How to Raise Monarch Butterfly Caterpillars
We all love seeing monarch butterflies fluttering around in the spring and summer. Have you ever considered raising your own, though, and putting more butterflies out into the world?
That’s right. You absolutely can raise monarch butterflies and release them into the wild once they’re full-grown.
Read on to learn all the ins and outs of raising these beautiful butterflies, as well as some key reasons why you might want to do so.
Why Raise Monarch Butterflies?
Why would someone want to raise monarch butterflies? Here are a few reasons to take up this fun and rewarding hobby:
Monarchs Are Endangered
To be more precise, monarch butterflies are in danger of becoming endangered.
Monarch butterflies are not on the federal government’s official list of endangered species yet. However, the population throughout the world is declining rapidly.
In fact, the number of monarch butterflies reached historic lows in 2020. In California, alone, fewer than 2,000 were counted, which is far less than the 30,000 that were documented the year before.
By raising your own monarch butterfly caterpillars and releasing them into the wild, you’ll be supporting a struggling species and helping them to stay afloat (no pun intended) in nature.
Raising Monarchs Supports Other Endangered Animals
Monarch butterflies are pollinators. They might not be as efficient as bees, but they still do a great job of moving pollen from one plant to another.
Like bees, these butterflies play a critical role in the planet’s ecosystem. When they pollinate other plants, they create supportive environments for other animals, including those that are endangered.
The following are just some of the animal species that are conserved when monarchs are free to fly about and do their job:
Monarch butterflies also play a key role in pollinating the plants that help a variety of insects to survive and thrive.
Monarchs Support Our Food System
Pollinators like monarchs support human food systems, too. When they’re allowed to fly around and freely pollinate various plants, they promote clean air and healthy soil, both of which are needed to grow all kinds of crops, including those we eat.
Experts estimate that pollinators are responsible for approximately one of every three bites of food we eat. They also increase the country’s crop values by over $15 billion.
There are fewer pollinators in the world than ever before. If they go completely extinct, that would be a disaster for our food system, wouldn’t it? Don’t you want to contribute to the solution?
Monarchs Are Beautiful
Finally, monarchs are beautiful animals. Why wouldn’t you want to see more of them flying around and enhancing the view in your neighborhood and local parks?
By raising monarch butterfly caterpillars, you can put more stunning monarch butterflies into the world and do your part to make it a nicer-looking (and not to mention healthier) place.
What Supplies Do You Need?
Before you decide to raise monarchs, it’s a good idea to get clear on the specific equipment needed to raise them properly.
Here’s a list of items to collect to give your monarch caterpillars everything they need to grow into strong, healthy butterflies:
- Milkweed seeds or cuttings (this is the prime food source for monarch caterpillars)
- Mesh caterpillar cages (these prevent your caterpillars from escaping and keeps them safe from potential predators)
- Cage cleaning supplies (bleach for disinfecting, disinfectant wipes, a keyboard vacuum for cleaning up droppings, etc.)
- Floral tubes (to hold milkweed cuttings for easy caterpillar feeding)
Of course, you’ll also need monarch caterpillar eggs to get the process started.
In an ideal world, everyone would get their monarch caterpillar eggs on milkweed leaves (where monarch butterflies lay them) that you grow yourself or find in the wild. If you’ve already been growing milkweed (or will be just starting out with New Leaves milkweed), start looking under the leaves to see if you can find any eggs.
If this isn’t realistic for you, you can also order monarch caterpillar eggs from online suppliers. Just be sure to do your research to find a supplier that ships to your area.
How to Raise Monarch Butterfly Caterpillars
Now, let’s get into the meat of the matter: How to raise monarch butterflies.
These steps will help you overcome common obstacles and ensure you raise healthy caterpillars that turn into healthy butterflies:
Learn the Stages of Caterpillar Development
You’ll have a much easier time keeping caterpillars alive and helping them grow into butterflies if you first understand the different life stages caterpillars go through.
