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If you click on the photo plates below, a window will open so you can see a larger view of each photo plate.
With a bug collecting container in hand, Shane (photo A), is searching for eggs (photo B1), which are about 1mm in length, and caterpillars (photo B2)on the milkweed plants, the host plant of the monarch. Because monarch caterpillars eat only milkweed and the eggs are laid singly on milkweed (usually on the underside of the leaves) our quest for more food usually leads to acquiring more caterpillars and eggs. When we find an egg or small caterpillar (larva), we usually take the whole leave to avoid injury to the egg or larva. Caterpillars that are 1" or longer can be handled safely. Note that we put a damp paper towel on the bottom of the bug container to keep the humidity high so the leaves don’t wilt by the time we put the monarchs in rearing containers.
In our area (south-eastern Pennsylvania) we have noticed that the milkweed sprouts in April and the monarchs start to arrive in May and continue through October or the first hard frost. Some areas, like Florida, have monarchs all year long. The height of our season is July through August. In order to raise monarchs, you will have to have a good supply of milkweed. Also, take care when you handle milkweed as it is poisonous to humans if eaten raw.
Milkweed is a perennial (dies off during the winter and comes back in the spring). C1 shows common milkweed. C2 shows the common milkweed seed pods. C3 is swamp milkweed. C4 shows butterfly weed flowers and seed pods at a local park. C5 is tropical milkweed, which is a tender perennial in the North, but a perennial down South. My Milkweed Identification & Sales page has more info on different species of milkweed. The page also discusses dogbane, which is a milkweed relative that is poisonous to monarchs.
As an interesting side note, I read one scientifc study (click on Latest Research and then study #2) that suggested the tropical milkweed properties are better at fighting the Oe parasite (see the Monarch Diseases and Parasites page for info on Oe) than the swamp milkweed. In which case, we’ll just use the swamp milkweed to lure them to our yard and then use our other types of milkweed to feed them. The study didn’t cover butterfly weed or common milkweed.
If you run out of milkweed or it’s out of season, another alternative is to purchase the Monarch Artificial Diet made by Educational Science. I have not tried this. It has to be introduced to your larvae as 1st or 2nd instars. Older monarchs will not eat it if they have eaten real milkweed.
Sometimes when we find eggs or small larvae, they are not on the best of leaves and should be moved. You could use a small paintbrush or tooth pick to carefully move a 2nd or 3rd instar larva to a new leaf, but the 1st instars and eggs are easier to move using by cutting out a small piece of milkweed and transferring it to a good leaf. First I scratch an area of the new leaf with an exacto knife blade (photo D1) so that the sticky milk bleeds. Then I cut out the smallest possible piece of milkweed leaf without harming the egg or larva. I stab the tiny piece of milkweed with the knife (photo D2) and seat it on the puddle of sticky milk (photo D3). The bad piece may look nasty after 2 or 3 days (eggs may take a few days to hatch), but that has not been a problem for us. After the egg hatches and/or the larva moves off the bad piece of milkweed, I quickly remove the bad piece.
While monarchs are picky about their diet, they are not picky about their housing. We have used all sorts of containers including an old aquarium.You can pick what suits you best. Currently, we collect the monarchs in container E1. We raise the eggs, 1st instars and 2nd instars in Chinese food containers (with no holes) shown in E2. We raise the 3rd-5th instars in the shoebox container (with small holes in the lid) shown in E3. 1st and 2nd instars can escape E1 and E3, but not E2. Here are some things to keep in mind:
Do not Overcrowd your Monarchs. We had been putting up to 6 cats (caterpillars) in the container (7"x9"x6") shown in E1 and up to 10 cats in the container E3 (8"x14"x5"). This proved to be too much and quickly led to disease in 5th instar cats due to the amount of frass (poop) produced in conjunction with the humidity created. In 2010 we decided to limit container E1 to 3 cats and E3 to 5 cats. MLMP did a study that same year and came to the same conclusion, which you can read on page 7 of their PDF report.
Bleach your Milkweed. If you are collecting your milkweed from outside (not greenhouse raised) because of Oe, Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, you will need to immerse your milkweed in 10% bleach (1 part bleach + 9 parts water or 1 oz. bleach + 9 oz. water) for 20 minutes. Then rinse it with plain water and dry it before feeding it to the caterpillars. Single leaves can be keep in a ziplock bag in the frig for up to a week. I keep stalks of milkweed in vases until until it is needed. Note that you will need to recut each stalk under water (just like you would for roses) so that the stalk does not suck in air and then wilt. See the Monarch Diseases and Parasites page for info on Oe.
Separate your Eggs and Caterpillars by Size. Caterpillars can be cannibalistic! Make sure your caterpillars have plenty of room, milkweed, and you keep them separated by size. In one incidence, we had a 4th instar eat 4 2nd instars and attack another caterpillar (whom I rescued). Although they had plenty of space, I guess the 4th instar felt crowded on the remaining milkweed.
