There’s something pretty special about monarch butterflies.
They start as tiny, almost insignificant eggs laid on the bottom of country weeds. And after a few weeks of eating and growing, they transform – first into a beautiful chrysalis and then into arguably one of the most lovely butterflies.
And if you are like us, you may want to experience this transformation for yourself.
This is our third summer raising monarch butterflies. It’s been one of our very favorite summer traditions and something my son begins asking about about in early spring.
This is a wonderful time of year to try it for yourself. In the Quad Cities area, milkweed plants are already bursting with monarch caterpillars. And with just a little care, you and your kids can witness their transformation for yourselves.
Here’s how we do it – in case you want to try it, too.
9 SIMPLE STEPS TO RAISE A MONARCH BUTTERFLY
1. Be on the lookout.
The first step is finding a monarch caterpillar to care for. (Above are two we are currently raising – one is tiny and the other has already grown quite a bit bigger.)
Keep your eyes peeled for the distinctive white, black and yellow caterpillars. We have spotted them in our yard, in the park, and even outside my son’s former preschool. Monarch eggs are almost exclusively laid on milkweed plants, so check those leaves thoroughly. (They are often hiding out on the bottom of leaves.)
If you don’t have milkweed in your yard, keep your eyes peeled in parks, ditches and friends’ yards. If you don’t know where to begin, ask your friends and family to help you. Chances are, someone will find a candidate.
2. When you find a caterpillar, cut the leaf that it’s on right off the plant and move to a clean container.
There’s no need to pull the caterpillar off the leaf, just let it keep munching. (We use a simple Rubbermaid container for collection with air holes cut out.)
Once inside, you can transfer them into a small aquarium or a breathable mesh cage. This keeps them safe and allows you to watch the process closely.
3. Consider the best spot to keep your caterpillars while they grow.
Consider keeping them on a three-seasons porch, if you have one. This exposes them to the elements and may help them be better prepared for survival when you release them. (We have raised them on our porch and in our kitchen, so just do what you can.)
4. Feed those little babies.
Caterpillars need LOTS of milkweed to grow and survive. Cut several more leafs off the milkweed plant and include them in the container for feedings. Try to cut the smaller, “new leaves,” which are more tender for baby caterpillars. Or cut off a small cutting and keep in a test tube of water to last longer.
The “milk” that comes out of milkweed is sticky and toxic, so wear gloves or wash your hands well after handling. (This is also a good tip before and after handling caterpillars.)
5. Clean that container.
Each day, clean out the container. Caterpillars poop (called frass) … a lot. And if you don’t clean it, it could cause problems for the little guys. Disease can spread this way.
Just pull out the leaf the caterpillar is eating on and dump everything else in the trash. (You can also add a paper towel to the container to make cleanup easy.) Then wipe down the container with a paper towel and dispose.
6. Watch for changes.
The caterpillar will grow and change quickly. It’s fun to watch as this happens. My son likes to keep a journal of the process – noting changes and drawing pictures.
If you are interested, keep your eye in the container for the caterpillar’s “masks.” Each monarch caterpillar will grow and shed their skin several times before they enter chrysalis. They will eat their skin, but leave the black face mask behind. My son enjoys finding these tiny masks and measuring the growth of them over days.
7. Give it time.
Depending on the size of the caterpillar when you bring it inside, it could take several days or weeks to transform.
When it’s going to transform into its green chrysalis, it will move up to the top of the container and hang in a “j” shape. It will stay there for 12-24 hours before transforming in just a few minutes.
If you can, watch it like a hawk to see the really cool process to become a chrysalis. The caterpillar will wiggle and jiggle while it changes itself before your eyes. It’s quite an experience to see for yourself.
Once the caterpillar enters chrysalis, it will take a few weeks before it emerges. Don’t touch or move the chrysalis when it’s reached this stage. This is the most fragile time in the life cycle.
Watch your chrysalis for signals that the butterfly is ready to emerge. It will begin to darken and then will turn clear before the butterfly comes out. And when it does, it will need time to dry off its wings before it flies. Let this happen in a sunny, outdoor location. But leave the creature be until it’s ready.
You are welcome to release the butterflies once their wings are dry. But if you have a few, you can also feed them nectar until all are ready to release. We usually give them fresh fruit and sugar water to snack on (on a sponge or paper towel – even a small amount of standing water can drown a monarch).
This year, we hosted a little butterfly release party with friends. We had a few butterfly crafts and then the kids gently released the butterflies into our garden. It was fun for the parents and kiddos.
I hope this gave you some encouragement to raise monarch butterflies this year! It would be a super fun, end-of-summer activity for you and your kiddos.
And in case you haven’t had enough of monarchs ….
DID YOU KNOW?
- Monarch butterflies make a 3,000 mile journey to the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Mexico every fall. In the spring, they make their way north again to lay their eggs on milkweed plants and start the process yet again.
- Monarchs can produce up to four generations during one summer season. The first three generations live only 2-6 weeks and continue moving north. The last generation lives up to nine months in order to migrate south to Mexico.
- As caterpillars, monarch’s are distinctive – with white, black and orange stripes.
- Monarch caterpillars feed almost exclusively on milkweed plants. This milkweed is actually toxic, but is stored in the monarch’s body to make them taste terrible to predators.
- The monarch’s distinct black, orange and white wings are meant to warn predators that they are poisonous.
- Monarch butterflies are an important part of our ecosystem – as pollinators as well as a food source for other species.
Okay – so are we on the same page? Monarch butterflies are fascinating and beautiful creatures.
BUT THERE’S BAD NEWS.
It is estimated that the population of monarchs has declined by as much as 90 percent over the past 20 years (from approximately 1 billion butterflies in the mid-1990s to just 35 million individuals in 2014).
There are many factors – including habitat loss and climate change.
BUT WE CAN HELP.
It’s more important than ever to work to save monarch butterflies. And there are ways each of us can help.
One way to is to help provide suitable habitats for monarchs – including milkweed and sources of nectar. And you don’t have to live on a large lot or in the country to do it – you can add some plants to even in the smallest backyard. Creating a butterfly garden is a win-win – it’s beautiful for you and provides an important habitat for butterflies.
And raising a few monarchs indoors can also help. Every monarch matters, right?
WANT TO LEARN MORE?
Here are a few of our favorite resources:
- Monarch Butterflies, National Geographic Kids
- Fish and Wildlife Service – Save the Monarchs
- Monarch Watch
- Favorite books – Monarch Magic and How to raise monarch butterflies: A step-by-step guide for kids
INTERESTED BUT DON’T WANT TO RAISE YOUR OWN MONARCHS?
There are so many amazing events in the Quad Cities that celebrate the monarch. This is a great way to learn more and they are also totally kid-friendly.
Here’s a few on our calendar:
Nahant Marsh Monarch Release Party
September 15, 10 a.m.-12:30 p.m.
This FREE event is fun for the whole family. You’ll have the opportunity to tag and feed monarchs for the Monarch Watch Citizen Science Program throughout the morning and then release 200 Monarchs at noon.
Putnam Museum Monarch Celebration
August 15, TIME
This FREE event is fun for the whole family. You’ll have the opportunity to tag and feed monarchs for the Monarch Watch Citizen Science Program throughout the morning and then release 200 Monarchs at noon.Putnam Museum Monarch Party.