How to Raise Eastern Swallowtail Butterflies at Home

Monarch butterflies get all the press, but the Eastern or Black Swallowtail, Papillio polyxenes, a large blue, black and gold and cream-specked beauty, flies in our neck of the world from April through November.   The Texas native provides lots of action in the garden when Monarchs are elsewhere.

Eastern Swallowtail

Eastern Swallowtail, recently hatched, resting in the grass. Llano River, Texas Hill Country. Photo by Monika Maeckle

We’ve been getting questions about raising Swallowtail butterflies in recent weeks. The wet June has made for a long season for dill, fennel, parsley and rue the plants on which Swallowtail butterflies lay their eggs.  Below are some tips for raising them at home.

Eastern Swallowtail egg on Dill Weed

Eastern Swallowtail egg on Dill Weed.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

First, locate the eggs. The tiny yellow spheres perch prominently on the leaves of dill, fennel, parsley and rue. Check your plants frequently, as wasps, ladybugs, spiders and others will slurp up these protein pops as soon as they are spotted.  When you’re looking, you may notice some clear, dry, empty spheres, exactly the size of the eggs.  Those are empty egg shells already visited and consumed by predators.

Swallowtail egg

Close-up of Swallowtail egg on dill. Photo by Monika Maeckle

I usually snap off a piece of the plant with the eggs on them and take them inside to rest in a jar with the lid loosely closed.  Don’t worry about “smothering” the egg.   They’ll do fine until they hatch, usually within four days.

Once the little guys hatch, you’ll want to provide fresh air to prevent mold from growing on the host plant.  Bring in some sprigs of fresh plant and put them in the jar. I usually leave the eggs alone until the caterpillars are big enough to spot with a naked eye–generally two days.   You’ll see they’re tiny and hard to monitor, so again, leave them alone and just provide fresh air and fresh host plant until they grow bigger.

After a few days you’ll see a small black creature, perhaps 1/16th of an inch long.  If you look closely, you might notice a white or orange band in the middle of the body.  That’s your first instar, or stage, Swallowtail caterpillar.  They will eat quietly and consistently for several days before they morph to the next stage.   They’re rather nondescript and not yet as interesting as they will become.  Just wait.

Swallowtail

First instar Eastern Swallowtail caterpillar on rue. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Up until this point, I may have had the Swallowtails in a jar or container with a loose lid or netting.  But now it starts to get interesting and I like to watch them eat and grow, although it can make a small mess.

Usually I gather fresh host plant and put it in a vase with newspaper underneath so I can observe the caterpillars literally grow before my eyes. The newspaper catches the frass, or caterpillar poop, that the caterpillars produce in volume.  The small, black odorless pellet-like droppings may seem gross, but they’re actually not.  Well, maybe for some people.  Generally I will set such a vase in a highly trafficked place in my home or office so I won’t miss the action in the course of any day. (Yes, I’ve been known to take caterpillars to work.)

Swallowtail bouquet

Bouquet of Swallowtail caterpillars in vase on fennel. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The caterpillars will continue to eat and morph for about 10 days.   What’s amazing is how different they look at each stage.   As they move through their instars, they completely transform, going from the unremarkable black cat with a white band to a prickly orange, white and black form, then to a black, green, yellow and white-striped creature often confused with Monarch caterpillars.

Throughout the process these boys eat voraciously–lots of fresh host plant.  In our hot Texas summers, I find dill expires early in the season but that Swallowtails will easily transition to the more abundant and heat-hardy rue or fennel.   At the ranch we have wild parsley and I have brought that home for feeding.  Once I bought organic fennel or parsley at the grocery store to feed a slew of Swallowtails when I had run out of fresh host.  The caterpillars didn’t seem to like it much (like us, they prefer FRESH greens) but they at it in the later stages.

Swallowtail showing tubercles

Who goes there?!? Note the yellow “tubercles” which the Swallowtail shows off when bothered. Photo by Monika Maeckle

One of the most amusing aspects of raising Swallowtails is their interesting tentacles.  When they get to the last stages, they show distinctive yellow antennae when poked or bothered. This orange forked gland, called the osmeterium, shows itself when the butterfly perceives danger.  Upon the slightest nudge or threat, the yellow tentacles pop out of their head and emit a distinctive, sickly sweet odor. Kids are always impressed when you provoke the Swallowtail’s tentacles.

