The process begins with the creation of a habitat hospitable to Monarchs. My lovely wife has removed our suburban lawn and transformed it into gardens. Native milkweed and nectar plants have been nurtured here in the hope that Monarchs would come. A good source of the plants is Monarchwatch. This summer our first egg laying Monarch appeared July 21st. She was battered and beaten but managed to lay a fair number of eggs before dying in our back yard.
We watched her lay her eggs and then marked the leaves for collection of the eggs later. I have found it is best to leave the eggs on the plant until just before they are ready to hatch, if the leaves are removed too early they dry out and this seems to reduce the viability of the egg. This picture shows the white, tiny (pencil tip sized) half football shaped egg.
The head of the caterpillar will appear as a black spot at the top of the egg about a day before it will hatch. It is at this point that I cut off the leaf at the stem and place the leaf on a moistened paper towel until hatching.
The just hatched caterpillar will be about a millimeter wide and a few millimeters long. It will immediately eat the egg casing and set about feeding.
Do not mess with the tiny caterpillar as long as the leaf it is feeding upon is healthy and viable. I place the leaf into a mason jar with a dry paper towel secured over the opening. This will prevent escape and allows enough air to circulate.
When the original leaf appears wilted it is time to move the caterpillar onto a fresh milkweed leaf. I do this by cutting around the caterpillar with scissors and placing the cut out portion of leaf on a fresh leaf. Placing a moistened paper towel under the leaf keeps it viable longer. You may be tempted to move the caterpillar onto the new leaf or push it off the glass onto a leaf. Avoid this temptation as it is very easy to damage the caterpillar, especially if it has just molted. This image below shows the freshly molted skin just behind the caterpillar to the left in the image.
For the next 10 days you will be harvesting leaves and feeding the caterpillars daily. I place 2 leaves into the jar with each caterpillar.
When they are eating about a whole leaf per day it is time to consider moving them to a space large enough for them to hang and emerge. I have found that fish tanks work well for this. At this point I cut a short stem with several leaves and place that in the container each day.
Approximately 3 weeks from hatching the caterpillar will climb to the top of the container and begin making a silk button from which it will hang during pupation.
The caterpillar will place it's hind end over the button and insert it's cremaster (small black claw like structure) into the silk button and suspend itself. This attachment is very sturdy even if it is placed directly on glass. Several days will elapse and then the caterpillar will pull itself into a "J" shape in preparation for pupation.
The caterpillar skin splits from the bottom and in a fascinating process of twisting and wriggling the skin is forced to the top and falls away. The soft green pupae is shaped into a hard green pupae with gold beading at the top over the next hour.
Another week to 10 days will elapse and you will notice the pupae darkens and you can see the wing colors through the shell of the chrysallis.
You will only have to wait a day or two more now to see your butterfly. Around midday the chrysalis will split at the bottom and the butterfly will emerge and hang upside down as it pumps fluid into its wings.
A clear golden liquid will drip from the wings during this process. The butterfly will hang upside down while drying and should not be disturbed during this time. It will wave its wings during the drying process. In 3 to 5 hours the butterfly will become restless and will begin walking about. It is now time to prepare for release. The outside temperature should ideally be above 60 degrees so their body temp will be high enough for flight. I bring the container outside to a safe area of the yard and place it so the butterfly can walk out of the container. They do not climb glass very well.
They will sit quietly and wave their wings for some time before taking flight. This is a good chance to observe them and take pictures. Here is a beautiful female.
The male is distinguished by symmetric wider marks on the dark bands on the lower wings.
Our Monarchs probably from the Pacific Grove California area. We watch with anxiety as they take wing. Will they journey safely? Will their children return next year? One can only hope. I encourage you to make some habitat for Monarchs in your space. Raising Monarchs is truly a miraculous process and I hope you try it. Finally, share it with someone small and create a love of nature in the generations to come!