Raising monarchs to help them with their journey south

By Lance Gardner (Lance) on November 17, 2010

Near the end of this summer, my son and I decided to try a new venture and raise some monarch caterpillars we found around our yard. We had some fun successes and surprising failures, but overall it was a fun project. It was also perfect for our already filled menagerie as it was a temporary pet - the whole adventure lasted maybe two months, after which the butterflies ventured their way south and the supplies for raising them are put away until next year.


One of the last monarchs released, beautifully backlit

A monarch butterfly is one of the natural wonders of the world, with some of the butterflies migrating up to 2500 miles to overwinter in the mountains of Mexico, and others finding a location in southern California.  These seemingly delicate butterflies fly further than many birds will ever venture, and probably further than many of us will go, as well (at least under our own power).  What may be even more amazing is  that the butterflies that migrate are 3-4 generations removed from the monarchs that made the trip the previous year, having only inborn instincts to guide them to their winter home. National Geographic has an article on migrations in their November 2010 issue, and the monarch is listed as one of the most remarkable achievements.  This is not about their wondrous migration, however, but about helping them along their w ay.  

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A small monarch caterpillar with a recently eaten leaf hole ~ A pretty picture of one released

Monarchs, like many other wild animals, have to deal with a host of obstacles, both man-made and natural, to maintain their existence.  While walking around checking my gardens near the end of summer, I noticed several monarch caterpillars munching away on my milkweed, the only plant they can eat.   I thought it might be a good idea to give these remarkable little fliers a helping hand, and raise some away from the dangers of parasites that can infect both the caterpillar and chrysalis.  This project would also be good for my son, as we could raise the caterpillars and watch the butterflies emerge, all in less than 2 months. Here are 2 butterflies about ready to be released from their safe house.  Perhaps the most difficult part of raising  the monarchs, and writing this article, is that they are so colorful and fun to watch, I took a lot of photos.  I also had a tough time choosing which pictures to include, so there are many for you to look at!

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Monarch Tank with Cover    ~    Some of our released monarchs on the Helenium flowers.

In previous years, I have noticed the monarch's chrysalises around my house and yard, and invariably most chrysalises do not develop, instead they are consumed by a parasitic wasp.  In this instance, since I want to keep the monarch, I consider the wasp the bad bug.  When the wasp gets rid of the critters that are eating my veggies, then it is a good bug, but not this time.  There are also tachinid flies, large bristly looking flies, that will parasitize the caterpillars.  I am sure there are other predators and parasites of the various life stages of the monarch, but these two I know are around my house.  To help out the monarch, I needed to isolate them from these hazards. 


A dead caterpillar, with the telltale strings left from the tachinid fly.

To begin with, a little bit about the requirements and life cycle of the monarch should be useful to help understand how to properly raise and care for them.  First and foremost, monarchs only eat milkweed and nothing else, so you need to have a supply of fresh milkweed available for them.  Some people will grow the feeding plants in a pot, keep the entire plant clean for the caterpillars, and put the pot and all in a screened in cage for the caterpillar.  I don't have quite that much time on my hands, so instead I have allowed the common milkweed to grow up in my wildflower gardens.  Either way, you must not use insecticides or other chemicals on the plants, as this can also kill the caterpillar you are trying to grow.  Growing milkweed has some other bonuses, such as flowers that have one of my favorite scents and attract many other butterflies and other insects.  The milkweed seed pods are fun to play with, as well, letting the fuzzy little parachutes glide away on the breeze - always a good game for little ones. 

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Monarch eggs and a small monarch caterpillar

The monarch typically has 3-4 generations every summer, starting in the early spring as they waken from their winter nap.  As the adults work their way back north, they lay eggs on the milkweed plants.  Here are two monarch eggs laid in the late spring, as the monarchs migrate back north.  The eggs take about 4 days to hatch, and the first thing the caterpillar does is eat the eggshell.  It may also eat any other eggs nearby, which is why the parent typically lays the eggs singly on separate leaves.  Keep this in mind if you decide to collect eggs, and make sure you don't inadvertently cause some losses before they even start. 

