Introduction: Monarch Butterflies -- Egg to Butterfly

Picture of Monarch Butterflies -- Egg to Butterfly

Monarch butterfly caterpillars are fun to raise until they form chrysalises and ultimately emerge transformed as butterflies. This instructable takes you even further back in the butterfly life cycle and describes how to raise a monarch from a newly-laid egg into a fully grown butterfly.

I have also raised Swallowtail butterflies from eggs found on parsley in a fashion similar to that described here. I would be interested in hearing about the experiences of other readers in locating and identifying the eggs of other types of butterflies.

Step 1: Timeline

Below are the dates on which significant events in the life of these Monarch butterflies occurred. The timing may vary, but it will be helpful to know about how long things take.

June 28 -- Monarch butterfly observed laying eggs on milkweed.
June 30 -- Five eggs brought inside (photos only show four).

July 2 -- Transfer eggs to a fresh leaf in anticipation of the eggs hatching.
July 3 -- Two hatched by early morning and the remaining three by noon.
July 5 -- Colored bands becoming apparent.
July 8 -- Getting bigger.

July 12 -- Lost one caterpillar. Failure to thrive.
July 13 -- Start molting period. Appear uninterested in food.
July 15 -- Finish molting. Voracious and big.
July 17 -- J-hooking.
July 18 -- Four chrysalises. Nothing left but the waiting.
July 28 -- Chrysalises darken in the evening. Wing patterns clearly visible.
July 29 -- Butterflies emerge!

Step 2: Milkweed

Picture of Milkweed

Monarch butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed and the caterpillars eat milkweed. If you are going to find monarch butterfly eggs, you have to first find milkweed. Fortunately, milkweed grows throughout the United States. Unfortunately, it is treated as a weed and rooted out. Find a patch that's going to be around and start looking for both eggs and caterpillars.

Milkweed has wonderful flower clusters that attract butterflies. I grow a patch outside my kitchen door. My neighbor grows a lots of flowering plants and I believe his flowers attract butterflies and then they come on over to lay their eggs!

Step 3: Monarch Eggs

Picture of Monarch Eggs

Monarch eggs are small, roundish, and off-white. They are found on the underside of the milkweed leaf. There are, unfortunately, lots of small, roundish, and off-white things that turn up on the underside of milkweed leaves. Search the Internet for other pictures. Until you identify your first Monarch butterfly egg, all I can do is encourage you to keep looking and say that when you see one, you will know.

Because my milkweed patch is right outside, I have been fortunate enough to see the butterflies actually lay the eggs. The female (without the spot on the wing) lands on the edge of the leaf, curls her abdomen under the leaf, and touches (I assume) her ovipositor to the underside of the leaf. An egg is laid!

After locating several eggs, pick the leaves and store them inside on a plate. The leaves will dry out and curl up. Dried leaves will not provide food for the baby caterpillars, so you have to be prepared to move them (the eggs and later on the caterpillars) from dried leaves to fresh leaves. See details in the next step.

Step 4: Hatching

Picture of Hatching

Just before hatching, the eggs will develop a darkened end. This is the indication that it is time to prepare fresh leaves. Carefully cut around each egg. Squares are easy and convenient. This will give you something to pick up and make it possible to transfer the egg to the fresh leaf. If you do not have them on a fresh leaf, they will travel around hunting for fresh milkweed and you will lose them. You will find this damaging to your self esteem and difficult to explain to your children.

This technique of transferring the eggs and caterpillars onto fresh leaves will be used throughout the entire process. It is much better (for the caterpillars) than trying to slide a knife under them or otherwise dislodge them from a dry leaf in order to move them onto fresh food.

Step 5: Close-ups

Picture of Close-ups

Below are several pictures that are interesting but don't fit in any particular step. They were taken with a Digital Blue QX5 microscope. I got it for my daughter. Turns out I find it more interesting :-)

Step 6: Baby Caterpillars

Picture of Baby Caterpillars

The newly hatched baby caterpillars are very fragile. Do not touch them! Their primary interests are eating and pooping. They eat fresh milkweed leaves and will travel the short distance from the small, dried piece onto the fresh leaf. If you do not have them on a fresh leaf, they will travel around hunting for fresh milkweed and you will lose them.

Caterpillars move around. Sometimes they are happy on top of the leaf, sometimes they prefer the bottom side. Occasionally they leave the leaf. In any case, it is important to keep track of how many caterpillars are in your care. When it is time to transfer them to a new leaf (see next paragraph), carefully pick up the leaf and make sure all are accounted for.

As the fresh leaf dries, it is necessary to transfer to baby caterpillars to fresh leaves. When you are ready to do this, locate each caterpillar and carefully cut around each. Transfer the small pieces onto a fresh leaf. The caterpillars will not linger on the dried piece and will seek out fresh food. This is the same technique described in the Hatching step.

