Have you noticed more monarch butterflies around here recently? Though they’ve experienced a steady decline in population over the past few years, this year many have reported seeing them more frequently, and you can too now that they are migrating through Illinois to Mexico. My kids have certainly noticed and that lead to an unplanned, yet fun and informative science project as we raised monarch caterpillars and released them as butterflies. I assure you that can do it without any prior experience, but if this post doesn’t convince you of that, at least enjoy this short video I made of the monarchs as we raised them.
There is no need to buy a special kit, because you likely have access to everything they need. I upcycled an old beta fish bowl into a monarch habitat. Any enclosure large enough for the butterfly to literally spread its wings is fine. It also needs a secure mesh top. I lined the bottom with paper towels for easy cleaning up of frass (poop) and put a stick in there large enough to prop up on the edges because the caterpillars like to climb. And climb they will. I once left the lid slightly ajar and one crawled out onto my kitchen cabinets!
Monarch caterpillars exclusively feed on milkweed, which means two things that make things simple. First is that if you are looking for caterpillars, you need to look no further that milkweed, especially the undersides of the leaves. Secondly it means that all you need to provide the growing caterpillars is a fresh supply of milkweed. Milkweed is easy to spot with practice and soon you will see them all over, especially on country roads just outside of town, in open fields and in ravines. To collect the caterpillars, rip the leaf it’s on from the stem of the plant, and place the leaf in the habitat.
We found mature caterpillars, so we only fed them for about two days before they pupated, which happens usually between ten and fourteen days old. During that time they are eating machines and will molt four times as they grow larger, which we didn’t get to see. When it is about to form a chrysalis, it will climb to the top of the habitat, form a silk button, attach its rear to it and hang upside down like a “j” for about 14 hours. Then it will straighten out and appear to unzip its skin from the back of it’s head, revealing the green pupa. It will stick out its cremaster which is like a small black stick to attach to the top to hang. Witnessing this, it very much reminded me of the hard work and beauty of birth and the chrysalis that hangs is like a gold-studded pendant.
The monarch will stay enclosed in the chrysalis for between one and two weeks, then it will emerge in just about a minute. Unfortunately, I never got to see this. Once, I was taking pictures of one chrysalis and after I uploaded them, I came back to find the butterfly was already out! At first the wings seem crumpled, but the monarch will pump them with fluid and be able to fully expand them. After about half an hour, it is ok to handle your butterfly for a photo opp! Within a couple hours, the butterfly is ready to head back into nature. That was a peaceful moment. The kids and I felt proud that we did our small part in increasing the threatened monarch population, even if only by two.
Celina Trujillo has lived in Urbana since 1998, when she started attending the University of Illinois. Three degrees and one job later, she recently decided to put it all on hold to start homeschooling and homemaking full-time. Her blog, Squawks of a Mama Bird,records the learning process of this unexpected new adventure for her family.