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Raising Monarchs


(Rose Franklin's Perennials)

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During the shipping season (May thru October), our Facebook fans will receive notification of special promotions being offered on our web site. Occasionally we have more supply than we do demand for either Monarchs or milkweed. When we do, we advertise a flash sale on Fackbook. During the winter, we post lots of tid bits about butterflies, butterfly rearing, and butterfly gardening


Monarch butterflies are easy to raise. In just 24 to 32 days, Monarch metamorphosis (life stages, from egg to caterpillar to pupa to adult butterfly) is completed. And no matter what your age, you will be fascinated by the process.

   To rear Monarch butterflies you will need Monarch eggs or caterpillars, healthy milkweed (Asclepias) plants, and a rearing chamber. A small aquarium with a screened lid will serve this purpose. The mesh Popups we offer on the 'Popup Cages' page are excellent for rearing caterpillars as they are predator-proof, easy to clean, and easy to store (they collapse).

   Before introducing your Monarch caterpillars into the container they will be raised in, you should sanitize the container if it was previously used for raising caterpillars (or if it is dirty and should be cleaned). To sanitize, wash the container in a solution of 10% Clorox and 90% water, letting the sanitizing solution on the container for 10 minutes. Then rinse, and rinse, and rinse several more times until all of the Clorox solution is completely removed. Allow the container to dry thoroughly (preferably outdoors in full sun) before putting the caterpillars inside. The countertop or table upon which the caterpillar rearing container will sit, and any utensils that will be used in the rearing of your caterpillars, should be sanitized too.

   Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), or Tropical Milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) are among the best choices to be utilized as a food source for your caterpillars. Since the caterpillars will require fresh milkweed leaves every day, your milkweed source should be near by.

   To begin your rearing project, cut a few leaves from a milkweed plant. Rinse the leaves under clean water and then wipe them dry with a paper towel. Do not put wet foliage in the cage as this could cause mold to form inside the cage. Wash your hands after handling milkweed foliage. Its sap can be harmful, especially if it comes into contact with your eyes. Put the milkweed leaves in the rearing chamber and then carefully add the Monarch caterpillars. Apply the lid so the caterpillars cannot get out.

   Replenish the caterpillars’ food supply (milkweed) daily and be sure they have an adequate supply of fresh leaves at all times. Caterpillars do not require a source of water as they get all the water they need from the foliage they consume.

Caterpillar frass (droppings, poop) should be cleaned from the rearing chamber on a daily basis to limit the chance of disease. Even in a very clean rearing environment, watch your caterpillars closely for signs of bacterial infection or virus. If any of the caterpillars turn blackish in color or appear deflated, remove those caterpillars immediately and dispose of them. Bacterial infections and viruses kill the infected individuals and they are highly contagious.

   Monarch caterpillars grow fast and molt (shed their skin) five times during their growth. When they are soon going to molt, they generally crawl away from the milkweed and sit still for hours. Do not gather these caterpillars up and put them back on the milkweed, thinking they just wondered off and couldn't find their way back to their food. When it's time to molt, they won't be hungry, and really should not be handled. 

After reaching their full length of about 2¼” (usually 10 to 14 days after hatching from their eggs), the caterpillars stop eating again and generally crawl to the top of the rearing chamber. There each spins a silken pad to secure itself to the lid and then it hangs upside down in a J shape until the next day.

   The transformation from caterpillar to pupa (chrysalis) must be one of the most fascinating displays nature has to offer. It begins shortly after the caterpillar’s antennae begin to look zigzagged (wrinkled). By the time the caterpillar is ready to pupate, it looks somewhat deflated. At this point though, the deflated look is normal and to be expected.

   When the transformation from caterpillar to chrysalis is complete, the chrysalis will be only about 1” long. You will wonder how a 2¼” caterpillar could fit inside such a small container. The chrysalis will be very soft at first and at this point, and should not be touched. Once it hardens, it will be jade green with a metallic gold band near the top and metallic gold dots toward the bottom.

