Recently my daughters and I started on a new adventure – raising Monarch caterpillars!
Monarch caterpillars can eat only one thing: Milkweed. We have always had milkweed on our property but it was earlier this summer when my daughter found a little black and yellow caterpillar munching away that her interest in them peaked.
To be honest, prior to a few weeks ago I knew very little about this amazing insect! I knew of course that they were butterflies and that they migrated south each year, but when it came to raising them and why human help is vital to their survival I was clueless!
A Few Impressive Monarch Facts
A monarch butterfly migrating from its hatching point in North America to the warmer winter climates in Central Mexico may fly up to 3,000 miles!
They have amazing flight speed for being so small – a monarch butterfly can flap its wings up to 120 times a minute and have been known to reach flying speeds between 4 and 12 miles per hour!
At one point Monarchs would cover 44.9 acres of Mexican land as they over-wintered..but in 2013 they were down to just 1.65 acres.
Monarchs fly high! They tend to catch air at 800 to 1,200 feet and ride the currents from there!
From the time it hatches until it makes its chrysalis (cocoon) a Monarch caterpillar will gain about 2,700 times its original weight!
Why They Need Our Help!
In recent decades the Monarch Butterfly population has declined by almost 90 percent. Some of this is due to logging in their over-winter sites but it is also the result of sprays and chemicals used by farmers to protect crops that harm the milkweed the caterpillars need to survive. People who view milkweed as a weed (despite its actually beautiful flowering habit) have also pulled and removed milkweed from their landscapes, making it harder and harder for butterflies to find!
Monarchs are one of the most important pollinators our world knows. As butterflies they feast on a variety of flowers’ nectar and in their flying and landing help keep flowers and plant life healthy and thriving. Did you know that every third bite of food you eat – is made possible by help from a pollinator? Monarchs are considered to be an “indicator” species for the health of pollinators as a whole (things like bees and other pollinating insects). Based on the numbers – our pollinators are in trouble! Butterflies are also a food source for other animals!
Getting Our Project Started
Before we could raise caterpillars into butterflies I knew the girls and I needed to get educated on them! That’s where my acquaintance and local butterfly enthusiast Susan Hoffert came to the rescue.
One a nice warm morning she was kind enough to come out to our farm with examples of the stages we could expect our Monarch caterpillars to go through. She let the girls look at eggs with magnifying glasses, examine newly hatched caterpillars, get up close and personal with some chrysalis, and even observe some young – almost ready for release – butterflies!
She also talked us through the steps of getting started on our own butterfly project and took the girls to look for Monarch caterpillar eggs on our property. If at all possible I would encourage you to look up through Facebook or Google local butterfly raisers who can help you get started. If you don’t have access to any – don’t fear- I can tell you all the basics here!
In the next section I will walk you through what we have done to setup our butterfly raising project and review our experience so far (We are still newbies but getting the hang of it!) If you ask around you will find there are MANY ways to hatch eggs and raise caterpillars – trial and error is the mantra I’m sticking with for now!
Step 1: Finding Eggs!
The first step is to find some eggs! Butterflies like to lay their eggs on young milkweed plants it appears but really you could check plants of any size. Simply take the milk weed and flip over the leaf gently. Typically monarchs lay on the bottom of the leaf – though they can lay eggs on the top.
The eggs are a pale yellow color and only about the size of a large pin head. If you look at a monarch egg from the side – you should be able to see it has a sort of “rocket” like shape.
When an egg is found we tear off a piece of the leaf all around the egg. We don’t need the whole leaf so we make sure to only take what we need!
After we have collected some eggs in a basket we take them inside. Using a fine point sharpie we circle the egg with marker and write the date on the leaf. This helps us keep track of how long we have had the egg and easier to notice if it has hatched! Each leaf piece is then placed in a small red dixie cup and into a plastic container with a lid. You can get all this online or at your local dollar store! Keeping eggs and Monarch caterpillars separate helps prevent the spread of any disease or bacteria between individual “cats”.
Step 2: Observe and Hatch!
Once you have your eggs collected and organized you should store them in a fairly warm spot out of direct sunlight. Check them each day for hatching. When the Monarch caterpillars hatch they are TINY! As in I couldn’t believe how tiny! Handle your leaves with care – you will see signs of hatching because suddenly your leaf will have bites taken out of it!
Step 3: Keep Caterpillars Fed and Homes Clean!
After hatching I keep our Monarch caterpillars in their red cups for a few days as they begin to grow. These young caterpillars will need new leaf pieces about every two days. I tend to give them 1/3 of a big leaf or 1/2 of a small leaf every couple days.
Because Monarch caterpillars eat – they also poop! Don’t worry it isn’t gross! It looks like little brown flecks of dirt. Each day I lift the leaf with the caterpillar on it out of the cup and dump or rinse out the black bits to prevent the living space from getting gross. My seven year old doesn’t mind helping me with this part either!
As they get bigger the caterpillars may explore! I have occasionally found them in different cups. I simply take a leaf, collect the rogue caterpillar, and put him back where he belongs.
After a few days the cats get bigger and are ready for a new container. Don’t panic! None of this is expensive! We went and got packs of four off-brand rubber maid containers, used a small drill bit to drill tiny holes in the lid and have used that successfully for our bigger caterpillars. As they grow a larger caterpillar will need a new bigger leaf each day!
Your Monarch caterpillar will molt occasionally. This FREAKED ME OUT at first! It is completely normal! Your caterpillar may climb up on the side of its container or appear to be eating less. Within 24 hours you will notice they have shed their skin and are back to eating – no big problem!
Step 4: Chrysalis Stage!
All of our captured Monarch caterpillars are still growing! We do have one chrysalis that was given to us that we are hoping will emerge within the next week. Check back for part two of this series to learn all about chrysalis care and the releasing process!!
Below You Can See A Short Video Explanation of Our Monarch Caterpillars Care!
A Perfect Family Project
The girls LOVE this project. They love seeing the caterpillars grow each day, helping me check on them, and watching their currently solo chrysalis start to show the butterfly wing pattern. I will definitely post more on the chrysalis stage as we go through it more ourselves! I strongly recommend this easy and cheap project to any family who is trying to connect their kids to nature and help the planet!
Here are some great websites to check out about Monarchs that are kid friendly:
Don’t Want To Hunt Your Own Eggs? You Can Get Kits!
You can get amazing butterfly kits and products on amazon! Not all are monarch but every butterfly counts!