When Orange Clouds Fly Thin

Written by Jackie Bookstein, ECOLIFE Intern

 Monarchs on trees
There are many natural phenomena around the world that have become beloved traditions to local nature admirers.  For many San Diegans, it is the grunion run that happens at the full and new moon every summer.  For me, it was the adventure into our deserts to see the rainbow explosion of flowering plants for those few weeks in the spring.  All over the Unites States, locals fondly recall the brilliant display of fiery wings, as streams of monarch butterflies migrate between their summer and winter homes.

Unlike other butterfly species, monarchs do not overwinter in our cold northern climates.  Perhaps a reason they are the most iconic butterfly in North America, monarch butterflies are the only butterfly that make an epic, round trip migration for the changing seasons.  There are many species of migratory birds that fly similar journeys, but there is an astounding element to the monarch migration that is unlike that of the birds.

Butterflies live much shorter lives than birds.  For three generations in a row, a monarch butterfly will live only four to six weeks as an adult.  Each generation contributes to a leg of the journey, some flying west to the coast of California, some south to the mountains of central Mexico, depending on the population.  But the fourth generation that emerges in late summer, called the Methuselah generation, will live seven to nine months after coming to maturity, by far covering the longest portion of this journey.  

In eastern populations, this fourth generation often travels up to three thousand miles to spend the winter in the Oyamel forests of Mexico.  In February and March, they become active again in preparation for the journey back north.  Weary from their voyage south and the long months spent in the Oyamel forests, this generation only makes it back as far as Texas, where they lay their eggs for the next generation before finally dying.  It will take at least three more generations of monarchs to reach the northernmost part of their journey, the Canadian border, to prepare for the laying of their Methuselah generation, thus starting the cycle all over again.

Monarch1Unlike migratory birds, every single individual butterfly is making the journey for the first time.  The monarchs starting out on their winter journey are at least three generations removed from the generation that made the return journey earlier that year.  For years, scientists couldn’t pin point the navigational strategies that make this possible, but recent findings have finally brought some clarity.  Researchers identified a combination of two mechanisms that contribute to this unique ability: a capacity of the eyes to track the position of the sun and a timekeeping mechanism in the antenna.  Together, these signals lead the monarchs to the exact same patch of forest, arriving on the exact same day each year.

Every year we see less of these delicate droves of fluttering orange.  Their populations now stand at less than 20% of the historical average.  This immense decrease is primarily attributed to habitat destruction and agricultural practices that have led to the loss of milkweed throughout North America.  A monarch butterfly lives out the first two stages of its life, from egg to larva, only on this one type of plant.  With the eradication of milkweed plants, the monarch has nowhere to reproduce.  

Those that are able to reproduce into the Methuselah generation are also in trouble. Each year a hundred thousand trees are cut for fuel around and within Central Mexico’s Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve (MBBR) in Michoacán province.  The degradation of the forest limits its ability to buffer against big swings in temperature.  Without this buffer, sudden temperature drops have caused three mass die offs in the last sixteen years, the worst of which caused the deaths of tens of millions of butterflies in one night.Butterfly Tidbits

It isn’t only for nostalgic reasons that people all over the country are pushing to protect the monarchs.  The butterfly plays a major role in our country’s ecosystem as an important pollinator species.  As both prey and predator, they are also a principal part of their food cycle, and a major indicator species.  This means we can make inferences about the current state of our environmental health by observing the monarch.  Right now, our observations point to pretty dismal speculations.  It is for these reasons, as well as the nostalgic affection for North America’s most iconic butterfly, that the people of ECOLIFE are trying their hardest to keep these critters alive and flourishing.

ECOLIFE is addressing both local and international problems by encouraging people to plant native milkweed and working with communities around the Oyamel forests in Mexico.  The program provides indigenous populations with more efficient wood-burning stoves for cooking and heating their homes. These “Patsari” stoves are 60% more fuel-efficient than cooking over the traditional open fire. The use of these stoves means fewer trees destroyed, as well as significantly less respiratory ailments and hazardous smoke emissions to Michoacán residents.  Since 2004, ECOLIFE has built over a thousand permanent, vented, safe, fuel-efficient stoves in areas that impact the butterfly reserves and surrounding forests.

