Part Two: More Tips for Raising Monarch Caterpillars and Butterflies at Home

Last week’s post on raising Monarch butterflies at home sparked a a slew of questions, comments and emails.   I figured I’d better get back here and clarify a few things.

Newborn male Monarch

This newborn male Monarch hatched this week from my first “crop” of eggs. Off he went! Photo by Monika Maeckle

First, I left out the part about what to do with the egg, once you bring it inside.

I usually tear off the leaf that the egg is on and put it in a jar or plastic container with the lid on.  This keeps it moist and at a stable temperature.  Sometimes the leaves will start getting moldy or condensation will form on the sides of the jar or lid.  If that happens, just open the container and let the fresh air in.  You might even wipe off the condensation.  Too much humidity may cause mold to grow and is not a good thing.

Monarch butterfly egg

Put fresh Monarch butterfly egg inside a plastic container or jar with lid on. Photo by Monika Maeckle

But often as the torn leaves decay, they  smell “ripe”–that is, you can tell they are starting to degrade.   The eggs usually hatch within three – four days, so hopefully they will show themselves as tiny caterpillars before that happens.  That said, it seems that caterpillars don’t mind that earthy aroma as much as we humans do.

Once the egg hatches, you can start the process discussed in last week’s post.  There, I shared photos and info mostly about raising caterpillars in a vase-like setting with cut milkweed set in water and caterpillars munching happily on the leaves.   But when you have LOTS of caterpillars, that’s hard to do.

Seven baby Monarch caterpillars

Seven baby Monarch caterpillars occupy this former cheese container. You can see one pretty clearly at 10 o’clock. Photo by Monika Maeckle

When I have more than two-three caterpillars at once, I use the contained “caterpillar condo” approach I alluded to but didn’t describe in detail last week.  I will do that now.

I like to have a large stalk of milkweed that I place inside the container.  Taking a small piece of dampened paper towel and wrapping it around the end of the milkweed helps keep it fresh and assists in extending its appeal to the caterpillars.  Like us, caterpillars prefer fresh greens.

Caterpillar condo

Paper towel on the bottom of the container helps in cleaning frass and changing milkweed. Note wet paper towel wrapped around stem on right side.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

As the caterpillars get bigger and indulge in their 10-14-day feeding frenzy, massive amounts of caterpillar poop, or frass, result.   The problem compounds with more caterpillars.  When I have several caterpillars, a paper towel in the bottom of the plastic container helps to absorb dampness and makes for easy clean-up.

Move caterpillars from container to assist in easy clean-up

Just lift the stem and move the caterpillars out of the way while you clean the container. PHoto by Monika Maeckle

When the caterpillars reach their third instar, or stage, you’ll find you may need to supply fresh milkweed daily, sometimes more than once a day. Of course it depends on how many caterpillars you are raising.  NOTE:   When there’s nothing to eat, caterpillars can become cannibalistic.  We don’t want that.

Caterpillar just shed its skin

This Monarch caterpillar just shed its skin. Leave him alone to do his thing. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Some people may struggle with moving the caterpillars around.   Often you can simply lift what remains of the stem and put the caterpillars aside while you wipe down the container.  If a caterpillar is stuck in an inconvenient position, take a leaf and slide it under her.  Usually she will climb right on, getting out of your way.  I’ve used a spoon or paintbrush to move the caterpillars.  Handling with your fingers should be discouraged.  Usually they will ball up and drop to the ground and it can be difficult to get a grip on them.

Cleaned caterpillar condo

After cleaning out the container, return the caterpillars to their “condo.” Photo by Monika Maeckle

Sometimes,  the caterpillar is in the middle of shedding its skin and won’t want to move.   In that case you should try to wait til the process is complete.   Caterpillars seem to gravitate to the roof of the containers, too.  I just let them hang out there while I clean up, then put the roof back on.

Fresh milkweed for Monarch caterpilalrs

Fresh milkweed for Monarch caterpillars. Note damp paper towel on stem tip. Photo by Monika Maeckle

When it’s time to go chrysalis, I will move all these caterpillars to a chemical free milkweed plant.   They will wander off and find a good place to transform themselves.   As stated previously, I’m not squeamish about caterpillars in my house.

You can also put them inside the pop-up cages that I mentioned last week, and they will form a chrysalis on the side of the netting or the roof of the cage.

