Monarch Butterflies -- Egg to Butterfly

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Introduction: 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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 People Made This Project!

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61 Comments

0
NaVessa789
NaVessa789

Question 1 year ago

I live in South Florida. I have Several, catapillars in different stages, on a milk weed plant right next to a bird feeder (I don't think I have any birds that eat them), I am worried about them though...what can I do to protect them?!?!?!

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kalimaxchloe
kalimaxchloe

Answer 14 hours ago

Can you place one of those pop-up type mesh laundry baskets over the plant (upside down)?

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Tamiodell
Tamiodell

Answer 10 months ago

You can place a small garment sachet around the branch of the milkweed they are on. I have a few sachets that tie at the bottom - so I gather up the leaves around where they are and place all into the sachet and tie at the bottom. This will keep them safe from becoming food. Keep an eye on them and when they have devoured the leaves just move them to another part of the plant and sachet them there. When they start getting pretty large I move them to a butterfly screened house. I keep an entire potted milkweed in this house. In fact I try to keep my milkweed potted, so I can transfer fresh milkweed into the house after they have eaten up the leaves, and I just set the pot back out so it can regrow.
I live in Florida as well, and wasps really seem to love to attack them.

Sorry - not a great picture of the sachet.

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matthewpoage
matthewpoage

Answer 1 year ago

Yikes! That is really different milkweed from what I see in the Northeast. Definitely beautiful. If it's not too late, I would recommend bringing the caterpillars inside and keep them in a jar with plenty of fresh leaves. They eat a lot and poop a lot. My experience is that some don't make it but many more do than would outside in the wild. Good luck and lucky you.

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mellybelle67
mellybelle67

Question 10 months ago on Step 10

I found a small thing that has different coloring than other baby caterpillars...is this a predator or swallowtail or something other than a monarch? I kept it in a separate container but it was on the underside of milkweed. I'm in Door County, Wisconsin. Can you advise? thanks. love your site!

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Tina29
Tina29

1 year ago

Just found about 6 large monarch caterpillars in my milkweed. I would love to see them stay where they are but is that best for them?

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matthewpoage
matthewpoage

Reply 1 year ago

You are so lucky to live somewhere that has butterflies at this time of year! Tough call about what is best for them. If they are big they are probably about to form chrysalises. My experience is that they travel far from the milkweed to do this so you might not ever see them again. If you do bring them in, make sure they have plenty of food and plenty of room (as big a container as possible) to hatch in so that they can fully spread, flap, and dry their wings. In either case, enjoy them!

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Tina29
Tina29

Reply 1 year ago

So far so good. All 4 are hanging in their chrysalis stage in a butterfly net type cage. Can’t wait. I have them indoors, do I need to bring them out for sun daily?

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Tina29
Tina29

Reply 1 year ago

Thanks. One is in a “j hang” and two are on top now. I hope that’s the right terminology. The little one is still eating away. There was a monarch out in the milkweed this morning. It’s all pretty amazing.

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Tina29
Tina29

Reply 1 year ago

Thanks. I did take them in. 3 are large. They are very active. Thanks for replying.

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ricardoreport12
ricardoreport12

Reply 1 year ago

Just found about 6 large monarch caterpillars in my milkweed. I would love to see them stay where they are but is that best for them?

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Tina29
Tina29

Question 1 year ago

Put this on comments also but trying to figure out if the 6 large caterpillars I found in my milkweed today should be left on their own or should I take them in and protect them? Any suggestions?

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ckirk8191
ckirk8191

Tip 1 year ago on Step 3

You could put a moist paper towel in a plastic bin (Tupperware style) and lay the cut leaves with the eggs attached on top of the paper towel. Cover it in plastic or put it in a baggie. Make sure to leave holes for air, and make sure it doesn't dry out. The leaves will stay fresh