 The caterpillar grows quickly, consuming a lot of greenery to reach its full size.  As the caterpillar grows, it must periodically shed its skin, as the skin does not grow.  Here is a little one I found outside, with an old skin right behind it.  In about 14 days, the caterpillar is done growing, and will crawl to a safe spot to form a chrysalis.  The caterpillar will hang upside down and attach itself to a surface with some silk, bend into a J shape like this one, and then shed its skin the final time.   What pops out this time is a beautiful little jade green jewel decorated with gold!  These little jewels are so interesting; I could not help including a few pictures of them.  These are certainly a sight to behold, and worth growing at least once to see the bejeweled chrysalis.  After about 10-14 days, the adult emerges.  As the monarch transforms inside its shell, the color of the chrysalis will change.  About a day before the adult emerges, you can start to see the butterfly wings through the chrysalis.  Two-three hours before the adult comes out, the chrysalis turns clear, and you can see right through to what is inside. Here are some photos showing the comparisons.

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A small monarch caterpillar with its shed skin behind it ~ A caterpillar about to form a chrysalis

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A golden decorated chrysalis, a few days from emerging ~ A few hours before emerging, with the gold trim still looking good.


The left chrysalis is less than a day from emerging; the right one still has a few days.

As the adult emerges, it will grab onto the chrysalis while it fills its wings.  The adult emerges very quickly, so if you are not watching it constantly, you will miss it.  Here is an adult I parked right next to me while I worked on my dissertation, and I still missed it actually emerging.  I did get to watch it fill its wings, though, which was quite interesting.  After a few hours of drying, this colorful butterfly should be ready for its maiden flight.  After a day or so, it will then fly a bit further north, lay more eggs, and the cycle continues this way through the summer. Around the end of August into the beginning of September, the monarch goes through this cycle for the last time.  The adults from earlier in the summer do not live long, but the adults that you see emerge in September and October are the ones that will fly to Mexico for the winter.  The last monarch I released was from a chrysalis I found, and it flew away on October 15. 


A monarch right after emerging from its chrysalis, still filling out its wings. ~ The same monarch after filling out most of its wings. ~ The same monarch, with wings about full sized. 

Raising monarchs, or any butterfly, will require an enclosure that will keep out the various parasitic flies and wasps that can make this adventure into a lesson on nature's not-so-pretty side.  Several tiny wasps that can fit through basic window and door screen are common, so this type of material will probably not work well.  You need a sheer type fabric, like tricot, that will allow ventilation but will not allow the parasites through.  No-see-um mesh, the kind used in making better tents, should also work – rolls of this can be purchased online.  If the chrysalis turns dark, instead of clear, or loses its luster, it is most likely no good anymore.  You need to remove it and dispose of it before the parasite emerges and infects any more of your butterflies.  Here is one that had something happen to it, next to a healthy chrysalis.


  The left chrysalis is dead, the right one is healthy. (Click on picture to enlarge)

Not all purchased butterfly habitats are made of a good mesh, either.  I purchased some enclosures by Backyard Safari Outfitters that I will not use, as the mesh had holes much too large to keep out the wasp. The large tachinid fly should not be a concern, as it cannot fit through screens with smaller than about ¼ inch mesh.  I had a spare glass aquarium that I used for my container, and covered it with some red mesh material I already had.  Essentially, just about any enclosure can be used, such as jars, leftover food containers, food storage containers, even large soda bottles.  The container should be large enough for the butterfly to spread out its wings when it emerges, and have ventilation holes cut into it that are then covered with the mesh.  If you are using small containers, make sure not to crowd too many together.  


My son with the butterfly tank filled with leaves

After you have a good home for your caterpillars, it is time to go caterpillar hunting.    I  also found some sticks to put in the tank to lean the leaves against, and to provide a surface for the chrysalis to stick to.  These are both good activities for children to help out with.  The younger you get your caterpillars, the less likely they are to have already been compromised.  Many ardent butterfly raisers will try and find the eggs to start with, but these are a bit small and hard to find unless you see the butterfly actually lay them. We lost several caterpillars to the tachinid fly, as they must have been already parasitized by the time we found them.  After a few days, the tell-tale strings from their shriveled bodies told the story, and they were removed from the tank.  You also need to remove the fly larva, which look like grains of rice, essentially.  This picture also shows the final molting skin from a caterpillar that successfully made a chrysalis. 