   Motionless, the chrysalis hangs for 10 to 14 days. Inside a remarkable change is taking place though: a not-so-cute caterpillar is becoming a beautiful Monarch butterfly. The day before the Monarch emerges from its chrysalis, it turns transparent and you can actually see the Monarch’s orange and black wings inside.

   Once the chrysalis cracks open, it takes less than 30 seconds for the butterfly to completely emerge from its shell. Immediately following emergence, the Monarch’s wings are small and its body is short and plump. Within 90 minutes or so, the Monarch is full-sized and able to fly. Weather permitting, it should be set free outdoors within a few hours.


   The best option for rearing caterpillars, in my opinion, is to let the caterpillars feed on potted milkweed plants. Once leaves are cut from a plant, they begin to wilt and more importantly, begin to loose their nutrient value. But to do this, you must of course, have to have a cage that is large enough to house a potted plant.

   
Raising OE-Free Monarchs

   If you are raising Monarch butterflies, it would be beneficial for you to know what OE is and to take precautions to protect your caterpillars from becoming infected with OE.
   I created a slide presentation entitled 'Raising OE-Free Monarchs' to share with all who raise butterflies in the home or in a classroom. I suggest that you download the PDF to your computer so you can view it at your convenience.
   Even if you're not raising Monarchs (one of just a few butterflies that can contract OE), but you are raising other butterfly species, you will likely find valuable information on operating procedures which will aid in reducing the transmission of many other insect diseases in your rearing operation. And sometimes, making the simplest of changes can greatly increase your success in raising healthy butterflies.

Raising Healthy Monarchs in the Classroom in Fall

Rearing Monarchs in the classroom is the same as rearing them anywhere else so the instructions above should be read thoroughly before you begin your rearing project. This means you begin by first sanitizing the rearing cage, the table or countertop where the cage is going to sit, and all utensils that might be used in raising your caterpillars.

Cleanliness is important but so too is the health of the host plant being fed to the caterpillars. We have all heard that “you are what you eat.” While this saying holds much merit for humans, it is more true for butterflies, and especially during the larval stage of development. In the case of humans, what we eat is important, but also of importance is exercise, emotional state, and level of stress. With caterpillars though, it’s all about the food; for all caterpillars do is eat. Eat and poop. Their health doesn’t depend upon how much they exercise or what they think about during the course of a day. It depends essentially upon what is entering and exiting their stomachs. 

Milkweed varies in nutritional quality based upon species and age. For teachers who are raising Monarchs in the classroom in September, the issue of milkweed age in an important consideration. If the caterpillars are being reared on Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), they are likely malnourished.  How do I know this? By September, Common Milkweed is headed toward dormancy and its leaves are no longer packed with high-quality nutrients. Malnourished, the caterpillars’ immune system will be weakened and resistance to disease will be compromised. When the immune system is not strong enough to fight off the pathogens that cause bacterial, viral, parasitic, and fungal infections, disease is more prone to develop.

Because the health of the caterpillar so much depends upon the health of the larval food, I suggest that if you are intending to raise Monarchs in the classroom in September, you also plan on having large, potted Tropical Milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) plants to utilize as larval food. To have large plants in September, you can either sow Tropical Milkweed seeds in April or May, or you can purchase small potted plants in June and then raise them to maturity. My suggestion is that you keep the plants in pots, moving them to slightly larger pots as necessary for continued root growth. The plants should be grown outdoors, preferably in full sun.

Since Tropical Milkweed does not go dormant until long after Common Milkweed does, Tropical should be the species of choice in rearing Monarch caterpillars in September. And to insure that the foliage is as nutritious as possible, the leaves should not be cut from the stems (this, because Tropical Milkweed foliage wilts quickly once cut from the plant). Instead, potted plants should be used to feed the caterpillars, replacing devoured plants with fresh, lush ones, as necessary.  

