Hatching monarch caterpillars is a tradition in my family and a year hasn’t gone by since we haven’t talked about seeing a monarch caterpillar or discussed how many chrysalis we have hatched. Once I moved to the Hudson Valley I was a little worried that the monarch butterflies didn’t exist here. The first couple of years I enjoyed the monarch caterpillars when I went home to visit, one year I even brought a few caterpillars back with me, but now I have my own caterpillars in my garden! I am not sure how the milkweed made it to my garden, but I now have a small little patch where the monarch butterflies lay their eggs each season.
Milkweed is one of the plants where monarch butterflies lay their eggs and where caterpillars can commonly be found. Milkweed, asclepias syriaca, is a herbaceous plant species also known as Common Milkweed, Butterfly flower, Silkweed, Silky Swallow-wort, and Virginia Silkweed. It can be found in sunny locations, along the road and in open fields.
If you want to enjoy watching a monarch caterpillar turn into a butterfly it is easy and fun for kids and even adults. First you will need to find a home for your caterpillars, I use a quart size canning jar (you can use a larger one if you like). You will also need a lid, I use some Syrian wrap with holes poked in it and the canning jar band or a rubber band to hold it in place.
After you have prepared your jar, then you want to go hunting for either an egg or a caterpillar. Monarch caterpillars can be found around this time of year (August into September), depending on your area. Go to an area where there are a lot of tall green milkweed, avoid the dark dried milkweed and any that are too short, it may have been mowed down at some point not giving the monarch butterflies enough time to lay eggs.
When you are looking in the milkweed patch, there are a few clues that will help you locate a monarch caterpillar. First off, look for any leaves that may have been eaten and second, but gross, look for black round poop on the tops of the leaves. The caterpillars usually hang out on the bottom of the leaves, so if you see these two signs check underneath.
Finding an egg is a little more difficult. These are also found underneath the leaves and are a yellowish cone shape. Once you identify an egg you will be a whiz at it!
Once you have located your caterpillar or egg carefully put it in your jar. You are also going to need a few leaves for the caterpillar to eat, inspect each leaf before you pull it to be sure there are no more caterpillars or eggs and place the leaves in the jar. The white liquid that comes off the milkweed, sap, is very sticky so try to avoid it.
Now you can go home with your caterpillar or egg. Place the jar in a safe place out of reach of distractions. You will want to continoulsy replenish with fresh leaves and clean the jar every so often of moldy leaves and poop. If the caterpillar doesn’t have fresh leaves it will force itself into a crysalis and will most likely hatch deformed or die.
After several weeks your caterpillar will get bigger and bigger and eat a lot! When the caterpillar is fully grown it will find a secure place to pupate, usually the top of the jar or the side. Sometimes I even place a stick inside to give them a more secure place. The caterpillar with create a silk-like mat and will hang in a J shape from its back legs. A day later the caterpillar should metamorphosis into a green chrysalis (pupa stage).
Again be sure to keep your chrysalis in a safe area where it doesn’t get shaken or rattled to much. About 9 to 14 days later the chrysalis will change to a black clear color and suddenly the butterfly will emerge! The butterfly will take some time drying its wings before it can fly away. Once the monarch butterflies wings are dried take the jar outside and carefully stick your finger into the jar or use a stick and remove the butterfly, avoid touching the wings! If the butterfly has spots on either side of the bottom part of its wings than the butterfly is a male, if there are NO spots than it is a female. Place the butterfly in your garden near some blooming flowers if possible. The butterfly will most likely hang out for a little while until it flies away.
Well did you have fun? I know I do every year and I would love to hear about your caterpillar and butterfly adventures. Send in your questions, comments to farmhousemag(at)gmail(dot)com.
As monarch caterpillars grow bigger they shed their skin five times. The fifth time, metamorphosis, is when the caterpillar turns into a beautiful green chrysalis.
Monarch butterflies migrate south, your butterfly will not return the following year, but their children or grandchildren will.
A Monarch butterfly’s total life span is 6 to 8 weeks.
Monarch butterflies have been seen flying at 11 thousand feet above sea level. This way the butterfly can take advantage of the winds.