How to Raise Monarch Butterflies

We raised monarch butterflies this summer.  

First, we gather leaves with monarch eggs on them from the milkweed plants that grow at a nearby pond.

Note: You have to find a place where milkweed grows naturally.  We know what the plants look like, and we know they grow near our pond year after year.  If you find a milkweed plant, you can turn the leaves over and the eggs are tiny, white dots on the backside.  

We bring the leaves with eggs on them home and put them on a plastic tray or plate and keep the leaves fresh by wrapping their steams in wet paper towels until the caterpillars hatch and begin to eat and grow. The caterpillars are so very small and so very hungry, they don't often leave the leaves on the plate.

Once they begin to grow larger, the caterpillars need a lot of fresh milkweed, so we start bringing home whole plants of milkweed every other day, keeping the plants in bottles of water.  

We keep the caterpillars from crawling down the stem of the whole milkweed plants and drowning inside the bottles of water by wrapping the stems in paper towel where they enter the bottles. This effectively plugs the hole like a cork plugs the hole in a wine bottle.  See the picture above. 

The caterpillars usually stay on the plants until they are ready to form a chrysalis, unless they accidentally fall off. But, if they fall off, they are easy to spot and pick up and put back on a leaf.  

Once they are ready to form a chrysalis, they may crawl off the plant looking for a place to form their chrysalis. Some of them will sneak away fast and form their chrysalis on the table or chairs or walls.  But many just stay right on the plant and form their chrysalis there. The picture below is showing a caterpillar on a milkweed leaf breaking out of its skin into its bright green chrysalis.  

If any caterpillar formed a chrysalis in an unideal location like the walls, we learned how to carefully move the formed chrysalises using thread and a pin by reading other blogs and/or watching videos online. The caterpillar below is attached to the door frame.  We waited and moved him once its chrysalis was formed, so it would be in a safer location.  

To move a chrysalis, we wrapped a thread around the stem on the chrysalis. Then holding the string we tied to the chrysalis, we used a pin to carefully detach the silk that is attaching the chrysalis to the surface until the chrysalis was free, hanging by the thread we held.  

This year, we moved almost all of our chrysalises to a "bouquet" of dry sticks, tying them there. 
This bouquet we admired everyday throughout the day.

After several caterpillars went through the process of forming chrysalises, we had learned how to tell when a caterpillar was ready to form its chrysalis. At that point, I would gently "tear" the caterpillar off the leaf or surface they were on, because they would often already be forming silk that holds them in place.  I would move the caterpillar to a stick where I wanted it to form its chrysalis. The caterpillar in the picture below is one that I moved to a stick right before it formed its chrysalis.  You can see that it attached itself directly to the stick.  This way, I did not have to move the chrysalis later. 

The chrysalis below is one that I moved from a place like the doorframe or the chair or the table after it had formed.  You can see the thread tied around the stem and then tied onto the stick.  I transferred so many chrysalises that I grew very confident in the process.  Thankfully, I did not drop or lose any of butterflies by moving them.  

Finally, after about two weeks, the butterflies do emerge from their chrysalises. When they are almost ready, the wings begin to show through the chrysalis like in the photo above.  

When they are about to emerge, the chrysalis becomes completely transparent like in the photo above.

Most of ours emerged with the dawn. They seemed to respond to the morning light, so we often admired them as we woke up and drank our morning coffee or ate breakfast. If we got up before the dawn and sat as the sun came up, we could see the whole process.  

We they emerge, they look like any other bug and their wings are very small.  

They almost immediately begin "pumping" fluid into their wings.

And within minutes, they wings look full. 

But they will hang for several hours before flying away. 

Once they are ready to fly away, they flap their wings over and over, over and over, so it is obvious they are getting ready to go.  

While their wings dry, they can be coaxed onto your finger tip quite easily if you are careful. You can hold them as long as you want.  But you must be very careful, because if a butterfly falls at this point, their wings could be damaged and it will be very hard for them to survive.  

When you are ready or they appear ready to fly away, you can transfer them to a plant, flower, or bush outside to finish drying or to fly away.  

Watching metamorphosis is a glorious, wonderful process that's rewarding to bring up close.  
We successfully raised twenty-six monarchs this year!   


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