Why raise Monarchs at home?
In the wild, Monarch eggs and larvae have a very small chance of survival.
Several studies have documented mortality rates of over 90% during the egg and larva stages (Borkin 1982, Zalucki and Kitching 1982, Oberhauser et al. 2001, Prysby and Oberhauser 2004).
That means only 10% of eggs and caterpillars will reach adulthood!
Not only is it a fun activity for the whole family but you are actually helping out an entire species while witnessing the phenomena called complete metamorphosis.
Still not convinced?
What if I told you it’s easy to rear Monarchs at home? All you will need to get started is a ventilated box (deli containers work great), a few milkweed plants and, of course, your Monarch egg or caterpillar. The entire process from egg to adult butterfly takes about 1 month.
It's important to understand the life cycles of a Monarch before you get started. Monarchs go through complete metamorphosis in which there are four distinct stages of growth in one life cycle! These stages are: egg, the larvae (caterpillar), the pupa (chrysalis), and finally adult butterfly.
Life Cycle of a Monarch
Monarchs overwinter in Mexico and certain parts of Southern California. When they wake up from hibernation, they will intuitively head North and East to start laying eggs.
In March and April the eggs are laid on milkweed plants and it takes only 4 days for an egg to hatch!
According to Karen Oberhauser, leading monarch conservationist, captive monarch butterflies average about 700 eggs per female as opposed to 300-400 in the wild.
Monarch females usually lay a single egg on a milkweed plant on the bottom of leaf. So, when searching for eggs, don't forget to flip the leaf over! Eggs are very small and sometimes easy to miss!
Larval Stage (Caterpillar)
The larval stage last 2 weeks. Once the egg has hatched, a very small (and hungry) caterpillar emerges. During this time, the caterpillar will spend most of it's time eating so it will need fresh leaves everyday. As the caterpillar grows and becomes too large for its skin, it molts. The intervals between molts are called instars. Monarchs go through 5 instars. Click here if you'd like to learn more about differentiating the different instars.
Once the Monarch larvae has reached their final molting stage, they will spin silk from which they hang upside down by their last pair of prolegs and create a chrysalis. They will spend between 1 and 2 weeks inside the chrysalis.
Before the butterfly emerges, the chrysalis will turn from green to clear like in the picture below. Once adults, Monarchs will live another two to six weeks in the summer. However, the last generation of super Monarchs that complete the migration much longer, about six to nine months.
Materials Needed for Raising Monarchs
Make sure you have a local nursery that you can acquire milkweed plants from or you already have some established in your yard because Monarch caterpillars can eat up to 200X their own body weight! Click here for types of Milkweed that are suitable for rearing Monarchs.
2. Monarch caterpillars or eggs- These can be found outside on milkweed plants or purchased.
3. Ventilated container such as a deli container or aquarium works great. You can also buy butterfly houses like these.
4. Paper towels
5 Steps to Raising A Monarch at Home
Step 1: Find the eggs and/or caterpillars
The best way to do this is to visit milkweed plants daily that you know are already established and if you planned ahead, are already in your backyard! If you don’t have any luck finding milkweed plants or caterpillars, you can also order monarch rearing kits like this that contain caterpillars
Step 2: Choose a container
Put the eggs or caterpillars in a container and line with paper towels. Here are some great butterfly container ideas. Eggs only take 4 days to hatch and caterpillars will form a chrysalis within 2 weeks. Caterpillars have a HUGE appetite and can eat 200X their weight in Milkweed! A single caterpillar can easily defoliate a milkweed planted in a 1 gallon container so plan accordingly. Provide fresh leaves daily or enclose the entire milkweed plant! Larvae will survive best and attain a large size if you keep the food fresh, the container clean, and the humidity low.
Step 3: Clean the cage regularly
The caterpillars are eating constantly so they will generate a lot of frass (cute name for you know what). This frass should be collected every few days and you can replace the bottom of the container with more paper towels. You can even sprinkle it on your plants outside to give them a nitrogen boost!
Step 4: Keep feeding the hungry caterpillars!
It's important to remember that as the caterpillars get bigger, so will their appetite so keep a close eye on them and make sure you are providing enough fresh Milkweed. After the caterpillar reaches it’s 5th instar (molting stage) it will climb to the top of the container and begin spinning a beautiful silken chrysalis. It will not need any food at this stage so your job is mostly done!
Step 5: Release Your Butterfly Into the Wild
The chrysalis will turn clear before the adult butterfly emerges (fully metamorphosed). It is important not to touch them for at least 5 hours so their wings can dry. Keep an eye on the weather and do not release your Monarch if there is a storm on the horizon. You may need to move the butterfly into a larger container if this is the case such as an upside down laundry basket or a mesh cage.
