We all know and love the iconic monarch butterfly. Recently we learned that monarch numbers were declining. Ever since then, we’ve been on a mission at our house to help save the monarch butterflies. We are having so much fun watching them grow and caring for the monarch caterpillars so they can transform into those beautiful butterflies and start the life cycle all over again.
In this blog post, I will share with you how you and your kids can help save the monarchs, what to expect and what you need, as well as what we have learned about caring for them and what tweaks we’ve made to help them survive around our house. Your kids will love being a part of the process of helping these baby caterpillars make their big transformation.
Monarchs are Endangered and Need Our Help to Survive
Although not officially listed as endangered, it is well-known that monarchs (and specifically their great migration) are decreasing in numbers. Due to habitat loss and loss of their food source, monarchs, like many other species of animals, are struggling to survive in large numbers.
You can find more about the status of monarchs being protected by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service here.
Monarchs only eat milkweed. Due to heavy development and clearing of nature, milkweed is fewer and farther in between these days. If the monarchs cannot find milkweed, they cannot survive.
Simple Ways You (and Your Kids) Can Help Save the Monarchs
You can help save the monarchs by simply planting a small milkweed patch in your yard. Check your local garden centers, pick up a few milkweed plants and plant them in your yard. You may start to notice monarchs visiting your plants, and you’ll feel great about knowing you’re helping the species to survive. We’ll talk about how you can get more hands on in the life-cycle of monarchs below.
Limiting the use of pesticides in your garden will also help save the monarchs.
How the Monarch Butterfly Life-Cycle Works
My kids love watching the monarch life cycle unfold right before our eyes, time and time again. It starts with a little white spec. These are the eggs that a monarch has laid on the milkweed plant. They lay them on milkweed because that is their only food source, so their young need to be there to survive after they “hatch” from their egg.
The monarch egg take 3 to 8 days to hatch into a caterpillar. When they do hatch, they are so tiny. Often times, we don’t even notice the tiniest caterpillars on our milkweed plants until they have been there a while, growing a little larger. These babies eat the milkweed leaves, and you can normally track down when you have caterpillars because of the holes and missing pieces of leaves on your milkweed plants.
In about 10 days to 2 weeks, the caterpillars will be very large. They will find a spot and begin to hang, then transform into their chrysalis there.
We once read that 2 weeks later the butterfly would hatch, but we have been tracking our chrysalides and each has hatched right around the 10 day mark after forming its chrysalis.
The day before the butterfly hatches, we start to notice the chrysalis becoming translucent. It’s a quite visible change, as you can begin to see the wings through the chrysalis.
The day of hatching, you might be alarmed at first because the chrysalis appears to turn totally black. Don’t let this scare you, this is just more of the process of it becoming translucent. This is the time when you want to watch it closely, it’s about to hatch!
When the monarch butterfly hatches from it’s chrysalis, it actually partially eats it’s way out. If you’re close by and watching, you’ll notice part of it’s body closely resembles it’s former life as a caterpillar. You’ll also notice it’s wings look small or bunched up. Yours would be too if you had been packed into that tiny chrysalis! They need time to slowly stretch out.
After a little while, the monarch will stretch out it’s wings and begin flapping them. It will hang upside down for a few hours until it’s wings are dry. Then, don’t be alarmed, but the monarch will expel a red liquid called meconium. This is a completely natural occurrence (just like our own babies, actually). Meconium is the leftover part of the caterpillar that was not needed to make the butterfly. It is stored in the intestine of the butterfly and expelled after the butterfly emerges.
After a few hours of drying it’s wings and beginning to practice moving them, the monarch is off and on it’s way to eat nectar and reproduce to start the cycle all over again.
What We’ve Learned About Caring for Monarch Butterflies
When we purchased our first milkweed patch our intention was to be as hands-off in the monarch’s life-cycle as possible. We simply wanted to do our part to help conserve the species, and be spectators in the process. However, we learned that a little bit of intervention has become necessary to help them make the full transformation into butterflies.
When it comes to raising monarch butterflies, as you read above, they hatch, eat, eat, eat, eat, make a chrysalis, and then hatch into a butterfly. It’s pretty simple and nature just magically takes its course. However, when we were tracking our caterpillars outside and finding where they chose to form their chrysalides, we were sad to find that all of them kept getting destroyed.
