Welcome! If you’re hoping to raise Monarch Butterflies, I’m here to help. Last year was my first year raising Monarch Butterflies, and while I had a very successful experience, I did find it difficult to get answers to some basic questions. I’m far from an expert, but I managed to raise and release over 60 healthy Monarchs over the course of a couple months, so I must be doing something right!
Be sure to follow me on Instagram at @thetreekisser to watch me raise this year’s Monarchs! I frequently post updates on my Instagram story.
Introduction: Why Are We Raising Monarch Butterflies? Can’t Nature Handle It?
Good question. As a passionate animal advocate, I’ve always been opposed to unnecessary breeding and captivity, in almost every situation. However, the population of Monarch Butterflies has been in sharp decline- experts say numbers of Monarch Butterflies decreased by 90% in the past two decades! They clearly need our help if they’re going to recover.
Reasons for the population decline include loss of breeding habitat (humans destroying milkweed, a plant vital to the Monarch survival), lack of nectar plants (due to humans replacing native plants with agricultural products), use of pesticides, and loss of winter habitat due to illegal logging in Mexico. Basically, humans across North America have nearly destroyed these magical creatures through our overconsumption and disregard for nature.
Fortunately, many conservationists and wildlife admirers have gotten involved with the battle to save the Monarchs, primarily through planting various species of native milkweed (the Monarch’s “host plant”, aka the plant with leaves that Monarch caterpillars need to consume to survive), planting popular nectar plants, and eschewing toxic pesticides. You can find more about all of that in my more general Guide To Planting a Pollinator-Friendly Garden! If you can’t commit to raising Monarch butterflies indoors, making your garden more pollinator-friendly in general is a great start.
Key Facts About Monarch Butterflies and Migration:
Monarchs are one of the most fascinating species in the world- at least to me! They take part in one of the world’s longest migration patterns, with each generation taking responsibility for one leg of the journey. Each spring, millions of Monarchs that have overwintered in Mexico begin flying North, arriving in Texas and other Southern U.S. states. This typically is when they lay eggs that become the next generation.
Once the new generation is born, they’ll continue the trip North, breeding and traveling until they arrive in Canada. As summer comes to an end, the last generation prepares for the long journey back from Canada and Northern U.S. states all the way to Mexico, where they hunker down for another winter. It’s mind boggling how complicated this process is, yet they do it every year!
Monarchs only lay eggs on Milkweed plants, because their caterpillars need it to survive. Milkweed contains a thick white sap (hence the name “milk” weed) that is toxic to many predators, which is why it’s so beneficial to Monarchs. Monarch caterpillars consume the leaves and thus the toxic sap, which their bodies are able to tolerate perfectly well. If a bird or another predator eats them, that animal gets sick, and learns not to eat Monarchs anymore (apologies for this simplistic explanation of how evolution works). Their toxicity is the Monarch’s key strategy for survival.
Basic Steps For Raising Monarch Butterflies:
Step 1: Plant milkweed in your yard or garden. Choose native, perennial species for best results (click here to discover which milkweed species are right for your area). You can start them from seeds, but they take quite a while to grow big and tall, so unless you want to wait a couple years, I recommend starting with some plants. Be sure to source your milkweed from a pesticide-free nursery (avoid Home Depot, Lowes, etc.), or online through Prairie Moon!
Step 2: Wait for the eggs. If you’re lucky, and if you’re in the migration path, at least one Monarch Butterfly will find your yard and deposit eggs onto your plants! In my experience, the females usually deposit eggs on the bottom of the milkweed leaves as opposed to on top, but there will always be exceptions. Ideally you’ll witness the Monarch laying her eggs, allowing you to collect them quickly (before any parasites are able to get to them).
As soon as you start seeing Monarchs (if not sooner) and therefore believe you’ll be getting some eggs, I recommend ordering at least one enclosure. I bought quite a few different ones last year, and found the sturdiest to be these ones:
My preferred Monarch enclosure, currently $13.95 on Amazon
If you shop around, you’ll see some smaller ones, but I found those to be problematic for numerous reasons. They just aren’t really roomy enough, which is definitely something you’ll care about as things get more complicated!
Step 3: Collect the eggs. I typically do this by using scissors to cut off leaves that the eggs are on. If you’re low on milkweed supply and don’t want to remove entire leaves, you can simply cut around the egg (carefully!) and remove a small piece of leaf. I store the leaves (and eggs) in a container with a moist towel at the bottom.
*Note: Once the eggs are inside, be sure to switch to non-toxic (cruelty-free!) cleaning products. My favorites are found through Grove Collaborative (use this link to have a rad free gift set added to your cart!)
Step 4: Wait for the eggs to hatch! In about 4 days, the eggs should hatch! You’ll know they’re about ready when a little black dot appears at the top (that’s the caterpillar’s head). The newly hatched caterpillars will be so small, you may barely be able to see them with your eyes. The first thing they’ll do is turn around and eat the remainder of the egg from which they hatched. Because nature is weird and awesome.
Step 5: Set them up in a safe enclosure. Honestly, you’ll discover your best enclosure setup through trial and error. The most important thing is to ensure that they don’t escape! The second most important thing is to make sure they have a constant source of fresh food (milkweed leaves). Some people choose to put potted plants in their enclosures, some prefer to take trimmings from healthy milkweed plants in their yards. Just make sure everything is sturdy (you may want to put a rock or brick inside so it never tips over).
