Part One: How to Raise Monarch Butterflies at Home

Remember those Monarch eggs I wrote about two weeks ago that I found on my front yard milkweed?  The photos below illustrate how easy it is to raise Monarch butterflies at home.  It’s fun and gratifying to bring the eggs inside for fostering.

Caterpillar condo

It’s not pretty, but it works. Iced latte cup serves as “caterpillar condo.” Photo by Monika Maeckle

Now’s the time of year you’ll find Monarch butterfly eggs on your milkweed.  Just turn over the leaves, look on the underside and you’ll see them.  Your helping hand could give those eggs a higher chance–from 10% to 90%–of completing their life cycle and becoming a butterfly.   Mother Nature can be brutal.  The tiny eggs represent a protein pop for beetles, ants, and wasps and serve as the equivalent of a highly nutritious smoothie.  

Once the eggs hatch and start munching on milkweed leaves, the holes and “chew marks” they leave in their wake signal to predators that a tasty morsel is near.   While birds generally don’t find Monarchs tasty, they don’t know that until they have their first bite.

Monarch egg on Tropical mlkweed

Bring eggs in to give them a better chance of completing the life cycle. You’ll find them on the underside of milkweed leaves. Photo by Monika Maeckle

It’s not difficult to nurture an egg all the way through the life cycle–from teeny creamy yellow dot to chubby waddling caterpillar to jewel-like chrysalis to beautiful butterfly.  Chrysalises also make fantastic, unique gifts for life’s transitional occasions–weddings, funerals, graduations, a job or other life change.

If you’re up for fostering Monarch caterpillars, you must have ample, chemical-free milkweed.   Any type of Asclepias species will do.  As much as I like native plants, I’m a big fan of Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, for at-home butterfly gardens:  it’s easy-to-grow, widely available, a reliable bloomer, and its leaves serve as Monarchs’, Queens’ and other milkweed feeders’ sole food source.   Other butterflies adore nectaring on its orange and yellow flowers.

Once the eggs hatch, you’ll need to provide fresh milkweed regularly–and in later stages, daily–to these voracious eating machines, so make sure you’re well stocked.

Former salad greens box converts to a caterpillar container.  You'll have to provide fresh milkweed each day.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Former salad greens box converts to a caterpillar container. You’ll have to provide fresh milkweed each day. Photo by Monika Maeckle

You’ll also need a pot, container or “cage” in which to store the milkweed and sequester the caterpillars.  They make quite a mess.  Some people use tupperware boxes, others will put milkweed leaves in a vase and let the caterpillars crawl around, munching as they please.   I like to use a beverage bottle or a plastic iced coffee cup with a lid, which makes a simple “caterpillar condo.”   Be sure to put some newspaper underneath to catch the enormous amount of caterpillar poop, also known as frass, that will result from the constant eating.  Clipping the paper with a clothespin to create a catch for the frass will keep it from rolling onto your floor.

Caterpillar poop or frass

Whole lotta caterpillar poop! Known as frass, caterpillar excrement can be monumental. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Another option, if you have chemical-free potted milkweed available, is to bring the plant inside the house or on a porch and let the caterpillars consume the plant.   That’s one of the easiest methods.

Professional butterfly breeders often take this approach, devoting entire greenhouses to seeded milkweed pots.    Others will use cut milkweed supplied fresh daily after cleaning the containers.


Professional breeders and Monarch enthusiasts plant Tropical milkweed seeds in January so they’ll be sprouting in time for the caterpillar-palooza that arrives in the spring. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Cages must be kept clean and free of frass. You can empty out the frass and wipe down the inside of the cup or container with a paper towel.  Trapped frass can cause a germ problem, as the caterpillars waddle through the mess, track it onto leaves, then consume the nastiness, possibly getting sick.

Beyond fresh milkweed and a container, cage, or potted plant, you’ll need little else but time.  The life cycle from egg to butterfly usually takes about a month.   The egg stage lasts about four days.   Then the caterpillar hatches and remains in its first instar, or stage, for several days.   As it eats and outgrows its skin, it morphs to become a second instar caterpillar.

