Raising your own

Grab your straw hat and a pitchfork, because this summer you’re becoming a farmer. The days are long, and the work is hard, but after a few weeks of toiling over a pen of fat caterpillars, the flock of black and orange butterflies you’ll have raised will make it all worthwhile.

Well… the work’s actually pretty easy, and you shouldn’t need the pitchfork. The straw hat is a good idea, but then straw hats are always a good idea.

If you or your friends have milkweed plants in your yards, you can hatch and rear your own monarch butterflies.

Adult monarchs lay their tiny eggs on the underside of milkweed leaves, because milkweed is the only plant that monarch caterpillars eat. And when the little caterpillars hatch from those eggs, they really eat. Caterpillars have to go through five growth stages, or instars, before they become butterflies, and all that growing makes them hungry.

So, to start your monarch farm, find a milkweed leaf with a monarch egg on it, and put it in a big jar or a little aquarium with a damp paper towel at the bottom. Cover the top of your jar or aquarium with some screen, or another paper towel and a rubber band.

After the egg hatches, you’ll have to feed your caterpillar (remember—only milkweed leaves!) and replace the damp towel every day. Some of the leaves you feed to your baby monarch may even have more eggs on them, and you could end up with extra caterpillars!

As the caterpillar grows, it will shed off old skins, like a kid outgrowing their clothes. But while you might see your old clothes lying around sometimes, you probably won’t see any caterpillar skins, because they eat the old skins as soon as they take them off.

When the caterpillar has gotten big and fat, and has developed long antennae at one end, put a stick in the jar or aquarium, so it can climb up to the top. When it’s ready, the caterpillar will inch up, and hang from the screen or paper towel in a “J” shape. In a day or two, the caterpillar will have formed a smooth, green chrysalis.

This is sort of the boring part. Your monarch will stay in its pupa form for about two weeks, turning to goo and rearranging itself into a butterfly. Here are some suggestions for what to do for those 2 weeks: pushups, macramé, calligraphy, baseball, sit quietly.

Depending on the temperature, the butterfly may come out of the chrysalis in 10 to 14 days. You’ll know when it’s getting ready, though, because the light green surface of the pupa will turn dark, and eventually you’ll be able to see wing patterns through it. If you’re lucky enough to be around when the butterfly pulls itself out, leave it alone for about a day. It will need some time to dry off and pump up its wings. (The wings will look small and crumpled at first, but that’s how they always start out.)

When your new butterfly is ready, just take the lid off your jar or aquarium, and watch it take off for the first time, in search of other monarchs, and, eventually, some more milkweed for its children.

Check out this link for more information on raising your own monarch butterflies.