I learned everything about raising monarchs from egg to full adult butterfly from my 9-year-old daughter Esther.
She’s the expert. Esther spends hours reading about monarchs and has raised them with success 100% on her own for many years now. So I co-wrote this post with Esther.
This year Esther is the proud mama of 10 caterpillars all of which she is raising from scratch.
On one leaf alone Esther thought she had just two eggs and later discovered after they had hatched that she actually had four caterpillars!
She delights in the experience every year. But raising caterpillars isn’t just for kids. Adults including my own mother love raising monarchs!
This is how you can easily raise your own monarch from egg to a butterfly for free! The experience is exhilarating.
Why raise monarch butterflies?
We like to raise monarch butterflies because they are just so beautiful. They aren’t called “Monarch” or king of the butterflies for nothing.
But, we also like to raise them because they are friendlier then other types of butterflies such as painted ladies.
Over the years, we have tried raising other caterpillars/butterflies and the monarchs seem to be more social. In the caterpillar stage, they crawl up your hand or arm, a tickling yet exhilarating thrill.
After they form into adult butterflies, we have noted how they are hesitant to leave the family. Even after they fully get the gist of their wings, they’ll linger and actually land on various family members.
It’s an incredible experience! But you have to let them go. Sometimes, you’ll see that they’ll be around even the next day enjoying the flowers in your yard, especially coneflowers.
Esther also tells me that she has read a ton about Monarchs actually being more likely to survive in captivity as opposed to the wild.
The Monarch egg is being watched under your care instead of having to fend for itself in the wild when you are raising Monarchs from an egg to a butterfly.
So it’s less likely to get eaten by a bird or another animal!
How-to find a monarch egg to raise to an adult butterfly….
When a monarch goes to lay an egg, they do so on the underside of a milkweed leaf. The hunt is thrilling~ just ask Esther and those eagle eyes!
The egg is whitish with a tinge of yellow in color. And it’s tiny! When we say tiny, we mean it. You might even need a magnifying glass to see it.
Each egg is attached to the leaf by an adhesive fluid that is applied to the egg as it is being laid. So don’t fret that the egg will fall off the leaf!
It usually takes about 3-4 days for the egg to hatch into a caterpillar.
When the egg is about to hatch soon, you’ll see the egg turn a blackish/gray. That black dot is the head.
Esther assures me that you can see through the egg at this time. My eyes aren’t that good! Regardless, when you see that black dot, it means the egg is likely to hatch within 24 hours.
Be mindful that not all eggs hatch when raising monarchs from an egg to an adult butterfly. It’s sad, but it happens. Just keep your eyes peeled for another egg! This year only one egg out of five didn’t hatch for Esther.
Containers needed to raise a Monarch from an egg to adult butterfly!
You have a few options of containers that can be used to raise one or more monarch butterflies indoors.
We’ve tried various options when raising Monarchs from egg to a butterfly. One option is using recycled plastic nut containers. These see-through containers are free and easy to use.
However, you must drill numerous holes in the lid (15-20 holes in total) so the egg/caterpillar can breathe and get adequate ventilation. Make sure you clean them thoroughly prior to use.
Don’t make the holes too big or your lively caterpillars will be on the run and could even escape! Esther uses thumb tacks to drill her holes.
And you certainly don’t want the container to ever get too hot! Never put the plastic container in direct sunlight.
A shady spot is best with a nice breeze. We keep ours indoors on the dining room table!
Another option is purchasing netted mesh containers. No holes are needed because the netting provides perfect ventilation.
If you are traveling for more than a day, you must take your caterpillars/eggs with you! Be prepared with milkweed leaves.
Caterpillar cannibalism – it’s a real threat!
Make sure you separate containers because it’s possible that your monarch caterpillars will eat other.
Some sources say that it’s because they don’t have enough food. But we find this isn’t necessarily the case ~ they might still eat each other even if they have an adequate food supply (milkweed.)
