Raising Monarch butterflies at home are easy and a great learning tool for the kids. And it’s so much fun too!
The Monarch Butterfly, with the scientific name known as Danaus Plexippus, is a milkweed butterfly. It’s considered the most beautiful butterfly, and also known as the King of Butterflies which is where the name “Monarch” came from.
I’ve been asked why I raise Monarchs and I have several reasons. I have the time, the population of the Monarch has gone down and it’s just a great fun project to do and share.
Monarch Butterfly Information:
The life cycle of the Monarch butterfly has four stages and four generations. The stages are the egg, larvae, pupa, and then the adult butterfly. Four butterflies will pass through these four stages within a year.
The adult butterfly lays her eggs on the milkweed plant (the only Monarch host plant) which is the first stage. A female will lay from 200 – 400 eggs in her lifetime! Within 4 days, the eggs hatch to form a caterpillar or larva, the second stage. While the caterpillar grows, it will eat the milkweed on which it lives.
Within two weeks, it attains full growth, it will start looking for a leaf or stem by discharging silk to hang upside down, and undergoes the process of metamorphosis to transform into a pupa or chrysalis.
During the next 10 – 14 days, the process of metamorphosis transforms the old body parts of the pupa into the beautiful parts of the future adult butterfly. The adult butterfly will emerge in the early/mid-morning time and fly away in search of food and a mate.
They live a short life from about two to six weeks and will lay eggs for the second generation. The second generation will migrate around and reproduce from May through July. It lays eggs for the third generation in July or August. The fourth-generation eggs are laid in the month of September or October, but they live more than eight to nine months. This generation has the toughest job of migrating to the warmer regions of California or Mexico. And the process starts all over again for the next year.
The annual fall mass migration of monarchs is one of the greatest natural events undertaken by any organism on earth.
The picture above is the male and female Monarch. The female has the 2 dots on the bottom of the wings and the male has thicker black lines.
Items you will need to raise Monarchs:
- Habitat Cage – this is a mesh cage that will house your plant stems and your caterpillars while they eat and form the chrysalis. I use mesh laundry bags for a habitat cage which is shown in my pictures. The mesh bags will fold up nicely for storage.
- Large Jar – I use a mason jar and mason jar flower lid to hold the stems still while the caterpillars are in the habitat cage. You could use any kind of large jar for this process or anything that will hold water.
- Plant Saucer Pan – I sit my mesh laundry bag over the plant saucer pan to help catch the monarch poop and keep the caterpillars inside and safe. More on that later.
- Binder Clips – The clips will hold the mesh bag to the plant saucer pan securely.
- Garden Pruners – To cut the milkweed branches. Be sure to wash them after each use.
- Garden Gloves – To protect your hands from milkweed sap.
Grow Lots of Milkweed First:
You will need to raise milkweed in your garden, yard or pots. I have them in the ground in my butterfly garden and also in pots near the back door for easy access. Milkweed is the ONLY host plant for the Monarch caterpillar, so you must provide food for them. There are 70+ varieties of milkweed in the US but you will need to grow your areas native version in your yard for best results. Check out this article on native milkweed in your area.
The Monarchs love other plants for nectar which consist of Zinnias, Agastache, Mexican sunflowers, Verbena, Butterfly Bushes, Pintas, and Bottlebrush. Check your planting zone for nectar plants for your area.
I grow much of my milkweed from seed I acquired from a local grower, but you can find seeds online. As milkweed grows in your yard, it will spread seeds but is NOT invasive at all. The seeds will regerminate year after year in your garden from the seed pods on the milkweed. You should also be able to easily find milkweed plants at your local garden stores to plant.
TIP: Monarch caterpillars are eating machines and they will eat a LOT of milkweed leaves. Grow as much as you can if you plan on raising them during the summer months.
Milkweed milky sap is much like poinsettia sap and may be irritating to your skin and especially to your eyes. Wear gloves will cutting stems or harvesting seeds from the seed pods. Wash your hands thoroughly after handling milkweed.
Milkweed bugs are common on milkweed and will eat on the milkweed seed. It’s hard to see the damage they may occur. I will inspect my milkweed and either knock them off with water from the hose or with my hand. I usually just see them near or on the milkweed bloom.
Aphids can also be a pest problem, but they are easily removed by spraying with the hose or wipe off with a rag or paper towel. Ladybugs love to eat aphids.
DO NOT spray your milkweed with any kind of pesticide. That will easily kill the caterpillars and will also cause the butterflies to not form correctly.
