Raising Monarch caterpillars

Sunflower with Monarch butterfly.

I can’t remember when I started raising Monarch caterpillars. I’m thinking maybe five years ago, and I’m no expert, but I’ve learned a few things.

First, raising Monarch caterpillars from egg to butterfly is a huge commitment of time, energy and milkweed.

Second, If you want to save the Monarch butterfly, plant milkweed. And, don’t just plant one plant in one area. Plant at least three or four plants in several areas throughout your landscape.

Learn about the different types of milkweed available in your area, including natives. Plant natives, but also, if you live in Oklahoma or further north, plant some Asclepias curassavica, tropical milkweed, too. Further south where tropical milkweed overwinters, you’ll need to cut it back to keep the Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE) infestation down. If you live further south, here’s more information about tropical milkweed. I’m not wading into the tropical milkweed controversy because I live in Oklahoma where tropical milkweed simply dies at the first freeze. I’ve also grown A. incarnata, swamp milkweed, and A. tuberosa, butterfly weed. Of the three types of milkweed I’ve grown, Monarchs seem to like butterfly weed the least. In order to get them to feed upon it, it’s good to cut it back several times in a season for new growth. Otherwise, the leaves are tough. However, it is a wonderful pollinator plant, and I have it all over the garden.

One more thing about milkweed, if you don’t grow it from seed, you must make sure the nursery you buy it from has not sprayed it with anything, including organic pesticides. Organic or inorganic pesticides will kill your caterpillars, and sometimes, you can ask all the right questions and still get accidentally-sprayed milkweed. It happened to me last year. The safest thing to do is to grow your own from seed, and never spray pesticides in your own garden.

Monarch caterpillar condo. Raising Monarch caterpillars
Monarch caterpillar condo. I don’t poke holes in my lids because I take off the lids several times each day to check on the caterpillars. That’s enough oxygen. Other people do poke holes. It’s up to you.

There are many things which can befall Monarchs, but I don’t want to discourage you. You win some. You lose some. In the wild, it’s estimated that the Monarch caterpillar survival rate is less 10% according to the butterfly experts at Journey North. If you raise Monarchs and have enough milkweed, the survival rate can go up to 85 or 90%, so occasional failures, while sad, are still the minority.

Monarch egg on milkweed leaf. This is very enlarged so you can see it easier, but they are about the size of a pinprick.
Monarch egg on milkweed leaf. This is very enlarged so you can see it easier, but they are about the size of a pinprick. I don’t have a macro lens, or I could get even more detail.

For the best survival rate, bring in only eggs and first instar-sized caterpillars. Some people will tell you to only bring in eggs, but I’ve had good luck with 1st and 2nd instars. Now, I should probably always follow my own advice, but occasionally, I go ahead and bring in a larger caterpillar. It’s hard to leave them out there in the wild. That makes me too much of a softie, and I lose some to tachnid fly, but it’s worth taking the chance as far as I am concerned. However, if you want the best success stick to the official party line: only eggs and 1st instars.

I start my eggs and first instars out in small plastic containers like these Sure Fresh Mini Storage Containers, 10-ct. Packs – Square. I use a plain paper towel and place the pieces of leaves with the eggs on them in the containers. I then wait for the small caterpillar to emerge. It usually takes two to three days. Once the tiny caterpillars emerge, I put a fresh leaf beneath them. You can get Water Pick florist tubes to keep leaves fresh. I bought some last week. Those tiny cats don’t eat much, and a leaf will last awhile in a florist tube.

Probably 3rd instar Monarch caterpillar in one of the plastic bins.
Probably 3rd instar Monarch caterpillar in one of the plastic bins. Nearly time to move them to larger quarters so they don’t have to crawl through their frass (poop.)

I change out the paper towel once a day, and sometimes twice when cats get larger. They need a clean place to eat, and the photo, above, shows how quickly frass can build up.

Once they get to 3rd instar or 4th, I put them on milkweed that is pushed down into a cup. I like soda cups because I can push the stems into the straw slots, and there isn’t danger of a curious cat drowning itself. I’ve never had that happen, but there’s always a first time. I watch milkweed consumption closely making sure I don’t run out of fresh leaves. The caterpillars are very hungry as they grow, and I don’t want them eating each other. Yes, that can happen. Gross, I know.