Caterpillar condo

Put the lid on your caterpillar condo and wait til it’s time to go chrysalis. PHoto by Monika Maeckle

Good luck, and let us know how it goes!

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

More on this topic:

Like what you’re reading? Follow butterfly and native plant news at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery in the righthand navigation bar of this page, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam. You can also read our stuff on the Rivard Report.

59 thoughts on “Part Two: More Tips for Raising Monarch Caterpillars and Butterflies at Home

  1. Everythig you suggest seems really good! Although I’ve had good results by taking cuttings of milkweed in a cup filled with water that I’ve covered with foil…or a to go coffee cup w/ the lid ( I slice little holes to put milkweed stems). I put paper towels under the glasses for the frass. I just change the paper towels. My milkweed cutting almost always root, so thats great for me in north central texas, I have plants for the future!

  2. Mesh pop-up laundry hampers turned upside down over jars of leaves works best for me. Newspaper under the jars works well for catching frass. The caters climb to the top to make their chrysalises and are easily transported and monitored. If I am going to be gone for a day or two when it is time for them to emerge, I place jars of fresh flowers inside. Here in NC I don’t have any milkweed emerging yet. Can’t wait!

  3. i live in upstate ny and have been following the monarchs progress through your posts and journey north. i am having a hard time finding live milkweed plants for sale, the only place that i have found that will ship now is educational science.com for 10.00. my cats are stage two i believe. im thinking that since they got stuck in Texas you guys might be running scarce on milkweed.

      • I ve just watched 3D IMAX “flight of the butterflies” and would like to grow a patch of milk weeds for monarch butterflies. If you could share the variety of milk weed seeds that you have, I would appreciate very much.

      • Hi! Any chance I can buy some seeds from you too? I have 2 nice orange plants and just found my first caterpillars on them, but want to create a haven for them next year!

        Please email me and let me know!

        Thanks – and have a great day!
        Maria

  4. My heart was broken last year when my precious caterpillars did not emerge from their crystallis and fell to the floor and died. Can you talk about diseases that have plagued my beloved Monarchs and how to prevent this from happening again this year? My Milkweed is growing like crazy but it is still rainy and cold in Oregon so no butterflies yet. But I do not want to repeat what happened last year. Out of 12 cats only 1 was released.

    • Rene there are so many disease and obstacles–that’s a whole other blog post I hope to get to at some point. Check out Monarch Watch’s sight or the Monarch Larvae Monarch Monitoring Project site–they detail parasites, predators and other challenges.

  5. awesome i will make 1 and see it grow! BUT i only have 4 in my garden so if i raise 4 wouldn’t that make even more poop? anyway do i need a bigger box or a smaller box? i am only 9 and i really want to keep a caterpillar! :{D

    • Yep, four caterpillars will make more grass. One of those salad containers from your local grocery store should work fine. Good luck!

    • You should be able to get some milkweed from a local nursery. Make sure it’s free of any pesticides, though. Good luck!

  6. I have half acre of prairie plants, including milkweed, managed organically. I can raise caterpillars on tented plants. But where we are normally a monarch feeding and nursery hotspot, I have not seen ONE this year. Is there a way for me to obtain eggs or caterpillars for raising and repopulation?

  7. Hi There Monika Maeckle,
    Interesting Post, I live in Beaumont, Tx and was wanting to start catching and raising caterpillars, but have not had any luck in finding them anywhere. I got online to see about ordering The monarch caterpillars, but they can’t be shipped to Texas because of USDA. Why I don’t know maybe it was just that website, but still I don’t want to have to pay for something I am later going to release. Is there certain places to look for caterpillars? We have caught one, and he has already made his little cacoon. It’s been about 8 days so hopefully in the next week we will see if we got a butterfly or a moth. Please any info would be great. I have a 3 year old daughter that is interested in this as well. Everytime we are outside she is looking for caterpillars..
    Keep up the posts!

    • It’s pretty tough to find Monarch caterpillars this year. You might want to order some from an authorized breeder–check out the International Butterfly Breedes Assn at http://www.butterflybreedrs.org.