Swallowtail caterpillar sheds its skin.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

Swallowtail sheds skin. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The caterpillars will continue to eat, shed their skins and morph to the next stage over about 10 days until they get to the fifth instar at which time they will cease eating and seek a quiet place to form their chrysalis. Swallowtails are famous for wandering far from the host plant and taking their time to emerge from the chrysalis at unpredictable times.  Monarch caterpillars are generally reliable in taking 10-14 days to eclose, or make the transition from chrysalis to butterfly.

 

Swallowtails, in contrast, can take a few weeks to many months to emerge.  Their unpredictability is also manifested in the varied color of the chrysalis that results from the final morphing.   Sometimes brown, sometimes green, you just never know what color a Swallowtail chrysalis will be.

Swallotwails wear chrysalis coats of many colors.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Swallowtails wear chrysalis coats of many colors. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Because Swallowtails can wander, it’s smart to contain them in a cage when they get large enough to bust their stripes and go chrysalis.  I use a net laundry hamper and simply put the vase inside.

Swallowtail

The Swallowtail will bow its head and make a silk button and saddle before going chrysalis. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The Swallowtail, when ready, will stop eating.  He will bow his head in an upside down J-shape, and spin a silk button to attach itself by its head to a twig, branch or net siding.   He then makes a silk saddle to hold itself snugly in place for the time it takes to transform its DNA into a butterfly–again, an often unpredictable amount of time.   Some Swallowtails will overwinter to the next season, depending on the conditions present at the time of forming the chrysalis.

Newborn Swallowtail butterfly with sister chrysalis.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Newborn Swallowtail butterfly with sister chrysalis. Photo by Monika Maeckle

When the day finally comes, though, you will know because the chrysalis will turn dark, then clear. Thereafter, the Swallowtail will emerge when ready.

Give it a few hours to allow its wings to harden. When she starts beating them slowly, you know she’s ready for flight. Take her outside and send her on her way.

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Dr. Chip Taylor to Address Commercial Butterfly Breeders in San Antonio Nov. 7-10

Dr. Chip Taylor, the founder of Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas at Lawrence, will address almost 100 professional butterfly breeders this week at their annual conference in San Antonio.   Dr. Taylor oversees the citizen scientist tagging program that tracks the Monarch butterfly migration from Mexico to Canada and back each year.

Dr. Chip Taylor, Founder of Monarch Watch

Monarch Watch founder Dr. Chip Taylor on the Llano River in the Texas Hill Country last year.  Dr. Taylor will be in town this week to address the International Butterfly Breeders and the Association for Butterflies combined annual convention.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

The conference, a combined effort of the International Butterfly Breeders’ Association (IBBA) and the Association for Butterflies (AFB), will bring professional butterfly breeders and butterfly enthusiasts–mariposistas, as I like to call them–to the Drury Inn at La Cantera Parkway in San Antonio, November 7-10. The far-flung butterfly fans will gather from as far away as Costa Rica and as close as Rockport, Texas for education, networking and fun.

Painted Lady

Painted Lady butterflies and Monarchs are the “money crops” of the commercial butterfly breeding industry. Photo courtesy Edith Smith, Shady Oak Butterfly Farm

This year’s convention commemorates the IBBA’s 15th year and the founding of the multimillion dollar commercial butterfly breeding industry.   The butterfly breeding business supplies butterflies to schools, museums, zoos and exhibits for education and scientific purposes.  Live butterflies also are tapped to commemorate weddings, funerals and other special occasions.

The conference is open to the public.   “Butterfly beginners are welcome,” said Kathy Marshburn of Vibrant Wings Butterflies in South Carolina and Texas. Marshburn, who serves as IBBA president and conference organizer, pointed to sessions on butterfly gardening, parasites and how to raise butterflies as worthy investments of beginners’ time.

Butterfly garden harvest, May 8, 2011

Getting a caterpillar to the chrysalis stage can be challenging. Come learn the tricks of the trade from the professionals. Photo by Monika Maeckle

This will be my fourth IBBA convention.   Back in 2010, I attended my first in the unlikely venue of Las Vegas.  It set me off on a learning streak.

By the end of 2011 I thought I might want to raise butterflies full-time, as a profession.  I quit my corporate marketing position, applied for USDA permits to ship butterflies to the 48 contiguous states and cultivated my membership in the IBBA.

While my fantasy of becoming a professional breeder lasted only five months (Raising butterflies is too stressful–I’d rather meet copywriting deadlines!), it has been a great investment in my butterfly education. I’ve learned an immense amount and continue to enjoy the friendship and enlightenment offered by my professional butterfly breeder friends. 

Most impressive is the amazing generosity and knowlege-sharing of this fine group of ferociously independent professionals, the majority of whom chose this career because of a sheer love of butterflies.

