Most people I talk to remember seeing these beautiful orange butterflies all summer long. As a matter of fact, it seemed to be the mascot of summer. Until just a year or two ago, they became more of a rarity to see. Unfortunately, they are a threatened creature, yet there are many things you can do to help protect this magical butterfly. Find out how in 6 best practices to raise Monarchs.
As of 2019, there have been conflicting views on raising Monarchs indoors. Some claim that when raised inside, they do not have the built-in sensors needed to regulate wind and therefore migrate. Others claim this is nonsense. I will talk about this and what you can do if you are concerned with this possibility.
1. Plant milkweed and nectar flowers
Regardless if you want to raise Monarchs in your yard or bring them inside to raise, milkweed is non-negotiable.
This is the only plant that the Monarchs will lay their eggs on as it is the only host plant for the caterpillar. A nice bonus is that the smell of the milkweed flower resembles lilacs!
Varieties should be native for best practices. They can be spread out in your flower garden or pretty much anywhere in your yard. They do prefer mostly sunny areas.
It is also essential to have a variety of nectar flowers in your yard.
This will not only attract the Monarch butterfly but could be their first meal after they emerge from their chrysalis.
Having nectar flowers is not only great for the Monarchs, but also for all of the other vital pollinators in your area. A quick internet search will provide you with a list of flowers native to your area that the Monarch prefers.
Whether you are letting nature do its thing in your yard or whether you plan to bring a few indoors to raise, you MUST have an ample supply of milkweed growing at all times. It is also of utmost importance that zero pesticides are used, as this will kill them all immediately.
Make sure you wash your hands every time after handling milkweed for it can cause irritation to eyes!
2. Buy a variety of habitats
If you want the exciting experience of raising Monarch caterpillars indoors, proper habitats are a must. They come in a wide variety of sizes. I prefer the 12 x 12 x 12 size and the 24 x 24 x 36 size. I have several of these for different caterpillar instars (ages) or for any that I think may need to be isolated.
I love the habitats with the handles, as I like to put them outside in a protected area for most of the day when possible. There are also much bigger habitats made from plastic and wood that people use solely outside or in their screened-in porch. This is a great idea as long as it’s easy to get into to clean.
An added bonus is having floral tubes for your milkweed cuttings. This isn’t necessary but I find these vital to my sanity to keep fresh milkweed for my Monarchs!
Habitats need to be made of this fine mesh so tiny caterpillars can’t escape, which they will, as they often travel long ways during the day to find new milkweed or to find somewhere to molt or pupate.
They also need to be big enough to give your charges room not only for themselves but the milkweed cuttings. No overcrowding!
3. Keep it sanitary!
This is probably the most important part if you want to raise Monarchs indoors. You will quickly see that they poop frequently!
As a matter of fact, a Monarch increases in size by 2,000 times while it’s a caterpillar. This unbelievable transformation takes place in only about 9-14 days. The weight it gains as a larva determines the butterfly’s size and health as an adult. So you can imagine the amount of waste just one caterpillar has!
I put paper towels on the bottom of the habitat and change them daily. This is vital as you don’t want the caterpillars crawling around on their own feces throughout the day. This could cause the spreading of some very deadly diseases. It is also harmful to their general health.
Also, the milkweed will need to be monitored since how long it stays fresh will vary. This depends on how you cut it, how quickly you put it in water, and how warm it is where you have the habitat. Also, some varieties last longer than others after being cut. Fresh milkweed is a must.
I can’t stress the importance of keeping it clean. This is one of the best practices to raise Monarchs!
4. Don’t overpopulate your habitats!
When purchasing your habitats, you will see a description of how many caterpillars can be safely raised in one. I tend to go fewer than they say. This is for sanitary reasons as well as respect for the Monarch as overcrowding can cause stress. No need to be crowded!
While it’s wise to take in only a few, so you don’t find yourself taking care of them all day (they take up a good amount of your time!), it’s also essential for their health if you plan to raise Monarchs.
Briefly mentioned earlier but important to explain, make sure you don’t have different “ages” of caterpillars mixed together. The reason for this is that Monarchs don’t have good eyesight, so if they smell milkweed, they will eat it. Caterpillars smell like milkweed, so the bigger ones may accidentally eat the smaller ones if mixed.
I definitely keep the 5-instars together alone so any younger ones don’t accidentally eat the chrysalis before it hardens.
I tend to keep eggs on the leaves in vented, covered containers until they hatch. Once they get to about a 2-instar, I move them to the habitats together.
5. Be a good steward of your hobby
This includes what we’ve talked about as far as keeping your habitats sanitary and not letting them get crowded. Keeping their food fresh and knowing when to release them is also vital.
It really is a fun hobby and very rewarding to raise Monarchs, but it does take some time, and you must be able to dedicate yourself to these beautiful creatures if you are indeed stepping in to raise them.
While it’s true that a very small percentage of eggs laid in the wild make it to adulthood, keeping your yard pesticide-free is also a must or none will make it.
This also brings me to the conversation discussed within the past couple of years about them not being able to properly migrate to Mexico if raised indoors. To my knowledge, this isn’t proven, but in case there is some truth to it, I do put my habitats outside when possible in a partly sunny, not-too-hot area. I try to keep them out there at least half the day and tend to have one or two habitats that are in protected areas all season long.
This is your choice, but as with any learning, it’s essential to do your research and gather information from trusted sources.
There are also many books out there on the subject. So far, my favorite book for beginners or those not preferring the super scientific view is The Monarch by Kylee Baumle. It’s very informative but easy to read.
The more you know, the better your experience will be, and the healthier your Monarchs will be!
6. How to release
If you are providing a natural habitat for them outdoors by providing the milkweed and nectar flowers, then you may not see their chrysalis, but you will see them fluttering from flower to flower.
However, if you raise Monarchs indoors, then you, of course, need to release them. While I’m sure some do it differently than others, the most important thing is the safety of the butterfly.
Once they emerge from their chrysalis, they will hang there for quite a while and generally are ready to be released, weather permitting (no hard rain or wind), in approximately 2-4 hours if the temperature outside is ideally at least 70 degrees. They can be released if necessary, down to 60 degrees.
What I do is take the entire habitat carefully outside. I very gently place my finger near the face of the butterfly, under the body, and allow them to step on.
This is the only time I touch the Monarch.
I then bring them outside the habitat on my finger and let them fly away when they are ready. If the butterfly is taking its sweet time, I often will allow it to crawl onto a safe flower or plant and let them fly away when ready.
Some people may prop the door of the habitat open and let them fly out on their own. As long as it’s secure so it doesn’t blow away!
I personally was pretty nervous when I first started this hobby. I had a small handful of helpful friends who I often texted for questions. I also read a ton of information online and in books.
I’ve found it to be gratifying and exciting to watch. It’s also a good feeling knowing I am supporting the Monarch’s population by having a lot of milkweed and flower gardens outside.
I’m curious, when did your love of Monarchs start? Comment below and share your story!