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.

Caterpillar-palooza

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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30 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.

  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?

    Ken

  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!
      MM

      • 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: http://monarchparasites.uga.edu/whatisOE/

      MM

  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.

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