Monarch caterpillars 4th and 5th instars.
Monarch caterpillars 4th and 5th instars. I have caterpillars in all of the five stages right now. Nearly all were raised from eggs. Here, I used a bottle with a small neck. I needed a lot of milkweed this morning.

Then, I wait for the 5th instars to make their chrysalides. I place the cats in butterfly habitats like Insect and Butterfly Habitat – 24 Inches Tall and this shorter one, Miraclekoo Insect and Butterfly Habitat Terrarium Pop-up (12 x 12 x 12),  but I’ve seen people use other types of enclosures too. I try to keep all of my instar sizes separate so that I don’t have chrysalides and enclosing butterflies over still-eating caterpillars. That’s a no-no. There are lots of ways to do this, and I suggest, if you’re serious about raising Monarch caterpillars, you join one of the several groups on Facebook. I’m grateful for all of these Facebook groups because the members are so supportive and helpful. If the Monarch ever returns with the numbers and vigor it once had, these groups helped make that possible.

I wash the cages and bleach them with a weakened bleach solution at the end of the season. Then, I put them away until the Monarchs and other butterflies return. I’ve only raised Monarch and Swallowtails so far.

The Beautiful Monarch is the largest group I know of. They give good, consistent info about the general raising and enjoyment of Monarchs.
Raising Monarch Butterflies is another large group that I’ve learned so much from.

For more Oklahoma-targeted information, I’m a member of these two groups:

Oklahoma Friends of Monarchs and
Monarch Initiative of Tulsa

Also, I want to once again recommend Kylee Baumle’s book, The Monarch: Saving Our Most-Loved Butterfly. It’s a good resource and has beautiful pictures too. Below is a photo of one group of caterpillars that are almost ready to pupate. The sound quality isn’t that great, but I was just doing it off the cuff.

To learn even more about Monarchs and the rush to save them, check out Monarch Watch. To learn more about migration patterns and such, try Journey North, a website that logs information from watchers throughout the U.S. They follow and show on maps the great migration now happening. On Thursday, for my birthday, I’m attending the Oklahoma Native Plant Society’s meeting where Matt Fullerton with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (ODWC) will present information about the Oklahoma Monarch and Pollinator Collaborative. Did you know I-35 in Oklahoma is a major pollinator highway? We’re right at the center of Monarch migration, and I can’t wait to hear how Oklahoma is going to help save more butterflies. I think it’s exciting stuff. I hope you do too.

The meeting is on September 7, 2017, at 7:00 p.m. (6:30 for snacks and chatting) at 400 North Portland Ave, OSU-OKC campus, Room 196. Hope to see you there.

This post does contain Amazon affiliate links to help support the cost of my blog. I’ve bought all of these items so I can vouch that they work. Thanks for reading everyone.

Caterpillar rescue

Swallowtail caterpillars say thank you for saving them.

Late summer is butterfly season at Little Cedar. It’s also caterpillar rescue season.

As you probably already know, Monarch butterflies are in trouble, and I believe it’s backyard and community gardeners who will eventually save the day. At least that’s what I tell myself as I bring Monarch eggs and tiny caterpillars indoors every day. It takes commitment, a whole lot of milkweed and trust in the process to bring these tiny creatures to flight. If you’re interested, I can write another post about bringing Monarch caterpillars/eggs indoors and raising them. Just let me know.

But, in the meantime, why don’t you read my friend, Kylee Baumle’s, new book, The Monarch: Saving Our Most-Loved Butterfly. I know she worked hard on it, and I think you’d like it especially if you want to save Monarchs. And, really, who doesn’t want to save Monarchs?

Cover of The Monarch: Saving Our Most-Loved Butterfly. by Kylee Baumle.
Cover of The Monarch: Saving Our Most-Loved Butterfly. by Kylee Baumle.

Today, though, I want to tell you about a caterpillar rescue of another kind–my epic battle to save some Swallowtail caterpillars from a very hungry red wasp–Polistes rubiginosusI think. I don’t claim to be a wasp expert.