Caterpillar spinning silk

This guy is forming his silk button and will soon make a j-shape to morph into his chrysalis. See the silk? Photo by Monika Maeckle

The process continues, to third, fourth and fifth instar “cats,” until finally, the caterpillar is almost as big as your ring finger and appears as if it will bust its stripes.   Usually the process from egg to fifth instar takes about 10 -14 days, depending on conditions.   And, if there’s less milkweed available, the caterpillars will hurry up and form their chrysalises, eating less and forming more petite chrysalises.

When that time nears, the caterpillar typically wanders away from its host plant or attaches itself to the top of the cage if confined.   It seeks a nice, quiet place, out of direct sunlight to form its chrysalis.    We have found chrysalises in the most unusual places.

About to go chrysalis, he's forming his j-shape.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

About to go chrysalis, he’s forming his j-shape. Photo by Monika Maeckle

For that reason, many people prefer pop-up cages rather than cups or potted plants since you can put a potted plant inside, sit back and wait.   Personally, I love watching the cats’ acrobatics as they go through the process and I don’t mind finding caterpillars on or under my furniture or curtains.  My husband is also quite tolerant.   But…I understand not everyone feels that way.

When the caterpillar is ready to go chrysalis, it sits quietly for a while, seeming to ponder the possibilities.  But actually, it’s spinning a tough, sturdy silk button that will support its weight for the period in which it hangs upside down as a chrysalis for about a week.

When it’s ready, it hangs vertically and forms a j-shape.   At some moment, when you see its tentacles hanging

Monarch chrysalises

These three caterpillars formed their chrysalises on the underside of the newspaper protecting my floor. Photo by Monika Maeckle

limply, it will begin its transformation from caterpillar to chrysalis with an exotic twisting dance that allows it to shed its skin for the fifth and final time.  It  forms the most fantastic jade colored jewel, flecked with gold specks and rimmed with black.   The chrysalis remains for 10 – 14 days, depending on the weather and humidity.

Finally, when it’s ready to become a butterfly, the green chrysalis will turn opaque, then dark, then black, then clear.   You can see the gorgeous orange-and-black coloration of the Monarch butterfly

clear chrysalis

When the chrysalis turns clear, a butterfly is about to be born. Photo by Monika Maeckle

waiting to be born through the shell.   To watch the butterfly eclose, or emerge, from this form warrants a toast of champagne or a sip of Bordeaux. It happens quickly, so don’t leave the scene if you’re hoping to catch the moment.

When the butterfly first hatches, its wings are soft and malleable.   The butterfly needs to hang vertically so its wings can take shape and firm up.  After about two hours, the butterfly’s wings have dropped completely and are fully formed, ready for first flight.  When you see the butterfly start to beat its wings slowly, as if it’s revving up its engines, its time to take her outside and send her on her way.

Newborn Monarch butterfly

Newborn Monarch butterfly: almost ready for flight.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

For more information, check out the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project page on raising Monarchs or Monarch Watch.

More on this topic:

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74 thoughts on “Part One: How to Raise Monarch Butterflies at Home

  1. I am going to do this. My 92 year old mom will enjoy watching all this happen!

    • It’s a fantastic activity for seniors and senior citizen centers. The caterpillars become low-key pets whose progress is visible daily. They transform to the “next stage” over the course of a few weeks, then, one day, they morph into a new life form and fly away. Kind of reassuring at any stage of life. –MM

  2. I had a ton of Oleander aphids on my butterfly weed last week, so I sprayed with a mixture of 1 qt of water to 1 T of Castille soap. Aphids are gone, but now I’m wondering if I killed any eggs. Heading out to check for eggs now…

    I would love to be a Monarch momma!

  3. Hi Monika, your posts are great! Keep up the good work. We’re trying to share the word and knowledge here in Milam County too!! Thank you!

  4. Hi, Monica! I have so many questions but, will only ask one for the time being: I notice that the plastic containers in which you have your caterpillars have no holes for air? Do they need air? No holes in the top would certainly help with runaway “teensie-tinesies”. I use jars and have the smallest plastic screen I can find over the top of the babies’ jar. This morning, I found one on the outside of one of the other jars as I was cleaning and feeding. Thanks so much!

