Raising Monarch Butterflies

This Summer our family vacation took us on an eight day camping adventure through Massachusetts, Washington D.C., and Western Pennsylvania. Throughout the entire trip and still as I sit typing this, our daughter Rachel kept and cared for a little caterpillar. It is currently in a cocoon but has been with the McNutt family for almost two months now. It is some type of moth, identity to be discovered when it emerges.

When we returned from the trip Amanda, the smarter Dr. McNutt, looked at all of the milkweed on the hill across the street from the house we rent here in Maine and wondered if we would find any Monarch Caterpillars if we looked. So we looked. And we found six the first time we looked. Then we found some eggs. Then our caterpillars turned to chrysalis’ within the first weekend, then our eggs hatched, and a family hobby was born within a weekend. And we have been  borderline obsessed for the past month. As I sit here there are twelve Monarch chrysalises with butterflies waiting to emerge, we have seen seven emerge, and have another four caterpillars munching away on milkweed. And we will probably collect some more caterpillars this evening.

If you wanted to try this out at home, I would highly recommend it. It is super fun, the turnover is fast so there’s not a lot of time to get bored with it and watching a butterfly you have seen grow and develop fly off is a pretty cool feeling. Oh yeah, and the kids seem to enjoy it as well.

Here’s what we did and also a few ideas about what we will do differently next year.

We went out and looked around in established fields of milkweed to find caterpillars. When we found them we would bring them back to an aquarium we kept well supplied with milkweed while they were growing. If you have a lot of large caterpillars in there, you can hear them munching away on the milkweed, especially in the evening.

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This is the aquarium we used to grow our caterpillars.

Next season I am going to order some milkweed seeds for two reasons. The first is that if I plant milkweed I will have a ready source of food and a place for butterflies to lay their eggs, the second is because I plan to grow several potted milkweed plants so that I can gift the caterpillars to friends. I am looking at these seeds here: Milkweed Seeds

And will plant them in pots like these: Plant Pots

Though I may also order these pods to plant outside at the end of Autumn so that the Milkweed is up early next spring. Fall Seed Pods

And of course to me the idea that I could order these pre-soiled seeds to leave in untended areas and increase the amount of Milkweed around was pretty attractive as well.   Guerrilla Droppings

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Watching and even listening to these cuties eat is more enjoyable than you might think.

On our own planted milkweed we can be more vigilant about checking for eggs and watching for caterpillars. The eggs can be hard to see and the freshly hatched caterpillars are tiny. I mean tiny!

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Those white specs are eggs. they are hard to find at first. They get a dark spot right before they hatch.

 

Having our own planted milkweed also gives us access to more fresh milkweed. These guys eat a lot! And milkweed wilts quickly once you pick it. By growing our own we can relax a bit and not feel like we need to fill the aquarium with milkweed every other day.

If I had known we were going to get so into raising Monarchs, I would have ordered a book about it ahead of time. While geared for children this book gives some great straight forward instructions and is well worth a read:  Monarch Book

The other thing I might do a little differently next year is I might adapt the habitat a little better. In the aquarium they like to put their chrysalis on the top of the aquarium and I feel bad disturbing the ones that are in the J-hook position or the ones that are about to emerge every time I want to feed the other caterpillars or clean up the aquarium a bit. These guys poop a lot too! If I were only going to raise a few or if I were going to add a habitat to a gift of a potted Milkweed and caterpillar I would order some of these habitats for them: Habitat These habitats would be great for holding one potted Milkweed plant on which you could grow between two and four caterpillars depending on how leafy your plant was.

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These caterpillars do not like having the lid lifted when they are in this position.

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They also do not appreciate being disturbed when they are this close to emerging.

Everything I was able to read about Monarch life cycles says that it takes about four days for an egg to hatch, since we have been finding ours without having witnessed the laying event, I can not confirm that but it seems pretty accurate. The caterpillars go through five little lifestyle changes where they gain their stripes, their cool looking antennae on either end. They molt roughly once every one to three days depending on the temperature and the food supply. If you want to find eggs, look under the leaves for little waxy white specks like in the picture above.

Caterpillars stick around for between nine and fifteen days, though in our habitat, I don’t think I’ve ever seen one last more than ten days. They are eating machines and if you keep feeding them and they don’t get disturbed, they grow fast!

At the end of the ten days of eating, the monarchs leave the Milkweed and spin a very sticky silk web in the area they will pupate and they shed their skin for the last time. They hang out in that J-hook for a long time, sometimes a whole day and then suddenly start shedding their skin. It’s kind of creepy, they just seem to split near the bottom of the hook and the skin wriggles and falls off and there is a waxy green chrysalis left behind. They stay in the chrysalis for about two weeks, at least in our aquarium they do. As I mentioned, they really like the top of the aquarium.

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So far they have had zero interest in that stick in there. Zero!

After about two weeks, the chrysalis gets darker until it turns black, at the same time the butterfly inside becomes more visible until you can see it clearly. Apparently this is because that is when the color develops and not because the chrysalis becomes transparent. I’ll take an entomologist’s word for it, I’m not cutting up any of my chrysalises!

When they emerge they need space to fill their wings with fluid that they pump from their huge abdomens, this takes a few hours and it is several hours before they are ready to fly away.

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See those small wings and that big abdomen? That all changes after a few hours.

For the amount of money and time you have invest, almost none, raising Monarch Butterflies brings a lot of reward. I think everyone should do it at least one season, though if you do one season, I am willing to bet you’ll never stop! I know we won’t.

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Thank you for reading.

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