Thursday, August 13, 2009

LOOK FOR: Monarch caterpillars (and raise them!)

monarch caterpillar
The life cycle of a monarch butterfly is pretty amazing. And you can not only watch, but be a part of helping to make it happen.

Over the summer months in our area, there are multiple generations of monarchs. Adults mate and then lay their eggs on the leaves of milkweed plants. Caterpillars hatch from the eggs and proceed to devour as much milkweed as possible for the next two weeks or so of their lives, shedding their skin several times as they grow.

When they're ready, the monarch caterpillars will look for a good place to pupate, attach themselves upside down with a strong mass of silk threads, and shed their skins one more time. Their next skin hardens into a beautiful chrysalis, like jade decorated with sparkling gold.

Inside the chrysalis, the monarch pupa takes another two weeks or so to transform into a butterfly. The night before it is ready to hatch, you can see the butterfly inside: the chrysalis looks as if it has turned from green to black.

Early in the morning, the butterfly will split open its chrysalis, crawl out, and hang from the empty shell. It must pump fluid into its wings before they will stretch out to their full size. Here's a video we made a few years ago of the whole process as it took place in our kitchen:

Want to try your hand at it? To find caterpillars to raise, look for milkweed. Try looking along roadsides, the edges of playgrounds, or other "waste" places. Remember the caterpillars can be very small when they first hatch. They're probably trying to hide from you and the birds -- look on the undersides of leaves.

Before you bring any caterpillars home, make sure your schedule will allow you to replenish their food supply (milkweed leaves) every day or two. The leaves need to be kept fresh -- the best way seems to be picking whole stems and keeping them in water like cut flowers. We usually do this in a jar with holes poked in the lid, so the caterpillars can't fall into the water (we've drowned a few).

Your caterpillars will be so intent on eating that you don't have to do anything to cage them until the end of their larvaehood. But when they're ready to pupate, they will wander. We put ours in a small aquarium, and they attach themselves to the sides or the screen on top. You can also get a container made especially for raising butterflies.

Report back and let us know how it goes -- or share your own tips for raising butterflies!



Anonymous said...

Hi Elizabeth,

Thanks for reminding me about this. I definitely want to do this with my students at the beginning of the year. If you happen to find any extra caterpillars please hold on to them.


mattandeliz said...

Anyone else have some caterpillars to share with Patrick's high school environmental science class? We've got some promising-looking eggs, but no caterpillars yet...

Karen said...

One of my caterpillars had wandered, I pulled him off the cabinet, not realizing he had attached himself. Now he's unattached and going through the sloughing skin you think he can get it all the way off while lying on the ground? Is there anything I can do now that I've messed up his little life cycle?

mattandeliz said...

They do need to be hanging up to go through metamorphosis properly (otherwise wings might be deformed), but you can glue up a chrysalis to mimic the way it would have hung. So, if your caterpillar manages to shed its skin and form a chrysalis, I'd try this:

Good luck!

Anonymous said...

When I was a little girl we did this every August. I would find the chrysalis and tie a string ever so carefully around the ent then tape the string to a board in my bedroom. I woke up to a new butterfly almost every morning. When their wings were done I would carefully put them on my long braids and go down to breakfast. Afer spending just a little time with them in the house I could go outside where they would take flight. Often times they would fly off and come back to land on my head or braids. I know this sounds crazy but I did it year after year. My father would just stand in the yard and the butterflies would come and land on his hand. I am so excited because I found a whole bunch of catipillars and I am going to try and do this again with my son. Aloha.

Anonymous said...

I just found thousand of caterpillers on my grandparents milk weed. I took two of them and grabbed some milkweed leaves,and I guess I should have grabbed a stalk and put it in water. But one of my cater pillers was tring to get to one of the leaves, and climbed over my other caterpiller. But when it touched the caterpiller, my other cater piller struck at it, it looked like it was bitting my caterpiller! Was it bitting?

Elizabeth | The Natural Capital said...

I don't know if they bite each other, but we've definitely seen them wrestle for position!

Anonymous said...

We "raised" monarchs several years in a row when our children were young. I was always amazed at the quantity of leaves the caterpillars ate - and, of course, the resulting quantity of monarch poop! Every year we were spellbound watching the process. Thank you for posting your great video.

Elizabeth | The Natural Capital said...

yes, before you adopt any caterpillars it is key that you know where you will get your milkweed from, because they do eat a lot! In addition to the milkweed in our yard, there's a small field of milkweed behind a school down the street from us so we've got a great set-up. But I have only seen a few monarchs this year, and so far no caterpillars. I wonder if they'll be more plentiful now that our drought has broken?

Anonymous said...

We brought caterpillars inside for a number of years when my children were little. We had a huge plastic pretzel bucket with plenty of room for all the milkweed leaves and a branch for them to hang from. Every year it seemed like a miracle!

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