  5. When the butterfly emerges from the chrysalis where should I release it for the best chance of survival? I live in San Antonio and could release it in my back yard, take it to the botanical garden, … I only have one so I want a successful release!

  6. If anyone wants milkweed seeds please email me and I will send you as many as you want, I have red, orange, and showy.

    • Wow, do they strip the plants! I will send you postage for the seeds.
      218 SW 43rd Lane
      Cape Coral, FL 33914

    • My 9 year old daughter and I have been hatching (is that even the correct term?) monarchs for two years now and love it! What a fun time together. We have 4 right now in her butterfly habitat, two are emerging as I type this. Can’t wait for her to come home from school to see them. I would love to have some seeds from your other plants so that we could continue to enjoy this for years to come. How do I contact you to get them? I don’t see an email listed. Thanks.

    • would you please be able to send me some seeds I already have the milkweed I don’t have any of the nice colours you have mentioned

      cheers Marie.

      • Hello Laurie,

        I would like some milkweek seeds. I can send you some money for postage if you like. How do I send you my address without it being posted to a public website?


        Thank you!

  7. Just found your website and love it, so informative. Got four milkweed in pots, left them outside on the lanai. I would sit out there having my morning coffee and watch them lay eggs. I purchased a net house, and brought a pot. In when the catapillars started eating. Somehow the egg laying got out of hand and had to being all four plants inside. What’s with the head bobbing?

    • NOt sure what the head bobbing of caterpillars means. Maybe they’re communicating with us and thanking us for supply the host plant?

  8. My daughter and i have been doing this for three years going along the roads looking for milkweed and caterpillars they are so much fun to watch but having a hard time this year finding them haven’t found any yet don’t know if its to early or to late here in ohio. would love to have some seed and willing to pay for it.

  9. Monika,
    We had a monarch come out of the chrysalis early this am. It is cold and rainy outside. Should we go ahead and
    let her fly away or keep her inside til the weather clears up, probably tomorrow afternoon?


    • I have had to keep monarchs inside for a couple of rainy days in a row. I grow butterfly bushes, so I pick some of the flowers from them to feed the new monarchs.

      • Monarchs do not have to eat in the first 24 or so hours. If you have nectar plants and can bring some in they may or not use them. If longer times are required or if you just wish to offer food, the cap from a Gatorade bottle with a mixture of honey:water 1:9 can work well. I put a stone from stones for aquariums (after they were well washed) in mine, but it is not necessary. I also folded up paper towels and cut a hole to drop the cap in so my guy, Braveheart, could be level with the top of the cap as he ate. But that too is not usually necessary. My guy was older and not well in the end so he needed extra support. One other caveat, it’s easier to get them interested if there is no bright light around. If it’s too bright, all they can think about is getting outside.
        I think mid 60’s is ok to release as long as its sunny. C(Ck experts for this). Late afternoon or evening is not the best time. In my limited experience, they like an early night with some rough sticks (1/2 ” diameter seemed preferred) or a plant to hang on overnight.

  10. I took 4 larva inside just before the first frost. I have been feeding them
    milkweed since then and 3 of them are now in the chrysalis form. I’m
    Now trying to figure out how to foster the butterflies until flowers start to
    Bloom. My question is where can I purchase a cage similar to the one in
    your article? How long can you keep the adults in a cage and still successfully release them?

    Thanks for you excellent website

    • Good for you, Stacey. That “cage” is actually a laundry hamper I got at my local Bed, Bath & Beyond. Our friend Todd Stout of Raising Butterflies sells proper butterfly cages. You can find him on Facebook and order from him. Good luck!

      • Thanks for the response. I found a suitable cage at Carolina Scientific . My concern now is
        how long can I foster the adult butterflies, waiting for the flowers to start blooming here
        In Houston? I’ve seen reports about people
        keeping the adults for short periods but it will
        Be a few months before flowers start blooming
        here in Houston.

