NATICK — The preschool children at Lilja Elementary School never expected to tag butterflies and set them free for their flight to Mexico. Then again, these kids will never have another teacher quite like Claudia Price.
“My classroom is very nature-based. If the kids can connect to nature, they can connect to people,” said the longtime Natick resident. “The children are fascinated by the process with butterflies.”
Last summer, from her backyard, Price sent 50 magnificent monarch butterflies into flight with the hope they would migrate nearly 3,000 miles to Mexico for the winter. The process began when she spread milkweed around the yard, the monarchs’ prime food source. When the butterflies dropped their eggs, Price collected them, placing them in containers.
“The eggs are tiny, like pencil points,” she said.
With tender-loving care, Price nursed the entire egg-to larvae (caterpillar)-to pupa stages that ultimately yield the butterfly with its distinctive black and orange coloring.
Then, she sets them free. It can get emotional. “I just say ‘bon voyage’ and hope they get to Mexico,” she said.
There’s actually a way to find out.
Price places a small round sticker with a ID and a number on the monarch’s wing. Monarch Watch, based in Lawrence, Kan., has Price’s information. When monarchs make it to their winter haven in the hills near Mexico City, Monarch Watch will let her know if it’s one of hers. If one of Price’s is found, she’ll be notified.
Price currently has 21 caterpillars that Price will release during the next migration.
“I don’t think any technology can astound me like this,” she said. “Some of these kids have never seen a butterfly.” The students’ fascination is her reward.
“Claudia’s definitely a nature person,” said Southborough resident Jodi Leary, who teaches the class with Price. “We do nature walks with the kids once a month. Parents don’t do that anymore. They just sit the kids in front of an iPad. Even in restaurants. The iPad is like a babysitter.”
Working with Price in the classroom has “taught me a lot,” said Leary, who has an affinity for hummingbirds. “I plant flowers that attract them, like snap dragons and honeysuckle.”
Price recently received a grant that has allowed her to purchase butterfly nets, containers, milkweed, and books on the subject for her students.
The monarch population has fallen in recent years, victimized by climate change, pesticides, and the logging of trees in Mexico in which they live. The shortage of milkweed is also problematic. “It’s what they live off,” said Price. “The caterpillars are voracious eaters for their size. They’ll walk on your finger. I give them finger water.”
The Center for Biological Diversity, a Tucson, Ariz.-based nonprofit, has petitioned the US Fish and Wildlife Service to protect monarchs under the Endangered Species Act.
Price is doing her part. “She’s into this hook, line, and sinker,” said her husband, Michael. He recalled reading about when the monarch population was at such a peak that the sky would darken as they flew over.
The Prices have twin daughters, Anya and Maria, 29, and a son, Jack, 25. They support their mother’s unique dedication to the monarch.