Note: Caterpillars poop a lot. You may want to line the enclosure with newspaper or paper towels to make them easier to clean. You do need to clean them out on occasion to stop the spread of potential disease!
Step 6: Watch them grow! Caterpillars go through five stages of growth, known as “instars.” Between each stage, they’ll shed off their old skin (and sometimes eat it) while stretching into their new, larger body. Some people are really good at identifying which instar a caterpillar is currently in, but I’m not one of those people. It’s so much fun to watch them grow and change; what begins as a microscopic teeny tiny thing will soon be a chubby, hungry 1.5 – 2 inch long beast! This whole process takes about two weeks.
Step 7: Separate into different enclosures, if needed. This will really depend on how many caterpillars you have, and whether or not they’re growing at the same rate. Bigger cats tend to get territorial over food, and I personally *hate* watching them fight (though I’ve never seen one get badly hurt), so I try to give them as much space as possible. The fewer you have in each enclosure, the less stressful it is when they start J-ing (more on that below).
Step 8: Get ready to have your mind blown by nature as your caterpillars pupate into chrysalises! Once your cats are full grown, you’ll notice that they suddenly stop eating, and begin climbing upwards! They’re looking for the perfect place to spin their silk mat to secure their space. Eventually, once they settle on a spot (this can happen quickly or, in my experience, take up to a full day), they’ll begin making little circles back and forth, spinning their silk behind them. Once that’s done, they attach their prolegs to the silk and hang upside down in a “J” shape.
While they’re in “J”, it’s extremely important not to bump them, knock them, or let other caterpillars disturb them too much. During this phase, they are extremely vulnerable to injury. They’ll hang in J for about 24 hours, after which they’ll shed their final skin (it’s the weirdest thing to watch) and slowly wriggle it off of themselves. You’ll know this is about to happen because their skin looks a little dark and wrinkly, and their antennae look limp and every shriveled sometimes.
Once they’ve shed their exoskeleton, they’ll look like a pale green and yellow mushy sack for a few hours as their exterior hardens. Once it’s a solid green color with flecks of gold at the top, the chrysalis is fully formed.
Step 9: Wait patiently for up to 2 weeks until the adult Monarch Butterfly emerges! After about two weeks (sometimes less, especially if weather is warm), you’ll be able to start seeing the pattern of Monarch wings peek through the chrysalis. This pattern will get darker and more vibrant as the exterior becomes transparent. By the time your Monarch butterfly is ready to emerge, he/she will look like a neatly rolled up butterfly in a bag.
At this point, you won’t want to look away for a moment, because the butterfly will eclose (emerge from the chrysalis) very quickly. At first, they’ll be wet and winkled. Be careful not to knock them down, as it’s very possible to injure their wings that way. For the next 30 minutes or so, they’ll be hard at work pumping fluid into their wings until they’re strong and stiff. Don’t be alarmed if you see a bit of brownish/reddish liquid drop from them, it’s just the meconium (metabolic waste built up while inside the chrysalis).
It’ll take at least a few hours before the butterflies are strong enough to be released. They require sunny weather to really get going, so if it’s a stormy day, you can keep them overnight. Most will not eat anything for the first 24 hours anyway. Try to release them in the early part of the day to give them as much time as possible to acclimate to the world!
Step 10: Rinse and repeat! Depending on where you live, you might see multiple generations in one summer. Last year, one of the females from the first generation I raised came back and laid her eggs on the same milkweed she herself had been laid on! I thoroughly cleaned out all the enclosures and began the whole process once again. After you go through it once, you’ll be addicted, I promise.
Random thoughts and pieces of advice for raising Monarch Butterflies:
- Join at least one Monarch Facebook group. I like Monarchs and Milkweed. It’s full of people doing the exact same thing, and for me it was a lifeline any time I had concerns or questions.
- This may vary from region to region, but my caterpillars preferred Swamp Milkweed and Common Milkweed over Butterflyweed. They were only willing to eat Butterflyweed if they were started on it as soon as they hatched, and didn’t have access to other leaves. They’ll happily transfer from Butterflyweed to other milkweed, they just won’t do it the other way. Because of that, if supply is a concern, I like to start at least some of them on Butterflyweed at the beginning, and move to other leaves once the Butterflyweed has run out! I did notice that the caterpillars raised on Butterflyweed seemed to grow more slowly, however, so if you have an abundance of other milkweed options, feel free to go with those.
- If they J in a precarious location (on the zipper of the enclosure, for example), don’t try to move them. They’ve already spun their silk and won’t be able to redo it. Allow them to shed their skin and form the chrysalis, after which you can relocate them (give them at least 24 hours to harden up).
- While you shouldn’t keep the chrysalises in direct sunlight or extreme heat, you should definitely try to keep them warm (i.e.: not in a room with cold air conditioning). It helps them develop more quickly.
- Caterpillars love eating milkweed flowers and seed pods! Just be forewarned that this will change the color of their poop.
- Do a bit of research on O.E., or Ophryocystis elektroscirrha. This is a contagious parasite that affects eggs in some areas, resulting in deformed/sick adult butterflies. I didn’t experience any of this last year, but a lot of people in the Monarch Facebook group did. The earlier you can collect the eggs the better, and some people even bleach the eggs for extra precaution.
- Have so much fun!!!
I will likely be adding to this post throughout the next month, as I go through the experience again with my current six eggs. No doubt there are things I forgot to mention that I’ll rediscover in the coming weeks! Feel free to come back and leave questions as you raise your own, I’ll do my best to answer!