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Staff Hobby - Butterfly Rearing

Updated: Jun 27, 2022

Which one of us would you guess raises caterpillars to butterflies in the summer? If you guessed Dustin, you are correct!

So one day I was weeding our flowerbeds and noticed this colorful worm on a plant I planted. Years ago, I remember being in the vegetable garden with grandma and she told us the worms on tomatoes were not good. But before I gave this worm "a fling through the air" I thought I'd better do a quick search on Google to see if this was a good worm. Turns out, I'm glad I searched because it was a Monarch caterpillar! I wanted to see the process first hand of the caterpillar going to butterfly, so I clipped a section of the plant, put it in a cage, and watched the process. That summer, 2017, we ended up raising about 25 monarchs to adults and have been hooked ever since!

The butterfly lifecycle is in four parts: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis), and adult. Each species of butterfly spends different times in each part of the lifecycle, caterpillars of different butterflies don't look the same, and each species of caterpillars eats a different type of plant. We've raised both Monarch butterflies and Black Swallowtails but I'll just discuss Monarchs in this article.

For Monarchs, the egg stage is usually 3-7 days, caterpillar is about 2 weeks, pupa is 7-14 days depending on ambient temperature, and adult is 2-5 weeks. The only adults that life longer than 5 weeks migrate to Mexico for the winter and live for 9 months.

Below are pictures from each part of the lifecycle.

Female Monarchs lay eggs on milkweed and only milkweed plants. They will not eat any other type of plant. In our small yard in town, we have Cinderella Swamp Milkweed (pink), Ice Ballet Swamp Milkweed (white), Showy Milkweed, Common Milkweed, Orange Butterfly Weed, Hello Yellow Butterfly Weed, and Tropical Milkweed (also called Mexican Milkweed or Bloodflower). All are native in Ohio aside from the Tropical Milkweed.

Speaking of females, it's not easy to tell the difference between male and female Monarchs until the adult stage, which is true for most butterflies and moths. For Monarchs, males have thinner black lines and two black dots which are scent glands on their wings. Females have thicker black lines with no dots. When seeing them side by side, it's easy to tell the difference. The bottom line is if one has the "dots," then it's male. See below:

The caterpillars are very distinct and looking at them, you'd never guess they were a Monarch butterfly based on their colors. Monarch caterpillars are black, white, and yellow striped. From the time they hatch to the time they pupate, they grow over 1000 times their original size. Below are some pictures from egg and various stages of caterpillar.

The Monarch butterfly population has plummeted for a couple reasons, one being people getting rid of milkweed from their properties since it's not the most beautiful plant, and another reason because of pesticides. In recent years populations have made a comeback because more people are planting native milkweeds and raising them in captivity protected from predators.

Female Monarch butterflies lay 100-300 eggs in their adulthood, but only about 10% of the eggs make it to adulthood, that's 10-30 butterflies. Spiders and ants eat the eggs and caterpillars, stink bugs eat the caterpillars, sometimes birds and animals eat the caterpillars but will likely get sick because milkweed is poisonous, and a T-fly lays it's eggs on the caterpillar and once hatched they make the caterpillar it's host and act as a parasite.

Below left is a spider who's killed a caterpillar. Below right are 5 T-fly pupae that expelled themselves from a parasitized caterpillar.

Adult butterflies can only drink flower nectar so planting any color flowers in your garden will attract butterflies. Monarchs seem to love Tithonia (Mexican Sunflowers), Cosmos, and Zinnias. Those are the annuals I plant in our front yard to lure them into laying eggs on our various milkweed plants.

If you found this article interesting, stay tuned for a future article all about Black Swallowtails.

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