  11. Have you had any issues with the chrysalises turning brown and dying? We raise Monarch caterpillars from MonarchWatch in our first grade classes each year and have had issues the last couple of years with OE (Ophryocystis elektroscirrha). Even though we make sure that our habitats are clean and are very careful with handling, we still have issues. From what I have read on Monarch Watch and other sources the spores of OE are mainly spread by adults and they contaminate the milkweed as they land on it. It seems that OE may be a natural cause for why the population is declining–along with all the manmade causes. Do you have any experience with OE and hints on how we can help eliminate it?

    • HI Claire,
      Yes, OE spores arepresent in the Monarch population–just like the strep bacteria is present in human beings. The problem is when it gets out of hand, which often happens in crowded environments or places frequented by many Monarchs. I subscribe to the notion of slashing Tropical Milkweed to the ground in the winter, thus limiting the build-up of OE in a Monarch habitat.

      I don’t have personal experience with OE but I have read about it and have observed my breeder friends take precautions to eliminate and limit it in their breeding houses. Here’s a link that might be useful to you:


  12. I am currently in a biology class at a university in Oklahoma. I was curious as to why the monarch butterfly continues to flutter its wings while drinking nectar. Can anyone help me with this question? Thankyou!

  13. I’m reading a novel – The Butterfly’s Daughter – by Mary Alice Monroe that some of you might enjoy. It has stirred my interest in the whole subject.

  14. Hey. I had a friend who had abundant milkweed in her backyard, and so she took a few caterpillars, provided them with milkweed, and watched their transformation into butterflies. Pretty cool. I’m thinking of doing the same thing this summer.

  15. I’ve had a lot of mortality from tachinid flies, but most disappointing was when a caterpillar destroyed a fellow ‘pillar who was in the process of forming a chrysalis. We returned to find the victim bloodied and at the bottom of the cage, dead, and the culprit at the scene of the crime (hanging out on the lid where it detached the victim). It was only the two caterpillars in the container and plenty of food for the one… my question is, WHY? Why did the caterpillar maul and detach its cagemate?

  16. You have totally inspired me to do this next year! I’m doing a landscaping overhaul in Oct and planned to plant butterfly- and pollinator-friendly plants for my garden and to give a bit of a wildscape to my otherwise boring suburban landscaping :) . I’ll be adding milkweed to the list.


    • I’ve raised them for two years, last week 4 went on their way. It is a rather emotional and well worth endeavor as one feels they are worth the effort and fun. Susie


  18. I have had Monarch caterpillars in my yard three times this year. Only one out of probably 35-40 caterpillars made it and I had to save that one off the ground. A labor of love which ended with a beautiful butterfly. I had another nine caterpillars on my milkweed plant last week, this morning I had six and then this afternoon I only see two. what could be happening to them? Will birds eat them? Would love to learn how to protect them since they seem to enjoy my yard.

    • It’s a dangerous world for caterpillars. Birds, disease, accidents (getting stepped on, for example). That’s why I like to bring them inside, otherwise they seem to just disappear. Surely much of that is Nature’s Way. If the hundreds of eggs all made it to become butterflies (actually, only about 10% make it), we would have an overpopulation. When we help them out, the odds are reversed and they have about a 90% of completing the life cycle. Good luck.


  19. I have one that just hatched this morning. I think he’s ready to be released, but it’s raining out and I don’t think it’ll be stopping soon. Any tips? How long can he stay in the jar? Would overnight hurt?

  20. This summer I notice milkweed growing where there was none last year. Along roads and fields.
    I continue to give seeds to all interested.

    Many people have mw in their yard who last year could not have cared less.
    This is in Mid West, Kalamazoo, MI.

  21. Hi, I have a newly hatched monarch and she did not hang from her chrysalis, she dropped to the bottom of the container and her wings are not unfolding all the way. Any suggestions? Shall I mist her a bit to keep her wings from hardening? I placed a stick in the container and made her crawl up, but it’s been about 2 hours and no real change.

    • I had this happen last year. I took her outside, set her on a flower to let nature take it’s course. Within no time she was gone and I prefer to assume she was dry enough to fly off. Dunno, I just couldn’t watch if I lost her.