      Your chrysalis should be hatching soon. Just watch for it to turn opaque, then dark, then, clear. When you see the orange and black wings through the cell, you know it’s hatching soon. Give it a few hours to harden up it’s wings, the let her go on her way to Mexico. Good luck! PS There’s several post on my site about raising Monarchs at home. Just do a search in the search box for more info. MM

  8. Thank you so much for the notes with the pictures. Very helpful!
    While at my nursery picking up plants I added milkweed for my yard knowing that Monarchs needed this for their caterpillars. I had no intentions of trying to raise butterflies.

    Unbelievably (because I don’t have many butterflies of any kind in my yard), the day after planting the milkweed, I watched as a Monarch landed on each of the three milkweeds I had bought and laid an egg on each one! Then I was curious as to how long the cycle was from egg to butterfly and found that unless I brought them inside, they were not likely to survive. And, now yesterday all three eggs hatched to 1 instar cats!
    Keeping the milkeweed from drying out has been my biggest issue. These guys are so tiny and I don’t want to disturb them. . . I just bought a florists tube at the grocery store for . 25 cents and put a stem in that and seems to have done the trick!
    Thanks again for taking the time to publish all this!

  9. Hello,

    Thank you for all this information — it is very helpful. I have a question. You wrote:
    “When it’s time to go chrysalis, I will move all these caterpillars to a chemical free milkweed plant. They will wander off and find a good place to transform themselves.
    You can also put them inside the pop-up cages that I mentioned last week, and they will form a chrysalis on the side of the netting or the roof of the cage.”
    OK, if you don’t have potted milkweed plants, and are using cut sprigs, can you just lay some fresh springs inside the cage? And how will you know when it’s time to put them in the cage?

    • The caterpillars will get quite large and turgid, as if they are about to bust. They will stop eating and you will wonder why–they are going to spin the silk button to support their weight. Also, you’ll know that it’s about 10 days. They like to hang from their j-shape so I try to have some vertical sticks for them to do that. I have never seen them form the chrysalis on a plant laying flat on the ground–that would leave them vulnerable. Think like a caterpillar: where would be a safe place to hang upside down safely? Good luck!

  10. Has anyone ever reared monarchs (mated a pair) in a smaller netting?
    I would like to keep this hobby simple and not have to go out and look for
    Eggs all the time or have to pay for them.I know of individuals that rear them in really big mesh nets…Im just trying to keep it simple here.
    Any advice would help.
    M. MDave

    • I have seen Monarchs being raised in net tents that are supported on tomato cages. The milkweed plant is potted. The tomato cage is placed around the plant, upside down. The legs of the cage are bent inwards so they form a flat “roof”.

      • Tnx a million…..I like that idea….now the next question is…can they possibly mate in this net with a few nectar plants and of course some milkweed for them to lay eggs on if possible. Again I’m just trying to keep this somewhat simple as I live in a suburban area with not a big backyard. ….PS…also retired so got a bit of time on my hands…tnx again for the quick response. I have a dozen cats growing now and have 2 laundry nets from bed bath and beyond want to really do this but at same time KISS….keepin it simple….

  11. 2 questions
    1..How long does it take after a full grown female is mated by a male to drop
    Eggs?????

    2. has anyone brought eggs to full monarchs and then mate them in a smaller mesh net.???? Is this possible or do you need a HUGE flight cage
    To have them mate. I am tryingto keep this simple where I can have eggs without looking for them or buying them.

  12. Dave,

    It makes me feel sad to think of adult butterflies of any species trapped in a netted area. I do think the adults have evolved to want to fly freely. I can’t imagine them being happy in confinement, and they–like many other creatures–would probably have a hard time mating in a constricted environment.

    I don’t spend any time looking for eggs. When I see a young caterpillar on a milkweed leaf outside, I bring it inside on its leaf and add it to my “nursery.” It’s no work at all, since I’m out in my garden a lot, just looking things over. I think it’s definitely simple.

    • Hi Ruth
      Well I paid 20 dollars for 12 eggs..
      2 made it to cats..called the guy and He have me 12 cats to makeup for it.I can’t see paying for cats or eggs provided buy Mother Nature. Soooooo I want to raise these 12 cats to maturity..Then if they do mate in short order I will have FREE EGGS! At that point I will release ALL monarchs..if they don’t mate and lay eggs in 4 or 5 days I will release them and that’s along astheynshould be in the net..I looked hi and low for eggs and cats here in western ny….no luck..but…..I’m not paying 20 dollars everytime I want to help these little guys out…trust me they will not be harmed..”

