Raising Monarch Butterflies
Monarch butterflies have become the cornerstone of our summer activities this year.
As soon as the backpacks came flying off at the of May, (and not hung in the closet where they’ve been instructed to put them 3.7 million times) my boys tackled Summer 2018. No holds barred. Not kidding, the way they throw down everywhere you’d think we were raising professional wrestlers. Wrestling at our house is WWE style, where chairs and spatulas and other exotic stuff is part of their daily wrestling matches.
The first few days, they explored the lush foliage of late spring in Wisconsin. Everyone also enjoyed their first tick bites of the season. Gosh, I just love ticks so much. I can NOT wait to get chickens up in here!
Their summer break exuberance was apparent. They came running into the house, cheeks flushed with youthful excitement, new scrapes on their knees, and an indescribable amount of dirt on everything. So. Much. Dirt.
The Monarch Butterfly Project
One night, one of my 7-year-old twins, Michael, came streaming through the front door all elbows and exhilaration.
“Mom! Dad! Look at this – I think it’s a monarch butterfly egg!”
Always the skeptic, I was resistant to believe that little white dot on the milkweed could possibly be a butterfly egg. After all, in 34 years of looking at milkweed (I mean, I’m sure I checked at least 4 milkweed plants in my entire life thus far) I’d never actually seen anything even remotely related to the monarch butterfly lifecycle other than adult monarch butterflies flying around and doing bug stuff.
So he brought the milkweed leaf closer.
“Mom, look CLOSER! The egg is a little cream colored, has a pointy top, and you can see ridges on it.”
Sure enough, my eagle-eyed etymologist was absolutely right. There was a monarch butterfly egg on that leaf. Thus began the greatest adventure of our summer so far – raising monarch butterflies.
Monarch Butterfly Facts
Quickly, I found out a lot of really amazing things about monarchs, due in large part to my little seven-year-old professor of natural science. He’s the Doogie Howser of bugs. He absorbs information the way his mom does, and a little proof my genes actually passed on is always a nice boost.
- Most monarch eggs will never become butterflies due to predators and disease. The statistics show that up to 90% will perish, with monarchs raised in captivity having much better success rates.
- Monarch caterpillars only eat milkweed their whole life and are able to use some of the plant’s natural defenses (e.g. poison) in their own caterpillar bodies to ward off some predators.
- The caterpillar growth rate is dependent on temperature.
- Caterpillar poop is called frass. My kids were thrilled to learn this and have since talked about frass A LOT.
- The last batch of monarchs every season lives much longer than the first batches. Up to 9 months! These super monarchs fly to Mexico to overwinter.
- Monarchs are in trouble, by raising monarch butterflies in your home, you can positively affect the monarch population!
Quick Monarch Lifecycle Primer
The monarch lifecycle goes from a tiny egg to a tiny caterpillar known in larval terms as instar 1, the smallest caterpillar size.
After this, it eats milkweed and molts multiple times, becoming an instar 5 which is a nice juicy, fat caterpillar.
It then forms a chrysalis and enters the pupa stage for about two weeks before emerging as a beautiful butterfly.
What do you need to raise monarch butterflies?
There are probably much more official ways to raise caterpillars, but I did a bunch of quick internet research and cobbled together this fantastic Monarch Butterfly Standard Operating Guide for my devoted following.
If you want something more official I also have a link for that.
Supplies we used for Raising Monarchs
Links may be affiliate links. For more information see my disclosure here.
- Small Plastic Container
- Paper Towel
- Fresh milkweed leaves
- Mesh butterfly enclosure
- Butterfly larvae/caterpillars
Step 1 – Find eggs or caterpillars
After discovering the egg, we knew that some busy monarch mama had been in our little field getting busy and laying her eggs all over the place. Our first order of business was tracking down more eggs or, hopefully, baby caterpillars.
All the boys and I went out to the wild part of our little parcel, the “four acres” as the kids say, and searched literally every single milkweed plant for eggs. Those dudes left no leaf unturned. I’m pretty sure their motto was “NO MONARCH LEFT BEHIND”.
I can’t even tell you how fun it was to go exploring in our own yard. We all had a blast. The boys came up with two more eggs, but what I was really hoping against hope to find was some of those sweet little green and white striped caterpillars of monarch butterfly fame.
TOTALLY NOT PRO-TIP: EGG LAYING MONARCH BUTTERFLIES TYPICALLY LEAVE ONLY 1 EGG PER LEAF, FREQUENTLY ON THE BOTTOM OF THE LEAF
As a last “ditch” effort, we went to check out two lone milkweed plants in the front yard that my husband had left standing in the ditch during his last lawn mowing session.
We are checking out the milkweed and Michael yells out –
“I just dropped a little, striped caterpillar!”
Yeah right! Skeptic mom jumps in again, but is saved from herself by finding another two little caterpillars not ten seconds later!
My little bug-loving son found his lost caterpillar, and once again spotted what no one else had! We successfully collected three instar 2 ‘cats’ and two eggs.
Step 2 – Caterpillar Living Arrangements
After we found our baby cats, we made them a nursery. I took a plastic container and put a piece of paper towel on the bottom to collect frass.