StoveDuring down time of my internship here at ECOLIFE, I gather around a big table with other interns to stuff little bags of milkweed seeds that will be handed out to the public.  With each bag of twenty seeds, I can feel the life of twenty blooming milkweed plants, and from them the homes of forty munching caterpillars who will soon become the billowing clouds of tiny creatures I use to watch in wonder as a child.  If every one of these seeds that passes through my hands actually gets put in the ground, our autumn skies could possibly come to life the way they once did just a few decades ago.

To learn more about ECOLIFE’s Mexico Stove Program, please visit our website. 

Cloudy with a Chance of Aquaponics

As the ECOLIFE team headed to Fulton K-8 to begin construction of their ECO-Garden aquaponics system, the sky turned gray and threatened rain – rare to San Diego. With thunder in the distance and raindrops pattering against the dark asphalt of the southbound I-15, we were ready for our rainy day build.

Students get ready to plant

Students get ready to plant in their new ECO-Garden

Pulling through the gates of Fulton we were greeted by a swarm of eager children anxious to put their aquaponic knowledge to use. Needless to say, the gloominess of the day was not reflected in the spirits of these excited middle schoolers. With all hands on deck, the students unloaded bags of potting soil, cans of paint, a 250-gallon fish reservoir, cinder blocks, plumbing supplies, and of course, many seeds to plant.

In addition to a 250-gallon aquaponics system, the school was given two hanging gardens and troughs, which students chose to fill with tomatoes and basil. Once fully up-and-running, the ECO-Garden should produce enough greens to enhance the lunches of Fulton’s 350 students for years to come. This project-based learning experience incorporates Next Generation Science Standards, Science Technology Engineering and Math, while creating positive environmental awareness within our community.

The garden will be utilized as a living lab, growing not only fresh vegetables and fish, but also encouraging greater awareness of how sustainable technologies can better conserve our precious resources.

Yonis and Connor

Yonis and Connor

“We are learning about important topics such as animals and biodiversity, sustainability, properly measuring pH levels; and this hands-on experience allows them to understand the Why,” said Miss Zeran when asked what intrigued her about the ECO-Garden Program. “Why are we learning these things?”  Miss Zeran added, “the children’s excitement and positive learning atmosphere helped us gain perspective on the importance of ECOLIFE’s mission, to provide our youth with a foundation of environmentally-conscious methods of farming and learning.”

One of the most impactful examples of the ECO-Garden’s benefit is the story of Yonas; a very shy 6th grader. On this day Miss Zeran eagerly engaged all of her students in the project at hand. One, however, was less comfortable around all of the excitement. Noticeably withdrawn from the group was a young man whose interest for the garden was outweighed by his own inhibitions. The ECOLIFE team encouraged his involvement in the project with the hopes a breakthrough could be made.

Rainy day, all smiles!

Rainy day, all smiles!

It wasn’t until the following week that we received an ecstatic phone call from Miss Zeran reporting on her class’ involvement with their new ECO-Garden. She shared that her students had been leading the lower grade classrooms out to the garden to teach a lesson in aquaponics! Of course we were delighted to hear of these students speaking to their younger school mates about aquaponics, plant life, and the water cycle. The best part was when Miss Zeran told us about a specific student. This student was so enthralled by the nitrogen cycle, and how the plants receive nourishment while purifying the water for the fish. He felt this information was too important not to share with all who would listen. He enthusiastically instructed the younger students on how to test the water quality for ample nitrate levels. Who was this young lecturer? None other than the reserved boy who had held back on construction day, Yonas!  He’d decided that the information he had learned working with the ECO-Garden was too significant to keep to himself.

This story illustrates how spectacular it can be when disengaged students are introduced to exciting, hands-on learning methods. Putting the knowledge in the hands of these students creates a more in-depth and personal bond with the subject matter. Students like Yonas inspire ECOLIFE to continue empowering our youth through project-based learning in order to create positive change for our planet.

Written by Connor Leone, Aquaponics Educational Coordinator for ECOLIFE. To learn more about our ECO-Garden program, please visit our website

An Internship Rooted in Sustainability

Jesse8868At ECOLIFE Conservation, interns don’t just scan documents or make coffee. We are part of exciting opportunities that that make a difference in the community. ECOLIFE interns and staff share passion for sustainability and it fills my soul to bring this energy to San Diego youth.

