The Process of Caterpillar / Butterfly Nursing
In order to attract Monarch Butterflies and other beneficial pollinators, we have to provide the right environment for them. It's actually easy to get started. All we have to do is plant pollinator-attracting plants, like Bee Balm and Milkweed.
In the late spring, Monarch Butterflies mate, and look for Milkweed on which to lay their eggs. So planting Milkweed is the best way to attract lots of Monarch butterflies. The slide show above has images of Milkweed seeds, and how we dry the seeds on newspapers at the end of the summer. We'll plant the Milkweed in the early Spring time, so it's there when the Monarchs need it.
When you do plant or gather Milkweed, make sure to keep an eye out for any passing Monarchs. If you see them, you'll know to check for caterpillar eggs or actual caterpillars. You can see a Monarch caterpillar egg in slide #3 of the slideshow.
When we find Milkweed leaves with Monarch caterpillar eggs on them, we'll cut the Milkweed and bring the fresh cut plants inside to protect them. It takes a few days before the eggs hatch, but once they do, you'll see tiny caterpillars moving about on the Milkweed leaves. The Monarch caterpillars are hungry little critters, so plant as much Milkweed as you can. As the caterpillars grow, they will consume milkweed at an astounding rate. One caterpillar can easily eat a dozen milkweed leaves in a day. We'll sometimes need to (gently) move caterpillars around to other Milkweed branches, so that they don't fight each other over the one remaining leaf!
When keeping the caterpillars indoors, it is necessary to make sure they have a safe and sunny environment. Near a window, and away from pets. They are usually most comfortable in a old fish tank lined with paper towels, with some dry sticks, and some fresh milkweed standing in a jar. We also add some mesh screening to cover the habitat. This prevents pets from getting in, or the caterpillars getting out. Remember to clean the tank every day, and refill the Milkweed as needed.
It is also important that the caterpillars have a safe place to form their chrysalis. Usually, the best way to do this would be to move the full grown caterpillar into a separate environment. For example, we sometimes use a separate mason jar. Fill a mason jar with paper towels at the bottom, a stick, and some fresh Milkweed. This will make a perfectly sufficient home for your caterpillar. Here the caterpillar would be able to safely form its chrysalis with no disturbances. In a matter of weeks, you will see the caterpillar fully transform into a Monarch butterfly. You'll know that the chrysalis is ready to open when the color darkens. It will change from a bright emerald green, to deep black over the course of a day or two. In fact, the chrysalis itself has turned translucent, and what you are seeing is the Monarch's black wing coloration through the chrysalis.
Once the chrysalis has opened, the butterfly needs time to dry its wings. Make sure the butterfly is not disturbed during the time it is drying its wings, because this is when he or she is most fragile. If the wings are damaged at this stage, the butterfly is unlikely to survive and reproduce again. After a few hours of drying, the butterfly will likely attempt to fly. Be patient, and let the butterfly sit for several hours before you attempt to release it. Of course, if it is ready to go sooner, all the better. A sure sign that the mature butterfly is ready to go is when it flutters about indoors. This is not only fun to see, it is also a sure sign that you can let your little friend go into the wild with confidence, and watch it flutter-fly away!
Image credit: Kelly Lejeune, thinglink.com