Jaeson Clayborn

Adjunct Professor at Florida International University and Miami Dade College

Raising awareness on imperiled butterflies of South Florida: Habitat rehabilitation in the urban environment (Schools and Neighborhoods) 

Butterflies are charismatic, flagship organisms that can be used to promote conservation and biodiversity. Schools provide an opportunity to rehabilitate green space in the local community. Urbanization in Miami-Dade County has degraded large tracts of viable habitats into smaller patches and increased distance between habitats. As a result, rare and endemic species have precipitously declined to low numbers succumbing to inevitable extinction. Recently, the Florida Zestos Skipper, Rockland Meske's Skipper, and Keys Zarucco Skipper were declared extinct in South Florida. Historically, the Schaus’ swallowtail butterfly inhabited South Miami, but now is restricted to several islands in the Florida Keys. The National Park Service began a project to increase habitat for the Schaus’ swallowtail butterfly to prevent extinction from severe habitat loss in South Florida by planting and nurturing 5,000 host plants. Schools can model this same framework for conservation by promoting habitat rehabilitation (native plant butterfly gardens), awareness (activities dedicated toward exploring and investigating local flora and fauna), and advocacy. Ongoing exposure to the school gardens through service learning and project-based assignments can help students achieve academically, become socially aware about environmental quality, and create social capital where students work for the collective good of their community.

Butterfly gardening at Miami urban schools: Plugging students into nature through habitat rehabilitation on school grounds

(Manuscript in preparation)


Habitat loss is a major factor that contributes to the decline of butterflies and other insects globally. Schools provide an opportunity to restore green space in the local community. Three schools in Miami-Dade County participated in a South Florida native plant butterfly garden study. The “Schaus and Coastal Hardwood Hammock” curriculum unit, containing multiple sequenced lesson plans, focused on active-learning and collaboration within the school community. At each school, students designed, constructed, and cared for native plant butterfly gardens (with an emphasis on imperiled butterfly species).

Two 5th grade classes from each school were separated into experimental and control treatment groups. During this 3-month study, both groups at each school were administered pre- and post-tests, surveys, and interviews. Each student in the experimental group received butterfly and wildflower identification guides, as well as host and nectar plants to take home; they maintained the plants and recorded insect activity for two months. Control group students did not receive any take-home items.

Collectively, students in the experimental treatment group (all 3 schools) scored significantly higher on the post-test than the pre-test, in contrast to no significant increase in the control treatment group. In addition, an increase in post-test scores based on the host and nectar plants intervention (experimental group) was significant for all three schools. Pre- and post-surveys revealed students demonstrated favorable interest in animals and plants and were advocates for environmental stewardship; however, they reported less interest in insects. The interviews revealed most students associated outdoor class time with physical education (structured play time) at school. If students had gardens at home they mainly consisted of edible and aesthetically-pleasing plants. All interviewed students stated, “They would recommend a butterfly garden to a friend” during post-interviews. After project completion, more students in the experimental group had new gardens than students in the control group. This study demonstrates the tangible effect of outdoor schoolyard learning activities in student knowledge of conservation issues, and the importance of hands-on experience in engaging students to advocate for butterflies.

Schools Garden Project 2015.jpg

School Butterfly Gardens

South Florida is a particularly promising place for the use of butterfly gardens as part of a school curriculum. Unlike other regions of the US, the subtropical climate of South Florida allows people to observe butterfly activity year-round. Developing native plant butterfly gardening at schools in Miami-Dade County creates an ecological schoolyard, an opportunity to apply textbook material to the real-world, promote conservation, reduce plant blindness, and disrupt classroom monotony. Plant blindness, the inability to recognize plants in one’s own environment, leads to the inability to appreciate and understand plants as important in ecosystems and for people. Butterfly gardens can address both insect conservation and plant blindness in south Florida. Native plant diversity, especially diversity in host plants for butterflies, benefit butterfly diversity and other insects dependent on native plants.

Mrs. Monge's kindergarten class (2015) at Air Base K-8 Center. They have constructed and maintained a butterfly house designed to nurture and educate students about the butterfly life cycle and conservation.

Mrs. Monge's kindergarten class (2015) at Air Base K-8 Center. They have constructed and maintained a butterfly house designed to nurture and educate students about the butterfly life cycle and conservation.

"Children are born with a sense of wonder and an affinity for Nature. Properly cultivated, these values can mature into ecological literacy, and eventually into sustainable patterns of living."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            - Zenobia Barlow