Growing up in San Jose, I had the privilege of joining the city’s Youth Science Institute (YSI) in a community known as Alum Rock Park. The memory of this unique project-based learning opportunity allowed me to gain knowledge about the biology of our native wildlife in their natural habitat. I was able to understand the material I was studying while applying it to our scientific findings within the park, which left a lasting impact on my life.

Through my positive experience with YSI, I saw the power of hands-on learning at this level of scientific inquiry through an outdoor lab. This insight showed me the importance of caring for the environment while sparking my interest in conservation and sustainability.

Jesse8866Through this powerful realization, I now value the importance of a quality education and opportunities that comprehensive programs can bring. As an Aquaponics Educational Intern, I am creating a positive impact in which students will learn from for years to come. Just as our motto states, we are “Planting the Seeds of Innovation” to empower students as future leaders and farmers to create the path for humanity to walk a greener future.

When looking for an organization that shared my passion for education, technology, and sustainability; my research led me to ECOLIFE Conservation in Escondido. My beginnings at ECOLIFE started through a collaboration with the California State University San Marcos (CSUSM) and their Service Learning Program.

I am finishing my degree at CSUSM in Geography and Sustainable Development with the intent of working in education and sustainability. Through ECOLIFE, I have gained a new perspective on how schools nationwide collaborate with organizations to bring an interactive curriculum into the classroom. I have enjoyed working with local K-12 school districts, while also continuing to develop partnerships with other organizations who share similar views for sustainability.

Jesse8847Since I began my apprenticeship at ECOLIFE, I have been exposed to multiple aspects of education and sustainability. From attending school workshops, to sitting in the local San Diego radio show ‘The Green Machine’, to building an aquaponic ECO-Garden at Patrick Henry High School, and helping out at outreach events – this position exposes one to many aspects of working for a non-profit organization.

By restoring life to forgotten school spaces, we empower youth to implement a new technology, and create educational opportunities for students that would not be possible due to our extensive drought in California. Witnessing our efforts grow into fruitful outcomes is a very empowering feeling as we continue to have positive impacts on the educational experiences of the students involved.

As a student who aspires to continue my career in education and sustainability, ECOLIFE has provided me with my own hands-on learning experience through our community projects. Although the life of a full-time student can be unpredictable and fast-paced, ECOLIFE has given me flexible hours to ensure my success in both school and my internship.

12615328_10154729096182281_610122992045745627_o (1)Each day I feel inspired to work with Aquaponics Educational Manager, Kait Cole who portrays an energetic and colorful personality filled with passion for the program. In addition, working with a group of individuals who are dedicated to their work is incredibly uplifting and encouraging. The staff is made up of devoted nonprofit professionals filled with invaluable knowledge and experience.

Coming into ECOLIFE, I was looking to inspire students in their efforts of sustainability and conservation, and surprisingly enough, I found myself to be inspired by the raw talent and passion of team members and students. Sharing this enthusiasm for sustainability and education has made my time with ECOLIFE a valuable experience I will never forget!

By: Jesse Grajeda

 

Celebrate Earth Day by Saving Monarch Butterflies!

 

 

 

Save our monarchs this earth day

Earth Day is April 22nd!

The monarch butterfly’s existence is in serious danger. This iconic insect is threatened by human impact on the environment due to habitat fragmentation and agricultural practices, which has led to the loss of milkweed throughout North America. There is no more ubiquitous and iconic butterfly in North America than the monarch butterfly. In recent decades, however, monarch butterfly populations have dramatically declined and now stand at less than 20% of the historical average.

Why is the monarch butterfly so important?

  • Monarch butterflies act as pollinators.
  • They act as natural pest control, playing an important role in their food cycle – acting as prey and predators.
  • Monarch butterflies are indicator species, meaning they can tell us about the current state of our environment and its health.

How does milkweed help

 

Adult monarchs look for nectar and food from several types of flowering plants, but milkweed is the sole source of food for their rapidly developing larvae. During summer months, monarchs live across the United States and into southern Canada — any place they can find nectar and their host plant. They lay their tiny cream-colored eggs, one at a time, on the undersides of milkweed leaves and around the flower clusters. In the course of a lifetime, a single monarch butterfly may lay as many as 400 eggs.

