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Monarch butterflies emerging from their chrysalis is an indescribable experience and one that you won’t tire from any time soon.
You feel truly engaged with nature when you feel the light feet of a butterfly on your hand.
When you witness an adult monarch butterfly learn to fly, you will be truly uplifted.
This experience is something to definitely share with all children.
(For other child-activities you may want to look at these game reviews.)
However, the joy and education of a child won’t surpass the delight of a 90 year old..so get your milkweed going and share this experience!
It is not too late to start some milkweed for this year’s monarchs.
My favorite source is Rose Franklin’s Perennials. Rose is exceedingly helpful, her plants are top quality and she carries many varieties of milkweed. Plus, her milkweed is affordable.
Here is her link.
What you will need for raising monarch butterflies:
Milkweed is the only plant that the monarch caterpillars eat.
Try for at least six fully grown milkweed plants.
Once you have milkweed plants, then you will need a rearing chamber.
I counted (swallowtails, monarchs are too precious to leave to nature).
- Day 1, I had 100 swallowtail caterpillars happily eating all my parsley and dill (their host planet).
- Day 2, down to 50…
- And in less than three days, I had happy birds and only two caterpillars that I could find.
When I started raising butterflies, I used with a clean wire trash basket and a piece of window screen held in place with rubber bands for the top.
I have replaced this with butterfly popup cages.
White popup cages are great for their visibility (I use one with one clear plastic wall), the ability to move them around and the ease of cleaning.
My caterpillars love to eat with fresh leaves kept healthy in water in the florist tubes.
For native large milkweed leaves, I make a tiny cut up each side of the leaf stem to get the leaf into the water in the florist tube.
I cut long stems of tropical, or swamp milkweed or butterfly weed pieces and place the stems into the florist tubes.
The tropical milkweed will root in the water.
It will root even when the caterpillars have eaten all of the leaves.
I use these rooted tropical milkweed stems to grow new plants over the winter on my windowsill.
I have also added a small handheld low suction vacuum to my supplies so that I can gently remove the caterpillar “frass” (poop).
- Pop up rearing chamber:
- Test tube rack:
- Florist tubes
- Handheld low suction vacuum cleaner
- Extra vacuum filters
Monarch Life Cycle:
Stage 1: Egg
Monarch females lay individual eggs on the undersurface of a milkweed leaf. The egg is white and about the size of a pinhead. One or two days before hatching, the eggs turns grey (because you can see the dark caterpillar inside it).
Between 4-6 days after the eggs are placed on the milkweed leaves, they should hatch.
I like to collect the milkweed leaves with the eggs on them.
I place the leaves on a slightly moist paper towel in a lidded plastic container.
Stage 2: Larva (caterpillar)
First food for the tiny “cat” is its own egg shell.
It will also eat other eggs if they are near by.
The caterpillar sees poorly: mostly being able to tell day from night.
The caterpillar has 8 pairs of legs and a mouth to bite and chew milkweed.
If the caterpillar is knocked from its host plant, it quickly sends out a strand of silk to stop a free fall.
The caterpillar will be fully grown (about 2 1/4” long) in 10-14 days.
There are 5 times when the monarch caterpillar will shed its skin (molt).
The caterpillar eats the molted skin also.
Between molts is called the “instar”.
When the monarch caterpillar is fully grown, it finds a safe place to pupate.
In the wild, the caterpillar may travel 20 or 30 feet away from the host milkweed.
The caterpillar makes itself a silk mat.
Then, the caterpillar attaches itself to the mat with a “hook-like” cremaster at its tail end.
The caterpillar then hangs in a “J” shape for about a day.
Just before it begins to shed its skin for the last time, the caterpillar’s tentacles look wrinkled and the caterpillar looks “spent”. This is normal.
Stage 3: Pupa (chrysalis)
The process of the final molt and formation of the jade green chrysalis is a fascinating and very active process.
The final jade chrysalis is about an inch long and is decorated with beautiful gold dots.
Pupation will take about 10-14 days.
Just before the butterfly emerges, the chrysalis first turns black with its gold dots.
Then, about a day before the butterfly emerges, the chrysalis will look transparent and you can see the beautiful orange and black wings of the monarch butterfly inside.
Stage 4: Butterfly
Once the chrysalis cracks open, the new butterfly emerges with tiny, crumpled wings (video)
The new monarch butterfly hangs onto its empty chrysalis as the hemolymph (the insect blood-like substance) is pumped into the wings.
The wings elongate and become full sized fairly quickly.
The monarch butterfly has no mouth.
Instead it has a straw-like proboscis to sip flower nectar.
It has only 3 pairs of legs now.
The large eyes of the monarch butterfly can see quite well.
You can tell a male from a female monarch butterfly by the two black ovals on the male’s hind wings. This is easier to first see this when you have a male and a female beside each other.
Monarch butterflies are easy to raise.
The process is completely consuming and totally fascinating.
To not miss key events, I have had friends drive fast in their pajamas, refuse to leave the house and call in sick to work.
I had to leave my husband in charge of 15 cats when I had to go out of town.
My son asked me what I had done to his dad.
When my son posted, my husband made him tour the yard looking for any missed caterpillar and check on the chrysalis of one that we had missed.
Here are detailed and complete resources outlining steps to raise Monarchs
Even if you decide not to go all in and raise monarch butterflies yourself, please plant some milkweed to provide the host plants that they need.