A walk behind the student parking lots on the east side of the Main campus leads to a meadow
of community gardens bordered by woodland housing populations of red-backed salamanders,
nest boxes for bluebirds, a bee apiary and a monarch waystation.
Karen M. Klein, a professor of ecology, can be found announcing “Reports from the field!” to
her class from beneath her favorite sugar maple tree. Field ecology labs are conducted outside.
Her students followed her on foot to NCC’s nationally recognized Monarch Waystation.
“We’ve collected 77 monarch larvae and counting. Every time I go out to harvest more
milkweed for the monarchs to eat, I find more caterpillars.” Klein said with a mix of surprise and
She is surprised because over the past 20 years monarch butterflies populations have been
declining. Their 90 percent decline is linked to shrinking habitat for milkweed plants.
Nationally registered as an official Monarch Waystation with the University of Kansas
Monarch Watch Program, NCC has been contributing to the species preservation for the past
More than a leafy snack for the caterpillars, milkweed is vital for their survival, according to
the Monarch Watch Program. Monarchs lay their next generation of eggs on the bottom leaves at
the top of the plant. It is prime real estate, considering that monarchs go through four generations
in a single year. Each egg needs its own milkweed leaf umbrella.
Seeds can be mailed to members after registration. These cotton-like wisps are encased in the
plant’s spiky green pods. Since they are easily carried by the wind, the seeds can drift all over the
meadow area. Klein said that members of the community garden contributed by breaking the
plants pods open and spreading as many seeds as possible.
“We raise the monarch larvae,” she said. “First, we make sure there is enough milkweed plants
for them to lay eggs. Then we make sure that there is enough milkweed to feed on for energy
needed for metamorphosis and migration. Once they turn into butterflies, we tag and release
NCC’s greenhouse has been sheltering the fourth generation of monarchs from this year. “The
fourth generation has the heartiest wings,” Klein said. “It is what makes their generation ideal for
Tagging is the process of placing a tiny recorded sticker on the monarch’s wing. The number
is logged into a database and used to track the individual butterfly’s migration.
The greenhouse is on the second floor of Penn Hall and also contains a few tadpoles turning
into gray tree frogs.
Before migration, the caterpillars must pupate into butterflies. “It is easier to imagine the
changing physiology of a frog than a monarch,” Klein said. “The change of physiology in a frog
is more concrete. [But caterpillars] eat and eat and eat. Then they hang themselves in an upside
down J-shape and spin silk from their bottoms, forming a chrysalis around them.”
With a transparent green skin, delicate black rings, and what resembles flecks of gold-leaf, the
chrysalis as Klein describes it is a natural marvel. She pointed to how fascinating it is to find that
brilliant gold color in nature.
“They stay in their chrysalis for 10 to 14 days,” Klein said.
On Fridays, Klein releases tagged monarchs into the butterfly garden outside of Penn Hall. On
this particular day, the butterflies lingered. The class watched as the monarchs adjusted their
wings, learning to use them as they flew away.
“From here,” Klein noted, “they migrate 3,000 miles south in search of warmer weather among
the Oyamel Fir trees in Mexico.”