Here’s a breakdown of the 4 caterpillar development stages:
- Egg (Typically lasts 3-4 days)
- Larva/Caterpillar (Typically lasts 10-14 days)
- Pupa/Chrysalis (Typically lasts 10-14 days)
- Adult (Adults typically live for 2-6 weeks)
From egg to adult, it takes about one month to raise monarch butterflies. They’re most often born in the spring and summer months when the weather starts to warm up.
Gather All Supplies (Especially Milkweed Plants)
First, make sure you have all your supplies on hand. Use the list outlined above as a guide to ensure you have everything you need before you begin.
It’s especially important to get your milkweed plants ready to go (6-10 mature plants are a good starting point). Once your caterpillars hatch, they will be hungry, and they’re known for going through a lot of milkweed plants.
Wait for Eggs to Hatch
Once you’ve got your eggs, either because you found them or because they were delivered to you, your next job is to keep them in a humid environment and wait for them to hatch.
The eggs typically hatch about 3-4 days after they’ve been laid, so you won’t have to wait too long. Keep an eye on them so you can start feeding your caterpillars right away.
Rinse the Milkweed Thoroughly
When you’re giving your caterpillars milkweed leaves, be sure to rinse them thoroughly. This ensures they’re not consuming any pesticides or other toxins. It also provides them with extra hydration.
Keep the Milkweed Coming
Provide milkweed cuttings in floral tubes rather than just dropping leaves into the cage. This makes it easy for you to prevent the leaves from drying out. It also gives the caterpillars access to plenty of fuel (remember, each caterpillar will consume about 20 large leaves).
Maintain Stable Temperatures
Monarch caterpillars can be raised outside as long as the low temperatures are above freezing and the daytime high temperatures are above 65-70 degrees Fahrenheit. If this isn’t the case in your area, you can move them inside.
Separate Caterpillars by Size
As the caterpillars start to grow, separate them by size. This protects smaller caterpillars from being eaten by larger ones (yikes!).
Clean the Cage Daily and Don’t Let it Get Overcrowded
Clean out the caterpillar cage each day. This is where a keyboard vacuum comes in very handy, as it makes it much easier for you to remove droppings.
While you’re cleaning the cage, move the caterpillars to a separate cage or another enclosure so they don’t crawl away.
Never Touch a Chrysalis
When you see a chrysalis form (typically at the top of the cage), it’s normal to be excited. Whatever you do, though, don’t touch it.
This is the most fragile point in the caterpillar life cycle. You don’t want to accidentally disrupt it and harm the caterpillar, do you?
Let Newborn Butterflies Dry Outside
When the newborn butterflies start to emerge from their chrysalises, move the cage outside (if it wasn’t out there already) so the wings can air dry. If their wings are wet when they’re released, they’re less likely to survive.
How to Release Monarch Butterflies
Once your butterflies have started to hatch, you’ll need to make a plan for releasing them. As you’re preparing for the big release, keep these tips in mind to ensure you’re setting them free in the right conditions:
- Make sure the day’s high temperature is below 65° F (or 60°F if it’s sunny and calm outside
- Light rain is fine, but only if the butterflies have had a chance to dry their wings for a day or so)
- Release butterflies within 4 hours or more of a storm; this gives them plenty of time to find a safe place
Remember, you don’t have to release your butterflies the day they’ve emerged from the chrysalis. In fact, their wings are often stronger on day 2. This gives them a greater chance of escaping predators and living a long, healthy life.
If you need to feed your adult butterflies for a day or so, you can serve them fresh-cut nectar flowers, fruit slices, or honey water. Make sure anything you serve is at room temperature, as butterflies are sensitive to the cold.
Start Raising Monarch Butterfly Caterpillars Today
Now that you know the ins and outs of how to raise a monarch butterfly swarm, it’s time to get to work. Follow the steps outlined above and you’ll be ready to release your butterflies in no time.
Need plants to feed your monarch caterpillars? We sell a wide variety, including Butterfly Milkweed. Head to our online shop today to place your order.
Image source: Unsplash