How can YOU help?

It’s simple… plant milkweed! Whether you have a patio or a large backyard, you can plant milkweed and help the monarch survive.

It is very important to make sure you are choosing the appropriate type of milkweed for the region. The tropical milkweed, A. curassavica, is readily available, but is a poor choice for planting in any area except where it naturally occurs. Because it continues to grow and bloom year round, it can potentially cause disruptions in the migration pattern. Native milkweed is regionally appropriate for Southern California. Since native milkweed does not persist year round, they are also less likely to carry and transmit dangerous pathogens to monarchs.

Donate $5 or more to ECOLIFE and we’ll send you a pack of 20 seeds in the mail!

Let’s make this Earth Day a great one for the monarch butterfly!
Donate $5 or more to ECOLIFE and write “milkweed” in the description. We’ll mail a pack of milkweed seeds! (Southern California residents only)

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ECOLIFE and San Diego Students Design Water Saving Technology

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While drought-stricken Californians have let their thirsty lawns go brown, San Diego schools have had to get creative to minimize their water footprint – sometimes at the cost of education.

When we met with Lara Dickens, the Environmental Science teacher at Patrick Henry High School, she told us that they had to turn off the water in their school garden because of restrictions. “Our students were unable to water our plants, so our vegetable garden was left abandoned.” Dickens saw this issue as a powerful teaching moment.

Dickens happened upon ECOLIFE’s ECO-Garden Program, which involves using a water-efficient form of agriculture, known as aquaponics, to inspire creativity in students by designing a sustainable solution for growing vegetables and produce. The ECO-Garden uses 90% less water and land compared to traditional agricultural methods, while providing students with hands-on, project-based learning experiences.

In partnership with ECOLIFE Conservation and a generous gift from Kiwanis Club of San Diego and San Diego Kiwanis Club Foundation, Dickens and several other teachers are now working with over 100 Patrick Henry students who have designed, engineered, budgeted, and participated in building their school’s aquaponic system. The system will be used as a living lab, growing not only fresh vegetables and fish, but encouraging greater awareness of how sustainable technologies can better conserve our precious resources. Our Educational Manager here at ECOLIFE, Kait Cole, heads up this program and sees the connection firsthand: “I feel truly inspired to engage students in hands-on learning projects as well as educating our youth about the importance of living an eco-friendly lifestyle. The ECO-Garden represents a real-life demonstration of how sustainable technologies can protect our environment.”

Along with the educational benefits that the ECO-Garden provides, this program has inspired students at Patrick Henry to take ownership and leadership through creating an aquaponics club, even spearheading another system in the coming semester. One student, Olivia Young, shared with us that she is starting her own system as a way of providing fresh produce for the low-income families in her area. The way the students care about the ECO-Garden proves that this is not a typical school project- this is a way for students to learn about sustainable solutions and the powerful impact that they can have on their communities.

Patrick Henry is the first of 15 schools to receive an ECOLIFE ECO-Garden, a program supported by the Kiwanis Club of San Diego, San Diego Kiwanis Club Foundation, and the Cox Cares Foundation.

Check out the video of our build day at Patrick Henry High School below!

A Low Tech Solution in a High Tech World

We live in the age of high tech. High technology. So common, so ubiquitous, that we almost take it for granted.  This morning most of us got up and grabbed hold of a small device that has more computing power than that which landed a man on the moon. We’re hardly alone.  Did you know, that over four-and-a-half billion people – more than half the humans living on the planet – own and use a cell phone?

The cell phone became commercially available in 1983.  Thirty-two years later, half the planet uses one.  At that trajectory, by the year 2047, every man, woman and child could be connected to every other human via microwave link.  That’s a pretty fast rate of adoption.

Mid-range technologies – let’s call them “mid tech” – aren’t as “sexy”, and often take a little longer to catch on.  The Edison Electric Light Company introduced commercial electric lighting to homes and businesses in 1878; today, 20% of the world’s households (1.3 billion) do not have electricity.  At that trajectory, every home in the world could have electric lights and refrigeration and cell phone chargers by the year 2042.

