leaf.

Next day first one hole then another were spotted in the leaves. Evidence of feeding.

Having been taught the structure of the leaf some studentswere fascinated to see the network of leaf veins emerge as the caterpillarsfed, seeing a network far more complex than they had imagined.

Finally discovered a good crop of thistles for the painted ladies. Big relief with the weekend upon us.

Standard biro for scale

May 2019

Peacock butterfly caterpillars hit chemistry! Spreading the magic and Biology.

Day 1 in Chemistry (Peacock)

Stage 4 Chrysalis

A change in behaviour. Suddenly disinterested in food, the caterpillars begin to climb high. Unusual and pondered but over the course of a day the Chrysalis stage begins. Chang is a foot. A count down begins.

Beginning to form the chrysalis
Hard to imagine the dramatic changes taking place inside

Stage 5 Emergence

4 days earlier than expected this morning brought forth painted lady butterflies. Easy to miss at first as they hang while their wings expand and dry. By lunchtime wings are stretched and flexed. Excitement bubbles amongst the students who have followed these from tiny caterpillar to beautiful butterfly.

Start to finish

Maybe it’s because the butterflies are captive and not fluttering away, maybe because there is just chance to linger but to watch students observe them so closely, for once with no great expectation of them doing anything exiting is magical.

There is a connection here because these are ours. We need more connections with the natural life around us. This is life in 3D and ultra- high resolution. Cute, weird, odd and even “disgusting” caterpillars have be watched grow. We have seen them devour a thistle that is a forest to them. Staggering destruction to feed growth.

Suddenly the book they were read when young has real truth

We marvelled that the stripped thistle regrows in its fight to survive. Word spreads, vague disappointment from other lab that theirs have only just pupated but we are immersed in a process.


Noticed during the day that one painted lady seemed to be struggling with get free of he Chrysalis.

With no further progress made by the end of the day we’re concerned that it is unable to free itself. Rather than leave it the dissection kit is reached for and carefully we dissect the chrysalis away piece by piece. Eventually it falls away and the butterfly is free.

Finally free and resting

During the day a peacock caterpillar unfortunately pupates right on the zip of the enclosure. This is going to present problems with tending the other caterpillars and foliage food stock

A Peacock b/fly chrysalis formed directly on the enclosure zip

Managing to open the zip a fraction the Chrysalis is carefully removed for alternative positioning

A quick fix with some flexible wire, cool glue gun and some paper towel and the pupa can continue developing . This time with room to emerge and giving us access to tend

Chrysalis moved and reseated

Two days after first emergence only three chrysalis remain from the first group. Empty “spent” chrysalis are removed as we start to prepare for the next stage.

A spent chrysalis
Newly emerged butterflies feed on the nectar of Ceanothus

The half-term break

A mixed week.

$ small tortoise shells had emerged but over the course of the week showed no sign of breeding. Happily moving from flower to flower they fed well but showed no sign of mating behaviour. Sexing butterflies is tricky at best and of course its possible that we lacked mixed pairs.

Disaster struck the peacock butterfly colony. The caterpillars had seemed to be doing well but very suddenly failed and died. Hard to explain as food stock was plentiful and healthy. Possibly the room they were in became to warm but that feels unlikely. One survived but sadly died despite appearing to be in good health. The food stock cane from a private garden so I know it hadnt been contaminated with herbicide or such like. This leaves us with two chrysalis to monitor and hope for emergence.

The great news is that the larger painted lady stock has laid approximately 70 eggs. This takes us to the next stage of the project… producing generation 2. Concern that the thistle they have been laid on is dying back but this shouldn’t matter as the egg should require nothing from the thistle except support. Careful monitoring should see results.

This discovery prompted a Sunday afternoon dash to dig up thistles to plant ready for any emerging caterpillars.

Something I have become accustomed to through this project is being stung by nettles and prickled by thistles!

Flower Power

With the weather improving and us now back from half term its time to plant out the nectar rich flowers we’ve grown from seed. A bust hour and 4 planters take their place on the plaza ready to entertain pollinators.

The problems of Biology

The good news is that butterfly eggs were hatching and tiny caterpillars were emerging The problem was that the eggs had been laid on a nettle cutting which as now dying off and drying. The caterpillars were moved to new leaf but it was going to be a persistent problem to manage with no growing thistle available at the time.

So in the spirit of science we created a thistle agar, thinking that this could support the caterpillars like the artificial diet the first colony was delivered upon. With the nettle cutting transferred to this we were optimistic.

At first all seemed to be going well but overnight the agar accelerated the decay of the thistle and we lost a lot of caterpillars in the resulting sludge. Devastating but that is the nature of biology at times.

Monday brought renewed hope with more eggs hatching on growing thistle. This time we had the stock to support them with further thistle leaves supported in water. This time we will follow a low intervention approach and simply supply them with fresh leaf to feed on. Sometimes its better to let Nature run its course.

The adventure continues …