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Good Growing

At-Home Science for Kids: Raising butterflies and more!

monarch butterfly resting on a finger

Like a lot of parents right now in the US, we have decided to homeschool our children. Right now, I’m trying to remember what in the heck did I do in third grade? Time to brush up on the reading, writing, and arithmetic skills. Side note, I should probably start a therapy fund for my kids when they get older.

One subject I have a bit of experience with is science. It was always my favorite subject in school, after recess of course. You might be thinking, how am I going to teach science? I don’t have Bunsen burners and beakers. Fortunately, science is all around us.

Many people, myself included, thought of science as an ivory tower of facts. It wasn’t until I was in the field, I saw that it is far from the case. Science is not about unbending facts and rules of the universe, it’s a process of discovery. Discovery of being right or wrong.

“Okay,” you may be asking, “if science is everywhere, where can I start?” My response – insects!

One teaching technique that could work well is raising butterflies. Not only does raising butterflies provide a fun and positive insect experience, but it is also a great teaching tool for kids to learn about biology and nature.

If you have budding scientists in your home, or just like the idea of raising a few butterflies indoors (after all even as an adult, it is a lot of fun), there are methods to help successfully rear and study butterflies.

There are several different species of moth and butterfly caterpillars to collect. A few gateway species to start with are swallowtail or monarch butterflies. Caterpillars can be hard to find. When hunting for caterpillars outside, one tip is instead of looking for caterpillars, look for leaf damage on the plant and frass (caterpillar poop) around the plant.

When collecting caterpillars make sure you will have access to fresh plants that they eat. Monarchs eat exclusively milkweed and swallowtails will feed on parsley, dill, carrot, and parsnip foliage.

Once you start down the path of raising butterflies, all containers with lids will now look like caterpillar rearing equipment. Essentially you need a container that ensures good airflow for the occupants.

Make sure to clean the containers regularly as these caterpillars can generate quite a bit of frass and cleaning can reduce transmission of disease among the caterpillars.

Keep in mind failure is part of the scientific process and nature can be unforgiving. In the wild, these insects face huge hurdles to survival and sometimes those issues can transfer to rearing them indoors. Raising butterflies does not guarantee survival and will never be a substitute for increasing wild populations. However, there is a unique joy to releasing a newly hatched butterfly into the world. As an adult or a child, you feel a part of nature.

Would you like to learn more about butterflies and get some teaching activities for kids? This year our Monarch Migration Festival is going virtual. Join us September 8 - 12 at 1 p.m. for special workshops, activities, and informational presentations. Individual bags with supplies for each activity will be available on August 31 Lakeside Recreation Center, in Galesburg, IL.  Pick up will be drive by only. If you have questions please contact Chelsea Moberg at, (309) 343-8036. If you do not live near Galesburg to pick up the activity bag, please select the option no activity bag needed.  You will still receive the Zoom information to join in on all the fun!

Good Growing Tip of the Week: Sometimes the chrysalis can come free and drop to the floor of the rearing cage. Dental floss is an easy fix to tie the chrysalis back up to a sturdy spot.

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Following is Monarch Raising Made Simple by Roxanne Green with the Knox County Ag in the Classroom program.

Warning: All containers with lids will now look like caterpillar rearing equipment.

Be aware – Monarch caterpillars (cats) ONLY eat milkweed. There are many varieties, but the broad-leaved milkweed known as common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is easily found in our area. If you have not grown your own milkweed, you should wash it before feeding your caterpillars. Think of milkweed as lettuce. What leaves would you want to eat? Smaller and tender leaves are the leaves of choice to eat and lay eggs.

  1. Keep eggs and cats (caterpillars) in small containers with a wet paper towel. The towel keeps the milkweed leaf hydrated, and the small container makes it easy to keep track of the caterpillar.
  2. Everything is affected by temperature. The warmer the temperature, the faster the egg/caterpillar will become a butterfly.
  3. Check and clean containers daily. At first caterpillar poop (aka frass) will look like pepper. The larger they grow, the larger frass becomes!
  4. Every caterpillar will molt. This means they will become very still, put down a silk pad, and then split out of their skin. Their skin will be left behind, and they generally eat it. The kids often think the caterpillar is dead; it is just molting. The last time the caterpillar molts, it will form a green chrysalis.
  5. As the caterpillar gets ready for its last molt, it will do a walkabout. That means it will travel around for a place to 'hang' in a J. A tall container is best. The caterpillar will put its silk button down, put its feet into the button, and hang in a J. It can hang in this position for 18 hours or more!
  6. When the caterpillar straightens out, it will do a pupa dance! That means it will split open its skin one last time and wiggle out of it.
  7. The chrysalis will hang in the cage for 8-12 days. Once it turns black, that is a signal it will soon be an adult monarch.
  8. Once the adult emerges (ecloses), it will hang and dry its wings for several hours. Generally, an adult won't eat for 24 hours. Only release your adult on a rain free day, and temperatures above 55 degrees Fahrenheit.
  9. Some things happen that might result in a caterpillar death. Parasites may kill it; it might have had milkweed with pesticides, and other unexplained things. Avoid handling the caterpillar. When moving it, move it on the leaf. Remember it might have its silk pad down and trying to molt. Never rip it off where it is resting.