Special thanks to Debbie Jackson of Monarch Watch for sharing her passion of rearing Monarchs
We also recommend Carol Pasternak's How to Raise Monarch Butterflies, an in-depth guide on Monarch rearing
Why is it important to learn how to identify butterflies?
Learning some of the most common butterflies in your area will help you to understand what kinds of butterflies you are attracting to your yard. If your goal is to help endangered species, this is a great place to start!
In the United States and Canada, there are more than 750 species of butterflies! Much of their habitats are being lost on a daily basis due to human activity (agriculture, roads, insecticides, herbicides etc.) However, you can help them by building habitat in your own backyard!
Click here to learn more about endangered species of butterflies.
10 Butterflies That You May Have Seen Before
Monarch- Danaus plexippus
How to Identify:
The monarch butterfly is one of the most iconic species of butterflies although it is sometimes confused with it’s lookalike butterfly, the Viceroy. The upper side of the male is bright orange with wide black borders and black veins. The upper side of the female is more of an orange-brown with wider black borders than the male.
The Viceroy butterfly mimics the Monarch in order to deceive predators. The main physical difference between the monarch and the viceroy is the black line drawn across the viceroy's hind wings, which monarch butterflies do not have. Viceroy butterflies are also significantly smaller than Monarchs. Click here to read a blog about the relationship between viceroy and monarch butterflies.
Where are they found? The monarch is found in a variety of habitats including fields, meadows, weedy areas, marshes, and roadsides. They also complete an annual southward migration from the northern and central United States and southern Canada to Florida and Mexico
What plants do they like?
Host and Nectar plant: Monarchs cannot survive without milkweed. Monarch caterpillars only eat milkweed plants (Asclepias spp.), and they also only lay their eggs on Milkweed. Due to the loss of habitat and the disappearance of milkweed, Monarchs populations are decreasing drastically.
Not sure where to find milkweed? The Xerxes Society has created a handy database where you can search your state and it will list where you can find native milkweed nearest you.
You can also buy milkweed seed here and grow it yourself at home!
How to Identify: The regal fritillary is a large butterfly that is smaller in size to the monarch butterfly. The upper side of the forewing is bright red-orange with black markings. The upper side of the hindwing is black with a row of white spots and on the wing edge is a row of spots that are orange in males and white in females.
Where are they found? The regal fritillary is found on the Great Plains and is associated with tallgrass prairies, meadows and pastures.
What plants do they like? The larvae feed on violets. The adults feed on a variety of flowers such as milkweeds, thistles, clover and purple coneflower.
There is an urgent call to track Regal Fritillary butterflies.
The Wildlife Conservation Fund created a citizen science project to monitor regal fritillaries, as well as monarchs, which are similar in appearance.
Eastern Tiger Swallowtails- Papilio glaucus
How to identify: They are quite large with bright yellow and black stripes. Male tiger swallowtails have some orange and blue spots near their tail. Females have both a light and dark form. The light form looks a bit like the male but with more blue on their hind wings. The dark form still has the blue spots, but doesn’t have any yellow.
Where are they found? The eastern tiger swallowtail can be found in a variety of habitats, especially near water, but also in meadows, gardens, parks and roadsides. It is native to the Eastern United States.
What plants do they like?
Host plant: They only lay eggs on plants from the Magnolia and Rose plant families.
Nectar plant: They drink nectar from flowers such as milkweed, thistles, honeysuckle, ironweed and red clover.
Black Swallowtail- Papilio polyxenes
How to identify:
The upper surface of the wings is black with two rows of orange-yellow spots. There is a row of blue spots between the rows of orange/yellow spots on the hind wings. There is a conspicuous red spot on the inner edge of the hind wings.
Where are they found? Throughout much of North America in meadows, urban gardens, and roadsides.
What plants do they like?
Nectar plants: They especially like to feed on Milkweed, Phlox, Red clover and Thistle.
Host plants: They will lay their eggs on plants of the Carrot family such as carrots, parsley, dill, fennel, Queen Anne’s Lace and rue.
Cabbage White- Pieris rapae
How to identify:
The cabbage white butterfly is white with charcoal gray tips on the wings. Males have a single black spot on the center of each forewing while females have two spots in the same place. The color under the forewings may be yellow or light green.
Where are they found? They are well adapted to urban areas but can also be found in fields, meadows, parks and gardens from early spring to late fall. It has been introducted to the US from Europe and is found North Africa, Asia, South America and Great Britain as well.
