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