If you want to learn or refine your butterfly rearing or caterpillar wrangling, I strongly encourage you to check out the program.  Depending on how many sessions you attend, cost ranges from $35 to hear Dr. Chip Taylor at the keynote dinner on Saturday night to $50 for a day pass.  Or you can spring for the whole three-day conference, which includes meals, for  $95–truly a butterfly bargain.   You can register online.

Todd Stout

Todd Stout, of Raising Butterflies, will lead a “butterfly hunt” in San Antonio. Courtesy photo

The conference kicks off on Thursday with a “butterfly hunt” led by Todd Stout, of Raising Butterflies, a butterfly breeder and lepidopterist who has scouted some of the best places to see butterflies in San Antonio.

“We’re looking forward to seeing lots of butterflies, including common mestra, variegated fritillary, lysine sulphurs, sleepy orange, and dainty sulphure,” Stout relayed via email.

You can learn how to raise Monarchs and Painted Ladies, what to plant in a butterfly garden, enter “The Secret World of the Monarch Metamorphosis,” take classes on pests and parasitoids, and meet the authors of more than half a dozen books on rearing, chasing, and gardening for butterflies.   Oh, and if you’re a devotee of butterfly oriented jewelry or merchandise, don’t miss the silent auction.  Vendors of butterfly paraphernalia, breeding supplies, books and more will also be on hand during breaks.

The conference will peak on Saturday evening when Dr. Taylor addresses the group.  Taylor has been involved in Monarch conservation for decades and is synonymous with the citizen scientist tagging program which he and his team oversee each year.  He’ll tackle the complex topic of the Monarch migration in the context of climate change.

“All of us face the challenge to engage in conservation of pollinator habitat,” said Dr. Taylor by phone.  “Monarchs are the poster child and the threats to their migration are symbolic of what we’re doing to pollinators in this country–ignoring the fact that 80% of our crops require insect pollination and 70% of our vegetation, period, requires insect pollination.  We do this at our own peril.”

Hmm….is there a role in there for professional butterfly breeders?  Can’t wait to find out.

Take a look at the program.   I look forward to seeing you there.

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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.

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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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Butterfly FAQ: Is Relocating a Monarch Chrysalis OK? Yes, and Here’s Tips On How to Handle Them With Care

A common quandary when blessed with the gift of caterpillars noshing nearby is whether or not it’s safe to relocate them once they form their chrysalis.

Tom Pelletier of the Ask A Naturalist website wrote today, explaining that six gorgeous Monarch caterpillars were busy at work on a milkweed plant in a yard adjacent to a high traffic sidewalk.

“Once the chrysalis is formed, can we move each one to a safer location in our back yard? Does it matter where the butterfly emerges, i.e.  does it have to be on milkweed?”

Monarch and Queen Chrysalises taped to Kitchen Counter

How do you think these Monarch and Queen chrysalises got here? They're adhered with tape.

The answers are yes, you may relocate the creatures once they make their chrysalis, and no, the caterpillars do not need to chrysalis on milkweed.  In fact, Monarch and other chrysalises often are found as far as 30 feet from the hostplant where they ate their last meal.

Entomologists speculate that caterpillars leave their host plants to protect themselves from predators.  “Caterpillars frequently strip the plant, so to form a chrysalis on a naked plant would leave them terribly exposed,” said Mike Quinn, an entomologist and founder of the Austin Butterfly Forum.  My unscientifc theory is that caterpillars need a quiet spot to transform themselves into a completely different lifeform. Growing wings and planning your first flight must require deep concentration.

Given the above, and the high incidence of caterpillar mortality caused by birds, spiders and other predators, I would be inclined to bring those caterpillars inside to assure they have the best chance of completing their life cycle.  You can feed them milkweed leaves and keep them in a clean container, then relocate the chrysalises once they’ve formed.

Jiminy Chrysalis! Monarch and Queen Chrysalis Tree. Thank you, dental floss.

Learn more about rearing Monarch butterfly caterpillars at the Monarch Watch website.

Those of us who raise caterpillars in our kitchens and gardens have been known to use pins, tape, glue, fishing line–and dental floss, my favorite–to fasten chrysalises to twigs, coffee stirrers, chopsticks, potted plants,  even the kitchen cabinet.

Why do we do it?   To ensure their completion of the life cycle is one reason.   But it’s also one of the most rewarding aspects of “butterflying.”  To witness eclosure, the moments surrounding a butterfly’s emergence from its chrysalis, is always magical.  The only way to do that is to have the chrysalis in captivity, where you can monitor its progress and not miss the miracle of metamorphosis.

