Monarch Butterfly Rearing Recap: Release and Conservation

The ninth and last butterfly was still a pupa when I went to bed last night. The chrysalis seemed smaller than the others and hadn’t changed colors in the same way the others had, and I was starting to worry that this butterfly wasn’t going to emerge safely. But this morning, there he was, hanging upside-down in the the enclosure, wings already full-size.

We released him after breakfast. Most of the other butterflies had taken their time, tickling our hands with their tiny claws or flying a few feet away only to come back and land on our clothes, as though uncertain about this big, new world. This male, however, flew straight up into the trees as soon as we opened the lid of the enclosure. Perhaps he was anxious to catch up with his fellow monarchs. Or maybe the breeze was just too enticing to hang out with clumsy primates.

All nine of our pupae safely emerged as butterflies, which was better than I had dared to hope. Only one had crumpled upper wings that never completely straightened out. We released her with the others, and while she was perhaps a little more hesitant, standing and taking long drinks at the flowers before venturing out, she seemed to fly okay. We haven’t found any monarch wings in our yard, so we’re hopeful she made it to wherever she was hoping to go.

Overall, this has been an incredible experience. I so hope that importing these monarchs, helping them along indoors, and planting milkweed for them outdoors will help boost their population even just a tiny bit.

If you want to help the monarchs, too, please consider offsetting habitat loss by planting milkweed in your yard. Do an internet search for suppliers in your area or for online nurseries that supply varieties that will thrive in your area, or you can collect seeds in the fall and spread them around your yard. You can also avoid “Roundup Ready” crops, which contribute to habitat loss by making it possible to spray herbicides that kill milkweed and other plants that have traditionally thrived between crop rows (although admittedly, planting milkweed is easier than avoiding Roundup Ready crops, which are pretty ubiquitous at this point).

If you want to raise monarchs in your home, here are some points to keep in mind:

  • Make sure you have an adequate supply of milkweed easily available to collect for your caterpillars. You only need to feed them for a few days before they pupate, but they eat a lot in those few days. Perhaps this is why a female monarch lays only one egg on each milkweed plant.
  • Don’t handle your monarch caterpillars. If you need to move them from place to place, use a small paintbrush or a rigid piece of paper (we used 3 x 5 index cards).
  • Keep their enclosure clean as monarchs are particularly sensitive to bacteria, viruses, and fungal infections that thrive in the waste they excrete (and they excrete a lot of waste).
  • Keep the enclosure in a non-air-conditioned room near a window that gets morning sun but not afternoon sun, which can be too hot for the caterpillars.
  • As you’re choosing your enclosure, you might consider one that opens from the side as well as from the top. We had only top-opening enclosures, and this made cleaning and adding new milkweed challenging once the caterpillars began climbing to the top to pupate.
  • If you’re in the United States, note that you are not permitted to mix populations of eastern and western monarchs. If you’re buying your caterpillars rather than gathering them from the wild, you will need to find a supplier for the half of the country where you will be releasing your monarchs.

In addition to the materials we received with our caterpillar order, we also found very helpful information on this and other projects in Creepy Crawlies and the Scientific Method by Sally Kneidel.

If you raise monarchs and post about the experience, please link to your post in the comments!

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