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.
Raising Monarch caterpillars takes time
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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