What plants do they like? The caterpillar can be found feeding on the leaves of cabbage and other cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower.
Orange Sulphur or Alfalfa Butterfly -Colias eurytheme
How to identify: The orange sulfur is identified by a small dark mark on the upper forewing, which is rounded into an oblong dot.Both sexes have a dark border; there are pale spots within the border on females.
Where are they found? They occur in fields, along roads and in residential gardens. They are found throughout North America except for central and southeastern United States. They are also seen in Mexico and Canada.
What plants do they like?
Host plants: Larvae feed on legumes, especially alfalfa, white clover and white sweet clover.
Nectar plants: Adults are attracted to many flower species.
Spring Azure- Celastrina ladon
How to identify: They are very small (under 1”) in different shades of a light violet blue. Form "violacea" has scattered dark spots. Form "marginata" has a dark gray-brown border on HW. Form "lucia" has a prominent dark splotch in the middle of the HW as well as dark borders on both wings.
Where are they found? They inhabit woodland edges and openings, and readily visit garden flowers throughout the United States except for coastal regions of Texas and Florida.
What plants do they like?
Host plants: They primarily like buds of Flowering Dogwood, blueberries, and viburnums.
Nectar plants: They like many flowering plants
Mourning Cloak- Nymphalis antiopa
How to identify: The mourning cloak is a large and easy to identify because it doesn’t have any look-a-likes. They are dark brown/maroon with thickly banded cream-colored edges. They also have bright blue spots along the edges and black-brown spotted underwings.
Where are they found? Mourning cloaks can be found in open woods, parks, gardens, and along the edges of streams, lakes and ponds throughout North America.
What plants do they like?
Nectar plants: Adults drink nectar from plants, such as milkweed and red maple, rotting fruit and tree sap.
Host plants: The caterpillars will feed on willow species, American elms, hackberry trees, hawthorne, wild rose, birch and poplar trees.
Painted Lady- Vanessa cardui
How to identify: The Painted Lady butterfly in orange and brown in color with mottled brown spot and 4 large eyespots.
Where is it found? They are the most common butterfly in the world and found throughout the world except in Antarctica, Australia and South America.
What plants do they like?
Host plants: thistle, mallows, hollyhock, legumes, others.
Nectar plants: They can feed on over 300 species of plants although their favorites are from the Aster family.
Still need help with the identification? Submit your picture here and you will receive an email with the identification!
One of the biggest factors contributing to the loss of Monarch butteflies and Milkweed is the use of pesticides and herbicides. Many pesticides contain neonicitinoids and glyphosates that are deadly to beneficial pollinators and Milkweed.
Harmful herbicides and insecticides are used generously in agriculture as well as in gardens. For a list of garden products that contain these harmful ingredients click here.
What are neonicitinoids?
Neonicitinoids are a class of broad-spectrum insecticides that are very commonly used in agriculture as well in urban gardens. They are systemic which means the plants absorbs the compounds into its tissues and distributes them into its roots, leaves, and flowers. Thus, making the entire plant toxic to insects that feed on it, including pollinators such as bees and butterflies. They are harmless to humans in small doses but they attack the central system of insects, acting as a neurotoxin.
What can I do to help?
You can help by providing habitat, no matter how small, and by protecting the monarch by using natural pest control methods on your milkweed and other pollinator plants. Below you will find a list of natural pest control methods that will not harm beneficial insects like monarchs.
Pepper and Garlic Spray
How to make it:
For a strong spray, crush 3 cloves of garlic and add 3 tablespoons of hot pepper flakes to a cup of boiling water. Allow it sit overnight. Strain out the garlic and pepper flakes in the morning. Adding a dash of dish soap or vegetable oil can also improve effectiveness.
Used for: All garden pests.
How to use it:
Spray directly on the plant. Make sure to get the underside of leaves where many pests lay eggs. You can use this spray daily if you have a pest problem or less regularly as pest prevention.
What is it?
Kaolin Clay is a natural mineral that is used for insect control on plants. It creates a thin barrier on the leaves which adheres to insects, causing excessive grooming, and thereby eliminating their urge to scavenge on the plant.
Used for: The use of Kaolin clay in the garden has been found to not only control insect pests but also protect the plant against sunburn or heat stress. You can purchase it online.
How to use it:
To use Kaolin clay on plants, it must first be mixed with water and applied via a spray bottle. The clay particles are very fine therefore the spray bottle must continuously be agitated and applied liberally.
What is it?
Neem oil is derived from the Azadirachta indica evergreen tree native to the Indian subcontinent. Neem has a long history of being used in the garden as a natural insect repellent.
