Monarch Caterpillar

Monarch Watch: I raise monarch butterflies in my backyard

I raise monarch butterflies. I rescue eggs and caterpillars from my backyard, raise them in my house, and let them go, once they emerge. This is how I do it.


Preparation

Get Permission

Before you begin, talk with a parent or other older adult. Parts of this project (like getting supplies, getting out into the community, and working safely) take a little help!

Learn

Read up about monarchs. It’s always good to learn about the thing you want to work with or protect from harm. Check your library or resources online for information. The Monarch Lab at the University of Minnesota has some really good information. Their website is MonarchLab.org.


Things to think about

Why should we raise monarchs? Because science is fun. Plus, monarch migratory routes are at risk because their routes are endangered, due to habitat loss. I want everyone to know.

Is it gross – raising monarchs? That depends. Earth sciences can be gross, but in a very good way. Playing on the ground, trimming the leaves, looking for soft caterpillars or tiny eggs… I love it. I love science!

What if I can’t raise monarchs? Raising any animal takes time, supplies, and lots of space and effort to do it right. Sometimes, we don’t have those things. If so, there are other ways to make sure monarchs continue on their journey. Check your library or online resources and just search for “monarch.” You’ll find TONS of information. Even just sharing their story helps keep them safe.

Okay, let’s go!


Raising Monarch Butterflies

Milkweed

First, find milkweed. Milkweed plants are where monarch butterflies lay their eggs, and where the monarch caterpillars (also called larvae) grow up. You can probably find milkweed near your house. Check nearby ponds, but make sure it’s free of chemicals. If you have a garden, you can also plant milkweed there. But be careful; it’s a weed and it spreads.

Let’s see if you can spot mine. This is a garden with milkweed plants in it. Can you find them?

Garden with Milkweed

There are a few! Look for four red arrows. They point to the milkweed plants.

Garden with Milkweed Marked

I cut out a bunch of milkweed from that garden. It’s good to cut some out from time to time. (Remember, it’s a weed and it spreads really quickly.) Leaving some plants is good, though, so any monarchs in your neighborhood stop for a visit!

Cut Milkweed

This is what the individual milkweed leaves look like.

Milkweed

Adult monarch butterflies drink flower nectar — like just about all other butterflies! Monarchs really love pink, purple, and orange flowers.


Egg Stage (4 -6 days)

Because there was so much of it, I knew there would be some eggs or small caterpillars to rescue. I picked through the bunch and found some eggs! Can you find them?

Can You Find the Monarch Eggs 1

There are three in this bunch! Look for three red arrows. They point to the monarch eggs.

Can You Find the Monarch Eggs 1 Marked

Your probably wondering what to put the leaves in, once you start raising your monarchs. The leaves with eggs on them can be broken off and brought inside. I usually break the leaves off at the stalk, so I can stick them in some water… just like flowers! Be careful of the white “milk.” It irritates some people. But not me.

Milkweed in a Container

Larva (Caterpillar) Stage ( about 14 days)

The caterpillars (larvae) hatch after about 4 days in the egg, and will just eat from the leaf it hatched on. They’ll grow for about 14 days, before turning into a chrysalis (called a cocoon).

At this point, I put the milkweed leaves in a small plastic leftover container. Whether they’re in a cup of water or in another container, when your leaves have eggs on them, they need to be kept a little bit damp. You can keep a moist paper towel in the container with them, or spray a little bit of water on the leaves, once a day.

Caterpillars with damp paper towel

When you have just eggs or tiny caterpillars, you don’t need a cover on your container. Once they hatch and start crawling off of their leaf though, you probably want to put a piece of mesh or cheesecloth over the top, or use a butterfly house you can find in most children’s toy stores. Someone in my family made this blue butterfly house out of an old clothing hamper!

Monarch Houses

After the eggs hatch, the caterpillars will just eat, and eat, and eat… for about two weeks.

After you’ve had your leaves for a couple of days, you’ll notice them start to dry up. That’s why it’s important to keep the ones with eggs damp. But the caterpillars will be hungry and it’s best to give them some fresh leaves every day. Here’s how. (Yes, that’s caterpillar frass… or poop.)

Dry Milkweed Leaves

You can start by gathering some fresh leaves from outside. It’s best to wipe them off with a wet paper towel, because this gets rid of any chemicals or tiny bugs.

Milkweed leaf

There a couple of different ways to “feed” your caterpillar. I find it easiest to simply drop in a new leaf. They’ll find it. If you want to help them a little bit, just tear off the part of the leaf your caterpillar is eating, and drop it on top of the new leaf.

Drop in Milkweed Leaf

They’re getting bigger! Once your caterpillar reaches roughly the size of a coin, you should definitely put it in a container with a breath-able cover.

There’s not much “movement” at this stage… just lots of eating.

Caterpillars on dry leaves

Now, it’s just a few days of eating… eating… eating… and putting fresh leaves in every day.

Remember, you can cut milkweed and put a few stalks in a vase of water, just like flowers! This will save you or your family from having to go out and gather it every day.

