Raising Butterflies at Home

There’s nothing like watching butterflies flit around the flowers in your garden. Nothing except for watching one grow from egg to caterpillar to butterfly in your own home. These days you can purchase a kit to raise butterflies. But it’s also simple (and cheap) enough to find your own eggs and supplies to do it together with your kids.

Because of their migratory patterns, monarch butterflies and their eggs and caterpillars can be found in every region of the United States. And they’re hardy enough to withstand novice treatment. The following instructions are for raising monarchs. You’ll find excellent photos of each stage at www.monarch-butterfly.com. If you’d like to try your hand at a different variety, check out one of the other recommended websites in the sidebar for more information.

Step One: Select a Container
One of the keys to successful butterfly-raising is creating a proper home. You’ll want a container with good ventilation so the caterpillar droppings (called “frass”) can dry. And select a home with a lid or top where the caterpillar can attach its chrysalis.

Your container doesn’t have to be fancy. We’ve found even an extra-large, clear, carryout drink cup with a plastic lid works well. The straw hole allows for circulation and the clear sides make it easy to see inside. You’ll also want your container to be large enough for the butterfly to spread its wings to dry once it emerges.

Step Two: Harvest Eggs
Your first task is to search for eggs, which monarchs will lay on the underside of milkweed leaves. Harvesting eggs is more reliable than collecting caterpillars, since most caterpillars you find will grow into moths, says experienced lepidopterist (butterfly expert) Todd Stout, who owns the website www.raisingbutterflies.org. To locate an egg, simply lift a milkweed leaf and look for a miniscule green bump on the undersurface.

The summer months provide the best opportunity for finding eggs. “Generally it’s June, July, August, or September, depending on the arrival time of the monarchs,” says Stout.
Jackie Wilhelm, whose three daughters have successfully nurtured five batches of butterflies, enjoys the egg hunt. “It’s fun—that search,” she says. “The eggs are so tiny. It’s a big part of the adventure.”

To best harvest an egg (or eggs), remove the leaf from the plant, leaving the egg attached. If the milkweed isn’t growing in your yard, you may want to uproot the entire plant (with permission—in most cases you’ll be helping the landowner do their weeding) and transplant it in a pot indoors. This will give you easy access to your caterpillar’s food source, which you’ll need once the egg hatches.

Step Three: Care for Your Caterpillar
Place the leaf and egg in your container. It should hatch within a few days. Once it hatches, you’ll see a tiny worm or larva. Or sometimes before you see the worm, you may find holes eaten in the leaf, signaling the larva’s presence.

Watch your caterpillar’s environment carefully during this time. As the leaf gets eaten or wilted, you’ll want to replace it with a fresh leaf. At the same time, you’ll also need to dump the caterpillar’s droppings. Supervise your child during this process. You may want to gently transfer your caterpillar to another container while you freshen the original one. Then return the caterpillar to its home and carefully replace your ventilated lid.

Step Four: Chrysalis Phase
After about two weeks, your caterpillar will stop eating and attach himself to the lid of your container. When the inverted caterpillar takes on a “J” shape, you’ll know he’s ready to spin his pupa or chrysalis. In a day or so, the caterpillar will be completely enveloped in the chrysalis.

At this point your role becomes one of simply protecting the chrysalis. Keep the container safely away from pets, and don’t let anyone move or jostle the container.

Over the 10-day phase, the green chrysalis will darken and then become clear. You will begin to recognize the outline and markings of the butterfly’s wings inside the chrysalis.

This phase can be tricky for rearing butterflies, whether ones harvested on your own or bought in a kit. For unknown reasons, not every butterfly will survive beyond the chrysalis. But as Stout says, “Understand that butterflies are reproductively prolific creatures. In nature, close to 97% of butterflies perish due to natural causes.”

In other words, don’t sweat it if your butterfly doesn’t make it. Simply move on to searching for another egg to tend. In fact, you may want to discuss the possibility of losing a caterpillar when it first hatches. But Wilhelm also encourages parents to remind children of their role.

“Prepare your kids that it doesn’t always work,” she explains. “But talking about responsibility is also a big part of it. You can’t go bringing all these eggs in your home and not follow through with the next steps for making sure it has the best chance of being successful.”

Step Five: Release
One day you’ll likely approach the container to find a fully formed butterfly dangling from the lid of your container. When the butterfly first emerges, its wings will be wet. Let it hang there for at least a few hours or overnight. When you are ready to release the butterfly, move the container outside, preferably somewhere near milkweed plants or other butterfly-friendly flowers. The place you harvested your butterfly eggs makes the ideal spot for your butterfly’s new home. Gently remove the lid with the butterfly still dangling and hold it away from yourself.

And, as Wilhelm notes, “Have your camera ready!”

Then watch as your butterfly takes flight and settles among the flowers in its new home.

For more butterfly information:

Check out these butterfly books:
“The Family Butterfly Book” by Rick Mikula
(Storey Publishing, LLC, 2000)
“Raising Monarchs for Kids” by Christine Catlin
(KidPub Press, July 7, 2010)
“The Very Hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle
(Puffin Books, 2002)

Lara Krupicka and her three daughters have raised monarch butterflies for several years. Her favorite part is the shock she gets every time she finds the newly-emerged butterfly in the container on her kitchen counter.

Art by Dennis Krull.

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