We then took rinsed and dried milkweed leaves and placed them on the bottom of the container. I also decided to split up my caterpillars from the eggs, just in case they turned all accidentally cannibalistic and ate the eggs in their hunger. I’ve worried about doing the same thing when I’m hungry, so I was just acting out of an abundance of caution.
In the “For What It’s Worth” department, I’m sure people have had great luck raising monarchs from eggs, but our two feeble little attempts failed. Though I did get to see one of our eggs hatched and the little bitty caterpillar lived for a few days before succumbing to failure to thrive.
Step 3 – Feed the hungry caterpillars
Your caterpillars are now going to eat A LOT. We made sure to keep them supplied with fresh, clean leaves from our milkweed plants. If the plants got droopy or wilted we quickly changed them out for happier leaves.
We also cleaned up the frass and changed out the paper towel to encourage the healthiest caterpillars we could.
Some sites recommended spritzing the leaves with water, some didn’t. I opted to not spritz due to the high moisture content of the milkweed leaves, and as an effort to avoid propagating mold, viruses, or bacteria that might harm the caterpillars.
At this time you’ll also begin to endure many rounds of “When are they going to be butterflies? Why aren’t they butterflies yet?”
Gird your loins. There’s still a lot of time left.
Step 4 – Watch your cute little caterpillars grow
Try to gently remind your kids to watch with their eyes, not with their hands. Or in my case – “PUT THE CATERPILLAR DOWN CHILD, YOU ARE KILLING IT!”
Yes. We lost a couple of caterpillars to indelicate handling… but we did end up with four healthy caterpillars.
Your caterpillar and its frass will grow rapidly. Every few days, it will get really slow and still and you might think it’s dead. It’s likely just in a very vulnerable state while it’s molting into its next size!
It’s entirely possible one of your kids will throw a molting caterpillar in the garbage because they thought it was dead, and when you come down to do your daily caterpillar count someone will need to be questioned. I tried to save the caterpillar in question, but I don’t think he made it.
Caterpillar resuscitation was not part of my requisite child rearing classes.
When our cats reached instar 4, we moved them into their final home – the mesh butterfly house. I was a bit nervous to move them to something without a hard outer shell sheerly because of the vast amount of small inquisitive hands.
Step 5 – The chrysalis stage
After a few days at instar 5 size, your little guys will be growing, and moving quicker, and eating more. A lot more. Soon, something in that bug will tell it that it’s time to climb the wall and hang out on the ceiling. The bonanza is over.
After it scopes out a spot, it attaches itself to the ceiling with very strong silk. It makes sense that it’s ridiculously strong, after all, it has to survive thunderstorms, wind, jostling, clown cars driving by, and other various natural elements.
In our case, it has to survive two weeks of being haphazardly tossed around by my kids.
Good luck to the caterpillars. I barely survive being haphazardly tossed around by my kids.
Then it will hang down in a “J” shape and shed its last skin and become a chrysalis. There are some wicked cool videos of this on youtube. We, unfortunately, missed all of our dudes (or dudettes?) turning into a chrysalis! We literally saw it at noon, checked on it two hours later the same day and the whole process was complete. I thought it was something that took a while, but apparently, it’s about twenty minutes when that part starts!
This stage lasts for about two weeks. Unlike waiting to find out if you are pregnant, this is challenging because everyone just wants the butterfly to come out already. Seriously. Come out here little butterfly.
Step 6 – The Monarch Emerges
After two weeks of checking on your amazing lime green and gold detailed pupas, you will suddenly notice that not only has the chrysalis darkened, but you can see the distinctive orange and black markings of butterfly wings inside. It’s stinking MAGICAL.
I’d argue it’s more magical than Disney World.
We missed the first two monarchs coming out but were able to set them free safely in our flower garden.
The second two I thought might be getting close so I was able to bring them to our giant family camping trip/reunion weekend.
Those awesome bugs did NOT disappoint.
While we were all pretty bummed that it decided to rain and rain and rain, the monarch butterflies decided to make their appearance right in the middle of breakfast on Sunday.
My son Michael was again the one to spot the butterfly coming out. He alerted the authorities and a fascinated/excited horde of small children and big adults came over to watch the miracle of butterfly birth.
Seriously. There’s even butterfly meconium. Not lying.
After a few hours of drying its wings, your monarch butterfly will be ready to go out, hit the nectar bars, and hook up with another butterfly for a one night stand. Their kama sutra-esque monarch mating ritual lasts like 16 hours. Of course, they die two weeks later so it might as well be fun while it lasts.
Now it’s your turn!
This has hands-down been the best learning experience for our entire family. My husband and I included! A biology lesson my children will never forget.
Some thoughts on keeping kids involved
- Read up on raising monarchs and the possible problems you might run into with the various parasites and predators. They won’t hurt humans, but you might have some sad/dead caterpillars to explain to your kids.
- Definitely pick up a great mesh butterfly house!
- Have your kids check on the caterpillars and chrysalises with you and tell you what they see.
- Collect milkweed together and plant milkweed in your yard to attract more butterflies.
- Do a butterfly art project or journal page, and be sure to take photos of the process to help your little ones document the transformation.
If milkweed and monarch butterflies are part of the area you live in, I highly recommend going out and starting your own monarch nursery. You will not regret it.
NO MONARCH LEFT BEHIND!