The end of summer is near and the school year will soon start again. What better way to kick off the school year than an interesting conservation lesson? Bring the life cycle of a Monarch right into your classroom!
Raising a monarch in your classroom is a simple yet rewarding experience. If you haven’t raised monarchs before, don’t worry! A few tips and you’ll be a pro! When starting, you have the option to order monarch eggs or find them yourselves. It is actually suggested that you find your own eggs because monarchs that are commercially raised do not always find their way to Mexico. Not sure how to find your own monarch eggs and/or caterpillars? Read below!
Step One: Finding the Eggs & Caterpillars
Monarch butterfly eggs can be tricky to find if you don’t know exactly what you are looking for. However, once you do, it’s a piece of cake! The best time to start looking for monarchs is after the Fourth of July. The monarchs will begin to arrive in June and will stick around until late August. Generally, monarchs lay their eggs on the underside of the milkweed leaf. Grab the tip of the leaf and gently pull the leaf back so you can see the underside. Be careful not to grab too much of the leaf as you could grab an egg or caterpillar!
The egg of a monarch is milky white and oval shaped with faint vertical white lines. If you do not see the lines, do not be discouraged. The lines may not be visible in a dim light. It is very common to see eggs of other insects on the plant so look very closely to make sure you have the right egg!
Helpful tip: Monarchs like to lay their eggs on young, fresh milkweed. While they will lay eggs on taller, older milkweed, the younger milkweed is more likely to host monarch eggs.
As the end of summer approaches, it is more likely that you will find already hatched caterpillars rather than their eggs. A young caterpillar is very small so be on the look out for even the smallest of caterpillars! A great way to track down a caterpillar is to look for milkweed that has been eaten away. If you can see that some of the leaves have been eaten, chances are it was a caterpillar!
Once you locate an egg or caterpillar, cut the milkweed plant stem with scissors and place the plant in water. A butter, whipped cream, or any other type of disposable plastic container with a lid works great for this. With a knife, make two small incisions that form an “X” in the lid. Fill the container to the brim with water and put the lid on. The stem of the milkweed plant should then fit snugly in the X-shaped incision. A plastic fast food cup and lid also work well. It is very important that whatever container you use must have a lid. If it doesn’t the caterpillar could fall off of the plant and drown in the water.
Step Two: Raising the Caterpillars
Once the caterpillars hatch and begin to grow, they will eat a lot of milkweed. It is very important that you keep up with them as they begin to eat away the plant. Once the caterpillars are close to finishing one plant, cut a new plant and place it with the old plants. There is no need to move the caterpillar from one plant to another as the caterpillars will make their way to the new plant on their own. Before throwing out the old plants, make sure you examine it for any caterpillars!
If you have ever raised caterpillars before you know that they poop… a lot. If you don’t keep up with them, you could end up with quite a mess! A great way to keep your monarch area clean is to lay layers of paper towels down. That way as the caterpillars do their business you can just roll a layer of paper towels up to throw away.
Step Three: Waiting for the Chrysalises to Form
In order to see the full metamorphosis of the caterpillar into the butterfly, it is very important that you have your caterpillars in an enclosed container. If you don’t, the caterpillars could make their chrysalis somewhere where you will never see it! Sometimes, the caterpillars will form their chrysalis on the milkweed, but generally they like to find something more stable. A mesh lid works very well but as long as you have a lid the caterpillars will more than likely make their chrysalis there.
Step Four: Hatching the Butterflies
This is the most exciting part! The metamorphosis lasts for about 10-14 days. As the chrysalis gets closer to hatching, it will turn dark. Eventually you will be able to see a scrunched up version of a monarch inside the chrysalis. When you can see this, the monarch will be hatching soon! After the monarch has emerged, it is very important to let the butterfly dry its wings. When butterflies emerge from a chrysalis, their wings are wet and they are not able to fly. If you do release them when their wings are wet, make sure you place them on a bush or shrub. Otherwise, if you wait a few hours, they should be able to fly when you release them.
When you grab the monarch, you must be very careful as their wings are very fragile. Pinch the wings together and grab both wings gently near the body.
What if my caterpillar doesn't make its chrysalis on the top of my container?
If the chrysalis is on a milkweed leaf…
- Leave it be: You will have to be very careful if you do this. Carefully remove any caterpillars on the same plant as they will eat away the rest of the plant and the chrysalis will not have any support to hold it up. The biggest problem with leaving the chrysalis on the milkweed is that eventually the milkweed plant will die. If the plant is not fresh, this could happen before the butterfly hatches.
- Remove the chrysalis: If you remove the chrysalis, you must hang it up. You cannot leave the chrysalis sit on the ground. The best way to remove a chrysalis is to carefully cut the leave off of the plant then trim away the leaf to a small section about the size of a quarter. A great way to hang the chrysalis is by alligator clips like the ones pictures below in this butterfly box.
If the chrysalis is on the side of the container…
The best solution is to leave the chrysalis there and be very careful. As long as you are very careful, the chrysalis should still hatch.
What if the chrysalis falls?
What does milkweed look like?
I ran out of milkweed. Now what?
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