When relocating a chrysalis, keep in mind:

1.  Putting them in direct sun–a hot window, for example–can damage their development.  A bright, protected spot is best. 
 
2.  Monarchs and other species need to hang vertically so that when they eclose, gravity can assist in their wings forming properly.   Swallowtails are different.  Try to emulate the chrysalis’ natural positioning as much as possible.
 
3.  Once the butterfly emerges, it needs several hours before it can fly. If you’ve brought it in the house to watch, leave the newborn alone until its wings harden up and it starts beating them slowly.  Then you can release it outside.
 
Eastern Swallowtail and Sister Chrysalis on a Chopstick

Eastern Swallowtail Butterfly and Sister Chrysalis adhered with nontoxic glue to a Chopstick.

An excellent resource for relocating chrysalises and reattaching them without causing harm is Shady Oak Butterfly Farm.   Edith Smith, butterfly meistress, and a member of the International Butterfly Breeders’ Organization, has been raising butterflies for decades and graciously shared the useful links below.  Thank you, Edith!

1.  How to move/relocate chrysalises
2. How to adhere chrysalises with glue
3. What to do if a soft chrysalis falls
4. How to reattach a swallowtail chrysalis
 If you have butterfly questions, leave a comment below, email us at butterflybeat@gmail.com or find and like us on Facebook
 

Austin Butterfly Forum Members Share Tips on How to Raise Caterpillars, Rear them to Butterflies

For those of us who consider caterpillars in the kitchen a fact of life, Monday night’s Austin Butterfly Forum was a homecoming.  What a relief to find others as passionate about Lepidoptera as we are.  The meeting ran two hours.

Butterfly enthusiasts of all persuasions shared their passion and rearing tips with an audience of about 50, some of whom had driven from San Antonio.  Dan Hardy led with the question:  Why do we raise butterflies?

Unrealized nurturing instincts, fascination with the life cycle, a desire to contribute to conservation, an unadulterated love of Nature were among the reasons.  Basically, though, it’s fun and fascinating.

Monarch butterfly and Cecropia moth caterpillar share an apple tree stem

Monarch butterfly and Cecropia moth caterpillar share a stem -- photo by Ann Rogerson Weaver

Mark Lynn offered insights into raising Cecropia, Polyphemus and other moth species. Females can be kept in a brown paper bag until they lay their eggs, which can later be harvested into the amazing spikey caterpillars pictured above.  Then they morph into the largest native North American moth–some a half foot in wingspread–and make their way into the night.

Liz Cannady described her devotion to the Crimson Patch butterfly, a relatively uncelebrated species that hosts on flaming acanthus.  Cannady says these adorable flyers are less skittish than other species, allowing you to get up close for great photos.  In the caterpillar stage, they’re friendly and will crawl on your hands.

Crimson Patch Butterfly
Crimson Patch Butterfly

One of the most informative sections of the talk was a review of rearing containers.  Butterfly enthusiasts struggle with the “gear” required to coax eggs into caterpillars and ultimately butterflies.  We experiment with a variety of plastic containers, netted cages, aquariums, boxes and a favorite–Starbucks  grande clear plastic iced coffee cups.   Guess what?  There’s no right answer.  Appropriate containers depend on the lifestage and species of the creature, what works best for you, how much host plant you have available, and other variables.

The handy coffee plastic cups have a hole in the top meant for a straw, but  can serve as a makeshift “vase” to hold host plant cuttings upright, keeping them fresh for hungry caterpillars.  They’re also tall enough that a butterfly can eclose (hatch) in them, are readily available and easy-to-clean.

Even reknown Monarch butterfly expert Dr. Bill Calvert got in on the action, chiming in from the back row about a device for keeping butterfly host plants in good condition. The “turgerator,” modified from an idea first published by Roy Kendal, directs water under pressure into stems of plants held in place by a series of  pipes, corks and reducers. Caterpillars can freely change plants when foliage on a particular stem is eaten.  No clean-up is required and few sanitation problems result, since frass–the butterfly poop–falls to the ground, just as it does in Nature.

The Austin Butterfly Forum will stage an all-day Butterfly Rearing  workshop on Saturday, May 7 at Zilker Botanical Center in Austin, Texas.  The session runs 10 AM – 4 PM, costs $35, and will offer the basics of butterflying, identification, gardening, and caterpillar rearing tips, as well as a guided walk around Zilker garden.  The fee includes lunch and a set of butterfly nectar and host plants to get you started.  Only a few seats are left.  For more information, contact Jeff Taylor, 512.825.8368.