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But here’s an interesting example of the very slow crawl of “low tech.”  The earliest example of a house chimney, a structural device designed to draw smoke and gases from the interior of a dwelling to the outside air, occurred in England in the year 1185.  Eight hundred and thirty years later, there are an estimated three billion people who live in homes that rely on cooking and heating from open fires on the floor, unvented to the outside.  At that trajectory of adoption, we can expect to vent smoke out of everyone’s homes by year 2356.

Let’s put this into perspective.  In less than a lifetime, we will place Facebook, Angry Birds, streaming music, and sexting into the hands of everyone.  But it could take us an additional three-and-a-half centuries from today to remove the greatest environmental cause of disease and death, and the third greatest contributor to global climate change, faced by that same population.

The iPhone 6s retails, without contract, for $849; a simple, vented woodburning stove costs ECOLIFE about $100, parts and labor.  If we follow the average, our phone will last less than two years before we upgrade to a new one; the stove will last eight years.

The stove, by its design, reduces the amount of wood required to fuel a common, three-stone indoor fire by 70%.  That’s 70% less of this (pictures of wood being carried and stripped forest), and approximately ten fewer hours per week spent – mostly by women and children – gathering that wood.  Can you imagine what a child might do with ten more hours a week?  Maybe go to school.  Can you imagine what a woman might do with ten more hours?  Maybe start a business.

The stove, multiplied by the number of homes on this planet that need one, will save a gigaton – that’s a billion tons — of greenhouse gases from spewing into our atmosphere every year – that would be like taking every motor vehicle in the United States off the road… plus Canada… plus Mexico… plus China… plus India… okay, basically a third of the cars, trucks, buses and tractors on the planet.

The stove, in every home where today burns a fire in the middle of the floor, will prevent an estimated 4.3 million premature deaths each year from smoke-related diseases, and countless painful, disfiguring and often fatal burns to children who fall into fires.

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With your smart phone, however, you can book a restaurant, check on your stocks, and take of selfie of yourself to let all your friends know that you’ve got nothing better to do.

Over 500 million stoves are needed, today, in the developing world.  That’s a daunting task.  First of all, how much would that cost?  According to the calculator on your smart phone… five hundred million, times $100 per stove…why, that’s $50 billion dollars. That’s a lot of money!  That’s almost as much as Apple earned in the last quarter! ($51.5 billion).  That’s almost as much as we’ll spend on our military presence in Afghanistan next year… where we have ceased all fighting by U.S. troops ($62 billion).  It is nearly the amount we Americans spend on our pets ($61 billion), soft drinks ($65 billion), and playing golf ($69 billion) each year.

So let’s say somebody wrote us a check for $50 billion… how would we build all those stoves?  General Creighton Abrams coined the famous phrase, “When eating an elephant, take one bite at a time.”  ECOLIFE has built over 1,500 stoves in Uganda, Kenya and Mexico. That’s a bite. But we’ve seen how technology spreads, how it mushrooms from one happy homeowner to her neighbors, and from a neighborhood to a village, and from one village to many others.  Steve Jobs and Thomas Edison both knew: Create the demand, and the market will respond.  This is an 830-year-old solution whose time has come!

I spent 20 years with the San Diego Zoo, communicating the importance of wildlife conservation.  And a constant frustration for me there was how we would tell Zoo visitors that this animal and that animal were on the brink of extinction… and after completely bumming them out about how their grandchildren might never see a live rhino or panda or leopard, we would offer our audience no tangible way for them to help avert these tragedies.  Nothing that they could do… except to go home and lose sleep over it.

Did I mention that our stove projects in Mexico surround the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, a World Heritage Site endangered by deforestation – much of it in the name of fuel wood gathering?  Did I mention that our stove projects in Uganda is in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, home to half the world’s endangered mountain gorillas?  Or that our stove projects in Kenya are in the Serengeti, where human activity impacts the survival of black rhinos, cheetahs… and elephants?

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Most plants and animals on today’s Endangered Species list are there because they’ve lost their habitats… like their forests. Fuel-efficient stoves help to preserve those forests. It’s like everybody wins.

This is a lot to think about, I know. Phones and lights and stoves and smoke and disease and burns and the empowerment of women and the price of a round of golf.  And how to eat an elephant, and how to save an elephant.  But there’s really just one simple takeaway here.

