Raising a Butterfly

If you read my last post, you will remember that I finally saw a Monarch butterfly in my milkweed, and not only that, she had laid eggs and many had hatched into caterpillars.  I was planning on letting nature take its course in the hopes that at least one of them would live long enough to become a butterfly.  I had no intention of bringing any inside to raise.  Things did not go as planned.

I had always been under the impression that because of their diet of milkweed, Monarch caterpillars and butterflies had few predators.  This is what I had read and heard time and time again.  This is simply NOT TRUE!  Our wonderful world of nature, being the complex system of evolutionary adaptations it is, has produced many insects that just love the seemingly toxic and unpalatable larva. A few of the predators I spotted were ants, stink bugs, and by far the worst of the bunch, wasps.  As more and more of them (by whatever sense they possess that tells them there is a buffet of eggs and caterpillars to feast on) arrived on my milkweed, my caterpillars disappeared.  Within a couple of days I had lost most of them.  I was unfortunate enough to witness a wasp devouring one of the largest caterpillars I had.  It was one of the last of the bunch.  I was going to take a photo of it to post but decided to spare everyone the gruesome sight.

I spotted an egg on the underside of one of the leaves and, out of desperation took it inside.  I had a small plastic container I had used to transport a goldfish we once owned, so I lined it with wet paper towels and placed the egg and leaf inside.  I then furiously researched how to raise Monarch caterpillars and discovered that it didn’t appear to be too difficult, all they needed were milkweed and a clean cage.

This photo shows the tiny egg which can be seen directly below the chewed portion of the leaf.


I wasn’t sure when the egg would hatch.  The butterfly had been around a few days in a row laying eggs.  Later that day, I checked on it and was surprised to discover that it had already hatched!  It was so small it was difficult to focus my lens to get a clear shot of it.  The caterpillar, in its first days, is sort of a clear colour.  It doesn’t develop its characteristic stripes until it has shed its skin.

A tiny caterpillar has emerged from its egg. The depression in the leaf beside it is where the egg was located. The caterpillar eats its way out and then consumes the entire egg.

As the days passed by I discovered that raising a caterpillar was very easy.  They eat, and then they poop, then they eat, then they poop.  A lot. That is all they do.  All I needed to do was change the lining and replace it with a new paper towel every day, and since I had a large supply of milkweed outside I was able to give it fresh new leaves (sometimes with flower buds attached) every day.  That’s it.  I imagine if I had decided to raise many caterpillars at once it would be more work, but still really just feeding and cleaning every so often.

A growing caterpillar.  As you can see it has shed its skin at least once and is showing its stripes.

While I was busy watching and helping this caterpillar grow and thrive, something was also taking place outside among the milkweed.  It was an unexpected pleasure to find that another caterpillar had managed to hide from predators and had grown quite large, all without me even noticing!

A large caterpillar in the milkweed.
Another view of the cat.
Peekaboo!  Enjoying a tasty (at least to him/her) milkweed leaf.

What a discovery!  So now I had two, although this one seemed to be taking care of itself quite well without my help.  It hid in the grass below the plant quite a bit.  I believe that saved it from the suffering the same fate of its brothers and sisters.  It had grown much larger than the one inside, so was definitely a few days older.  Meanwhile, the caterpillar inside the house was also growing nicely.

Still quite small, but growing steadily!

I left for a short trip to Mackinaw City, Michigan (where I saw and photographed many other butterflies at the 2 habitats on Mackinac Island!).  I expected that the caterpillar living on the milkweed would not be there when I returned, since it seemed to be large enough to moult into a chrysalis any day. I took the last pictures of it the day before the trip. It was hiding under a blade of grass the morning I left.  When I returned it was nowhere to be seen.  While I’m not certain of its fate I assume it eventually did succeed in becoming a butterfly.

One of the last photos taken of this Monarch caterpillar.
Bye bye caterpillar!

Its sibling was not quite as large yet, but had still grown some.

Hide and seek seems to be a game caterpillars enjoy, for good reason.

Not to be outdone, I returned to find this caterpillar had grown substantially in the couple of days I was away! It was hard to believe it was even the same one.  The mess had also grown, which I of course was in charge of cleaning.  Lucky me.

Wow!  A growth spurt!

I did not expect this, and was even less prepared for what happened the next morning!

In a “J” formation, the caterpillar prepares to shed its skin one last time to form a chrysalis.

I kept my eye on it for a bit, but as life would have it, I had things to do and therefore had to leave the house for a bit.  I came home to the sight in the photo below.

A chrysalis!

Yup, I missed it all.  Oh well, surely I would see the butterfly emerge in the next 2 weeks, give or take a day or two.  So now the wait was on.  Watching a butterfly in the pupal stage is much the same as watching paint dry.  For days.  And days.  It just became a fixture in the house, never changing and never moving.  Until one day.

A Monarch!

I missed it!  Right before the Monarch emerges, the chrysalis turns clear and one can see the butterfly inside.  I was hoping to be able to document it but just happened to look at it one morning and it had already emerged!  The photo above shows the wings of the new butterfly are still wet and not hardened yet.  At this stage the Monarch still cannot fly.  It has to wait a few hours to be ready to go. I brought it outside in the plastic container that had been its home for the past few weeks and opened the lid in case it decided to fly away.  I was totally unprepared for this stage because it had emerged early and I was not expecting this to happen for at least another 2 or 3 days.  I probably should have left it inside the house safe in its home, but I thought its wings might harden better outside.  I’m still not sure exactly what I should have done, and it probably doesn’t matter since it is an insect and they are generally not that fragile! It’s not like it was a newborn baby or anything.   After a couple of hours I helped it on to a milkweed bloom.  It stayed there drinking nectar and opening and closing its wings.

Happy Birthday!

In the photo below, if you look on the hind wings (the bottom wings) you can see that there are 2 black spots, 1 on each wing.  This indicates that the butterfly is a male.

It’s a boy!

I watched him for a while, but life called again and I had things to do.  I checked on him a few more times and then he was gone.  I’m not quite sure where he ended up eventually but I believe he came around a few times after, because I was able to walk right up to a Monarch resting on my milkweed a few days later.  Most butterflies fluttered away if I would get to close, but one in particular did not.  I’d like to think it was the one I had raised, but I’ll never know.

It is early September now and these Monarchs emerged in early August.  I don’t believe they were part of the migratory population, so they probably lived out their very short lives and hopefully produced part of another generation of Monarchs that are now beginning to migrate to Mexico for the winter.  Their descendants will return north next spring and we will all be able to enjoy their bright colour and delicate beauty as they dance in the sky once again.



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