Explore the monarch butterfly life cycle right at home! In this post I share how we grew our own milkweed, observed caterpillars hatching from eggs, saw firsthand the forming of the chrysalis, released monarchs, and harvested milkweed seeds all on our own! (This post contains affiliate links.)
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Over this last year the kids and I were able to explore the life cycle of the monarch butterfly right in our own backyard! We started by planting our own milkweed seeds, witnessed the entire life cycle of the monarchs, and harvested more seeds from our milkweed plants to continue this amazing experience again.
I’ll describe how we raised monarchs indoors in the post below, but we were also able to observe the monarch life cycle with all the caterpillars and butterflies that would visit us throughout the months right in our own backyard. It was absolutely amazing!
Some Background Information
I am by no means an expert on the monarch butterfly. This was our first time taking part in raising monarchs (which actually made it super fun to do together as a family). We read as many books as we could find, watched videos online, and visited our local natural history museum for information to help us along.
Our favorite children’s book for raising monarchs was: How to Raise Monarch Butterflies by Carol Pasternak.
I also hadn’t been planning on writing a post about our experience, so the photos I’ve used in this post were all just taken on my phone as the year went on. But, the experience was so memorable that I really wanted to share it with all of you!
Whether you live in an area of the country where you can take part in this activity at home or just want to share some pictures of the life cycle with your children or students, I hope this helps in some way. (If you don’t live in an area where you can raise monarchs, be sure to check out this butterfly habitat option.)
Important Reminder: Monarch numbers in North America are in the decline and many people (including us) want to help the numbers by increasing the caterpillars’ chances of survival by raising them ourselves.
But, you don’t want to disrupt the natural pattern of monarch migration, so be sure to check your local resources for their recommendations. For instance, we have a monarch sanctuary nearby that asks that no milkweed is grown within 10 miles of the sanctuary. We also received our first set of milkweed seeds free from our local museum to be sure we were using the species of milkweed native to our area.
The Monarch Butterfly Life Cycle
We started by our journey into the monarch butterfly life cycle by planting milkweed seeds we received from our local natural history museum. We planted them indoors and later transferred them outside when they had grown large enough. (Here’s a post on starting seeds inside with kids.)
As our milkweed grew, along came the aphids. (We researched and found out we had oleander aphids.) There were quite a few on our milkweed before we noticed them, and we wanted to get them under control before the monarchs came during their migration to our area, so we decided to release ladybugs. Those ladybugs went to town eating aphids! Once our aphids were under control, we would check our milkweed daily to remove any stragglers.
Once the monarch butterflies arrived in our area, we would check our milkweed for eggs multiple times a day. We knew after reading books about monarchs, we’d most likely find the tiny, white eggs under the leaves. Lucy discovered the first one after a few days of monarch visits, and we were ecstatic! (Little did we know as the weeks went on, it would be nearly impossible to find a leaf without an egg. We also got really good at spotting the monarchs actually laying eggs right on the leaf!)
We wanted to raise as many caterpillars indoors as we could to increase their chance of survival. We figured we had about enough milkweed plants to try for 10. (Remember, as monarch caterpillars grow and are in their later instar stages, they eat a TON of milkweed, so you want to have access to a lot of milkweed to feed them.)
We gently removed the leaf with the egg from the plant and kept it in a plastic container in our house. After about 3-4 days, the egg began to have a black appearance on the tip, so we knew a caterpillar would be emerging soon.
We wanted to make sure it had fresh milkweed to eat once it emerged, so we picked a fresh leaf to put it on. To transfer the egg to the new leaf, we gently cut off the portion of the leaf with the egg and used tweezers to place that portion onto the fresh leaf.
Monarch caterpillars go through five instar stages in about 10-14 days. They also molt, or shed their skin, as they grow. A monarch caterpillar will actually increase in size 3000 times in the two weeks from the day it hatches until it becomes a chrysalis!
When our first caterpillar emerged from an egg, we couldn’t believe how tiny it was. We noticed it had a black head and light, yellow-green body. We read it eats its eggshell as its first meal and then moves onto eating the milkweed plant.
It was fun to observe the changes of the caterpillar over time as it went through the different instar stages. Each day we’d give the caterpillars fresh leaves (wrapping their stems in moist towels to keep them from drying out) and clean their containers of frass (caterpillar poop).
Once the caterpillars were large enough, we transferred them into a plastic habitat where they were easier to see and care for.
Here’s some caterpillars we spotted outside on our milkweed- going for survival on their own!
Once the caterpillars had reached their fifth instar, we knew it was almost time for them to form a chrysalis. At this point they were eating a ton of milkweed, and we were cleaning up tons of frass!
When a caterpillar is about to form a chrysalis, it will ‘j-hang’. It attaches itself with silk to a surface and hangs from it upside down, forming a shape resembling the letter j.
We were actually never able to see first-hand the caterpillar form the chrysalis. Each time we noticed a caterpillar in a j-hang, we’d wake up the next day to see a full chrysalis in the morning!
The caterpillar remains in the chrysalis stage for about 10-14 days. When the butterfly is about to emerge (or eclose), the green chrysalis begins to turn clear, and you can see the black and orange wings inside.
When a monarch butterfly emerges, it’s wings start out crumpled. It pumps fluid through them and lets them dry. We had to be sure not to disturb the monarch during this time.
When we were ready to release a monarch butterfly, we made sure it was a nice day and that there were lots of yummy butterfly flowers nearby. We took the monarchs outside. (Lucy loved this part- I think it was her most memorable portion of the whole experience.)
After getting to observe the butterflies right on our fingers, we gently placed them on some flowers and watched them feed and fly away!
Harvesting Milkweed Seeds
After all the monarchs had left our area, our milkweed’s seed pods began to turn brown and open. Inside are tons of seeds attached to bits of fluff. The wind blows the fluff and seeds and scatters them!
We harvested some of our own milkweed seeds by taking the seeds from some of the opened seed pods and removed the fluff. We stored them in an envelope until we were ready to plant them!
Next year we’re hoping to plant even more milkweed with the seeds we harvested and help the monarch population increase!