Used for: mites, including aphids, white flies, snails, nematodes, mealybugs, cabbage worms, gnats, moths,cockroaches, flies, termites, mosquitoes, and scale.
How to use:
Spray directly on the plant, including the bottoms of leaves.
What is it?
Diatomaceous Earth is made of fossilized shells of tiny organisms called diatoms. It looks like a white, chalky powder.
aphids, mites, ants, thrips, slugs, snails, and other soft bodied insects
How to use:
Shake powder onto leaves or at base of plant OR mix with water to make a spray. It will cut soft parts of insects which kills the insects by dehydrating them.
Native plants are a hot topic right now but why do some people like them while others do not? What exactly are native plants and what roles do they play?
I will explore these questions so that you can walk away with an educated view of what you want to put into your garden or landscape.
What is a Native Plant?
According to the USDA a native plant is, "a plant that is a part of the balance of nature that has developed over hundreds or thousands of years in a particular region or ecosystem". Doug Tallamy and Rick Darke define a native plant in their book The Living Landscape as: “a plant or animal that has evolved in a given place over a period of time sufficient to develop complex and essential relationships with the physical environment and other organisms in a given ecological community.”
Basically these plants have been around for hundreds of years, creating a specialized niche in the food chain while creating evolutionary relationship with the plants and animals around it!
Native vs Ornamental plants
Most of the plants available in nurseries are not native, but exotic ornamental varieties that have evolved in other parts of the world. When you put these plants in your garden most native bugs cannot feed on them. Many people actually like ornamental plants because most bugs won't feed on them. However, what implications does this have for the community of insects and birds that rely on plants as a food source?
According to Douglas Tallamy, expert on plant-insect relationships, a large majority of insects can reproduce only on plants they have an evolutionary history with — such as monarch butterflies and species of milkweed.
What is the difference between host plants and nectar plants?
It is important to know the difference between nectar and host plants when you are shopping for native plants so that you have a mixture of both in your garden. Did you know that some insects will lay their eggs only on specific plants? The Monarch is a great example of this!
Flowers that are rich in nectar may attract adult butterflies but that doesn't mean the butterflies will stick around once they are done feeding. They will still be searching for a plant to lay their eggs on. By planting host plants, you will ensure that when the butterflies arrive they will stick around to lay eggs on your plants! If you are wondering if a plant is a host of nectar source, simply do a google search to find out.
For instance, if you want to attract Monarchs, plant species of milkweed as a it is their only host plant. They also enjoy feeding on asters, sedum and verbena!
How do I know what plants are native to my area?
I’m glad you asked! Native Plant Finder is a wonderful tool developed by Douglas Tallamy, renowned expert in the science of plant-insect interactions, to help you find the best species to attract pollinators and birds in your area. It is currently in the beta stage because it is a steady work-in-progress. It is simple to use and you can type in your zip code to get a specific list of pollinators species in your area.
Another great resource is your local extension office. They will provide you with many resources specific to your area.
You can also call around to your local plant nurseries to ask what they have in stock for native plants. If they don't have any, make sure to request that they order some in. Also, ask if the plants have been treated with any systemic pesticides, like neonicotinoids, which can kill an insect that feeds on it.
Simply walking around undisturbed habitats like parks are another great way to observe what plants are growing naturally.
5 Reasons To Love Native Plants
They are low maintenance once established.
They are every bit as beautiful as exotic flowers.
They provide a healthy space for people, especially kids.
They don't need any fertilizers or pesticides to grow. Many lawns are covered with herbicides and pesticides that may contain neonicitinoids and are potentially dangerous to kids and adults alike.
They help to conserve water and lower ground temperatures.
Native plants are adapted to local environmental conditions so they do not need water, other than rainfall, once established.
They help to support wildlife such as insects, butterflies and birds!
The Audubon Society- https://www.audubon.org/content/why-native-plants-matter
Monarch Gardens LLC- https://www.monarchgard.com/articles.html
Tallamy, Doug. Bringing Nature Home. 2007. http://www.bringingnaturehome.net/
Tallamy, Doug and Darke, Dick. The Living Landscape.
A rain garden is a garden of native plants that are planted in a small depression or slope. It is designed to temporarily hold and soak in rain water runoff that flows from roofs, driveways, patios or lawns.
What are rain gardens supposed to do?
During a rain storm, rain water will gush out of the gutters and downspouts, across lawns that have been treated with fertilizers and into a storm drain that then dumps it into local rivers and lakes. Rain gardens capture and filter this rainwater, nurturing native plants and creating a beautiful habitat for native species of insects.