I do try to love all of God’s creatures–I really do–but red/paper wasps really irritate me. Maybe, because they’re just so damn mean the hotter the weather gets. I know that’s my excuse.

Monarchs are not the only butterflies laying eggs on various plants in the garden. In my vegetable garden, especially the raised potager, a Swallowtail mother laid about a billion–okay, I’m exaggerating–eggs on three parsley plants. This year, I planted six or seven parsley, many dill and a pot of rue in my garden just for Swallowtail butterflies. If I got a little parsley and dill for my supper, that was good too. I’ve been watching these little munchers for several days now. I could bring them inside, but they seem to have an easier time of it outdoors than Monarchs. Plus, they aren’t as predictable–once they reach chrysalis stage–as Monarch butterflies are. Sometimes, Swallowtails take all winter to become butterflies.

I don’t know which type of Swallowtail laid her eggs. I have many different ones bouncing about the garden. If I had to guess, I would say it’s a Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenesis), Oklahoma’s state butterfly, because of the markings, but that part doesn’t matter. I kept an eye on these little critters because I knew they were going to quickly run out of parsley, and my dill was finished for the year. So, I pulled a few weeds around the bronze fennel in a completely different part of the garden and waited for them to grow too large for their habitat.

Parsley consumed by Swallowtail caterpillars. I'm not going to show you the partially consumed caterpillar. Gross.
Parsley consumed by Swallowtail caterpillars. I’m not going to show you the partially consumed caterpillar. Gross.

Today, I realized was caterpillar moving day. I came outside to find one caterpillar half eaten, so I knew they needed a new leafy residence.

Soon, it instead turned into a full-scale caterpillar rescue.

One of the large swallowtail caterpillars I moved to the bronze fennel.
One of the large swallowtail caterpillars I moved to the bronze fennel.

I was moving them in fives because that’s about all I can handle. I gently pulled them from parsley stalks and took them over to the three, large bronze fennel plants working feverishly to convince them it was their idea to get on the new plant. It works better if I don’t handle them too much. When I made my third or fourth trip, I saw a very large, red wasp circling the area. She buzzed me a couple of times, and I ignored her as I grabbed five more. Usually, I don’t get stung if I’m not near the wasp nest. I knew what she wanted, and she was waiting very impatiently for me to move out of the way.

Then, disaster struck. I came back to find her munching on a large caterpillar. I kept moving more caterpillars hoping she was too engrossed in her meal to come after me. Of course, I didn’t have my camera the entire time. I was too busy to take pictures.

Bronze fennel with finished Phlox paniculata behind. The caterpillars being green yellow and black really blend in with fennel foliage.
Bronze fennel with finished Phlox paniculata behind. The caterpillars being green yellow and black really blend in with fennel foliage. They are much harder to see on here than on the parsley.

After four or five more trips, she was quite irritated with me. She left her meal and buzzed me, but I was really determined she would not win today. She went back to her meal, and I picked up my berry-colored Dramm Touch‘N Flow Revolver Spray Gun, turned it to jet and doused her. You can sure slow down a wasp, especially one not paying attention with a steady and hard spray of water. She crawled out of the bed and stumbled around. Again, I took her out, and I daresay I enjoyed it.

“Take that for all the times I’ve been stung,” I said, “Here’s another spray for all the caterpillars you’ve munched today.”

Red wasp/paper wasp after I sprayed her with water.
Red wasp/paper wasp after I sprayed her with water. See the Swallowtail caterpillar in the upper right corner? I saved it.

I sprayed her long enough to grab three more cats with my right hand in a whole new definition of multitasking.

No, wasp lovers, I didn’t kill the wasp with water. She was soon back searching through the empty parsley stalks looking for more prey, but in the meantime, I’d relocated everyone.

Swallowtail caterpillars relocated on rue.
Swallowtail caterpillars relocated on rue.

A lot of bug-eat-bug happens here but sometimes, it’s about sticking up for the little guys. Today was caterpillar rescue day, and this little caterpillar raised his/her thoracic legs in a fond thank you–at least I like to think so.

Swallowtail caterpillars say thank you for saving them.
Swallowtail caterpillars say thank you for saving them. Caterpillar rescue.