Will using Tropical Milkweed as the food plant guarantee healthy Monarchs? No. Quite frankly, it is much easier to raise Monarchs (and other butterfly species too) in June, July, and August, than it is to raise them in September and October. During the summer months, disease-causing pathogens, parasites, parasitoids, and predators all multiply exponentially in nature. By September, they are in the air, on plants, on adult butterflies, everywhere. With an abundance of pathogens abound, there is more chance for caterpillars to become infected.

Tropical Milkweed, because it contains more nourishment in September than Common Milkweed does, will certainly aid the caterpillars in keeping their immune systems strong. But with disease causing pathogens dramatically increased in number by September, it is difficult for the caterpillars to escape infection.

Most teachers are able to raise healthy Monarchs, even in September, but some do periodically encounter problems. If you have experienced problems in the past, and raised your caterpillars on Common Milkweed, I suggest you try rearing your caterpillars on Tropical Milkweed. The stronger the caterpillars’ immune systems, the more likely it is that they will survive to become healthy adults. And remember that in nature, less than 2% of Monarchs survive long enough to become adults. If your success rate is higher than 2%, you have done a better job of raising your butterflies than Mother Nature does.

Glossary of Butterfly Terminology

Abdomen
The last of three sections of a butterfly’s body. The abdomen is composed of ten segments and contains the reproductive organs. Digestive and excretory functions also occur here.

Antenna (singular)
Antennae (plural)
Located on the butterfly’s head, these appendages are equipped with chemical receptors that serve the function of smelling. They also assist the butterfly in balance.

Caterpillar
Larva. The second stage in the life cycle of a butterfly.  

Chrysalis (singular)
Chrysalises, Chrysalides (plural)
Pupa. The shell that encases a caterpillar as it transforms from caterpillar to butterfly.

Cremaster
The hook-like appendage at the end of a caterpillar’s abdomen that is used to attach the caterpillar to its silk-like pad for pupation.  

Eclose
Eclosure, Eclosion

When the butterfly emerges from the chrysalis (pupa).

Egg
The first stage in the life cycle of a butterfly.  

Exoskeleton
The skin-like covering that provides support and protection for an insect’s body.  

Filaments
Fleshy antennae-like extensions at the front or rear of caterpillars which are used as sense organs.

Frass
The waste product (poop) excreted by a caterpillar (larva).  

Hemolymph
The blood-like substance of insects which is usually yellowish in color.  

Instar
The period between caterpillar molts. There are generally five instars during the larval stage.

Larva (singular)
Larvae (plural)
Caterpillar. The second stage in the life cycle of a butterfly.

Lepidoptera
The order of insects which includes butterflies and moths.

Molting
The shedding of skin. Most butterfly larvae molt five times during the larval stage of development.

Oviposit
The laying of eggs.  

Pheromone
A scent emitted by the males of some species of butterflies making him attractive to females.

Proboscis
The straw-like apparatus located on a butterfly’s head which is used for feeding (the intake of liquids). When not in use, it is coiled up under the butterfly’s head.

Prolegs
The five pair of leg-like appendages on the abdomen of a caterpillar’s body.

Pupa (singular)
Pupae (plural)
Chrysalis. The third stage in the life cycle of a butterfly. The stage in which a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly.

Pupate
The shedding of skin which occurs as a caterpillar (larva) becomes a pupa (chrysalis).

Spinneret
The organ located on the head of a caterpillar which is used for creating silk-like threads.

Spiracles
The small openings on the skin of insects through which they breathe.

Thorax
The middle portion of a butterfly’s body. Composed of three segments, the butterfly’s two pair of wings and three pair of legs are attached to the thorax.

 

Rose Franklin's Perennials
107 Butterfly Lane      Spring Mills, PA  16875

(814) 422-8968        Email:  MilkweedLady@aol.com 

During our busy shipping season (May 1 thru September 30), please email, don't call.

 

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Revised: February 10, 2018