How do I plant a rain garden?
1. Location, Location, Location
2. Measure Drainage Area (Optional)
If you are building the rain garden in a low spot in your yard, it is not necessary to measure the drainage area. Just ensure the area receives water regularly during a rainstorm.
However, if you are capturing water from a roof or other hard surface you will need to measure the specific drainage area of that surface and multiply by the number associated with the type of soil you have. For sandy soil multiply by 20%, for loam use 30-35% and for clay use 45-60%. This is a bit of an overestimate but it will ensure that your plants get enough water.
3. It's time to choose your plants!
Native plants are highly recommended for use in rain gardens because they are well-adapted to the environment and have very deep roots for absorbing water. You will want to choose plants (flowers, grasses and sedges) that will grow well in both wet and dry areas because the rain garden will temporarily fill with rainwater from time to time.
4. Create a Design
Ready for the fun part? It is helpful to plan your garden on paper first so that you can create the best rain garden possible. A garden plan can be created simply using a pen and paper or an online garden planning program.
5. Create a Layout of the Garden
Lay out the shape and boundary of the garden based on your design.
I like to plan by "zones" or small microclimates. For instance, Zone 1- lowest, wettest part Zone 2- medium-dry, will occasionally get wet Zone 3- highest, driest part of the garden. When searching for plants, match their optimal growing conditions with the appropriate zone in your garden.
6. Start digging!
Remove the turf grass and dig your garden approximately 4-8 inches deep. Make sure you create a gentle slope so that you have clear microclimates and to not erode the soil. Use the soil to build a berm around the garden edges so overflow is minimal.
7. Prepare the Soil
Amend the soil with about 2" of compost and you can also mix in other organic amendments such as alfalfa meal, bone meal, fish meal ect. Mix in well to provide extra nutrients for your plants.
Follow the design you created and place your plants in the approximate positions before planting. Step back and look at the garden and the design. Plants should be placed about 1 foot apart from each other. Once you are satisfied you can start planting the flowers and grasses using a hand trowel.
9. Mulch the Garden
Use coarse, fibrous, shredded wood chips that won’t float or blow away. Apply the mulch about 2-3 inches deep. This will help to keep the moisture in and the weeds out.
10. Arrange the Water Sources
After you have planted the garden, water every other day for 2 weeks if there isn't rain in the forecast. Keep an eye on your rain garden while it is still establishing itself. Once the plants seem to have established good root systems and are growing bigger, you can slowly decrease how much time you spend maintaining it.
Plan for Bloom Succession
Bloom succession- having plants that start blooming at different times- is a huge component to planning a thriving pollinator garden. Not only does this provide pollinators with a nectar source in the Spring, Summer and Fall but it also looks beautiful!
Make sure to consult your local native plant nursery or extension office to get accurate bloom-times for your flowers. Sometimes a plant that is distributed throughout the U.S. will bloom slightly earlier in the warmer regions compared to the colder Northern regions.
Pollinators need more than just flowers to survive. They also need leaves to feed and reproduce on, such as the Monarch caterpillar. Plant a variety of plants that are both nectar sources as well as host sources for insects.
Butterflies also need shelter because they are quite delicate. Having a mixture of plants in your garden such as trees, shrubs, grasses and sedges will provide great habitat for a variety of insects.
Plant Native Plants to Support Native Wildlife
Benjamin Vogt, author of “A New Garden Ethic” says, “Right plant, right place. The benefit of native plants is in their wildlife support, and re-wilding the landscapes we've erased around our homes.”
It basically comes down to knowing what type of soil you have and also knowing what type of soil the plants prefer. There are many resources out there to start researching native plants in your area. Remember, your local extension is a great resource along with local botanical gardens and native plant nurseries.
Some plants such as the Butterfly bush (Buddleja sp.) are touted as a great addition to your butterfly garden by nurseries. However, they can become invasive when planted in your garden or yard. Butterfly bush is not a host to a single insect species in the U.S. and has been banned from being sold in Oregon. That doesn't mean that it doesn't offer nectar. However, it offers nectar only to the insects with a specialized proboscis to reach the nectar.
Think Like a Butterfly
Give it a try! It may help you to appeal to the butterflies you are trying to protect. If you were a butterfly, what would you enjoy the most?
When the growing season is over, that doesn't mean the butterflies are gone. If you leave your plants standing they can provide small wildlife a home in the winter.
Benjamin Vogt recommends, cutting down perennial flower stems and grasses to about 12 to 18 inches tall, which will leave future homes for spring and summer bees to nest.
"Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery."- Oscar Wilde