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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, July 30, 2009

Middle-school kids hatch ideas and careers at Butterfly Station

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — “That plant has a thousand painted lady eggs on it,” says David Corey, pointing to a hollyhock covered with tiny blue dots.

Five-year-old twins Olivia and Alexis Martin, wearing summer dresses, flutter down the garden path like a pair of butterflies to peer intently at the tiny dots.

“When they hatch, we brush them into a bucket,” says Corey, an eighth-grader at Farnsworth Middle School who has volunteered for three weeks to be a tour guide at the school’s butterfly station.

A 36-page booklet written by Farnsworth students about the Pine Bush Project says that a train once stopped in the middle of the Pine Bush, a rare inland barren, and people from around the world would come to look at the many wonderful butterflies — the stop came to be known as “Butterfly Station.”

“Butterfly Station at Farnsworth Middle School,” the booklet says, “hopes to once again bring people into this beautiful and globally rare ecosystem. It is a student-run community-service program designed to make the school a center for the ecological restoration of our community.”

Breeding blues

For 11 years, under the guidance of science teacher Alan Fiero, middle-school students have worked to raise native plants and butterflies with the ultimate goal of breeding the rare Karner blue butterfly, which once thrived on the native lupine in the Albany Pine Bush and is now an endangered species.

A viable population of the Karner blue is about 3,000. Early in this decade, there were barely 1,000 in the Pine Bush, down from 65,000 in 1980, and millions in the 1940s.

Kathy O’Brien, with the endangered species unit of the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, told us then, “The Karner blues are in lifeboats because of some management by people.” The pine barrens that support the lupine, necessary for the butterfly’s survival, have been compromised in most places.

O’Brien described how hard it is to preserve the barrens in an area like Guilderland where the land values are so high and there is so much pressure to develop. Private landowners are not responsible to recover the endangered butterfly, she said. “They are only responsible not to kill them. They are free to let them die on their property.”

In addition to promoting native plants like lupine, Farnsworth students are actually breeding Karner blue butterflies.

Last year and this year, the middle-school students worked with Albany Pine Bush Commission staff under state and federal permits to raise Karner blue caterpillars, feeding them lupine leaves daily. Farnsworth, Fiero said, was the first school in the country to get a license from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to breed the butterflies.

Last year, the students took 46 Karner blues from egg to pupa; this year, they nearly doubled that number to 89, Fiero said on Friday.

“They all went to the Pine Bush,” he said. “Every single one of them hatched.”

In the future, Fiero said, working with the New Hampshire Nature Conservancy and the Pine Bush Commission, “we might get larva from them so we can do larger quantities,.”

The project, Fiero said, is labor intensive. “You need good eyes,” he said. “The kids have better eyes than we do...The kids have been fantastic.”

Diverse volunteers

The feeling is mutual.

“Dr. Fiero is fun,” said Abi Raymond, one of the volunteers.

An eighth-grader at Farnsworth, she likes giving tours, she says, because she likes meeting people. Her first love, though, is horses and she has a goal of going to the Olympics.

Alexandria Smith, a sophomore at Guilderland High School, likes the project so much that she is back this summer for a fourth year. “I like working with butterflies,” she says.

Noah Fowler, a sixth-grader is a metamorphosis manager. “I take care of our caterpillars,” he explains. “I’ve always been interested in nature...I’ve raised monarchs at my house from the eggs.”

When he’s grown up, Fowler said, he’d like to get a job that has “something to do with nature.”

David Corey, who hopes to be an engineer, said he decided to be a tour guide because he needed service hours for National Junior Honor Society. He needed 20 hours and he’s worked 45, but he’ll be back for more next year, he said, simply because he likes it.

Corey was limping slightly as he gave a carefully rehearsed tour on Friday, and it wasn’t because of the pathways of recycled rubber tire pieces beneath his feet. A soccer player, Corey had sprained his ankle, but was determined to give tours on the last day of his three-week hitch.

Altogether, 72 kids have volunteered for the project this summer. Each wears a tan shirt that announces the project’s 11th-year anniversary. The Butterfly Station is open, free to the public, Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., through Aug. 14.

In addition to the garden of native plants and the net-covered butterfly house, visitors can visit the Metamorphosis Room to take a close look at butterfly eggs, larvae, and pupa. They can also try interactive displays and buy gifts at the Museum Room. Or they can go to the Craft Room to create free butterfly crafts to take home. There is also an organic garden nearby where fresh produce is on sale.

In the net-covered butterfly house in the middle school courtyard, the Martin girls look past the tiny blue eggs and continue their search for butterflies.

“They haven’t really been coming out since the hail storm,” says Corey.

Moments later, though, a painted lady shows itself, lighting delicately on a visitor’s dress. Corey snaps a photograph as the magnificent creature holds its pose before fluttering off.

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