Raising Monarchs: Tips for Monarch Rearing Indoors

There is something about a butterfly that makes most smile. As I travel from speaking location to meeting to my garden in Central Illinois, I smile each time I see a monarch butterfly flit by in the distance. However, I also cringe at the handful of times a monarch butterfly strikes my car window. Mother Nature has designed for so much, but she could not have foreseen the implications of the automobile.

In addition to cars, monarchs face many hardships through their lives from egg, caterpillar, and adult butterfly. A few weeks ago this very column marveled at the destructive power a nest of yellowjackets and paper wasps had on the monarch caterpillars in my backyard. Nature deals monarchs another blow with disease. A terrible disease known as OE (Ophryocystis elektroscirrha) is a protozoan parasite that needs the monarch butterfly to proliferate, but in return, the one-celled organism can kill monarchs. Doesn't seem like a fair trade.

Monarch woes go beyond predators, parasites, disease, and my Honda CRV. Clean farming and landscaping practices limit milkweed (the only thing monarch caterpillars eat) and nectar sources for adult butterflies. Ninety percent of monarch habitat is now in agricultural production. The urban environment is not very hospitable either. Large expanses or concrete, asphalt, and turf provide little habitat unless you're a car or a golfer.

Do I dare even dive into climate change, which is also having an impact on monarch butterflies? I think not, as this column has made me depressed and we're only half-way finished. Let's give some hope to this reality.

It seems as though everything is at odds with the survival of the monarch butterfly. The survival rate for a monarch to make it from egg to breeding adult is only one percent! Whoops! Right, I'm supposed to be hopeful.

There is something we can do to turn that one percent survival rate into 90 to 99 percent. We can raise monarch caterpillars indoors.

Raising monarch caterpillars indoors is not a crazy notion. Chances are your kids or grandchildren are doing this already in their school. This year my son's kindergarten class raised several monarch caterpillars indoors and then waited in anticipation after the caterpillar went into its chrysalis to transform into a butterfly. Last weekend, the teacher called to let us know Ben's caterpillar emerged from the chrysalis and was ready to be released. It was an amazing experience. The next day the chrysalis we had at home opened to reveal a beautiful butterfly.

This generation of butterflies will be the ones to make the journey to Mexico, where they will overwinter until next spring and make their way back north. Monarch butterflies will migrate from as far north as Canada. No other insect makes such a journey and is what makes monarch butterflies a good symbol for our continent.

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.

Want more information on raising monarch caterpillars indoors to give them the boost they need? Contact your local Extension office or check out the Monarch Watch website at www.monarchwatch.org for more resources.