Monarch Butterflies are one of our most treasured – and threatened – butterflies. The following outlines TOP Tips for raising Monarch Butterflies, particularly in Zone 6, based on natural Milkweed supply.
Migrating over 3000 miles to begin their beautiful and fascinating lifecycle, it is critical to help the Monarchs in any way we can. The use of pestisides on crops and in landscaping have led to a massive decline in the host plant, the Milkweed.
Monarch Butterfly (Danaus Plexippus) is a milkweed butterfly, meaning it MUST have milkweed to lay eggs, eat, and use the nectar from the milkweed plant. In striking orange, black and white patterns, some consider it the MOST beautiful butterfly, perhaps the King of Butterflies, rightfully earning the name “Monarch”.
With that being said, you must be able to secure an abundance of pesticide-free Milkweed plants. You can grow your own, make sure your local nursery stocks it and / or have the ability to get it from parks (usually in marsh areas).
FOUR LIFE STAGES
The Monarch transitions into four life cycles: egg, larvae, pupa and adult butterfly. The larvae voraciously feed on the Milkweed leaves, completing 5 “instars”, which develop from larvae to adulthood and grow larger, almost doubling in size, in each stage.
The female Monarch will lay her eggs on flowering Milkweed. The eggs are tiny and white. Admittingly, I have a hard time finding the eggs, but I have a weird belief system that I really need to SEE the caterpillar in order to take it in – I feel like it has a more natural way to be born and start developing, rather than begin from the eggs.
The Instar stage grows as follows:
- 1st instar, 2-6 mm
- 2nd instar, 6-9 mm
- 3rd instar, 10-14 mm
- 4th instar, 13-25 mm
- 5th instar, 25-45 mm
During the pupal stage the transformation from larva to adult is completed, which takes about 10 days to 2 weeks, depending on conditions: Warmer and humid weather tends to speed up the process.
When the adult caterpillar is ready to enter the next stage, it forms a silk button which it will hang from in a “J” position. Usually within 24 hours, the J will transform into the pupa or Chrysalis. You will know it will transform soon because it will hang almost nearly straight and the antennae will look twisted.
When I find the caterpillars, I place them in pop-up tents with fresh milkweed. I really like the tent because you can easily access what you need and it is easy to freshen up and clean. It also has one clear side panel. Bonus – most of the caterpillars end up forming a “J” and Chrysalis in the tent (they may also form on milkweed branches). Finally, they clean up great with some spray bleach and water solution.
PUPA / CHRYSALIS
When it is ready to “go” or transform from caterpillar to chrysalis, it needs to shed its skin for the fifth and final time. The skin will actually split from the head and it will wriggle around in a circular pattern for a few minutes until all of the skin falls off. It’s pretty wild. The chrysalis is an amazing shade of jade flecked with gold specks. As with the caterpillar stages, the chrysalis remains for 10 – 14 days, depending on the weather and humidity. Do not touch the chrysalis while it is still soft – it will most certainly damage the butterfly.
CAN I TOUCH THE CHRYSALIS?
You CAN handle the chrysalis if necessary. WHY? You may need to move it to a better location AFTER about 24 hours. Sometimes it forms it’s button on a weak stem, near too many others (when you’re really lucky!) or in some other precarious situation. The best way to relocate it is to CAREFULLY get all the silk and use a needle and thread to attach the uppermost parts of the silk button to it’s next home.
When the Monarch is about to eclose, or emerge from the chrysalis and become a butterfly, the green chrysalis will turn opaque to clear, where the iconic orange and black patterns of the Monarch are visibile. When it’s ready to go, the shell will split, the body will begin to fall, followed by the wings.
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After the Monarch has emerged or eclosed, it will need to dry it’s wings, usually for a couple/few hours. Especially in the first few minutes, the wings need to form and shed all moisture. Let it do it’s thing with room to move it’s wings around and form properly.
When it is flapping it’s wings and starting to move around, it is ready to fly! You can let it attach to your finger and release it. After takeoff, it usually makes a few circles around and lands nearby for a few minutes. It is a wonderful sight to see and incredibly fun, happy, joyful, satisfying.
In Summary, witnessing the amazing stages of the Monarch Butterfly are incredibly humbling. From first discovering a tiny caterpillar or egg, to watching it pupate into a Chrysalis, and finally emerge (eclose) into a beautiful butterfly, it is totally worth the time and effort.
If you have been fortunate to see it through all states, congratulations and Thank You for helping this great movement of Saving the Monarchs!
Want to learn more about Milkweed for Monarchs? Check out the post about Common Milkweed for Monarchs!
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