Within hours of forming a chrysalis, they were getting eaten in half or ripped down and squashed on the sidewalk, half eaten. Not cool, not cool at all. I haven’t proven this theory, but I suspect lizards (possibly skinks) were the culprit. I see those around a lot in the area where our milkweed is.
While I have read that the caterpillars natural defense is that they taste like milkweed which apparently has a toxic taste to most predators, it seems something was not afraid to take a bite out of the chrysalides (at least around here).
So after watching several of them get destroyed, we decided to intervene. Turns out, we visited a local farm recently where they are doing the same thing because of the same problem. So now, we keep an eye on the caterpillars and once they get pretty large where we know they’ll be making a chrysalis soon, we bring them inside and continue to feed them fresh milkweed leaves. They make their chrysalis inside, and we keep it safe.
Other alternatives to this are to enclose your milkweed patch itself with some sort of small wire mesh, or I’ve seen some people tie a mesh bag around the branch or area where the chrysalis is formed outside, until it hatches.
That is why you see all of our chrysalis pictures are inside a mesh enclosure.
What You Need to Start Your Butterfly Garden and Help Save the Monarchs
All you need to start your own butterfly garden is:
- Milkweed plants (read more about these below). I recommend getting at least 3-5, even if you start with small plants that will grow large. The leaves grow back quickly, but when there are multiple growing caterpillars on your plants, they get eaten up fast.
- Butterfly enclosure. You will need this if you plan to bring the large caterpillars inside like we do, to protect their chrysalis. Or, we saw at the farm we visited recently that they keep their outside in a small tank with a wire mesh lid on it. So it doesn’t necessarily have to be inside, just some form of protection for them. Our kids love watching the process, so we keep ours inside.
This butterfly garden actually comes with a coupon to order a “cup of caterpillars”. We did this (back before we got introduced to monarchs). It was fun as an introduction, to watch the caterpillars eat and grow inside the cup, and then hatch from their chrysalis inside the enclosure. However, they are a different species of butterfly. I believe they are painted ladies, but I could be wrong. Their chrysalis looks different, too, it’s a tan/brown color and definitely not as pretty as the monarch chrysalis.
Milkweed Vs. Giant Milkweed
On our first trip to a local garden center to purchase milkweed plants, we happened upon a very nice woman who was there shopping too. She noticed we were looking at the milkweed, and shared her knowledge of the plants and butterflies with us. She pointed out the giant milkweed, and said it’s a great option because the leaves take longer for the caterpillars to consume. On that trip, we purchase one giant milkweed plant along with several regular milkweeds.
For a while, I was offering caterpillars the giant milkweed and they did not seem interested in it. I honestly started to think I was misled. Until one day, we found a tiny occupant on our giant milkweed.
After we found this little guy, we decided to give the leaves a try with our bigger caterpillars. When we brought the large ones inside, we offered them both types of leaves, and while it does seem they prefer the regular milkweed they have also been eating the giant milkweed as well.
Also, at the farm we visited recently, she said that she’s noticed they don’t seem to prefer the giant milkweed when they have the option, but when she brings hers into the tank when they are very large she only gives them the giant milkweed and they eat it and are fine. So when not given the option, they are fine with eating the giant milkweed, and it takes much longer for them to consume a leaf of it.
At our local garden center, the regular milkweed costs about $6 for a smaller plant, and $15 for the larger plants. The giant milkweed is about $17. I’m not sure if those prices vary widely depending on region.
Operating your own little butterfly garden is so much fun! Your kids will love it, and you will too! A lot of times I just take a little walk outside to check out the caterpillars and butterflies because it’s neat and relaxing. Even if all you do is plant some milkweed on your own little space in the world, you’ll be helping the monarchs survive and thrive, adding to the beauty of nature!
Hi, I’m Jessica! I am wife to Chris, and mom to Kaiper, Alana and Koa. I am a freelance website & blog developer and aspiring author. I share about everything from parenting, how to make money from home, tutorials for my fellow bloggers, work-at-home mom life and being a homeschool family. Learn more about me here.