Thursday, June 3, 2010

Hatching Monarch Butterflies at Home

I spotted this beauty on my milkweed--the first one I've spotted this season.

 The spotting of the first monarch is a symbol of the beginning of summer at my house.  Much like spotting a robin signifies spring has arrived.  I will spend the next four months checking milkweed leaves for eggs...obsessively.  My oldest and youngest children, Brandon and Meggan, will do the same.  We have hatched monarch butterflies for over ten years, and never tire of the wonder of it.
You might remember this post from last fall about our butterflies.

If you are interested in hatching monarchs, here is the "need to know" list:

The life cycle is less than one month, which makes it a great short-term science project.

You will need a large pickle jar or something similar to create its habitat.  I have found plastic jars in the kitchen containers at Walmart/Target that work well.  I cover the opening with screen or netting and a rubber band sometimes.

Feed only milkweed--you will find it in lots of road ditches and open fields.  It is the only food the caterpillar eats, so you will need a supply of it--a fresh leaf daily, and 2-3 at the end when the caterpillar is huge.
Check the backs of milkweed leaves for tiny eggs or tiny caterpillars, typically only a few per milkweed plant.  Sometimes more, sometimes none. The eggs look exactly like a chicken egg--creamy white and oval, except tiny.  The caterpillars start so tiny that it's almost easier to see where they have eaten the leaf, rather than the caterpillar themselves; but they grow very quickly.  Pick the leaf with the egg or caterpillar.  You can put a stem of milkweed in a glass of water to have a supply for a day or two.  Very carefully transfer the caterpillar to the new leaf each day and throw out the old leaf--it will get moldy if left in the jar.
The eggs will usually hatch within 24 hours, assuming they are going to hatch.  The baby caterpillars will eat milkweed and double in size almost daily.  They will eat/grow for around 14 days.  When they are molting (shedding their skin) they will stop eating and not move very much.  This happens a few times during the 14 days.  By the end of the 14 days, the caterpillar will almost be as long as a child's pinky finger.

Sometime during the two weeks, put a stick into the jar for it to make the chrysalis on. The stick needs to have horizontal twigs.  Sometimes it makes the chrysalis on the lid or the side of the jar, even if there is a stick.  When it is done eating and ready to make the chrysalis, it will crawl all over the jar looking for the right spot.  Then it will attach itself  and hang upside down in a J.  Now you don't have to feed it anymore!

The chrysalis is amazing!  Watching the caterpillar change to a chrysalis is even more amazing, and we have only seen it happen a handful of times.

It will hang for approximately 12 days.  When it is almost ready to hatch, the chrysalis will become black and see-through.

Once the butterfly hatches, it will hang upside down and dry for several hours.  This is usually when we move it outside to the porch to watch.  You can see the liquid drip off the wings as they dry and the wings slowly uncurl.

After a while, it will begin fanning its wings.

  Then it will be ready to fly away!


  1. I LOVE this. The first time Janel and I did this when we moved back to Iowa I cried when the butterfly hatched. So beautiful. Gives me chills.

  2. Aww- look at Meggan! You're pictures are great and when my conference is over with, I think we will be ready to come get some butterflies!