Step 7: Growing Up

Picture of Growing Up

Monarch butterfly caterpillars are voracious. They eat a lot, poop a lot, and grow a lot. After they reach a size where it is relatively easy to locate them, transfer the leaves into a covered jar. Add fresh leaves daily. You still have to be careful when transferring the caterpillars from old to new leaves. I take out the old leaves with the caterpillars on them, clean the jar (see below) and put a fresh leaf or two back in. Then I put the caterpillars back in still on their old leaves. I remove as much of the old leaf as possible before I put them back in. They will move to the fresh leaves and you can remove the dried leaves at the next cleaning.

Use any jar that is relatively large and easy to clean (they poop a lot). I use a one quart wide-mouth canning jar because it is easy to get old leaves out and new leaves in. Cover the lid with a paper towel (more on that later) and poke some air holes in it. When you clean the jar, be careful to dry it thoroughly. Monarch butterfly caterpillars that fall to the bottom of a jar into even just a bit of water do not recover. Keep them dry!

Step 8: Molting

After growing and eating, the caterpillars decide it's time to give up their old skin. For a two day period they are not interested in eating, climb to the top of the jar and appear as if they are about to form chrysalises (much too early). Towards the end of the two day period, their skin darkens, they slip out of their skin and emerge with a fierce hunger.

Step 9: Vacationing

Monarch caterpillars and chrysalises travel well. They don't complain and they eat only one thing. Make sure, however, that there is a source of milkweed wherever you go (they eat only one thing, remember?).

Step 10: Forming the Chrysalis

Picture of Forming the Chrysalis

About a day before the caterpillars are ready to form their chrysalises, they will climb to the top of the jar and form J-hooks -- they hang upside-down in the shape of a J. Watch carefully because they can go from the J-hooked stage to a chrysalis in a matter of hours.

Once the chrysalis is formed, there is nothing left to do but wait. If I am lucky, they form their chrysalises on the paper towel that I put at the top of the jar. This seldom happens. In any case, I usually transfer them to a net enclosure so the can fly a bit when they hatch.

Step 11: Emerging From the Chrysalis

Picture of Emerging From the Chrysalis

Shortly before emerging, the chrysalis will appear to darken. It becomes transparent and you can clearly see the distinctive patterns of the wings. The emergence all happens very suddenly and is definitely worth video taping. If you miss the actual emergence, you can still see some amazing things.

When the butterfly emerges, its wings are very small and its abdomen very large. Watch carefully and you can see fluid pumped into the wings. They expand considerable and in a short time achieve their full size. Also, the emergent butterfly will flex and extend his/her proboscis. It is usually curled up but is surprisingly long.

It happened when I wasn't watching and I didn't get any pictures :-(

Step 12: Releasing the Butterfly

Picture of Releasing the Butterfly


Mybizz (author)2017-09-29

This is awesome! We live near Pismo Beach, CA where the Monarchs over-winter. I had a docent come from there to speak to our non-profit group, Quota of Atascadero, and from that talk I planted butterfly milk weeds. Only one plant survived last winter (I will plant more this coming spring) and yesterday I discovered I have caterpillars. I put some bird netting over the plant because yesterday there were 7 caterpillars and today there are 4. I looked for eggs about three weeks ago and found hundreds of aphids. I didn't do anything to get rid of them because there may have been eggs. I'm so happy I left the aphids be.

swandra134 (author)2017-07-22

Sorry thought f more questions. In instruction you stated they rarely use paper towels, if so what is alternative and how long after they emerge to butterflies when should you release them.

matthewpoage (author)swandra1342017-07-25

My sense is that lots of other critters eat the butterfly eggs. I would bring them in as soon as you see them. My experience with milkweed is in the NE where it grows wild. I have never seen a plant fully eaten down to stems so I cannot give advice on this. I would say that it is quite robust and forms perennial plots up here, so give it time and it should keep growing. Cannot remember comment about paper towels. Is it where they form their chrysalises? I think I have used a wide mouth canning jar with a paper towel as the cover. Sometimes they formed chrysalises on the paper towels which made it easy to transfer them to a butterfly tent/cage. I let them go almost immediately. They take a few hours to be able to fly and as soon as they can I let them go. Hope this helps. Good luck.

swandra134 (author)2017-07-22

Just joined. Bought butterfly plants to draw as advised by Lowes and milkweed plants. Did see the caterpillars then went on vacation so missed the rest of cycle, as a novis had no clue. My question is , we are in Florida and have many small lizards. Will they eat the eggs before you can retrieve them, secondly one milkweed plant has been eaten down to stems. Do I trim plant down or replant new. Thank you for your time

Tom9124 (author)2015-10-06

Do NOT handle the caterpillars! If absolutely necessary, wear gloves and KEEP YOUR HANDS AWAY FROM YOUR FACE! They shed microscopic hairs that will irritate the skin - if it gets in your eyes, see you eye doctor ASAP!

