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Would you like to try a rich and rewarding experience? Want to feel like you are doing a part in conservation? Try your hand at raising monarch butterflies. Many people across the U.S. are doing just that. It is especially rewarding to share your experiences with kids, either your own or the neighborhood kids. Who knows what you may awaken in these kids as they experience butterflies in an amazing transformation.
First you should make some preparations. You must make a commitment to finish this project to the end. It takes about thirty days or less (depending upon the weather) from start to finish. You need to plant milkweeds (asclepias), the only host plant for the monarch butterfly, in your garden. Some are really lovely plants like swamp milkweed and butterfly weed.
You may want to just observe the caterpillars in your garden and let them fend for themselves. Another choice is to harvest the caterpillars or eggs and raise them in a container. If you leave nature take its course, it is said that only ten percent of the eggs/caterpillars will complete their transformation into butterflies. I decided to harvest the eggs.
Comparing the size of the
eggs to a stick pin.
A later instar of a
Another problem I had was not enough food. I was looking for milkweed plants located near my house. The big concern with what you pick in the wild is that the leaves cannot be treated with any insecticides as they are deadly to the caterpillars. Some years there may be a bumper season of one particular butterfly and the next season they may be rather limited. Now you can try some other butterfly species raising them in the same manner. All you need to know is their nectar and host plants. For instance, the Black Swallowtail butterfly lays its eggs on parsley, dill and Queen Anne's Lace. A good book to help get you started is "The Family Butterfly Book" by Rick Mikula, ISBN 1-58017-292-X. Good luck and have fun!
The very best way to start is to find the eggs. Sometimes this may not be possible and you may find the caterpillar instead. (Note: There is no guarantee that an egg or caterpillar will develop into a monarch. You may have an infertile egg or a wasp may have laid its eggs inside the caterpillar which will go through all the stages and a wasp will emerge. There is no way to tell what is good or bad.)
Start by checking the milkweed plant for eggs. The eggs are usually located on the undersides of the upper (most tender) leaves or may be in the flower buds. The eggs are very small (the size of a pin head), round and white. When harvesting the eggs, pinch the entire leaf off the plant. I try to remove only a few leaves per plant, thus preserving the plant. There are many different containers that you may use ( aquariums, cardboard boxes, etc.). I like to use clear plastic drinking cups. (These are cheap enough to throw away when done. I use clean supplies each time to limit the spread of disease.) I place 2-3 eggs with several milkweed leaves in each cup with a piece of plain paper towel (absorbs moisture) in the bottom. I cover the cup with coffee filters secured with a rubber band. Do not place in direct sunlight. The first thing a caterpillar does is eats its eggshell. If it encounters another egg, it will also eat that one, so it is best to keep caterpillars and eggs separate if at all possible. It is preferable to keep the same size caterpillars together too. You may not notice the caterpillar has emerged at first because they are so small. They look like tiny black lines. Look for small holes in the leaves which means that the caterpillars have started to eat.
In the beginning you need to clean out the poop and place fresh milkweed leaves in the cups. Do not skimp on these leaves. Take old leaves out and check over carefully for baby caterpillars. The caterpillars will eat, poop, rest and grow. As they get bigger, clean out the poop 2-3 times a day and check on the food. Try not to disturb the caterpillars as much as possible. Some use an artist's brush to move caterpillars and avoid handling them. If humidity develops in the cups, clean the poop out more often or decrease the number of caterpillars in that cup. As the caterpillars grow, I usually have a maximum of two in a cup. (Too many caterpillars may lead to disease spreading as does not cleaning out the poop.)
Finally, the caterpillar will stop eating and will search for a place to form the chrysalis. It may crawl around for a whole day. Then it may take a whole day to form the chrysalis. Do not disturb during this time period. On the coffee filter write down the date the caterpillar changes to chrysalis. That way you can track when they will emerge which will be ten to fifteen days later. The hotter the weather the sooner the butterfly will emerge. Two to three days later, I transfer the chrysalises. If they form on the coffee filter, I carefully cut out a circle around where they are attached. If formed on the plastic, cut around that. If one falls off from where they are attached, I tie thread tightly around the black pointy thing at the top leaving enough thread to tie through netting.
Next you need an area big enough for the monarchs to emerge and stretch their wings. Many containers work. I use one of those pop-up screened hampers. Then I take a piece of tulle (bridal veil material) and clothes pin it to the top. Carefully handling the chrysalis, fold the coffee filter in half. I sew through the coffee filter and through the netting and tie a loose knot. If chrysalises are formed on the plastic, poke hole and tie thread through plastic and netting.
If you are lucky, you will observe a monarch emerging, which usually happens in the morning. You can tell they will emerge since the chrysalis turns translucent and one can see parts of the orange wings. The actual process for emerging takes seconds. The butterfly wings will be all wrinkled up until it pumps its blood into them. Do not disturb the butterfly during this time. Keep for a few hours and release on a nice warm sunny day. Butterflies need above 60 degrees to fly. If rainy or extremely windy, it is best to keep the butterfly for another day. Either pick flowers or provide sugar water for food. If you pick flowers, I place them in an empty butter tub filled with wet sand. This gives strength to hold the flowers. You also do not want any standing water. One can also use the cover to the tub, punch a hole in it and push the flower through the hole into the sand. If you use sugar water, it will be a mixture of four parts water to one part sugar. I take a butter tub and place a scrubby pad in it. Pour the sugar water over that. Monarchs also love watermelon. This will hold your monarchs for a few days.
This project is a learn as you work through the steps. Expect to lose some caterpillars/monarchs. In nature only ten percent develop into monarchs. When raised as stated above, you will have a ninety percent survival rate unless you have diseased caterpillars. I throw away all used supplies to prevent any spread of disease, especially when a caterpillar died in it.
I did run into one dilemma. The monarchs were in chrysalis form and I was going away on vacation. It is against the law to transport butterflies across state lines. What was I to do? I have a decorative wooden well with flowers planted. I took the chrysalises and thumbtack them under the roof in the V-shaped sides. This protected them from sun and weather. The monarchs did just fine and judging from the empty chrysalises, they all emerged.
Monarch caterpillars going into J-formation just before forming chrysalis
The black (translucent) ones will
emerge on that day. This area
was protected from the birds.
A newly emerged Monarch butterfly. This one is a male because of the black scent glands on the lower wings.