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:

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23 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.

  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!

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