About a decade ago, my husband gave up the arduous task of mowing the grass on the steep hill that runs the length of our property. Instead, we killed the grass and planted native prairie. Since then, other flowers and plants have blown in on the wind or were brought in by pollinators. One of those is milkweed – the staple food of monarch caterpillars.
Every year, my kids and I watch eagerly for caterpillars to inhabit our milkweed. We always find a few, and within a day or two, they vanish, presumably eaten by other bugs. This year, I decided to take the matter out of Mother Nature’s hands and raise the caterpillars into butterflies myself. I had no idea what a passion it would become!
Monarchs are in dire need of human intervention. Their numbers have been dramatically decreasing – declining 80% in the past 20 years. The population is now far too low for comfort – meaning an early winter storm during their migration has the potential to wipe out the entire species. The plight of the honeybee is one with which you may be more familiar, and the monarch, as a fellow pollinator, has also suffered harm as a result of environmental change, pesticide use, and habitat loss. So what can you do to help ensure monarchs are around for future generations?
1. Do provide more space than a jar.
While it used to be commonplace for Monarch caterpillars to be raised in jars, we’ve since learned more about their needs. More space equals bigger caterpillars, and bigger caterpillars equal bigger monarchs. Bigger monarchs are more likely to survive in the wild, especially if they’re amongst the late summer butterflies to migrate to the fir forests of Mexico. Fortunately, there are a lot of inexpensive options for butterfly tents. You’ll need two separate spaces – one for developing caterpillars, and one for butterflies. Mixing the two increases the risk that your caterpillars will contract a dangerous parasite. For more about that, read on!
2. Do keep their habitat clean.
Raising monarchs isn’t rocket science. If you follow basic principles of cleanliness, your monarchs’ survival rate is likely to reach 80-95%, far exceeding the meager 2-10% of monarchs that survive to become butterflies in the wild. It’s important to remove the caterpillars’ poop (called frass) from their dwelling at least once a day. Otherwise, you may expose your caterpillars to ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE), a debilitating protozoan parasite that infects monarchs.
3. Do read up on monarchs.
Monarchs are fascinating creatures. They go through five stages of growth, called instars, marked by molts. After the fifth molt, the caterpillar hangs upside down from a silk pad and transforms into a green chrysalis. After 7-14 days, a monarch butterfly emerges. There is so much more to learn about them, and while it may not be essential to raising them, it will make the project more fun and successful. A great source for reliable information about monarchs is Monarch Watch. Raising monarchs and learning about them can be fun for the whole family. You can even provide monarch coloring pages for your little ones to make them feel included.
4. Don’t raise monarchs if you don’t have access to milkweed and nectar flowers.
You’ll need a lot of food for caterpillars, and that means a reliable source of pesticide-free milkweed. Female butterflies will only lay their eggs on milkweed; there are over 100 species, so know which ones do well in your particular area. The Very Hungry Caterpillar book by Eric Carle was no exaggeration! One monarch caterpillar can eat an entire milkweed plant in the 10-14 days before it turns into a chrysalis. Don’t forget about adult butterflies, too. When you release your monarchs, they will want nectar-producing flowers.
5. Don’t raise monarchs completely inside.
Monarchs are being studied all the time. While yet inconclusive, current research indicates that monarchs raised without the normal day/night cycles and exposure to varying temperatures may not migrate as well as monarchs raised in the wild. That said, eggs, caterpillars, chrysalides, and butterflies shouldn’t be left in the direct, hot sun where they can overheat and die. So move your tents around your yard as needed, or keep them in a three-season porch.
Hopefully, this information has made you feel excited about helping monarchs! Who knows – maybe you’ll even become a crazy butterfly lady (or man) like me!