Milkweed in a Container

When they get to be about an inch long (or more), you can probably hold them for a minute or two. If you’re lucky, they’ll crawl right off the leaf onto your hand. It’s probably best to wash your hands both before and after, just to make sure nothing’s being spread between you and your caterpillar.

Caterpillar in Hand

Throughout this week, your caterpillars will probably crawl up the side of your container. They do this a few times, when they’re “molting” or shedding their skin.

Caterpillar Crawling Up Side

The caterpillars are now getting big enough that I need to watch for certain behaviors. First, if too many are kept together in one place, they may fight for space. I’ve never seen any do actual damage to each other, but caterpillar “battles” can be a little strange to watch. I’ve been okay fitting about 12 in a butterfly house from a toy store (about 1 foot wide and 2 feet tall).

You already know the the caterpillars climb the sides of their cage a few times as they grow, but when they “hang out” at the actual top of their house, then things are starting to happen. They’re getting ready to transform into a chrysalis.

Caterpillars on Top of House

Once they’re attached, they’ll hang upside down. At first, they’ll look pretty alert. After about a day, though (or less), their antennae will start to sag a bit. Than you’ll know they’re about to actually transform themselves into a chrysalis. I don’t say “make a cocoon,” since this isn’t what monarchs do. First they hang in a”J” shape for a few hours. Try not to disturb them; they’re pretty sensitive, during this time.

Catepillars in a J

When they’re ready, they’ll wiggle around a bit, eventually splitting themselves open down their bodies and turning themselves inside out into this beautiful, bright green version of themselves: a chrysalis. Warning: This is as gross as caterpillars get. But it’s cool right? They’ll stay like this for 8-14 days, at which point, they’ll emerge as a Monarch butterfly. I love science!


Chrysalis Stage (8 – 14 days)

Once the Monarchs make their “cocoon” (really, a chrysalis – or “chrysalides” if there are more than one), they’ll stay in there for about 8 – 14 days. It depends on a lot of things… probably nature-related things, like how warm it is.

Monarch Chrysalides on the Roof

What if?

Since we’re waiting, let’s talk about what happens if there’s trouble. Usually, “trouble” just means the caterpillars made their chrysalis right on the zipper to your container top, or something like that.

These caterpillars made their chrysalides on a loose mesh cover. I wanted to move them to a stronger “roof,” so I took the mesh cover off and cut mesh around the chrysalides.

Green Chrysalides on Mesh
Green Chrysalis with Mesh

Once that was done, I tied some dental floss around the top of the chrysalides (called the cremaster).

Tying Floss to Chrysalis

Then I tied them to the top of a sturdier container! You can see the bunched-up mesh in this photo.

Chrysalides Tied to Mesh

Monarchs Emerge

Just to keep them sturdy, I secured the tied-on-chrysalides with some masking tape.

Just before the Monarchs are ready to emerge, you’ll see your chrysalides turn really, really dark. Don’t worry; they look so dark it can be concerning, but they’re just fine! They’re doing their thing!

Green and Clear Chrysalides

When they get to be almost crystal clear, you can actually see the Monarch wings showing through their “shell.” This means they’re almost ready to come out!

Clear Chrysalis

Once your Monarch is ready to emerge, it happens quickly. If you catch the process in time to see it, you’re lucky! It happens almost in the blink of an eye.

The first thing they’ll do is hang out for a while, gripping what remains of their chrysalis. Their wings are drying. Don’t disturb them, until this is complete (about 4 – 6 hours). You’ll know they’re dry, once they start flitting around in their house. When this happens, you’ll know they’re ready for release.

Two MOnarch Butterflies and Green Chrysalides

Just let them be for at least 3-4 hours. 5-6 is even better, but if they start flying around in your butterfly house, you know they’re ready to be let go.

I like to release them when the sun is high and bright yellow – just after lunchtime. Monarchs can withstand a little cold and rain, but if it’s too cold, they won’t be able to fly until they warm up, which leaves them susceptible to predators.


Monarch Release

How?

It depends on the house you have them in. Sometimes, all it takes is for you to open it up, and they’ll fly away. Other times, you’ll have to coax them out. I usually tuck one of my fingers underneath them and let them crawl on and get a grip with their legs. Then it’s easy to slowly ease your finger (and Monarch butterfly) out.

20170827_180829

Your Monarch may fly away right away, or may hang out for a while. If yours seems particularly friendly, you can either hang with them or gently coax them onto a flower. They’ll fly away when they’re ready.

monarch-on-purple-flower

That’s it… until next year. I find that the more Monarchs I raise, the more Monarchs I see. I’m not sure if their Spidey-sense tells them to come back to this neighborhood or what… but they do.

This is a video of the Monarch Migration flying over my yard. Enjoy!


Follow Up

Learn More

Now that you understand how to raise monarchs, you can help them stay healthy in our world. Even if you can’t raise them yourself, you can still help others appreciate their beauty and give them healthy places to live. Check your library or resources online for information. The Monarch Lab at the University of Minnesota has some really good information. Their website is MonarchLab.org.