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Video Review: The Secret Lives of Monarchs

Erica Beck Spencer, FOSS Curriculum Specialist, Lawrence Hall of Science
March 30, 2015 | Reviews

Secret Lives of Monarchs
Sally Levinson and Bill Levinson, Ph.D. AlphaSpectrum Environmental Science Research and Education, Oakland, CA, 2014.

Video cover: Secret Lives of Monarchs

Raising caterpillars in the classroom is a treasured science activity that teachers have been doing with students for decades. FOSS believes in this powerful experience and thinks that living organisms and large butterfly houses provide priceless opportunities to observe the development of painted lady butterflies. Yet, even if you raise caterpillars in the classroom and also take your students outside to look for living organisms, there is still so much that is impossible to show children. A classroom of 28 students can’t sit and stare at the chrysalis formation and changes for two weeks, and the eggs and hatchlings are as tiny as poppy seeds, making it almost impossible for the children to observe in the real world. If you want to amaze your students with how extraordinary life can be, show them Secret Lives of Monarchs. This video brings the unobservable parts of a monarch’s life cycle to your computer or TV screen.

Sally Levinson, an entomologist out of Berkeley, wrote and narrated the film with her brother Bill Levinson who produced, filmed, and directed the 17-minute video. The result of this sibling collaboration is a delightful examination of the lives of monarchs.

Soothing music supports the gentle narration that will calm your students as they observe moments in the monarch’s life cycle that are rare to observe in the wild. Together you will watch as the female searches for the newest part of a perfect host plant where she will lay one egg, the size of a poppy seed, by bending her abdomen to the exact proper place on the underside of the newest growth on a milkweed leaf. They will see the exciting transition as the black-headed caterpillar breaks and then wiggles out of the egg casing bit by bit and then eats the egg shell as its first of many nourishing meals found within centimeters of its birth place selected by a wise mother. Observe the fifth instar as it adheres carefully to a leaf and then hangs for a few days before the green chrysalis forms millimeter by viewable millimeter. You and your students will want to watch these processes again and again.

We recommend that you preview the video before showing it to your students. The reality of monarchs mating is that the male doesn’t court his female mate the way some butterflies species do, instead the male forces the female to copulate. Within seconds of the forceful act both male and female seek nectar from one plant while attached. The act of reproduction is presented in a factual and straightforward way, but, nevertheless, it is wise for the teacher to be prepared for potential silly or uncomfortable reactions from students.

The sophisticated language in the video makes this appropriate for older children and would greatly enhance the teaching of the Painted Lady investigation in the FOSS Living Systems Module (Third Edition). It isn’t necessary for students to understand all of the scientific terms presented in the video in order for students to learn from and be amazed by this video.

Monarch butterfly

You can rent Secret Lives of Monarchs online for $1.99 or buy it for $2.50. If you want a DVD, you can order one for $9.95. This is a video that you will want to watch year after year with your students to provide each group with a memorable experience that will make them better observers of the natural world.