It’s gross. We agree!
In our experience, if the eggs or caterpillars are about the same size when you place them in a container, you have a better chance of them not eating each other! So raising a few eggs from the same leaf in a larger container is best.
If you are using repurposed nut containers, never put more than two in each container.
Never put an egg in with a caterpillar that’s hatched and growing. It might just eat that egg! Sad.
The caterpillar or larvae stage of raising Monarch butterflies from egg to adult butterfly
The life cycle of the Monarch butterfly has four stages and four generations when raising Monarchs from egg to a butterfly. The stages are the egg, larvae (caterpillar), pupa and adult butterfly.
And the four generation means four butterflies passing through these four stages within a year.
The previous generation’s adult butterfly lays eggs on the milkweed when the stage one of the first generation starts. Within 4 days, the eggs hatch to form a caterpillar or larva, the second stage. At this stage, the larvae eat the milkweed on which it lives.
Within two weeks, it attains full growth and attaches to some place like a leaf or stem by discharging silk, and undergoes the process of metamorphosis to transform into a pupa or chrysalis.
Once the egg is hatched, you’ll see the tiniest of caterpillars on the milkweed leaf.
You might see the caterpillar eat the shell of the egg. If it doesn’t you’ll notice a little opening in the egg where the caterpillar came out.
You’ll be surprised at how very fast this caterpillar grows and how much they each eat.
The very hungry caterpillar
Caterpillars eat a lot! In fact, they eat so much that they shed their skin 5-6 times like a snake.
This is because their skin doesn’t grow, just the caterpillar grows.
The caterpillar makes a new skin under the old skin before it sheds as it quickly gets bigger.
At first, the caterpillar will eat its eggshell and the leaf it laid its egg on.
But the original leaf dries out quickly and isn’t as healthy after a day or so. You’ll observe it shrivel.
You should replace that leaf with a fresh milkweed leaf from a milkweed plant.
As a general rule, when the leaf starts to look crinkly or wrinkly, it’s time for a new leaf. It’s also a very likely possibility that you won’t have to replace the leaf ~ if the caterpillar/caterpillars eat most of it!
It’s not unusual to see multiple holes in a milkweed leaf after putting it in the container for only 5-10 minutes!
New milkweed leaves are needed every 1-2 days. The holes in the leaf get bigger as the caterpillar eats more daily.
I think this is why Esther has named so many of her caterpillars “Munchy.”
If you have multiple caterpillars living in the same container, you’ll notice they’ll eat off the same leaves. Sometimes you’ll see one on each side of the leaf chomping away. That’s perfectly fine!
It’s not a bad idea to place a damp paper towel underneath the leaf to keep it from drying out. Esther also likes to wash the milkweed leaves in filtrated water to play it safe.
After you give them a good rinse, shake the leaf off before putting it into the container.
Before picking milkweed to be used as food, please double check that there are no eggs (white or gray) on the leaf! The last thing you want to do is to prevent an egg from surviving… while feeding your caterpillars that egg (although no doubt it is tasty!)
Caterpillar poop, droppings or (frass)….
Caterpillars who eat non-stop also poop a lot.
How hilarious it is to see how much poop they produce! Esther changes the caterpillar poop twice daily. It’s the first thing she does in the morning and the last before bed.
First, go outside with your containers in a shady spot. Take your caterpillars out on their milkweed leaf.
Then shake the poop off the leaf the caterpillar is on. The poop doesn’t stick and easily shakes off. The caterpillar has sticky legs which will keep it in place on the leaf as long as you shake gently.
You can put the leaf aside, or, if you’re worried the caterpillar will crawl away, just put it in a spare container.
Esther advises putting the caterpillar on the lid of the container until you’ve finished cleaning their habitat.
Then dump the whole container upside down and shake the poop out vigorously until it looks clean. Tap the container on the ground and wear plastic gloves if you want zero contact with caterpillar poop.
