I’ve had a love of butterflies since like, ever. I guess my nickname when I was younger was “butterfly” - probably because I was just kind of super weird, but also fun to watch? I don’t really know. Anyway, last year I was out looking at our wild blackberry canes and turned around to see a faded Monarch flying around to the same few plants.
I thought I was seeing things because April is far too early to be seeing Monarchs in Missouri. But, I got closer and realized that I wasn’t that crazy and that yes, I was seeing a Monarch. She had found milkweed that was only a few inches tall and was quickly moving all around the plants, laying eggs.
She was very faded looking, laying multiple eggs per plant, which I later learned means that there is likely something wrong with the female and she is trying to get as many eggs out as possible. The fading shows that she was an older butterfly. I don’t think it really hit me until later, watching her struggle to fly from plant to plant, laying eggs, what a magical and tragic moment it was; tragical. Literally giving her babies a chance at life even though she was about to lose hers.
So when people ask me how I got started raising monarchs, the answer is that mama Monarch found me. I don’t know if she was asking me to care for her babies, but I feel that she was.
Guys, this is seriously so fun, because it’s like a little earth-made scavenger hunt! First, you have to spot the milkweed–if you don’t know what milkweed looks like, have a Google or check out this post that lists twelve native milkweeds for monarchs (it only shows the blossoms, so you might have to Google what the whole plant looks like. Also, the blossoms smell like lilacs). We have common milkweed growing in several different places on our property, and I found swamp milkweed while paddle boarding on my parent’s pond. Then you’ll need to look for eggs. Supposedly they only lay one per plant, but I always found at least three—check the underside of the leaves first as that is where you’re likely to find the eggs, but occasionally they will be on top as well. Be careful because you CAN accidentally brush them off the leaf!
If you don’t have milkweed growing on your homestead, you’re likely to find it on the side of the road, growing in ditches, or in old fields. You might be able to find some at your local nursery if you can’t find any in the wild.
Be careful to keep the milky milkweed sap away from your eyes—some people even suggest wearing gloves when handling it so you don’t get it on your hands, but I didn’t have any sensitivity to the sap on my skin.
To keep your milkweed from wilting you’ll need to cut the stem at a 45 degree angle (give or take) and make a slit two inches above the cut down to the bottom of the stem. I originally tried keeping my milkweed in pots but had more success keeping them in mason jars with cheese cloth covering the opening—because it’s horrifying when one of your caterpillars falls in.
Fun fact: nature knows what it’s doing. Like, out of the 40 acres we own, that little monarch mama somehow managed to find milkweed that was only an inch tall because she knew it was the only plant suitable for her babies. So, when it comes to hatching monarch eggs, guess what? You don’t really need to do anything but wait. And that is for real the hardest part, even though they hatch in like 3-5 days.
After three to five days the eggs will start to darken on top–this is the head of the caterpillar. If the egg goes completely dark monitor it for 48 hrs and if nothing happens, squish it because it’s likely a Trichogramma Wasp that lays its eggs inside the monarch egg. Terrifying and disgusting. (see here).
If you don’t see your babies at first, do not panic! Look at the leaves for holes—if you see them, your caterpillar is likely alive and well, just super tiny and staying out of sight. Then your caterpillar is going to eat all the milkweed. You’ve read The Very Hungry Caterpillar, right? These babies arehungry.And they’ll grow to be over 3,000 times their original size.
When your caterpillar is ready to chrysalis, it will usually go to the top of your enclosure and attach itself, then hang in a “J” shape for about 24 hours. Then this amazing thing happens:
It looks as if the caterpillar slips open and forms a chrysalis. While in the chrysalis the caterpillar basically becomes a puddle of DNA , transforms, then emerges as a butterfly! The chrysalis will be soft at first, then harden—you’ll be able to tell the difference!
Your caterpillar will be in the chrysalis stage for 9-14 days and will remain green until about a day before hatching, when it will become clear—you’ll be able to see the butterfly through the chrysalis!
Your monarch will look crumpled when it emerges—don’t worry! It will stretch itself out.
Now that your monarch has “eclosed”, look at the wings. The easiest way to tell the difference between a female monarch and a male monarch is by the dots (or lack of dots) on the lower wings; a male will have two dots (scent glands) and the female will not.
Monarchs don’t need to eat for at least 24 hours, so you just kind of wait for them to tell you when they’re ready to go. I tried to release them as soon as possible after their wings were dry, which from my experience, was anywhere from two to six hours, but you can wait a full 24 hours or until they start to fly around the enclosure. The warmer it is, the faster they dry!
It is best to release your butterflies on a sunny day with a temperature of 55 degrees Fahrenheit or more; it’s okay if it’s a bit windy or even cloudy. If it’s raining wait for a break in the rain to release the Monarch. I like to release my monarchs to a flower so they can eat—I plant wildflowers every year and have a bunch of clover in the field, so finding flowers isn’t hard for me! If you’re in the city you can take your butterflies to a conservation area, a nearby park, or even release them to the flowers on your patio! They’ll be able to find their way from there.
To learn more about why monarchs and other pollinators matter you can check out 8 ways to save the pollinators!
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