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Raising Monarchs

by Dawn
monarch on butterfly weed

Lessons Learned Raising Monarch Caterpillars

I’ve only been raising monarch caterpillars for about a month, but it’s amazing how much I’ve learned about what to do (and not to do!) in that short amount of time. It’s such a fun journey, I hope you’ll follow along.

Lesson One: Listen to the Experts

Don’t just jump in with both feet without any knowledge or experience. Raising caterpillars isn’t rocket science, but there are certain things you need to know before you get started.

newborn monarch caterpillar
This is a newborn. They’re so small they’re almost invisible

Bringing these small creatures into your house and raising them creates a certain responsibility. Part of that is to make sure you’re giving them the very best, strongest start to their lives so they can fulfill their purpose as butterflies, whether that’s to live for a few weeks and create more butterflies, or fly thousands of miles to Mexico to overwinter.

One of the best, most knowledgeable people I’ve found so far is Tony Gomez over at Monarch Butterfly Garden. He not only offers tons and tons of knowledge on his blog, but he has a shop where you can purchase raising supplies (you can check that out here if you’d like), and he even has a Facebook group you can join if you’ve purchased from him. The Facebook group has been amazing for me as I’ve done this.

Just a note that I’m not affiliated with Tony Gomez or Monarch Butterfly Garden in any way, but you’d be crazy not to use his resources if you’re getting started raising your own butterflies.

midsize caterpillar
This guy’s in about the middle of his life cycle

Lesson Two: Make Sure you Have the Proper Supplies

Again, you can find just about everything you’ll need over at the Monarch Butterfly shop, but I’d suggest starting with, at minimum, a baby cage or tall baby cage, floral tubes, peg racks, a poo poo platter, and a magnifying glass.

Please note that the Monarch Tower cage is HUGE! I started with that and ended up buying a bunch of the smaller cages, deciding after using them that I like the Tall Baby cage the best. It’s a really nice, manageable size and still holds quite a few caterpillars comfortably.

You’ll also want to have a roll of paper towels handy, a spray bottle of water, scissors, something to keep notes in, and a MASSIVE supply of milkweed (more on that in a minute).

caterpillar on butterfly weed
Found this guy outside and brought him in to give him a better chance
of making it all the way ~ only 5% will make it to
“butterflyhood” without help
due to predators and disease

You also need a place to keep your caterpillar enclosures. Whether you have a screened-in porch or just a table in front of an open window (like me!), you’ll want a place that gets natural sunlight, temperature variations, and day-night cycles. This is especially important for the migrating generation (any butterflies that eclose after August 10th in my latitude).

Vocabulary Lesson: Eclosing is the act of the butterfly emerging from the chrysalis.

Now on to the really important lessons….

Lesson Three: Caterpillars Eat (and Poop!) a LOT!

Like, more than you can even imagine. I read the advice to make sure I had enough milkweed before I got started and I thought I did.

HA! That’s a joke! I ran out of milkweed the first week.

large monarch caterpillar
Once they get this big, they eat (and poop!) a lot

Thankfully, I have a very large park only about 10 minutes away with tons and tons of common milkweed that I’ve been raiding. I’ve been very careful to only take a little bit from any given spot, and now I’ve been trying not to take any with seed pods so I don’t compromise next year’s crop. It’s getting difficult, but I’m doing my best.

You really can’t even begin to believe how much these guys poop. Like, seriously. You think human babies poop a lot? They’re NOTHING compared to monarch caterpillars. Even the little ones you can barely see are pooping machines!

In fact, there are two ways to tell whether an egg has hatched: 1. Look for a hole in the leaf from the little dude munching away, and 2. Look for the little pile of poop on or under the leaf the egg was on! Seriously, I’m not kidding.

When I’m in the room cleaning or otherwise dealing with the caterpillars, I can hear the poop hitting the poo poo platters in the enclosures (hence why you need poo poo platters, they make life sooo much easier!).

Lesson Four: This Hobby Takes Time!

This picture doesn’t do them justice, chrysalides are true works of art

Maybe if you only have a few caterpillars, you can get away with just a couple minutes a day devoted to cleaning up poop and feeding fresh milkweed, but if you have a lot of them, they take time.

Now, if you follow my advice in lesson one and “listen to the experts”, you’ll only have 10 or so caterpillars to start (because that’s what the experts recommend) and they’ll be manageable. However, if you’re more *ahem* like me, you’ll “forget” about that little piece of advice and start collecting caterpillars and eggs all over the place.

