A national 4-H grant has knowledge taking flight for a group of students in the Cottonwood Extension District of Ellis and Barton counties. A group of middle school and high school students are receiving extensive training about the life cycle, migration pattern and factors threatening the well-known Monarch butterfly species.

Approximately 20 students attending a “Monarchs on the Move” workshop Saturday morning in Hays, and each of those students now will be tasked with passing the information on to at least 50 other Kansas youth.

The training included an opportunity for the teenagers to get hands-on experience and make a few new friends.

“This is so weird,” Hays 4-H member Ross Eckroat said, as he gently held the wings of a living Monarch butterfly, just before a near escape.

“It’s pretty cool,” he said of the program. “I knew they just kind of like ate milkweed, but that’s all I knew.”

Students also got to hold a live caterpillar and observe an active chrysalis, as well as preserved butterfly specimens and empty chrysalis shells. 

The program is funded by a national grant from Monsanto, with funds funneled down to each state. The Cottonwood Extension District was selected this year to spearhead the Kansas program.

Three students from the district — including Brittani Park, a junior at Hays High School — recently attended an intensive training workshop at Iowa State University. Park’s enthusiasm for the project was obvious as she moved from table to table, helping the other students and answering questions.

“I am absolutely loving it,” Park said. “I love working with kids and I love butterflies. I’ve always loved butterflies. So when I was given this opportunity it was wonderful. I’m so excited for this whole grant.”

The program focuses on the butterfly’s life cycle, and highlights the need to increase the species’ habitat by planting certain varieties of milkweed. Common milkweed grows well in the western Kansas region and provides the butterflies with a vital source of food and a place to lay their eggs.

Habitat loss is a major threat facing the iconic orange and black butterflies, said Berny Unruh, a 4-H and youth development Extension agent based in Barton County. Farmers often receive the brunt of the blame for that fact, but there are many other factors -- such as a growing trend of mostly rock landscaping, unexpected weather changes and loss of wild plant growth due to roads and urban development.

The workshop offers two major benefits. While it’s hoped educating young people will help the insect species, it also teaches the teenagers important leadership and teaching skills, she said, noting the ultimate goal is to reach 1,000 Kansas youth with the information.

Each student was equipped with a teaching kid that includes a copy of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” book and materials for a classroom game.

“It sounds overwhelming that we’re going to reach 1,000 kids … but we are,” Unruh said.