The plight of the monarchs- North America’s most recognized and distinctive butterfly is all over the news. Through the combined effects of climate change, land development and insecticides & herbicides the monarch population is down roughly 90% over the past 20 years. While this year they seem to be doing better than last year the population as a whole are by no means thriving. Vast efforts are underway to re-establish milkweed in critical migration paths- this will be hugely impactful. But what can us, as individuals do? Turns out a lot. And it’s pretty easy. Now, just one person is not going to ‘save’ the monarchs. But working together, we can make a big impact.
Forgive me some math…
Say 1 million North Americans (where monarchs migrate to- the majority overwinter in remote mountains in Mexico) wanted to raise monarchs. The population of US & Canada is about 360 million. That’s less than 0.3% of the population. If 1 million of us raised about as many eggs to butterflies as I did this year (about 40) that would be 40 million butterflies. I started out with about 45 eggs, but only 40 made it. In the wild the number of butterflies to arise from 45 eggs is about (5-8% chance of survival- call it 6.5%) 3 butterflies. Instead I got 40! Now, if those 1 million people did the exact same thing- instead of ~3 million butterflies arising naturally, there would be 40 million butterflies! Considering last year’s overwintering population of monarchs was ~140-150 million… 40 million is HUGE!
Did this math convince you?
Ok, maybe the math didn’t, but let me show you how easy it is- maybe that would help.
First, there are folks who have done this much longer than I have. Folks that have seen it all. Folks that can answer lots of questions. I am not that person. I’m a beginner. And I want to demystify it a bit.
First, before you even begin- consider these things. One: you cannot have any trips of more than a day or two planned away during the ~2 weeks your monarchs are caterpillars. They need to be fed. Also, they will emerge after ~2 weeks from the chrysalis, so you need to keep that in mind should you find yourself again traveling.
Two: Monarch caterpillars eat a lot of milkweed. You need to have access to lots of it. Either your yard or a very near by park. I say very nearby because after a long day you don’t want to come home when it’s getting dark and you realize your caterpillars need more leaves and you have to go searching. In the second week of life a caterpillar will eat 1-2 milkweed leaves a day… like big 5 inch long common milkweed leaves. If you have 10 cats that can be 10-20 a day especially towards the end of their caterpillar lives.
I have a stand of ~12 common milkweed and that was enough. That was plenty, most of my milkweed still have lots of leaves- my 40 butterflies were raised over the span of nearly 3 months and the milkweed keeps growing.
Ok, so what do you actually need? Like actually? Of course, if you are going to ‘go big’ scale these recommendations up
- 1 small to medium sized tupperware container
- 2 medium to large sized tupperware containers
- a couple sheets of paper towel
- a little newspaper
- the aforementioned milkweed
I chose to be a little fancier and instead of one medium to large sized container I bought a 12$ butterfly house from the Amazon.
Ok, now let’s assume you’ve found some eggs. I’m linking this excellent article here with great pictures of eggs so you can know what they look like. Once you’ve seen one you can find them again. The first time it’s hard. The first time I would recommend running around after a butterfly, when you see it dance around a milkweed, positioning it’s butt (ova-depositor) on the underside of leaf for a second. Check that spot, odds are there will be an egg.
I prefer to cut the eggs off the milkweed leaves. If I have bigger cats I’ll give them the cut leaf- otherwise, I’ll leave the remainder of the leaf on the plant. I put these small cuttings into my smallish container on top of a paper towel or newspaper like below and I close the lid to keep it a bit humid in there. This is the ‘hatchery’
This is because a newly hatched baby cat will eat it’s egg casing as a first highly nutritious meal. Isolating them keeps the newly hatched ones from cannibalizing their unhatched sisters and brothers. **~nature~**
One to 4 days after finding an egg, it should hatch. You’ll know it’s getting close to hatching because the egg will turn grayer and a black spot forms on the tip. That’s the caterpillar’s head. When born they are only a few millimeters long and have a little black head. You can leave them on their tiny cut leaf for a day or so.
After a day or two post hatching the milkweed cutting will probably be dry and covered in tiny poo. At this point I pick up that cutting, with the tiny cat on it and place the whole thing on a fresh whole milkweed leaf in a second container lined with newspaper or a paper towel. This is the ‘nursery’. You can let several baby cats hang out on a leaf together at this point- they don’t eat too fast. I generally wrap the end of my leaf in a little wet paper towel to keep it fresh longer.
For the next 4-6 days you will change out your leaves about every other day. Mostly the leaves will be eaten, maybe not to the stem. They’ll be withery and covered in poo. So. much. poo. At this stage I also dump out the poo every other day by picking up the newspaper or paper towel and dumping the poo. I don’t get it immaculate, just remove most of it. Generally I don’t touch the cats at this stage because you can hurt them. If they are clinging to a leaf stem I leave them be and put the fresh leaves on top of them. If I absolutely have to move them I do so gently with a toothpick. I pick them up from underneath, about halfway down their middle. When they are larger I move them more frequently, but I never handle them with my fingers.
By the time they are 9-10 days old they can be eating nearly a leaf a day. At this point you will probably add leaves every day, and at this point I don’t bother with the damp paper towel because they eat so fast. Also, at this point I move them to my butterfly house, or you can move them to a bigger container, again, lined with newspaper or paper towel. I say to do this just you can more easily keep track of them if they are all at different stages. While feeding and changing out spent leaves for the big guys its easy to toss a little guy hiding in a half eaten leaf.
They’ll be super eaters for another 4-6 days. They only stay caterpillars for 14-18 days total. Mine average 15 days. When it becomes ‘their time’ they’ll wander around their enclosure looking for a suitable place to make their chrysalis. Funny enough, 70% of my caterpillars all chose the same area- something about it must be ‘ideal’. First, they’ll just sit up there for about 12 hours. And then for nearly 12 hours they’ll hang in a ‘J’ shape. Generally they turn into chrysalis overnight.
And then let them be, your work is done. Two weeks later they will hatch out. Usually in the morning as it becomes light. You’ll know they’re ready because their chrysalis becomes darker and then that morning it’s fairly translucent. If you have to leave for the day before it comes out, don’t worry, they can stay inside the enclosure for a while. Or, you can put the enclosure outside, opened up and they will let themselves out.
After emerging for a little while your butterfly will look weird as it’s wings are all folded up. It’ll quickly start pumping fluid into it’s wings, which will expand and dry over the course of 2 hours. After 2 hours they can technically fly. I take mine out around that time, letting them crawl on my finger (I’ve never had one try to fly around the house, so don’t worry about that). Then I put them in a sunny but protected spot. The sun really helps them. Their first flight is usually short and spastic looking. But they’ll get the hang of it.
And now, pat yourself on the back. You just helped save a species.
And if you have more questions, these folks are the real pros:
In participation with: