Raising monarch butterflies is a fun, easy, and educational experience that you can easily do with kids in the summer! You can give your kids the opportunity to witness the lifecycle of a butterfly in real life , which gets them out in nature and is a great STEM activity (and it’s pretty cool for adults to watch too!).
Last year, our family attended the Indian Creek Nature Center Monarch Fest, where we adopted a caterpillar. While we intended to adopt and raise the one caterpillar, we ended up releasing 30 butterflies last summer!
The supplies needed to raise a monarch caterpillar into a butterfly are very minimal.
Really, all you need is a container with a lid that will be large enough to hold some milkweed leaves and for the butterfly to eat, and has enough space for the butterfly to hang its wings from. The soup containers that you get in twin packs at club stores are perfect. Just wash and save them after enjoying the soup! The only other main supplies you need are paper towels, and a source of fresh, clean milkweed. You can pull leaves from a plant and store them in a plastic bag in the refrigerator, and they will keep for a week. Wrap the stem of the leaf in a wet paper towel and place in your container for the caterpillar to enjoy. Replace as the leaves are eaten or if they dry out.
Monarch caterpillars only eat milkweed. There are many different varieties of milkweed, but the one most people can most easily recognize is common milkweed. It can be found growing in ditches, in gardens, and along trails aplenty. If you decide to go searching for milkweed either to feed your caterpillar or to collect eggs on, it may be best to do this without small ones. Make sure that it is not treated with pesticides. Also beware of other plants that could be near the milkweed (such as poison ivy or other plants that can be irritants). Be sure to apply bug spray and protect yourselves from ticks.
Taking care of the caterpillar
Female monarchs lay their eggs on the underside of the leaves of the milkweed plants, you can find them by turning the leaves over and looking for the small, oblong shaped eggs. The eggs are very tiny – about 1/2 the size of a grain of rice. After a few days, the top of the egg will turn dark (this is the caterpillar’s head) an the caterpillar will hatch. When it hatches, it’s about the size of a grain of rice. It eats its egg shell and begins munching on milkweed.
The caterpillar (technical name = larva) will munch milkweed for ~ 2 weeks. As the caterpillar grows, you’ll need to dump the frass (caterpillar poop) and replace the milkweed. During this time, it will shed its skin (called molting) 5 times. The 5th shed is actually when the chrysalis emerges (called pupation). The chrysalis (pupa) will sit for 1.5 weeks. The day before the butterfly emerges (called eclosure), the chrysalis cuticle becomes transparent. At this point, you can see the butterfly’s dark black and orange wings underneath the cuticle.
The next morning, you will have a butterfly!
Once the butterfly ecloses, the wings are very small and folded, and its body is large. The butterfly will hang from its remaining chrysalis cuticle as its wings expand and its abdomen narrows. It is important to have a piece of netting or paper towel in your container. While the caterpillar could cling to slippery surfaces, butterflies cannot.
After the butterfly has had a few hours to allow its wings to expand, you can take it outside and set it free. My children love to let the butterflies sit on their fingers before they take off into the sky! It also makes for an adorable photo op to commemorate your experience. You could have your kids keep journals to take notes and draw photos of the caterpillar as it goes through the lifecycle. You can teach them about the technical terms I’ve mentioned above, and have older children do their own research. Another great way to support the monarch population is to plant pollinator friendly native plants in your garden!
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