Thursday, August 30, 2007


What a summer we've had!

Plenty of ups and downs, the most notable ups being my brother's wedding, and the birth of my second niece. Another fantastic up is the new homeschool community we've found; plenty of friends for all three kids, incredible moms and lots of impromptu outings.

One of our recent outings has been great fun for all the kids involved, and it's easy to transfer to most US communities, so I thought I'd share. We're raising Monarch butterflies.
There are so many books about Monarch butterflies, that I'd be hesitant about suggesting any one. Most all of them cover metamorphosis, milkweed induced toxicity and the incredible migration that monarchs make. One, The Butterfly Book, by Kersten Hamilton offers suggestions for how to raise a caterpillar (but I've never actually read it...) In truth, this is a rather easy project. We've been successful for 3 years in a row just winging it (pun intended), and so I'll share some of what I've learned.

The first step is to learn to recognize milkweed. (check out for photos of all the different species one might encounter.) In our area the most plentiful variety is common milkweed. I've found it all over the place: inner city vacant lots, our community garden, a neighbor's front yard, roadsides and even big fields in our local park system. Don't feel like you have to get to a rural place to find milkweed. This summer, we supplied eggs for 5 families from a smallish stand growing in the corner of our local health food store's parking lot. Personally, I've found that it's easier to find monarch eggs from small urban milkweed stands. The big field we visited this year had very few eggs per plant, which meant much more searching (searching in the hot sun with insects biting everyone and the baby fussing). One common sense caution - don't cut all the milkweed from any one place.

So you've located some milkweed. Now you're going to hunt for monarch eggs or small caterpillars. Very gently turn over the milkweed leaves and search for small white domes (or little, smooth, yellow, white and black caterpillars). Here's a picture of an egg we found.

When you've located an egg or caterpillar, harvest the entire top of that milkweed plant (use a knife or pruners, and immediately get that stem into water). I've found that the milkweed wilts if it's kept in the sun, so when you get it home, don't keep it in a sunny windowsill.
If all goes well, the egg will hatch in a few days (more than five, and that egg likely won't hatch). You will notice a tiny light green caterpillar (about 2 mm), and that caterpillar will begin to eat the milkweed. The caterpillar will grow at an incredible rate, and consume great quantities of milkweed. When your first plant starts to get old, you will need to harvest another milkweed sprig (careful not to bring home more eggs unless you want them!). Use a soft paint brush to transfer the caterpillar from the old plant to the new plant.
This eating and growning will continue for 2 weeks, and the caterpillar will grow to almost 5 cm. Things to watch for:
A greyish slumpy shape next to your caterpillar - this is its old skin. Caterpillars molt just like spiders and snakes. Keep watching and you might get to see the caterpillar eat its molted skin. The caterpillar will stop eating and stay very still for a while right before molting.
Greenish blackish lumps under the milkweed. This is frass, caterpillar droppings.
Spiders. They are predators and can eat wee caterpillars. Do a spider check of your plant before bringing it indoors.

After roughly two weeks your caterpillar will get restless. Up until now all it wanted to do was eat milkeed, but now it wants to travel to find an appropriate spot to form a chrysalis. It is advisable to have created a caterpillar proof habitat before now. This year I got clever and made such a habitat (in years past we've had caterpillars exploring the lighting fixtures). It was quite inexpensive. I purchased one large embroidery hoop and 2 yards of tulle. We already had clothespins and wooden slats from our blinds. A hot glue gun and an extra set of hands was all I needed to put it together.

You might notice your caterpillar bobbing it's head around a spot for a while. It's forming and adhesive "button" of silk from which to hang. When it hangs, it will form a "J" shape, and you will know that the chrysalis will come soon.

I'm always amazed by the beauty of the chrysalis - this photo does not do it justice. Sometimes I wonder if we value gold so much because of how beautifully it's used in nature. The caterpillar stays in the chrysalis for roughly 2 weeks. I've read somewhere that it's body actually liquifies and re-forms, which is miraculous to consider. After 2 weeks, the chrysalis will split, and the butterfly will emerge, damp and crumpled. Once it starts to fly around, you can feed it sugar water on a cottonball, or a piece of watermelon. Falcon is endlessly amazed by how they can roll and unroll their proboscis. We've always set ours free - It's great to watch them soar away.


Sara said...

It never occurred to me that we could raise them. This is very cool! Thanks for sharing.

Garden Guide said...

We've got a Monarch chrysalis in our home as well! Watching the process from caterpillar to butterfly is truly a blessed happening!

There's a beautiful book about Monarch migration titled "Ghost Wings" -- see if your library has it, or if you can get if through interlibrary loan.

Anonymous said...

Wow! I love this blog - thanks for sharing your ideas and for putting this together! We also have raised caterpillars to butterflies in the past and then our spirits flew off into the sky with them. This is a great post for people who haven't done it before. - LS

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