The science fiction writer William Gibson, often considered a “prophet” of sorts because his books seemed to forecast trends and technologies, shook off that label by saying that “The future is already here… it’s just not evenly distributed yet.”

We have a big problem with a low tech solution that’s been around since the twelfth century. It’s high time that we complete its distribution.
By: Thomas Hanscom

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The Smoky Mountains of Mexico

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We arrived in Macheros as the sun was setting over the pine and fir covered hills that surround the region. The forest, shrouded in mist, made its presence known by the subtle alpine scent of pine, while wood smoke hinted at the coming cold of winter. As we stepped into the brisk air, it felt as though we were transported worlds away from the bustling city of Morelia just two hours to the North. It was my third trip to the area and I was overcome with excitement about our work in the coming days.

Our Goal: to train and build a team of locals to empower their communities in adopting life-saving stoves.

The region around Macheros is home to one of the most amazing natural wonders I have ever seen, the overwintering of the entire eastern monarch population. These iconic butterflies migrate here from as far north as Canada in such density that tree branches sag under the weight of tens of thousands of butterflies. While I was admittedly unaware of this spectacle before joining ECOLIFE, seeing the butterflies firsthand last February left me in awe. It also left me aware of one of the primary threats to their existence, deforestation. For this declining species, a tree is home, a tree is warmth, a tree is protection.

Like the monarch, half of the human population relies on wood for life. The communities surrounding the monarch habitat are no different, using local firewood to heat their home and cook their meals. While cheap and culturally accepted, cooking with wood has significant health impacts, resulting in over 4 million deaths per year due to the long term effects of inhaling smoke. These impacts can be felt beyond the kitchen, as stoves hungry for firewood lead to deforestation in the surrounding mountains, and depleting precious habitat for years to come.

ECOLIFE’s mission in Mexico is to improve community health and protect precious habitat by promoting stoves that cut wood consumption in half and eliminate smoke in the household.

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With this mission in mind, I stood in front of our newly formed Mexico team. This was an important moment for ECOLIFE as this team will allow us to reach six times as many Mexican households. It was also the launch of our new innovative program model, where we focus on using business strategies to increase demand for safe and efficient cookstoves. One lesson we have learned is that something free is not always something valued. Our remedy is to not give stoves away but to convince people to buy them.

This strategy of marketing our stoves as an essential consumer appliance, creates pride and social value in addition to the added health benefits.  To align with business practices, we focus on treating beneficiaries like customers, even including a one-year guarantee on every stove we sell. With the stoves selling for roughly 8% of their actual value, the cost is purely symbolic, but the impact on long term adoption is huge. In addition to the benefits to our customers, this new model creates over 20 jobs and trains a group of dedicated people, increasing their capacity to support their families and improve their community. Stay tuned for more updates as this program takes off!

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DIY Monarch Sanctuary

What a better way to start a butterfly garden than to raise your own butterflies? Building a monarch sanctuary will not only increase the odds of caterpillars turning into butterflies, but you will have the opportunity to enjoy the metamorphosis of this beautiful creature! Once the chrysalis has hatched, lift up the cage to let the butterfly free.

Below are simple instructions on how to create a sanctuary in your backyard for less than $10.00. Most of these items you may already have at home!

You will need the following:

  1. A three prong tomato cage (33″ height x 12″ diameter). We found ours at Lowes— turn it upside down to make sure it sits level.
  2. 5 gallon paint strainers—comes in a package of two.
  3. A pizza pan or flat object for the base.
  4. Bolt clippers for cutting the excess wire of the tomato cage.

Instructions   

Bend the tomato cage prongs towards the center so they form a small dome shape for the top of your sanctuary. Clip off the shorter ends with a bolt clipper to avoid sharp edges which could puncture the paint strainer. Slip the paint strainer over the dome and the rest of the cage so it fits securely. Place the sanctuary on top of your base in an area with morning sun. Now you are ready to add native milkweed and caterpillars!

Tips

It is a good idea to wipe the base off regularly to avoid spreading disease to monarchs. Add fresh milkweed clippings to your monarch sanctuary on a daily basis if not using a potted plant.

