I raise monarchs, and you should, too


The first monarchs I officially raised was done as a favor.

My friend Diane asked if I could care for some of her caterpillars while she and her family went on vacation two years ago. I was extremely paranoid about being entrusted with their care. But on the car ride home, I gave myself a pep talk: You can do this. They are just butterflies.

But that's the thing. They aren't just any butterfly. Monarch butterflies are definitely the most popular, iconic butterfly in North America. And even though it wins the popularity contest year after year, they are not easy to raise.


The last few years monarchs have made the news headlines due to their decline in numbers thanks to pesticides, a decline in milkweed and the logging of their overwintering grounds in Mexico. But thanks to thousands of people who care about this popular insect (such as members of The Beautiful Monarch), people are beginning to notice more monarchs around their gardens this year (a trend recently reported in the Ottawa Citizen). Personally, I think all those people raising monarchs and then releasing them back in the wild are making a huge difference. (One example is my local garden center, Natureworks, which raised and released more than 700 last year just on their property alone, and are back at it this year.)

But – don't be mistaken: Monarch caterpillars are extremely susceptible to a majority of ills, which makes it a miracle (in my opinion) that any actually survive in the wild. (More on what, sadly, can go wrong, here.)

So back to me in the car talking to the caterpillars. It wasn’t my first time raising caterpillars. I was already dabbling with raising black swallowtail butterflies, insects that I like to think of as the “gateway caterpillar.” Raising black swallowtails successfully from eggs found on my dill and fennel plants was a great morale boost, which led me to say yes when Diane asked if I would be willing to care for her caterpillars.

Obviously, monarchs are a bit different from black swallowtails. First, there was the food source issue. At the time, I only had butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) growing in random spots in my garden, so I had to harvest pesticide-free milkweed from a reliable source. (Most of this came from Diane’s own organic garden.)

Next, there was a process to keeping the caterpillars’ enclosures clean as they grew. When I went to pick up the caterpillars, Diane showed me how to wet a paper towel and squeeze it to keep it damp. Then we would lay the fresh milkweed leaves on the damp paper towel, return the caterpillars to the same (smallish) container, and loosely close the top. This process helps the milkweed last longer when the caterpillars are not yet large enough to devour everything quite so quickly.


A monarch caterpillar begins to eat its egg shell shortly after hatching. 
As the caterpillars grew under my care, I was able to transfer them to larger containers, with sprigs of milkweed. I tried multiple ways to keep the milkweed fresh, and after initially using small jam jars with plastic on top, I have since switched over to (clean!) florist tubes.

No matter if the caterpillars are in a small container or a larger bug box (a.k.a, small aquarium), it was important to remove their frass (that’s a fancy word for caterpillar poop) and any soiled paper towels daily. This helps keep the caterpillars disease free. It’s also important to remove any older milkweed and thoroughly wash new milkweed before placing it in the containers. (Rinsing milkweed with running water is a good way to keep unwanted insects out, such as aphids, too.)


If there’s anything I can emphasize – it’s cleanliness. Wash your hands before handling the butterflies, their food and their enclosures. When containers are no longer in use, thoroughly wash them with a mix of dish soap and a few drops of bleach. And don’t forget to build in time to keep the caterpillars clean. (At the height of caterpillar care this summer, I had to allow for an additional half hour before work to get everything clean and ready for the day.)

Diane’s caterpillars all survived under my care, and since that time two years ago, I have become an aficionado of caterpillars, even expanding my repertoire to the beautiful spicebush swallowtail butterfly (and I now grow four bushes of its host plant, Lindera benzoin in my back garden). This is the first year that I’ve had milkweed come back in my garden, and even better – monarchs have found my garden and started to bless it with eggs.

That doesn’t mean I haven’t had my share of tragedy this year. It's important to know how growers treat plants, and unknowingly using a questionable plant did cost me some black swallowtail caterpillars, and made me realize the importance of growing more of my own host plants from seed. (Next year I have tentative plans to turn a raised bed into a butterfly plant host bed, with plans to grow milkweed and dill, along with nectar-friendly plants like zinnias, together.)

I admit that there are still many things I don't know, and I'm still learning every day, thanks to all the people who share their knowledge on how to raise monarchs. But, like any proud parent, I'd like to show you some photos of my kids:

Eggs found in my garden (2017) on milkweed.

Baby caterpillars.

This stage is when caterpillars look like miniature cats. (Notice the little "ears"?)

Caterpillars from 2016.


Milkweed party.

This caterpillar is a little pudgy from all that milkweed.


The chrysalis is formed.

A successful release in 2016.

A successful release in 2016.

A successful release in 2016.

A successful release from 2017.


Comments

  1. I loved this post. Great info on raising them. I've raised them several years too, and I'm always amazed at the process. ~~Dee

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Dee! Now I can't imagine a summer without raising them!

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  2. We are Natureworks-trained monarch foster parents too. So amazing! Can't wait to prepare more garden for them next year.

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    Replies
    1. Awesome! I am so glad Natureworks enabled us to raise monarchs! :)

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  3. Love seeing them in my garden thanks to Jen, the cat sitting... doable but nerve-wracking!

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