You Can Raise a Monarch Butterfly!

July 31, 2020 | Melanie L.

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With much of summer still ahead and few organized activities available, you may be thinking of ways to keep your kids occupied. And given that we lost a big chunk of in-school learning this year, I'm guessing that you'll give bonus points for anything that’s even remotely educational.

Without formal schooling over the last few months, I have been encouraging my eight-year-old son to follow his interests. Recently he has developed a fascination with animals and insects that has had him poring over his favourite books (the "Who Would Win?" series) and scouting the outdoors for bugs to observe.

Large Caterpillar on Milkweed
Photo by the author.

Around the end of June we started to look for monarch butterfly eggs. I knew about raising monarchs from my colleague Kellie at Malvern Branch. Kellie has been raising butterflies and teaching kids about it for years. Given my son's interest and the extra time we had, I decided that this year we would do it ourselves!

In addition to being educational, raising monarchs is a great conservation activity. Monarch populations have been steadily declining over the past few decades, prompting their designation as a "Special Concern" species here in Ontario. Fewer than 10 per cent of eggs laid in the wild live to become adult butterflies themselves. On the other hand, when raised properly by humans, a monarch's chances of survival are much greater.

So with some guidance from Kellie and a lot of research, we began our butterfly journey.

By the end of July, we had successfully raised and released two adult monarchs. Below, I have outlined some basic instructions for raising butterflies yourselves. It's not difficult but it requires time and care. And once you start, it is important to see it through to the end.

Before you start, I recommend having some additional resources on hand. You may find some of the print and ebooks listed at the end of this post useful, and there is an abundance of information online.


Eggs and Caterpillars

The first step to finding eggs is locating milkweed plants.

You can often find milkweed growing alongside fences, on the sides of roads or in ravines. Adult butterflies drink nectar from the plant’s flowers and then lay their eggs on the leaves. Milkweed leaves are the only food that monarch caterpillars eat, so before taking an egg or young caterpillar home, it's important to have a source nearby that you can use to feed your growing caterpillar.

Once you locate the milkweed, look on the undersides of the leaves. The eggs are off-white and oblong. Remove the entire leaf and take it home with you. Place it in a container on top of a damp paper towel. The paper towel will help the leaf stay fresh. A tall clear plastic deli container is perfect for this job.

Monarch eggs take only a few days to hatch. You'll be able to tell that it’s getting close when it turns grey and a dark spot appears at the top. That dark spot is actually the caterpillar’s head!

After the caterpillar hatches, it will eat the egg and then begin to eat the leaf it’s sitting on. If the leaf has already dried up, you can carefully cut a square around your caterpillar and place that square on a fresh leaf.

You should know that when it first hatches, the caterpillar is TINY. You may not even be able to find it for a few days! It's not necessary to punch air holes in the container because you will be opening it daily to provide fresh food. However, if you do wish to punch holes, make sure they are small enough that the young caterpillar cannot escape through them.

It's important to provide a supply of fresh leaves, as the growing caterpillar eats almost constantly. It can be very harmful to your caterpillar if it ever runs out of food. You may find it easiest to pick a few leaves at once and store them in a bag in the fridge.

Photo by Heather Wong. Used with permission.

You will soon start to notice little black specks at the bottom of the container and on the leaves. What is it? You guessed it — it's POOP, which is also called frass.

Make sure you clean out the frass daily, along with any dried leaves. Many people find that placing a tissue at the bottom of the container makes this task a little easier.

You will see your caterpillar getting larger and larger as the days go by. Once it is about an inch long, it's time to make some modifications to your container's lid.

The plain plastic lid will be too slippery for the adult butterfly to hold onto after it emerges from the chrysalis. The solution is to hot glue some netting and popsicle sticks to the top. As a precaution, it's also a good idea to glue some to the sides of the container to help it climb back up if it falls.

Butterfly container
Photo by the author.

Every once in a while you will notice that your caterpillar has stopped moving and you may wonder if it has died. Don't worry! Most likely your caterpillar is just getting ready to molt, which means it's about to shed its exoskeleton. This is part of growing and it happens to monarchs a total of five times, with the final molting revealing the chrysalis. You must never touch the caterpillar when it is molting.


The Chrysalis

When your caterpillar is about 10-14 days old and two inches long, it will move up to the lid of your container and stay there for some time. If you look closely, you will see that it is spinning a little silk button. This button is what the chrysalis will eventually hang from.

Next, the caterpillar will hang down from the lid in the shape of the letter J. It will be like this for approximately 14-24 hours. Eventually, it will straighten. Now you can start the chrysalis watch! Soon it will start to wiggle and shake as it sheds its exoskeleton one final time. Once it is finished, you will see a bright green chrysalis with gold flecks.


Your Amazing Butterfly!

Your caterpillar will stay in chrysalis for about 8-10 days. You will know that the butterfly will soon emerge when the chrysalis darkens and becomes transparent. You may be able to see the orange and black colours of the wings.

Often butterflies emerge first thing in the morning, so if you see that it's getting close when you're going to bed, try getting up early the next morning. It’s an amazing sight to watch! After the chrysalis cracks open, the butterfly will pop out and hang upside down from the now empty chrysalis.

The wings of your newly emerged butterfly will be small and folded up. It will take a couple hours for them to fill with fluids from the butterfly's abdomen and dry. It’s important to let the butterfly hang upside down undisturbed while this is happening.

Once it starts to flap its wings, it is getting ready to fly. You can now go outdoors and open the lid of the container. If it's not ready to fly off right away, you can place your finger out for it to hop onto. Don’t forget your camera!

You'll be able to tell if your butterfly is male or female by looking at its open wings. Male monarchs have small black dots on their hindwings. Females do not.

A male monarch butterfly on a child's shirt
A male monarch butterfly. Photo by Heather Wong. Used with permission.


Soon enough, she will be on her way to begin her journey as an adult monarch butterfly. Congratulations — you have just raised a beautiful butterfly!


Recommended Books

Monarch Butterfly
Monarch Butterfly eReadalong by Gail Gibbons


I Wish I was a Monarch Butterfly

I Wish I Was a Monarch Butterfly by Jennifer Bové


How to Raise Monarch Butterflies

How to Raise Monarch Butterflies: A Step-by-Step Guide for Kids by Carol Pasternak. Regular print only.


A Butterfly's Life Cycle

A Butterfly’s Life Cycle by Mary R. Dunn. Ebook only.


When Butterflies Cross the Sky

When Butterflies Cross the Sky: The Monarch Butterfly Migration by Sharon Katz Cooper. Ebook only.


Hello  Little One

Hello, Little One: A Monarch Butterfly Story by Zeena M. Pliska. Regular print only.


A Butterfly's Life

A Butterfly's Life by Dona Herweck Rice. Ebook only.



Want to paint your own monarch butterfly? Kids and families can learn how with artist Lesley Luxembourger from the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority. Tune in live on Friday, August 21 at 11 am for a morning of painting and learning!