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Help Save the Monarchs with Your Own Butterfly Garden (Your Kids Will Love It!!)

monarchs endangered butterfly garden

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

My kids love when our monarchs hatch from their chrysalis and we get to release them near our milkweed patch.

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.

This was the start of our milkweed patch right after we planted our first few milkweed plants. They have pretty yellow and orange flowers.

Limiting the use of pesticides in your garden will also help save the monarchs.

Related: 50+ Creative Activities for Your Kids to Do at Home

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 tiny white dot on the leaf in this picture is a monarch egg on one of our milkweed plants.

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.

We love spotting new baby caterpillars on our milkweed plants. Once they get to this size that they are easily noticeable, we start to keep a watch on them as they get even larger every day.

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.

The monarch chrysalis is beautiful. It’s such a pretty green and almost looks as if it’s laced with gold. I might be a dork, but I feel like it’s one of the beautiful wonders of nature.

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.

Notice you can see through this chrysalis now, and see the orange and blank colors of the monarch’s wings.

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!

This chrysalis hatched a few hours after this photo was taken.

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.

This monarch hatched right in front of me in a butterfly enclosure as I was working on my computer, so I was able to quickly snap some shots of it right after it emerged from its chrysalis.

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.

In this photo you can see that the butterfly has stretched its wings out, and has also expelled the meconium. It’s ready to be released back into the wild!

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

This large monarch caterpillar was almost ready to makes its chrysalis. Sadly, it did make it on the wall right behind the milkweed and was then eaten (by a lizard, we believe).

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).

This is what the chrysalis looks like after the butterfly has hatched.

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

Here you see my son releasing a butterfly that hatched inside. In the background you can see we just purchased a few more milkweed plants to add to our patch.

All you need to start your own butterfly garden is:

This is the butterfly enclosure we use.

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

We currently have one giant milkweed plant, located nearby to our milkweed patch.

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.

Notice the baby caterpillar we found on the underside of this giant milkweed leaf, and the pattern of it eating from the leaf.

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!

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