  13. Well, good luck with your cats, Dave. If you have your own milkweed stand, the monarchs will come to you. I planted a stand 3 summers ago, and it’s just filling out now. The monarchs were sparse at first (like the plants) but this year the stand has been filled with them. I just started a new one in another section of the garden.

    • Hi Ruth,

      Where are you located?

      I am in central Ohio. I have a HUGE number of milkweed plants on my acre and a half, but no orange visitors. I have seen seven Monarchs in Ohio now, but none on my property. That compares to sightings of a few years ago numbering in the 20’s PER DAY.

      I hope your statement to Dave that “if you have stands of milkweed, they will come” is true. So far, in the last two years, we have not had much luck.

      Our half acre of prairie is visited by various butterflies, but no monarchs. Still, I keep watching all my plants, hoping…

      I am entertaining the exact same idea as Dave’s. Next summer I hope to purchase some cats from a farm, and raise them here. I hope to be able to build a 6 x 6 x 6 cube covered with net, and place it over a 6 x 6 plot planted with food plants for the adults and for egg laying purposes, then hope they will grace me with some eggs. After that, the adults would be released, of course.

      KIT

      • Very interesting Kit as of today I have seen
        Only 7 monarchs also.Thats why I broke down and bought cats…still can’t believe I did that
        But I want to help them some how.Lets hope
        They come back next year a lot stronger then weve seen this year.Thats also why I hope
        I can rear them in a good size mesh net.Time
        Will tell.

        • Dave,

          Here is the enclosure I am thinking of building in my butterfly garden.

          http://www.petclassics.com/Cat-Enclosures/small-cat-kitten-enclosures.82.html

          Cover with screen, not wire, of course.

          I have four big stands of milkweed on my property, which includes three different species (one is endangered). Our half acre prairie includes many nectar sources as well.

          Here we have a huge problem with parasitic wasps. Nearly every American silk moth cat that I have tried to keep, has made it to the final instar, only to break out in wasp pupae. They nauseate me!

          I fear something similar for the Monarch cats, which we cannot afford to lose at high number when the population is so low.

          Let me know how your cats do!

          KIT

          • That’s good kit..just to let you know I live just outside of buffalo ny..the guy I got my cats from runs eastern monarch society..GREAT GUY?!! He has a 20 x30 foot mesh cage!!!!! Unreal!! I just don’t have room for that and like I said I want to keep this simple. I’m trying a 4foot x 4foot mesh to start…Stay Tuned…….also have a TON of common milkweed here but…..DOG GONE IT ZERO EGGS…

          • Hi Kit
            1more question don’t know if you know the answer.After the male mates the females can she drop her eggs at anytime or does it take a week or so before she lays them on milkweed?…..curious

          • Hey Dave,
            I do not know the timing between mating and egg laying in the Monarch, but I bet the guy you got your cats from will know!

            KIT

        • Kit,

          I’m in Duluth, MN. I had milkweed last summer too, but hardly any monarchs then — still, there were some cats and eggs. Some summers I see more than others.

          Even with healthy wildlife populations (non-endangered, I mean) it’s normal to have population swings. We’re having a particularly good year here for monarchs, but not every summer is like that.

          It’s hard to know, during a year with low numbers, whether that’s part of a normal swing or if it’s because of the population stress on the species. Or maybe both.

          Monika did post a blog this summer which, if I remember correctly, said that they were predicting an extra good year for the upper midwest, and I am noticing a lot more than usual.

  14. By chemical-free milkweed, do you mean milkweed that hasn’t been sprayed with any pesticides? Or is that a specific plant?

    • I think that means no pesticides, no lawn weed control products, and the like. We manage our half acre prairie totally organic, but we do make very very limited use of chemicals for gardening – and only when we have a big pest outbreak in our garden plants.

      KIT

  15. I noticed above the container with the red top does not have air holes. I’ve been afraid to use a container like this but my tiny babies keep escaping from the containers I have. How much air does larva need?

    • Not sure scientifically. However anecdotally, I use jars with the lid loosely on for very small caterpillars since it’s so hard to see them and they escape easily. They seem to do fine with the air in the jar. That has been my experience.