 

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Aquaponics Springs to Life!

Bruce'sArticle_AquaponicsSystemAquaponics is growing at Twin Peaks Middle School in Poway, CA. Eighth-grade students in the STEM Challenge class are engaged in project-based learning experiences relevant to important real-world challenges. Twin Peaks’ STEM students were initiated to the world of aquaponics with their first ECO-Cycle Aquaponics Kit last September. After students set up the system, they soon became active participants in testing water quality, measuring and recording observations, all while creating an environment for plants and fish to thrive! Through these hands-on experiences, seeds of problem-solving skills associated with food production, sustainable agriculture, water availability, and water usage have been planted in their minds. Following the first harvest from their ECO-Cycle Kit, the aquaponics students have branched out in exciting new directions. The students are now putting finishing touches on a outdoor aquaponics system, with help from ECOLIFE Conservation’s Aquaponics Specialist, Mike Ready. The outdoor system features a 200-gallon reservoir, catfish, and three 16-ft long grow-channels with mesh pots for plants. Students are also conducting plant-growing experiments using two ECO-Cycle Kits (one variable and one control), traditional soil-based planting in raised beds, and the outdoor aquaponics system. They plan to compare plant growth and water usage, under a variety of growing conditions and nutrients.

Hieu L. assembling our ECO-Cycle Aquaponics KitIn March of this year, the Twin Peaks STEM Challenge class was selected as the top middle school STEM Education program in San Diego by the S.D. Festival of Science and Engineering. In addition to receiving a special proclamation from the City of San Diego at a City Council meeting, the class, and their aquaponics projects were featured in an exhibit booth at the Science Festival EXPO Day at Petco Park. Twin Peaks students seized the opportunity to showcase an ECO-Cycle Kit and explain the benefits of aquaponics to the approximately 20,000 visitors who attended EXPO Day. According to STEM Challenge teacher Bruce May, the EXPO Day booth was “a great vehicle to share the promise of aquaponics with the San Diego community.” The booth logged well over 2,000 visitors including parents, scientists, educators, and over 1,000 students. The ECO-Cycle Kit was a magnet to draw visitors into the booth, and the students were busy fielding aquaponics questions all day. For more information about Twin Peaks Middle School’s STEM Challenge program, contact teacher Bruce May at bmay@powayusd.com.

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Beat the Drought & Save Monarch Butterflies!

Beat the Drought & Save Monarch Butterflies!

ECOLIFE_042015Milkweed.004There is no more ubiquitous and iconic butterfly in North America than the monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus. In recent decades, however, monarch butterfly populations have dramatically declined and now stand at less than 20% of the historical average.  Milkweeds in the genus Asclepias are host plants for monarch butterfly caterpillars and critical to their success. The loss of milkweed due to habitat fragmentation and agricultural practices throughout North America are key factors in the decline of both the Eastern and Western populations of monarchs.

To counter this historic loss of host plant, efforts are underway to restore milkweed within the migratory ranges of this majestic species. All of us can help by planting milkweed in our home gardens.
ECOLIFE_042015Milkweed.007When planting milkweed, it is very important to choose the appropriate type of milkweed for the region. Even though the tropical milkweed A. curassavica is readily available commercially, it is a poor choice for planting in any areas except those in which it naturally occurs.  Because it continues to grow and bloom year round, it can potentially cause disruptions in the migration behavior of monarchs.  Native milkweeds, on the other hand, are regionally appropriate and because they senesce during the winter, they encourage the butterflies to continue their natural migration to their overwintering sites in Mexico and Central California. Since native milkweeds do not persist year round, they are also less likely to carry and transmit dangerous pathogens to monarchs.
We have found aquaponics to be a successful method for propagating milkweed. Presently, ECOLIFE is growing three California native species: Narrow leaf milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis), Showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa), and Indian milkweed (Asclepias eriocarpa), all of which are great for monarchs and excellent choices for planting in our Southern California gardens.
LaMonarcaECOLIFEECOLIFE has partnered with La Monarca Bakery to promote planting native milkweed.
Visit La Monarca Bakery on Earth Day, April 22, 2015 for a packet of native milkweed seeds, or donate $5 or more to ECOLIFE and we’ll send you a pack in the mail!