A close-up of a small monarch caterpillar ~ A dead caterpillar, with tachinid fly pupae that came from it.  There is also a shed skin from a chrysalis.

Once you have your caterpillars, now it is time put them in their new home.  Put some fresh milkweed leaves in their house, and the caterpillar.  I typically took the leaf and found caterpillar together, and put both in the tank.  If you put in just leaves and do not put them in water, you will need to replace the leaves often, every day or two, depending on how fast the leaves dry out.  I had my tank inside the house, so the leaves stayed a bit cooler and out of the sun; I could typically leave them in for 2 days before replacing them, although I put in fresh ones every day.  If you decide to cut off some leafy stems and put them in water, you need to make sure the caterpillars cannot reach the water and drown.  Using something like floral oasis or foam, or a narrow mouth jar with paper stuffed around the stem, should work.  You also need to clean out the frass (caterpillar poo) periodically, so the tank does not get messy and smelly, or spread diseases. Leaf collecting and cleaning the tank are both good tasks for the little helpers - give them a basket or small bucket for the leaves because of the latex they leak when cut. 


My son putting one of the monarchs on a flower ~  Me holding one of the monarchs, ready to be released

Keep your caterpillars well fed, fat and happy, and within 2 weeks, you will have these!  This one is a new chrysalis, but is actually a bit deformed; the butterfly emerged and survived, though.  Most of these formed on the edge of the tank top – so much for sticks to help them out.  Some people move the chrysalis to a different area, but I left mine right where they formed, as there was plenty of room for them.  If you are not careful, however, and do not secure the covering every time you take it off, this can happen - this one decided to find a better place than the tank to form its chrysalis!  Less than 2 weeks after forming the chrysalis, you should then have these!  This particular monarch is a male, which can be seen by the two black spots on its wings, near the body.  Here is one just emerging, still filling out its wings.  After the wings are filled with butterfly juice, the extra is expelled, so you will see little puddles of goo under the butterfly – just clean it up after the butterfly is gone (butterfly diapers?).  It will take a few hours for the butterfly to be ready to fly, so just leave them alone for a while.  When I thought the butterfly was ready, and my son and I were ready, as well, we would take them outside and place them on a flower, leaf, or other surface (even a nose seemed to work!).  Make sure you take the covered container outside, as I had one fly around the house; I thought it was not quite ready yet.  You can tell they are ready when they start to flutter their wings, and maybe even try to fly around their enclosure.  What fun to watch their first flight!


A deformed chrysalis, but the butterfly still flew away. ~ An unusual place for a chrysalis.  It was moved to the tank, as the butterfly would never fit back out.


A male monarch – note the pair of black spots on the wings.  Females lack these. ~ Right after emerging from the chrysalis, still filling its wings.


Perfect location for a monarch to test its wings. ~  A perfect perching location

I hope you enjoyed this bit of a lengthy article on my experiences, and all the photos.  Feel free to share your own experiences, ask questions that I hope someone can answer, and try some butterfly raising of your own.  I will admit I am a butterfly raising novice, although I did do my research before starting out.  Here are some links to sites here at cubits that are dedicated to raising butterflies, with people that are much more knowledgeable and experienced than I am.  Here are some other sites with more information, as well.  The one on butterflyfunfacts has some good butterfly parasite information, with photos of how small some of the critters actually are.  Dallasbutterflies has a good list of butterflies and their host and nectar plants, and the butterfly garden cubit is also developing a similar database. 







Here are a few more pictures of the fun we had.


 The left chrysalis just about to open, the right in a day or so. ~  Just before emerging.


A chrysalis after the butterfly left. (Click on pictures to enlarge.)









Related articles:
family projects, monarch, raising butterflies, raising caterpillars

About Lance Gardner
I have an interest in just about anything that gets me outside, as well as anything that is alive or grows, and in making things. So my hobbies include gardening, outdoors, photography, dogs, woodworking, and most importantly raising my son.

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Comments and discussion:
Subject Thread Starter Last Reply Replies
Great! NEILMUIR1 Nov 18, 2010 8:15 AM 5
Beautiful Article! Katg Nov 18, 2010 8:09 AM 1
Interesting article Bubbles Nov 18, 2010 8:08 AM 5

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