Today's Special Treat: Watching a Monarch Emerge

Caterpillar munching
on  milkweed on Aug. 19.
Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to babysit four monarch butterfly caterpillars for my friend Diane. In the past I have reared black swallowtail caterpillars, but monarchs have different needs.

First, they dine on milkweed. Second, they have very specific living conditions. In their early stages as a caterpillar, they need to be kept on a clean milkweed leaf that is placed on top of a damp paper towel. This paper towel needs to be changed almost daily for hygiene. The leaves need to be replaced between every 2-3 days to remain fresh. In addition, this paper towel/milkweed leaf combination is kept in a small plastic container with the lid ajar to allow for air circulation and to help keep moisture in.

As the caterpillars grow larger, they can live on a stem of milkweed in a small bud vase filled with fresh water. (Diane used recycled iced coffee drink containers which worked really well.)

Caterpillar prepares for chrysalis, Aug. 21. 
While I was babysitting the four caterpillars for a week, one entered the chrysalis stage about two days after coming to live with me (see photo at right). The second caterpillar was about ready to enter chrysalis when it was time to return home. The smaller two caterpillars continually grew in size. A few times I worried they weren't doing too well, but then I learned through reading online that periods of stillness meant molting is about to occur. (MonarchWatch has a detailed page on the life stages of the monarch butterfly.)

The chrysalis stage of the monarch butterfly, photo taken on Aug. 22.
Luckily, my four charges did well under my care. Diane let me keep the first caterpillar that entered chrysalis under my watch (see the photo above).

Today, this caterpillar became a beautiful (female) butterfly. (Live Monarch has a helpful page in figuring out if the butterfly is male or female.)

But she took her time in coming out.

The coloring of her pupa began to lose its green hue last night. It gradually became more transparent as the night went on. The wings were visible inside.

Early this morning, the wings were visible.
For four hours this morning, I kept vigil. (I found it hard to focus on anything else!) I didn't want to miss it. I learned that the top part of the pupa had to lengthen before the butterfly would emerge. (In the photo below, it is the upper top right portion - the gold pointy line lowered a little as the top stretched.) This is the area where oxygen enters through tiny holes, which helps the butterfly breathe and emerge. (For more information, check out this page.)

And then, at 12:09 p.m. - magic happened.

Letting her wings dry.
Learning how to use her wings.
Set free in the garden. She humored me for about 10 minutes for photos,
then she was on her way.
Butterfly weed in bloom.
I hope I can find more monarch caterpillars to raise again. It was so much fun to keep an eye on her as she grew. The area where I kept her, under my grow lights, seems empty now.

Needless to say, it's important to help monarch butterflies because their numbers have been steadily declining over the years due to increased pesticide use and land development. In both cases, the host plant of monarch butterflies - milkweed - has been greatly reduced.

You can help monarch butterflies by not only growing plants that provide nectar, but by growing milkweed and butterfly weed in your garden. These two plants act as host plants for female monarch butterflies to lay eggs on. Milkweed is the preferred plant, but I have seen monarch caterpillars settle for butterfly weed in the past, as seen in the photo below from September 2012.


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