Published: 25th October 2021
Meet Butterfly Ma'am, a teacher who sets up special gardens in schools across Hyderabad. Here's how she's winging it
Radhika Chitalapati has a Global Teacher Certification from Illinois University and a heart that is bursting with love for butterflies and nature. Now, she is sharing that love with students
When Radhika Chitalapati walks down the corridors of Glendale Academy International, Sun City, Hyderabad, students point at her and whisper to each other, "Look, Butterfly Ma'am!" This is not because she sprouts wings and flies away in a moment's notice, it's because she awakens a new interest in the winged creatures and creates small oases for them, where they thrive. Not just in her school but in other schools as well. This is how her journey took off.
The 'How' behind it all
First of all, let's start with the question: What's not to love about butterflies? Beautiful, dainty and absolutely vital to the environment, it is a well known fact that they are an indicator species — if they are around, then the surroundings are ecologically balanced. 'Why butterflies' is clearly not a valid question to ask the teacher. So, we try 'How butterflies'. Now that question she enthusiastically responds to. The year 2015, that's when it all started, when she planted ixora (the tiny, pretty little flowers that grow on shrubs, almost like a ready-made bouquet for Lilliputians), milkweed, curry leaf and such in her garden and, after patiently waiting, butterflies came calling. "Why don't you try this at other places too?" her children squealed, as butterflies became frequent visitors and then made the plants their home, where they rested and laid eggs too! So she tried this at her own school, with due permission, on a small 10x10 foot piece of land. That small patch was enough to not just bring butterflies to the yard but very eager and excited students as well. Let's just say, a ripple effect had begun. "We all know small children love creepy crawlies. And when we talk about butterflies, we can connect them to many other topics like pollination, caterpillars, predators, ecosystem and so much more," she explains.
Way to the garden
Not only did Chitalapati meet the then Deputy Chief Minister, Mohammed Mahmood Ali, to discuss her plans of creating butterfly gardens in government institutions, she even gave a presentation on the work she has been doing at a National Conference on Biodiversity and Human Health organised by the Department of Botany, Nizam College, in 2017. But anyone who knows the 45-year-old will tell you that she is not all talk because soon, she offered to set up butterfly gardens at educational or public institutions, circulated the message among her friends and acquaintances and, within no time, she was invited by the principal of Kasturba Gandhi Degree and PG College for Women in Secunderabad. She and her Class VIII students marched into the college and made a patch of land butterfly-friendly. The same ensued at the Defence Laboratories' School and at the DRDO Township as well. "We supply the saplings and help plant them. We ensure that we pass on all important instructions, like how they should not use fertilisers or pesticides and be patient for a few months, depending on the season, for butterflies to visit," says the 45-year-old teacher.
Here, students set the pace
But no matter where the teacher is initiating the butterfly garden, she ensures that it is the children who are leading the way. Like the time when there was a pest infestation in the patch at Glendale which had the children and her worried. They emailed the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bengaluru, who identified it as the Nuclear Polyhedrosis Virus (NPV) and a professor from Tamil Nadu suggested they hand-pound carom seeds and mix it in water (1:10 proportion). It worked like magic, much to the relief of the students. "But till the experts got back, students incessantly kept following up," shares the nature enthusiast in mock-frustration because if truth be told, she is one proud teacher. And surely, her WhatsApp is always buzzing with students sending her pictures of butterflies and asking which species it is.
A butterfly pupa spotted in the garden
Regarding the involvement of students, the teacher who has a Master's Degree in Zoology and Psychology, says, "I've told them that this is not for marks, but it's our job to take care of the environment. Earlier, children used to scream at the sight of caterpillars and proceed to stomp on them mercilessly. Now, they know better, I consider this as one of my biggest achievements." They have even started asking parents to not get imported plants home because it doesn't attract local butterflies. Baby steps but important steps. Now, thanks to the butterflies, lizards, squirrels and other creatures have started dropping by too. She particularly recommends visiting the patch in the morning and if you happen to spot a butterfly emerging from its cocoon, consider yourself lucky.
Are you interested in a butterfly patch of your own? This Hyderabadi says that even potted plants will do, but do place a rock nearby. "Butterflies are cold-blooded creatures, they like to bask in the Sun and a rock would serve well. Also place a small cup of water and, in my students' words, the 'mall' for butterflies is ready where they can feast (on nectar), chill, drink water and have a good time," she laughs as she shares. And which butterflies are frequent visitors of these patches? Common crow, common tiger and many, many more. Initiate the garden and see for yourself!