  16. Hi Monika,
    I live in Columbus, OH. I am first time Monarch mom that ordered 20 eggs (I actually recieved a few more than 20 on one tiny plant). They hatched on August 17th. So far all have survived and most of them started pupating last night. Over half of them climbed to the top of their enclosure, however, several of the remaining ones have attached themselves to the butterfly weed bouquets I have been feeding them..These bouquets will not last for more than a couple days as they are cut from my larger plants and then put in bottles of water that I have been changing daily. What can I do with these chrysalises when the cut plant wilts? I am very concerned for them and afraid to touch the enclosure and disturb them as well as the others attached to the top as I realize they are in a very delicate stage for several days.

    Also, on the day that my cat eggs arrived, I walked out my front door to the most beautiful monarch butterfly drinking nectar from my two giant first year butterfly weeds and depositing eggs all over my plants. Sadly, about a week later all eggs had vanished. But to my surprise yesterday, while collecting cuttings for my mail order cats, I found three baby cats. I promptly brought them inside and put them in their own enclosure in hopes that I can safely rear them to adulthood. I keep removing huge Chinese praying mantises from my butterfly weed daily that sit around waiting for all the little flying pollinators that visit it.every day. I feared it was just a matter-of-time until one of these mantises caught and killed the cats.. .

    • HI Toni,
      Please goto my Facebook page and see the cover photo. It is a picture of dried, wilted milkweed with many chrysalises attached. I think you might be fine with the old milkweed as a place have the chrysalises hang. Take them out of the water so they don’t rot, and let them firm up. You can stick them in a dry vase as I do. If that doesn’t work, you can removed the chrysalises and attach them with a pin or tape by gathering the silky material they spin to attach themselves. Or tie dental floss around the end of that material and move them to a stick or other plant. The important thing is to make sure the chrysalis hangs vertically and they have something to climb up to–even if it is just the empty shell.

      As for the eggs disappearing, yes, that is what happens. That’s why I like to bring them in the house. Some research has shown that left to nature, the eggs have only a 10% of completing the life cycle (maybe that’s why butterflies lay hundreds of eggs). When we offer assistance and bring them inside, the odds are reversed and they have a 90% change of making it. Good luck, and thanks for writing! –MM

      • Thank you so much for you speedy reply, Monika. I did exactly as you said with the milkweed and it is going to work fine. I found 5 more cats on my milkweed outside (and a sixth one that a praying mantis had) and put those with the other three. I am thrilled to have 8 babies from the mother monarch that visited my milkweed. I just wish I had been able to save more from the predators. I am keeping my fingers crossed that the cats that I brought in from my plants don’t have any parasites. I had a male monarch show-up at my plant today! I am so happy that I planted milkweed this summer. I can’t wait to raise more monarchs next summer.

          • Hello again Monika! I have a dilemma and quesstions with my final 10 chrysalises that should become monarch butterflies over the next 1 – 4 days (I have released 19 over the past 5 days.). The next
            two days in Columbus, OH are going to be in the high 70s with lows in the 50s but unfortunately with rain predicted. Then the following 4 – 5 days are to be partly sunny but much with lower temps. with highs in the 60s in the day and low 50s at night. I hate to keep them in their habitat for longer than absolutely necessary. What should I do about releasing my young monarchs during this early fall-like weather.

          • I also forgot to mention that I leave for work too early to release them and I arrive home around 4pm (it gets dark around 8pm). so I have a very small daily window to release them. If they emerge on the weekend I can release them around 10am before I go to work.

            Thank you for all your help!.

          • Hi Toni!
            I have lost your email. If you don’t mind, send me another, and now that my new computer is working, I will be able to save it and not lose it in another crash!

            Next spring, I plan to start seeds in pots and also a 100 x 100 foot milkweed garden, so if you are still very active in rearing monarch cats, I may be able to supply you.

            KIT

  17. Well… I have spent the summer watching for adults and cats. I have seen somewhere around ten adults all summer, in a nectar and milkweed rich environment where we used to see that many in a day. I have watched eight cats on their food plants, with strong evidence that at least six were lost to predators. In two cases, the predators were actually caught in the act. Surprising was the fact that these two predators were hymenoptera… one soldier bug and one milkweed bug.
    The other four were suspected to be birds.
    Now, having this many losses, I have finally brought in a cat for raising indoors. Will air conditioning cause a problem? Our bedroom ranges from 72 to 76 F.

    The current cat is about 1/2 inch in length. Any idea from size, what instar this is likely to be?

    KIT

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>