Preparing your area for growing monarchs:
The Monarch caterpillars have few enemies because they are poisonous from eating the leaves of the milkweed. The eggs and very small larvae are NOT poisonous and are lunch for lizards, insects, and anything else that’s hungry.
You will need to have a controlled area to grow your monarchs. I have an enclosed lanai where I sit my mesh laundry bags on a patio table. This area will keep out the wind and rain while raising your Monarchs but it stays warm during the summer.
The mesh laundry bags will make sure the caterpillars won’t crawl off and die or be eaten before they make their chrysalis. The picture above shows my first try at setting up my mesh bag. It worked well, but a couple of caterpillars still found a way to get out.
This is how I now set up my mesh bag. I use the clips to hold the mesh bag over the 14″ plastic plant saucer pan which will catch all the caterpillar poop and keep the caterpillars inside. No more escapes. I also lay paper towels and paper plates in the bottom of the pan for easy removal.
This is what happens when you think you have covered the holes in your mesh bag and the caterpillars want to find a place to hang from. Those 2 caterpillars crawled out of a small opening in the mesh bag, down the table, and about 5 feet on the floor until they found my watering pitcher sitting by the door. You can really see the webbing they use to hold the chrysalis in place.
I placed large pieces of cardboard over my table or you could use an old towel or sheet. I had the mesh laundry bags ready and the large jars filled with water and the flower lids on top. The mason jar frog will hold the stems straight up and steady.
Paper towels and paper plates easily catch the poop which will fall to the bottom of the mesh bag. Since these are eating machines, they are also pooping machines too!! During the days of the caterpillars eating, you will need to remove the poop a few times and having the jar on a paper plate or large plastic pot saucer will make the cleanup job easier.
Please keep the dogs, cats, small children, and other pets from your setup. The leaves are poisonous!
Let’s start raising Monarchs:
Once your milkweed is growing strong, it’s a good idea to check them daily for caterpillars. Look under the leaves for the eggs as shown in the picture above. They are small white little dots. Once the Monarchs find your milkweed, you will see them a lot. I have placed potted milkweed in different areas outside around my home and there is one area they really love to visit the most and that’s where I keep my potted milkweed.
When you start seeing small caterpillars, grab your gloves and pruners and cut off the branch to bring into your controlled area and place in the large jar with water. Be careful of the milky sap which will drip when you cut off a branch. You will need to add more branches to the jar as the caterpillars grow and eat. I only bring in a few caterpillars at a time to raise. Not more than 10. If you have more than one mesh bag, you can raise more at a time. Occasionally, mist the branches with water during the eating phase. Caterpillars love to drink water too!
Place the mesh bag over your jar with the stems and make sure you don’t see any open areas the caterpillars can get out from. Cover any holes with painters tape, place old rags or paper towels in the open areas or use the large pot saucer and clips as shown above. The habitat cage which is made specifically for raising butterflies won’t have any holes for you to worry about.
Once the caterpillars are finished eating, they will travel up the sides of the mesh bag and hang from the top of the bag. When all the caterpillars are at the top, its time to clean up a bit. I will remove the jar with stems, and all the leftover poop from the bottom and layout fresh paper towels. As you can see in the picture above, there is nothing left but stems when they stop eating.
Now its time to wait and watch.
Start watching the chrysalis after about 10 days and when they are really dark, almost black, you know time is close. They will open the chrysalis in the mornings and it’s such a fun process to watch. My butterflies seem to emerge from the chrysalis about 8 am every morning.
Let them stay in the mesh cage for at least 2 hours to let their wings grow to full size and dry out. When I see them fluttering around, I know they are ready to set free. Grab the monarchs using your thumb and forefinger to hold the top part of the wings very gently together and let them loose outside.
You are ready to start the process all over again until you run out of milkweed or the fall has arrived.
REMEMBER – you can only raise as many caterpillars as you have of milkweed. Only a couple of milkweed plants means only a few monarchs. Raise a few monarchs and raise them well.
Let’s be real:
- You can’t save every larva or caterpillar that you see on your plants.
- Not every butterfly will hatch from its chrysalis.
- Not every butterfly will survive after emerging from the chrysalis.
Only 1% to 5% of Monarchs survive in the wild. When you raise Monarchs, the survival rate goes up to 80% or higher!! Last year I released 35 Monarchs and only 3 didn’t survive the process.
If you are new to raising Monarchs, just try a couple of caterpillars the first time. Remember that Monarchs lay eggs all summer long. So there is plenty of time to enjoy the process.
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I’m just a country girl loving my geeky life with my wonderful husband, always taking pictures, getting my hands dirty in the garden, being crafty, exploring with travels and enjoying all this on a budget. But above all, living my faith as a child of God!