This was a fantastic page!
So ok, for the first time ever I let some pesky weed that keeps showing up in my flower bed go ahead and grow. Sure enough, it's milkweed. AND... after watching monarchs flit around it, sure enough, I found caterpillars. I picked up a SMALL animal carrier for few bucks and put one big one in it. Been changing it's leaf every day, then found another pretty good size one. Later (I change leaves every day and WOW do they ever poop a lot.)
Anyway found a leaf with two itty bitty little guys on it. Why not, so I have a family in there. I swear those two must have doubled in size overnight. In one end out the other. Eating machines.
Today I looked up what the eggs look like and found this page. AND realized I probably killed a few eggs harvesting their food. I will be more careful from now on. Though not many leaves out there DON'T have an egg or a few on it. Maybe I can cut some good leaf off for food, we'll see.
Anyway last night one climbed onto the lid and got into that J shape. Sure enough, this morning I have a crystalis hanging from the lid. (I did hang a branch hoping they would use that but oh well.) That other big one is now just resting on the lid just like the first one did.
So in about 10 days I will be releasing my first monarch.

NEXT year I will do this again, get a bigger container, I think I have an old 20 gal fish tank hiding in the garage somewhere, and maybe get a nice good size net container to let the crystalis stage develop in. I contacted the DNR and some other monarch site hoping maybe next year I might participate in a tagging program. This year with only a few it isn't worth it.

What a neat experience. AND... looking around my rural area in Michigan I noticed milkweed growing along side the road, between the farm fields and road is a ditch no one mows or does anything with. Milkweed is all over the place. Good to know.

HEY didn't know I could upload a movie too, got a very short one of the first guy chowing down. Funny how their little antenna bounce up and down as it chews. Weird.

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matthewpoage
matthewpoage

Reply 1 year ago

Thank you. I have loved this process every year for so many years. Your video was great! It is easy to see how much they eat over the course of a day and night, but to see them in action, antennae and all, is very interesting.

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artmakersworldsDOTcom
artmakersworldsDOTcom

Reply 1 year ago

Well the star of my munching movie was set free today. I noticed the chrysalis was black this morning and by the time I got my shower and coffee done there was a monarch hanging there. Wow this guy made a mess. A puddle of brow liquid formed on the bottom of the box... then he started peeing clear liquid next to that. I guess after sleeping for about 2 weeks, ya just gotta go ya know?
After several hours he was still hanging onto it's chrysalis shell but it's time to go free so out to the garden we go.

Side story, I have a few old plastic milk crates in the back yard. Noticed a chrysalis inside one of them and moved that crate closer to the flowers and into more shade. Well when I walked out a monarch was flitting around inside the milk crate. I had to laugh. I bet it was thinking to itself, WHY did I pick this spot to hang??? Born in a cage.
But I let it go free.... It couldn't fly away fast enough.

Back to my guy (and he is a he.) I coaxed him onto my finger, then onto a beebalm flower. Not at all interested in it. So tried some weedy wild flower near by, nope. Too close to the ground I thought, neighbors cat hangs around. Scooped him up again and just enjoyed the close encounter for awhile, then put him on yet another flower... Now I have a macaw outside who was screaming his bloody head off so went to feed him and by the time I got back my butterfly flew off.
So I hope he has a happy life and maybe that first one in the crate was a female and they make more huh? In any case, I have two more chrysalis's growing, and one last caterpillar big enough now it will probably start changing soon. Then I'm done for the summer. OH... I had a tough time finding food since just about every leaf on every last milkweed plant already had eggs on it. And now that I can spot these plants it seems there is no shortage of them around at all. I think next year nature can handle this. Really seems no need for any help. Sure was a hoot though. Very interesting to get such a close up view of natures show.

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matthewpoage
matthewpoage

Reply 1 year ago

It is amazing, isn't it? Twenty-some years of doing this, and I am still amazed at each butterfly emerging! It will never get old.

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Evelyncarole
Evelyncarole

Question 1 year ago on Step 8

My first time I found these two on a milkweed plant I bought. Is this a safe place for my Caterpillar

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Mirage813
Mirage813

Question 1 year ago on Step 10

If the tissue hardly works , what do they attach to? How do I attach that to netting

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matthewpoage
matthewpoage

Answer 1 year ago

If they don't attach to the paper towel, they will often attach to leaves. If this happens, remove the leaf so that other caterpillars don't eat around the chrysalis and cause it to drop off. Clip the leaf to the edge of a jar. Often they will attach to the inside of a jar. This is a bit more complicated since you cannot (definitely should not) move them. Wait until the chrysalis starts darkening and then just put the entire jar outside.