There is a sticky milkweed patch that grows by the side of our house. All summer long it grows and grows and hosts a variety of pests. Wasps, spiders, flies, aphids, beetles- the so-called ickiest of invertebrates and arthropods. There is only one reason I will not let my husband “deal” with the plants -the monarch butterfly.
Year after year, the monarch butterflies return to our patch to deposit their tiny, cone-shaped eggs on the underside of the leaves. For years, I have assumed the eggs successfully hatch into feasting caterpillars. Healthy caterpillars who eat and eat, grow and grow before enclosing themselves into a beautiful chrysalis, and then finally emerging into butterflies. I hadn’t given much thought to the whole process other than we were doing a good job keeping the milkweed there and the beautiful monarch kept returning and visiting.
At the end of August, I stumbled across some information about the monarch butterfly population declining and the fact that only 10% of monarchs make it from egg to adult in the wild. I read about people collecting the eggs, raising the caterpillars. and then releasing the butterflies in hopes of helping the monarch population to return and increase.
In previous years, I have raised painted lady butterflies in classrooms and in homeschool lessons. I knew a good amount about process of metamorphosis but only witnessed it with painted lady butterflies. And with painted lady butterflies, the caterpillars are purchased online and then come in little containers with an all you they eat buffet! Raising monarchs from eggs found outside was a different thing.
But, I was curious. Could we too raise monarchs successfully from egg to adult? Could we play a part in helping the monarch population increase? Since introduced with new knowledge, every time I walked by our milkweed patch after that, I looked at the milkweed plants in a different way. I noticed more and more caterpillar bite marks on the leaves and then a local naturalist pointed out some monarch eggs. He advised us to check the plants at night to see if we could find any caterpillars. The first night we went out caterpillar hunting we were successful. Not only did we find eggs and we also found one tiny caterpillar. We brought it in with the leave it was munching and placed it into our mesh butterfly habitat (the one we used with the painted lady butterflies.) Then we hoped for the best. Unfortunately, our hopes were met with sadness, even with the best researched care, the caterpillar died a few days later.
We did not want to give up. Over the next couple of days, we went out again, collecting five eggs. In my research, I had learned that caterpillars eat A LOT of milkweed. The experts advised to be intentional not to take any more eggs than caterpillars you could feed. Looking at our milkweed patch, there was only so much fresh and new leaves available.
One of the coolest things about the butterfly egg is how you can tell when the caterpillar will hatch. When you see a black dot at the tip of the clear egg, you know the caterpillar will hatch within 24 hours. Like clockwork, this happened with every caterpillar and out of those tiny eggs came the tiniest little creature who right away began eating. First it ate its egg case and then moved on to the tender underside of the leaves. Then it never stopped eating.
Our caterpillars grew quickly. And they only stopped eating to molt. It was hard to figure out if and when they were molting into a new instar (they molt five times- called instars.) The information and picture cards from the Nebraska Game & Parks were extremely helpful during this process, as well as these other resources :
and this awesome field guide the Commission for Environmental Cooperation
Having available milkweed was NO JOKE! And the caterpillars ate a tremendous amount as they grew. We quickly went through all the young plants in our patch and then I needed to scout out (and take) milkweed from the side of the road and in abandoned parking lots. To keep the milkweed fresh, I took the the plant by the root (or the part I needed if the plant was too large) and then placed the stem through a styrofoam cup (for stability) over the top of a cut water bottle (water for plant.) Another thing to note, the tremendous amount of eating produced a tremendous amount of caterpillar waste- or frass. The butterfly habitat needed to be changed daily. Raising monarchs is a time commitment.
Two weeks from hatching, the now two-inch long caterpillar was ready to pupate. The clear sign of this change is when a caterpillar spins a silk “button” on the top of the habitat and hangs in a J-shape. I have to admit feeling a bit sad at this stage- all the care, all the milkweed hunting trips, all the cleaning, I knew I would not see the caterpillar in this form again. The feelings lasted only a few moments as nothing stays the same, everything changes, and when the thought of the beautiful butterfly that would emerge and we could set free, things were quickly better.
As the caterpillar pupates, it turns greenish, and basically splits, spilling its guts, and hardening into a chrysalis. There is a time lapse video at the end of the post where you can see this process from start to finish.
The caterpillar stays in its chrysalis for 10-14 days before miraculously emerging into beautiful butterfly. At then end of the four week process, all five of our eggs made it to adult butterflies!!
Out of the five caterpillars, four were females and one was a male. Here’e a quick identification to tell the difference.
This entire experience was amazing and I am so glad to have shared it with my kids. We nature journaled each stage, sketching and creating watercolors. I had the older girls write about their experience and my Kindergartner created a book. We entered their completed work into the fair and they won Honorable Mentions. It was definitely a big time commitment but I think well worth it. And I believe we will consider doing it again next year. 🙂
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May the morning sun caress you,
The rains of change refresh you,
And the gentle breeze of His Spirit
Lift the wings of your transformation.
By: Richard D. Breen