Did your son or daughter come home from school and tell you they want to raise monarch butterflies? Maybe. (Oh, great. I have no idea what to do.)
Did you panic at the thought of ‘growing’ numerous creepy, crawly things all over your house? Maybe. (This is not what I signed up for.)
Did you ultimately discourage your child from this adventure . . . because of your own concern and trepidation? Maybe. (But, my child doesn’t know that. )
No matter what you’re thinking, I’m here to give you the basics of raising monarch butterflies. It’s easier than you think. More than likely, your child had a monarch presentation at school and learned something that really excited them. I want you to be just as excited (if not more). I’ll give you some ideas (and confidence) so you can jump in with them. Let’s figure out where to start. My hope is that you’ll reconsider your answers to the above questions and come up with a plan to raise and release a monarch butterfly this year. It’s really cool!
Are there costs involved? Not really. The only real cost is your time. And, hopefully, you’ll be spending that with your child. Easy. You could purchase a roll of screen. You might end up spending money on some milkweed seeds or plants. If you’re looking for milkweed, I love Prairie Moon Nursery in Winona, Minnesota. I purchased a number of native plants and bare roots in 2015 to get my butterfly garden started. They stand behind their products and are quick to answer questions and offer advice. Luckily, there are a number of excellent nurseries out there. Find the one that works for you.
The very first thing you must do, before anything else, is locate healthy, pesticide-free milkweed. Depending on where you live in the United State, the milkweed could be just popping up or already blooming. There are over 100 species in the United States. Do a little research online or contact your local extension office. I guarantee there’s healthy, common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) growing in parks, school yards, and near undeveloped lots. Ask friends and family who are gardeners. Or grow your own.
A personal favorite is Asclepias incarnata, or rose milkweed, also referred to as swamp milkweed. [Luckily, rose milkweed doesn’t need a swamp to grow. I’ve found that it grows well in landscape gardens and stays where you put it. Consider growing it if you need something that is tall, loves the sun, attracts pollinators of all types, and has gorgeous pink blooms that last a long time.]
I purchased a bare root plant called Asclepias viridis or Asclepias asperula (the name differs depending on the site you visit or book you read). It is commonly referred to as spider milkweed. It stays low to the ground, has soft, green blooms, and is a well-behaved perennial.
I’ll spend more time on milkweed in some future posts. For now, just find some common milkweed to start with. It is the most ‘common’ . . . and easiest to find. Besides, the female butterflies typically lay their eggs on common milkweed first.
One important detail . . . the general rule of thumb about the larval stage of monarchs: It takes the quantity of leaves from one common milkweed plant to feed one caterpillar.
Once you have a food source, get your supplies ready.
Part One. Do you have any plastic containers with lids (maybe from take-out restaurants)? Check the recycle bin. Clean your container. Then use a push-pin to punch holes in the lid. The monarch eggs (on leaves) and very small larvae will live in here until they reach 3/4-inches (or 2 centimeters) in length. This roughly equates to their first week of life as a caterpillar. Then, they graduate to the bucket!
Part Two. Do you have any ice cream buckets around? Most people do. Do you have any soft screen or stiff, sheer material? I’ve found that a 10-inch, round piece of soft, fiberglass screen works great with the large ice cream buckets. Use a box cutter on a cutting board to carefully remove the inner plastic from the lid.
The goal for the second week of life is to create a ‘condominium’ for up to five caterpillars. It gets too crowded if you house more than that. [Eat more ice cream if you need more buckets.]
A Quick Note: You won’t need sticks in the bucket, unlike I thought I did in my first year of monarch parenting. The caterpillars climb up the sides with no problem.
A Helpful Invention
I like fresh leaves for my ‘eaters’, but I found that milkweed leaves dry up fairly quickly once removed from the plant. After some trial and error, I invented a small, leaf holder. It keeps the cut leaves fresh with water, similar to cut flowers in a vase. [The supplies for this came from my recycle bin! Go figure.]
I use a 40 oz JIF peanut butter jar lid and a Benecol butter lid. Then, I cut out crescent moon-shaped openings from the butter lid to hold the leaf stems. The JIF lid becomes the base. Add some water, and SNAP on the butter lid! They fit together perfectly!
Set the ‘vase’ in the ice cream bucket. Tuck the cut stems of the leaves into the slots. The leaves stay fresh, the caterpillars stay happy while they eat and rest, and I don’t waste as many leaves. This is especially important if your prime milkweed is in short supply.
Shortly after I finished filling the slots with fresh leaves in this bucket, the resting caterpillars returned to full-time munching. Don’t panic if they don’t start eating right away though. They need to rest after stuffing themselves. As a general rule, do not directly touch the caterpillars; simply work around them.
Feed and Clean
Caterpillars that are eating vigorously are also visiting the restroom a lot. Their poop is call frass. It collects on the bottom of the bucket and the top of the leaf holder. Luckily, it doesn’t smell bad.
Gently pull out the leaves and set them aside (maybe with a caterpillar or two hanging on). They don’t mind little adventures. Just be sure to keep track of the caterpillars in each bucket. Use a Post-It Note on the outside. Then you know if any are missing. Count before you start. Count after you finish. Toss any dead leaves, making sure no one is hiding on them first. Personally, I keep the old leaves until I’m sure that each eater is accounted for.
Remove the leaf holder from the bucket, dump the dirty water in the sink, and clean the two parts with soap and water.
Now, carefully tip the bucket over a garbage can to remove the other frass. If possible, clean the bucket with soap and water. It can be a bit tricky with caterpillars resting on the sides. Skip this step, but only if necessary.
At least once a day, remove the old leaf carcasses and add fresh leaves to the bucket . . . or at least check on them. A large caterpillar can easily eat one leaf per day, so include enough food based on the number of caterpillars in one bucket. Frequently, I tuck extra leaves into the buckets just before I head to bed. Sometimes the caterpillars get the night-time munchies and devour more than expected. Monarch caterpillars will not develop correctly if they think there is a shortage of food.
Rebuild the clean bucket with the water-filled leaf holder, new leaves, old leaves that are still edible, and caterpillars on leaves. Do a final count to confirm none are missing. Replace the screen and lid. Set the bucket out on a screened porch or indoors, away from direct sunlight. Repeat each day.
Continue until the caterpillars stop eating, climb to the top of the screen, form a j-hook, and finally a chrysalis. Generally, this takes two weeks. Remember, you can carefully move a screen with j-hooks and/or chrysalises (temporarily to an empty bucket) if you need to feed other caterpillars.
In approximately two weeks the butterflies will emerge. They will be ready to fly in 3-4 hours. If the weather is reasonable (not too cold, dark, or rainy), then take the bucket outside, fold back the screen, and secure it with the lid. The butterflies will slowly climb out and fly when they are ready.
If the weather is NOT reasonable, simply close the butterflies back in the bucket, drape a small towel over the top, and keep them in a cool area until the next day. Monarch butterflies do not need to eat for 24 hours after emerging. That’s for another blog.
Parenting 101 Graduation
I know a lot of data was covered here. Luckily, once you start the monarch journey, review the blog along the way, and release your first butterfly, you will be hooked. Graduation day is spectacular!
As always, let me know if you have questions or suggestions for improvement. All photos are the property of Ellen Wynkoop.
No caterpillars or butterflies were harmed during the photo sessions for this blog posting, although one caterpillar was accidentally tossed in the garbage. Thank goodness for knowing the total number in a bucket . . . I found him a short time later on the side of the can waiting to be rescued.