Clean the Containers Daily. For eggs, 1st instars and 2nd instars we use Chinese food containers without holes (E2). We’ve found they work the best to prevent accidental escape. We keep a damp paper towel in the containers to keep the humidity up so the leaves do not wilt so quickly. I open these everyday to check on the monarchs and to provide fresh air. The leaves and towels are changed as necessary to prevent disease. You can keep about 10 eggs/larvae in these without issues. For 3rd instar and larger caterpillars we use plastic containers that can house 3-5 large caterpillars (E1, E3) and have holes in the lids. I have found that a stencil tool works great to quickly punch small holes in the plastic. Since the larger caterpillars produce copious amounts of frass (poop), you need to cut down on the moisture to prevent disease. I change the towel 1-2 times a day depending on the amount of frass. If you are having issues with caterpillars dieing, decrease the amount of caterpillars per container. In severe cases, you may want to keep one caterpillar per container.
Fresh Milkweed and Water Picks. If you wish to raise lots of monarchs, this option is worth considering for 3rd instar and larger caterpillars. In order to keep the milkweed fresh while it is being consumed and keep the containers drier, we started using floral water tubes (E4), which are available on eBay or at craft stores. We did find that if stems are small or if the caps are defective, there could be water leakage. Otherwise, these work great.
Label your containers. This is necessary if you are collecting data for a project. Since we are reporting our data to MLMP and other monarch projects, we separate our caterpillars/eggs by collection location, date and age. No matter the style, each container has a sticky note (see photos E2 and E3) with the ID number of the monarchs inside, the date collected, the stage (egg/instar) at collection and location. All of this data and more is also kept on a spreadsheet.
Isolate or Remove Dead or Sick Caterpillars. If there is a sick or dead caterpillar, I remove it immediately. A sick caterpillar is then kept in its own container. Then I move the remaining caterpillars to a new container and bleach clean the infected one (see below).
Bleach Clean your Equipment. All containers should be bleach cleaned before you put new eggs/caterpillars into them. The containers are cleaned with 20% bleach, which is 2 parts bleach + 8 parts water (eg: 2 oz. bleach + 8 oz. water). I also add a drop or two of Dawn dish liquid to the 20% bleach solution. If there were sick/dead caterpillars in it, I allow it to soak for several hours or overnight. If it is just a routine cleaning, I will soak the container 20-60 minutes. After I am done soaking them, I rinse the containers with plain water and allow them to air dry. Emerging cages and butterfly nets should also be bleach cleaned.
Emerging Cages and Containers. After the butterfly emerges, it will be several hours before she is fully dry. The butterfly needs to stretch her wings (photo F1) while hanging onto something rough. If the butterfly is unable to hang and let her wings dry, then they will dry folded and she will not be able to fly. We came up with 2 quick emerging cages, which prevent our guests from flying around the house and getting into trouble with our cats. The first is a large snack container (photo F2) with a piece of burlap (screen material also works well) dangling inside the container and a piece of nylon mesh over the opening. The second is a mesh shower tote (photo F3) I found at the drugstore on sale for $3. Either of these containers can be disinfected if the butterfly is infected with Ophryocystis elektroscirrha. I also dispose of any sticks after one use to prevent potential spread of parasites. If we are unable to release the butterfly within 6-8 hours, we also provide fresh flowers and/or a sponge soaked with fruit juice or sugar water (1 tsp. sugar to 1 cup of water) as shown in F2. The local butterfly house also feeds their butterflies mashed banana or melon.
We keep our monarchs in our guest room (photo G), which our cats can’t get to. They are away from direct sunlight and airconditioners. The temperature and humidity are kept pretty consistent throughout the day. You can see the large pink mesh emerging container on the floor. It’s actually a hamper with a piece of screen 1/2 sewn to the top, leaving a flap opening that can be fastened with safety pins.
As a side note, in the fall of 2012 we had a few butterflies emerge too late to be released. The weather had turned cold and hurricane Sandy had decimated the food supply. So, we are keeping them as pets in the pink mesh hamper and feeding them fruit juice on a sponge. I have read that fruit juice will extend their lives, while sugar water will shorten their lives. They seem to especially like apple cider. Since they are from the migratory brood, they could live for 8-9 months. Going into 2013, it looks like we will still have 2 males.
Larvae do not always attach themselves to the most ideal surfaces. After several hours, the new chrysalis is dry enough to move. To do this, carefully scrap it off the surface (photo H1) with an exacto knife and then glue it to a stick with a super glue or a thick craft glue. The easiest method is to tie it by the cremaster (photo H2) and then scrap it off and tie it to a stick (photo H3) or screen (E5, F3 or the mesh container in G). You can also do this if you want to weigh the chrysalis periodically as the butterfly develops. The chrysalis needs to hang vertically for the butterfly to develop properly, so do not spend too much time weighing it. If you have a chrysalis that has fallen, you can also tie it up (you may need a dab of glue to keep the thread attached to the cremaster) or tape the threads to the top of the container. If this does not work, you can use an alligator clip (used in the electronics industry) to grab the cremaster (H4). The clip can be taped to the top or side of the container.
In the beginning of July we order our tags from Monarch Watch. They include directions on how to tag the monarch. From August onward, we tag all of the monarchs we raise and release (photo I) as well as any catch & release butterflies (wild monarchs caught for the purpose of tagging). Shane and I usually work together to tag them as it goes faster. Any monarchs that are found and reported to Monarch Watch will be listed on their website. The data helps the scientists study the migration patterns of the North American monarchs. Except for some of the monarchs in the Gulf areas, the monarchs east of the Rockies migrate south to Mexico. The monarchs west of the Rockies migrate to southern California.