There’s been a metamorphosis at the Tinana State School near Maryborough in Queensland’s Fraser Coast hinterland.
A much-loved butterfly cage has come to symbolise the school’s decade-long commitment to sustainability. The school’s commitment was rewarded when it became the first in Australia to receive the Green Flag Eco Schools award last year.
Volunteer Col Bowman is among the valued mentors for the school’s sustainability program, and has become known as The Butterfly Man.
“On retirement I looked for a program where I could work with young people to raise awareness of the unique flora and fauna in our region,” Col recalls. “I found high school students had little interest, and primary school students would quickly lose enthusiasm if they could not actively work with what you were trying to teach them.”
Enter the Joseph’s coat moth or Agarista Agricola, and the school’s Butterfly Program.
“Moths and butterflies don’t scratch or bite, and with the exception of the Richmond Birdwing Butterfly, they are not rare and endangered,” Col says. “This makes them ideal specimens for children to study.”
Joseph’s coat moths are a day-flying moth common to Queensland’s southern region. They are colourful as both caterpillar and moth, and the plant they feed on is readily available. They are hardy, and can be left to their own devices when schools are closed. During holidays, students can take the cage home to care for the caterpillar and supply fresh feed.
That was the case for Year 2 student Emily, who became fascinated while caring for the caterpillar at home, and has continued her interest since.
"Mr Bowman has made a big difference, helping many people learn about butterflies, including myself," Emily says. "Mr Bowman makes it so interactive. For example, he always brings in butterflies and there are no conditions for people to come in to the program - it is open to everyone."
Emily finds it difficult to pinpoint the best thing about the program.
“Well it's hard to decide because there are so many great things.
"I just love learning about butterflies and moths and it has definitely convinced me to do the Joseph's coat moth project two years in a row for Kids Teaching Kids Day."
Tinana State School hosts a Sustainability Symposium every year during Kids Teaching Kids Week, when students such as Emily run their own presentations and participate in workshops.
Tinana Sustainability Coordinator Robyn Yates says the Butterfly Program, together with the school’s Sustainability Squad has empowered children, allowing them to learn in-depth about the role of butterflies and moths in the environment.
“A real-life and supportive atmosphere has allowed our children to become active learners and confident presenters, striving to share their love of butterflies with others,” Robyn says.
“It is heart-warming to see our kids emerge from the program to be so enthusiastic about their environmental education and I believe this is why Col loves coming back to Tinana.”
Col and Robyn have developed the program to include anthropology and the life cycle of the plant the caterpillar feeds on.
“Traditional hunter gatherers utilised all the plant which is called a slender grape vine, and grows from a native sweet potato, and has small black fruit,” Robyn explains.
“The moth and caterpillar were eaten as they contained 70 per cent fat, which was not in abundance in Australian native fauna.”
They are conducting a trial to propagate the slender grape vine from seed, but have not yet had success.
Col draws on the knowledge and experience gained through his own career ‘metamorphosis’ to share with the students.
Forced from a dryland cattle and grain farm when interest rates skyrocketed in the 1980s, he purchased a small farm in the Mary Valley outside of Gympie and developed a timber plantation.
After teaching TAFE students and working on programs including Green Corp and the Green Army, he set about achieving tertiary qualifications.
First came a Master and Senior Tree Grower with the University of Melbourne, then a Diploma of Applied Science in Forestry from The University of Queensland in 1999, and a Rural Programs and Projects post graduate course in 2002.
With the crucial role insects play in ecosystems and food production, Col believes it is important to spark an interest in entomology.
“With population growth, countries need to increase their food production, and most people know that insects have a vital part to play in the pollination of crops.
“But they also perform lesser-known work in pest control – it was mosquitoes and flies which spread the Calicivuris (CV) which finally controlled the European rabbit, which had devastated our flora and caused soil erosion.”
“There is a real opportunity for our students to go on to study entomology at university, and make a real difference to the sustainability of our planet.”