  22. Found caterpillar on butterfly weed this week and she barely ate or messed up the jar. She was truly ready because within 2 days she was clinging to the screen on top and yesterday I have a pretty green chrysalis.

    The jar is on a shelf in a pantry where the light is rarely on. Last year I just left the jar on the stairs landing in the corner, out of bright light. Now I’m worried it’s too dark in the pantry. Any help with this stage appreciated. Worried Monarch mom.

      • Madam Butterfly emerged this morning. Looking fine, just waiting for wings to dry then off she goes. Will let neighbor kids send her off. This late term butterfly is so big and beautiful, kinda hate to send her on her way but she needs to leave Michigan ASAP.

  23. Hi Monika,

    My monarch had a difficult time getting out of the chrysalis. It was stuck on one side for hours, so I held on to the twig it was attached to as she twisted to set herself free. She finally did as soon as I held onto the twig.But that wing is crumbled up to the outside and the other is extended. She’s fluttering her wings, but one looks damaged. Can I help her unfold it? Any suggestions?


      • Hi Monika,

        Thank you for your response. I have another question. Could lots of flash from picture taking cause the chrysalis stress, causing malformation? I took many, many pictures up close using a flash. I know this is not good for babies (within 3 feet of their faces), but didn’t think it might affect cats or chrysalises. Hoping for a reply. Thank you.


  24. i am near or Orlando FL it start to be cold and late for the monarch
    My last 7 caterpillars hatched put them outside but have hard time to make them go did not went to leave my finger ??? Maybe because they where warm
    I finally fund a place on the sun and it was ok after minutes, but one come back inside I do not know if I can keep it and feed it for it to survive ???
    How they do on butterflies professional house ??

  25. I have the larvae inside, but forgot to put the top cover touching the top of the milkweed. I have several now on the cover. I’m not sure if they are waiting to form the chrysalis or just lost. If the latter, I can put them back on the milkweed. They are large so maybe it’s time for them. How much time should I give them to move to the J before I put them back on the plants? Thanks for your help.

    • I have found that once the cats move away from the milkweed, they are very fragile. I would wait and see what they do. They might crawl back to the plant to do more munching, or they might make a J right there. Once the chrysalis is formed, they can be moved. I have found it takes up to three days to form a J.

  26. i have a lot of caterpillars on my milkweed (outside). is there a recommend structure I could construct that would entice the caterpillars to go to to for the chrysalis stage?

    • I am not an expert, but I think the chrysalis prefers indirect light rather than direct sunlight. The larvae like to go up – and out of the wind I would think. I’ve had to bring mine in due to inclement weather. They are doing fine with fine mesh burlap and a cardboard cover. Some have formed the chrysalis on the burlap itself and some have used the cardboard. I think they have to be able to hang down to develop properly.

  27. Hi, I have a question about a chrysalis that is about to hatch, but its turned see thru on New Years Eve and today it still hasn’t come out. I can see the orange and black monarch inside but it isn’t hatching, could the cold be slowing down the process or could something have happened to it? I’ve had them turn black and die before but never see thru- they always hatch if they make it to this point. Thanks for your input : )

    • Could be diseased or just slow. How long has it been clear? If they’re not healthy, they sometimes get stuck. I know. Brutal.

      • It was clear for three days and I couldn’t stand it anymore so I flushed him down the toilet : ( ive had them turn black before but never turn clear and then not come out. Oh well, i’m in So Cal and because of the Indian summer we had I still have caterpillars like mad on my bush- even after I pruned it back!!! so carzy : ) Thanks for your reply!

  28. Hi Monika,

    I live in San Diego and planted milkweed seeds about three weeks ago. None have germinated, although they’re inside, covered with plastic, and in a window. Do you find you need to “chill” the seeds in the frig and/or scrape the seeds to get them started? Thank you.


  29. Has anyone ever used a bird cage for housing the caterpillars? I do have a number of plants but last year I noticed that my caterpillars were not surviving because of the birds. I only had 5 butterflies for the season. I thought the cage idea would help to protect them and with a drawer at the bottom, easy to keep clean. Any other ideas would be appreciated.

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