electric guy (author)Tom91242016-04-14

OK I just need to know this
I'm in an argument with some other people and they say that butterfly isn't the name of it, it is called flutter fly
and I need some to say what it really is
please reply with your comments

kob9418 (author)2015-04-28

I'm just starting my butterfly garden :) ! I have 3 milkweed plants and a few butterfly friendly plants. We witnessed a butterfly laying her eggs about a week ago. I have a few eggs to gather. Questions/Concerns: (1) Black ants have taken over my milkweeds - will they eat the eggs and is there a way I can get rid of them? (2) I'm in Florida, lots of lizards around - will they eat the eggs?

dougshreff (author)2015-02-05

I need your help by matthewpoage , I raise them too.

contact me please, I want info on raising the eggs,

I currently do 4 dozen caterpillars and 6-8 dozen chrys...

want to start with eggs.

viewers, enjoy this link

As a small child in Saint Louis, now im in Ca, my mother

took me to the large indoor stadium sized butterfly house there.

Now I raise them.

dougshreff (author)dougshreff2015-02-05

I should also add, yes I am a candidate,

but I post here to ask help with the butterflys I love.

not to spam.

jenise2000 (author)2014-07-23

I love them

oxymoxy (author)2014-07-17

I have raised monarchs for 12 years, the best way to harvest the eggs is to cut them (and a small section of leaf) out and float it in a shallow dish of water preventing them from drying out. I've attached a photos of this year's harvest so far.

picturesofsilver (author)2013-02-12

Thank you for this wonderful instructable! Please sign up to report milkweed and Monarch migration here:
Lots of info & interesting things for the kids here as well! Only 5 more weeks until the butterflies start their migration north from their winter home in Mexico.

ndebolt (author)2011-09-28

Newly hatched larvae are cannibalistic. They will eat other eggs, so for this reason you must keep each egg in a separate container. If you put all of the eggs on one new leaf (as the image shows), OR if you have a cutting with more than one egg on it (as the above commenter recommends), the larvae that hatch first can and will eat the unhatched eggs.

See this photo for an example:

Puzzledd (author)2010-11-11

This is a very inspiring instructable, thanks! Some of our students at school are hatching butterflies at the moment (from chrysalises that a parent bought), but it makes sense to find eggs and start from them.

I've been trying to get photos of different butterflies for my album, but now I have a new project - looking for eggs (no milkweed here, so it could be a difficult project - I'll have to research our local butterflies).

typo3150 (author)2010-06-08

The caterpillar only eats the milkweed, and will almost always stay on the plant, so putting them in a jar is not strictly necessary.

dannelle (author)typo31502010-06-15

yes but then they would escape after they finished their milkweed....

typo3150 (author)dannelle2010-10-08

They never finish eating until they form a chrysalis

typo3150 (author)2010-06-27

Amazing photos!

typo3150 (author)2010-06-27

They eat their entire caterpillar-hood. They can climb from leaf to leaf and have no desire to "escape" the milkweed, if it is not wilted and lousy. They may leave when they are ready to make the chrysalis, and crawl under whatever they can suspend the chrysalis from.

dannelle (author)2010-06-15

why can't we touch them their soo cute but if it kills them I'd rather not hehe...

typo3150 (author)2010-06-08

Keep the leaves on a stem, in a vase. That way leaves won't wilt. Caterpillars know how to hang on to the plant, as they do this in nature.

typo3150 (author)2010-06-08

If you take an entire stem and put it in a vase, the caterpillars can move from leaf to leaf on their own. Put some newspaper or a cookie sheet under the stem, in case they fall off, or you don't want the frass (poop) to go everywhere.

dfwmonkie (author)2010-03-18


Gamernotnerd (author)2009-08-02

Now how are you going to get that rhubarb for the cake?

The cake requires too much rhubarb. Substitute yams.

got2bskilled (author)2009-08-03

I love this instructable. I think this will be a fun science project for my daughter. Thanks so much~

isaberg (author)2009-08-01

Because they're really so incredibly very small. There would be no way to pick them up that wouldn't squash them flat.

Beest921 (author)2009-08-01

Awesome instructable! Last night my wife said "Let's do that!". I haven't done this since I was a kid so I said ok. It just so happens I have a huge milkweed in my backyard. So this morning I went out to it and lo & behold I ended up with 4 eggs, and 7 caterpillars of all different sizes from newly hatched to inch & a half! My wife has never done this so she is in for an amazing surprise! Thank you for bringing out the kid in me again! Now it's time to sit and wait!

maryjolene (author)2009-08-01

can we touch them when they are small?whyy?

fegundez1 (author)2009-08-01

where is it that you live?Here in Fla. it seems that those who believe no bug should live have killed off almost everything but the mosquito! Also have you tried any other types?

osgeld (author)2009-07-31

Very interesting and well done, we have TONS of milkweed around our parts and it could be a very educational and fun project for the kids next summer Thanks!

isaberg (author)osgeld2009-07-31

Thanks so much! I was just looking at some eggs on the milkweed wondering if they were monarch, and if so, what to do - this is a great resource. Excellent job!

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