Lee Valley & Veritas

Gardening Newsletter
  Volume 9, Issue 7 - July 2014  
How to Raise a Monarch Butterfly
We're gardeners, you and I. And because of that we share a bond that non-gardeners just can't relate to. We greet each other over hedges, on lawns and in the back-brace aisle of the drugstore, nodding in acknowledgement of our common nemesis: the weed. And if we're talking weeds, the king of all weeds in my neck of the woods is the milkweed. I mean, it has the word weed right in its name.

Milkweed has a tap root that gets thicker and stronger as it gets older and it's almost impossible to pull out entirely. Even smallish milkweed taproots have been known to bring on week-long back spasms. This thing puts the dandelion to shame in terms of hanging on for dear life.

Depending on where you live, milkweed will either reseed itself or act as a perennial, sprouting up year in and year out. So you can either fight the milkweed, or you can use it to grow a butterfly. Yes, you read that correctly — you can grow a butterfly.

Monarch butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed. That's because it's what the monarch caterpillar eats. It is born on the milkweed, it eats the milkweed, it hangs its chrysalis on the milkweed and it transforms into a butterfly... on the milkweed.

Raising a monarch butterfly takes about four weeks from start to finish. And how do you start to raise a monarch butterfly? You find yourself some milkweed!

Check underneath the leaves for a teeny, tiny egg.
Butterfly egg
Take off the leaf with the egg on it and bring it inside. Now all you do is place the leaf in a container (I use a glass bowl) and put a fine screen over it so that when the caterpillar emerges, it can't climb out.

In three to six days the caterpillar will emerge from the egg.
Just leave it in the glass bowl and keep it supplied with its only food and water source, fresh milkweed leaves. Over the next 14 days, the caterpillar will shed its skin (much like a snake) five times and it will grow like... well... a weed.

Around day 14 of the caterpillar phase during the final skin shedding, possibly the strangest thing you will ever see in your lifetime will occur. When it sheds its skin there won't be another caterpillar underneath, but instead a bright green chrysalis.
The chrysalis phase can last from 10 to 14 days, at which point there's no feeding that goes on. Just sitting and waiting. After the chrysalis turns clear and you can see the entire butterfly folded up inside, you'll know you're about to witness a milkweed miracle — the birth of a butterfly.
Clear chrysalis
My experience has always been the same. On the evening of day nine of the chrysalis phase, the chrysalis will start to turn clear. By early the next morning it will be completely clear, and between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. the butterfly will emerge.

After letting it get its bearings for a while and dry its wings (two to three hours), you can release the butterfly outside. It will make you sad and it will make you happy.

This isn't just a fun project; it's an important one too. Have you noticed you don't see nearly as many monarch butterflies as you used to when you were a kid? This last year there has been an estimated 90% drop* in the monarch butterfly population. Yes, 90%. The monarch is on its way to being an endangered species. This is partly because of weather patterns, partly because of the use of herbicides and partly because of the loss of their habitats (milkweed fields).

Only 2% to 3% of monarch eggs ever become butterflies if left in the wild because they get eaten by earwigs, birds and spiders. With only 10% of the population left, a surviving 2% to 3% is minuscule. And so is the effort it takes to help one grow.
The rewards, on the other hand, are immense.

Text and photos by Karen Bertelsen

Editor's Note: Karen wrote a detailed, five-part series on how to raise monarch butterflies for her blog, The Art of Doing Stuff. To view it, copy and paste the below link into your browser: http://www.theartofdoingstuff.com/how-to-raise-a-monarch-butterfly-part-v-of-v-2/

Karen Bertelsen is a Gemini Award nominated television host who has appeared on some of Canada's major networks including HGTV, W Network, Slice and MuchMoreMusic. Three years ago she started the blog The Art of Doing Stuff (www.theartofdoingstuff.com) as a creative outlet for her writing and endless home projects. The Art of Doing Stuff now receives over half a million views per month and has been featured in Better Homes & Gardens, Style at Home and Canadian Gardening magazines.

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