So far, I’ve released 8 girls and 13 boys. I had one additional boy but his wings got damaged and I had to keep him. I’ve currently got 17 chrysalides, 50 caterpillars (not counting the 10 swallowtail caterpillars, but that’s another story), and about a dozen eggs.

chrysalis about to hatch
This one will eclose within a few hours. First time I saw this,
I thought there was something wrong with it!

I estimate I spend about 2 hours a day cleaning the enclosures and giving the caterpillars fresh milkweed, plus checking for new tiny hatchlings. I also make a milkweed run to the park 2-3 times a week to keep them supplied with food.

The thing is, though, the butterflies won’t be here very long. I’ll have to stop bringing eggs in by the end of August and they’ll all be released by around October first, so this time isn’t going to last.

Which brings me to lesson five….

newly emerged monarch butterfly
A newly emerged butterfly
Hard to believe this crumpled up thing will be absolutely
gorgeous in just a few minutes, isn’t it?

Lesson Five: You WILL Get Addicted!

I started out intending just to bring in a few caterpillars and see how things went. But then I’d go out to the garden and find an egg, or a tiny caterpillar, and I “had” to bring them in. And then there were more, and more.

Now, knowing that I’m raising the migrating generation, I want to raise as many as I possibly can to give some a chance to get to Mexico to overwinter, and come back next spring to start the cycle over.

If you have kids, what an amazing experience to share with them! My daughter is not the outdoorsy type (at all!), but she remembers when she was a kid and we got one of those butterfly raising kits. I think they were painted lady butterflies, but I don’t remember anymore.

butterfly on shoulder
This pretty lady decided to hang out for a few
minutes after I released her!

Even though she wasn’t all that interested in nature, it made such an impression on her she remembered it 15 years later, and actually reminded me of it. What an amazing way to get your kids interested in the natural world and in conservation!

You can even tag your migrating generation butterflies so they can be tracked down to Mexico. I’ve decided not to tag this year as I’m just trying to get used to doing all this, but I’ll definitely tag next year. If you’re interested in the Monarch Watch tagging program, you can check it out here.

Not only does the tagging program increase awareness and knowledge of the butterfly migration, but it supports conservation efforts on the other end, because native people are paid to find the tagged butterflies, giving them an incentive to protect them in their winter nesting grounds.

Truly, there’s nothing quite like watching your first butterfly spread its wings and fly. Or your first caterpillar become a chrysalis, or even your first teensy tiny hatchling munching his egg as his first meal.

monarch butterfly on finger
Just hanging out

Holding one of these exquisite creatures on your fingertip just before it takes flight for the first time is about as close to magic as we get in this life. And then having it come back and fly close by as you’re out tending your garden, as though to say thank you, is beyond description.

I’ll leave you with something special that happened to me this week….

I actually had 2 male butterflies, not 1, with damaged wings that I couldn’t release. One died fairly quickly, but the other was doing well. I opened his enclosure to change his flowers the other day and he made a break for it!

I imagine I looked pretty silly scrambling all over the floor trying to catch this feisty butterfly before my cat did!

Once I managed to grab him, I decided he wanted freedom so badly it was time to take him outside and let him go, come what may.

monarch on butterfly weed

Well, I carried him out and opened my hands, and what do you know? He FLEW! Right to the top of the Rose of Sharon bush in my garden. I couldn’t believe it, and I even got a little misty-eyed.

But wait, it gets better. I had an undamaged female I needed to release as well, so went back upstairs, brought her down and released her. She flew into the top of the same bush. What did my little male do? He flew right on over to investigate this new and interesting friend! Go, little guy, go!

I really hope you’ve enjoyed today’s post! You’ll definitely be hearing more in the future about my monarch raising efforts, and once I’ve raised some of the swallowtails to adulthood, we’ll chat about that as well.

If you’ve ever raised butterflies, please let me know in the comments. Maybe you’ve decided you want to give it a try. Let me know that too, I’d love to hear from you!

I’ve got some pinnable images below that you can pin to your Beneficial Insects or Butterflies boards on Pinterest for future reference. Otherwise, thanks so much for reading, smile, and have a crazy organic day!

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1 comment

Linda Carlson 08/24/2019 - 7:12 pm

This is so cool.. Where do you find the time for it all..


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