Then put the caterpillar/caterpillars back into their container. This is also a good time to replace those crinkly leaves with fresh poop-free leaves.
Always count your caterpillars to make sure none strayed away!
The chrysalis or pupa stage of raising Monarchs from egg to adult butterfly!
As the caterpillar gets bigger, it will form a chrysalis or pupa as it prepares to become a butterfly.
The caterpillar moves to the top of the container and sometimes the side of the container to enter into the pupa stage. It sticks there with a silken thread. This is what is called the “J” stage.
In the “J” stage, the caterpillar curls up and still looks like the stripe-y caterpillar you have grown to love. But not for long.
Within hours the chrysalis will be bumpy and be light green in color. The next day, it becomes glossy and you’ll see golden flicks shining through.
The chrysalis itself is green and yellow/orange as the egg goes from an egg to a butterfly.
Inside the chrysalis, an amazing thing is happening, it’s loosening its legs and making its wings.
Esther advises me to be patient as the chrysalis stage lasts 10-14 days. But when the wait is over a beautiful butterfly emerges.
When the chrysalis turns black, the butterfly is about to emerge in just a few hours.
If you hope to see the miraculous event of the butterfly emerging from the chrysalis, this is the time to keep your eyes glued to the container!
You don’t need to change the milkweed or clean poop during the pupa stage.
The adult butterfly stage of raising Monarchs from egg to butterfly…
When the butterfly emerges from the chrysalis, you’ll notice it has a huge abdomen.
That is because the all of the blood-like substance of insects called hemolymph is in the abdomen. As the hemolymph fills the Monarch’s body and wings, they enlarge.
So the monarch flaps its wings but it does not take off because it’s still unable to fly. Therefore the Monarch butterfly is quite vulnerable to predators. In a short time, the abdomen will shrink and the wings will get bigger in preparation for flight.
Take your container outside as your butterfly tests its wings. You can gently take the monarch out of the container and place it in the palm of your hand.
But give them time. Allow 3-4 hours for their wings to dry and become un-crumpled before touching them.
Enjoy the experience of holding a brand-new monarch butterfly as they test their new wings. The monarch might just walk at first. But then they’ll take off just when you’re not ready to let go!
It’s a happy/sad experience. The butterfly may even be hesitant to leave you as you’ve formed quite the bond over the last few weeks.
We’ve noticed over the years, the butterfly will stick around the family for quite a while landing on various members hesitant to leave.
A PSA on bad milkweed
You should be very careful about what milkweed you pick for your caterpillar to eat.
Do not pick milkweed that has been sprayed or you suspect has been sprayed by pesticides or salt.
Never pick milkweed by farming land or roads and other busy streets. This milkweed is almost certainly contaminated with salt and harmful chemicals that farmers use.
I’ve seen milkweed growing in parking lots but would never dare to feed this bad milkweed to my caterpillars.
This milkweed will most certainly kill your caterpillar. Your butterfly might emerge maimed or, might never make it past the pupa stage if it was fed bad milkweed.
This is why Esther also rinses her milkweed under filtered water.
We grow milkweed in our yard and I remind Tom not to mow it down or weedwack it.
Flying to Mexico!
The Monarch butterfly might just fly to Mexico.
They live a short life that ranges from two to six weeks. Within this period, it will lay eggs for the second generation.
The second generation flies roughly one month after the migrating monarchs arrive and reproduce which would be anytime from May through July. It lays eggs for the third generation in July or August.
The fourth generation process is almost the same except one point.
The fourth generation eggs are laid in the month of September or October, but they live more than eight to nine months. This fourth generation butterfly also has a specialty; it migrates to the warmer regions of California or Mexico.
How to distinguish between male & female Monarch butterflies
It’s so easy to tell if your new butterfly is male or female.
I didn’t know how to tell between male and female Monarch butterflies so I asked Esther of course!
Males have thinner wing veins than females do. The males also have two distinct black spots on the lower (hind) wings.